Homecoming – Day 13-1

When I open my eyes on Sunday morning I want to go right back to sleep. I will have to deal with my parents and with Sam today. Plus the dinner party and the mayor’s sons of course. Can’t forget about that.

“Rise and shine, sleeping beauty,” Migo yells from the kitchen. Someone’s chipper already, not sure if she slept at all. But I get it, first date jitters can go either way. Brimming with anticipation or throwing up because of nervousness, I had both already, and every shade in between.

“You kicking me out already?” My best puppy eyes and pout are lost on her, she pushes a cup of coffee into my hands, not even waiting until I got up so I snuggle under the blanket and sip hot coffee.

“Yep. You better buckle up and get your life back on track, Missie, because when I can take the leap so can you.”

She rummages through the kitchen, comes back with some cereals and milk in two bowls.

“Coffee and sugar, the perfect breakfast,” she announces and I scoot over so she can sit on the couch.

“How are you feeling?” Her gaze sweeps over me and seems to find nothing amiss since she quickly focuses her attention on her cereals.

“Better. Not ready to face the world, but yeah, not feeling like throwing up anymore.”

“I call that progress.”

Can’t argue with that and the first spoon full of cereals doesn’t make my stomach churn, so I slowly eat some more.

“You excited about later?” I ask between bites of slightly soggy wheat pops.

“I’m shitting my pants, but yeah, I wouldn’t cancel this for anything in the world. So you better not do something stupid because I won’t be picking up my phone.” An accusing finger hovers in front of my cereal-laden spoon and I nod slowly.

“Got it. No interruptions today.”

Satisfied with my answer she munches some more cereals and afterwards kicks me out – but gently.

 

With no other place to go now I trudge back to my Mom’s home. Dad’s food truck is parked outside and although I really dread facing them it’s what I have to do. Can’t leave Mom in the dark much longer.

Thank goodness for keys, at least I don’t have to ring the doorbell like some solicitor, trying to sell vacuum cleaners or the word of the Lord. It’s only 8am but Mom is already awake, puttering around in the kitchen as good as she can with that stupid brace on.

“Morning.”

She turns around, gives me one of those withering looks as if I had forgotten to do the dishes again. Slightly annoyed, very tired, with a hint of anger.

“I tried to call you.”

“Yes, I saw. I needed some space and time to organize my thoughts first. I’m sorry if I worried you.”

No excuses, no running away.

“Oh no, that’s not even a good start, Missie. You better apologize to your father-”

“No.” I don’t even shout, but she recoils as if I have hit her.

“No?”

“No, Mom. I love you, a lot, but you have to listen to me for once. And I mean really listen.”

She sets the whisk down, crosses her arms and looks at me. “Fine, I’m listening.”

With the attention of a glacier she listens, and all my bravado wavers. Until I glance through the door into the living room. The couch is empty, not even a pillow or a blanket there. Dad hasn’t slept in the living room, but his truck is still downstairs. I doubt he’s in the guest room either. My mind’s made up.

“Okay, so this is hard for me but I know it will be harder for you, so I just say it. Dad – he’s…” How in the world am I supposed to tell my mother this? Is there a greeting card for it? ‘Congrats, your douchebag of a still but not really husband has knocked up another girl half your age and fobbed both you and your child out of your savings?’ Signed and sent, done.

“Still listening.”

I fumble for words, unable to just say it. Should have rehearsed it beforehand.

“He’s lying to you, Mom. Do you ever ask him where he is when he’s not here? And with whom?”

Her arms uncross just for her to throw her hands up.

“This again? Honey, I trust your father.”

“But you shouldn’t. You really shouldn’t. He has someone else, and I think he only comes back here every now and then because he knows you won’t-”

“That’s enough. Jazz, I appreciate that you are worried about me, but whatever there is between Brad and me is private and has nothing to do with you.” The whisk is back in her hand, she starts scrambling some eggs.

“It’s not as private as you think. He has someone else.”

“Enough!” The bowl with egg mush clatters, Mom grabs the edge of the counter. But I can’t back down now.

“No, you promised to listen. I have talked to her, she’s actually really sweet but she thinks that Dad is divorced. And – Mom, she’s pregnant.” My throat is tight, I wish I could get a glass of water but Mom is blocking the sink. She washes her hands, grabs a towel with a serious expression.

“I don’t think you should meddle in someone else’s affairs.” Her voice is clear, hard. Like ice.

“Sorry, Mom, but it became my affair when he showed up at my place and asked me for money so he could provide for his new daughter. Asking his adult daughter for money so he could give his baby daughter what he couldn’t give me. Classy guy, really.”

The new information only slows her down for a second.

“Money? What money?”

“My money, Mom. All the money I saved ever since I knew what money was. All the extra dollars I made from working and being frugal to the point of it becoming almost obsessive, never spending money if I could avoid it somehow. All my savings, Mom, all the money I needed to feel a semblance of security. He took it all and promised that he would tell you about the baby and all, but what did he do? Get your money, too, buy a shitty food truck and not even offer really good food! I mean, that stew was bland!” That’s the last straw and she spins around to glare at me.

“So you knew about that other woman all the time and didn’t tell me? And now you come and make a scene because of money?”

“Oh sure, go and shoot the messenger, why don’t you? I was hoping Dad would have enough decency to stick to his promise and tell you what’s going instead of ripping you off, but yeah, be mad at me instead of the one causing this whole mess!”

She’s not the only one hurt by this, not the only one entitled to her anger.

“And after all the back and forth in your marriage ever since I was a kid, do you really think I would just come and tell you when I already know that you will alway, always give him the benefit of the doubt? God, you are so screwed up, no wonder I am unable to allow someone into my life.”

We are more or less screaming now, but I don’t care. I’m so sick of her always taking Dad’s side, always explaining all his failures away, smoothing over the lies and hurts.

“Don’t you dare blaming your commitment issues on me now! I worked my butt off so you had everything and-”

“That’s the point! Dammit, if you had kicked him out years ago you wouldn’t even had to work that hard! You would have been able to save up a bit, maybe take a break every now and then! Maybe pay some attention to your kid instead of only running off to cover another shift!”

It’s unfair to blame her for that, I know. She provided for me just fine, I never went hungry or naked. But I also always had to share her with the Rosenfeldt family.

“Out,” she hisses, a trembling finger pointing at the door.

“Fine!” I run into the guest room, grab my stuff, make sure to pack my laptop just in case Dad needs some extra money – he always does – and rush out. The tears don’t come until I’m around the corner, out of sight from any of her windows.

 

The thing about a crying woman in public, struggling with her luggage, is that most people are polite enough to ignore her. Ignore me. I keep sniffling, wipe my eyes and nose with my hand since I don’t even have a tissue. Pathetic.

“Jayjay?”

Oh no. Oh. No. Not him, not today, not when I’m such a mess.

“Hey, are you okay?” A hand lands on my shoulder and I turn around.

“Do I look okay to you?” I snap at Ben, immediately regret it. Just because I’m angry and hurt doesn’t mean I can talk to him like that. In my mind I know this, but the rest of me refuses to leave the nice pit of self pity although my fingers are already wrinkly from soaking in it for too long.

“No, you actually look like you need some help. At least with that.” He points at my bags, reaches out for them. “Should I take that for you?”

Last night flashes up in my mind again, I want to curl up and not let him close, but then I remember that he has never been anything but nice to me.

“Yeah, sure. Thanks.” I take the tissue he offers me in exchange for my luggage, dry my cheeks and my nose.

“Where are you heading to?”

That’s a good question. I can’t go to Miho, or better, I don’t want to. But I also have no other place.

“Central station,” I quietly say. There are at least lockers for my stuff and I can leave right after the party tonight. I’m not ditching the dinner party, not after all the effort to find a nice dress. Besides, I have to talk to Jake. And since I’m already at it, with Ben. Not running away anymore.

“Why are you going there? You’re not leaving, are you?” Concern furrows his brow, darkens his handsome features.

“Not right now, no. But I – I planned to go home tomorrow. There are things I need to take care of, job hunt mostly.” His puppy eyes pierce right through my heart. Damned those dimples and hazel eyes!

“Oh. I was hoping you’d stay a bit longer. We barely had time to catch up and spend time with each other.”

Partly because his fiancée kept us apart, but I don’t say that out loud.

“Yeah, but I couldn’t know you would want that when I planned my stay here, could I?” Our banter lacks lightheartedness though. And genuity.

“So, what are you going to do today? I mean, you’re still coming to the party, right?”

“Yeah, I will. Until then… I don’t know, probably just killing some time.”

He walks silently a few steps before his face lights up again.

“If you have no other plans, how about coming with me? I’m off to baseball practice and I think you would like it.”

It’s not as if I have anything better to do but it takes almost a block of him trying to convince me before I say yes.

And it turns out to be the right choice. It’s not High School baseball, it’s a Little League team, boys and girls around seven or eight. They are enthusiastic and energetic, albeit chaotic. Still, they make me feel better with their fresh faces and softball jerseys. In the end everyone gets a snack and a softdrink, proud moms and dads come to pick them up. Some even come to talk to me, want me to join them for a game.

Once everybody is gone I help Ben picking up the balls and bats, equipment strewn across the field and the benches.

“You are good with kids. Very patient,” I say and hand him a kid’s bat.

“Thanks. I hope you had fun. The kids like you.”

Of course, probably because I’m hardly taller than them.

“They were great. A bit rowdy maybe, and definitely loud enough for me to hear even without hearing aids.”   I brush my hair behind my ears, stretch a bit. “But thanks, that was a great idea.” The energy of the kids, the sun and the fresh air cleared my head a bit, if not my heart. I did the right thing, telling Mom. Should have done this sooner, but in person was the right choice. Despite the yelling and that she kicked me out. From now on she has to see what she does with the information, I did my part. At some point my heart and guilty conscience will get the memo, too.

“Hey, you wanna go and grab something to eat? There’s no lunch at Dad’s today, the kitchen is swarming with catering staff.” He directs his sunny smile at me, no filter or place for me to hide.

My stomach churns, anxiety and excitement battling for dominance. And hunger.

“Come on, Jayjay, we could get just a sandwich or burger.”

And a tall glass of water. I’m just too thirsty.

“Hey, why do you keep calling me Jayjay? Sounds a bit – I don’t know, silly now that I’m grown up.”

“Huh.” He scratches the back of his neck, the adorable crease between his eyebrows. And just like that I’m not grown up, I’m a lovestruck teenager again, speechless, with weak knees.

“I guess I just like to call the people I care about something else than everyone else does. Like with my brother.”

I never heard him call Jake anything else but his name. “What do you call him?”

“Jerkface.” He laughs, good-natured and without malice.

“You guys really get along, huh?” Despite the obvious differences between them, I never saw them argue either. Unless Jake did something that harmed others. Mostly me.

“Yeah, I mean, he’s my brother. I can’t say I’m always happy with all of his stunts, but at the end of the day he has my back and I got his. No questions asked.”

“So it’s more ride than die.” Sometimes I’m sad that I don’t have a brother or a sister, maybe they could have helped with the whole Mom disaster.

All the baseball equipment is stored away in some shed, Ben acts like he always does. Friendly, polite, a buddy.He’s even back to carrying my luggage. And I follow him like a sheep, it’s easier than thinking myself.

Until my phone rings. Miho.

“Sorry, I have to take this.”

“Sure thing, go ahead.”

I take a few steps away from him, answer the phone.

“Yes?”

“Where are you?”

“Right now? Uh, at the baseball park.” Did I forget something? Did something wrong?

“Okay, you gotta haul ass and get over here. I have a clothing related problem and I need your help.”

“Oh god, please don’t tell me he tied you to the bed with a satin tie and somehow knocked himself out and now you can’t get free anymore.”

The short moment of silence gives me the chance to recapitulate my words.

“I think we have to talk about some of the things you do in your free time one day, but right now is not the time.” She’s serious, and so I turn back to Ben, shrug at him.

“Sure, if it’s that urgent I will be there in-” a quick glance at my watch follows “-15 minutes, tops.”

“Good, clock’s ticking.” She hangs up, not aware of my bewilderment or she simply doesn’t care.

“Sorry, something came up, I have to go and help a friend.”

“Is this one of those faked emergency calls? Because it would wound me deeply if you would ditch me here and not even tell me why.” He tilts his head, a silent prompt for me to say the truth.

“No, it’s real. Miho Fujiwara. We hang out all the time since I’m back and she just had a date so I guess something went either really bad or incredibly well.”

“So it’s nothing I did, right?”

I assure him that nothing he did today could make me fake an emergency call and he offers me to take me to Miho’s place by car. I’m ringing her doorbell after less than ten minutes.

 

I halfway expect her to welcome me in a satin robe, overly dramatic with a cocktail in her hand. The robe was a good guess, but it’s cotton and an unflattering grey, probably once white before too many rounds in the washing machine dyed it its current color.

“What took you so long?” she grumbles and I follow her into her bedroom, shocked by the sight of what seems to be an exploded closet. Clothes are strewn everywhere, blouses, pants, dresses, skirts. Even a few Halloween costumes.

“What happened here?!”

“I told you I need help.” Unladylike she plops down on her bed, sends a few pieces of clothes towards the floor in a small avalanche.

“Yeah, but that could mean anything from ‘I can’t choose between the red and the blue dress’ to ‘help me lace up my leather corset’.”

At least one piece of clothes I haven’t seen lying around here. Yet.

“Jared asked me to be his date for this dinner thing and I have no idea what to wear. Something with his business partners, but everyone can bring dates.”

“You are moving fast.” I pick up a nice lavender dress but Miho shakes her head before I can even say a thing.

“That doesn’t fit anymore.”

“It’s easy to get lost in this heap of fabric so we put back the things she rules out from the start, slowly fill her closet until the floor is visible again.

“I like that blue one,” I point at a dark blue shift dress. “Do you know what he’s going to wear?”

“A suit, I guess.” Hey eyes glass over briefly, I can practically see the inappropriate thoughts running through her head.

“Yeah, figured. I mean what color.” Although matching outfits might be a bit much at this point.

“No clue. Should I ask him?”

“Nah, it’s not the prom. You just pick something you like and feel good in.”

“The burgundy one?” The dress she shows me is nice, but unspectacular.

“No. It should be classy and wha-wha-whoom enough to make his head explode.” I throw a black one towards her. “Try this on.”

While I’m looking for matching shoes she throws it over, turns her back to me so I can zip her up.

“Put a push-up bra on and he won’t be able to walk straight.”

“But black?”

“It’s a classic. Get some colorful accessory, a bag maybe or a shawl. You’re looking like a million dollar and a million reasons to do stupid things.” She’s still turning this and that way in front of the mirror when I’m handing her a pair of strappy heels with some crystals on them. “And paint your toenails red. That’s going to be fantastic.” A dash of color, still classy though.

“Mhmm… yeah, I think that’ll work.” Satisfied she nods, tells me to unzip her again. “Don’t want the dress to get dirty, do we?”

“Not sure. What are you planning?” I lazily throw the remaining clothes on a pile on the bed, my job here is done.

“I’m hungry. Lunch?” Dressed in a light shirt and some shorts Miho ignores the mess and rushes into her tiny kitchen.

“Hungry? You just come from a brunch date!”

“Don’t be silly, I didn’t really eat there.” Her head in the fridge she tsks at me.

“Of course, because you gotta keep up appearance and a girl that eats in presence of a guy is lacking self control.” I trudge after her, take the things she hands me.

“What? Nah, not because of that.” A box with cheese in her hands she turns back to me. “I was – a bit nervous, okay? Could hardly eat, but now I’m starving.”

Fine with me, I haven’t had lunch either so we make some omelets and a salad, lounge on her couch with our plates.

“How was your talk with your Mom?”

And there goes my appetite.

“Loud. And unfair. Both sides, I guess.” I poke at my omelet, push some mushrooms over the plate.

“I hate the idea that your father gets away with this. Should we jam a potato into the exhaust of his truck?”

The idea paints pretty pictures in my mind, but I shake my head.

“Nah, that won’t bring back my money or Mom’s dignity. Plus, it might force him to stay here longer. And I definitely don’t want to give him an excuse for that.”

Begrudgingly she impales a cherry tomato, stares at it long and hard.

“We could go and throw salt into his stew.”

“That would only make it better.”

Giggling like some school girls we plot petty acts of revenge and by the time my plate is empty I’m laughing again. I have to learn to simply let some things go in life, holding grudges won’t help me on the long run. If that also applies to the biggest grudge I hold I cannot say, not yet.

“Will you stay here again tonight?”

I blink, only now emerging back from my drifting thoughts.

“I don’t know. I mean, I already ruined your date last night, I don’t want Jared to hate me. Or you.”

Miho snorts, sets her plate on the coffee table.

“I never said I would stay here, too. I can just give you a key and spend the night at his place if I want to.”

It sounds more tempting than spending god knows how many hours at the station, waiting for the first train out of town.

“If it’s really not too much to ask…”

“I wouldn’t offer if it was. So stop being so humble, it’s no big deal.”

It’s cute how prickly she acts while doing the sweetest things.

“You are aware that you keep checking your phone every five seconds by now, aren’t you?”

She’s right, my phone hasn’t left my hands for anything but eating so far.

“Still waiting for Sam to call me. We have agreed that I shouldn’t be the one reaching out first, because Sam’s schedule can be really hectic and erratic. Responsible job and all.”

“Sounds like a great guy. Good job, principles and not afraid of commitment.”

“Yeah, what is someone like that doing with someone like me?” For a while I almost managed to push the nervousness aside, the nagging voice telling me to give up and move on, I’m no match for Sam anyway.

“Well, as far as I can tell he’s in love with you or he wouldn’t have asked you to move in with him.”

But why can’t I simply accept that and say yes? Move in with Sam and have a happy life?

Without an answer for that question I unlock my phone only to find no messages or missed calls.

“I’m not sure that’s even an option anymore.”

“Well, in that case you still have Ben and Jake up your sleeve.” Miho screeches when I hit her with the pillow, but she definitely deserves it. And she gives as good as she takes.

Homecoming – Day 12-4

Could that person be him?

That question takes me by surprise and it must show on my face because he immediately backtracks.

“You don’t have to answer me right now. I know you’re stressed out and feeling sick, but – think about it, okay? We can talk about this tomorrow. I…” He pauses, scratches the back of his neck without looking at me. “I would like it if you could sit next to me during dinner.”

It’s still warm outside but that must be some illusion. After all hell just froze over and hell, that is here. At least for me.

“I will think about it.” My words sounds strange to me, like in trance I nod, get up and turn to leave.

“Jazz?”

“Hm?”

He follows my example, gets up from the bench and peers into my face.

“Will you get home okay? Or should I take you?”

The image of me and Ben in that small Ferris Wheel car pops up and I shudder.

“No, thanks. I need a bit of fresh air now.”

“Okay, but call me if you need anything.”

I nod, stare right past him and stalk off, away from him and this strange festival.

Only a few minutes later I realize that I don’t know where to sleep tonight. I don’t want to go back to Mom’s place, not as long as Dad is still there, playing his sick impression of a good husband.

But I don’t have enough money for a hotel, not even for a hostel. Besides, I don’t know if the town actually has one by now. There is no one I could call, despite his offer I won’t ask Jake for help. He could take that so very wrong.

In the end I sit down on a bench, far enough from the festival ground not to run into Mom and Dad but still in walking distance – after all I walked here and in my current condition I’m not very fast. At least the dizziness has faded a bit, only a slightly unpleasant sensation left, a tickle in my throat. The headache is still raging, though.

“I should have never come back home,” I let Domo know, use him as a small pillow. The night air is warm enough and I my exhaustion drags my eyelids down. I mustn’t fall asleep here, in this public space. What might people say tomorrow? Just because I plan to hightail out of here after the dinner party doesn’t mean that I don’t care.

I hear footsteps and laughter, hushed talking, and sit up straight, blink the sleep away.

“Jazz?”

The footsteps come closer, I turn to see Miho and Jared, arm in arm, with a huge pink unicorn dangling from Jared’s free hand.

“Oh, hey… you had fun?”

If I look only half as bad as I’m feeling it’s a miracle no one bolted at the mere sight of my sorry state. Miho furrows her brow, rushes over and peers at me.

“Holy, what happened to you? You look like crap!”

“Well, thank you.” I would be miffed if it wasn’t true. “I got a migraine after we split up.”

She looks back to Jared, tilts her head and raises both eyebrows.

“We can take you home,” he offers with a nod. “My car is just around the corner.”

“Ah, yes,” I slowly answer. “That’s nice but – I can’t go home. Sorry, but-”

Miho pats my arm, shares another glance with Jared.

“Yeah, I get it, don’t worry.”

Of course she does, she has been there when I yelled at Dad and witnessed my small meltdown afterwards.

“Okay, it’s decided. You stay with me tonight.” Her tone leaves no room for objection but I still shake my head.

“No, it’s fine. You are having a date, I don’t want to butt right in.” I just have to stay awake long enough for the sun to rise. And find a nice secluded spot to nap there. No biggie.

“Nope, we are not playing this game. Running into Jared here was a lucky coincidence, it’s not a real date. Hell, I wouldn’t have walked away with him if I had known you crash that hard when I’m not looking anyway. Besides,” she winks at him, grabs my arm to help me up, “who is talking about butting in? We could just ask you to join us.”

That at least makes me laugh, I stop fighting and just give in.

“Fine, thanks. Hey, can we stop at my Mom’s place and get my dress for tomorrow?” That way I wouldn’t have to face her at all. But this suggestion also gets quashed by Miho.

“Sorry, hun, but you have to talk to her at some point. Maybe not tonight since I guess you are both still angry, but eventually it’s necessary. Running away, turning a blind eye to your problems won’t solve them, you know?”

“‘Hun’?” I raise my eyebrow at her. “Do I look like Attila?”

Miho snorts a brief laughter, pulls me closer. “Nah, but you do look knackered. So move your ‘not butting in’ butt, Jared can take us home.”

I still feel bad for ruining their evening, but Jared smiles at me, jingles his keys enticingly.

“What about the unicorn?” This thing is huge and looks completely out of place, even if Jared’s not wearing a suit for a change.

“Its name is Cornisparkle McFluffbutt and it’s a present,” Miho lets me know, flashes Jared a smug grin. “Tell Jazz where we got it?”

He sighs, shoulders slumping, but he still smiles. “Miho won it at the shooting gallery. A solid 100 percent. No misses. I guess she was a sniper in a past life.” The affection shines through his words, lights up Miho’s face.

“Close. I was an assassin, but go on. Tell her how amazing I was.”

Their banter isn’t as annoying, rather amusing. A nice distraction from my screwed up life.

“It’s not as if I haven’t won anything, mind you,” he just explains, jingles his keys again. A small key ring dangles from it, cheap plastic in bright colors.

“What’s that?” I squint, in the low light of the street lamps it looks misshapen.

“It’s an octopus. See? Those are the tentacles and that’s the head.”

“It’s pink. Why is it pink?” I would even say it’s fluorescent.

“I have no idea. It was what I got after Miho scooped the big price.”

I can’t stop laughing until we are at his car.

 

Back on Miho’s couch she feeds me some pain killers and makes me drink a glass of water tall enough to pass as a vase. I apologize for cutting their night short and she for letting me walk off alone. It’s stupid, we were both the ones to make a decision while the other went along with it, but with that out of the way we can talk more freely now. And Miho isn’t one to mince words to begin with.

“You smell awful,” she informs me, nose scrunched up. “Hey, is – is that carrot in your hair?”

I duck away, screech in embarrassment, comb my fingers through my hair to find the offending piece of regurgitated vegetable.

“You wanna take a shower?”

The clock tells me it’s past 11pm and I feel like shit. Perfect time for a shower indeed.

 

Dressed in a shirt, courtesy of Miho, and with a slightly mellowed migraine I stumble out of the bathroom and onto the couch where Miho awaits me with a cup of tea and some cookies.

“Eat if you can, but you should definitely drink something.”

I groan and make a face, take the tea nonetheless. Hydration is key after all.

“Rooibos and ginger. Great for headaches, migraines and hangovers,” she explains, sips from her own cup. I nibble at a biscuit, without much of an appetite.

“Okay, you wanna tell me what happened? Did you just get a migraine out of the blue?”

“More or less. I mean, the stress of the last few days – very different to my normal stress – and those pesky emotions, it’s kinda overwhelming.” Like the taste of the tea. I’m usually pretty adventurous when it comes to tea, but this is not a pleasure.

“And that’s all?”

Dammit, she’s sharp.

“I had some – let’s call it triggers.” The tea doesn’t get better with every additional sip, but I am stronger than some boiled, colored water. “I ran into Ben.”

“Oh.” Her eyebrows shoot up, expectantly she stares at me over the rim of her cup.

“Yeah, ‘oh’.” I have troubled wrapping my head around the whole scene with him. “So I thought he was my secret admirer in school because – well, it made sense, he knew so much about me and some stuff in his room that just fits. Turns out he’s not. I asked him.”

“Ouch. Now that’s embarrassing.”

My hum sends small waves through the cup, stirs up the steam and directs a new waft of the aroma directly into my nose. It tickles, probably the ginger.

“Yeah, I thought so, too. But it turns out that despite him not being my secret admirer, he wants me to be his date for tomorrow. Oh, and he tried to kiss me.”

The clack of her cup being set down on the table is loud in the otherwise calm living room.

“He ‘tried’ to kiss you? What does that mean?”

“Exactly what I said. He tried to kiss me, I turned away, he let it go. Said he liked me, now that I’m hot and interesting.” Sounds shallow now that I say it.

“Not exactly a smooth talker, that Benjamin.”

“Yeah. And he doesn’t waste any time with moping after he got dumped.” The question is, was it Maddie or Ben who didn’t put enough effort into their relationship so it doesn’t have a lasting impact on him? Either way, if Sam was that indifferent after our – let’s call it breakup, it would be all the proof I need to know that the feelings weren’t that deep to begin with.

“Classy.” She grabs her cup again, no steam is rising from it anymore. “And?”

“And what?”

“And will you be his dinner partner?”

If he had asked me that five years, hell, even one year ago, I wouldn’t even hesitate.

“I do like him. I mean, I dreamed of him for years. He’s pretty much my ideal of a man.”

Her eyebrows knit in confusion. “Ben? Really? Not Sam?”

Oh.

“It’s complicated.” It always is. There’s no easy explanation for feelings and attraction after all. My gaze drops to my cup again, the pressure in my head increasing again.

“Okay, then… if you’re curious and just want to find out if he’s really the boy of your dreams, just go for it. You get this chance presented on a silver platter, don’t even have to get rid of his girlfriend anymore.”

From the corner of my eye I can see her still looking at me.

“Maybe that was your problem with Sam all along. You’re still hung up on Ben and what could have been. So now you can find out if it’s him holding you back – or maybe just you.”

She shrugs, downs her tea and makes a face. At least I’m not the only one bothered by the taste of it.

“You know what’s even worse?” I ask with a chuckle, a wry sound that scratches my throat.

“It can get worse?”

I nod, prompt Miho to shake her head.

“Goddammit… okay, should I get a drink? I mean, something with a bit more umph than tea?”

“Can’t hurt. At least for you.” And it gives me a moment to gather my thoughts. I have been stumbling from one disaster into another tonight, I haven’t really had the time to analyse every word. But even after mulling them over and over again I can’t make much sense of what Jake has told me.

“Okay, I’m ready.” The glass in Miho’s hand is half filled with a clear liquid, I’m not even asking what it is.

“So after I had my little – I don’t even know how to call it, but after I rode the Ferris Wheel with Ben-”

“Wow, Ferris Wheel. Very romantic,” Miho pipes up but motions for me to go on.

“Yes, very.” I rub my temples, the pain sharpens again. “Anyway, after he invited me for tomorrow and I left him hanging without a real answer, I already felt miserable. Sick, not guilty,” I quickly elaborate. She nods, lets me talk.

“So I tried to find a place where I could rest, ran into some bloke who made a fuss about spilling his beer all over me and while I was still dealing with him Jake showed up, playing some strange ‘hero rescues damsel in distress’ act.” I snort, slump down on the couch into a nice slouch.

“He wanted to help, so what?”

“No, he didn’t want to help me, he just didn’t want to miss the fun of me being in trouble. Too bad for him that I’m all grown up now and can take care of myself.” I’m just so tired of all of this mess. Especially Jake.

“You might be wrong about his motives, but okay. Go on.”

I roll my eyes, but continue my strange tale. “He dragged me to safety and spilled his guts after I had spilled my dinner – more or less over his shoes.”

Her loud laughter makes me wince, I really need to sleep soon.

“Turns out that – surprise, surprise – Jake wants me to be his date, too. So now I have two Rosenfeldt guys wanting me to spend that dinner party with them. The one I used to dream of when I was younger, who turned out not to be my Prince Charming, and the other one who made my life hell but just told me that he loved me for years already.”

“Oh my god! What if Jake was your secret admirer!” Totally invested into my story now Miho bounces on the couch, glee and excitement fueled by the booze.

“Thanks for pointing out one of my biggest fears.” It makes sense, he was also always around, even after school at their house. And most of the presents back then came from someone who knew me well enough to give me a new pen in my favorite color or a notebook without lines so I could doodle.

“I just don’t get it,” I say after letting that possibility sink in. “He always teased me, called me ‘short stuff’ and ‘pipsqueak’ when I was younger. When his friends were around he ignored me completely. He humiliated me countless of times in front of my Mom, my friends, the whole damned school and suddenly I should believe that he loves me?”

“You’re preaching to the choir here, I’m not a big fan of him either.”

“Yeah, I noticed. Why not?”

She downs the rest of her glass, leans back in the couch.

“Well, he’s just another privileged prick. Always managed to get away scot-free. One time he got detention for the whole drama class by swapping our prop bottle of wine with some real cider. And whenever Pat got into trouble you can bet your sweet ass that Jake wasn’t far. Oh, and you know that stupid nickname? Mount Fuji-wara? He was the first to call me that.” She scoffs, rolls her eyes.

“Stupid prankster,” I sum it up, earn an agreeing hum. “What bothers me most is that he never even apologized for anything he did to me.”

“Lemme guess, that thing at school with the coffee and your blouse, that was him, right?”

“Ding ding ding, we got a winner.” Absentmindedly I scratch the skin of my cleavage until it’s red and tingling.

“Sounds like him. Screwing up, but not taking the blame.”

“And that wasn’t the only time. Or the worst.”

“Wait, worse than scalding you with hot coffee?” She sits up straighter again, eyes a stormy grey that would make every sailor tie up the boat in the harbour.

“Yep.” The pressure in my head now also takes hold of my throat, it gets tighter with every breath. “My ear. The hearing loss. His fault.” Panic claws up its way to my chest, deeply rooted in the pit of my stomach. And just like that words rush out of my mouth, as if getting rid of them is the only way to save myself from getting dragged into some abyss. Making me lighter.

“I told you about my secret admirer, right? Well, he sent me an invitation for Jake’s graduation party. The one at his home, after the official one. Everyone who was somebody went there, half of the school was invited and the other half tried to sneak in somehow. So I had this invitation and a note saying my admirer would meet me there and like the stupid idiot I am I went there. Secretly hoping it was Ben who invited me.” My fingers play with the hem of the shirt, I find a loose thread I can tug on.

“In every teenage movie he would have,” she comforts me but we both know that teenage movies are crap. The outcast won’t become the prom queen, the scrawny nerd won’t become the secret weapon of the football team and the nice guy certainly won’t date the poor but ambitious wallflower.

“I showed up there late, had to sneak out after Mom was in bed. Everyone was already drunk.” I have no idea where Jake got that much beer and booze, but bottles and cups were everywhere. If anyone had found out that the mayor’s son engages in underage drinking and also provides drinks for his friends, that would have been a scandal that could have ended Elias’ career.

“I was there, too. For a while. But then Pat and I – let’s say we had something better to do.” Miho clicks her tongue and winks at me, but it’s not enough to ease my tension.

“Can’t remember if I saw you there,” I admit, but in retrospective I can’t remember that much of the party anyway. “But there were tons of kids and I had no clue how to find the one I was looking for. So I tried Ben’s room first, but there was a bunch of guys playing some video game. Everyone was older than me and I wasn’t that popular at school anyway, so I didn’t know anyone. I knew some names and some more faces, but that’s about it.” Back downstairs someone had spilled their beer and as my mother’s daughter I took it as my duty to clean that away.

“I found Ben eventually – in the broom closet. He didn’t see me and that was good because he was – he was just…”

“Uh-oh… I don’t like where this is going.” Miho jumps up from the couch, paces the floor with aimless strides.

“Yeah, me neither. I walked in on him getting a blowjob from some cheerleader.” That was the exact moment my teenage dreams and my heart shattered, millions tiny pieces I never manage to put fully together again.

“I knew it!” Miho points a finger at me, shakes it once, twice. “Goddammit, that stupid manwhore!”

“What? Just because of one blowjob?” She has lost me during her triumphant march.

“Huh? No! Don’t tell me you haven’t heard the rumors back then?”

I shake my head, nothing had ever prepared me for what I saw in that closet.

“That baseball coach was really strict and the boys weren’t really allowed to date if it impacted their performance. Mind you, that didn’t mean they weren’t allowed to date at all, just that they could get into trouble if they got too distracted during a game or something like that. So some guys started seeing girls in secret, not because they had to but because they wanted to. That way they had a good excuse to dump the girls in case they got too clingy. Rumor has it that Ben was especially tricky. He only dated a girl long enough to get her into bed and afterwards he told her the coach had found out and would kick him out of the team if he didn’t break up with the girl. And that she was not to tell anyone under no circumstances or he would lose his spot in the lineup.” Miho’s couch pillows get a good punch and she flops down again.

“That – that can’t be right. Ben isn’t like that.” I refuse to believe it, some rumor won’t change the image I have of Ben.

“Sorry to be the one to tell you that, but he did that with at least four girls I personally know.”

With a sharp tug I rip off the thread I have played with, cut my finger in the process. Not my biggest concern now.

“Are you sure? I mean, one hundred percent? Not just gossip and hearsay?”

“Totally sure.”

“Shit.” I feel sick again, force back the gagging with slow, deep breaths.

“Doesn’t mean he can’t have changed, you know?” she softly points out, rubs my back comfortingly.

“Yeah, I – I know. Sorry, I need a moment to process that.”

Once I calmed down again I nod, bob my head up and down to answer a question no one posed.

“Anyway, back to Jake.” It’s easier to put my feelings for him into words, I have lots of practice with it after all. “I was a bit – rattled after seeing Ben like that and someone handed me a cup and I thought: ‘Why the heck not?’ and downed it. In one go. Second mistake of that night.”

“And the first was…?”

“Going to the party in the first place, thinking my stupid teenage dreams would come true in some Hollywood worthy scene.” I can’t believe I was that naive. “It was the first time I had alcohol. You can imagine that it hit me like a truck. Not even in college I was drinking much, and back then I was completely clueless. Stumbled into the kitchen when I got dizzy, looking for some water. Instead I found Jake.” And a bunch of his friends, boys and girl, playing some game.

“Truth or dare with drunk teenagers, some of them even high on weed – not a good idea. Someone dared Jake to kiss me, all of them giggling at the mere idea of it. And he did. Kissed me right on the lips, I could taste the spliff on him. Full on, with tongue and everything, until I managed to shove him off me, slap him as hard as I could and run off.” He chased me out of the kitchen and into the backyard. Yelled after me to stop, still chuckling manically.

“End of the story, I slipped and fell into the pool. Hit my head and panicked. Jake panicked, too, left me underwater until I lost consciousness. I woke up in hospital, with a busted eardrum and a nice infection that caused my hearing loss.” And cemented my conviction that he is indeed the worst thing that could happen to me.

“Whoa.”

It’s a heavy silence, coupled with my migraine it’s almost pulling me under.

“But – you know, a shitfaced teenager in such a situation, there wasn’t much he could have done.”

“You mean besides getting me out of the pool? Yeah, not much.” We never told my Mom or the mayor the truth about it, but Jake and I know what happened. “He never apologized…”

I sit up straighter again, chase the gloom away. “But enough of me and my tragic backstory. Did you have fun with Jared?”

Changing the topic, running away, everything but facing the actual problem – that’s me. I mastered this technique long ago.

“Yes, sure.” Suspicion shines through her words, slowly uttered, and her eyes narrow slightly.

“Yeah, I can tell.” It’s my turn to point a finger at her now, directly at her neck. “You got something there…”

Her hands flies up, slaps over the patch of skin in question. “What? Dammit, I told  him not to-”

My laughter is hint enough that she fell into my trap. “There’s nothing, don’t worry. But there could be, huh?”

A smile blooms on her lips, the storm in her eyes gives way to sun. “We – got a  bit closer.”

“How close? I mean, you didn’t bang outside in the woods, did you?” It’s my turn to be curious now.

“No, but we made out a bit. Under that old oak, you know which one?”

I nod, every kid who grew up here knows the old oak. It’s just out of sight enough to be without an audience but close enough to the actual city that you don’t get lost.

“He’s picking me up for brunch tomorrow.” Her glow dims when she starts chewing on her bottom lip. “I’m thinking about telling him how my last relationship ended.”

“What? No!” There is being honest and slapping someone with a truth they don’t even need to know.

“You’re not even really dating yet, why don’t you save the heavy stuff for when it comes up?”

“Shouldn’t he know what he gets himself into?”

I give her a pointed look, a raised eyebrow and a snort. “And you think he’d know after you give him this one detail about you and your past? Miho, I have spent the last few days with you and I can already tell that you are absolutely unpredictable. In a good way,” I hurry to add. “You are a human, not some cyborg. Yes, you made a mistake, but does that mean you will repeat it over and over? Did you ever cheat before Pat? Or after that?” She shakes her head, still chewing on her lip.

“And do you plan on doing it again?” For such a smart woman she’s pretty stuck in a loop of stupid thoughts and guilt.

“No. I didn’t even plan to do it the first time around.” Her breath whooshes out through her nose, her lips pressed together tightly.

“Then why did you?”

“I was stupid, okay? Everything was fine with me and Pat and suddenly there was this guy and everything was like a dance. Stirred up the same old, same old.”

I mull her words over, there’s more to it than just a guy with a nice smile and a firm booty. “Everything was fine, you say? And was that all? Just fine?” ‘Fine’ and ‘the same old’ doesn’t sound like a very happy relationship to me.

With a groan she slumps further into the couch, trying to melt into the pillows, hands covering her face.

“Sometimes – on some days I woke up in the morning, thinking: ‘This is it? This is all, for the rest of my life?’ and it scared me, you know?”

I know. I know it just too well. I pat her leg, lean over and rest my head against her arm.

“But cheating was a shitty move and I hate that I did it.”

“Not gonna argue about that.” Breaking up is always hard but forcing your partner into taking action like that is definitely not the right way.

“Half of the town hates me now for hurting Patrick like that.” She sniffles, rubs her nose, exhales deeply. “But he’s happy now with his new girlfriend who will probably never cheat on him or even put the empty milk carton back into the fridge or – I don’t know – leave her worn panties on the bedroom floor until laundry day.”

“Ha! Now that’s something you should warn Jared about.”

She emerges from her pillow hideout, wipes her face with her hands.

“I guess he will find out eventually. Or not. We’ll see. I want to take it slow.”

“Like not knowing his name for four months slow?” My quip earns me a slap on my arm and I laugh, finally laugh again after this trainwreck of a night.

“Hey, I’m sorry for cockblocking earlier.” It’s really time for me to go to sleep now.

“That’s fine, helps me with the whole going slow thing. But you better go and sort your life out, at least the part with your parents. First thing tomorrow morning. I might cave in and bring him here after brunch.” She hands me a blanket, gets up from the couch.

“Well, you better go and pick up your old panties from the floor. If only to make room for new ones.”

My laughter follows her into her bedroom where she hopefully cleans a bit while I catch up on sleep.

A good night’s sleep

One week of nightshifts in a row is never a good idea. Especially not when the nightshifts somehow bleed into the dayshifts, create a never ending circle on naps in the office or the car. This investigation sucks and so does the cheap coffee that does nothing to keep me awake.

“If nothing happens in the next few minutes I will just walk out of here,” I state, only for Tennoji to nod his head. It was a blur of red hair and fatigue.

“Yeah. Stupid mobsters could really be more cooperative,” he yawns, grabs the bag with chips lying on the dashboard of the messy car.

“When will our replacement come?”

“Hanai and Asano should be here in-“ he checks his watch, “-half an hour.”

“Good, my bum is numb already.” I shift in my seat, feeling stiff and icky. “Can’t wait to get a shower and some hours of sleep in a real bed.”

“Yeah, can’t wait for you to get a shower either.” He holds his nose with one hand, waves in front of his face with the other.

“You’re one to talk,” I laugh and jab my elbow in his ribs. “You’re smelling like a cage full of lynxes.”

Another 30 minutes of stakeout later Asano finally shows up and I can get out of that car, can stretch my legs and make my way to the PD to clock out for the day.

“Well, hello there,” the deputy chief greets me in the hallway leading towards our office.

“Nomura,” I nod briefly.

“I thought you were having a double shift and yet here you are, looking as cute as always,” he keeps talking, joins me on my way to the office.

“I’m looking as if I haven’t slept in 36 hours,” I reply with a huffed laughter.

“And? Did you?”

“No, it’s more like 40 hours, but with short naps in between,” I explain, hide a yawn behind my hand.

“Then why are you here and not at home?” He opens the door for me, follows me inside.

“Paperwork. Better drop some stuff off now before I get an angry call from Hanai later. But once that’s done I’m off and on my way back home and will sleep ten hours in a row.” That’s the only thought keeping me sane for the last 12-ish hours.

“Your boss is working you too hard,” he casually states but my sleep deprived mind twists his – probably – completely innocent words into something else.

“I wish,” I mutter before my brain kicks in again. “Uh, I wish I could say you’re wrong, but you’re not.” No need to spill the truth about the hots I have for boss. I mean, he’s gorgeous, tall, smart and kind. What’s there not to lust after?

“But you know that I’m your boss’ boss, right? I mean, I could tell him to be nicer to you.”

Okay, this now really sounds as if he’s hinting at something but I don’t rise to the bait.

“No, it’s okay. I can pull my own weight. That’s why you put me in this unit after all, isn’t it?”

“Yes, that’s one of the reasons.” His sideway glance lingers longer than an innocent look should but I don’t mind. He’s handsome and charming, and a little bit of flirting can’t hurt.

“I would love to ask about the other reasons, but I’m afraid right now I’m not able to appreciate your explanation fully.” I stumble, my body feels strangely floating, numb.

“Easy there, detective.” His hand on my arm steadies me, I flash him a sheepish smile.

“See? It’s about time for me to get to bed.”

“Mhm, time for bed indeed.” He doesn’t let go of me and I just stare at him. I must be broken, hearing things and stuff. Definitely the lack of sleep.

I don’t even hear boss coming out of his office until he clears his throat.

“And what is going on here? Detective? Nomura?” Oh shit, he never calls me detective unless it’s serious.

“Your detective here is a bit shaky on her feet. I better make sure she gets home safely,” Nomura smoothly explains and tugs at my arm lightly. “That is, if she’s okay with it.”

Okay, seriously, that can’t be only me reading invitations into his words.

“She is, as you pointed out, one of my detectives and I am responsible for overworking her. I am going to take her home.” Boss nods, he has made a decision.

“Hiroshi, you don’t want her to sit on your bike in that condition, do you? She might just fall off.”

My head turns back and forth, from one of my superiors to the other. What is happening here?

“I’m afraid your car isn’t much safer for her,” Kirisawa points out and I think he’s not talking about safety belts and airbags.

“Uhm, guys? Sirs? Dunno what to call you right now, but – is this still about a ride home?”

They both look at me now and I want to squirm under their intense gazes. Well, actually I want to squirm under their touches and kisses, but a girl can’t get everything.

“It depends on what you want,” Nomura’s voice drags me out of my daydreams. He stares at Kirisawa now who only tilts his head lightly. “Usually the lady has the last word in these matters.”

Maybe I passed out from exhaustion at some point and this is only some dream. In that case I got nothing to lose, right?

“Deputy chief, you can take me home. And boss, you can come with us and make sure I’m safe.” I bat my lashes at them, not exactly a move I’m familiar with but it seems to work.

“Are you sure? I mean, you can always change your mind, but you do understand what we are offering here, do you?”

It’s funny how Nomura does all the talking.

“Not sure. Are you offering to take me home to have sex with me? In that case, yes, I’m sure. If I’m mistaken… well, excuse me, I’m just off to find a hole to crawl in.”

Boss chokes and coughs, cheeks tinted red. Oh god, I misread the situation. Oh god… this is going to be awkward.

“No, you got that right. This is what we’re talking about.” Nomura’s confirmation sends a wave of relief through me – and butterflies.

“Good, my answer stands. How about you?” Yes, I can choose ambiguous answers, too.

“I’d say we better get you home, princess.” They flank me, basically escort me out of the office, towards Nomura’s car. We greet officers left and right, try not to raise suspicion.

“You don’t have to,” Kirisawa says when we reach the car.

“You don’t have to, either. But I want to,” I make clear and he nods, opens the door for me. To the backseat.

“You’re not going to start early on the backseat,” Nomura says and Kirisawa frowns.

“And I’m not letting her sit next to you so you can start fondling her on the way.”

“Guys, how about I stay here on the backseat, boss rides shotgun and Nomura takes the wheel. And you better figure out how to get along otherwise it can get awkward later.” I give Nomura my address and slink into the backseat, doze off after only a couple of minutes.

 

I wake up when the car comes to a stop, just I time to get the last part of a conversation they are having.

“But she needs to sleep. I think we shouldn’t wake her up, just get her to bed.” Kirisawa, bless him, is worrying about my condition.

“As much as it pains me, and believe me, some parts of me are really in pain right now, I guess you are right.”

“Nooo…” I weakly whine and rub my eyes. “I just dreamed of all of us in my bed and now that’s exactly what I want.”

“But you are tired, princess. You know what they say, after tired there’s only stupid. We don’t want you to do anything stupid and regret it afterwards.”

“True, we would have made you drunk ages ago if that was our goal,” Kirisawa adds.

“Wait, that’s an option? I mean, you are actually thinking about this for a while?” I’m wide awake now, heart thumping and stomach tingling.

“Maybe a few weeks. Not more than a couple of months,” Nomura casually confirms.

“Then what are we talking about here? Get out of the car and into my apartment. And out of your clothes there.” I scramble out of the backseat, stretch my numb and tired arms and legs, aware that they stare at me, both still standing with the car’s doors open.

“I need a shower first. You can hash out the details and make yourself comfortable.” Confidently that they will follow me I walk over to my door, unlock it just in time for them to arrive. My brain feels strange, like drunk, but better. I’m high on anticipation and arousal, start stripping in my living room. Not graceful, but effective enough to hear a groan from behind me. Kirisawa for sure. Without my shirt but still in my pants I turn around to face them.

“Bedroom is over there, kitchen is here. I won’t need long, so you better start talking. And yes, I’m game for almost everything but heavy bdsm and some creepy roleplay.”

Nomura hisses, but nods. Kirisawa’s eyes widen, he glances at Nomura who winks at him.

“In that case I’m calling dibs on those pretty lips,” he says only for me to shrug.

“Fine. But I expect you to return the favor – once I’m clean again.” With that I hurry off to the bathroom, strip naked and jump under the shower to quickly but thoroughly wash myself.

I’m almost done when there’s a knock at the door.

“Hey, so, uhm, Nomura wants to open your drawers to look for – supplies, I guess.”

“What?”

“I said, Nomura is looking for condoms and stuff!”

“Come in here, I can’t hear you!” I can, but starting early doesn’t sound bad at all. Kirisawa opens the door, slips into the bathroom.

“Is it okay for Nomura to look for condoms and lube?”

“Yeah, sure. Tell him bedside table, bottom drawer. He can take what he finds appealing.” Which hopefully also includes me. “Hey, boss? Can you come and wash my back?” I look at him over my shoulder, my naked backside turned to him.

He quickly relays the message to Nomura, already taking off his jacket. But only his jacket. He pushes up his sleeves and takes a step closer.

“So, uh, your back? You sure about that?” He rubs the back of his neck, has this adorable blush that can be because of the heat in here or – the heat in him.

“I’m sure there are some dirty spots that need washing and I’m also sure you should get in here to do so. Thoroughly.”

So I turn around, present my naked front to him, firm boobs and the sight of my neatly trimmed private triangle.

“Yeah, uhm, okay.” He nods slowly, undoes the buttons of his shirt, allows me a good view of his naked upper body now. I had a glimpse once or twice, but never up close. Once he has reached his pants my mouth is watering already, good thing I’m in the shower so it doesn’t show.

“Drop those pants, detective,” I purr, loud enough to be heard over the sound of the water, and with a last, drawn out breath he complies. I should have done this ages ago. Should have just climbed him like a tree in the office.

He quickly jumps into the shower, joins me under the warm water until I’m pressed against the tiled wall to give him room.

“I – I won’t be able to wash your back like this,” he stammers, still not completely comfortable, but he stays where he is.

“You could start with washing my front,” I suggest, grab a bottle of body wash and squeeze a generous amount into his waiting palm. He lathers it up before sliding his hands over my shoulders, down my arms, over my sides from there.

I step closer, with foamy hands myself, and mimic his motions. One more step and I’m directly in front of him, chin raised in an unspoken challenge, a plea, a demand. It doesn’t matter how he takes it as long as he acts on it.

The first brush of our lips, with droplets running down our cheeks, is sweet and short. The next kiss is deeper already, I wrap my arms around him, press my body tightly against his. His hands fall on my butt, squeeze it gently and I can feel his desire for me pressing against my thigh.

Panting I break away from him, turn around again and wiggle my butt.

“Don’t forget, be thorough.”

Again he squeezes my butt in his hands, his lips and teeth busy with my neck. The first brush of his testing fingertips between my butt cheeks has me jump a bit, but I reassure him he’s on the right track before he can pull his hand away.

A few ragged breaths later he starts working me open with one finger, helped by some of the water, while his other hand grips my hip tightly. I rest my forehead against the wall, try to relax but it’s so damned difficult when I feel like buzzing out of my skin in arousal.

“Hey, you started without me?” Nomura saunters over, faking a pout.

“I would invite you in, Deputy Chief, but the shower is too small for three of us. You can take a quick shower once we are out,” I let him know, not going to play along. Not yet. “Start undressing already.” I turn the water off, wait until Kirisawa pulls his hand back.

“Soap’s over there,” I tell him and drop a kiss on his lips before I get out of the shower, dripping and giddy.

Wrapped in a towel I hand another one to Kirisawa, lay one out for Nomura. He’s naked before I can even dry off, presses me backwards against the counter, his nose follows a droplet from my temple down to my collarbone.

“You playing favorites?” he asks lowly and I can’t help my chuckle.

“I would be unable to choose if my life depended on it, so no. Just going with the flow.”

A thoughtful him and he flashes me a smile. “Good. Just keep doing what you did, I’m taking a quick shower and be with you before you can even miss me.”

“Not so sure about that.” My voice is breathy already, my heart hammering in my chest. “Maybe I need a little something to tide me over?” I part my lips in invitation and he swoops in for a kiss like a hawk. And dammit, that man can kiss! His tongue sweeps over mine, plays and teases until I’m breathless and he pulls back again.

“Is that enough?” His eyes twinkle, someone likes to tease.

“For now,” I agree, let my towel drop on the way out.

Kirisawa is already in my bedroom, looking lost.

“Hey you,” I greet him, take in what Nomura did to the room while I was in the bathroom. Dimmed lighting, condoms and lube on the bedside table. A small selection of my toys.

“Hey.” He smiles, almost relieved that he’s not alone in here anymore. Not that any of us will be alone for long tonight.

“You want to go on?” I sit down on the bed, give him a chance to change his mind. Instead of an answer I get a heated gaze, he comes over and joins me on the bed.

“C’mere,” he drawls, eyes half-lidded while his cock is already at full mast. I crawl into his lap, tantalizing close to where I really want to be, but I decided that I will wait for Nomura with the real fun. That doesn’t stop me from kissing Kirisawa some more. I gasp when he picks up where we left earlier, drags one curious finger up and down my buttcrack.

The cap of the lube bottle clicks behind us, I look up to see Nomura, naked, only covered with a light flush from the shower.

“It’s easier with this.” He holds the lube out to Kirisawa who only stops stroking me long enough so Nomura can dump a dollop of cool gel on his fingertips. The coolness is a small shock but quickly forgotten when Kirisawa works the finger in and out of me.

“Now that’s quite a sight,” Nomura says and I crane my neck to see him, his cock in his hand, slowly stroking it while his eyes are glued to where Kirisawa is prepping me.

“Get the pink one,” I instruct him, motion towards the small selection of toys he set up on the bedside table. Nomura grabs the buttplug, shows it to me and waits for my nod before he lubes it up.

“What are you planning?” he asks, comes over to us.

“You put that in me, sit down on the bed, I’ll suck your cock and Kirisawa fucks me a bit. We can switch things up later.” I want to sound seductive and confident, but the words come out rushed, ragged.

“Princess, I should wash your mouth with soap for that kind of language.” He chuckles, shoos Kirisawa’s hand away.

“Is there any left on your cock?” I bat my lashes at him, kiss Kirisawa a last time for now and climb off his lap, kneel on the bed with my ass in the air.

“You’re going to find out,” Nomura promises me, slides the buttplug in place and starts pushing it in, slowly, inch for inch. I shudder and moan, hang my head, hands buried in the sheets. It’s not exactly the smallest plug I chose, but I will need the preparation later if we are going to do what I have in mind. Once it’s safely nestled inside of me I just focus on breathing, slowly sit up and wriggle my hips lightly to get used to the feeling.

“Then come and show me,” I demand, impatient now to get all I’m dreaming of. He drops a kiss on the small of my back, pats my bum and sits down on the bed, leaning against the headboard.

I crawl up to him, maybe not as graceful as a cat but definitely focused on him as if he’s a mouse. One I want to swallow whole. Before I can go down on him he stops me, though, beckons me closer with a smile. I settle in his lap, very much like I did earlier with Kirisawa.

“I said I wanted these lips,” he whispers, brushes his thumb over my mouth. I catch it, suck it between my lips, let my tongue circle it. He groans, but doesn’t pull back. Instead he lifts my face towards his, his thumb still in my mouth, and starts kissing my cheek, my temple, my jaw until he reaches my lips again, slides his thumb out and kisses me deeply. The mattress dips behind us and a second set of hands and lips starts caressing me, my neck, over my shoulder and back up.

It’s driving me crazy. I turn a bit to kiss Kirisawa some more while Nomura’s hands find my breasts, cup them, squeeze them lightly, thumbs rubbing my nipples into almost painful stiffness.

“I can’t wait anymore,” I pant, turn my attention back to Nomura, kiss down his body. A firm chest, a hint of abs. Not too much, just right. Kirisawa gives me some space and I settle between Nomura’s legs, on my knees, and run first a fingertip from the base to the tip of his cock. It’s completely hard, bobs a bit as if to follow my touch which makes me chuckle.

“You having fun, princess?” His voice is strained, words pressed out, ending in a moan.

“A lot. And you are going to have some, too.” Finally I open my mouth, let the tip of my tongue connect with the tip of his cock. Salty, slightly bitter, but not unpleasant.

I slide my lips down his cock, tongue pressed tightly against it so I can feel the vein on the underside, the ridges around the head. Eagerly I devour him, my spit and his precum making a mess I don’t mind.

A few choice words join his moans and grunts, most of them variations of mild swears. I grin, show off by taking him in as far as I can, blocking off my air supply for a moment.

The light touch on my pussy makes me pull back, I turn so I can see Kirisawa behind me, two fingers sliding through my folds, spreading lube and my own wetness.

“Can I-?”

“Gosh, yes!” I wiggle my hips, luring him in. With relief I notice that he has already put on a condom, I couldn’t wait now for him to do it anyway. I rest my forehead on Nomura’s thigh, his hand cards through my hair soothingly when Kirisawa lines up and slowly, oh so slowly pushes into me. His cock stretches me just right, with the plug is it a tight fit. One, two careful thrusts and he gains confidence, momentum. Every slap against me drives him deeper into my, and at the same time adds some pressure on the buttplug. Good thing I don’t have a cock in my mouth right now, I clench my teeth at the new sensation.

“Hey princess, you okay?” Nomura tips my chin up, stares at me intently until I grin dopily.

“I’m… fucking perfect…”

“That you are,” Kirisawa grunts, both hands on my hips. He finds a good rhythm and I return my attention to Nomura’s cock. I simply open my mouth, suck him in a bit and let Kirisawa push me back and forth. Nomura’s hand is still tangled in my hair, he helps with my bobbing without forcing me down too far.

I can’t even think straight anymore, much less coordinate all this. I just let them rock me between them, breathe when I have to, moan when I feel like it. It’s heaven. Not thinking, only feeling. I lose track of time, enjoy the building pressure in my belly. The strain on my muscles, the sweat on my skin, the taste of Nomura in my mouth.

“How about… switching it up now?” he says, pulls my mouth off him. Kirisawa’s thrusts turn into a dirty grind, both are waiting for my signal.

“Yeah, sounds… sounds good…” I try to catch my breath, prop up on my elbows. “You guys decided who goes where?”

Kirisawa pulls out, that’s enough of an answer for me. I grab a condom from the stash, throw it towards Nomura who grins at me.

“Thank you, princess.” He motions to Kirisawa, a glance, a nod and both men move. Nomura sits down on the bed again, pats his thighs so I crawl over there. But when I want to straddle him he shakes his head, says ‘Nu-uh’, guides me so that I’m lying over his legs. His hand follows the curve of my ass, wander inwards.

“Arch your back a bit,” he instructs and I comply, catch Kirisawa’s gaze, return his smile. I hold my breath while Nomura tugs at the plug, slowly removes it. Once it’s out he unceremoniously drops it on the ground, exhales in time with me.

“You still sure about this?” He helps me up, brushes some strands of hair from my face.

“Stop talking and start fucking me,” I demand, slide into his lap, just so far so I have room to take the condom, open the packet and roll it over his cock.

“So impatient?”

His hands find my hips, he guides me further into his lap, right above his cock. With one hand I steady it, slowly sink down. He feels different than Kirisawa, or maybe it’s the angle and the lacking plug now. He feels great, no complaints here, but now that I know I can have both of them I feel betrayed when it’s only one.

“Boss, you wanna join us here?”

He stares at me with wide eyes, rubs the back of his neck briefly.

“Could you – not call me that? Not right now at least.”

“Hiroshi feels conflicted doing this with a subordinate,” Nomura explains, lips close to my ear.

“Oh. Okay, sorry. Uh, Kirisawa-san, you wanna join?”

Nomura’s chuckle tells me that my choice of honorific is not the best, but I’m too distracted to think about how to address the man who’s going to fuck my ass while his best friend fucks my pussy.

Either way, it works. He crawls onto the bed behind me, kisses the nape of my neck, his hand smoothes over the curve of my ass. One testing finger turns into two, it’s tight but I’m ready after rocking between Nomura and Kirisawa’s fingers for maybe a minute. Maybe longer, I lost track of time.

More lube, some soothing words and encouragements from both of them and we are ready. A bit shifting is necessary to give us enough room and get us into the right position, I lean over Nomura more, he wraps his arms around me, strokes my back reassuringly.

“Just tell us if we need to stop, okay?”

I promise him, give Kirisawa the green light and take a deep breath. Holding my breath is exactly what I shouldn’t do so I focus on finding a good rhythm when I feel Kirisawa’s cock pressing against me, into me, only for an inch at first, stretching and angling.

“Keep it shallow,” I press out, get a grunt as answer. My skin feels too tight, too hot. I want him to move, want them both to fuck me senseless but I can barely stand them in me like this.

For now we all breathe and that’s about all the movements we make. Rising and falling chests, racing hearts.

“Doing so good, princess. Taking us so well…” Nomura praises me, and I’m dizzy with want, need, so close to my physical limits.

“You okay?” I can feel Kirisawa tremble, feel every shudder, every jittery motion.

“Yeah, I – shit, this is intense.” Goosebumps cover my skin, sweat joins it. “Okay, I think – you can try to move. Careful, though.”

Nomura rubs my arms, whispers sweet nothings while Kirisawa grips my hips tighter, pulls back just the tiniest bit to slide deeper into me.

I won’t be able to walk tomorrow. Or sit. But I will be damned if this isn’t worth it.

Slowly we make progress, I help as good as I can by rocking back and forth, careful not to let any of them slip out of me or accidentally take them in too deep. By the time they are both fully buried inside of me we are a sweating mess, grunts and groans make up most of our communication.

My body is alight. Every nerve ending is singing, my legs are trembling as are my arms, the effort of keeping me upright has never been so torturous and sweet at the same time. We fall into a rhythm that works for all of us, Nomura – with the least amount of actual freedom to move – teases me with fleeting touches and kisses. Kirisawa mostly keeps us in synch while I only follow their bodies back and forth.

“Wanna take it up a notch?” Nomura asks with a sly grin, slips a hand between us only to add to the pressure and fireworks between my thighs by finding that bundle of nerves that has been neglected so far.

“Holy…! I – I can’t…” Speak. Think. Breathe. I can’t do anything from the moment he touches me there except for wailing and holding on to sanity. Barely.

“Just let go, princess,” he coos, baiting me to give up control. Not that I have much of a choice, my body can’t take any more stimulation at this point. My fingers dig into his shoulders, just like Kirisawa’s dig into my hips.

“I – fuck! This is – ohhHHH!” Not sure where the sound comes from that leaves my throat, but it’s primal, guttural, earthshaking – just like the pleasure that washes over me, has me writhing in between them, runs like fire through my veins only to leave my body through my ragged breath. Boneless I slump into Nomura’s arms, he kisses and soothes me, tells me how beautiful I am – I doubt that, I’m a mess but I don’t mind. All I want is to sleep now.

Kirisawa speeds up, now that I had mine he’s chasing his own high, and even Nomura changes his position a bit to thrust up into me.

Everything is too sharp, too tight, too hot, but I don’t want them to stop either. I want to stay trapped between them, or both of them trapped inside of me. I want to feel like this forever.

Nomura buries his face between my breasts, his thrusts already out of synch with Kirisawa’s.

“Now, Deputy Chief, I guess it’s your turn to let go,” I whisper, using his words earlier against him. But it’s not him who comes, it’s Kirisawa. His thrusts stutter, grip is even tightening, he growls, pants, rocks against me a few more times before he presses a messy kiss between my shoulder blades and pulls out. With my recovered room of movement I ride Nomura harder, ignore my numb legs and the strange feeling of loss after Kirisawa’s disengagement.

He joins us on the bed again after getting rid of the condom, just watches me fucking Nomura with the last shreds of my strength. Nomura’s hands on my hips dictate my pace and it’s not long before he tenses, heels digging into the mattress, and shouts out his own completion.

My neighbors will be traumatized for life after this night, but who cares? My mind is fuzzy, unable to hold a thought, I just follow when Kirisawa helps me off Nomura and onto the bed. A bit of shifting and scuffling and all I want is to fall asleep. Someone forces a glass of water into my hand, tells me to drink, but I’m not sure who it is. I obey, barely register the spilled drops on my skin.

“Are you okay?” Sounds like boss. I hum.

“Are you even awake, princess?”

My second hum gets answered with some laughter, but someone pulls a blanket over me and from that point on I’m out like a light.

 

Disorientated, muddle-headed and sore I wake up, it’s still dark in my bedroom. Or again, I don’t even know what time it is.

“Back in the land of the living?”

I jump at the voice that sounds right next to me, sleepy and warm. “D-deputy Chief?!”

“I think after last night you can just call me Nomura. At least out of the office.” He snuggles closer, nuzzles my neck.

Oh shit. What have I done?

“It’s only 5am, how about you both go back to sleep?”

Wait, Kirisawa, too? Did I drink last night? Got high? Was I drugged? And how the hell should I sleep now?

Another arm comes to rest over my waist, right next to Nomura’s.

“Not sure if I can sleep now,” I admit, my voice tiny, shaking.

Kirisawa sighs. “Fine. How about I make us some breakfast and coffee. You can just relax a bit and we talk afterwards.”

I squirm, notice the stickiness between my legs and butt cheeks. “I think I’d like to shower.”

“Want me to give you a hand? Hiroshi can take care of the food and I can take care of the treats.” I can hear Nomura’s wink, although that should be impossible.

I will go to hell. I slept with both of my superiors, at the same time. That considered there’s not much I can do to make this worse, right?

“Uh, okay. Yeah, actually that sounds good. And once we are done – I have to call in at work. I don’t think I can come to my shift today. I’m almost unable to move.”

Both of my superiors are here and well aware of my condition. I hear a chuckle from my right, must be Nomura.

“Almost?” he asks, fingertips dragging over my skin.

“Yeah, almost.” This will be a good morning, for sure.

Snakes and Starships: V

There was simply no mistaking the suggestion in Miho’s tone, nor the way her gaze lingered on certain parts of his anatomy before she made purposeful eye contact.

“Just how often do you get an open invitation from a princess?” she sighed out, and Orion could almost see those words: a sinuous line of seduction dropping a noose around his neck.

“Not often,” he admitted, fingers tensing into fists. “But I’m…”

“Not interested in girls like me?” she finished for him cheekily, and gave a shrug before turning toward the other end of the cabin. “That is a terrible shame.”

“You like to put words in the mouths of others, don’t you?” he said, close behind her, and Miho grinned.

“I do,” she agreed, playfully, and when she lolled her head back, she was satisfied to find it nestled quite snuggly against his shoulder at the crook of his neck. “Are you feeling the need to reciprocate?” she purred, speaking against his throat. “Or is there something other than words you’d like to put into my mouth?”

“Among other places,” he hissed, hands falling against her hips and digging in lightly.

The taste of adrenaline was still bitter on his tongue, and though he was not oblivious to the dangers of becoming entangled with a woman like Miho, she was right. There had been many times, close calls – some far too close – he had returned to the Promise wound so tightly he thought he’d shatter. And there was little release but for his own company, which was a far cry from the intoxicating promise of a woman’s delicate flesh beneath his fingers.

“Go on then, Captain,” she whispered, grinding back against him. “Don’t be shy, take what you want – I won’t complain… unless you disappoint me.”

She had barely uttered the last taunting word when Orion pushed her forward, forcing her to brace with her hands against the cold, metal shutter.

“That’s a start,” she sighed, the heat of his fingers sliding from her belt buckle to curl over the top of her leggings and drag downwards to her ankles.

“Shame you didn’t get to wear your new outfit very long,” he said against the top of her shoulder, his hands snaking over her breasts to the zipper of her jacket.

“Damn shame,” she grinned, spinning around the moment her jacket hit the floor and crushing her lips against his.

This brought back the rush of their retreat, and with the pressure of an entire city looking for a killer squeezing them tightly, their bodies released control and inhibition. In a frenzy of clattering peripherals and the rustle and fling of fabric, both ignored the possibility of the shutters suddenly opening, and enjoyed unconstrained exploration of each other’s bodies.

Orion was unsurprised Miho was no shrinking violet, meeting the urgency of his own mounting want with equal fervour. He put aside the idea she had won her way like this in other circumstances, for it honestly didn’t matter. Instead, with chest heaving and eyes smouldering, he watched as she slid down his body and settled on her knees.

“Sit,” she commanded, wicked smile adding to the already prominent sense of danger twisted with desire in Orion’s stomach. “Or you will fall,” she added, smoothing her palms up his thighs, her thumbs grazing sensitive flesh until her hands fell completely away.

She sat before him, but Orion was under no illusion that she had the power. The slightest touch of her tongue against the tip of his shaft was excruciating, a fleeting shock of exquisite sensation that caused him to shudder and inch forward. When he reached out to cup her cheek, then comb his fingers into her hair, she seemed pleased, and rewarded him with the full, moist warmth of her mouth and the delicious force of her lips around his cock.

Dropping his head back, Orion let out a low groan, tightening his grip in Miho’s hair and drawing her back and forth against him with increasing fervour. And even trough watering eyes, Miho’s focus remained fixed on him defiantly, challenging him not to cum embarrassingly soon while doing everything she could to push him right over the edge. Her tongue swirled purposeful circles each time he passed her lips, and though she braced herself against the bench with one hand, the other encouraged his arousal with playful fingers.

“Grrr, enough!” he barked suddenly, and actually caught Miho off guard when he pushed her backwards.

Just as it seemed her head would crack against the floor, she felt it cushioned by the curl of Orion’s arm beneath, followed by his weight on top.

“Reached your limit alr…” she began cheekily, but her triumphant chuckle was muffled unexpectedly by a kiss so fierce, so deep and probing, when he allowed her to surface she was gasping for breath.

“Ha,” she hissed out. “A man who’ll kiss a girl who not moments ago had her lips around his cock?”

“No doubt they’ve been worse places,” he volleyed, burying his face in her neck and his free hand between her legs.

An intense shock burst through her, so sharp and delightful her back arched against the firm massage of his thumb on her clit, while his fingers curled within.

“Ahh, not the first time you’ve done this,” she exhaled heavily, lips quivering as he dragged his teeth over her shoulder before returning ravenously to her mouth.

His erection pressed insistently into her inner thigh, and she wanted it, wanted to feel full, but Orion was now trailing kisses down her body – over her breasts, pinching one nipple between his teeth before settling his face between her legs and lapping over the inflammation of her sensitive bud.

“Ohhh… yes…” she moaned, sifting her fingers through his hair as he worked magic into her flesh.

A strangely familiar, oddly nostalgic sense flickered within her, along with the intricate motion of Orion’s tongue, but it was fleeting – overwhelmed as she lifted to her pelvis to meet each skilled thrust and the determined suckle over her clit.

“Give me more!” she demanded hoarsely, digging her fingernails into his shoulders and trying to pull him back up.

Orion lifted his head, licking his lips, his chin, and his expression told Miho he was both drunk with carnal desire and fighting it at the same time.

“We can’t,” he panted, shaking his head, but there was a persistent glaze in his eyes that Miho knew well – and it begged him to throw caution to the wind.

“Oh, yes we can,” she growled, shoving against his slightly sweat glistening chest with enough force to push him back into a crouch. “And we’re going to.”

“Miho, wait,” he insisted when she crawled forward against him, curling one arm round his neck.

“You think covert operatives don’t take chemical precautions?” she rasped before biting down on his lower lip, drawing it into his mouth and dragging away slowly, all the while grinding her hips against his lap, coiling her legs around him. “Or is it you think I’m the danger here?”

“Oh, you’re a danger,” he grimaced, his hands gripping her waist, but his efforts to keep her from working his shaft to her impatient entrance, were at best half-hearted.

“Your doctor,” she whispered against his soft earlobe, “gave me a clean bill of health.”

Orion hadn’t thought of that, and it was true.

“Are you sure?” he managed, voice strained, brows knitted, and again Miho had cause to look amused… then extremely serious.

“Let me sink down on you, Captain,” she breathed, speaking the words from one corner of his mouth to the other. “Let me swallow you whole, squeeze you – I want you pulsing inside me, pounding until I cum so hard I forget my own name.”

That was waaaay too much for Orion, who instantly pulled her down onto him, full force penetration, a deep sense of satisfaction and the reckless abandon of his animal instincts.

There were no more words to spare, just the frantic ballet of Miho’s body undulating against Orion, the joining of their bodies a passionate, rhythmic dance set to the sound of heavy breathing, the slap of skin on skin, and the mounting inevitability of each other’s climax.

And when they had rocked the boat – and each other – most thoroughly, Orion drew Miho into his arms and held her as they both tried to catch their breaths, lightly stroking her arm, across her collarbone, her throat, with feather-light fingertips.

“Are you all right?” he asked softly, brushing moist hair from her forehead.

“Oh yes,” Miho grinned languidly, bathing in the afterglow. “Is it bad of me to hope this lockdown continues so you can regain some of your stamina?”

Orion exhaled a husky chuckle.

“Yes,” he answered, humming a little before making another addition. “And… no.”

“And for a bounty hunter you came across as such an upstanding individual,” Miho laughed, and stretched out her legs a little, legs that Orion promptly entwined with his own. “Mmm you know, there is only one other man in all the galaxy I know with that tongue technique,” she mused, tracing her fingertip around one of Orion’s nipples, the sharp edge leaving a light scratch mark among many much deeper. “And I guarantee he isn’t enjoying himself nearly as much as you are right now.”

“Tongue technique?” Orion repeated, on the verge of expressing her lack of manners talking about another man while he still held her in his arms, but he shuddered a little as Miho slithered her tongue front he nipple she’d been torturing, to his Adam’s apple.

“Don’t look so offended, Orion,” she breathed, kissing lightly along his tensed jawline. “It’s a compliment of the highest order – believe me…”

A little awkwardly given the compact nature of the cabin, Miho wriggled until she laid on top of Orion, and settled back against his chest.

“Very few can make me see stars like that,” she sighed blissfully. “I almost want to keep you.”

“I’m not a pet,” he frowned, but Miho simple placed her lips over each crease.

“No, but you could be a delectable periodic pitstop in my travels,” she pointed out, the tip of her nose touching his as she peered down into eyes she felt now were also quite familiar.

This time, however, she chose to say nothing on the subject, and kissed him again – this time so very gently, almost tenderly. It made Orion’s head spin a little at how quickly this woman changed gears, but while they continued to be in lockdown, there were worse things in the universe to do… than her.

 

Returning to the Promise after the end of the lockdown proved to be a non-event. No one had come to search the water taxi in which Miho and Orion had taken refuge, and Miho found this curious though obviously convenient. She and the captain didn’t talk about what they had done, and they sure as hell weren’t holding hands and singing love songs, but there was an oddly comfortable familiarity between them; both had enjoyed the unexpected interaction, and Miho marked Orion down as definite ‘contact’.

If only Jaxon knew how detailed her ‘little black book’ of names was, he’d be floored.

“You look well rested,” Jazz noted, seeming a little tired herself, rubbing her eyes.

“And you don’t,” Orion frowned. “Everything alright?”

“Well, that depends on your definition,” she shrugged, and opened her mouth to continue when Jenna came racing up to them, Atlas trudging behind her more slowly – probably because he was carrying several heavy looking bags.

“You’ll never guess what happened!” she exclaimed giddily, and Miho arched a brow at her enthusiasm. “Atlas and I got locked into the apartment Jaxon’s source sent us to, and there was only one bed!

By the time Atlas had stomped to Jazz’s side and dropped his cargo, Jazz was looking at him with interest.

“Don’t gimme that look, Love,” Atlas rumbled, leaning closer to her. “Made her sleep on the floor.”

“Only one bed, huh?” Miho chuckled. “Wow, Orion and I didn’t even get that lucky.”

Orion coughed, then cleared his throat.

“So long as everyone is back in one piece,” he said in a bit of a rush, which awarded him inquisitive looks from both Jazz and Atlas.

“Don’t celebrate just yet,” Jazz edged in. “There’s someone waiting for you. Soon as he saw the Promise, he refused to leave.”

Even before Orion’s head snapped to Miho, she knew who he was referring to, and she rolled her eyes.

“Ugh, well I have questions for Commodore Fairchild myself,” she grunted, and began stomping up the ramp.

But before Miho could reach the bridge, Orion caught her wrist.

“Wait a second,” he exhaled, giving her a slight nudge against the wall.

“You want to go again right here?” she queried, but she didn’t seem really in the mood.

“No,” he shook his head. “There’s something you should know.”

“Clone?” she offered with a slightly raised eyebrow.

“What?” Orion responded, confused.

“No, you’re right,” Miho mused, tilting her head a little. “Cunnalingus instructor? Nah, that doesn’t explain your eyes. Cousin? Brother?”

Orion blinked at Miho openly, and she chortled.

“You’re being ridiculously obvious, Captain,” she laughed, giving his cheek a light pat. “All I need now is some confirmation.”

“Brother,” Orion answered, lifting his chin a little. “We’re twins.”

Miho chewed her lower lip, considering him nose to nose.

“Special arrangement indeed,” she smirked, then began again down the corridor to the bridge.

There, she found Nova and Jaxon ‘guarding’ Antares, who got to his feet and glowered at her fiercely; not to be intimidated, Miho threw down the bag carrying her weapon, and simply stood her ground.

“Are you going to bow to your princess, or say hello to your brother first?” she smile smugly, and Antares swept up to her, incredibly unamused.

“What, are you doing here, Miho?” he growled, but Orion forced his way in between them as the others arrived on the bridge.

“Atlas,” he said, though he was still looking at Antares. “I’d like to get clear of this planet.”

“Can we dump him first?” Atlas grated, handing over what he was carrying to Nova, before flopping into his seat.

“Got a little something on your cape there, Commodore,” Miho grinned around Orion’s shoulder. “Not really up to uniform code.”

“I could say the same thing for you, Princess,” he volleyed coldly. “What were you doing on Eryl, and why are you with him?”

“Why do you insist on asking questions you know I’m not going to answer?” Miho sniffed. “Furthermore, I need a shower, and I’m absolutely starving – Captain?”

“You can use my quarters,” he acquiesced. “Jenna, could you show her where…”

“Stay right where you are,” Antares commanded, and Jenna froze, looking helpless.

“This is my ship, Commodore,” Orion said, his tone tight. “And Miho is a guest, and while she is a guest, my word is the only one that matters. Go ahead, Princess, just follow Jenna.”

Without another sideways glance at Antares, Miho followed Jenna off the bridge.

“You have no idea what you’re dealing with here,” Antares dropped crisply.

“I’m starting to get an idea,” Orion answered slowly. “Nova, I think our guest is probably going to need a fresh towel.”

“I got it,” Jaxon ejected, leaping up, but both Orion and Antares barked at him.

“No.”

“Don’t you dare,” Antares hissed, pointing at Jaxon.

“Yes, Captain,” Nova acknowledged, and departed.

“Let’s go and wait in the lounge,” Orion then suggested, and the pair of brothers moved out with Jaxon, to the sound of Atlas cursing the Empire dead-weight on board.

 

Miho hummed as the water ran down her body, smiling whimsically as she smeared herself in soapy suds until she was thoroughly clean. She was still enjoying the warmth when there was a solid knock on the bathroom door, followed by the appearance Nova with a towel folded over her arm.

“Princess, the captain asked me to bring you this,” Nova said, loud enough for Miho to hear her.

Without hesitation, Miho shut off the water and stepped out of the spacious glass cubicle, dripping from head to toe.

“Mmm,” she murmured with a slight stretch. “I don’t suppose I can convince you to give me a hand? A couple perhaps?”

“Are you unable to manage on your own, Highness?” Nova enquired, deadpan. “Are princesses not taught to dress themselves?”

“Of course, I can,” Miho admitted. “But team work is always so much more… rewarding.”

“So, you are offering me a reward in exchange for my services?” Nova surmised, with eyebrows raised.

“My goodness, you make it all sound so sordid,” Miho chuckled, then reached for the towel that Nova relinquished.

“When you are ready, I will escort you to the lounge where you are awaited,” Nova declared, then exited to give Miho her privacy.

She didn’t rush, but didn’t dally too long either, and though without her tiara, she entered the lounge most regally with her escort and took stock of the room.

Everyone except Atlas was present, but even under the weight of their combined scrutiny, Miho didn’t seem the smallest bit uncomfortable.

Of course, it was Antares who spoke first, rocking to his feet, tall and straight.

“Imagine my surprise when I met with Admiral Yuul on Eryl – foremostly to determine what he was hauling that could have interested you so much,” he began, taking measured steps in Miho’s direction, “when he pops like a balloon before discussion can even commence.”

“They just don’t make Empire admirals like they used to,” Miho sighed, but there was cheek sparkling wildly in her eyes.

“Or princesses,” Jaxon muttered under his breath.

“Oh I’m the new improved model,” she announced triumphantly, defiance in the tip of her chin, which Antares swiftly snatched, thumb pressing firmly into her skin.

New model?” he questioned, and he was looking for something, looking at her in a way he never had before.

“Antares,” Orion barked sternly. “Let her go.”

Deliberately, Antares craned his neck to look at his brother, which Miho remained still and remarkably unreactive to Antares’ physical trespass.

“What exactly is going on here?” Antares asked slowly, his gaze loitering on Orion a moment before passing an expectant eye over the rest before finally returning to Miho. “How in this or any other galaxy did you manage to get them on your side?”

“Magic,” Miho offered through a wicked grin.

A moment of silence fell, before Antares worked his jaw – cast Orion a meaningful glance – then resume his assessment of Miho’s expression.

“You didn’t,” he stated, voice low and quiet, perhaps only loud enough for she and him to hear.

“Why don’t you ask the questions you really want answers to, Commodore,” she whispered, leaning a little against his hold to breath upon his lips.

There was something there in Antares’ face, Miho relished. Though it was ever so fleeting, his conclusion Orion’s reaction was because she had slept with him, did not sit well.

“Did you murder Admiral Yuul?” Antares asked flatly, now seeming in an even fouler mood.

“Oh yes,” Miho confirmed, satisfaction in the way she swaggered to Orion’s side and sat down. “Still, let me throw you a breadcrumb for free and say, I didn’t expect him to deflate any more than you did – though, the look on your face was priceless.”

“Deflate?” Tyrian repeated.

“Yep,” Miho nodded. “No bloody nuggets as expected, just a burst of purple light and then a crumpled skin-sack.

“What the hell kind of being is that?” Jenna scowled, glancing up from the tablet she was tapping on.

“Yuul was human,” Miho responded. “Was, is, I don’t know what it was I killed, but it wasn’t the actual Admiral Yuul.”

“What are you thinking, Commodore?” Jazz prompted, noting Antares’ pensive silence.

“You didn’t know?” Antares asked Miho seriously, and she straightened in her seat.

“Yuul needed killing,” she explained clearly. “All his other crimes aside, he’s one of my father’s ass monkeys. If that wasn’t him, and it wasn’t, then where is he?”

“This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this,” Antares stated, and he had everyone’s attention.

Homecoming – Day 12-3

Turns out eleven dollar are nothing when visiting a fair. I consider riding the Ferris Wheel but it’s a small one, rather fast and not providing a really good view. So I stroll through the aisles of stalls and small shops, food trucks and bars. My buzz is fading, not helping keeping my mood light at all. On the other hand all the drinks I had now steer my steps towards the not so fancy island of port-a-potties, idyllically located at the far end of the festival grounds.

The line is still reasonable and not long enough for me to consider disappearing into the bushes, but enough to check my phone and see that Mom tried to call me. Several times. I’m not keen on that lecture right now so I ignore her, get into the first stall that’s open and get out again, a bit lighter and even more sober.

“Hey Jayjay!”

Is there anything more embarrassing than someone catching you while you come from the loo? Well, yes, having toilet paper stuck to your foot or something. At least I’m spared from that but I can’t share the excitement obvious on Ben’s face by the huge grin. Did he already forget about this morning?

“Hey Bennie,” I lamely greet back.

“You here on your own?” He jogs up to me, dimples in full display.

“On the toilet? Yes, I can manage on my own. I’m a big girl, you know?”

His smile wavers for a second before it turns into a smirk. “Yeah, I noticed.”

My answer gets stuck in my throat when I find myself under his hazel gaze, wondering why he looks at me like that.

“Uh, I was here with a friend but she met another friend and I didn’t want to get in their way. And you?” If only I could not stammer now, thank you, brain.

“I’m here with a couple of friends, too. Well, at the festival, not on the toilet. ‘Cause like you said, I’m also a big guy now.”

‘Don’t think about it, don’t think about’ runs like a warning through my mind but of course I’m thinking about it. Does he only mean he’s grown up now or is he referring to-?

“Hey, how about you wait here for a sec and we can – I don’t know, ride the Ferris Wheel or something?”

“What about your friends?” The Ferris Wheel sounds more interesting when he mentions it. Strange.

“Most of them are wasted already and I don’t want them to puke on my shoes. But I want to see the fair from above, so if you’re game…”

There just enough alcohol in my blood left to nod.

“Great. Be right back.” He gets in line and I start to panic. What am I doing?

Waiting, at least for now. After a couple of minutes he comes back, wraps an arm around me. As a friend. A slightly drunk friend as I notice now that he’s close. The image of the sheet music for ‘Bittersweet symphony’ keeps popping up and with it the realisation that he once had a crush on me like I had on him. How am I supposed to act around him now?

“So, your friend ditched you, huh?”

“Not really. I told her to go and enjoy some kinda date with her crush.” Dammit, why did I say crush?

“Well, works for me. That way I can have you all for myself, right?” He squeezes me tighter, leaves me out of breath for more reasons than just his firm embrace.

“We hadn’t really a chance to catch up yet, always getting interrupted by Jake or-”

“Maddie,” I offer the name of his maybe fianceé.

“Yeah. Honestly, I thought you two were friends.”

“We were. Not sure what happened, we just didn’t have the same interests anymore after I – after I stopped playing the piano. By the way, why didn’t she become a teacher like she had planned to?”

“She had wanted to become a teacher?” His wide eyes show no mockery, his shrug no interest. “I guess she didn’t want to spend that much time in college. She went to community college but didn’t graduate, started working pretty soon as far as I know.”

“She hasn’t a college degree and works in a medical field?“ I don’t think that a college degree says a lot about people except far that they spent some time in a college, but I do think that some professions need a certain qualification.

“Medical field? Nah, she’s a receptionist in the clinic. You know, answering the phone, scheduling the appointments, filing stuff. She still plays the piano a lot, but pays her bills by doing desk work.”

There’s a short line for the Ferris Wheel, Ben still has his arm over my shoulder while I ponder his words.

“She’s a secretary?” Didn’t sound like that when she talked about her job.

“Yeah, more or less. Not a general one, though, but assigned to this specialist for – stuff. Can’t remember his speciality. She talked about quitting after we got married. I mean, I won’t stay a High School baseball coach forever, it’s only the first step on my way to become a coach of a mayor team. She’s gotta support me on that, moving with me and such. Can’t be bound to one job forever anyway.”

It’s weird that he talks about the girl he intents to marry while his hand is dangerously close to my breasts. I’m just another friend to him that happens to be female nowadays, his crush probably long forgotten, that must be why he’s so at ease right now.

“Hey, what did you study at college?” I just realize that I have no idea what his major was.

“Sports management and sports medicine, but I didn’t graduate in the medicine part. Just know enough to make sure how to avoid injuries and treat minor ones.” We reach the ticket booth and he buys two tickets without skipping a beat.

“I can pay for mine,” I offer but he just brushes me off.

“Can’t let a girl pay, can I? It’s okay, with the wedding off the table I got some money to spare.” He grins, but the jokes leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

“I mean, I see how hard you work for your money,” he corrects his last statement.

“Thanks.”

This day is so weird, I’m wondering if I had a stroke last night when Dad showed up and all of this is only some crazy coma dream. But the weight of Ben’s arm over my shoulder – yes, he put it there again after buying the tickets – is real. Solid. And I can smell his cologne, something soapy and clean.

We move further up along the line until it’s our turn. The cars are tiny, just big enough for three, maybe four people sitting around a center pole. Not sure why it’s there, but I haven’t been on many Ferris Wheels so far, maybe it’s a normal thing.

Ben helps me inside, basically holds my hand until I can scoot over far enough for him to join me and then some. He’s still keeping my hand in his.

“As a kid I never liked Ferris Wheels,” he casually says when it starts moving. “Not thrilling enough.” His free hand grabs the pole and he puts some effort into setting our car into motion. It slowly revolves around the pole, the night view changes constantly. I can see half of the festival grounds flying by, a blur of lights and shadows.

“And now?” I ask, eyes turned towards the night sky.

“I think it holds exactly the thrill you bring with you.”

The car sways when he scoots closer and while I still wonder what he’s doing he puts his free hand on my cheek and turns my face towards his.

“Uhm… Bennie…?”

He shushes me with a smile, leans in and everything switches to slow motion. The rotation of our car, lights and sounds far below us, his face coming closer and closer. Just my mind is going into overdrive, thousands of thoughts running through it on high speed. And in blaring red one question: Do I want this?

No. I turn my face just enough for his lips to connect to my cheek and just the tiniest bit of the corner of my mouth.

“It’s cute how you play hard to get now,” he whispers, his breath washing over my face. The clean and soapy scent of his cologne is drowned out by the smell of beer and greasy fast food.

“What?” I jerk my head back, try to get up only to remember where we are. Shit. Still I bring enough distance between us to glare at him.

“What ‘what’? I mean, I thought you want this.” Brow furrowed he stares at me as if that alone would transfer an explanation into his brain.

“Well, you’re mistaken. I don’t want just anyone to kiss me,” I point out.

“But I’m hardly just anyone, right? I mean, come on.” He raises his hands, gestures once up and down his body.

“No, you’re not ‘just anyone’, you’re a friend. And I’m sorry you’re having a rough time with your girlfriend right now, but I’m not just some ego boost or rebound girl or whatever you’re looking for.” How small can I make myself to not offer some excuse for him to try something, calling it an invitation?

“Hey, that’s not what I’m looking for here! I figured after the thing with Mads went south like that I should try dating someone who – I don’t know, someone who actually knows me better. And since you definitely have a thing for me-”

“Whoa, slow down, buddy. First of all, you really didn’t take a long time to get over your breakup. And second, what makes you think I have a thing for you?” True, I once had a huge crush on him and yes, seeing him and his ridiculously cute dimples and smile makes my heart race a bit, but that doesn’t mean – dammit, it doesn’t mean anything. I also crush on celebrities and wouldn’t actually jump at them if we ever met. Probably.

“You don’t really think you’re so secretive about the whole ‘oh my god, Ben is so cute’ thing, do you? We know each other for years, Jayjay, and I know you had a crush on me for probably the whole time.”

As cute as his usual smile is, as infuriating the smirk he wears now is. He looks a lot like Jake in this moment, with this expression, and I’m torn between wanting to jump out of the Ferris Wheel in embarrassment and wiping that smug grin off his face.

“Fine, I had a crush on you in school, but I’m not in school anymore and let’s be honest, I just discover a side of you I definitely don’t like.”

“And yet you are still doing this thing chicks do when they want to get kissed.” With that his deduction is finished but it’s not enough for me to understand.

“What? What thing?” I don’t twirl my hair, I don’t play with my keys, I don’t lean into his personal space. Those are the only flirting moves I know. Sad, isn’t it?

“Come on, you know what I mean. You keep staring at my lips. Girls do that all the time when they want me to kiss them.”

There are a lot of questions, for example how many girls he is actually referring to and when did he become a player like his brother?

But first of all: “Are you stupid? You know I’m hearing impaired and I do rely on lip reading a lot when my tinnitus gets stronger, and guess what? With all the stress lately it’s loud enough to drown out whole conversations. I’m not begging for a kiss, I’m just trying to get what you say!”

This is so twisted, Ben is more like Jake now then the Bennie I used to know. And admired.

“Oh. Really?” His shoulders slump, the crease between his eyebrows deepens but is smoothed out the moment his face lights up with his usual smile. “Well, I think I might have been to rash. I thought you would be happier about this thing between us but you are right, it’s been a while since we saw each other regularly. Maybe we need more time to reconnect. So how about this? We just enjoy the festival tonight, no more awkward moves from my side. And tomorrow I would like you to be my date for the dinner party.”

I look around, the Ferris Wheel is still moving. Is this one of these prank shows? Will someone suddenly pop up and point at a bunch of cameras around us? If it wasn’t Ben but Jake I would be certain it’s just some prank, but Bennie never did something like that to me.

Oh my god, what if he wanted us to get closer in school already, just how I wanted it? This could be our second chance!

“Tomorrow…” There was something else tomorrow, not only the dinner party. But my head is a mess and the constant up and down of the Ferris Wheel doesn’t help with my dizziness at all.

“So, what do you say? Will you accompany me to Dad’s party?”

My mouth opens but there is no sound. My voice fails me, just like my hearing. The lights are just a blur, my tinnitus loud as a horn. The shallow breaths I take can’t get enough oxygen into my lungs. A tingling in my fingertips and toes are the first warning of a rapidly approaching hyperventilation. How dramatic would it be if I fainted now, into the waiting arms of my year-long crush, just after he asked me out on a date?

The Ferris wheel jerks to a stop, saves me from giving Ben an answer and also from my panic attack. With solid ground beneath my feet I feel much better, let Ben lead me over to some benches. Did he notice that I’m not well?

“I know, it’s all a bit sudden,” he says after sitting down next to me, close but not too close.

“That it is,” I agree. “Why haven’t you said anything sooner?” Why did you hide behind that secret admirer mask? My school life would have been so much better with Ben as my boyfriend. Although I remember some kind of no dating policy his coach established.

“Sooner? You mean when Mads was still there?”

“No, I mean sooner. Before Maddie. Before college.” Maybe even before Jake ruined my life by taking parts of one of my senses away.

“But – I wasn’t into you back then,” he points out, eyebrows knitted.

“What? But – I thought – aren’t you my secret admirer?” There it is again, the shallow breathing and the racing heart.

“You had a secret admirer at school? Now that’s a surprise.” He huffs a laughter, shakes his head.

“Why is that a surprise?” The only surprise right now is that it wasn’t him.

“Come on, let’s be honest. You weren’t exactly a looker as a teenager. I mean, don’t get me wrong, you were kinda cute, but not the kind of girl to drive guys crazy. Oh, but you are really pretty nowadays.”

“Huh.” Ben isn’t the one. And he thinks I was an ugly teenager. Great. Just great. “You know what? It’s been a long day and I’m a bit dizzy and confused. Too much alcohol, I guess. So, I think we call it a night. Go and see if you can find your friends here somewhere, I better go home now.” Shaking knees are not exactly helpful while trying to get up looking graceful and poised.

“You sure? Did I say something wrong?”

“I’m sure. It’s just – I’m not feeling well and I’d rather get some rest so I’m fit tomorrow.” I flash him a weak smile, suppress the need to just bolt. My fight or flight is broken, all I ever do is fleeing.

“Okay, yeah. Sure. So, I will see you there tomorrow?” He gets up and leans in just for me to flinch backwards. Again he presses a kiss on my cheek, this time on purpose, his hand on my upper arm, squeezing lightly.

“Yeah, tomorrow.” It’s not a real answer but he nods and smiles at me. We part ways here, he is off to search for his friends and I’m trying to find my dignity and reason.

 

I find something else instead. My dignity is probably long gone by now anyway, but I hoped to find at least my wits again. In the end it’s me being found rather than finding anything. Still avoiding the area around Dad’s food truck I wonder what to do, Ben’s words are still ringing in my ears.

Or maybe it’s just the noise around me paired with my tinnitus; whatever it is I’m getting a massive headache and don’t pay much attention to my surroundings. So I only notice that guy in my way when I bump into him with half of his drink spilling over my arm and my shirt.

“Eh, Missie, look where ya walking!”

“You better look where you’re standing! This is a footway, not a pub!” Living in a bigger city has taught me to bitch right back when I get talked down to like this.

“What did ya say?!” The guy turns out to be huge. I mean, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson huge. At least taller by two heads and about twice my weight. But I’m a cranky girl with a very confusing day so far and I won’t back down.

“You heard me!” My shirt is dripping, the smell of beer tickles the back of my throat. I might not be able to fight him but I can puke on his shoes. That’ll teach him.

“Whoa, calm down, tiger.” That’s the last thing I needed. Somewhere behind me a guy comes running over, the voice already giving him away.

“Hey buddy, sorry, she’s a bit clumsy sometimes. Here, have a new beer, it’s on me.”

Jake shoves a few bills towards the fake Rock, grabs my arm and drags me away. Or better, he tries to. But I dig my heels into the ground and refuse to move.

“I don’t need a savior, I’m not a damsel in distress,” I hiss, but he jerks me along.

“You need a lot of things, and maybe a savior is not among them, but some common sense for sure.” He only stops once we are out of sight. “Dammit, Jazz, you don’t pick fights with some bloke pumped up with anabolics!”

“I wasn’t picking a fight!” Besides, most guys don’t actually hit girls anyway.

“Well, you weren’t exactly de-escalating there, so…” He lets that hang between us, scowls when I break free of his grip on my arm.

“That’s none of your business,” I snap at him. My head feels like trapped in a vice, the pressure unbearable. I wish I could drill a hole in my skull just to get rid of it.

“Goddammit, why are you so stubborn? I just put my ass on the line to prevent you getting drilled into the ground and you keep bitching!” He crosses his arms in front of his chest, glares at me. I glare right back.

“I never asked you to butt in!”

For a second I think he might hit me after all, but he throws his hands up, cards them through his hair.

“You think I would just let some bloke rough you up?”

“Oh come on, he wouldn’t have! Too many people watching and I’m just a girl! Worst case scenario he would have pushed me around a bit.”

“Or he would just have pushed you and your condition you would have fallen, hit your head and lost the remaining brain cells you have!”

He’s really angry. Eyebrows drawn together, lips in a tight line he stares at me.

“What do you care? Are you mad because you’re the only one who should make me suffer?” Get in line, boy, those times are definitely over.

“You are really stupid,” he barks, makes me take a step back. “I care because – because I care for you, okay? Always have.” The tension leaves his body in a huge sigh, shoulders slumped he shakes his head lightly. “And you were always too dense to see.”

Wait, what?

“You care for me like a friend, right? Or a brother.” Fights between siblings are normal after all and I can imagine that there are more love/hate relationships than anything else. Only that there’s no love between me and Jake.

“See? That’s the kind of stupidity I’m talking about,” he growls, runs his hands through his hair again. “I’m in love with you, okay? For years already.”

Jake. Jacob Rosenfeldt, the nightmare of my high school days, is in love with me?

“Is this another prank? Some stupid joke?” The throbbing in my head is overwhelming, every single one of my racing heartbeats pounds against the insides of my skull, sends small waves of pain and nausea through my whole body.

“It’s not. I’m serious. I love you.” The anger has vanished from his voice, left it small and sad.

When I open my mouth to tell him exactly what I think about his confession my body gets the better of me. I double over, retching, stomach turning, and release an onrush of vomit, directly in front of him. A few more heaves and all that’s left is bile and misery.

“Holy-! Are you okay?”

Do I look okay? I can’t ask him, still struggle to breathe.

“Here, let me help you.” His hand on my arm is steadying this time, not dragging me away but helping me to a bench. “I’m going to get you some water. Wait here.”

I only nod, my head is still killing me but at least I don’t feel sick anymore. The water helps settling my stomach, I sip it slowly. Jake sits silently next to me until I have enough and set the bottle down.

“So … about what you said earlier…” My voice is raspy, my throat hurts. But we better talk about it now. Not that I’m keen on this conversation, I had more than enough surprises for a week already today.

“Yeah. Well, I wanted to tell you sooner already, didn’t think it would make you sick like this, though.” His chuckle grates at my nerves, fingernails on a blackboard.

“Not the right time for jokes.” My fingers are knotted together, nails digging into my skin, but the pain is fleeting, only a hint of what my head causes me. “Since when?”

I just can’t make sense of it.

“A couple of years. I guess when your retainer came off.”

That was a long time ago. And of course he wouldn’t fall for me with retainers, my sarcasm news ticker provides.

“You dated a lot of girls back then,” I point out, mercilessly tug at the threads to unravel his statement.

“I never said I didn’t like anyone else. But you – I always thought about you.”

“Now that’s a dubious compliment.” With my head tilted back I can see the stars above us, twinkling so far away.

“What? You are one to talk, with your boyfriend drama all the time,” he scoffs, tips his head back to have the same view like me.

“But I don’t claim to be in love with someone else for ages already. I’m only in love with one person at a time.”

The light touch of his hands on mine prompts me to look at him, just in time to see his next words because I can barely hear them.

“And could that person be me?”

Homecoming – Day 12-2

I manage to make it through the rest of the day without any more naked encounters. Jake leaves at some point for work related matters and Ben has training. With Maddie sulking somewhere I’m alone in the house. That doesn’t help with most of my problems – for example that I keep checking my phone every few seconds. I fold a towel, I check my phone. Make a bed, check the phone. Drink some tea, check the phone. The display doesn’t even have a chance to turn off. But no word from Sam.

I’m going stir-crazy, can’t sit or stand still for longer than a few heartbeats. My last task for the day is putting away the laundry. Most of it clean linen and towels, only a few actual clothes. I go into Ben’s room last, open a window to air it out while I put his clothes away. The shirt and sweats he had given me for that dinner back then.

A stronger than expected gust slams the door shut behind me, sends some papers on Ben’s desk flying. It’s not snooping but actual cleaning, I tell myself, and pick them up. Meaningless stuff, some flyers, some copies of what turns out to be high school notes. Of course, he’s not living here anymore, this is all old. My heart skips not only one but a couple of beats when I find some sheet music among the clutter. Bittersweet symphony.

Okay, there has to be a good explanation for this. His Dad also loves that song, it doesn’t mean that Ben is actually the one who sent me the sheet music for it back then. Asking for a duet.

“Oh god… oh god, oh god, oh god…” My mind broke, maybe slapping myself can reboot my brain. Not that I would actually slap myself, but this discovery now is more than I can handle. Now that I think about it, the hairtie I found in my locker just appeared a day after my old one broke. I told Mom after school, in the kitchen of the mayor’s house. And that notebook? My own one had been snatched by some bully – a.k.a. Jake – so Ben could have noticed and given me a new one.

This is the moment my soul leaves my body, the moment my teenage dreams and reality collide. My high school crush was also my secret admirer! And I was too stupid to realise! But said crush is engaged to my friend, or better, former friend. If they are still engaged, that is.

My phone uses this exact second to ping, I drop the papers and grab it, but it’s only a text. At least it’s from Sam.

Sorry, today was crazy busy. Just listened to your voicemail. Can’t call you today, but I want to talk to you. Tomorrow?

Tomorrow is Sunday. The dinner party.

Yes, of course! And again, I’m sorry for not calling you last night.

After some back and forth I delete the ‘Can’t wait to hear your voice’ and just send it as it is. The little icon is telling me that Sam read it and is typing now.

It’s okay, family comes first. Let’s just leave all that behind us and focus on what’s important, okay?

But what is important? A few years ago discovering that Ben had a crush on me like I had on him would have been the most important information in the world for me. Right now I have trouble actually processing it.

Is the important thing the one between me and Sam? Or maybe just our business idea? Maybe it’s just the few things I left at Sam’s place and the even less things Sam left at mine. There is so much I want to ask but I’m too afraid of the answers.

Okay.

What else could I reply after all? I’m not okay, this whole mess isn’t okay, my parents are not okay. It’s an empty word that doesn’t mean anything to me.

In autopilot I clear away the papers, close the window and make sure everything is spotless when I leave.

 

The festival starts at 6pm and I arrive at Miho’s at 5. More than enough time to halfway down the first drink she serves me and top it with a cookie so there’s something to soak up the alcohol.

Between bites I tell her about my short exchange with Sam, having turned every word, every punctuation mark in my mind over and over already.

“That’s good, right? You can talk tomorrow and make up, and hopefully your mood will be better by the time the party starts. The bitchface clashes with the dress. Any dress to be exact.”

Gotta love Miho for her honesty. If not she’s making you.

“Thanks. But yes, I will either be much happier or crying.”

Those Espesso Martinies are a blessing, my first one numbs my swirling thoughts and the second smoothes the crease between my eyebrows. Not even the night before handing in my thesis I was so stressed like last week.

“Drink up, it’s time to close the shop and get out there to have some fun,” Miho instructs me, hangs a sign into the window of the door, informing potential customers of her absence during the festival.

“No one’s gonna come anyway.”

She’s not wrong, people are already milling towards the meadow where the festival has been set up during the last week.

“And we are leaving now, too.” I grab my jacket and my purse, make sure to drain the glass completely. I need some distraction or I’m going to bounce out of my skin.

“Are you really that excited for the fair?” Miho asks when I skip down the sidewalk, keyed up and tipsy.

“Well, there’s food and drinks, so yeah, I’m looking forward to it.”

“We could have food and drinks at my place, too,” she points out and it’s true. We could have that, even for less money, and usually I’m all for being thrifty, especially since my finances are pretty tight right now. But there’s something about festival food that just makes me happy. Must be the ridiculous amount of salt, sugar and fat. And the fact that they were rare treats, as a kid Mom only ever bought me one thing on festivals.

“But we can’t watch the crowd and gossip,” I reply, nod towards a few high school kids. The girls in too tight, too bright clothes and the guys in what looks like at least three sizes too big.

“Don’t tell me we were like that.” My closet never held the It-pieces anyway, and I was too self-conscious to show much of my body.

“Nope. Can you imagine that they are only six, maybe seven years younger than we are?” Miho squints, shakes her head. “That guy’s pants are so low, you can’t even see his knees.”

“Yep. That other guy, though, wears pants that are so tight, it must be painful.”

I remember getting bullied at school for my clothes a lot. I was poor back then, I’m still poor today, so I’m used to it. Feels strange to be on the other end of the teasing and gossiping now.

“So, what do you want to do first?”

I have 20 bucks in my pocket, not really much but way more than I could spent as a kid. Not that I have the same interests anymore, I won’t buy candy floss for it or ice cream. Well, maybe ice cream.

“Here?” Miho looks around, the crowd already scattered over the whole area. “Nothing.”

“Oh, come on! Let’s get a snack and just walk around a bit.”

“I swear, if it wasn’t for you to distract you from your actual problems, I wouldn’t even be here.” She sighs but gives in, follows me to the first row of food trucks and stalls.

“As if you had anything better to do than worry about how you will ruin your date tomorrow,” I grumble back. “And just for the record, you are not going to ruin it. You haven’t scared him away with your awkward flirting yet, so I guess he’s tougher than he looks like.”

“I certainly hope so.” The smirk is audible in her voice, even for me in all this noise.

I huff a chuckle, investigate the menues of the stalls. Fries, sausages, burgers and hot dogs. The usual fast food. Some people sell pizza slices, some meat skewers.

“Wait, isn’t that your Mom?”

It is. She’s serving people bowls filled with stew, her wrist still bandaged. I can spot Dad in the back of the truck, probably doing what he does best. Nothing.

“Excuse me for a second, I gotta commit patricide.” Why did he bring Mom? She’s still injured and actually could get into some serious legal trouble since she’s on sick leave from her original job.

“Sure, I’m waiting here for you.” Contrary to her words she’s getting in line, though, waves at my Mom but I focus on Dad and how to get to him. There’s a door at the back of the truck and it’s not locked. Second mistake of the night, Dad.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Oh, hi Jazzy-bee. You want some stew?”

Mom also turns around but a customer demands her attention. Good, because I don’t really want her to hear what I have to tell Dad. I lower my voice to a hiss, glare at him.

“I want some good explanation why you let Mom work here in her condition and why you are here in the first place!”

I hate how casual he is, completely undisturbed by my anger.

“It’s a festival, I have a food truck. Perfect match.”

“Yeah, I get that, but you had promised me not to come here at all,” I press out, frown at the scents that register only now that I’m in the middle of them. Is that Mom’s carrot and beef stew?

“Really? I can’t remember such a promise. Besides, your mother is the only one who can tell me to stay away from her – and she doesn’t.”

Not only the heat in that small space, filled with cookers and huge pots of stew, nor the alcohol I had earlier are responsible for how my blood rushes to my face. It’s pure anger and  frustration.

“You are a jerk. A liar, a scammer, and worst of all, a loser. You are a failure as father and  the worst partner a woman could have. Congratulations, Bradley, you are officially scum now and I don’t want to ever see you again.” I planned to deliver this little speech coolly and distant, but I can already feel my eyes burn and my bottom lip quiver. Very impressive, I bet.

“Jazz!” It’s my Mom chiding me, not Dad. He just shrugs, turns to Mom who glares at me.

“It’s okay, Bridgy, she’s just a bit upset.”

“No, I’m not!” I could only look more like a petulant kid if I stomped with my foot, so I don’t. “I’m not upset, I just had a realization. You are a leech and I’m done with you.”

It would be so cool if I managed to storm out and slam the door behind me, but I trip over some rug and catch my fall just in time at the doorframe. Dad doesn’t follow me but Mom yells after me, I ignore her and stumble on, past some other stalls and towards a row of trees. My throat is tight, I’m choking on air, gulping it down until I cough.

“Hey, you okay?” Miho grabs my arm, holds me up. I’m only now realizing that I’m shaking.

“No,” I bark between sobs. “I’m just – so fuckin’ dumb!”

And furious. Why, why the hell do I have to have parents like that? I love Mom, she’s great, but so stupidly blind and deaf when it comes to Dad.

And Dad… well, he might not be the worst person in the world – there’s a long line before him, mostly politicians – but for me he only means chaos and disappointment.

“What happened?” She leads me to a bench, pushes me down on it before she sits next to me.

“I’m an idiot, that’s what happened!” My hands tremble, I clench and unclench them to get them back under control. “What – what’s that smell?”

“Your Mom was nice enough to give me a bowl of that stew. It’s a bit bland, though.”

“Ha! Figured!” He can get Mom’s recipe, but not her palate. Dad has no clue how to season food, never had. It’s either too much or too little, never just right. I wipe my eyes and cheeks dry, shake my hands.

“Can you believe that all my money is that stupid food truck and this bland stew?” I would laugh if it wasn’t so sad.

“Your money? Why your money?” She hands me the bowl, I only need a spoonful to know that I will never get my money back.

“Because he suddenly showed up at my place a few weeks ago, told me about this – this situation he was in.” I poke at some piece of beef in the stew, imagining I’m stabbing Dad. A bit. Not killing him, just enough to hurt.

“What situation?” She gently takes the bowl and spoon from me, robs me of my little distraction.

“So he knocked some chick up and came to me to whine about how this time he wants to do the right thing and take care of her and the kid and all that. And that he needs some money for that, doctor’s bills and a crib and – god, I really thought he was serious.”

“Wait, what? He comes to his daughter to beg for money for a kid that he has with someone else?”

I sniffle, wipe my nose with the back of my hand.

“That’s what I thought.”

“So – he doesn’t have that kid? Or does he? I’m confused.” She stares at the stew almost accusingly, eyes narrowed and nose scrunched up.

“Oh no, that woman is real and so is the baby. The mother found me on my social media account and once we were sure that yes, I’m Brad’s daughter and yes, she’s having Brad’s other daughter soon, we talked. A bit. It’s not an easy situation and she’s aware of that. Tracy. Her name is Tracy.” She’s only a couple of years older than me. Poor girl.

“Shit.”

I nod, shudder through another breath. “So I gave Dad all the money I had in my saving account, but under a few conditions. He had to tell Mom. Over the phone, not in person. He promised, no, he swore, that he wouldn’t bother her again, wouldn’t ask her for money. He did. Took 4678 dollar from me and around the same amount from Mom.” The taste of copper spreads in my mouth, I have chewed on my bottom lip so hard that I’m bleeding now.

“Fuck. Now that’s low!”

I hold her back from storming off and ripping Dad a new one on her own.

“Do you have an idea how much a food truck costs? Small hint, around six to ten thousand bucks. I told him he could only use that money for the baby, but I guess it was just stupid from me to think he would actually listen. Or care. He never cared.”

“Stupid fucker,” she hisses, glares at the stew some more.

“Yeah. But you know what? I’m just gonna let it go. So I lost some money, but I also learned a valuable lesson. Can’t trust a liar even if he says he changed. Because guess what? He’s still a liar.” I inhale deeply, splutter the breath out in a loud, unladylike sound.

“Well, you know, some people can change,” she points out, lips drawn into a tight line.

“I know. But not him. Never him.”

I jump up, shake my arms and legs to get rid of the gloomy thoughts.

“Okay, I need a drink and some ice cream!”

“Fine. And although I want to repeat that I hate festivals, let’s go and try out some games. Might help to get your mind off things a bit.”

 

We try whack-a-mole first and go fish for duckies next. Miho wins me a strange plushie – well, it’s not an animal, but definitely not a person either. A brown square with huge teeth and beady eyes. She says it’s a Domo-kun and although I never heard that name so far or seen that little fellow, I kinda like it. A glass of cheap beer later and my mood is slowly improving, the lights and sounds of the festival distracting me better than the booze.

“Where are we going next? Ice cream?” I point towards an ice cream vendor and Miho shrugs, just follows me but pouts when I tell her it’s my turn to pay now. I can afford two servings of ice cream.

“Oh, you are here, too.”

The familiar voice makes me grin and Miho blush.

“Hello, Mr. Sanders.” I wave at him, give Miho a pointed look before I order her some strawberry ice cream.

“That’s not what I wanted,” she grumbles.

“Well, it’s what you get. Because it fits your teint so well.” She jabs me in the ribs but I know she’s not really angry. She would have hit me harder in that case.

“Do you want some ice cream, too, Mr. Sanders?” I like saying his last name, mostly because he looks so sheepish when I do. No idea why, calling him by his first name without ever actually introducing first should be worse, at least by my standards.

“Vanilla would be nice,” he answers and Miho’s mumbled: “Now that’s disappointing,” is almost drowned out by the sounds of some carousel nearby. But I can hear it, snort a laughter before my poker face is back in place and I order some vanilla for Jared and some cherry ice cream for me.

“Are you having fun at the festival?” I ask him, hand him his ice cream and grin back at Miho who glares at me. So much for our nice girls’ night out.

“It’s a welcome change for sure.” He tries his ice cream, frowns when he looks at my bag where the Domo is tied on. “What’s that?”

“Miho won it for me. Apparently she’s a genius when it comes to festival games.”

His raised eyebrow says enough for Miho to raise to the unspoken challenge.

“What? You don’t believe it?”

“I didn’t say that,” he points out, but doesn’t deny it.

“Oh, she’s really good. Never saw someone whack a mole like that. As if she holds a personal grudge against the game.” I was only getting all my aggression out of my system, but Miho – well, she took it seriously.

“And? Do you?” He’s turned to her now, stares at her intently. I’m definitely out of place here.

“A grudge? Sure. That pesky lil’ fella had it coming, though.” A smile tugs at her lips and she hides it behind her ice cream cone.

“And is it only the mole or do you take all the games so seriously?”

Time for me to get out of here. The ice cream should buy me some time before the heat in their gazes sets something aflame. Their clothes, probably.

“That’s for me to know and for you to find out,” she replies with a smirk. “But if you ask nicely I will win you a plushie, too.”

That’s my cue to just scam, I guess.

“Try the shooting gallery,” I suggest, not without hidden agenda. It’s the most macho game after the strongman game after all.

“Why not?” Jared agrees. “And maybe I can win something for you, too.”

“By shooting?” Miho scoffs, but complies. “Don’t cry if I show you how it’s done, though.”

She looks back at me, tilts her head inquiringly. “You coming?”

“Nah, you kids go and have fun. Me and Domo, we need a break.”

Her eyes narrow at me slightly and I open mine wider, wordlessly signalling her to go with her crush. If only she knew some more sign language. But she gets what I mean, shrugs casually.

“Fine. Take care, will ya?”

“Me? Why? I’m not the one standing next to you when you handle a BB gun.” I poke my tongue out at her and earn a slap on my bum in exchange that only fuels my laughter. “Go, it’s okay, I promise.”

She nods, warily, but smiles when she turns to Jared. I watch them walk off, no contact but each seeking the other.

“Yeah, I give them a week before they bang,” I tell Domo and wander off to see what else I can do with my remaining eleven dollar.

Snakes and Starships: IV

“Anyone here surprised to hear that?” Jaxon piped up and Miho snorted.

“I suppose you lump me into the same category as the Emperor just because I’m his daughter?”

“Seems likely,” Orion responded.

“Malicious? Genocidal? Sadistic? Megalomaniacal?” she lists off.

“Accurate,” Orion nodded again.

“Well I’m not him,” Miho declared. “Whatever you’ve heard is ninety percent fiction. I’m just a monster by association.”

“And the other ten percent?” Jazz prompted.

“Accurate,” Miho grinned proudly.

“There’s nothing average about your fighting ability,” Tyrian noted, and Miho’s smile grew wider, throwing him a wink.

“I enjoy what I do,” she announced. “I’m just miffed I wasn’t around to deal Sol’s much deserved final blow.”

“So, you’ve admittedly been on a killing spree but you’re not a murderous savage like your father?” Orion posed sceptically.

“Doesn’t it depend on who I’m killing?” she volleyed. “Or have you never been responsible for the death of an Empire soldier.”

“We’re not a bunch of murderous space pirates,” Jazz frowned, but Orion seemed to be waiting for Miho to continue, and she looked all the more smug for it.

“In order for Rastaban to usurp the former emperor, he needed supporters everywhere. Now, those Empire big wigs are working on expanding my father’s territories into both Union, and independent space.”

“Aggressive Empire expansion isn’t anything new,” Tyrian noted, but Miho was clearly not finished.

“He has people placed in more colonies than the Union knows,” she explained. “And when he calls for them to take control, it will be with the backing of armadas the Union will not be prepared for.”

“Let me get this straight,” Orion levelled. “You, daughter of the emperor, are colony hopping to assassinate your father’s sleeper agents?”

“Attractive and smart,” Miho grinned. “And oddly familiar… have we met before?”

“Definitely not,” Orion replied quickly.

“And that is pretty much it,” Miho added lightly. “So, if you don’t mind, I would like to get on with my work.”

“You still haven’t explained why?” Tyrian pointed out.

“Does it matter why?” she chuckled. “At the end of the day, less assholes are a good thing for everyone.”

“That depends,” Tyrian pressed, though his manner remained calm, “on what happens after they’re gone.”

“And why you’d defy your father when in your position you could live a life wanting for nothing,” Orion added.

“There is a lot he’s done, and continues to do, that I disagree with,” she answered simply. “Because he is a blood relative means nothing, when I know he’d sell even me if that would forward his goals.”

“So, you’re petulant?” Jaxon snorted.

“Petulant – exceptionally well trained, and vehemently at odds with your enemy,” Miho clarified. “So I’d have thought you’d be happy for me to carry out my business.”

For a moment, Orion looked pensive, before he spoke again.

“And Fairchild is a part of the Emperor’s domination plan?” he asked slowly, studying her with renewed scrutiny, and she returned his gaze with equal intensity.

“The GLF is still very fractured,” she answered him, and he could tell she was being careful in her response. “There are countless pockets of Empire forces – some of them very powerful – that operate outside Rastaban’s mandates, just as they did before with my father’s predecessor. For all his faults, Commodore Fairchild fits into one such pocket, so I don’t need to kill him… yet.”

“So why does he want to get you back so badly?” Tyrian persisted. “If he’s not one for toeing the line.”

“Well, ingratiating oneself with the emperor is not without its benefits,” Miho shrugged, then shifted a little uncomfortably, twisting her wrists where they remained bound. “And speaking of benefits, either someone needs to remove these hardlight cuffs, or one or more of you needs to step up the kink game.”

Tyrian blushed.

Orion crossed his arms.

Jaxon stepped a little closer and appeared to be giving Miho’s ill-fitting clothes another examination.

“Hmm…” he began, one full of suggestion.

“No, I’m not going to sterilise the infirmary again,” Jazz broke in.

“Ugh, come on,” Miho growled, sitting up straighter. “I kill Rastaban’s allies, so unless you’re pro-totalitarianism, you’ve nothing to fear from the likes of me.”

Tyrian nodded slowly, the turn of his head a silent question to Orion, who also considered Jazz and Jaxon’s reactions.

“I want to see this for myself,” he declared finally, and with a soft click, Miho’s cuffs fell away.

“Which part?” Miho grinned suggestively, rubbing her wrists a little before sliding her feet to the floor.

“Hey, take it easy, you took a really hard blow to the head not that long ago,” Jazz warned, but Miho stood, grinning, obviously reflecting on Jazz’s choice of words.

“I wasn’t the one taking it, but let’s not focus on that,” she chuckled, seeming completely at ease despite her foreign surroundings.

“Who is your next target?” Orion asked, refusing to react when Miho drew closer to him, far closer than she needed to in order to reply.

“Admiral Darsius Yuul,” she revealed. “He was personally overseeing the transport of some particularly sensitive military grade materials and I had intended on taking him out there, but someone had to get in my way.”

“What happened to your ship?” Tyrian questioned, for obviously she hadn’t just been floating about in space waiting for the admiral to fly past.

“Waiting for me to make contact, which – by the way – I would like to do now.”

“We’ll find Yuul’s current whereabouts,” Orion announced.

“We will?” Jaxon piped up, then looked a little sheepish.

“And,” Orion continued, “when we find him, I’d like to witness your conviction, personally.”

“You’ve a taste for blood, Captain?” Miho teased, licking her lips a little.

“Words are cheap,” he noted. “Forgive me for doubting your word until I’ve see them brought to action with my own eyes.”

“That is… exceptionally inconvenient,” she sighed, rolling her eyes toward the ceiling before fixing them on Orion’s face again. “If I let you tag along, you’ll walk away?”

“And leave you to carve your path of anti-Emperor carnage,” Orion nodded.

“Lovely,” she chirped, smiling at everyone, “though I’d quickly put some distance between your and Commodore Fairchild afterwards; he’s a sore loser.”

 

Atlas was unimpressed with Orion’s plan to accompany Miho on her next assassination, but stopped short of calling the decision madness. Of course, he had no love for the Empire or the Union, had taken his fair share of lives, but being party to straight up murder didn’t sit right with him – and he thought Orion would have felt the same.

Still, when Jaxon used some of his contacts to locate Admiral Yuul, the Promise headed to the tropical resort colony of Eryl and made as inconspicuous a landing as possible.

“Gee, I wish we were here on vacation,” Jenna sighed, moving to disembark.

The remark had been meant for Atlas, but he lingered on the bridge with Jazz a moment before catching up.

“There’s more to this place than clear water and high-end hotels,” Atlas grumbled in his usual, cheerful tone.

“Right you are,” Miho affirmed, joining them with Orion behind her. “I’m not surprised Yuul is here. Eryl may consider itself an independent colony an have a reputation for being a perfect honeymoon spot…”

At this point she winked at Orion, before continuing.

“… but it’s been used as a waystation of sorts for difficult to get, exotic and dangerous materials for as long as I can remember.”

“So, he’s here to offload whatever was on the ship you missed?” Tyrian concluded, coming to stand on Miho’s other side at the bottom of the Promise’s boarding ramp.

“Not just a pretty face,” Miho smiled, and she’d gently stroked his cheek before he had even thought to recoil. “He’ll no doubt be picking up some bits and pieces for his next project as well, buuuut, sadly he’s not going to be able to complete it.”

Tyrian was a soldier, like Atlas, he too had killed in the name of duty, but the flames in her eyes as she spoke so casually of murder? That concerned him, even if Yuul was a really bad guy.

“Let’s go on with this,” Orion prompted. “Don’t hang around, Atlas; get what you need to patch the Promise up, and get back to the ship as soon as possible. If this goes south, we’re going to need to get out of here in a hurry.”

“Oh ye of little faith,” Miho smirked, her enthusiasm undampened. “I’m going to need to get some equipment first, and definitely something else to wear, then we’re good to go.”

Trading one last glance with Atlas, Orion then followed Miho away from the Promise and out of the spaceport.

“So, what is your plan?” he asked, as they walked through the exceptionally clean streets bright and warm.

“Acquire gear, find a vantage point, kill the bad guy… then celebrate,” she replied happily. “Oh, that’s cute!” she exclaimed suddenly, snatching his wrist and dragging him unceremoniously over to a boutique.

Shaking his head, Orion had little choice but to trail behind her as she headed inside and demanded the clerk find the outfit in the window in her size. Shopping wasn’t exactly what he envisioned from a highly dangerous mission to kill a high-ranking Empire official, but it was quickly becoming clear to him that this woman – the Emperor’s own daughter – operated by rules entirely her own.

“How does this look?” she enquired, emerging from the dressing room and striking a dramatic pose.

The sleek bodysuit flattered her figure in ways that made Orion shift a little where he sat, and he took a few seconds before answering.

“I think you know very well you would look good in even rags,” he admitted, and Miho’s eyes narrowed on him in an almost predatory fashion.

“Even better out of them, Captain,” she announced, then turned her attention to the waiting clerk. “I’ll take this.”

The process of payment was quick and clean – an electronic transfer keyed to Miho’s bio-signature, and they were out of the boutique in under ten minutes.

“You’re not concerned about your account being traced?” he wondered aloud, as Miho dumped her old clothes into a garbage receptacle.

“I wouldn’t be a very effective covert operative if I didn’t have means to cover up my movements,” she chuckled, “so no, I’m not worried.”

Indeed, nothing about her suggested anything sinister, and Orion found himself struggling against being swept away by her open enthusiasm for their locale.

“I really should come back here for some r and r when I’m done with this crap,” she mused, now carrying a brightly coloured bag over her shoulder.

She’d known exactly where to go to get the equipment she desired, and the ‘vendor’ had been an unassuming woman at a garage with a dizzying array of very specialised weapons.

“That’s the plan?” he probed. “Kill Rastaban’s collaborators then go on holiday?”

“I think I’ll have earned it,” she shrugged. “Conscientious homicide is quite a thankless job, you know.”

Frowning, Orion allowed some of his consternation to show.

“I’ll admit it,” he declared. “I have no idea how you, given your upbringing, became the person you are – what little I know of you that is.”

“It’s not that complicated,” she responded easily. “My upbringing is exactly why I am who I am. A well-trained killer…”

“A conscientious killer by your own admission,” he pointed out, and Miho grunted in confirmation.

“You think a girl brought up with Empire rhetorical poured into her ears could only turn into selfish, carnivorous monster who cares nothing for others?” she posed, watching him with a gentle and unwavering smile.

“That’s what my experience has largely taught me,” Orion nodded, their path drawing them up a steep hill overlooking a public square.

“You’re right in that I was educated a certain way,” she agreed. “But you cannot simply discount the will and conviction inherent in a person. Even the most heinous creatures have choices, decisions they make that are purely self-serving at the expense of others when there are other options.”

“You’re saying something intrinsic in you is the compass that directs your behaviour in opposition to your upbringing?” Orion surmised, but still didn’t sound entirely convinced by her argument.

“My father sees people as a resource, and while he has the ability and want to take for himself alone, that is precisely what he chooses to do. To him, I too am a resource,” she pointed out. “And don’t think simply because he’s half way responsible for my existence I am immune to his outlook. I could follow in his footsteps and reap the rewards of blood and brutality, but that isn’t what I want.”

Her tone had become firmer toward the end of her assertion, and it was a clear message to Orion she had grown tired of being doubted, even though she knew – logically – it was smart for him to be cautious.

Silence wrapped itself around them, until Miho had chosen her vantage point and set herself up.

“So, according to your incredibly modest crew member, Yuul has a meeting with another ranking Empire officer… there…” she murmured, and though she was sort of talking to Orion, it sounded to him more like vocalised thinking.

Orion watched her scan a building in the distance through a recon-scoped rifle of some description, the price for which could have financed more than half the advanced upgrades Atlas wanted for the Promise.

There they waited as time ticked by, Orion occasionally using a long-range scanner to check the room under Miho constant stare.

“Oh, I’m going to wipe that smug expression permanently off your face, you smug son of a bitch,” Miho hissed, and Orion refocused his scanner to find Miho target striding into view.

“And who is he there to meet wi…” Orion began, before his question was answered, and Miho cursed.

“For fuck’s sake, Antares,” she growled under her breath, but Orion heard her colloquial reference to his brother. “I swear, this guy seems to be making it his mission lately, to get in the way of mine,” she continued, and Orion watched her adjust her aim a little.

“You’re going to kill them both?” Orion scowled, and cringed at the amount of concern that had leeched into his voice.

“I should,” she replied with an irritated grunt, then clicked her tongue, then muttered again. “Conscientious homicide.”

And she pulled the trigger.

It was a remarkable shot – just one – that fired a highly compressed sonic ‘dart’ across the considerable distance between Miho and her target; it smashed cleanly through the glass of the window and found its mark perfectly.

What followed, however, was not what anyone expected – not Miho, not Orion and not Antares, who stood but a few feet from the victim. Like a deflated balloon, Yuul’s skin sagged as Miho’s invisible projectile penetrated one side of his skull, and instead of a graphic explosion of skull fragments and grey matter, Antares’ witnessed a rush of flashing purple energy escape the man’s body. His ears were assailed by the most horrific chorus of screams, as the light dissipated, and when silence returned he stared at the bizarre pile of skin, hair and clothing that used to be Yuul.

“That was unexpected,” Miho exhaled, watching through the scope as Antares crouched to more closely inspect Yuul’s remains, before beginning to search along the murder weapon’s most likely trajectory. “Let’s reflect on that later hmm?” she then posed, rocking back and folding her weapon before stuffing it into her bag. “Time to go.”

No doubt thanks to Antares, alarms began howling, and Orion quickly followed behind Miho as they headed toward a river.

“That guy really is a pain in the ass,” Miho muttered, scanning the river bank for a suitable vehicle. “Oh, there.”

Without waiting for Orion’s input, and either assuming he’d continue to follow – or perhaps not really caring at all – she waved over one of the automated water taxis and hopped on board.

“Head for the spaceport,” she instructed, though there was no pilot to speak of, and Orion only just made the leap onto the aft of the vessel before it began to move from the bank.

Her eyes sparkling, Miho settled against the cushions in the surprisingly spacious cabin and kicked her boots up onto a table.

“Isn’t it a little early to be so relaxed?” Orion questioned, shaking his head a little at her satisfied expression.

“This isn’t relaxed,” she told him promptly. “I’m… reflecting.”

“On why Admiral Yuul…” he began.

“Yeah, why a guy who was – according to my intelligence – one hundred percent human, didn’t turn into bloody nuggets, and why instead, he vented pretty lights like a plasma piñata.”

Orion blinked a few times as her description.

“Looked like Fairchild had no idea either,” she mused, gnawing on her lower lip a little, but sitting up a little straighter when sirens sounded much closer, and a robotic voice rang out of nearby loudspeakers.

“Attention citizens and guests. In accordance with city code AWV117, all public and private spaces will be subject to lockdown for an indeterminate period.”

“Just peachy,” Miho grumbled, getting to her feet.

“Please remain calm, until authorities have resolved the situation,” the voice continued, “and thank you for your cooperation.”

Miho managed one step toward the cabin door, before a metal shutter fell swiftly to bar her path, followed by others that covered the windows.

“Well, that complicates matters,” Miho admitted, shoving her bag back down.

“Somehow I’m beginning to see everything with you is complicated,” Orion responded, rubbing the back of his neck and looking around for a panel that might reveal some manual override mechanisms.

“Ha!” Miho snorted incredulously, but it didn’t sound offended. “Don’t go getting all sassy with me, Captain,” she continued, for some reason unperturbed by the fact they were trapped. “You wouldn’t be here if you’d just let me do my thing.”

“Would you have let you go?” he volleyed, rolling to the side to sit and peer at her.

“Okay, I’ll concede that point,” she grinned. “But, only because a part of me is happy you’re here.”

“And why would that be?” he queried, watching her body language change.

“Oh, come on, Orion,” she drawled, eying him up and down. “Your heart isn’t pounding? Blood… throbbing?”