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?”

Homecoming – Day 12-1

“Please, please, please, pick up…” I jump from one foot to the other, pray to every entity for the dialing tone to change into a click. When it comes my heart stops, soars high and hits the ground again when the recorded message tells me to talk after the peep.

“Hey, uhm, hi Sam. It’s me. Jazz.” I clench my eyes shut, why do I have to sound so stupid? “I wanted to apologize for not calling last night. My whole week has been crazy but yesterday, gosh, yesterday takes the crown. I had some kind of family emergency and I know it’s not an excuse for cancelling our conversation. Anyway, I really hope you give me a chance to apologize in person and not to your voicemail. So, uhm, let me know when it’s a good time for you and we can chat.”

My throat is so dry, I have troubles swallowing. Especially my pride.

“I – I miss talking to you.” It’s good that there’s no video to my audio, I don’t want appear weak but that’s what crying usually is. Showing weakness. A last deep breath and I keep talking, I’m almost done anyway.

“Yeah, so, gimme a sign when we can talk. Have a nice day. Bye.” I slam the button to end the call, just in time to burst out in tears. I fucked up. Again.

 

“Shouldn’t you be polishing something?” Miho asks when I trudge into the café. At least my eyes look more or less normal again, nothing I couldn’t blame a shitty night for.

“Shouldn’t you be making me a coffee? A big one? Like, really huge?” I ask back.

“Still hungover?” Her hands fly over the levers and buttons of the chrome monster but all I can see is the stream of black liquid filling an extra tall cup.

“Nope. Even worse.”

There’s no one else in the café at this time so I rest my head on the counter.

“Wanna talk about it?” She slides the cup over to me and I sit up properly. “And take some sugar for it, you are extra sour today.”

“My Dad showed up last night.” I stir my coffee, without putting in sugar though.

“And that’s bad?”

“You have no idea.” My spoon makes a soft noise when I place it down on the counter. “Not only did I find him elbow deep in my Mom’s blouse, no, he had the audacity to actually act as if I should be happy to see him!”

It only dawns on me that Miho has no clue about the very – let’s call it unique – relationship Dad and I have. I love him as a person, but he was and is a shitty Dad. Most kids are upset when their parents break up, I only ever prayed that it would be the last time every time it happened. I love Dad, I love Mom, but not together.

He was never violent or abusive, just completely focused on himself and his needs, his wishes. He still is.

“Yeah, finding your parents making out is always strange. I mean, they are people and they probably have sex and all, but I don’t want to know about that.” Miho shudders, probably just thinking about her own parents.

“It’s not only that, although that’s already bad enough. It’s just – you know, my Dad has always these visions of grandeur. Thinks he’s a master businessman. Comes up with a new great business idea every few months – after the last one failed. He comes back, crashes at Mom’s place, clears her bank account and runs off again to his next crazy idea.” I shouldn’t talk about him like that, but ever since I was a kid he never cared much for us, never helped Mom. Instead he comes to leech off her and otherwise stays god knows where.

“I couldn’t afford a prom dress because Dad needed money for his realtor license. Mom hasn’t been on vacation for as long as I can remember and we always, always lived on a very tight budget. But he keeps travelling all over the country, burning through his own money and once that’s gone through whatever Mom was able to save up to that point.”

The whole frustration of the last few years makes my throat tight, I take a sip of my coffee to buy some time and push the tears back.

“Wow. Sorry, I didn’t know it’s such a touchy topic for you.” Miho squeezes my arm lighty, I nod my head without looking at her.

“Sorry for venting that early in the morning. It’s just – the worst is that Mom still loves him, no matter how often he fucks up. He keeps leaving her alone and all she does is patiently waiting for him to come back.” That’s her idea of love. Wasting her life waiting for someone who would never stay.

“And when he’s back they are all lovey-dovey for a week before they start fighting all the time.”

Great role models.

“So it’s the ultimate on-off-relationship?” Miho sums up my explanation.

“More or less, yes. Dad’s latest stupid idea is a food truck and he took all of Mom’s savings to buy one. And since we’re having a festival here…”

“Food truck, festival – yes, I get it. How convenient for him that he can crash on your Mom’s couch, huh?”

“Anyway, this whole ordeal took me off guard and so – I forgot to call Sam last night. I apologized this morning, but so far…” I shrug, hang my head. This day is only a couple of hours old and it already sucks.

“Is Sam the unforgiving kind?” Miho busies herself with some cleaning. I glance at the clock, it’s almost time to leave.

“I certainly hope not. So far we got along just great, no major fights and all. Except for me storming off when it got too serious of course.”

“Which wasn’t the most clever thing but not really despicable. So no need to beat yourself up because of that.”

“Thanks. But the point is, I have no idea of Sam is the type to hold a grudge. We haven’t been in such a situation before and now I’m hopelessly lost. Should I call again? Send texts? Just wait for Sam to contact me again?”

She has no answer, of course not. She doesn’t know Sam at all.

“I know that sounds like some stupid bla bla, but I’m sure whatever you do, it will work out in the end. I mean, I never believed in rules saying you shouldn’t call within a certain time to keep the upper hand or stuff like that. If you guys are actually in love, some misunderstanding won’t be the end of it.” With an encouraging smile and nod she shoos me out of the café, but one questions still lingers, clings to my every breath and step. What if I am the only one truly in love?

 

Tomorrow is the party and I won’t have to come and clean the house, so I really have to make sure to get it spotless today. Jake greets me with a grunt, his morning must have been coffee-less so far. At least I had my first dose already or even the sight of his smug grin at my tired face had me in tears. But not today.

“So, you’re going to the festival later?”

This seemingly innocent questions ring all the alarms in my head.

“Not sure yet,” I deflect, focus on scrubbing the kitchen sink.

“It’s been ages since I last was at a fairground,” he muses. The coffee machine splutters, less intimidating than Miho’s machine from hell, but the coffee is hot and strong. Just how I like it.

“Must have been in college.”

I hum as a sign I heard him, not wanting to encourage him to continue this conversation, but not exactly planning to be rude. Not yet.

“You like the fireworks, don’t you?”

I shrub harder. How does he know that?

“They are okay, I guess.”

“I know a good spot to watch them.”

I straighten up, keep my eyes on the sink. “And?”

“Nothing ‘and’. Just saying, if you want to watch them from a good spot, I know one.”

When I look at him he’s already watching me, doesn’t even pretend not to. Very suspicious.

“Why? You wanna light up some firecracker next to me?”

“Why do you always think the worst of me? No, that’s not my plan. But you worked hard the last week and I thought – you know what, forget it. I never even said anything.” He grabs a mug and pours himself a coffee, stalks off as if I insulted him. Honestly, after all that time he still acts as if he’s the victim. But I am the one with the scars and the deeply rooted distrust!

I rush through Mom’s list of chores and the whole house, dusting, vacuuming, picking up things on the way. After battling the huge vacuum cleaner up the stairs I go through all the rooms. Elias’ bedroom is the first, after that down the hall until I reach the rooms of the boys. Whatever has gotten into Jake, I can’t just ignore his room so I knock, wait for an answer. There is none so I knock again, call out to him that it’s me and that I need to get inside. A few more seconds tick by so I carefully open the door, ready to slam it shut in case I see something I don’t want to see or get yelled at. But nothing.

He’s not there.

I quickly take care of his carpet and make his bed, pick up a dirty shirt and socks. Once out of the door I breathe easier again, take the clothes to the hamper before I continue cleaning the floors. Ben’s door opens easily, I push against it with my hip while vacuuming the doorstep and the area in front of the door on the hallway.

Someone taps me on the shoulder and I jump, scream, my heart leaps and beats furiously. With a clatter the vacuum cleaner drops on the floor, misses my foot only by a few millimeters.

“What the-!” It takes a few seconds for me to recognize Ben, in a T-shirt and shorts, hair disheveled and eyelids heavy with sleep.

“Goodness, what are you doing here?”

He motions towards the vacuum cleaner and I turn it off, the silence between us awkward now.

“I was sleeping until you came and woke me up.” He was never an early bird and his morning grumpiness reminds me of an adorable bear after hibernation. Like a teddy.

“Sorry, I thought you went back home last night.”

He scratches the back of his neck, hides his yawn behind his other hand.

“Nah, I figured Mads might need some more time to cool off. She’s got quite a temper.”

Oh, yeah. They are living together. Or better, they were. At least if Maddie was serious about breaking up.

“You know she really hates that nickname, do you? I mean, I remember her screaming at this one guy in her class to wouldn’t stop calling her that.”

“Actually she never told me that before.” He shrugs, a movement that threatens to ruin his shirt. God, those biceps are straining against the fabric and I wonder why he even wears a shirt. Not that I want to see him without it, but the one he’s wearing is just a tad too tight. The good way.

“Well, she must really like you to let you call her that until now.” I bent down to pick the vacuum cleaner up again. “Sorry for waking you up, I try to be more considerate now.”

“Don’t sweat it. Wasn’t on purpose anyway. Besides, it was time for me to get up, I have to work later.” He stretches a bit, still sleepy. I can’t drool over him now, not when he can still see me.

“Okay, I’m off. Cleaning somewhere else now.” If he notices that I’m practically fleeing he doesn’t comment on it.

I try once more to reach Sam but talking to the voicemail isn’t lifting my mood. After finishing the floors I follow Mom’s cleaning schedule which tells me laundry has to get done – including ironing shirts. So it’s back upstairs to get the laundry from the hampers, on my tiptoes to not disturb Ben again.

I know Jake’s not in his room, but I have picked his laundry up already so I make a beeline to the bathroom to get the towels. Bad idea.

I notice the moment I open the door – the air is humid and warm. Someone’s in the shower. In the huge shower with the glass enclosure, and although the panels are fogged I can clearly see who it is.

“You just wanna stand there gawking or do you need something?”

Jake turns to look at me and I fight the urge to drop my gaze, instead I tip my head backwards, stare at the ceiling.

“Uh, sorry, this – holy, this is embarrassing. I didn’t hear the shower and the door wasn’t locked and I just wanted to get the towels and-”

“Well, I hope you will leave at least one here for me. Otherwise go ahead, take what you need.”

Since the shower is turned off no new steam comes and the old steam starts to settle. Tiny droplets run down the glass panel, taking the cover of fog with them. Oh boy.

“What? Changed your mind? You can also join me if you want.”

No witty response comes to mind, not even an indignant refusal. My mouth opens and closes, like a fish, and no sound comes out.

“Or would you want to sneak a peek first? To make sure it’s worth your time?” He opens the glass door and that sets me into motion.

I squeak a high-pitched ‘no, thanks’, grab the towels off the rack and rush out, followed by his laughter.

In the hallway I pause, lean against the wall to catch my breath. My heart is racing, my complexion betrays me by broadcasting my feelings in scarlet all over my face. I am officially an idiot.

“Jayjay, you okay?”

For the second time in less than one hour Ben makes me jump. I’m afraid he can read from my expression what happened so I keep my eyes on my shoes, towels tightly pressed against my chest.

“I’m fine, just – tired. Don’t worry, I just need a quick break.”

“Okay, but if you need something else, just tell me, okay? No matter what.” He steps a bit closer, tries to peer into my face but I shake my head.

“No, I’m good. Really.” My shaky smile does nothing to reassure him, the crease between his eyebrows proof of his doubt.

“You want a glass of water?” One step closer and I’m trapped between him and the wall, the towels the only barricade. I just want to decline when the door to the bathroom opens.

“Oh, hey, Jake.” Ben looks up, his eyes going wide.

“Dude! You can’t run around butt naked here! We have a girl in the house. Cover up your junk.”

I want to die. Right now, and please quickly.

“I guess the girl you’re referring to wouldn’t mind a peek given that she took all the towels with her,” Jake points out. I can hear his footsteps coming closer but I’m mortified, can’t move my head to look at him – or better, to look away. The heat from his shower still surrounds his body, I can tell he’s close without looking.

“Did I interrupt you guys somehow?” Confusion sneaks into Ben’s voice, he takes a step back from me again.

“Yep,” Jake says the exact moment I shout: “No!”

I push all the towels into Ben’s arms, bolt from them before I see more than I want of Jake.

Still jittery I hide in the laundry room, fight tears and screams and the urge to kick something, someone. I really want to hear Sam’s voice now but can’t leave a message of me sobbing on the voicemail. Not very attractive after all. A few deep breaths, some nervous pacing and I can pull myself together enough to cram the part of the laundry I already have into the machine. Just when I open the bottle of detergent the door opens.

“Hey, you ok-”

With a shriek I spin around, spill half of the bottle over Ben’s shirt. That’s it, I have to leave the town now. Better leave the country altogether.

“Oh shit, I’m so sorry!” Frantically I wipe at his shirt with what turns out to be another shirt, dirty of course.

“It’s okay, calm down. Geez, I just wanted to check on you. Are okay? You look as if you’re that shy from melting down.”

My hand stops moving, I throw the shirt back into the laundry machine.

“Do I? Because I feel as if I’m already just some puddle.” A choked out laugh hides my first sob.

“What’s wrong?” The shirt still clings to him, the smell of the detergent pungent, tickling my nose.

“Life sucks right now, but I feel like I shouldn’t complain. I mean, you don’t exactly have it easy either, huh?” I sniffle, blame it on the detergent though.

“Huh? Oh, you’re talking about Mads. She’ll come around.” He shrugs, strangely unburdened while I’m still blaming myself for that scene last night. “And you know, never hold up travelers.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if she wants to go I won’t stop her. I mean, if she just stays for my sake, that won’t be the same, will it?”

I mull his words over in my mind, wonder how he can be so nonchalant about this. I can’t just let go of Sam and we haven’t planned to get married. So how can he?

“Okay, that stuff starts to itch. You don’t mind, do you?” he asks and takes off his shirt. “You can put this in the machine, I don’t think you need any more detergent, though.”

What’s up with the guys today for them to casually walk around half or fully naked in front of me?

My 17 years old, thirsty teenage self would probably die of blood loss now, although I occasionally caught glances of Ben at the pool with only swim trunks on back then. But I never saw him up close. His abs, right in front of me, those biceps – I’m sure he wasn’t in that good shape in school anyway.

“Jazz?”

I realize I’m staring, but who would blame me? Well, besides Maddie maybe, but she’s not here.

“Yeah?” I blink, shake off that daze.

“Are you okay now?” How can he be that sweet and that hot at the same time? I shouldn’t even enjoy this view, not when I’m still trying to win Sam back. I’m a horrible, horrible person.

“Yeah, thanks. I just – I’m really, really tired. You know, my finals, the graduation, coming back here only to start working for your Dad…” I shrug, pray that he would cover up a bit and dread it at the same time.

“And your situation with your boyfriend,” Ben points out, ready to help.

“Yes, that’s part of it, too. But I don’t have to tell you about heartbreak, huh?”

He shrugs again, now better visible for me without his shirt. Dammit. I’m going to burn in hell.

“I try not to dwell in the past too much. Life changes all the time, I’m going with the flow if I can.”

Nice philosophy, just not for me. I’m fighting tooth and nail for what I consider mine. And I hate losing something I have worked for so hard.

“Must be nice,” I muse loudly. “Being able to let go of anger and pain. I hold grudges forever.”

“Like with Jake?”

That works better than a cold shower. I straighten up, slam the door of the washing machine shut with my foot.

“Okay, anything else you need from me?”

He realizes that whatever mood it was, it’s gone now.

“No, not really. I guess I should wash off that detergent. Gonna hop into the shower real quick. Can I get a towel or do I have to air-dry, too?”

My mind stutters to a halt at the image, I force it aside so I can stalk out of the laundry room towards the linen closet. Once he has a towel he winks at me and leaves. I need a coffee and a break, but since I can’t have neither I pick what comes closest: I call Miho.

 

“If you’re not dying right now keep it short, the place is packed,” is her greeting.

“I’m kind of dying, alright. Or I’m already dead and gone to hell. Feels like it at least.” I sniffle, a sound that gets Miho’s attention.

“What’s wrong?” I can hear her walking around, she tells someone she’ll be back soon – probably her part-timer.

“Everything! I messed up with Sam, can’t even apologize because I only ever get the mailbox. Jake keeps driving me nuts and Ben – ugh, everything is such a mess and I can’t stop crying.”

The sounds of the café in the background fill the line while Miho is silent. She clears her throat, hums briefly.

“Okay, how far are you with your work? Do you still have a lot to do?”

“Almost done. Just the laundry.” A hiccup cuts off my words. I have planned to dust some more, pick up some stuff here and there.

“Tell them to take care of the laundry on their own and get your ass over here. As soon as the fairground opens it will be dead in here anyway.”

“I can’t,” I meekly object. “It’s Mom’s job on the line, not mine.”

Mom. God, how I hope that she won’t fall for Dad’s tricks again. I’m still miffed that he had the guts to show his face here, food truck or not. He promised not to come back, not to pester Mom for money again. That liar. And now she will need even some more money, he will take whatever she has without a care what she will do afterwards. Just like last time. Just like every time so far.

“Sorry, it’s – I’m fine. Just needed to talk to someone. Vent a bit. I don’t want to keep you from your work. Will call you later again, okay?”

I take a few deep breaths, force the tremble in my voice down.

“You sure?” She sounds suspicious. I shouldn’t have called her, now she will worry and although it comforts me that she cares about me that much, I also feel guilty.

“Yeah, of course. Thanks for listening. Go back to your coffee machine.” I laugh to lighten the mood again, not sure if she buys it, hard to say without seeing her after all.

“Fine. How about you swing by when your work is done?”

“Only if you pour a good swig of booze into my coffee.”

“Deal. Send me a text when you leave there and I can make sure there’s a drink waiting here for you. How does Espresso Martini sound?”

Fancy for sure.

“Perfect. And again, sorry for disturbing you at work. See you later.”

After her goodbye I end the call. My eyes still sting but the tears have stopped. I only have to make it through one more day and I can go back to my old life – minus Sam.

My fingers type a short “I miss you” but I don’t send it. Won’t change anything after all.

Her Love In The Zombie Apocalypse

Happiness doesn’t last, does it?

In the perfect world, we grow to be strong, learn to believe in ourselves and to have the courage of our convictions, and finally meet someone with whom we can be that person – in both strength and weakness.

When you find that person, don’t let the small, the insignificant things come between you.

Embrace.

Embrace your differences and each other and don’t let go. Fight hard and with everything you’ve got.

Because you never truly know when the dream will end.

 

Panting and laboured beneath the weight of my backpack, I struggle to keep pace. Kaga and Soma are already pulling aside our barricade at the east end of the academy, while Shinonome and Ishigami stand alert for approaching threats.

At my side – always at my side – Seiji remains in step.

His face is smeared with the horror of his narrow escape, much like the rest of us.

But one of us fell, one of us didn’t really escape at all, the others just don’t know it yet.

Seiji doesn’t know it yet.

“Get the hell in here!” Kaga barks, but his curt urgency is no exaggeration now.

The threat is real, however disbelieving we were at the beginning, the truth has well and truly sunk in.

“Christ,” he huffs as Seiji and I pass him, and he and Soma begin to reassemble the barricade protecting our fortress home. “Could you possibly find a smaller pack?”

“Screw you,” I gasp, stumbling into the foyer and sliding the bag from my aching shoulders.

It hits the floor with a heavy clunk, the cans within part of the bounty we’d retrieved from several convenience stores much further from the academy than we have ever venture since the incident. Those closest to the academy have already been stripped bear, and it was the necessity to eat, and to provide for those who also shelter with us, that prompted a much more dangerous run to distant sources.

Roaring in my ears, my pulse refuses to slow, and Seiji looks me over with worry.

“Are you all right?” he asks quietly, leaning against the wall beside me, peering at me with those gunmetal eyes haunted by deep concern.

“Mm,” I nod, giving him a weary smile.

Anything to ease his troubles.

Anything to lighten this heart I love.

Anything to protect it from breaking.

But I can’t.

“That was intense,” I add, as Ishigami joins us.

“Everyone okay?” he asks, the blandness of his expression a stark contrast to the dangle of gore hanging from the left side of his glasses.

“Yeah,” Seiji confirms, and I nod also.

Liar.

But they take my word for it, this trust is what has kept us alive this long.

There are untold numbers of dead in Tokyo, some permanently, some now roaming, shambling, looking for prey – because it all happened so quickly, and people didn’t know how fast the infection spread, how virulent it was.

We still don’t know how it started. Even law enforcement was woefully unprepared, and communication came too slow, too late.

“Let’s get this stuff to storage,” Seiji prompted, shouldering his pack, before collecting mine.

“I’m not completely useless,” I argue, but I’m playful in my scorn.

Oh how many small things has Seiji done for me? When was the exact moment his selflessness won over my heart? I have no doubt, he would gladly give his life in exchange for mine – but this time, he can’t.

 

When twilight drifts, everyone goes to their posts. We check our defences, reinforce each barricade, look for weaknesses and plug them, and check night-watch rosters.

Glancing down the list I note who is meant to be at each guard position. It looks as if I’m just doing my job, but in reality I need to know who is where for a very different reason.

Shivering, I pull my jacket more closely around me, and eventually meet up with Seiji in our room.

Our room.

It was going to be a little house, with a yard big enough for a dog and a small vegetable patch. That was our shared dream.

Now, he is all that I have left of that dream, and…

“You look tired,” he tells me, gently taking my face between broad palms. “You’re cold.”

“It’s a clear night,” I point out, leaning into his touch, trying to memorise the sensation. “It’s freezing out.”

“Well, it was a long day,” he smiles, carefully sliding his fingers into my hair and running them all the way to the tips. “Early night?”

“Gladly,” I exhale, hoping he can’t tell I’m gritting my teeth behind this smile.

He doesn’t know I organised a pack of bare essentials while he was showering, and hid it from sight. He’s treating me like he always has – the centre of his world.

Mouth dry, maybe from the gathering nervousness of what I must do, or maybe… I can’t tell if the jackhammer pounding against the inside of my skull is part of my transition, or the spread of guilt and grief and emotional pain so potent it’s a wonder I can stand, let alone smile like nothing is wrong.

And everything is wrong, because the throb in my forearm, hidden by the long sleeves of my flannel pajamas is a harbinger of my imminent death, and horrifying resurrection.

And I can’t be here when that happens.

Just the same, I snuggle under the blankets, and as Seiji is reaching over to turn off the lamp, I wrap my uninjured arm around him, and press myself mercilessly against his back.

I want to feel the imprint of his body against mine, my fingers, my hands, I want to remember every taut undulation of his chest, and the steady rhythm of his breath.

“Your hands are still freezing,” he grumbles, but hugs my forearm tightly.

And I pray he doesn’t hear my breath catch and stick in my throat, or feel the desperation to withhold a sob in the tension of my muscles.

“You always warm me up,” I whisper, hardly a breath at all, and he gives my hand a squeeze.

Nothing in the world would give me greater peace, than to remain here – but if I stay, even until morning… I might truly destroy him. Instead, I listen to the sounds of him, inhale the scent of him, until he falls asleep.

And then I have to exercise the absolute, utmost of my willpower to separate – softly so as not to wake him, when all I really want is for him to wake suddenly, grab me, pull me down and wrap himself around me.

I am my own person, but I would gladly let him consume me.

Cautiously I cover him back up, but the slight motion of Seiji’s head causes his bangs to flop over his closed eyelids.

So innocent.

And yet so fierce in my defence – and this is why I have to go.

He would make excuses, drag it out, maybe even beg me to stay even while knowing my fate is a foregone conclusion.

Go. GO! You have to go. For his sake.

As quietly as I can, I retrieve my backpack. There is hardly anything in it, because let’s face it, I’m not going to be needing human supplies for much longer.

Then there is the letter.

Saying goodbye, face to face, seeing him break… I can’t. And it’s not arrogance to think he will, because his heart and mine are one and mine…

… is being torn apart.

On the pillow, still fresh with the impression of my head, I leave my final missive to him, and bite down so hard on my lower lip, it bleeds. These feet won’t move but they have to.

Go.

My insides are hollowed out, a gaping, weeping wound very nearly prompting a sob when in my retreat from out room I spy Domo-kun.

It’s so stupid that Domo-kun should symbolise our love somehow, but for some reason that gift to me left a lasting impression. And even in the chaos, he stayed with us as a constant.

“Goodbye Domo-kun,” I whispered, slipping out into the hall and closing the door on all I ever wanted.

 

BONUS

“Cold,” Goto murmured, rolling over and groping across the bed for his favourite source of warmth.

It was not so jarring an awakening, for he didn’t yet know the truth. His wife could be any number of places by far more obvious than having snuck out in the night to meet her grizzly fate.

So he clutched at the blankets and tucked them under his chin, and in doing so disturbed the piece of paper beside him.

Rubbing his eyes with the back of one hand, he plucked the missive from the pillow and unfolded it.

And dread began to form, dread that turn swiftly into a panic without description.

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE AUDIO OF THE BELOW LETTER

My dearest Seiji,

We said, till death do us part – but, I’m not sure where undeath fits into that.

I am sorry.

I made a mistake and now… the cost of it must be paid. And this is the one time you can’t save me, no matter how many times I call you name, the enemy now inside me cannot be defeated.

You will be angry that I didn’t tell you, that I didn’t… give you a chance to say goodbye, but leaving like this is the lesser of two terrible evils.

I will turn, it’s inevitable, and I don’t want your last memory of me to be as a monster.

Please remember the brush of my fingertips against your forehead.

Please remember the warmth of my body curled against yours.

Please, remember the passionate heat, and the bliss of our every union.

And let me save you this time – let me stand, even at this distance, between you and having to see me as anything other than the woman you took to be your wife.

That woman will soon be consumed, but until the very end I will fix you in my mind and heart, grip you relentlessly, because you have taught me what it means to be loved so unconditionally, so completely; I will not be afraid.

Loving you, and being loved by you, has been a privilege I’m not sure I ever really deserved, but you have been the absolute, the most precious gift I ever received.

I love you.

Your dearest wife.

 

The bed beside him was cold.

When in the night had she left him?

He knew she was gone but could not control his panic. It exploded inside him, could not be contained, and drove him from their room in his pinstriped pajamas. With abandon he threw himself down the corridor, blind almost but for a target in the distance he had no way of seeing.

Morning greeted him with a slap of winter, but Goto struggled through the haze of his desperate breaths lingering in the air, and staggered like a drunkard to the outer most manned position.

“Did you see her?!” he shouted.

“Lieutenant?” the young man queried, looking very confused.

“My wife!” Goto gasped. “Did you see her? Did she leave this way?”

But the pair stationed there could tell him nothing, nor could any of the other outer guards, and finally, her last words to him clutched in his bloodless fist, he sat, in the dirt, trembling.

Why couldn’t he see her face? Why could he only see the back of her, her retreating figure moving with labour steps through the undead who paid her no mind?

Losing her was… there were simply no words, but to know she had gone alone with such pain in her heart was a wound to him like no other.

And all he could do was sit, and stare off into the distance.

If Miho was MC Part 2

In Your Arms Tonight 2

Miho: Careful, that one’s a bit heavy.
Watches Shu struggle with a bulging garbage bag.
Shu: What is in this?
Miho shrugs.
Miho: My marriage?
Shu trips, drops bag which breaks, and Kazuya’s severed head rolls out and into the gutter.
Miho: You’re a lawyer, right?

My Forged Wedding

Miho arrives at Long Island.
Saeki: I need some practical experience, Honey.
Kunihiko: I’m not really your uncle.
Yamato: I could lose my job if you don’t help me.
Takao: I just want to make my grandmother happy.
Ren: I could save so many lives.
Yuta: Reality television; it’ll be a real laugh.
Tamaki: My half-brother is a total dick.
Akito: I don’t even like sake.
Haruka: Tradition is so suffocating.
Kyoichi: I would never manipulate you.
Miho blinks, and holds up her hands.
Miho: I’ve got this – I’ll help ALL of you.
Changes title.
‘My Forged Harem’

Her Love In The Force

Checks with local superior when she hears she has been accepted to an elite academy on recommendation, requests a copy of the application. Calls academy to apologise and withdraw.
Namba: Well, that’s honest of you.
Miho: Of course, I hope you’ll take that into consideration when I file a genuine application.
Duh, is accepted on own merits and kicks Kaga’s ass at every opportunity… slaps Goto’s ass at every opportunity. 

Serendipity Next Door

 Miho turns Masaomi’s penchant for getting lost into a fan mobile app entitled Omi Go!
Jinpachi: You didn’t really sell his fans Omi-balls to throw at him did you?
Miho hands Jinpachi a second beer, then settles in his lap to comfortably enjoy watching Masaomi’s GPS tracker blip around on her iPad.
Miho: He’ll evade them. I left energy bars at Omi-stops around

Homecoming – Day 11-2

Back in the townhall I’m still fuming, inwardly cursing myself for enjoying that time with Jake and Kimmy before he decided to be an ass towards Miho.

Kimmy shuffles along next to me, I pay only half a mind to her. Jake’s presence is too much for me right now, every sound he makes, every move annoys me to no end.

Unfortunately I would be totally lost in these hallways so I can’t even just storm off without him. So I grit my teeth and follow him, answer to Kimmy’s question curtly, but I tell her it’s not her fault that I am so upset now. I can’t wait to get out of there and away from Jake.

Only that I can’t actually get away. He drove me there and he will be at the mayor’s home later. Just great.

Once we step through the door into the same small room we picked Kimmy up in she yelps and rushes forward, into the arms of a man I never saw before. He looks good, tall, broad shoulders, his hair just a tiny bit too long. Brown eyes look warmly at the child. She talks to him in a flurry of gestures and I can make out just enough to understand it’s her dad.

“Hello, sir, I’m Jacob Rosenfeldt.”

Caught up in the moment I keep translating although it’s not necessary, Kimmy’s father isn’t deaf after all.

“Ah, yes, the mayor told me about you. I’m Robert Pavel. Thank you for taking Kimmy out, I couldn’t make it sooner.” He has a nice voice and when his gaze sweeps over me I’m blushing lightly.

“I’m Jazz, I had the pleasure of talking to your daughter a bit today,” I introduce myself, hands still putting my words into signs.

Kimmy tells her father about our short outing, he repeatedly has to tell her to slow down to the point she turns to me with pleading eyes and I interpret for her. That’s why I’m here for anyway, I can keep doing it until the mayor relieves me of my duty. I should have asked if this is a paid favor, although I’m sure Mom will kick me out if I take any more money from Elias. After everything he has done for us, yada yada.

“Okay, Kimmy, say goodbye to your new friends, Mom is waiting for us already.”

She waves at us and I show Jake how to say ‘bye’ before I turn around and leave without another word. I can take a bus back.

Not going back is not an option. Too much is still not done and my list is longer than the walk to the bus stop. Halfway there Jake catches up with me. He has the audacity to ask why I’m running off like that and I would love to explain it to him in detail if it wasn’t for the fact that his father is my employer right now.

“Hey, I asked you a question! Why did you just run off?” His hand lands heavily on my shoulder, warm and far too real to ignore.

“I figured my service isn’t needed any longer so I want to get back to my actual work asap. Can’t let Maddie polish all those things, can I?”

His eyebrows shoot up, he blinks once, twice, just long enough for me to slip out of his grip.

“What the heck has gotten into you?”

“You!” No, wait, that sounds dirty. “I mean, that stupid stunt you pulled at the café.” He has no right to be angry now, I am the one pissed at him, not the other way around.

“What? That I paid for you? Are you one of those militant feminists? A walkure?”

My mouth opens and closes again, I bet I look like a fish out of water.

“There is – there is so much wrong with you and what you just said, I can’t even-” A frustrated squeal cuts off my short tirade and signals me it’s better to just leave now before I say something I actually regret. A deep breath and I manage to press out a ‘Nevermind, I make it back on my own’ and this time he doesn’t follow me.

 

Jake’s car is already in the driveway when I arrive, I march past it, ignore the sudden urge to kick it, knowing it would only hurt my foot.

The back door leads directly into the kitchen where I find Maddie and Ben busy with a list and the whole table covered with dishes, glasses and boxes filled with napkins and table clothes.

“There you are! You took so long, I thought you ditched me here!” Maddie is in my face the second I set a foot into the house.

“Well, looks like you found a good way to kill some time. What’s all this?”

“The caterer brought this over earlier. So they don’t have to carry it all in on the day of the party.” Ben grins and easily hoists up a huge box, sets it down next to a wall.

“Oh, good. Is this all clean or do we have to polish that, too?” I point to the plates and cutlery on the table, pray to every entity out there that the answer is in my favor.

“We? Who is we? If anyone cleans all this it’s you,” Maddie points out, much to my dismay. Like always Ben comes to my rescue.

“Don’t worry, it’s all clean and Sunday morning they will send some people here to get the preparations done.”

That’s a relief, but it’s short lived since Maddie pushes a rag into my hands and points towards the hallway.

“You still have to clean the windows and mirrors. I can’t take care of everything here on my own after all.”

Five minutes later and I’m convinced that she didn’t clean anything at all. I pick up where I left earlier, cleaning windows and mirrors all over the floor. One of my least favorite chores, I’m just saying.

“Bennie? Can you bring me the ladder, please?” I call into the general direction I believe him to be, stretch up as far as my arm can reach to get the upper edge of the mirror over the chimney sill. “Bennie?”

“Can you stop calling him that?”

It’s not Ben but Maddie, without the ladder of course.

“What? I call him Bennie ever since I was twelve. You want me to stop that now because…?”

I catch her expression in the reflection of the mirror, lips curled up in a snarl.

“Because he is MY fiance and I don’t like that familiarity.”

“Well, tough luck. As long as he doesn’t tell me to stop that, I won’t. He might be your fiance, but he’s also my friend.”

“Exactly, and that is all he will ever be to you.”

She looks as of she wants to spit on the floor to drive her point home, but luckily she doesn’t. I have just polished the wooden floors after all.

“I know. And I just asked my friend to bring me a ladder so I can finish my work here. If you are not going to get me one, you better tell him to do it. Because I’m so close to dropping this rag and leave you with all the cleaning. For real this time.” My patience is on its last leg, today already took more strength than I actually have.

“Your ladder, ma’am.”

Again it’s not Ben, but Jake. He acts as if nothing ever happened and sets the ladder down, winks at me.

“Ready to take orders, ma’am. What is my next task?”

“Just stay out of my way, that’s all,” I coolly dismiss him and roll my shoulder, my right arm is so heavy from all the cleaning and polishing already.

“Awww, are you still miffed? Next time you can pay, I promise.” He grins, completely at ease.

Maddie grunts, crosses her arms in front of her chest.

“Hey, where are you all?” Ben finds us in a tensed atmosphere, but oblivious to it – or deliberately ignoring – he stops next to Maddie, wraps an arm around her.

God, how I wish I could just disappear now so I don’t have to see her smug grin.

Well, it’s not exactly a hole in the floor but there is another exit opening up for me. My phone rings. I take it out of my pocket but my fingers are so cramped, I drop it. Cursing loudly I bend down to pick it up but Jake is faster, snatches it from me.

“Sam? Who is Sam?”

“Give me that!” My blood rushes once to my face and right back to my toes, the urgency in my voice not lost on Jake or the others.

“Ohhh, someone important? Hm, what do I get if I give you that?” Jake dangles my phone over my head, makes me jump for it.

“Jacob! Give it back!”

He keeps me away with one arm, the other still above us, holding my phone.

“Nope. First you have to say ‘pretty please’.”

“Dammit, Jake!” I struggle, the burning in my throat and behind my eyes not a good sign. Keep it together until you have the phone!

“Wrong. You can do that better.”

I hear Maddie’s snicker and Ben’s annoyed sigh, and in a desperate attempt I step on jake’s foot, hard. He cries out, his posture drops so I can grab my phone from his hand, just in time to see the display telling me that I missed a call.

“No…” My bottom lip trembles, I slump down on the floor, so tired of this day that isn’t even over yet.

“Geez, stop acting so dramatic. It’s only a call, you can call him back.” Maddie rolls her eyes, snuggles closer to Ben.

“Besides, can’t be that serious. I never heard you talking about that Sam before.”

“Because it’s none of your business,” I growl and wipe my nose with the back of my hand. Don’t cry now, don’t cry.

“Oh, come on. Aren’t we all friends here?” The way she says ‘friends’ could cut metal.

“Sam is kinda serious and so am I and that is all you need to know,” I snap back, trying not to actually yell. I can’t afford to rise to her bait, not after pissing Jake off already.

“And who is Sam? Does he have a last name? A job? Anything?”

“Why would you want to know? So you can stalk all the social media or what?”

Again that stupid smirk. “Maybe. I mean, we have to make sure that you don’t end up with some weirdo, don’t we? Or more that some nice guy doesn’t end up with you.”

“Mads, I think that’s enough,” Ben interrupts her interrogation/insults and comes over, offers me a hand to help me up on my feet again.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Ben is the younger brother. While he takes care of me Jake stands at the side, sulking.

“How about you try to call him back now? Don’t worry, we take care of the rest here.”

I stumble out of the room, stare at my phone. Should I really do it? What should I say? Is it even possible to fix what is broken between us? That’s exactly why I keep stalling and running away – too many questions, not enough answers. And the almost certain possibility that I won’t like the answers I could get.

“For someone who even got violent to get the phone back you don’t seem eager to make that call.”

Jake stands with his hands in his pockets, flashes me that grin that used to make Maddie’s knees weak before she rammed a pole far enough up her ass to also serve as hat rack.

“You,” I press out, my voice wavering while I still try to stay calm.

“Me?” he asks, pointedly looking around to make sure that yes, I’m talking to him.

“You braggadocious, banana-washing, weedcutting bighead! You think you are funny, snatching my phone like some third grader? That was a very important call for me and YOU kept me from it and NOW you have the audacity to judge my for not calling back?!”

“What’s wrong with you today? I tried to cheer you up since your mood is so damned sour and all you can do now is yell at me?” He snorts, eyes narrowing at me.

“I never asked you to ‘cheer me up’. I want you to stay away from me as far as possible!” My voice reaches a pitch that hurts my own ears but I’m not backing down now. “There’s a friggin’ heart emoji next to Sam’s name in my contact list! Even a blockhead like you should be able to figure out that it’s probably not my dentist calling!”

“You don’t need a dentist anyway, your teeth are perfect now!” he yells back , catching me off guard.

“What the heck is that supposed to mean? It doesn’t change the fact that you made me miss a call I was waiting almost a week for!” I’m not going to let him distract me with his random remarks, this is not a joke for me.

“Then go already and call him back! Dammit, this was the last time I tried to be nice to you.” He turns on his heel, storms back to his brother and future sister-in-law.

“Nice? NICE? You wouldn’t be able to be nice if – if – dammit!” The lack of a witty response has me yell in frustration and annoyance, in this state of mind I definitely can’t call Sam back. Constantly cursing under my breath I write a short text that I’m currently unable to talk but that I really, really want to have this conversation. Maybe later today?

Anxiety bubbles up in me while I stare at the screen, waiting for the little icon to tell me that Sam has at least read my message, albeit not answered.

A simple ‘OK’ has never given me so much joy before. I would love to call now, hear the familiar voice, but that would be the last straw today to simply break down. I can’t afford that, neither getting sloppy with work now nor not giving that conversation my whole, undivided attention. I better take some notes later so I won’t go unprepared into this battle for my relationship.

My resolve is strengthened and my emotions have calmed down enough so I can face the unholy trinity of temptation, annoyance and ignorance in the dining room again I pocket my phone and brace myself for whatever torture awaits me there. I’m sure that both Jake and Maddie won’t pass up the chance of making me run the gauntlet, but once I step back inside they are actually engaged in a lively – almost heated – discussion.

“That’s not your decision!” Maddie just shouts, chin jutted forwards, hands on her hips.

“Well, it’s not only your wedding after all.” Jake shrugs, looks at Ben for affirmation while he absentmindedly throws my rag from one hand into the other.

“You won’t get much cleaning done like that,” I point out, only to find myself under the glare of the squabblers and the much friendlier gaze of Ben. “What?”

“Nothing, we were just talking about you.” Maddie’s voice is icy, with a hint of accusation.

“Wow, that makes me feel better.” I roll my eyes, plop down on a chair. “Care to fill me in?”

“I was just thinking that maybe you want to come to our wedding if you are free that day,” Ben says and my jaw drops. I want that about as much as a root canal treatment without anesthesia.

One glance at Maddie tells me she feels the same about that.

“Benjamin!” I expect her to stomp her foot but she doesn’t, instead she throws her hands up. “Now that you said it we can’t just take it back.”

Don’t I have a say in this?

“Why should we? Jazz is a friend, why can’t we invite her?”

“You know why!” Maddie screeches, a very unpleasant sound even for my ears.

“Because it ruins your zen-like number of guests? How many are it so far? 120?” Jake mocks her, a loopsided grin on his face.

“If you keep talking to me in that tone you’re not invited either.”

The brothers share a short glance, a nod from Jake and a quick shake of his head from Ben replaces a whole conversation.

“Mads, this is also my wedding, you know? And I want my brother to be there, so could you please calm down a bit? Both of you?”

Poor Ben, trapped between them as voice of reason.

“You always take his side! I’m your fiancée, you should just agree with me.”

Watching this is better than some telenovela, at least as long as I’m not involved. I would love some popcorn now, but I dare not to breathe to draw no attention on my presence.

“Maddie, you got your way with everything else so. We booked the venue you wanted. There’s no limit for your dress. You will get your band and your menu, your cake and all the other things. So could you please let me at least invite the people I consider friends?”

And I’m back in the focus.

“But not her.” Maddie’s accusing finger trembles just a few inches away from my face.

“Attention: Bridezilla sighting in the dining room.” Even when he whispers, Jake can be heard clearly. Maddie’s head spins around, she glares at him, takes a step closer.

“What did you just call me?”

His hands raised in an appeasing manner Jake backs off, but Maddie doesn’t relent.

“I asked you a question! What did you call me?!”

“Nothing you actually want me to say again,” he points out, looks past her at Ben who hangs his head, shakes it lightly. A broken man.

Maddie is in full fury, spins back again to face her fiance. “Why do you let him talk to me like that? Why do you never defend me?!”

“Mads, I-” he tries to get a word in edgewise, to no avail.

“And stop calling me that! I hate that stupid nickname! And since you keep choosing other people above me, I guess you don’t even want to marry me!” The engagement ring hits the floor and bounces off with a dull sound, the carpet muffles the impact and I lose sight of the shiny metal and diamond while watching Maddie storm off.

 

“So she broke up with him? Over a fight whether or not you should get invited to the wedding?” The coffee Miho sets down in front of me holds a good swig of cream liquor.

“Yep. I officially ruined a marriage.” With my head on the counter I whimper into my sleeve. “This was not my plan for the day. Or, you know, at all.”

“But now the guy you crushed on during your school days is free again. Isn’t that a good thing?” On the other side of the counter Miho mimics my posture, rests her head on the polished surface.

“No, it’s not! Just because he’s free doesn’t mean that I have a chance and even if I had one, doesn’t mean I want it.”

How long might it take in a small town like ours before people start gossiping and point at me when I walk past? Not long enough.

“And how did Ben take it?”

“No idea. I guess he’s in shock.” He pretended that everything was fine, even told me that Maddie often overreacted and that she surely would reconsider. One or two days, a week at the longest. And then he went and made himself a sandwich, even asked me and Jake if we wanted one, too. That’s not what I tell Miho, though. Everyone has their own way of dealing with things after all.

“Didn’t you say they weren’t even engaged for long yet?” She straightens up again, stretches a bit.

“Does that matter? He wants to marry her, whether he put a ring on her finger a week or a year ago doesn’t change anything.”

I also perk up a bit when she slides a plate with cake over, pick at the creamy, chocolate-y ganache covering it with my fork.

“And Jake?” With her own fork she snatches a bite of my cake, grins when I scowl at her.

“Couldn’t stop smirking. No idea what his problem with Maddie is, but they don’t get along at all.” The bitterness of the chocolate and the sweet cream distract me for a second, I let the cake melt on my tongue, add some spiked coffee flavor. This is how my days should be, filled with cake and coffee instead of cleaning and drama.

“At least Maddie won’t bother you anymore,” Miho points out the bright side.

“Perfect timing, too. Tomorrow I have to scrub the toilets and bathrooms. And I don’t really want her commenting on that.”

Tomorrow is also the festival and a good chance to just enjoy some fun and games.

“By the way, do you know what job Jared has?”

I pick some more at the cake.

“No, just that he is working for some company. You haven’t really told me what happened today anyway.”

She perks up a bit, but still feigns some indifference.

“Well, obviously he’s working with or for the town hall on a regular basis.  Water supply or something like that, according to Kimmy. Her mother is his co-worker AND it seems she’s the one who was in the club with him last night.”

“Huh…” A smile tugs at her lips, she covers it with another forkful of cake. She really has to learn to talk to people and not jump to conclusions, but to honest, I consider it funny how easily she’s thrown out of the loop by Jared when she’s still pretending to be not really interested.

“Are you going to the fair tomorrow?” I ask Miho between two bites of chocolate heaven.

“Nah, probably not. Too many people and I’m not that into greasy food and cheap games.”

“Too bad, I just wanted to ask you to come with me and watch me lose at can knockdown and whack-a-mole.”

 

Slightly tipsy but in a much better mood I make my way home. It’s time to tell Mom how much I love her and how grateful I am for everything she did for me. And of course I can’t wait to call Sam. When I told Miho about it, only the basics and not the full story with me kicking Jake to get my phone back and chickening out afterwards, she talked some confidence into me. I got my notes, I got my goal clear in sight and I got a light buzz – the perfect combination to win my lover back.

With a spring in my step I dance up the stairs, unlock the door and make a beeline into the living room where the lights are still on and voices indicate that Mom is watching TV. As a peace offering I brought a slice of Miho’s incredible cake, I swing the paper bag and waltz into the room just to stare at one of the most disturbing scenes I ever saw.

Mom, with her wrist bandaged up, sitting in a chair, eyes closed, head hanging low, moans and sighs at the very enthusiastic massage she is getting. From my father.

One of his hands is unfortunately not on her shoulders, but busy in the front of her blouse.

“Dad?” My head spins. “Mom?”

They jump apart, Mom sheepishly fixes her clothes, Dad simply beams at me.

“Jazzy-bee! How’s my big girl doing?”

My father is here. My father, the man who only remembers that I exist when he needs something. My father, who somehow manages to string Mom along for decades now. The same man who called me a few months ago to tell me about his latest business idea. And now he’s asking me how I am. So I tell him exactly how I feel.

“I think I’m getting sick.”

MJS Out of office drama: Jazz x Kunihiko Black and white pictures

Miho’s and Goto’s wedding was finally over and Jazz could breathe easier again. It had been a very touching ceremony, a wonderful party. It had made Jazz want to have a ceremony, too, but she hadn’t told Kuni about that yet. There was so much else that they had to take care of first.

Jazz had had the operation the day after the bachelorette party and so far there were no complications. She had a scar on her belly but it was tiny, only slightly rosy now and smooth. The first few days it had been dark red, ragged and uneven. The first time she had changed the bandage she had cried, not because of the scar itself but because of what this meant for her, for Kunihiko and her. For them.

Jazz shoved those thoughts aside and smoothed down her shirt to cover the scar. Today she had another follow up appointment at the clinic and afterwards some more work. With Miho and Goto in their honeymoon Jazz was the only senior partner at the agency left and she was dead set on keeping the business running smoothly. Kunihiko had told her to take it easy for now but she needed something to take her mind off the whole ‘I just lost an ovary’ disaster.

“Should I take you to the clinic?” His arms enveloped her from behind and Jazz snuggled against his chest with a tiny sigh.

“No, I’m fine. I can take a cab or the train. No need for you to be late for work.” She turned in his arms and hugged him tightly. Despite the brave face she was making she couldn’t hide how on edge she was every time she had to get another check up.

Kunihiko’s hand wandered over to her belly, gently rested there, his warmth seeping into her skin.

“I’d rather be there for you in a time like this. Being late isn’t a problem at all today.”

“I know. But believe me, it’s fine. It’s only a routine checkup. Last time they already told me that everything was looking really good. Don’t worry about me, I call you if anything is off.” She cupped his face and smiled. “You’re giving me so much strength, Kuni. Even if you’re not with me. That’s why I can be so at ease.”

Their kiss was soft and only lasted for a second, but it conveyed so much love, so much warmth.

“Okay, if you’re insisting. I’m off to work now. I love you.” Reluctantly he parted from her, his hand rested on her hip although he had already taken a step back.

“I love you, too. And now off with you, before Osanai calls and gives you a lecture again.” With a last kiss she practically pushed him out of the door, laughed when he peeked in again to sneak another kiss.

Once back in the office Jazz was diligently working, creating proposals and profiles, answering calls and emails. In her lunch break she sent Kunihiko a quick text, telling him the checkup had been well. Her doctor had told her they could start trying for a baby if they wanted to, but also reminded her not be impatient and not to get frustrated if it didn’t work right away. With only one ovary it was still possible to get pregnant, but not that likely. Still, the doctor advised they should simply try for now and take measures if it didn’t work after a year.

“It is important that you don’t stress yourself. That wouldn’t help at all. Relax and just let nature take its course. You are still young and healthy enough for it to just happen.”

Jazz had nodded and thanked her doctor, but couldn’t help the nagging unease. Work was meant to distract her and so far it was serving this purpose well.

They needed a solution to their latest loss of test drivers. Ever since Rose got serious with her puppy boyfriend and H was – somehow distracted, MJS was at the same point where it had been almost a year ago, when Miho and Jazz decided to get an intern. Maybe they had to change their approach and cancel the test driving all together.

The ringing of her phone dragged her from her thoughts, the florists had questions about an arrangement for a wedding.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Hey, Kuni?” Jazz handed him the veggies to cut for their dinner and he pecked her cheek as a thank you, humming to prompt her to go on with her question.

“I was thinking… how about we find someone for the bar? You know, lately you don’t have much time to actually stand behind the counter anyway, but I like the atmosphere of the bar. I like that your friends, and now also my friends, can gather there.”

His hands stopped cutting the carrots briefly before he went back to preparing their dinner.

“Actually it’s a good idea. I have thought about that already. I’d rather spend my time with you than cleaning the bar anyway.”

Jazz grinned. “Well, we have combined that already. Although we didn’t really ended up getting much cleaning done…”

Ever since Jazz had gotten the diagnosis she had shied away from intimacy, not comfortable in her own body anymore. Sure, she had offered him relief in different ways and he hadn’t pushed her into anything she didn’t want to do, but by conjuring these memories now she signaled that she was ready to at least think into that direction again. A smile appeared on his face.

“I remember… that was a very pleasant night in the bar. But I guess you were driving at something else.”

Jazz giggled but nodded. “I was thinking, how about we ask H if she wants to manage the bar? She might need a new job soon, as things are at the agency right now.”

“You don’t want to close the agency, do you?” The concern in his face was surprising her, Jazz had assumed that he wasn’t a big fan of MJS.

“No, just changing some things. I’m not sure if we should continue with the date scenarios, after all it caused so many problems in the past and it’s difficult to find suitable girls to take care of it.” She shrugged. “I still have to talk with Miho about it, but I guess we’re going to get respectable and all.”

With a mocked shudder she turned to him. “I guess Miho just got the shivers, too, and has no clue why.”

Kunihiko laughed, pleased that Jazz was joking again. For some days she had been withdrawn and gloomy, although she had tried to hide it behind a smile that never reached her eyes. She knew that she had been worrying him but she really felt so much better now and was grateful for his support.

“But the wedding planning will stay unchanged?” he asked further, grabbing some bell peppers, and Jazz nodded.

“No need to change anything if it’s working just fine, right?”

He hummed in agreement but Jazz frowned lightly.

“Say, is something the matter? You seem a bit distracted.”

“What makes you think that?” he asked back, looking like being caught.

“You’re washing those bell peppers for the third time now.”

He immediately turned the water off and grinned sheepishly. “You are a sharp one, I should have know that I can’t fool you for long.”

“Right-o. And now, Mister, spill it.” She took the peppers and started slicing them.

“Not sure if I really want to tell you when you’re handling a sharp knife,” he joked but Jazz only glared at him. “Okay, okay. I’m telling you already. So, I got a call today. My grandmother wants to meet me tomorrow for lunch.”

Her hands stopped. His grandmother – well, that was unexpected.

“But it’s a good sign, isn’t it? Does that mean she starts to accept our marriage?” There it was again, the faked smile.

“I really hope so. At least it didn’t sound as if she wanted to disinherit and cast me out of the family anymore.” He carefully took the knife out of her hand. “You okay?”

“Sure, yeah. I mean, it’s not my grandma. Actually my family is pretty happy for us. They were surprised and confused at first, but now they are happy.”

She chuckled briefly, remembering the awkward Skype-date she had set up with her parents and grandparents to introduce Kunihiko to them. Being caught as the interpreter in the middle she had done her best to convey the reaction of her family properly but she couldn’t deny that they had all been bewildered that the Japanese man she was married to was another Japanese man than the original one all of sudden. They had just learned about Jazz being divorced after all.

“We will have to visit them soon,” Kunihiko pointed out.

“I would love that. Whenever you have a few days off.” She kissed him, snatched the knife back and returned to cutting vegetables. “But for now, get back to cooking, I’m starving.”

Jazz had decided not to worry so much about people accepting their love anymore. There were more severe things to worry about in the world, they couldn’t get the blessing of everyone after all.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

After her second cup of coffee in the lobby of a fancy hotel Jazz grew impatient. Her client she was supposed to meet here was late without a notice and if she wouldn’t arrive in the next ten minutes, Jazz would leave her a note and go back to the office.

No call or text, no apology or explanation. Jazz had checked the mail with the time and place several times already and she was definitely in the right hotel, it was the correct day and she had already waited for half an hour. Not exactly a tolerating person when it came to tardiness in the first place her mood was close to hitting rock bottom when she looked up and saw something that made her blink several times, just to make sure it wasn’t an hallucination.

There was her husband, a pretty young woman hanging on his arm. Definitely not his grandmother. She was smiling at him but he seemed tense, glancing around uncomfortably. Jazz stomach sank and her heart started to race. This was bad. Why was Kunihiko with another woman in a hotel?

She quickly scribbled something down on a piece of paper and hurried to the front desk when other two were out of sight, asking the receptionist to hand the note to her client if she would ever show up. Jazz had to get out of there, needed fresh air and some answers.

It took all her willpower not to simply storm after them, or wait for Kunihiko in his office. There had to be a good explanation and she refused to jump to conclusions without giving him a chance to tell her about it.

That night Kuni came back home late. Very late. It was almost midnight, the dinner Jazz had thrown together absentmindedly earlier was long cold but she didn’t feel like eating anyway. She felt like drinking but she had stopped ever since she had learned about her medical condition, besides drinking alone had never been very appealing to her.

So she was sitting on the couch, trying to read but after she had stared at the same sentence for more than ten minutes now she admitted defeat and put the book away. Her heart leapt a bit when she heard the door. Kunihiko was back. He tried to sneak in as silently as possible, stared at her in bewilderment when he came into the living room to find her sitting there, no TV or music running, just staring at him.

“If that isn’t my lovely wife,” he cheerfully greeted her, but it couldn’t hide his tired expression. “You are still up.”

“I was waiting for you.” With pride she noticed how calm she sounded, not the nagging wife men seemed to hate.

“You shouldn’t have. I wanted to call and tell you I will be late today, but things were really crazy in the office.” He came over and leaned down to kiss her, frowning lightly when she turned her face away, only accepting a kiss on the cheek.

“Only in the office?” It was hard to keep the unease at bay, to not start screaming or crying just to get rid of this pressure inside of her.

“Actually, no. I told you about the lunch with my grandmother, right?” He sat down next to her and sighed, loosened his tie a bit and pulled the hairtie from his hair.

“Uh-huh…” Now was the time of truth and honestly, Jazz wasn’t sure if she really wanted to listen to what he would tell her next.

“I guess it’s safe to assume that she hasn’t accepted out marriage yet. She has set me up on a lunch date with the granddaughter of one of her friends. I know her since she was a child and it was so awkward. I’m a married man, I felt stupid sitting there with a girl that had barely finished college.” He dropped his head on the backrest and closed his eyes, missed the relieved smile on Jazz’s face.

“A childhood friend?”

“Not really. I mean, we met on some occasions, but I’m ten, maybe twelve years older than her. I don’t really remember. Anyway, she used to be a quiet child, but now she’s rather forceful. I have no idea what Grandmother has told her, but she seemed to assume that we will get married soon.” He sounded so tired and Jazz’s heart clenched when he turned to face her.

“Sorry, but I guess my family isn’t as happy about us as yours.”

She ran a hand through his hair, smoothed down the waves a bit and smiled. “No, I am sorry. It must be hard to go against your family like that. And sorry that you had to go on a date with some pretty 20something year old.”

“She isn’t even that pretty,” he waved her off but Jazz shook her head.

“No, she’s plenty pretty. It’s okay, I know that there are beautiful women out there. Doesn’t mean that I get insecure.”

A crease appeared over the bridge of his nose when he furrowed his brow.

“How do you know what she looks like?”

A dry chuckle accompanied her answer. “Well, I think you’re not the only one who got set up today. I was there, in the lobby. I saw you, arm in arm with a pretty girl.”

Kunihiko groaned. “Oh god… Jazz, I swear, there was nothing going on! She said she had sprained her ankle and begged me to steady her while walking. I figured it would get me out if there quicker if I just – you know, just let her lean on me a bit.”

“It’s okay, really. I trust you.” Relief made her giddy a bit, but there was enough of sass and sarcasm left in her to add: “Besides, you know I would probably kill you of you ever cheated on me. Or even better, I would sic Miho on you.”

His eyes widened. “I would never cheat on you. I love you, Jazz, you and no one else. And I will remind my grandmother that you and I are married after all, not just dating casually. There is no one who could take your place, not here in my home, nor in my bed and especially not in my heart.”

“I feel bad that you are having trouble with your family because of me,” she admitted, still smiling softly.

“It’s not your fault. Besides, you are my family. That’s all I need.”

That night they went to bed and only kissed good night again, but Jazz felt closer to him than in weeks.

“She did what?” H blinked in disbelief and Jazz shrugged.

“Set him up on a date. And it wasn’t only that, obviously they had planned it so that I had to catch him red-handed with that other girl.” She straightened some papers and handed them over to H.

“Wow, that’s really low.”

“You know what bothers me the most? Obviously his grandmother expected that I would – I don’t know, either quietly leave, broken hearted, or make a scene, cause a fight. She has probably thought I wouldn’t believe him if he tells me it was only a misunderstanding and that I would demand a divorce, convinced that he’s cheating on me.” She shook he head slightly. “But did she not expect us to actually talk? I mean, didn’t she think we would sit down and he would tell me about his strange day and I about mine? That weak plot she made up is so easily rumbled, all it takes is five minutes of honest conversation. She must think I’m stupid.”

And was what made Jazz angry. If his grandmother would have taken five minutes of her time to actually talk to Jazz she would have realized that Jazz was a smart woman. Yes, she had been easily fooled when it came to mattes of the heart before, but she had also learned a lesson each and every time.

“But is everything okay between you and Kuni again?”

“Huh? Oh yeah, of course. I know he loves me and he knows that I’m crazy about him. We are fine.” Jazz smiled at a visibly relieved H. “By the way, Kuni and I have been talking and – well, the bar is getting a bit too much work on top of our jobs and maintaining a happy marriage and all. And if we really end up having a child some day… long story short, could you imagine working in the bar? Part time at first, but if you like it and it works fine…” She let her sentence taper off, gauging H’s reaction.

“Me? Are you sure?”

“Yeah. I mean, when you’re not on date simulations you still have plenty of time, don’t you? And you could earn some more money.”

H beamed. “Sure! I mean, I’ve never worked in a bar but I have experience in the service industry. So yeah, I’d love to give it a try!”

With a satisfied nod Jazz leaned back in her chair. Another thing taken care of.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was strange. Never before in her life she had troubles initiating intimacy or sex, but as long as she didn’t have sex she couldn’t get pregnant on purpose. Not getting pregnant because her body wasn’t able to, was a completely different thing. So although the doctor had said it was fine, she was full of doubts. It was somehow easier to defend their marriage against dangers from the outside than to deal with her own fears and insecurities.

“I will be back in three days and then we take some time for us. Maybe spend the weekend somewhere else. How about an onsen?” Kunihiko just packed his last things into the suitcase, took the tie she handed him and put it to the rest of his clothes.

“I will miss you,” she said, a slight pout on her lips.

She had missed him for a while now, even when he was right there with her. The distance she had created between them was there on her own free will and he had accepted it, considered it a part of her recovery. And somehow she had already forgotten how it was to be close to him, physically close. Their love was strong like always, but the physical connection they shared in the beginning had been lost and that she regretted deeply.

“I will miss you more,” he replied and kissed her, softly at first but when he tried to deepen the kiss she pulled away. She had forgotten how to accept what she was craving for, too scared for the consequences if she stepped out of the safe zone she had created around herself.

“Don’t forget to pack your scarf. It’s going to be cold up there,” she reminded him and stepped back, right back into her safe zone. His smile wavered a bit but he nodded.

“Sure. Sapporo can be cold after all.”

Jazz felt bad for turning him down like that, but she couldn’t help it, torn between longing for him and hiding herself away. Grateful for the way he simply accepted her moods she embraced him again, this time without kissing.

When he closed the door behind him, leaving for a business trip, Jazz wondered why she just couldn’t let herself fall into the embrace of her husband anymore.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

She woke up in the middle of the night, the darkness in the bedroom so absolute that it made no difference if she opened her eyes or not. Lazily she turned around once, smiled when she realized she wasn’t alone in bed anymore. After two nights without him Jazz was glad that Kunihiko was back in their shared bed.

Still, it almost made her jump when she suddenly felt his hand on her cheek but she relaxed and inched closer, an awkward kiss in the dark, without being able to see each other, but they still managed to meet each other’s lips.

And just like that the distance she had so elaborately crafted vanished, took all her doubts with it, left her only with her love and desire for her husband. Kunihiko sleepily grunted when she pressed her body closer to his, wrapped his arms around her and rolled them around until he was on top of her.

Jazz got lost in their kiss, in his touch, eagerly wrapped her legs around him, felt his length hardening against her. When his hands slid under her comfortable and definitely not sexy pajama top she encouraged him by arching her back, pressing her body even closer. As soon as the top was out of the way she reveled in the feeling of his naked skin on hers, grateful for the fact that he was sleeping only in pajama pants. Which had to get off next. Still kissing him Jazz shoved her hands into his pajama pants, pushed them down over his ass, giving him a light squeeze. He chuckled briefly before his lips descended her neck, towards her chest, further down her stomach. She flinched when he kissed her scar but relaxed again when he started tugging off her pajama bottom and panties, waited for him to fully take off his pajama.

But she didn’t want him to linger down there, impatiently tugged at his hair until he came back up, kissed her again. It was strange, the darkness around them seemed to make this even more intimate, more meaningful.

A gasp escaped her lips when he pushed into her, made him still hesitantly until she grabbed his hip and pulled him closer. It had been some time since they had actual sex but suddenly she couldn’t remember why she had been so shy, so insecure. This was what she wanted after all, being close to him, as close as possible, until their hearts beat in the same rhythm again.

It wasn’t the ecstatic fireworks, but it didn’t lack passion and especially not love. Under the comfortable blanket of the darkness they found each other again, closed any distance that was between them, moved together to new highs.

Afterwards Jazz fell asleep again in his arms, snuggled close to him, and only opened her eyes again after the light of the morning drove the darkness away.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

They never talked about that night and Jazz half expected it to have been just a dream, but she could tell something had changed. They were back on track, the touches and kisses less careful, more casual again. And after a while they had sex just like they used to, whenever and wherever they felt like it. She didn’t even think about her condition, her body or the scar that much anymore. The lightness came back and made it easier to breathe, to laugh, to love.

The next few weeks were uneventful in a good way. Both Jazz and Kuni had a lot of work but at home they were closer than ever. While Jazz was planning their wedding ceremony Kunihiko did his best to come home before midnight every day and they spend each evening some time together, talking about their day and the plans for the near future. It was perfect.

It was perfect until Jazz got an unexpected visitor one day. She was sitting in her office, working on some proposals, when her door opened and a woman sauntered in, followed by Izumi who seemed out of breath – probably from chasing after the visitor.

Jazz needed a moment to remember when and where she had seen that face before. Oh yes, snuggled close to her husband in that hotel lobby.

“Sorry Mrs. Aikawa, she just ignored me,” Izumi apologized but Jazz waved him off, noticing the way the eyes of the other woman narrowed at how Izumi addressed her.

“It’s okay, Izumi. Please hold my calls for now.”

The other woman smiled sweetly at the receptionist before she took a seat in front of Jazz’s desk without asking.

“Coffee, please. Black.” With that she waved Izumi off who glanced at Jazz who shook her head. No coffee for that behavior. Jazz waited until Izumi closed the door behind him before she went back to work, ignoring the woman in front of her.

“Hey! I came here to talk to you!”

“One moment, please.” Without glancing up Jazz raised a finger and continued scribbling notes on a piece of paper, circled a word and put the pen down.

“What can I do for you?” She smiled politely but her heart raced. Putting up this act was also meant to give her control over this situation, but it only partly worked.

“You can listen to me!” The other woman pouted, very impressively so. She was really pretty, in her early 20s.

“Well, you are the one barging in here without an appointment, at least let me finish what I was working on first before you demand my attention.” Jazz took her glass of water and sipped, seemingly calm.

“So you really are a money grubbing bitch,” the woman said, obviously pleased with her observation.

“No, I’m someone who has to run a business and my time is precious. So get to the point or get out.” She wouldn’t back down, not in her own office.

“You know who I am?” That was straight to the point and Jazz shrugged.

“Barely. I don’t know your name or what you’re doing, just that you are loosely acquainted with my husband.” She relished in the way the other woman reacted to that word. Husband.

“My name is Yui. Aikawa.” A triumphant smile appeared on her rivals face – was she even a rival? Jazz wasn’t sure yet but she didn’t like the way Yui said her last name.

“I would say ‘pleased to meet you’ but we both know that would be a lie. So, Yui, why are you here today.” Not raising to the bait Jazz made a mental note to ask about that last name later. Someone else preferably.

“I thought I’d do both of us a favor and end this charade already. Kunihiko is mine and you should know it.” She raised her chin lightly, silently challenging Jazz.

“Funny, last time I checked I was married to him. So, care to tell me how exactly he’s yours?”

The smile on Yui’s face only widened. “I’m the reason he’s ‘working late’. He will leave you for me soon and then I will be his wife.”

Jazz’s first instinct was to yell. To tell Yui to shut the fuck up and get her ass out of Jazz’s office, but that wouldn’t answer any question. So she sucked a harsh breath and let it out in a chuckle again.

“Dream on, kiddo. As long as your name’s not Aikawa-Mihachi fusion you’re definitely not the reason he’s at work for that long each day. Just because you got the support of his grandmother doesn’t mean you have the man himself, you know?” She leaned back in her chair and kept smiling, but it was strained, the corners of her mouth twitching lightly.

“That’s what he wants you to think. We thought it would be better to have everything hashed out before presenting you with a fait accompli. We are planning our wedding, a real ceremony with our families, not some secret stunt like you pulled it. It should have occurred to you already back then when he didn’t want anyone to know that he might not be serious about you.” There was pity in Yui’s voice and that was something Jazz just couldn’t take.

She clenched her fists, trying to suppress her anger. Her patience was already thin on good days but this now was really putting it to a test.

“Listen, Missie, I have no idea what you’re thinking, but I don’t believe you, okay? And honestly, I get a bit tired of this farce, so would you-“

“I’m pregnant. With Kunihiko’s baby.” Yui reached into her purse and handed Jazz an envelope. “Open it.”

With trembling fingers Jazz pulled an ultrasound image out of the envelope. It was mostly black and white but there was a small human being recognizable. A wave of nausea washed over her.

“For how long?”

“Six weeks already. We are seeing each other for longer of course.”

Six weeks. Jazz quickly counted back in her head. The day she had seen both of them in the hotel? Or at least around that time.

“Get out.” She didn’t look at Yui, simply spat the words out, forced them through the anger that welled up again.

“I just thought I’d give you a fair warning. Maybe you are honorable enough to simply let him go instead of making it hard for him and his new family.” Yui got up and smirked. “Keep the picture. As souvenir. It will be all that you will be having left of him.”

“You say you’re sleeping with MY husband but I am the one lacking honor here?” Jazz grumbled after Yui was gone, struggling to keep her breathing even, willing her emotions aside. This wasn’t the time for a tantrum. It was the time to act.

Quickly she grabbed her phone and called the only one who could help her now.

“Takao? Sorry to disturb you, but I need some advice. Legal advice. Say, what can you tell me about divorces?”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

There had been a note with Yui’s phone number in the envelope, probably for when Jazz decided to cave in. Now she nervously called that number, still thinking about how to deal with all this. Takao had enlightened her in some points of divorce law and a quick internet research had answered some of her other questions so she was steeled for this encounter, not taken by surprise like the last time.

She knew exactly what she had to do and even if Jazz dreaded confrontations like that – with inevitable tears and screaming – she wouldn’t back down now. A clear cut, that’s what they needed now.

She pumped herself up mentally before she dialed the number.

“Yes?” Yui sounded very pleased so that Jazz gritted her teeth briefly, praying for countenance.

“I think we should talk.”

“Hm, yes, I think so, too. Are you still in your office?” There was a barely hidden triumph in Yui’s voice that riled Jazz up even further.

“No. And I don’t want you to come here again. I’d prefer somewhere else. Maybe a café or something.”

“A public place? For your safety or mine?” It was easy to see through Jazz’s suggestion but she didn’t care.

“How about that lobby? You know, the hotel where everything started?” Yui suggested, not without malice.

“Sure. In about an hour?” Jazz had to take back the reins or she wouldn’t survive that talk.

“I will be there.” With that Yui hung up, leaving Jazz with an unsettling feeling in her guts.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Of course Jazz was fashionably five minutes late when she walked into that lobby without hurry. Spotting Yui was easy, the younger woman was beaming with smug self-satisfaction, it was like a neon sign.

After a last deep breath Jazz walked right over, waved the waiter away who appeared immediately.

“No thanks, I won’t stay long.” She dropped her purse on the table and took her coat off.

“So, did you decide what to do?” Yui took a sip from her coffee cup and leaned back in her seat.

“I did. I had to make some calls but now I know what I have to do. The only thing. The right thing.”

Jazz reached into her purse and took out a stack of papers.

“I called Osanai – he said you have visited Kuni in the office a few times…”

“I did. Sorry, I don’t like the whole sneaking around behind the back of the wife thing, but Kunihiko was – not ready yet. To tell you.”

Nodding her head slowly Jazz forced herself to look at Yui. “And now he is?”

The younger woman had the decency to hesitate, avoiding eye contact. “Well, given the circumstances I figured I couldn’t wait any longer.”

“True. Given the circumstances… but you know what really bugs me? That he didn’t have the balls to tell me himself. That he had to send you, you of all people…” Even Jazz thought that her sigh was a bit exaggerated, but she couldn’t stop now.

“You know how he is, far too gentle and kind to do it on his own.” Yui’s eyes flitted over to the papers. “What’s that?”

“Divorce papers. I thought I better come prepared.” Takao had delivered quickly and Jazz was grateful for that.

“So you decided to actually let him go?”

This was it, the moment of truth.

“No. Actually those are my divorce papers from my first marriage. I just brought them so you could see a tiny detail. See those signatures down there? Where both spouses have to sign to legally end the marriage? That’s the point – we both would have to agree on that. And honestly? Neither I nor Kuni will do that.”

She exhaled deeply, now that she had said her piece she felt much better.

“But Kunihiko wants it! He’s going to have a family with me soon! With me, not with you!” Yui was already half out of her chair when Jazz raised a hand and motioned for her to sit down again.

“I won’t accept this until I hear it from Kuni directly. But of course we can ask him – and tell him that he’s going to be a father soon. Or have you told him that already?” With a smile Jazz waved towards the entrance where Kunihiko just arrived.

“I took the liberty to call him. After all this is about him, too.”

Yui paled when Kunihiko reached their table, frowning in confusion at the unexpected sight of those two women together.

“Jazz? What is going on here?”

She greeted him with a kiss before she quickly explained. “Yui here told me she was having an affair with you and that she’s pregnant now so you want to break up with me to be with her.” Jazz shot a sweet smile into Yui’s direction. “Did I sum that up okay?”

Kuni’s frown deepened. “Wait, what? That’s – Jazz, that’s not true! I never – I mean, you know I wouldn’t cheat on you!” He stared at Yui who tried to make herself smaller. “Why are you saying something like that?”

“Yes, Yui, why? I mean, slandering his name, calling him a cheater – that’s really low. Do you have an idea how much that could affect his business? Spreading lies and rumors like that?”

With a satisfied grin Jazz watched Yui squirm. She had always been a fan of honesty and right now she knew she had been right. Why should she rush off and do something stupid without at least listening to what Kunihiko had to say to these allegations? In what world did that work?

“Is that why you kept coming to my office?” By now Kunihiko seemed less confused, more angry. Between Jazz and Kuni Yui could barely get a word in edgewise.

“And what about that bullshit about you being pregnant from me? We never even kissed, let alone had sex! And then you run to my wife, trying to manipulate her? What kind of snake are you?” Now Kuni was in full swing and Jazz had to place a hand on his arm to remind him to stay calm. Other guests were already staring, not that Jazz minded. A public place also meant public humiliation, something Yui apparently hadn’t considered. At least not for herself.

“I just – I tried to – I thought…”

“No! You didn’t think at all, that’s the problem! That faked, set up date was one thing, but this? A full-fledged scheme to make us break up? That’s – god, that’s so incredibly stupid and low!”

“Kuni,” Jazz whispered, “take a deep breath. I know you’re angry-“

“Damn right, I am!” Jazz had never seen him that furious, not even during their worst fights, but she kept talking.

“– but I guess she gets it now.” With her gaze on Yui again Jazz’s tone got sharper. “And I guess she understands that meddling like a toddler in kindergarten won’t bring her closer to her goal. I don’t know how much of this little scheme actually comes from you or if that was someone else’s idea, but you better remember now: We won’t fall for that shit. Because we actually talk to each other. We know each other. And I trust him – unconditionally.”

As if to prove her point Kunihiko grabbed Jazz’s hand and squeezed it lightly. They had their fair share of jumping to conclusions and making mistakes, but in the end they were both willing to make it work, to fight for what they had. Jazz wouldn’t throw that away just because some girl came along with that kind of story.

“Oh, and I don’t know where you got that ultrasound image but you can have it back.”

Kunihiko blinked. “You even got an ultrasound image? Where the hell-?!”

“Internet.” Yui’s voice was only a whisper but Jazz had no sympathy with her. Not after Yui had pulled that stunt. Going along with that date Kunihiko’s grandmother had set up was one thing, but this? Yui had crossed a line that Jazz would never dare to even get close to. A girl needed at least a bit of class and pride after all.

“Next time – pay attention while researching. And now excuse me, my husband and I are leaving. I suggest you never show your face around us anymore. Never.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jazz felt sick. Physically sick. Kunihiko ranted on and on, only interrupted by apologies and affirmations of his love for her.

“It’s okay, love, I’m just – can you take me home? All this was a bit much…”

“Yes, of course. I still can’t believe it… do you think my grandmother is behind all that? Or did Yui come up with that nonsense on her own?” Kunihiko flagged down a cab and helped her into it.

“I have no idea. Maybe you should talk to your grandmother again. God knows I’m not keen on that conversation.” She sighed and rested her head on his shoulder.

“I will. Sorry, I never thought something like this could happen. And Yui just showed up out of the blue in your office?”

She nodded with a sigh. “Not even three hours ago. I had to find out some things on my own before I could tell you. Sorry, I should have called you first thing after she left. I just –“ Another sigh and Jazz squirmed in her seat. “I had to ask Takao if there’s a way for anyone to MAKE us get a divorce. He said that was only possible if one of us was declared incompetent so the marriage could get declared invalid after all.”

She grabbed his hand and kissed the palm. “Nothing could make me give you up. Not after all we had to go through to get here.”

“But she even came with an ultrasound image… I mean, every other woman would have gotten suspicious at that point. But you still trusted me?”

She swallowed. Obviously it was another moment of truth. Jazz had planned it differently but now as good as any other time.

“I trust you. You said you would be honest with me and I believe you. Besides… that picture she showed me. She said she was six weeks pregnant but that embryo in the picture was at least 12 weeks, maybe even later. And I figured if she lied to me about that, the rest might be a lie, too.”

She could feel him tensing up, his attention now focused on her.

“How do you know that? About the picture?”

She pressed his hand that she was still holding against her belly, tears pricking in her eyes.

“I know how a fetus with six weeks should look like – because I have an ultrasound image of one…”

He stared at her, speechless, mouth agape.

“Holy – are you – really? You are pregnant?” His eyes were shining and he laughed happily when she nodded, biting her bottom lip to keep her own grin in check.

“You are pregnant! We’re having a baby? I can’t – that’s the best news I ever got!” He cheered so loudly that the driver turned around, congratulated them when he realized what the fuss was about.

“Since when do you know? Why haven’t you told me already?” Kunihiko wasn’t angry, just eager to know everything there was to know.

“I only found out two days ago myself. Actually I haven’t expected it to happen at all so I didn’t realize that all my symptoms lately were – well, symptoms.” Jazz laughed with him, unable to keep her emotions from bubbling over. “The doctor confirmed my suspicion yesterday. I haven’t told anyone yet because – actually I can’t really believe it myself.”

She reached into her purse to show him the blurry black and white ultrasound picture. “That’s our baby.”

Almost reverently he took the picture, eyes shining wet with unshed tears. “Wow…” he whispered. “It’s perfect.”

There was a lot to do now, preparations had to be made and decisions. But in that cab on their way home, nothing else mattered than their little, growing family.

If MIHO was MC Part 1

Star-Crossed Myth

Zodiac Gods: Choose whose sin you’re going to remove!
Leon lays hand on Miho’s shoulder and causes a spontaneous orgasm.
Miho: HIM! HOLY…. HOLY FUCK HIM!
Miho gyrates wildly.
Hue: I’m not sure humping his leg is the way to remove his sin, Miho.
Miho: Don’t -hump- fuckin’ -hump- care -hump-
Leon: Eh, let the goldfish do what she wants. Look at the stupid expression on her face.

Our Two Bedroom Story

Miho arrives at the house her stepfather said she could stay in, only to find her hot step-brother there.
Miho: Actually… not even mad.

Finally, In Love Again

Miho at the mixer party having sparked the interest of multiple men.
Miho: I have an announcement to make!
Room falls quiet.
Miho: Listen up! It’s my birthday and I’m sex starved!
Points at said interested men.
Miho: You, you you, you aaaaaand, you… love hotel, right now.

My First Last Kiss

Hiroki attempts to tease/flirt… Miho holds up hand.
Miho: Had your chance son, now it’s just sexual harassment. Like your job do you? Then cut it the fuck out. Also I had sex with everyone at Conte last night – even Ichiya – which is why you weren’t invited.
Miho smiles sweetly and continues mundane work.