Homecoming – Day 13-3 Finale

“Uhm, surprise?” Miho laughs awkwardly, cranes her neck to look into the same direction as I do, but I can’t deal with her now. All I can see is Sam, on the other side of the room. When our eyes lock I wave, shyly almost.

The advantage of sign language is that you can communicate across a distance, a crowded room for example.

“Hi.” That smile.

“This is the worst moment to have a stroke. Or hallucinations,” I admit and Sam laughs, a bit delayed.

“Easy there, I’m still a beginner. Would you like to actually talk now?”

It’s cute how stiff and stilted some of the gestures are, so textbook and not ingrained yet.

“Honestly, which one is it?” Still scanning the crowd Miho gets impatient.

“The blonde one,” I reply, nod to indicate Sam to come over. I have a moment to appreciate the outfit, dark grey dress pants, a matching vest over a light blue blouse.

“Sam’s a girl?!”

It takes too long to explain and I’m already halfway over to meet Sam in the middle of the room. Heeding Miho’s advice from earlier I don’t care about making a scene, let the people talk if they want. I grab Sam the moment I reach them, bury my face in the crook of their neck and inhale the soothing scent of soap and sandalwood, with a hint of vanilla.

“You – you are here. You are real.”

“I’m here. I’m here, love.”

If any of the other guests have never seen a girl bawling in the arms of her lover, they can do so now.

I stand no chance.

Tears and emotions spill before I can even blink, I ruin the nice blouse in under five seconds.

“So, are you happy to see me or-?”

Muffled by their collar I laugh, nod and hug them even tighter.

“But how?”

“Your friend Miho messaged me and threatened to make my life hell if I wouldn’t come and make you smile again. Well, looks like I’m in for some trouble because I can’t see you smiling yet.”

I look over at Miho who grins and gives me the thumbs up, snuggled against Jared’s side, his hand resting in the dip of her waist.

“So, could you smile now? Because I’m actually a bit scared of what your friend will do to me of you don’t.”

Of course I can. I’m bursting with happiness. I laugh, topped with a small snort that makes Sam laugh, too, and draws the attention of some people around us. It’s hard to act apologetic when I don’t even care, so I bury my face in Sam’s shoulder after grinning back at Miho.

“I’m so glad you are here. I missed you.”

“I missed you, too.” Their arms around me, the tickling of their soft hair, it’s enough to make most of my problems just melt away. Except for one.

“I’m so sorry for just running away.”

“Yeah, we still have to talk about that. But for now I’m just happy to be here, with you.”

I snuggle even closer, my hands carding through their hair. “You need a haircut. It’s almost covering your ears.”

Sam chuckles, deep, ending with a bubbly sound. “You are beautiful as always. I like your dress.”

Their jawline begs to get traced with my thumb so I do, allow the relief and euphoria to take over.

“I can’t believe you’re really here.”

“And I can’t believe you are making out here in public.” Maddie’s voice wavers, I blink and turn my head to see her standing next to us, hands on her hips, a sheepish looking Ben behind her.

“Excuse us, Miss, but we are having a private conversation here and it’s incredible rude of you to interrupt.” Sam isn’t even batting an eye and I have to say, it’s hot seeing them shutting Maddie down like that, still polite but not taking her shit. I burst into laughter again, just manage to squint and pointedly stare at Maddie.

“Hey, Mads, what’s that in your hair? Looks like – gel?”

Her hand flies up, finds nothing but her artfully styled locks. Even Ben’s cheeks flare up, probably for different reasons than the anger that colors Maddie’s face.

Reluctantly I let go of Sam, but my hand finds theirs, fingers entwined I smile at them and tug them over towards Miho.

“Who is that chick?” I hear Ben ask, grin and look back over my shoulder.

“That chick is my boyfriend, Bennie.” I give the word ‘boyfriend’ a mocking lilt, enjoy the confusion that crawls into his expression.

Sam gives me hand a squeeze, leans in close to whisper into my ear. “You sure you should just blurt it out like this?”

“I think I should have done that earlier, to be honest. I know that you are out to all your friends and family and I envy you for it. Besides, who cares? I’m going to leave here soon anyway.”

I bump into them lightly. “Don’t worry about it. People here might be old-fashioned and traditional, but they won’t burn me at a stake for dating you.”

“If you say so.”

Another advantage of a bigger city, people care less.

“Okay, I don’t know how well you know each other already, but I want to introduce you to Miho. Miho, this is Sam, my partner. Sam, this is Miho, my friend.” Partner. Friend. Those words leave a nice tingle in my stomach. I have friends here, and I have the one I love here. “Oh, and that’s Jared, Miho’s date.”

Jared frowns lightly. “I thought she was my date, but okay. Jared Sanders.”

He offers Sam his hand and Sam smiles, takes it and gives it a firm shake. “Sam Glausner. Nice to meet you.”

“I think you missed to tell me some very basic things about your Sam, but I’m going to ignore that for now,” Miho hisses and smiles at Sam. “Glad to see you could make it.”

“After your last voicemail I didn’t want to risk upsetting you.” Sam’s laughter lights up my world, I’m insanely happy, not only tipsy on alcohol but brimming with endorphins.

“You shouldn’t cross her, I saw what she can do with a BB gun,” Jared says with a straight face.

“In that case I’m even gladder that I made it in time.” Sam’s arm around me pulls me closer. No one could think we are only friends at this point but their androgynous appearance still leaves room for speculations. I get reminded of that when Jake comes over to our little group.

“Okay, what did you do to piss Madeleine off like that? I mean, besides the usual stuff that could be anything.” He nods towards Sam, takes in our close contact. “And who would you be?”

“Probably part of what pissed Maddie off,” I explain, my face already hurting from smiling so much. “Jacob, that is Sam. My Sam.”

“Oh. Yeah, nice to meet you, man. I mean, Jazz mentioned you but I have to admit, you are not exactly what I have expected.”

“Funny, I can’t say she ever talked about you.”

Jake’s eyes flit back to me and I simply shrug. “I might have talked about him, but not mentioned his name. Remember what I told you about the basketball jerk? That’s him.”

“Ah, okay. In that case, I’m not sure if it’s actually a pleasure to meet you.”

Even Miho and Jared have to chuckle at that burn, Jake just shakes his head.

“I deserve that, huh?”

“That and so much more,” I confirm.

“So here are the young people,” Elias cheerfully greets us, pats Jake’s shoulder. “Are you enjoying the party?”

“Yes, very much, sir,” Jared confirms.

“Jazz, dear, care to introduce me to your – cavalier?”

Sam straightens next to me, extends a hand. “I’m Sam Glausner, sir. I have a heard a lot about you and want to thank you for taking care of Jazz for so long.”

“It was my pleasure, she is an extraordinary young lady after all.”

Dammit, I’m blushing now.

“And it’s nice to see her with someone who makes her glow like that. I hope you appreciate her and treat her right.” Is it my imagination or does Elias glance at Jake more often now?

“I do my best, sir. She deserves it.”

“Okay, okay, we get it, I’m great. Can we stop this now?” Another round of laughter, this time at my expenses but I don’t really mind.

“So, uhm, how did you two meet?”

“Jazz had an internship in the marketing department I’m working at. She was so cheerful and dedicated, I was impressed from the first day.”

“So you are in marketing? Let me introduce you to a friend of mine, I’m sure you will have a lot to talk about. The owner of a big marketing company around here, in fact the biggest in our whole region. Jazz, can you spare your – uhm, date for a moment?”

It’s cute to see how Elias is trying to figure out what to call Sam. “Yes, of course. But bring Sam back to me later, will you?”

“Yes, yes, of course. Now, where did he go…?”

As soon as they are out of earshot my smile fades and I turn back to Jake.

“What was that earlier about Sam? What did you mean, Sam’s not what you have expected?” Leave it to Jake to upset me again.

“I thought you had a different type. Taller. More athletic.” He shrugs, looks at Miho and Jared who evade his gaze. Not having his back.

“More like your brother?” My eyes narrow at him and he chuckles, raises his hands in defeat.

“Yeah, sorry for jumping to conclusions.”

“Just for the record, almost everyone is taller than me and that’s enough for me. Besides, comparing Ben to Sam would be like – well, comparing boys and girls.”

“So Sam is-?”

“The person I love. It’s not the gender I fell for, but their personality. Although I have to admit, they are gorgeous. Have you seen that face? That smile? How could I not fall for that?” I pat his shoulder, like his father did before. “The world is huge, Jacob. There’s much more than just the old story of boy meets girl.”

“Like girl meets girl?”

“Like girl meets a person who genuinely cares for her and not causes her tons of distress only to excuse their behavior with ‘but I love you’ afterwards.”

“I like Sam,” Miho loudly announces. “She-”

“They,” I offer and Miho nods.

“They are funny, deliver great burns and came when Jazz needed them. I’m good with that.”

“Thank you.” I mean it, I’m grateful she’s okay with this revelation. Not everyone in my life was comfortable with me dating Sam in the past.

“So that’s it? You’d rather be with – with Sam?”

“Than with you? Yes, definitely. I told you before, I don’t hold any romantic feelings for you. But I do love Sam.”

Jake nods, slowly, his shoulders slump. Without another word he turns around and leaves us standing there.

“Shit, I need a drink.” Tension is crawling into my skull, my skin and bones feel too tight.

“Wow, I feel a bit bad for him,” Jared admits and orders some bourbon, passes me the glass with a sympathetic smile.

“So you know him well?” The first sip makes me wince, it’s raw and strong. The second is better already.

“Not too well, no. All I know is that he is great at his job, already helped a lot of people with their businesses. Very dedicated.”

“He’s still a jerk in private.” Miho takes the glass from me, downs it. Her face contorts briefly, she shudders and orders a water that she shares with me.

While I wait for Sam to come back I watch the people, some of them strangers, some of them I know just too well. Maddie and Ben are strange to look at, how she clings to him but keeps glaring when no one is watching. He mostly ignores her when he talks to others, absentmindedly pats her arm without looking at her.

With everything I have learned about them as individuals though I guess they deserve each other. Should I give him a hint? After all he is some kind of friend.

“Jazz? Do you want to stay longer?” Sam’s voice and their hand on my arm bring me back. Should Ben deal with his choice on his own, it’s not my place to warn him. Hopefully Jake will do that, at least before the wedding.

“No, I’m good to go. Just let me say goodbye to Elias and we can sneak out.” This is the person that deserves my worries and attention, no one else. Well, and Miho.

“I have a hotel room not too far from here. Do you need to fetch anything on the way there?”

“Not if they have spare toothbrushes. I think I don’t need pajamas, do I?”

The sharp intake of breath, the slight dilation of their pupils sends anticipation rushing through me.

“But we still need to talk,” they remind me, clear their throat. I lean in, close enough to feel their warmth.

“We will. Afterwards.”

 

I wake up the next morning, late but in the arms of the one I love. Could a day start better?

“Morning, love.” Sam’s voice, thick with sleep, their fingertips run lazily up and down my arm.

“Morning, babe.” I close my eyes, banish every other thought from my mind. Just focus on Sam.

Last night we talked for hours, I cried and apologized a lot, they kissed and comforted me. There was some yelling, some cursing, even laughter. Some muttered threats against Ben and Jake when I told Sam about the last few days. More when I talked about Dad and the mess with Mom.

It will take some more time to rebuild the trust I destroyed by running away, but me and Sam are on a good track now. Honesty leaves us a bit tender which gives me the chance to kiss the bruises better, so I guess that works in my favor.

“So, what’s the plan for today?” Their lips leave a trail from my shoulder to the back of my neck, they nuzzle against me in the most adorable way possible. I’m melting, drowning in the softness of their touch, soaking it all up to enshrine this memory in my very soul forever. Like this. I want us to be like this forever. Naked, bare in the literal meaning, no barriers between us, connected in body and soul.

“Depends. How many days have you off?”

They sigh, warm breath against my skin. “Today and tomorrow.”

“So staying in bed isn’t really an option. What a pity.” I turn to face them, brush some hair from their pretty face. The imprint of the pillow, the sunlight in their eyes – I want to capture it all.

“Breakfast? The hotel offers a buffet until 10.”

It’s a tempting suggestion, but not good enough to make me leave the bed just now.

“I know a place where we can get breakfast all day long.” I roll them on their back, halfway crawl on top of them, just lay there with my head on their chest, listening to their heartbeat. Soft fingertips draw random patterns into my skin and I retaliate by dropping a kiss here and there. Playful, easy, so unlike my last few days.

“I know what you are doing.” Sam’s voice rumbles in their chest, tickles in my ears.

“Mhm?”

“Don’t think you can put off that talk with your parents by being all cute and adorable.”

“I can’t hear you,” I grumble, my nose follows their neck up to their ear to coo: “Sign it to me.”

They groan, roll us around so they are on top.

“Why is it so hot when you say that?”

We get lost in kisses and touches, only manage to get out of bed when it’s almost noon.

 

I send my mother a message, get dressed while Sam’s in the shower – although the temptation to join them is delaying my progress – and call Miho to ask about my stuff at her place. Since I still got a key we agree that Sam and I just grab my bags and I bring the key to the café afterwards.

Also the perfect place to meet my parents, Mom replies before Sam can even dry their hair. My good mood dims, with every step closer to the café my stomach sinks further. With my bags in Sam’s car it’s mostly my hunger by now that draws me down the familiar street.

“Morning,” I greet Miho who looks up and waves.

“It’s past noon, but sure, whatever floats your boat. The customer is always right and stuff. Hi, Sam.”

“Hi. Do you still serve breakfast?”

“Someone had a long night, huh?” She waggles her eyebrows and I’m appalled by her lack of decency. Not really.

“I would ask the same thing but since today is a work day and I at least suspect Jared to take that seriously I assume you got up at the normal time.”

Her obscene gesture makes me laugh, I order coffee and waffles.

“You got a nice little shop here.” Sam looks around, takes in the furniture and decoration.

“Thanks. I like it very much.” The huge coffee monster splutters, fills the room with delicious aroma. After the little sleep and the alcohol last night caffeine is what I lack now, the moment Miho sets down my cup on the counter I snatch it and sit down.

“Hahhh… how I missed you, babe.”

“You never say that to me.” Miho fakes a pout, catches Sam raising an eyebrow.

“Well, she does say it to me.” Their tone leaves no doubt that this is the most important thing and I almost snort into my coffee.

“Fiiiiiine,” Miho relents, fills another cup and turns around to make the waffles.

We chat a bit, the café is mostly empty except for a few people coming in to get something to go. Jared saunters in for his lunch break, a quick kiss for Miho, maybe some inappropriate comments from my side. If it wasn’t for the confrontation I still have to master we would have a great time.

When Mom’s car pulls in outside my hands tremble so hard that I have to set my cup down.

“Okay, showtime.” I slip from the seat, straighten and square my shoulders.

“It’s okay, love, I’m here in case you need me. Just try to stay calm, listen without feeling offending right from the start. You can do it.” How could I ever think I could live without Sam? Their support is really helping me right now, I nod and go outside to greet her.

“Hi, Mom. Thanks for bringing the sewing machine.”

“Of course. I didn’t plan to keep it.” She opens the trunk, tugs at the heavy box but I stop her.

“Let me.”

“No, I can do it.”

“Mom, it’s no big deal. Let me get it please, I was the one to forget it at your place after all.”

I maneuver it out of the trunk, heave it over to the café entrance.

“Are you coming in?” I can’t see Dad anywhere which can mean both a good or a bad thing.

“Do you actually want me to come in?” Mom fumbles with her car keys, looking lost. I’m too soft to ignore her wounded expression, the way her curves downwards, her shoulders slump.

“That’s why I asked you to come here after all. Come on, Miho’s making some great coffee and you and I need to talk. On neutral grounds.”

The little bell rings as I enter but I shoot Miho, Sam and Jared a glare when they fall silent.

“Wait, let me help you with that.” Jared comes and takes the machine out of my hands, I smile at him.

“Thanks, that’s kinda heavy.”

“You’re welcome.” He smiles back until Mom clears her throat behind me.

“Mr. Sanders, what a surprise to see you here.”

“Mrs. Mann. Well, I find myself here often lately. The coffee is great and so is the company.”

Figures they know each other. Jared is probably at Elias’ house every now and then.

“How about I get you some of that great coffee and you choose a table for us?” I urge Mom to take a seat, grab the coffee Miho has already prepared.

Sam nods at me, they can probably tell that I’m close to having a nervous breakdown but I flash them a smile.

Mom has chosen a table in the far back and I manage to arrive there without spilling anything.

“How’s your wrist?” The bandage has vanished but that doesn’t mean she’s all better. Mom just doesn’t like to stay still, to sit around without doing anything.

“Better. The doctor says I should go easy on it for a few more days. Mr. Rosenfeldt has hired someone to take care of the house for this week, next week I will go back to work.”

“That’s good. You better make sure it’s all healed before you dive back into work.” I’m stirring my coffee for a whole minute already although it’s black.

“He also brought me your pay for the last week. I got it here.” She reaches for her purse, grabs an envelope and holds it out to me.

“No, it’s okay. You said you need the bonus.” She always does. So do I, but there’s no need pointing that out now.

“It’s your money, I can’t-”

“Mom. It’s okay. Keep it.” If Dad stays true to his old ways he will end up taking it, but I’m too tired to argue.

“Okay.” She puts it back, not without glancing at me for confirmation again.

I sip my coffee, she sips hers.

“How’s Dad?” Might as well just get right to the point.

“Gone.”

Quelle surprise.

“Another festival?”

“Probably, but also a very ugly fight we had first. Thanks for that.” She rubs her temple with her fingertips, exhales loudly. “Ah, sorry. It’s not your fault, I know. It’s just-” She sighs again, doesn’t even look at me.

“Mom, he left us years ago already. Everything in the last 10, 12 years was only him stringing you along. Does this now really come so unexpected for you?” Hurting her further is the last thing on my list, but she needs to hear the truth and ideally also accept it.

“It’s just – I never thought he would start a new life, with a new family, and leave me behind completely.”

Mom is one of the strongest persons I know, she has always smiled and worked her butt of without complaining. But now she’s just another heartbroken woman, with red rimmed eyes and tired lines all over her face.

“He didn’t only leave you behind, you know? It wasn’t exactly pleasant for me to learn that he plans on ‘doing things right this time’. As if that new baby deserves something that I did not.”

Instead he took my money, lied to me, lied to Mom. No gift for him for Father’s Day this year.

“I guess that also hurts, but it’s not the same. I still love him. Once you find someone you love you will-”

“No! God dammit, mother! Stop this stupid shit! It’s not love, it’s some strange obsession you have with him! How can you love him after all he did to you? To us?” My cup clutters on it’s saucer when I slam my hand on the table. “Just for the record, I know what love feels like. I know it can be exhilarating and crushing at the same time. I know how empty you can feel when you think you lost it! I know all that because I actually found someone to love already, someone who loves me back. But we would never pull this shit with each other and if we did I guess we would be better off apart.”

My eyes flit over to the counter, all three of them sitting there stare back at me. Mom follows my line of sight, brows furrowed.

“Wait, what?”

“Yeah, I’m in love with someone special and I didn’t tell you because I was afraid to end up like you. Completely hung up on one person, to the point that nobody else matters to you anymore. That is what you taught me about love, Mom, that I have to endure anything to deserve it. But that’s not true. I deserve love to my own terms. I deserve to be loved for who I am, not for what I can offer to someone else.” My heart is racing, my throat is tight. “I guess I’m lucky, because I found someone who also accepts my flaws and my stubbornness, who doesn’t treat me like some ATM but cares for me. And I almost gave up on that because I figured it’s safer to keep my distance instead of becoming vulnerable!”

“Is that – you’re in love with him? How did you even meet? I mean, you can only know him for what? A week? And you’re talking about love? Oh, Jazzy-bee, you might have the wrong idea…”

When did I become the one to feel sorry for?

“No, I think you might be the one with the wrong idea.”

“Listen, muffin cheeks, I know Mr. Sanders, he’s really nice and reputable, but whatever you have, it can’t possibly be love.”

I blink, take a deep breath. I can hear some commotion from the counter, turn around to see Miho red in the face, shaking her hands.

“I’m sure Mr. Sanders is nice and I agree with you, Mom, what I feel for him is definitely not love. Because he’s not the one I’m talking about.” Miho’s display of a desperate attempt not to laugh is distracting, but I want to make things clear here.

“Oh, I thought… because you keep looking over at him.” Mom’s gaze flits from Jared to me and back again.

I wave towards Sam, motion them to come over.

“No, Mom. Let me introduce you to Sam. We are dating for almost a year already.” I get up to stand next to them, take their hand and look back at Mom. “Sam, this is my mother.”

“It’s nice to finally meet you, Mrs. Mann. Although I had hoped for better circumstances.” Sam offers Mom their hand but she simply stares at them. At us.

“Oh.” Her shoulders slump even more, it’s as if I’m watching a computer reboot. She straightens up again, smiles weakly.

“I can’t say this isn’t a surprise, but… it’s also nice to meet you. Sam, was it?”

We both sit down, hands still clasped.

“Yes, Ma’am. Sam Glausner.”

“We met when I had this internship and afterwards we kept in touch and – well, I guess we are moving in together soon.” I’m aware of both of their stares. No turning back now.

“That is – that is nice, honey. I’m happy for you.”

There is still a lot we have to talk about, but for now this is a huge step for me. And for Sam. After some superficial chatting Sam excuses themself and joins Miho and Jared again, gives me and Mom some privacy.

“I know it’s not polite to ask, but what is Sam?” she whispers as soon as they are out of earshot.

“Manager of a marketing department.” I suppress my grin, this is not what she wants to know.

“No, I mean-”

“Mom, Sam is Sam. The one person I can imagine a future with. They are most comfortable when you refer to them with they and them pronouns, but you don’t have to worry about me getting accidentally pregnant if that’s what you want to know.”

She looks at me intently, her smile fades.

“When did you get all grown up? You were my little girl just yesterday and now…” She shakes her head, shakes off the somber mood. “Are you happy?”

“I am. Very much.” I smile back at Sam who waves at me once. “I only wish you could be happy, too. But as long as you are hung up on Dad…”

“I asked him. About that other woman. About your money.” She cups her mug with both hands, stares into the remains of the coffee as if it can offer her answers to all her questions.

“He didn’t even deny anything. He came here, told me all those pretty little lies and when I called him out on that he didn’t even flinch. Just said it was only a matter of time before you tattled on him.”

“I’m sorry, Mom. I’m sorry for not telling you sooner, I’m sorry for telling you at all. I don’t know what to say, I can’t make it better with just words.” It’s a messy situation and I hate Dad for forcing me into it.

“It’s okay, it’s not your fault. I’m still disappointed at you for striking this deal with him, though. I’m an adult, I can make my own decisions and just because you are entitled to your opinion doesn’t mean you can interfere like this.”

I flinch, guilty as charged.

“That said I know you only tried to look out for me.” Her hand finds mine, she gives it a light squeeze. “Okay, this was a heavy conversation for such a lovely day. How long are you staying in town?”

“We are leaving tomorrow morning.” It’s a long drive back, at least I don’t have to take the bus this time.

“How about you and Sam come and have dinner with me tonight? I would like to get to know – them better.”

“That sounds great. Thanks, Mom.” We hug and she waves at the others on her way out.

“Are you okay, love?” Sam’s at my side before I even reach the counter.

“Yeah, I guess I am.” Tired, yes, exhausted, definitely. But nothing a hug and another coffee can’t fix. And cake. Definitely cake.

Halfway through a slice of chocolate-y heaven Jared has to go leave for work again, he and Miho get all lovey-dovey and I remind them of workplace hygiene, just in case.

Since we don’t really have anywhere else to go and I’m still a bit hungover and clingy Sam and I get comfortable at a small table, determined to try every single cake Miho offers today.

“Later today I will need some cheese. Or maybe meat. Something savory.”

Sam laughs and I still accept the fork full of cake from them.

“We can get anything you want, love. Pizza, pasta, half of a pig – no problem.”

“Hey, you better remember the fantastic person helping you reconcile. Maybe they want some food, too.” Miho is just polishing some glasses, the afternoon rush should start any minute now.

“Sure. We can call Jared and just ask him, I guess.”

She pokes out her tongue at me, I simply return the gesture.

The bell chimes and my heart stops when I see who just arrives. Jake.

“Hey, Fujiwara. Can I get a Kenian roast to go?” He leans on the counter, dressed in slacks and a casual shirt. Also looking a bit hungover.

“Wow, looks like you partied hard yesterday.” Miho grins and I swear she’s making more noise than necessary to brew a cup of coffee.

He waves her off, turns around and spots us. “Well, you know what they say: There’s no party like a stuck up dinner party.”

With his coffee he comes over to us, his hand hovers over the backrest of a chair.

“Take a seat.” Sam, polite as always.

“Don’t mind if I do.” Jake plops down on the chair, throws me a glance.

“I hope Elias wasn’t upset about us leaving early.” I try to steer the conversation to a safe topic, last thing I said to Jake last night was a thinly veiled jab about how he has to sit through the dinner without a partner now. I blame the alcohol and a bit my mean streak after everything he did to me. It was petty and probably he didn’t even care, but at that time it gave me a rush of satisfaction. The only satisfaction that ever stemmed from Jake.

“No, I told Sam was tired from the drive and that you had to catch up, so he was fine with it. But some other people asked about you. Looks like you made quite the impression.”

Me? Or rather my PDA with Sam in the middle of the entrance hall?

“She is something special, isn’t she? She always manages to impress people.” Sam’s praise and their gentle touch on my hand skyrockets my heartbeat.

“Yeah, she is – something else.”

I wait for the inevitable quip, the joke on my expanses, but it doesn’t come.

He clears his throat, takes a sip of his coffee.

“So, you guys are going back today?”

“Tomorrow. We are having dinner later with Mom.” The lull in the conversation is awkward, I’m not the only one thinking so.

“Okay, in that case, have a safe trip back tomorrow. I’m heading home now, too. Gotta go back to work and all that.” He taps on the table with his fingers twice, gets up.

“And Sam,” he begins before he leaves, eyes trained on my partner.

“Yes?”

“You better take good care of her.”

“Don’t worry, I will.” Sam’s arm around my shoulder anchors me to the here and now, otherwise I could swear I’m having a very strange hallucination.

“You better take care of yourself,” I shoot back. “And of your brother. I’m not going to come to his wedding because I expect of you to prevent that disaster somehow.”

“Don’t worry, I will,” he echoes Sam’s words, grins widely. “I already have a plan.” A last nod and he walks out of the door, leaves me with mixed feelings that instantly evaporate when Sam bumps their shoulder against mine.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m great.”

Soon we will have to leave for dinner, but for now I rest my head on their shoulder, watch Miho clean and take orders, serve customers.

Here, in this coffee scented sanctuary, we just waste some more time. Together.

 

The End

 

 

 

Homecoming – Day 13-2

“You should get ready for your party thing.” We are lying on the couch, some cooking show on TV providing background noises and idle distraction, when Miho points out the inevitable.

“Nothing’s saving me, huh? Adulting really sucks.” I yawn and stretch a bit, stalling for seconds although I’m sure Miho will drag me there herself if necessary.

“I have to check the dress, hope it’s not wrinkled.” This morning I just grabbed it and crammed it into my suitcase, just wanted to get out of Mom’s place as soon as possible. Now I pay the price for my haste, the dress is wrinkly and looks awful.

“I got a steam iron, no problem. You go and fix your hair, I’m going to fix your dress.”

Yep, she really wants me to go there. Or she just wants me to get out of her place for a while, I don’t know. But I do as I’m told, trudge into the bathroom to do my hair and makeup. Nothing fancy, just some eyeliner and mascara, concealer for that one annoying pimple and the dark circles under my eyes. I’m not going to impress someone with my minimal effort, but I won’t look out of place either. Exactly what I want. I brush my hair, tie it into a sideways ponytail, tuck some stubborn strands away with some bobby pins.

“Your dress is over there,” Miho lets me know when I step out of the bathroom, pointing towards her kitchen door. There it is, on its hanger, crease-free and suitable for the occasion.

“I like what you did with the hem.”

“I shortened it.” Nothing worth mentioning.

“Exactly. Now it’s less ‘80s school headmistress’ and more ‘sexy but sophisticated woman of our time’.”

I roll my eyes and snort, if that’s an attempt to make me feel better about my 15 bucks bargain, well, it’s working.

“Shoes?”

“Oh yeah, wait, they are in my luggage.” Simple black heels. Peep-toes.

“Accessories?”

“I got a black purse and a short jacket.” More stuff lands on her living room floor until I find what I need.

“Jewelry?”

“I can do without.” I never had much jewelry, a simple silver chain grandma gave me for my birthday years ago with a small star shaped pendant, maybe a pair of earrings every now and then.

“No, you can’t. Dressing understated is one thing, but without a little bling your outfit will be simply boring. Here, let’s see what I have.”

A whole box of stuff, that’s what she has. Necklaces, earrings, bracelets, watches. A small jewelry store in her bedroom.

“Here, these jade earrings will go great with your dress. Do you prefer gold or silver? Do you know your ring size? You’re not allergic to anything, are you? Most of this is fashion jewelry, you know?”

Her barrage of questions has be staggering, too many decisions in too little time.

“I think I’ll just go with my own necklace,” I mumble, grateful for her offer but unable to accept it.

“Stars, huh? I think I have some matching earrings somewhere… oh, and there’s a belt over there in that drawer. A black one, rather wide.”

It has a floral pattern, very unobtrusive.

“Miho – I can’t… why are you so nice to me?” It’s not that kindness is a foreign concept to me, a lot of people have been nice to me throughout my whole life. But this right now just is too much, I will never be able to repay her for everything.

“Me? Nice? You better watch your mouth, we don’t want to start some rumors. People might believe you.”

Oh great, I’m getting emotional. I frantically blink, my eye makeup too well done for me to ruin it with another ugly crying fit now.

“No, really, you’ve been a great friend.”

“Oh come on, you hooked me up with the guy I’m crushing on for months now, we are even.” She pats my bum, shoos me out of the bedroom and towards my dress.

“You will feel better once you’re actually dressed. Imagine it being your superhero outfit. That always helps me when I get dressed for some unpleasant task.”

“Don’t you mean, your super-villain outfit?”

“Hush!” This time she doesn’t gently pat my butt, but gives me a slap. A hard one.

“Ouch! Okay, okay, I get it, superhero it is. You definitely have some super strength.” Still laughing I grab my dress, retreat into the bathroom to change and take on my secret identity as confident, somewhat successful better version of myself.

It doesn’t work like a charm, but I do feel more confident now that I’m dressed up, hair and makeup not the usual mess.

“Now look at you!” Miho’s gaze sweeps appreciatively once up and down my outfit, she hands me the earrings and I’m ready to face the night.

 

Or not. A bus ride later I feel ridiculously dressed up, I’m leaving a trail of bobby pins and I’m sweating bullets. Rushing in, greeting the mayor and sneaking out again seems like a good plan of action. Maybe avoiding bumping into his sons, that would be great.

At the entrance I give my name to some nice woman who tells me where to leave my jacket – as if I didn’t know the house better than she ever could – and informs me that Mr. Rosenfeldt wants to see me.

Which one, though? A server offers me a glass of some bubbly and I go for it. Half of its contents later I’m still nervous, but at least with a hint of a buzz. But I have to say, the house looks incredible. Surfaces shimmer and no speck of dust anywhere. Good job, me!

I don’t recognize most of the people here and the few I do are only known to me from sight, not by name. Elias is surrounded by a small crowd, of course, he’s the host after all. Still, as soon as he spots me he excuses himself to them and comes over.

“Jazz, dear, I’m so glad you could make it. There are a few people I’d like you to meet. You are looking very pretty tonight, by the way.”

“Thanks, but flattery won’t get you anywhere. I already cleaned everything around here, there’s nothing more I could do.” At least he makes me smile.

“Nonsense. But didn’t you bring a date? It was a bit of a short notice, I understand. Still, there must a young man somewhere who caught your eyes, isn’t there?”

“It’s – complicated,” I say with the sweetest smile I can muster to throw him off the track.

“Well, maybe you will find someone here tonight. Although I’m afraid most gentlemen here are either already taken or too old for you.” He leads me over to the group he has been talking with earlier, gives me a little push forward. “May I introduce the first scholarship student from our local High School? Miss Jazz Mann, one of the brightest young women I ever had the pleasure to meet.”

There are some very impressive names and titles in the round of introductions, my nervousness skyrockets and so does my sweating. After Elias initiates a lively conversation he excuses himself again to greet some more guests, leaves me there with all these bigshots. Since Elias has announced my field of expertise before he left some questions are actually directed at it and at the projects I’m working on. I get some business cards and offers to talk more about the projects from people who I would have otherwise not the chance to speak to. Probably Elias’s plan all along, but my growing unease in the unfamiliar company, paired with the constant reminders of Sam as my partner in this project, makes me restless.

Just when I’m looking for a good excuse to slink away a familiar face shows up in the group.

“Ah, Benjamin.” The elderly gentleman I just talked to about the possibility of implementing some accessibility options for hearing-impaired visitors of his gallery a few towns over greets Ben as if they know for ages already. Not unlikely, though.

“Have you had the pleasure of meeting Miss Mann already?”

“Indeed, I had. And I’m actually just looking for her. I hope you don’t mind me stealing her away for a second.” He excuses us, grabs me by the arm and leads me away.

“You were looking uncomfortable so I figured I’d better come and save you,” he whispers, but his polite smile doesn’t even waver for a split second. If he can’t make it in sports he can still start a career as politician.

He takes me outside, into the garden, behind a corner hidden from the curious glances of the other guests. I’m afraid to shatter my glass but I have to grip it tightly to mask the trembling of my hands. Being alone with him after what he said yesterday is strange. Thinking that he actually is interested in me is even stranger. Surreal.

“You’re looking great tonight. The dress is – looks good on you.”

“Thanks.” Silence used to be comfortable between us, but this now is painful. I’m hyper aware of his every move, breath, glance.

“So, I took the liberty to make arrangements for us sitting together at dinner.”

Oh yes, he did ask me to be his dinner partner – among other things.

“You did? Oh, okay.” It’s not a big deal, I rather sit next to him than among people I don’t know at all.

“And maybe we can sneak off afterwards, spend a bit time alone together.” He leans in closer, as if telling me a secret. Since we are alone anyway it’s only for show, a cheap excuse to get closer. He smells like soap and wood, grass and fresh air. Not sure how much of it is him and what is our surrounding, but paired with the champagne it sends a shiver through me that stirs up the butterflies in my stomach. It reminds me of so many things I can’t even all name.

“We – we will see.” There’s not even enough saliva in my mouth to swallow and I almost choke on nothing but my own confusion. It’s just the echo of my old crush on him, one-sided feelings that only come up now that he fans them with his sudden interest in me.

It sucks when your mind and heart are not on the same page.

He inches closer, until I’m pressed against the wall, heart racing like crazy, dizzy and  with shaking knees.

His face is right in front of me, I can see the golden speckles in his eyes, reflecting the sun even here in the shadows.

“I think we should go back for now. I don’t want anyone to come looking for us.”

Ben inhales, chuckles and pulls back.

“Yes, of course. Come.” He takes my hand, leads me back chatting as if nothing had happened. Well, nothing has happened, but my spine and knees haven’t gotten that information yet.

Back inside the house he leads me to the makeshift bar, my empty glass apparently a challenge he has to overcome. Another glass replaces my old one, the champagne bubbles happily and after a good swig I also feel much lighter.

“So here are you. I’ve been looking for you.” Jake motions towards the barkeeper who hands him a glass with a smile.

“She was with me,” Ben says, leans against the bar with his back and scans the room, smiles and greets here and there. Trapped between them, although there’s still much room,  I don’t dare to move. I gulp down another big sip of champagne, fumble with the glass.

“Oh, okay. And now she’s coming with me.” No question, he takes my wrist and tugs, not enough to make me move, just indicating he wants to leave now.

There’s not escape at the bottom of my glass, so I set it back on the bar, shake off Jake’s grip and smile at Ben.

“Excuse us for a moment, I guess that will take a while.”

“Okay. Come and find me later.”

I hum, not a yes and not a no, but it’s enough to make Ben nod. We seem to have an agreement. Now for his brother.

“Lead the way.” I’m not going to have any kind of conversation with him when there are other people, we have the tendency to yell or embarass each other. Well, I yell and he embarasses me.

Ben’s room has been turned into a storage room for today, serving staff milling in and out. Jake’s is quiet, he’s staying in here for a few days after all. No way they could divert it without Jake kicking them out.

“Do I have to worry about you and Bennie?”

He plops down on his bed, I just stand there in the middle of the room like an idiot. All dressed up but nowhere to go, or better, not sure with whom.

“You don’t worry much about me anyway, so no need to start now.”

Propped up on his elbows he’s watching me, a cheap staredown I let wash over me. Not raising to the bait.

“I always worried about you. Told you yesterday, didn’t I?”

“No.” My legs are stiff, my knees locked up as I walk towards his desk. “You said you’re in love with me, not that you worry about me.”

“I love you, that’s why I care for you. Hence also worry about you.”

“You are good at hiding it.” My fingertips glide over the cover of his yearbook. He only tilts his head when I look at him so I open it, browse through the pages. There’s a fold somewhere near the end, the page familiar to me. Band and music clubs, me at the piano, before I lost my hearing. My shy smile not ruined by my retainers anymore, I look directly into the camera.

“Oh.”

“Thing is, I didn’t want to hide it. I thought – well, in the beginning you were just this kid and then you grew up and I figured it would be weird if I openly hit on you.” He sits up, gives me room and time to process his words.

“So you opted for bullying me instead?” The sound of me slamming the yearbook shut covers up my dry laughter.

“I didn’t bully you.”

“No? The name calling, the laughing at me with your friends, all those stupid pranks?” My outburst lures him closer, he takes the yearbook from me, places it gently on the desk.

“I never laughed at you.” His eyebrows twitch and knit. “I always thought we were laughing together. You know, the banter, the back and forth. I said something, you said something. That was our thing.”

Banter. Banter?

“That wasn’t us having fun. That was you being a jerk and me trying to say what I think in a way that wouldn’t upset you too much so my Mom wouldn’t lose her job!” That’s not too hard to see after all.

“What?”

“Jake, you exposed me in front of the whole school, you ruined more of my important days than not, god, you even mocked Ben’s nickname for me!”

If there was a literal light bulb over his head it would light up now and illuminate the whole house.

“Ben’s nickname for you?”

“Jayjay. You know exactly what I’m talking about, but I guess you didn’t know that I heard you back then.” When he laughed with his friends, called me ‘Va-Jayjay’ behind my back.

“No idea what you think you heard, but I remember calling you ‘ma Jayjay’ in a very embarrassing fake accent. So I apologize for my poor excuse of a French accent.”

I refuse to get thrown off track now, not even sure if he’s telling the truth.

“Jake, you almost broke my nose with a basketball!”

“I thought you would catch it!”

“You spilled hot coffee all over me!”

“It was for you! You seemed so tired and fed up that day and I figured you could use a pick-me-up!”

“But not all over my blouse!” Every word, every single time we speak we gravitate closer to each other, and despite the difference in height I’m not intimidated, I won’t back down, won’t cower. Not this time.

“That wasn’t planned, okay?”

“Planned or not doesn’t change the fact that I was the girl who streaked in the school lobby for the rest of my time there.” He has only ever made my life harder and now he claims that he loved me all along. Great, just great.

“You act as if I never did anything nice for you.”

That close up his eyes are really interesting, different to Ben’s, but with the same golden speckles. Can’t help but admire that gene pool.

“Did you?”

He scoffs, still only inches away from me.

“The notebook? The hair tie?”

“The pen. Bittersweet symphony. Yeah, that – that has been you, huh?” The only ray of light in my dark high school days and now it turns out the light at the end of the tunnel was a train all along.

“That, too. I was hoping – I mean, you like music and so do I, so we got that in common. And the song is-”

Short-lived triumph wells up in me when he breaks eye contact, hangs his head and shakes it. “We never actually played it together.”

“No, we didn’t. I thought-” My shoes are very interesting, I never noticed that small spot. Is it a hole? “When the invitation to your party was in my locker, I thought I would have one of those Hollywood rom-com moments. You know, the whole confession in semi-public, romantic duet thing. Just didn’t think you would be the one to show up.”

The warmths of his palm against my arm is a shock, sends a shiver through me.

“You thought it was Ben. You wanted it to be him.”

I nod, no need to hide it anymore.

“He’s my brother, I love him and all, but honestly, back then he was the wrong choice for you. He still is.”

“But you are the right choice? The one?” Something is wrong with my eyes, everything is so blurry.

“I surely hope so.” Something is really wrong with my eyes now, it looks as if Jake’s getting even closer, so close I lose focus.

His lips ghost over mine, one hand cups my face, keeps me in place, turned towards him.

“Jazz…”

Is that my voice, that pathetic whimper? Well, it’s not him, he is busy deepening the kiss. His hum is shaking me awake, I pull back before he can put his tongue to use.

“Wait, wait, wait. This – this is not good.” His warmth and scent cling to me, a siren song taking advantage of my confusion and the need for comfort. But not this. Never this.

“Too much, too soon?” His thumb strokes over my cheek, comes back wet. There goes my self control.

“You shouldn’t kiss me at all! Gosh, just like back then… what’s next? You going to let me drown again?” The angry pitch of my tinnitus cuts through the turmoil, shows me the way. Stay angry, stay focused.

“This again?”

I flinch but he only throws his hands up, not directed at me.

“Again and again. Sorry, but no matter how much time passes, it won’t change the facts! You forced that stupid game on me, you kissed me and when I ran away you chased me, right into your pool. And then you watched me struggle until I blacked out.”

“That is not – stop saying I let you drown! I was drunk, I was high, I was stupid, okay? You fell into the pool and I panicked. I wasn’t trying to murder you or anything!”

“But you didn’t exactly come to help me either.” One of the baseball players jumped in and got me out in the end. Just in time.

“Neither did Ben. Do you know what he was doing at that time?”

I take a step back, then another. Jake is too furious for me to feel safe.

“Yes, I know.”

“You know nothing!” The yearbook lands on the ground with a loud thud, opens at a random page. Jake blinks, surprised that he wiped it off the desk with his wide arm motions.

“You know nothing.” Softer this time, weaker.

“No, I do. I saw him. Them. Guess why I was so upset when I came into the kitchen.” I wipe my face with my hands, they come back streaked with black mascara.

“And you are still so hung up on him? He – whatever he tells you now, he doesn’t know you like I do. Doesn’t love you like I do.”

“Probably not. But he never made me cry like you do either.”

 

After a quick visit in the bathroom to freshen up – or better frantically wiping my cheeks clean, can’t do much about my red-rimmed eyes now – I’m calm enough to go back downstairs. With my head lowered a bit I avoid catching anyone’s eyes, I’m going to find an excuse to tell Elias and leave before I have a nervous meltdown. Making my way through the crowd I jump when someone grabs my arm.

“You having fun?”

Bewildered I stare at Miho in her fancy dinner outfit we have picked out earlier.

“What are you doing here?”

“He brought me.” She motions over to group of people. Jared is standing with them, looking good in one of his suits.

“This is the date he took you on?” The concept needs a moment to register, but I guess he’s working with Elias.

“Hey, it’s free food and drinks. I’m not complaining.”

“And free drama.” I take her glass and down it, shudder and let out a very unladylike burp. “Sorry, the bubbles.”

The next waitress with a tray full of glasses finds herself lacking two all of sudden, Miho takes the empty glass from me and pushes a fresh one into my hand.

“What drama?”

“The worst kind.” I never liked love triangles in movies and books, and now that I’m somehow tangled in one I hate it even more.

“Oh, dinner with a show. Nice.”

I shoot her a bitchy look, scan the room for Ben and/or jake. Any Rosenfeldt at this point, I don’t even want to see Elias right now. It’s partly his fault, he’s the one to have these sons and he invited me here today.

“The problem is only, I don’t know my lines. The whole plot unfolds around me and I have no clue what to do or say.”

“Hm, how about you make the best of it? Make a huge scene. I mean, people are already talking about you, so give them something to gossip about.” Her arms loosely crossed in front of her she gestures with her champagne glass. Probably not her first one, minus the one I drank.

“I’d rather not.”

“Well, looks as if you don’t have much of a chance,” she mutters, looks pointedly past me. I turn, glance over my shoulder. Ben is heading directly my way, a bright smile on his face. A smile that wavers before he reaches me, eyes now trained at a point behind me.

“Ben, darling! I was looking for you already.”

Nails on a chalkboard are nothing against the sound of Maddie’s voice, the shiver and goosebumps it sends over me hard to shake off.

“Mads. What are you doing here?”

There’s not place I’d rather be now than trapped between them in this strange reunion scene. Maybe just the inside of an active volcano, but that’s about it.

“Silly question, I just made it back in time here to enjoy this wonderful party with you.” She clings to his arms, smiles brightly at him, but her eyes dart around the room to check for the reaction of the other guests. At least that’s what it looks like to me. Her eyes narrow when she spots me, but she opts to ignore me in favor of fawning over Ben.

“Oh.”

That’s all he has to say, just ‘oh’. His shrug is directed at me, eyes wide, and without protest he allows Maddie to lead him away, her fake laughter and constant chatting battling with my tinnitus.

“What the heck was that just now?”

Jared, ever the gentleman, nods at me as a greeting and turns to Miho for an explanation.

“Ms Brewer? I heard she tried to lure Dr. Posner into her bed at some medical convention but didn’t know that he is definitely not interested.”

“And how comes you know all that?” Miho chats with him as if that was actually the most pressing question right now.

“Well, I play squash with Dr. Posner’s boyfriend, and he’s a huge gossip.”

“When did all of this happen?” I still try to wrap my head around the new information.

“Just now, this weekend. Posner was on some conference and originally another assistant was supposed to go with him but she got sick and Ms Brewer said she would love to take her place. That was -” He furrows his brow, stares at the ceiling. “Last Tuesday. And Friday they left for the conference. Terry – the boyfriend – told me yesterday over a nice game of squash about how the assistant Posner brought along tried to seduce him. They almost died laughing about the whole thing. Well, not the assistant. Only learned today it’s Ben’s fiancée.”

“Wait, so Maddie broke up with Ben to try and get her hands on a doctor?” My laughter shrills, clashes with the noise in my ears. “Sorry, but yeah, that sounds about right.” Not much like the Maddie I know from school, but like the one I met here the week ago.

“Good to know I have such a trusty source of gossip now. Anyone else you play squash with?” Miho lightly bumps her hip against his, smiles brightly. At least one who’s having fun. Or both, if Jared’s growing smile and the way he stays close to her without actually touching her too much is any indicator.

“I got a few, but a guy has to have some secrets.”

Their sickly sweet flirting wraps itself like a blanket around me, calms down my nerves, soothes my overloaded senses. Like white noise, just with more sexual tension. My heartbeat doesn’t hurt me anymore and I can breathe almost evenly. Panic attack averted.

“Are you having fun?”

In the few seconds I let my guard down Jake managed to sneak up on us, now stands next to me with a glass of champagne in his hand, smiling at Jared but it doesn’t reach his eyes.

“Yes, it’s a great party. I missed your father so far, I hope I will have a chance to thank him for inviting me later.”

Two good looking businessmen talking with each other, two women at their sides – we must look like some stupid commercial. Only that one of the women glares at one of the men, the other tries to make herself small enough to fall through the cracks of time while the other man is completely oblivious.

“I’m surprised about your choice for your date,” Jake just says, chokes on his sip of champagne when I jab my elbow into his side.

“Why is that?” Jared glances at Miho who still tries to murder Jake with the power of her imagination alone.

“I just didn’t know you are seeing anyone, that’s all.”

“We just talked about how men are also entitled to their secrets. And some should stay secrets,” I chirp, but my voice drops at the end of the sentence. I don’t dare give him more of a warning, not with witnesses around.

“I guess you are right.” Jake shrugs, but winks at me. Hopefully that means he got the hint.

“As much as I hate those stereotypes, but Jazz, do you happen to have some powder or eyeliner you could share? Or anything else that can pass as euphemism for me asking you to show me where the restroom is?” It costs me an incredible amount of strength to tear my glare from Jake, to move my ramrod spine and turn to Miho.

“Um, yeah, sure. We can go upstairs. That’s okay, isn’t it, Jacob?”

“Sure, will be less crowded upstairs. Mi casa es su casa.”

I stalk over towards the stairs, can feel Jake’s eyes on my back the whole time. No, I’m not putting on a show, my hips move like this all the time. I’m just overly aware of it now.

“You okay?” Miho whispers and I shrug.

“Not sure. How about you?”

“I had a drink or two, I’m fuckin’ great. Jake and his passive-aggressive judging won’t change a thing.”

Up here it’s not only less crowded, it’s completely empty. The carpet swallows our footsteps, I don’t feel like talking so we make our way down the hall in silence.

“Bathroom is in here,” I say, my hand already on the doorknob. “I’m waiting out here for you to – OH MY GOSH!”

“Shit!”

Everything happens at once. It’s a deja vu, Ben leaning against the sink, a girl on her knees in front of him. I realize I walked in on him and Maddie, slam the door shut again while Miho bursts out into manic laughter.

My stomach churns. Throwing up here on the carpet is a bad idea but I can’t go back into the bathroom so I run for the stairs, I have to make it downstairs and into the bathroom there. Or into the kitchen. What the heck, even the garden is a better choice than puking here in the hallway.

Muffled footsteps behind me spur me on, whoever it is, I don’t want to talk to anyone.

“Jazz? What’s wrong?”

That’s not from behind but in front of me. Jake catches me before I can rush past him, steadies me. I’m trembling, alright. Not a good sign.

“Jayjay!” Out of breath Ben catches up with us, his face bright red. “I’m so sorry, I wasn’t-”

“It’s okay, no need to explain.” My voice is shaking, as are my knees. Even more adrenaline today and I will explode. Can’t be healthy, this up and down.

“What happened?” Jake looks from me, pale and wide eyed, to Ben whose pants are still open, hastily pulled up.

“Nothing.” Both of us answer at the same time, Ben more frantic while I’m just tired.

“Benjamin!” Maddie takes her time, she’s just taking a few quicker steps for show. Practically saunters towards up.

“I see.” Jake pulls me closer, away from his brother.

“Oh, you are here, too.” It’s amazing to see how Maddie’s whole demeanor changed from one second to the other. She must hate Jake even more than me.

One of her hands clutches Ben’s arm, the diamond sparkles at her finger as if he was never gone.

“It’s more of a surprise that you are here,” Jake shoots back. Ben is torn between pleading silently into my general direction and looking at the floor. At least some shame left in him.

“Why is that? I mean, Benjamin and I are engaged after all.”

“Are you, though?”

“Of course. I needed a few days to think this through-” At this point I can’t help my sarcastic laughter, but Maddie continues as if nothing was wrong. “- but I decided that I’m willing to fight for him.” She glares at me and I can’t even care enough to react. My blank face is all she gets, the lack of reaction mirroring perfectly my lack of emotion right now. Later this night it will crash down on me and I will probably cry my heart out, but for now I’m pleasantly numb.

“Next time fight for him behind locked doors. If you excuse me now, I really need to get a drink. Maybe I can get drunk enough to black out and the image of the both of you in there will get erased for good.”

“You could have knocked,” Maddie spits, bats her lashes towards Benjamin.

“You could have some class, but that ship has sailed.” Before she can open her mouth I leave, head high, back straight. The urge to throw up is manageable now, so I can go and get some shots, no problem.

“I would say ‘told you so’, but no one likes to hear that.”

Jake motions for the barkeeper, orders two gin.

“And I would let you bask in your triumph, but honestly I’m not surprised.” The liquor burns, I can’t really taste it. But it hits the spot.

“Not? I thought you were – I don’t know, having something special with Ben.”

I pluck the glass from his hand, if he doesn’t drink it I will.

“Yeah? I was rather cautious about the nature of his interest.” There was definitely some physical attraction between us, also from my side, I can’t deny that. “He is not as I remember him anymore. Maybe he never was like that at all.” I make a face, the gin is stronger than expected. Doesn’t keep me from ordering more.

“Hey, what’s the beef with you and Maddie?”

“I think you should slow down with that.” This time he takes the glass from me and downs it. “Well, one year in college I came home for the summer and you had just graduated. So it was my second year? Third? Not sure anymore. Anyway, we ran into each other a few times. I remembered her vaguely from school but she was a bit annoying, threw herself at me all the time. No class, that chick.”

“And you only go for the classy ones, sure.” A last shot of gin and my mind gets fuzzy, my limbs heavy. In a nice way.

“Only the classiest,” he confirms and takes my arm, steers me out into the garden. Ah, fresh air. We give the pool a wide berth, stop at a small bench and he makes me sit down.

“She had a crush on you ever since middle school. Talked about you all the time.” I giggle. “Funny how she ends up with Ben now. And here I sit with you. Reversed worlds.”

“Might be because I turned her down. She asked me outright to sleep with her and I said no thanks. Didn’t take it well.”

I burst into laughter, half fueled by the alcohol, half stems from my mental image of Maddie’s face at the rejection.

“No idea how she ended up with Ben. But he brought her home one day, a year or so after the last time I saw her. And she had the audacity to offer me to dump my brother and be with me instead. Not hard to see why I don’t like her, huh?”

I have to agree, albeit begrudgingly, just because. Can’t get soft on him now.

“Well, she’s not with him because his equipment is so good, you know? First time I happened to see his dick I was mostly shocked, first real dick I ever saw. But from today’s perspective I can say it’s average at best. Probably a bit less.”

“Ewww, too much information! There are things I don’t want to know about my brother.” But he’s laughing and so am I.

“Back then when you kissed me – it was my first kiss.” I’m just miserable enough to tell him, so he can feel bad, too.

“Really?” I nod, rest my head on his shoulder but the world won’t stop spinning.

“You need a glass of water? Don’t want you to puke on me again.” He wraps his arm around me, my eyelids grow heavy.

“Nah, I’m good. Just need a second to rest and then I’m leaving before the actual dinner part. Can you tell your Dad I’m sorry and all, but I’m not well?”

“Do you want to lie down a bit? You could use my room.”

“You really can’t wait to get me in your bed, huh?” I blink against the dim light in the garden, sit up straighter again. “I don’t want to be in the same place as Madeleine or Benjamin. There’s not much of my dignity left, better make sure I keep the remains of it.”

“Well, you got my number.”

I do, but won’t call him. Why should I?

“Jake, listen, I can only imagine how hard it was to tell me all that, but just because you say you love me now doesn’t change the way I see you. The way I feel about you, always felt about you. It’s not an excuse for how you treated me in the past, maybe an explanation, but not an excuse. I don’t want to be cruel, but I want to make one thing clear. I don’t love you, I don’t even really like you. If it wasn’t for the gin I would probably not even sit here with you. It makes no difference if I have your number or not, and I would prefer if you just deleted mine.” It’s all a bit slurred but at least heartfelt. I pat his arm, heave myself up with a groan, wait until I don’t sway anymore and wobble back inside, have to let Miho know that I’m leaving.

I find her whispering with Jared, both of them stealing glances at Maddie and Ben playing picture perfect couple.

“You’re leaving already?” She looks me up and down once, her smile replaced with a serious expression.

“Yeah, sorry. This is – it’s too much. Crazy and confusing and all I want is to crawl into bed and stay there.”

“Oh, come on, at least wait until after dinner. I’m sure you can sit with me and Jared. You shouldn’t be alone in your state. And you should eat, to soak up the booze.” She glances at her watch, frowns.

“No, I really want to go now, before anything else can happen. I can’t take any more drama today.”

I hug her tightly, pat Jared’s shoulder and turn to leave. And freeze. There in the crowd I can see a familiar face, sparkling eyes and a hesitant smile.

“Sam…”