The scent of smoke – Part 4

In the middle of the night Subaru slipped into the bedroom, silently joined his sleeping wife in their bed. They had separate covers; Jazz tended to toss and turn a lot and with their irregular hours they decided early to minimize the risk of waking the other up. But tonight he didn’t stay on his side of the bed, instead he snuggled under her covers.

With a tired grunt she turned around, inched closer, directly into his embrace.

“You’re back…” she slurred, voice laden with sleep, eyes still closed.

“I am. I missed you.”

In the darkness his lips missed hers, but he found her cheek. Her forehead next. She hummed, snuggled even closer.

“You okay?”

“Yeah. Go back to sleep.”

They could talk in the morning, there was nothing left to say now. Subaru listened to the sound of her breathing until he fell asleep, too.

 

Miho stared at the screen, tried to predict the next moves of the organisation. It was impossible of course, they were all over the place. Drugs, guns, human trafficking – the worst kind of people. But professional, with an official front to cover up their illegal activities. A whole network of smaller and bigger businesses, more people than she could imagine in varying levels of involvement. No one they had gotten their hands on so far was high up enough to give them valuable information, most only knew their own small part and maybe their contact by name and that was all. Dead-ends wherever she looked.

“Dammit.” She pushed her chair back, away from the desk, rubbed her fingertips in circles over her temples.

“Stuck again?”

She didn’t even turn her head, although it was still strange to have Seiji at her department every now and then she gladly accepted the comfort he offered when his hands found her shoulders, kneaded the tense muscles.

“Yeah, they are – like ninjas. I hate it.”

“You hate that you can’t catch them?” After years of being together, working together occasionally Goto knew her better than anyone else. Better than Jazz even, although Jazz would deny it.

“I hate that I don’t even have a name! Not even a rumor, nothing. Someone has to lead this organisation, and it could be anyone. I could walk past them on the street and wouldn’t know. I hate not knowing things.”

She tipped her head back, rested it against his stomach. Closed her eyes and just breathed.

“How about we take a break? You’re sitting here for hours already.” He patted her shoulders, a sign he was done massaging.

“Coffee?”

“Whatever you want.”

Miho’s eyes snapped open, sparkled at the possibilities – to tease her husband.

“Whatever I want? Lieutenant, are you suggesting getting frisky here? At my desk?”

It was late in the evening, but there were still people around. This wasn’t a 9 to 5 job, crime never slept. And cops were supposed to be infused with coffee so they wouldn’t sleep either.

“You know very well that I’m not suggesting that.” His voice dropped to a low murmur. “At least not here, at your desk.”

Miho swiveled around in her chair, raised an eyebrow.

“But somewhere else?”

It was amazing how shy a man could stay despite being married to a woman like Miho. She was bold, loud, demanding – and he loved it, yet he was surprised by just how bold she could be sometimes.

Miho got ups, stretched a bit, kept her eyes on Goto.

“Meet me in the staircase in three minutes.” No kiss, just a promise sparkling in her gaze and she left, muttered something about more coffee to anyone who would listen.

Three minutes later the door to the staircase closed with a loud thud.

“Are you bolder here because it’s not your department?” Miho asked pushed Goto against the wall, kissed him before he could even answer.

“Cameras?” he managed to press out before Miho attacked again.

“Yeah, a few. Excited?” Her chuckle echoed through the concrete hoistway as she took his hand, pulled him with her, down the stairs, through another door and a hallway, dark and narrow.

“Where are we going?”

“Maintenance room. Not sexy, but pretty much private.”

“Pretty much?” His voice conveyed his doubts, she didn’t have to see his expression to know what he was thinking.

“Very private. I never met anyone else there during my short adventures.” Her cheekiness earned her a slap on the bum and a growl from her husband.

“Don’t even joke about it. You married me and now I’m the only one you have adventures with, got that?”

Miho turned around, cupped his face and pulled his lips against hers. “You’re cute when you’re jealous.” With a gasp her back hit the wall, pressed against it by her husband.

“I’m not cute… “

He swallowed up her giggles with his kiss, hands already tugging at her clothes.

“You are plenty cute… but also hot and handsome and very, very sexy.” Still, Miho put her hands on his chest, pushed him off her. “Not here. Come on, it’s just a few more steps.”

A simple door saying ‘Maintenance’ was their goal, Miho pushed it open with her hip, pulled Goto inside.

“It’s a – boiler room.” Goto took a moment to look around the room. Small, that was true, but dry and clean. Some heating installation, a locker, a table.

“You sound disappointed.” Miho grabbed a chair and blocked the door with it.

“More like the opposite. I expected a janitor’s closet, but this? Yeah, I can work with it.” That was all the warning she got before he was back, pressed against her.

“We better be quick about this. Don’t want anyone come looking for us.” Miho walked backwards until she met the table, hopped on it and pulled Seiji closer. He hummed, fingers busy tugging her shirt out of her pants to get access to her naked skin.

Miho was already a step further, her hands undoing his belt and opening his pants. In a fluid motion she slid off the table, pushed his pants down and opened her own. Wiggling her hips she got them as far down as necessary, turned around and braced her hands on the table.

No prompt needed. Goto cupped her butt the second he had a chance to, squeezed it with a satisfied hum.

“For a cop you really enjoy walking the fine line,” he pointed out, fingers finding their way between her thighs.

“For a cop you’re easily convinced to follow me on that line,” Miho shot back, hissed when he dipped a finger into her.

“I’m your husband. I’ll follow you anywhere.”

“Even into a boiler room?” She looked over her shoulder with a smirk, gasped when he pulled her hips back.

“For this? Anytime.”

 

Back in the office a familiar, scowling face awaited them.

“Captain Ishigami, sir. Any news?”

Goto stood straight, his clothes back to their impeccable state minus some wrinkles here and there.

“I was looking for you and Fujiwara. We caught another gang member.”

“High ranking?” Miho’s eyes sparkled, but her face fell when the captain shook his head.

“Unfortunately not. But not on the lowest rank, either. He’s still getting interrogated, I thought you might want to listen.”

“You bet I do!” She grabbed a notepad and her bag, nodded towards the men. “Ready when you are.”

“Good. Let’s leave right away.”

The elevator was quick for a change and they all piled in, accompanied by some other members of the special assault team.

“You’re looking a bit out of breath. Are you okay, Sergeant?”

Ishigami was perceptive, his rank as captain well earned.

“I’m perfectly fine, sir.”

The captain nodded, stared at Goto next. “Lieutenant, you’re not looking any better. I hope you didn’t catch anything.”

Goto coughed lightly, but shook his head. “No sir, not sick. Just-”

“We were working out earlier. Cardio.” An elevator full of cops and Miho lied without batting an eye.

“Keeping yourself fit. Good. Good job, officers.” Ishigami pushed his glasses up his nose, nodded once.

Someone in the back coughed again, it sounded more like covered up laughter. Miho’s pokerface was impeccable, but her elbow found the ribs of the meddlesome coworker.

 

The cherry blossoms had wilted already, left a carpet of dirty pink in the parks and some streets. Despite his efforts Subaru hadn’t been able to take Jazz on a date, but she had gone with Miho instead. The fragile, short-lived beauty of early spring was a spectacle many people in Tokyo didn’t want to miss and although she wasn’t exactly and outdoorsy person Jazz enjoyed the burst of pale pink after the grey winter.

But the hanami, the annual cherry blossom festival, was also an important date for the event season. It kicked off not only sakura themed parties, it was also the beginning for the wedding season.

Jazz was swamped with work. The little time Subaru had at home often didn’t match up with her schedule, they stayed in touch with calls and texts. A weak comfort after a hard day, but something she had gotten used to.

On the other hand she wasn’t willing to cut her hours, not that close to another promotion. Especially not when another job landed on her desk, this time not a wedding.

“Liana! We got the Graphics and Art award job!” With a wild grin Jazz found her assistant brooding over some calculations, papers strewn all over the desk.

“Wait, the big one? Good grief…”

The company had several teams, not strictly divided by field or theme. Performance was what resulted in better jobs and awards were highly coveted.

“The one and only. Four weeks, the basics are already done. Looks like Yamamoto couldn’t convince with his concept.”

Liana’s eyes widened, but quickly her expression fell. “That’s going to get ugly. Last time he lost a job within the company, he made a huge scene.”

“And almost got fired. I hope he learned from that experience. Anyway, we got it now and I’m going to start drafting right away. Can you take care of the Osmond/Nomura wedding on your own?”

Most of the planning was already done, and with the groom being a cop Jazz knew exactly what she had to do. Thanks to Miho and Goto she had arranged a handful of cop weddings, a cop ball and even – much to her dismay – a funeral or two. Cops were easy to please, a fact Miho liked to remind her every now and then.

“I’m confident that I can deal with it,” Liana assured her and Jazz suppressed the urge for a victory dance.

“Great. I need a location and I need a good idea. Call me if you need anything, until then I’m off to find inspiration.” No art gallery of the city would be safe, no museum off limits. This job could be her break though and she wanted it to be perfect.

Every day it was a little bit warmer now. Her jacket was unbuttoned and with a spring in her step Jazz walked towards the train station, smiled at the people around her.

She had already a few possible venues in mind; it paid off to be prepared after all. After the first two art galleries she went to a small museum for modern art and photography. The outside was already promising, brick walls and huge windows. Modern, with an industrial touch. Hopefully spacious on the inside. They needed a stage, tables and some free spots for people to mingle.

The entrance fee was moderate, Jazz could file it as business expense and get reimbursed by the company. Her shoes clacked on the concrete floor, her tap tap the only sounds on this lazy Tuesday morning.

Art installations and posters, photos and even some concept art she didn’t understand filled the first floor and Jazz took her time, paid more attention to the location than the exhibition. She wasn’t an expert when it came to art but she knew what she liked. For example some of the photos, black and white, shots of nature, landscapes and the urban jungle alike.

She just stared at a picture of what looked like the African Savanna when she heard the voices, turned towards the entrance area to see two men approaching.

“We could free some space over there, at the northern wall. That way you could also separate your work, arrange it by topic.” The smaller man, with salt and pepper hair and deep wrinkles, smiled politely when he spotted Jazz. But her gaze was fixed to his companion, tall, broad-shouldered, with a familiar face and ponytail.

“Now that’s a rare sight. It’s still light outside and you are already up and about?” His smile matched hers and for a second Jazz had no witty retort.

“I am. Unfortunately I don’t have a beer in my purse for the off chance to meet you somewhere.”

“Yushima-san, you know this young lady?” The older man followed their short exchange, confusion creeping into his expression at the casual tone.

“Yushima-san, huh?” Now he had a name and Jazz savored the fact that she knew something about him while he had still no clue about her. Like a game and she was leading.

“’Know’ is too much, but we met.” Yushima-san tilted his head in an almost bow without taking his eyes off her.

“Oh. And here I thought you would be here for Yushima-san’s new exhibition.”

That got Jazz’s attention, she looked from Yushima to the other man, smiled widely.

“No, but this seems to be a lucky coincidence.”

“Ah yes, serendipity it’s called, isn’t it? Well, I have to discuss some exhibition related questions with Yushima-san, but maybe afterwards he can show you around?” The excited glimmer in his eyes made him appear starstruck and Jazz smile.

“Sounds perfect to me. If Yushima-san is okay with it, that is.”

“Yushima-san would appreciate if you don’t talk about him as if he’s not here,” Yushima grumbled, scratched the back of his neck.

“Awww, are you embarrassed? Don’t be, I’m just here, looking upon your photos, complete enthralled and deeply impressed.” She winked, but the exaggeration wasn’t enough to register with the fanboy next to Yushima.

“That is the usual reaction, yes. Now if you would excuse us.” Again the smaller man bowed and Jazz mirrored the gesture, her amused grin unwavering.

The photos were indeed impressive and very diverse. Animals, plants, landscapes. With half an ear Jazz listened to the conversation, about lighting, frame size and format. Every now and then she risked a glance, caught Yushima-san’s gaze, shared a smile and looked away again.

Like a giggling school girl she played this game, slowly walked around the exhibition room, casually checked if he was still watching her. His steps echoed through the empty space, stopped short behind her.

“You like it?”

The picture in front of her was impressive, a huge tree, just the wood, no leaves, almost completely white in an otherwise green forest.

“It’s beautiful. Not my favorite here, but yes, I like it.” She turned, flashed him a smile.

“Which one is your favorite?” He brought with him a smell almost as earthy as the forest in the picture, wood and leaves, some notes of soap.

“Over there.” She motioned towards the other end of the wall, went the picture without waiting for him. “Here. This is – incredible.”

One of the few colored photos, a blue sky and vivid green fields. Bushes and trees. And at the right side a huge mountain. Smoke rose into the clear sky from its peak.

He hummed, caught up with her in front of it.

“What is it that you like about it?”

Jazz tilted her head, picked the right words from with care. It didn’t happen often anymore that she got reminded of her status as foreigner, but poetry was fickle.

“The contrast and the balance. Peace and danger. It’s like – look how lush the vegetation is. Probably because of the volcanic ashes, it’s great fertilizer. But at the same time there is this constant threat that the volcano could erupt and destroy it all. Isn’t it fascinating how life can thrive even under the direst circumstances?”

“So you like danger, is that what you are telling me?” His voice had dropped, sent a tingle through her spine. Her light chuckle was the contrast, just like in the photo.

“Controlled danger, maybe. But actually I like to play it safe.”

“But you still like to play,” he concluded to which she couldn’t object, just shrugged and spun around.

“So, some of these photos are yours? Which ones?” Hands behind her back she wandered along the walls, pointed at different pictures.

“Those over there. The whole wall. And these here,” he explained, waited at his spot for her to finish her rounds. “Your favorite is actually one of mine, too. And one of my faves.”

“Good taste.” No need to clarify which one of them she was talking about. A glance at her watch and she sighed, squared her shoulders. “As nice as it has been, I have to go back to work now. Maybe we’ll run into each other again, Yushima-san.”

“How about we meet on purpose next time?” he suggested, one hand in his pocket, reaching for his phone.

“Hmm… nah. That would ruin the thrill. No, I like it the way it is. I start wondering where you will pop up next time.” She waved briefly, left with the same tap tap she had arrived with, but more sway in her hips.

 

“What do you mean, you met him again?” Liana frowned, some florist offers in her hand.

“Like I said, I ran into him in that museum. Great location, by the way. I got the number of the owner on my way out, hopefully he will agree to such an event in his rooms.” Jazz hummed lowly, jotted some notes down into her planner.

“Yes, great, but back to the ponytail guy. Don’t you think it’s getting suspicious that he shows up wherever you go?” Several sheets of paper slapped on the surface of Jazz’s desk as Liana let go of them and plopped into a chair.

“Turns out he has a name and he actually is some kind of artist, so no, it’s not suspicious at all. He’s showing his work in art galleries and museums, so he has every right to be there. Planning a new exhibition if I’m not mistaken.” Jazz signed some of the papers, boldly crossed out some of the offers. “If they can’t guarantee us lilac I don’t even want to deal with them.”

“Jazz!” Liana’s voice rarely reached much volume, as assistant she wasn’t supposed to yell at her superior anyway.

“What?” Still her pen in her hand Jazz looked up, met Liana’s angry gaze.

“You don’t even take this seriously! He could be a stalker!”

“Oh come on.” The swivel chair creaked when Jazz leaned backwards, head tipped back, eyes to the ceiling. Her deep exhale made the papers tremble, but she met Liana’s eyes again. “He’s not a stalker. He’s a photographer, and actually a pretty successful one. Jetsets all over the world, had covers in the most big magazines. Won some awards. He’s not the stalker type.”

“That’s what everyone says and then it’s too late. ‘Oh, he didn’t seem to be the stalker type.” Liana snorted, her furrowed brow unfurled only when her eyes went wide. “Wait, how do you know that all about him? Did you look him up on the internet?”

“Maybe.” Acting casually with a constantly growing grin was impossible, Jazz quickly gave it up.

“Oh my god, you’re not – you’re not stalking him are you?”

“What? No! Of course not! I just happened to catch his name and was curious, so I checked his wiki bio. And yes, he has a wiki bio.” She picked up the strewn papers, arranged them into a clean stack.

“Do I have to remind you that you’re married?” Her arms crossed Liana raised her eyebrow, refused to take the papers.

“No, you don’t. God dammit, I’m just flirting a bit with him, it’s completely innocent. I could tell Subaru and he wouldn’t even say anything. There’s nothing to it after all.”

“But you haven’t told Subaru yet,” Liana pointed out.

“Why should I? He’s not telling me about every time he smiles at a woman either. That’s not how our marriage works.” Trust was the base, not strict rules and secretiveness. “I wouldn’t do anything I couldn’t tell him.” In a sugarcoated way maybe, but she did tell him that she met this man the first time. At least that someone helped her with that drunk guest. If Subaru forgot about it after a few weeks…

“But you haven’t.”

“Would you stop it already? Fine, I’ll tell him tonight. You feel better now?”

The stack of papers wandered from Jazz’s hands to Liana’s.

“I just don’t want you to risk your marriage over some crush.”

“I know,” Jazz softly admitted. Liana was divorced after all, although Jazz didn’t know all the details. A failed marriage wasn’t easy to stomach, no matter whose fault it was.

“And I’m not crushing on him. He’s just one of the few men I met here who didn’t directly ask for my name and number just because I smiled at him. Just a chat, nothing more.”

The scent of smoke – Part 3

“Jazz! Hurry up now or I’m leaving without you!” Subaru closed his cuffs, checked his tie in the mirror.

“Not my fault that you hogged the bathroom for that long,” she grumbled and rushed past him, grabbed a pair of earrings to put them on.

“You know how my father can be. We mustn’t be late.”

“We won’t be late and even if, it’s not my fault that you need an eternity for your hair. It only took me ten minutes to get ready.” His nervousness was contagious but not unfounded.  Ichiyanagi-san was a strict man, especially when it came to his son. High expectations, fueled by Subaru’s success so far, burdened the relationship between father and son. It also affected Jazz as Subaru’s wife. In the beginning his father was less than pleased, his plans for his son didn’t include some foreigner, especially not without any political influence or money.

Ichiyanagi-san seemed to warm up to her lately, though. Jazz liked to think it was because of her positive influence on Subaru and his life in general, but it was probably something else. Saving his energy for important battles.

“How do I look?” She focused on her husband again, the pondering wouldn’t do her any good anyway.

“Why don’t you wear the green dress?” Subaru took his jacket, grabbed his keys.

“Because we don’t have the time for me to change and I like the red one.” She accepted the coat he offered her, checked her purse one last time.

“I like the green one better but you look great in this, too.” A quick peck on her cheek and they were good to go. One of these days she would conquer the heart of her father in law just like she had conquered the heart of Subaru – with a smile, lots of charm and the patience of a saint. Which she didn’t have.

But this was their last night together before Subaru had to go on a week long business trip,  Jazz wanted to get over with the official part and jump to the goodbye session she had in mind.

 

It was almost midnight when they came back. Jazz kicked her shoes off the moment the door closed behind them, sighed when her aching feet made contact with the fluffy carpet.

“That was a really nice restaurant.”

Subaru took her coat, hummed lowly.

“It would have been nicer if the waiter hadn’t ogled my wife all night.”

Jazz snorted, turned around to face him. “Is that why your mood was so sour in the end?”

“See? That’s why I wanted you to wear the green dress. The neckline is more modest.”

“Oh.” She nodded slowly. “So you don’t like the red one because it’s showing off my body too much?” Her hands followed the lines of her curves and she swayed her hips enticingly.

“You look fabulous in it and you know it. But I’d rather be the only one enjoying this view.” He couldn’t stay grumpy, not with the way Jazz moved her body. So he stepped closer, put his hands on her hips and pulled her against him.

“Let them gawk. In the end you are the one I’m going home with.” Her arms wrapped around his neck she smiled up at him, her body pressed flush against his.

“I just think it’s shameless to drool over another man’s wife while he’s sitting right there.” His hands slid towards her backside, squeezed her butt.

“And I think you are exaggerating but if it’s bothering you so much, how about I take your mind off of things for a while?” Her voice dropped to a low, sultry whisper, she stretched up, on her tiptoes, and brushed her lips over his.

“Are you feeling bad for flirting with him in front of me?” The accusation was mellowed by the smile tugging at his lips.

“I didn’t flirt. You should remember how it looks like when I’m flirting, and if I’m not mistaken you enjoyed it very much last time I did that with you.” Her lips traveled up his neck, nipped here and there.

“Usually I enjoy everything you do with me,” he admitted, tilted his head to capture her lips again.

“Mhm, same.” His tie didn’t put up much resistance when she loosened it and pulled it off him. It ended on the floor, followed by his jacket.

“When do you have to leave tomorrow?” One by one the buttons of his shirt gave way to Jazz’s nimble fingers.

“10 am. Kaiji is picking me up here.” His hands searched for the zipper of her dress, a triumphant grunt marked his success.

“Oh good. That gives me enough time to tire you out properly and for you to sleep afterwards.” Jazz stepped out of her dress, took his hand and tugged him towards their bedroom. They had to make up for a week’s worth of physical affection in advance and that was a challenge she gladly accepted.

 

The police department was always busy. Special departments were smaller than the general police department, but there was never a break, never a lull.

Miho actually liked it that way, no matter what day or nighttime she came into the office, there was always someone working. There was a picture of her, Goto and Subaru as rookies on her desk, another one of her and Jazz at a party, pulling faces for the photographer.

Her nameplate read “Sergeant Fujiwara”, despite being married for more than five years she never took Goto’s last name.

“Hey, Fujiwara! New case, briefing’s in five!”

She waved at her coworker, grabbed her notepad and the pen Goto gave her for the start of her service in the SAT two years ago and made her way over to huge table in the middle of the office.

A tall man with glasses and a very strict expression waited for the team members to assemble, his gaze zeroed in on Miho when she arrived.

“Captain Ishigami.” She greeted him formally, despite knowing him for years already. He was a stickler for rules and she would know, since he was also Goto’s captain.

“Sergeant. Take a seat, we are starting in three minutes.”

If Goto was there, too, he would have told her in advance so Miho just did as told, opened her notepad and waited for the briefing to start.

 

“So both of your teams are working together for a case? Wow, how are the odds,” Jazz wondered and took another gyoza from the plate.

“Actually not that low if you think about it. She’s in a special assault team, I’m in Public Safety, there are a lot of common operations.” Goto still waited for his ramen to cool off.

“You spend too much time with your captain.” Miho snatched a gyoza from Jazz, grinned when her friend shot her a glare. “She didn’t mean it literal. No need to actually calculate the odds for this.”

“I just mean, you never worked together since Miho started this new assignment. Is it strange now?” Only vaguely aware of what exactly they did at their jobs Jazz kept her questions superficial, there was a lot of confidentiality when it came to police work after all.

“Not strange so far. We haven’t really worked together yet, just our departments. I guess Captain Ishigami doesn’t approve of distractions at work coming from working with your spouse anyway, so we won’t exactly go on shared missions.” Finally the food had the right temperature for Goto so he grabbed his chopsticks and dug in.

“So no hanky-panky at work?”

Goto choked on his noodles, living with Miho should have prepared him for direct questions but hearing them from Jazz still made him uncomfortable.

“Never say never,” Miho piped up, angled for another gyoza but wasn’t fast enough.

“Order some for yourself next time,” Jazz advised while chewing on the last dumpling.

“How long is Ichiyanagi away this time?” Goto ignored the food related quarrel, looked at Jazz for an answer.

“Just until Friday. Three more days, no big deal.”

“And what are you doing those three days?”

“Work, mostly. Deep cleaning the apartment. Sorting through some old stuff. You know, keeping myself busy.”

Goto’s brow furrowed but Jazz just shrugged.

“Deep cleaning in a house that Ichiyanagi lives in? Does that even make sense?”

Jazz laughed at his question, but he wasn’t wrong. Subaru really was a cleaning maniac of sorts.

“Well, there might not be dust or dirt, but someone has no clue how to keep their paperwork organised. I thought about getting everything ready for the taxes. Maybe even organise his closet. Some of his clothes are not fit to be worn out of the house anymore.”

“The mighty Ichiyanagi, so he does have a weakness after all.” With Jazz distracted Miho launched an attack on her ramen toppings, swiped a fried shrimp, much to Jazz’s indignation.

“Hey! Your husband is sitting right there, why don’t you steal his food?”

“Because he has the permission to wear and use a gun. You really think I’m messing with him?”

In retaliation Jazz grabbed Miho’s sake cup and downed it.

“If they kick us out of another ramen place I won’t ever take the both of you out for dinner again,” Goto warned, didn’t even flinch when Miho stole a mushroom from his bowl.

“Then we are just gonna take each other out, what do you say?”

“You know I’d take you out whenever you feel like it,” Jazz confirmed, clinked her sake cup against Miho’s and with that they continued eating and chatting until it was time to go home.

 

“Good job today.” Jazz bowed to her team, clapped a few times. “You better go home now before you get locked in over night.” There was a big birthday party planned for the next day, but for now all the preparations were done.

“Liana! Do you have a second?”

While the rest of the staff left Liana waited for Jazz who locked up and smiled at her assistant. “Later tonight I’m meeting with a friend for a drink or two. You wanna come, too?”

They had worked together for several months already, chatted during breaks and after events, but not usually spent time with each other outside of work.

“What about work tomorrow?” Liana asked, looked back at the just finished location.

“We won’t get wasted, just have a drink or two. We will be back home and in bed way before midnight. It’s not even fancy. I’m going to take a dip in the public bath on my way back home, just change into something comfortable and hop over to this nice little bar we know. Snacks, drinks, girls’ talk.”

“Are you sure your friend will be okay with it? I don’t want to impose.”

Jazz reached into her purse, took out a small business card. “You wouldn’t. I just invited you. And I asked Miho in advance, she said she wants to meet you anyway. Probably will try to make you spill some juicy work stories.” Quickly she scribbled some instructions on the card, handed it to Liana. “Just think about it. You don’t have to, but I guess it would be fun.”

Liana turned the card in her hand, read the name of the bar and nodded slowly. “Le Renard Noir? Sounds good. See you later, then, I guess.”

They parted ways and true to her words, Jazz stopped a small public bath on her way home. Whenever Subaru was away she went to a public bath at least once. Not that he was against it, he just didn’t care much about bathing in company. Jazz enjoyed the space, their own bathroom lacked a big tub and she just loved to sink into hot water every now and then until only her nose was still showing. Especially after a long day at work it was a blessing and one of the few things she looked forward to.

Japanese bathing culture was different from what Jazz knew from home, but since there were separated baths for men and women she didn’t mind going in naked. After a long soak she stepped back out on the street, her skin still flushed, the damp hair piled up on her head, secured with a scrunchie. Her high heels were stashed in her bag, the ballerina flats on her feet so much more comfortable.

She checked her purse for her keys, rummaged through the depths of her bag.

“Hey, you dropped this.”

“Oh, thanks.” With a polite smile she looked up, from the pack of tissues someone held towards her to the face of the helpful person.

“Oh, it’s you again.” Grey eyes widened in surprise, matched Jazz’s. Mr. Ponytail grinned, motioned towards the public bath.

“Don’t tell me there’s a party going on in there, too.”

“I let you know, there’s a party wherever I am.”

His laughter was loud, bounced off the buildings around them.

“Yeah, I can see that.” He reached into his jacket, came back with a box of cigarettes. “You want one?”

“No thanks, never got the appeal of it.”

“Oh. Well…” He shrugged, put the box back again.

Jazz shifted from one foot to the other.

“Okay, it was nice meeting you again but-”

“Have you always been this short?”

She blinked up at him, her brain needed a moment to catch up. “Um, no. At work I’m usually taller, but you know, in my free time I like to shrink a bit. The water must have been too hot.” She motioned towards the bath behind her.

“Huh. Everyone needs a hobby, I guess.” He scratched his goatee, looked down at her feet.

“Like smoking?” Her question drew his attention back to her face, the teasing smile on her lips.

“Nah, that’s not a hobby. Just a bad habit I can’t kick.”

“Too bad. There’s so much better things to do with hands and lips.” She winked at him, adjusted her bag. “I’m sorry, I must really go now. Got a date later. See you soon, I hope.”

“Oh, yeah. Have fun at your – date.” He reached for his cigarettes again, this time actually took one out and put it between his lips.

Jazz lazily waved at him over her shoulder, grinned on the whole way home.

 

The bar wasn’t too crowded, but Jazz was still glad she had called and gotten them a table. Miho was already waiting, a glass in front of her.

“Hey, have you been here long already?”

“No, just long enough to order and take a sip. I got you a Gin and Tonic.”

“Great!” Jazz plopped down, relaxed in her seat. “Liana will probably come, too. You’ll like her, she has a very practical mindset.”

“From what you told me about her so far I’m pretty sure we’ll get along just fine.” They clinked glasses, Jazz strained her eyes to read the menu written on a blackboard next to the bar counter.

“Yummy, it’s gonna be katsudon today.”

“You are so chipper, did something good happen?” Miho narrowed her eyes at her friend who batted her lashes innocently.

“Dunno what you mean.” She motioned for the owner who nodded, grabbed a notepad and trudged towards them.

“Oh god, you didn’t just have phone sex with Ichiyanagi, did you?”

“Shhhh!” Frantically Jazz shook her head, smiled at the bar owner.

“Hey, Kashibawara-san, how are you doing?”

“Great!” The man tapped his pen against the notepad. “How about you?”

“I’m fine. Would be much better with a bowl of katsudon, though.” She tilted her head, put on her trademark innocent smile, watched him laugh.

“Sure thing, buttercup. And what else should it be for your grumpy friend?”

“I’m not grumpy, just not as stupidly cheerful as the Lil’ Miss Sunshine here.” Miho downed her drink, handed him the glass. “Another one of those and some chicken. Oh, and a bowl of soba.”

“Coming right up.”

Jazz waited until he was gone before she turned to Miho again. “Hubby’s coming back tomorrow night, so that should be reason enough for me to be happy.”

“It’s still creepy when you casually refer to him as ‘hubby’. I bet he just got the shivers and has no clue why.”

Jazz snorted, took a sip of her drink. “You always act as if he’s the devil but I know that you actually consider him a friend, so save your breath. Oh, there’s Liana!” Wildly waving Jazz jumped up, spilled a bit of her drink.

“Hi. Sorry for being late.”

“No, it’s fine, it’s fine. It’s not work after all. Come, have a seat.” Casually she grabbed a napkin, wiped at her shirt and the table, showed Liana a seat before she got back into her own.

“So, what’s your poison? The cocktails are good here and so is the beer. Not sure about the wine, though.”

“Can I get a margarita?”

Kishibawara came over with a tray, just in time to hear Liana’s order.

“No problem. You want something to eat, too?”

She squinted in the direction of the menu while Kishibawara served food and drinks.

“The soba looks good. Could I get a bowl of that?”

“Yep, coming right up.” He slinked away again, followed by three pairs of eyes.

“Nice little bar,” Liana said, still looking around.

“Yeah, we come here every now and then. Mostly just us girls, without the husbands.”

Liana’s listened to Jazz’s chatter, kept checking out the bar. “Because of the hot guys here?”

“What hot guys?” Miho raised her eyebrow, looked over her right shoulder, then her left. “The owner is nice, but a bit dorky.”

“The other time he had a karaoke battle with a regular. It was actually hilarious, but neither of them could sing.”

The man in question came back with Liana’s order, asked if there was anything else he could do for the ladies and left when there wasn’t.

“Here’s to us and girls’ nights out,” Jazz announced, raised her glass.

“And to booze!” Miho’s glass met Jazz’s with a light clink.

“And to food?” Liana asked, brought her glass up, too.

“Oh, you won’t believe who I ran into earlier today.” Jazz took her chopsticks, sorted through her bowl. The onions to one side, the pork cutlet to the other.

“Who?” Miho asked, fulfilling her duties as best friend/cue supplier.

“The ponytail guy. Met him in front of the public bath.”

“The guest who helped you with that drunk a while back?” Liana let her chopsticks sink, narrowed her eyes at Jazz. “Wasn’t he on that other party, too? He’s not stalking you, is he?”

Miho’s head shot up, the same suspicious expression Liana was wearing on her face.

“No one is stalking anyone, we only met like – three times now. Can’t forge a criminal case out of that yet, can ya? Nah, we just happen to live in the same city.”

The pork cutlet was delicious, Jazz munched on it and smiled.

“You say you met him in front of the bath. Was he wearing a yukata?” Miho waggled her eyebrows, snatched a piece of pork cutlet.

“Your obsession with male chests is duly noted, but no, he wore a shirt and pants. Not that I paid much attention to his outfit, I was busy checking if mine was okay.”

“You’re married to Ichiyanagi, no wonder you don’t have a thing for male chests,” Miho dryly remarked, laughed when Jazz threatened to poke her with the chopsticks.

“Don’t pay any attention to Miho, she’s just being her usual mean self.”

“Have you met her husband, Liana?” Choosing to ignore Jazz Miho turned to the new arrival in their group.

“I did. He picked her up from work a few times. A very pleasant man.”

Miho snorted. “I see, so you don’t really know him yet.”

“Hey, I married that man! Stop badmouthing him when he’s not around to defend himself.” This time Jazz reached over and took a piece of Miho’s chicken.

“Why don’t you defend him? Could be entertaining.”

Jazz shrugged. “Nah, he’s all grown up, he can fight his own battles.”

They ate and drank, chatted about everything and anything and after two hours Liana asked for her bill and called it a night.

“Thanks, I had lots of fun tonight. Not even sure when I went out the last time.”

“Not that much of a party animal?” Miho asked, looking for her wallet in her purse.

“No, it’s more like my ex got our friends after the divorce and I got the collection of vintage tea cups. Unfortunately it’s a bit like in the 60s here. People think a divorce is contagious, married couples avoid me in case my bad single vibes could ruin their happiness.”

“Wow, that’s some very old-fashioned love superstition.” Jazz handed Kashiwabara some money and smiled at him.

“Yeah, that’s lame. Well, if you don’t get annoyed by us being all married and domestic-” At this point Jazz interrupted Miho’s speech with a loud ‘Ha!’

”What?”

“You’re not domestic at all.” Unfazed by Miho’s glare Jazz grabbed her jacket and put it on.

“Hey, I can make some great pancakes!”

“Doesn’t mean you’re what we would call a perfect housewife.”

“Anyway, I’m not afraid you’ll jinx us so how about we do this more often? Go out, have some drinks and good food?”

Liana nodded, waited for the others to get ready. “Sounds good.”

“Great, but for now we better go home. We got work tomorrow,” Jazz reminded them, waved at the bar owner and followed Miho outside. They parted ways, all three of them going into different directions.

The whole evening Jazz hadn’t stopped smiling.

The scent of smoke – Part 2

Liana rushed around the venue, making some last minute changes to the decorations while Jazz talked to the bar staff. Ever since she had been assigned to Jazz as assistant her days were busy, but also rewarding. Jazz gave her a lot of freedom but also expected professionalism and if not perfect, so at least working solutions to whatever problem might pop up.

“Did you take care of the flower arrangements?” The list in her hand got shorter and shorter, a check mark after every task already done and the sight made Jazz smile. Everything was under control.

“Yes, all done. And I moved some candelabras, they were too close to the flowers.”

“Good job. Anything else I should know?” Jazz handed the list over and clipped her earpiece on, checked the channel.

“Nothing so far. What’s still left to do?”

“Take the guest list over to the entrance. Can you brief the crew on who to let in and who not?”

It was a rhetorical question, of course Liana could. She nodded, stepped aside to let some staff carrying crates of wine and champagne through.

“Okay, I’m going to check on the kitchen staff real quick. First guest should arrive in ten, we better be ready by then.”

Before an event started Jazz was the most nervous, it only got better about halfway through. Burden of being the person in charge, but she wore it like a cape, not a yoke.

Another important business party for some important company, only important people were invited to eat snacks and drink imported wine. One of these days her bosses would give her the really big events, not only the good paying ones. Jazz was good at raking in the cash from CEOs who were convinced that their parties were the highlight of the year, she combined traditional elements with influences of her western heritage to some impressive and unique venues and performances. And although she had fun planning and organising these parties she wanted more. She wanted the crown.

For now she had to make do with crown roast; its fragrance wafted around her when she opened the door to the kitchen. Japanese foods and some western specialities were lined up to create the perfect fusion of east and west, fitting to the location and decoration.

She snatched a bite, deemed it worthy to get served, asked the chefs if they needed anything and with the assurance that everything went according to plan she rushed out again, always on the go.

Liana found her giving the staff a last pep talk, not standing out in her black skirt and blouse combination in a sea of waitstaff dressed in black pants and shirts. The only difference was the missing red tie around Jazz’s collar, the earpiece and of course the clipboard.

“Be polite and smile, but if someone crosses the line, don’t hesitate to get help. We rather take care of problems early. Discreetly of course. Any more questions?” She looked around, nodded a last time. “In that case, have fun and do a good job.” A round of polite applause and Jazz spotted Liana, shot her a questioning look.

“The host has arrived and he’s asking for you.”

Her clothes hastily smoothed down Jazz straightened up, all confident event planner now without any traces of nervousness.

“I better go and greet him.”

During the planning phase she had mostly dealt with his secretary, a competent and efficiently working young man named Osanai. Mr. Aikawa himself had talked on the phone with her once or twice, but Jazz recognized him from some pictures in the media. Tall, dark, handsome and one of the youngest clients she had so far he was the CEO of a company that seemingly dealt in everything.

“Aikawa-sama? I am Jazz Mann, the party coordinator. I hope you enjoy the event.” Her perfect bow was well practiced, Subaru had made sure she knew the etiquette after once seeing her bow sloppily.

“Ms. Mann, glad to finally meet you. And don’t be that formal, this is a party after all.” He smiled, slight dimples showed on his cheeks, and offered her his hand. “Mr. Aikawa is more than enough of formality.”

“Thank you, sir. Anyway, if there is anything you need tonight, don’t hesitate to tell me.” It was a phrase she had only reluctantly taken into her usual speech; it often sparked the wrong responses but her bosses insisted on it.

“Thank you, but so far everything is looking really great. I’m sure you did a great job.” He bowed his head lightly and she smiled.

“Well, your secretary was a big help of course. We can work best with clear instructions and he has been very specific in his ideas of this event.”

Mr. Aikawa laughed, shook his head lightly. “He is pretty peculiar, but I’m glad he was of help and not making things harder for you.” Once more he scanned the room, smiled as he took in all the details. “I just want my employees to enjoy this night. They do so much for me and the company, they deserve some appreciation every now and then.”

Rare words. Planning events for new ventures and fusions, sometimes to celebrate milestones and anniversaries – that was Jazz’s bread and butter work. A party for the employees to thank them for their hard work was new.

“I’m sure they will enjoy it. And I hope you will, too. If you excuse me now, sir, I still have some things to check.”

“Yes, of course. After all you are still working, aren’t you?” His laughter was happy and Jazz wondered what working for such a laid back boss would be like. Hers were constantly breathing down her neck.

With Liana in tow she made some last adjustments, more to keep her distracted than out of necessity.

The karaoke booth was constantly in use, the waitstaff was busy serving drinks and clearing glasses away and Jazz had reached her personal Zen moment while watching people having fun without crossing lines.

“A great party, Ms. Mann.”

Her polite smile widened a fraction when she recognized Mr. Aikawa, a glass in his hand. “Everyone is praising you and your work.”

“Thank you, sir, that’s the best reward. After getting paid of course.” Now that not much could go wrong anymore she was more relaxed, took things less seriously.

“Skip the sir, please. I feel so old.”

He didn’t look that old, maybe in his early 30s. Jazz raised an eyebrow, gave him a once over.

“Please, you can’t be much older than me.”

He hid his chuckle with a sip from his drink, followed her line of sight towards the crowd on the dance floor.

“I start to regret that I didn’t play a more active part in the whole planning process.”

“Why? Are you unhappy with how the party turned out?” Now both of her eyebrows shot up, after his praise earlier this came out of the blue .

“No, definitely not. It’s just – I could have met you more often.”

It was impossible to tell what was in his glass but Jazz assumed it was some kind of alcoholic drink. Wouldn’t be the first time a client hit on her after too many drinks.

“To discuss the order of courses and the venue?” Innocent blue-ish eyes came in handy when playing dumb and Jazz used it to her advantage if she had to.

“I guess I would have feigned interest in that, too, if that meant talking to you more.” A small smile on his face he watched her eyes widen.

“Mr. Aikawa, that’s very flattering, but I guess you should have a glass of water and some fresh air.”

“Oh, I’m not drunk. Actually I never drink.” There was enough space between them to pass as appropriate yet it just got too intimate for her.

“Is that so?” A tiny step back and she felt safer already. He really was handsome and his undivided attention boosted her ego.

“Maybe we could meet up after the party,” he suggested, tilted his head slightly.

“Sorry, but we don’t do evaluations after an event.” Again she flashed him an innocent smile, followed by her wedding ring. “And my husband doesn’t like it when I meet other men for anything else but work.”

“Oh.” His smile faded, he furrowed his brow. “Sorry, I thought because you are ‘Miss’ Mann and -”

“No, it’s fine, don’t worry. That happens a lot.”

“I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

“No, if anything you flattered me, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m married. Happily.” At least he wasn’t creepy about it, some men didn’t even respect her marriage.

“Your husband is a lucky man, if I may say so.” His smile was back, but his body language had changed. Leaned back a bit, not fully turned towards her.

“You may. Tell him if you ever see him. He tends to forget it,” she joked. It was always tricky to turn down a man, even more so a client.

“Well, I better go and talk to someone else before I embarrass myself any further.” He gave her a short nod, a last lopsided smile before he wandered off.

She was a married woman but that didn’t mean she couldn’t watch. For work she met so many interesting men and although she loved Subaru with all her heart, sometimes she wondered why she couldn’t have met these interesting men sooner? Like when she was still in college?

“Miss Mann, we have a problem with the karaoke machine.”

Her earpiece cut her musings short, with a sigh she rushed over to the karaoke box, hoping it was an issue that could be solved by simply rebooting it.

 

“Jazz?” Liana checked the storeroom for her superior, frowned when she wasn’t there. “Where did she go?”

It was no surprise Jazz didn’t answer her phone, it currently was in Liana’s hand. She had found it on the bar counter earlier, but no trace of its owner. Usually Jazz told her when she was going on a break but this time she just vanished.

Liana could handle most of the work on her own, only sometimes she needed a signature to authorize orders and decisions. Still, after working with Jazz for months now and becoming friends, at least work friends, she worried about her. At least when Jazz broke her own patterns.

“Maybe in the kitchen,” Liana mumbled, made her way over there. Sometimes Jazz swiped some food at the end of the events, she didn’t eat much before due to her nerves. Liana had no problems eating before events, but she wasn’t the one with all the responsibility.

“Jazz? Are you in here?”

In the very back of the kitchen Jazz sat on a counter, a plate with appetizers in her lap, a napkin in one hand, a spring roll in the other.

“I was looking for you. You left this on the bar.”

“Oh, thanks.” Her voice muffled by the food in her mouth Jazz smiled sheepishly, offered Liana the plate and took her phone back.

“Party’s winding down. People are still having fun, but some are leaving already.” It was past midnight, so that was normal.

“Good. I’m beat. Hungry, tired and my feet hurt.” She set the plate down, hopped off the counter on her bare feet.

“Why don’t you wear comfy shoes then?”

“Because I’m short and need the additional height of my heels.” Jazz slipped back in said heels, winced briefly but shook it off. “Did you need me for something?”

“No, just wondered where you are since you weren’t hovering around your phone like you usually do.”

Jazz made a dismissive sound, she wasn’t clutching her phone all the time. Only when she was nervous.

“Fine, since my snack time is cut short I can just as well go back to work.”

Under Liana’s laughter Jazz swaned out of the kitchen, head up high, struggling to keep a straight face but failed. Back behind the bar she was smiling again, slipped her phone into her waistband and checked on the barkeepers. She only noticed the guest staring at her when she looked up and met his gaze.

“Oh, hi!” Her smile widened when she recognized the ponytail and the scruffy goatee of the helpful guest back from her encounter with the drunk man in the closed off bar.

“Oh, hello. Didn’t think I would run into you here.”

“Well, here’s a bar and a party. My natural habitat.” She motioned for him to wait a moment, ducked under the counter and came back up with a bottle of beer. “Here, but don’t let the others see it.”

He cracked a smile, took the bottle and looked around. “You’re not getting into trouble, are you?”

“For offering you a beer? Depends. Are you legal?”

He spluttered, covered his mouth with his free hand, coughed and turned away. “Goddammit, you can’t make me laugh when I’m just drinking something!”

Jazz snickered, her professional facade crumbled; apparently she wasn’t meant to act cool and collected around him.

“What? I’m supposed to make sure not to give alcohol to minors.” Her wide eyed innocent look coupled with the batting of her lashes got another laughter out of him, but this time without almost spraying his beer all over the counter.

”You are quite entertaining, anyone ever told you that?”

“I consider myself funny,” she shrugged. “Most other people don’t. I’m fine with that.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s the same for most people.” He took another sip of beer, set the bottle down again.

The party was slowing down, about half of the guests gone already so Jazz had time to kill. And there was no harm in having some fun, was it?

“Most people don’t care that I’m not funny, though. Not as long as I’m wearing tight clothes.” She took a step back, gestured with a flourish to her black ensemble.

“Which look great on you, I gotta admit. But only looks won’t get you very far.” Still, his eyes followed the path of her hands, once up and down her body.

“Well, in that case I guess I’m lucky for my great personality and my incredible charm.”

“Don’t forget your modesty,” he pointed out only for Jazz to grin even wider.

“Exactly.”

He huffed a laughter, drained his bottle. “Definitely entertaining.”

“Thanks, we aim to please.” She took the empty bottle, shook it once midair, one eyebrow arched at him. “Another?”

“Nah, shouldn’t push my luck. But thanks, that was exactly what I just needed.” He tilted his head and Jazz bowed slightly. When she raised her head again she was still smiling.

“You’re welcome.” And for once she meant it.

The scent of smoke – Part 1

The party was in full swing, people chatting, drinking and dancing. The staff was busy refilling drinks and cleaning up the occasional spill and abandoned glasses. Thanks to the talented DJ the mood was like in a club, not like the usual company parties.

“Miss Mann, there’s a problem with the guest list. Could you come to the entrance really quick?”

Jazz tapped the button on her headset, covered her free ear. “On my way.” She smiled at the faces that turned her way while she threaded through the crowd, nodded here and there while accepting compliments for the successful party.

At the door she could already see the security staff politely talking to a man in company of a woman. He was middle aged, his suit expensive and custom-tailored, golden buttons and fine stitching at the hems. The young woman on his arm looked half his age, but dressed too maturely. Her cleavage showed that she wore no bra, not a problem with her built and age, but too daring for Jazz’s taste.

“Gentlemen, is there a problem here?”

The man frowned at her, gave her a once over.

“Obviously someone messed up with the guest list.”

The underlying accusation didn’t set well with her, after all it had been Jazz who put together the list.

“Is that so? Let me check what we can do about that.” She motioned towards the side so that the next guests could move past them and she could deal with the problem in a more private setting.

“Would you tell me your name, sir?”

His eyebrows shot up one just to drop into a frown again. “Don’t you know who I am?”

“Unfortunately not, sir, that’s why I asked.”

The girl looked around the entrance area, didn’t meet Jazz’s gaze once. Cheap and rude, exactly the kind of guests she didn’t want at this party.

“Thonsten, Richard Thonsten. From Thonston Inc.”

That was all she needed to hear.

“I’m sorry, sir, but this event is only for employees of CDG and Ultramax to celebrate the new union and get to know each other. The official launch of the new venture will take place in two weeks. Of course I will gladly send you an invitation to that party.”

“That’s bullshit! Get Lengfeld here, he will take care of it.”

“Sir, Mr. Lengfeld himself instructed me to only let employees of said companies in. If you have no company ID I can’t let you pass, I’m sorry.” And the night had started so well. No last minute emergencies, no unpleasant encounters yet. “Of course you can always call him yourself and see if he will make an exception for you, but I can’t go against a direct order.”

The girl whined, curled her lips into a pout, even emphasized by the several ounces of lip gloss.

“Let’s go somewhere else, baby. I’m bored.” She pressed herself closer against the man’s side, her bra-less breasts against his arm. He opened his mouth, scoffed and wrapped an arm around her.

“Yeah, this isn’t worth it.”

Jazz still smiled with the same polite service smile that made her face ache but worked wonders. The couple turned away and Jazz caught the wink the girl sent her way. Maybe she had underestimated her.

“Miss Mann? We’re running low on ice.”

The headset was blessing and curse at the same time, saved her time but kept her busy.

“Already on my way,” she replied, handed the guest list back to the security and rushed towards the storage areas.

 

Her heels weren’t made for nights like this. Being constantly on her feet for hours took its toll on her, she needed a good foot massage and a bath once she was back home.

“I take a short break, only call me when there’s a fire somewhere, got that?” she instructed her second in command, Liana, a mid 30s former personal assistant who had started working in the event agency after her divorce a couple of months ago.

“Sure thing.”

Jazz grabbed a bottle of water on her way towards an unused part of their location, still smiling and chatting here and there. She almost bumped into a guest, a tall man with ponytail who raised a hand apologetically.

“My bad,” she quickly pointed out. “Sorry.”

“Ah, nothing happened. I just hope you didn’t hurt yourself.”

“No, all good. If you excuse me now.” A last flashed smile and she headed farther down the room, towards a small passage into a more private bar that they had closed off for the night. Here she slipped out of her shoes, sighed in relief and refused to think about how she should get the shoes back on later. With her phone and her water she took a seat at the empty counter, idly scrolled through her social media feed before she decided to send her husband a quick text.

“Tonight’s hell, can’t wait to come back home to you.”

She wiggled her toes to get life back into them, smiled when an answer popped up on her screen.

“I’m waiting for you with tea and cookies. Love you!”

A short “Love you more” back and Jazz set her phone down to take a sip of her water. Two, maybe three more hours and she could wrap up for the night.

Loud noise from the entrance alarmed her, she sat up straighter only to see a man staggering into the dimly lit bar.

“Hey, gimme another drink.”

“Sir, you shouldn’t-” she began and rose to her feet only to get yelled at.

“I know how much I can drink! Gimme vodka!”

She flinched, the stench of alcohol wafted around the man.

“I’m sorry, I can’t give you anything.” She braced herself for another outburst. Dealing with drunk people was the part of her job she enjoyed the least.

“Listen, Missie, you better get me some vodka or I get you fired.”

He was close enough for her to see that his shirt wasn’t tucked into his pants properly and that his tie was loosened.

“I don’t think that will happen.” Like usual when she was working she wore black, a simple blouse and pants combination. Not exactly like the uniform of the serving staff, but close enough for a drunk eye to mistake her for a waitress or a bartender.

She slipped back into her heels, the additional height welcome when dealing with aggressive clients and guests.

“Ya better not test me on that.”

“And you better not bother her any longer.”

The drunk turned around to the new voice in their conversation, almost fell over but caught himself just in time. Jazz blinked, it was hard to tell who it was in the dark, but the voice wasn’t familiar. She used the distraction to call the security, whispered instructions for them to come and take the drunk man out before he got violent.

“That’s none of your business. If she just gives me another drink all’s cool.”

“Sir, I say it again, I can’t give you another drink, I’m not even-”

“I think you got that wrong, buddy. First of all, you clearly got enough already. Too much if you ask me.” The figure came closer, Jazz recognized the ponytail as belonging to the man she bumped in earlier. “And second, you shouldn’t be yelling at the nice lady.”

“Or what?” The drunk man straightened up as good as possible, squared his shoulders.

“Or,” the wannabe hero to the rescue began, met the challenge with a roll of his shoulders.

“Or I will have to ask you to leave the party, sir,” Jazz piped up. With backup on the way she couldn’t let another guest get involved in this. It would reflect badly on her company and despite being a foreigner in Japan she tried to follow the rules, blend in rather than being the boisterous person people often mistook her for at a first glance. Besides, her husband was the son of an important man, his way up to the top of Japan’s elites already predetermined. She couldn’t ruin all his hard work by misbehaving. At least not at work.

“I’m not leaving before I get a drink, goddammit!”

The drunk swiveled around as good as he could, pointed at her.

“In that case you won’t be leaving at all because I’m not giving you another drop.” Chin raised, shoulders squared. Jazz took a firm stance, the time for being servile and polite was over now.

He yelled something rude and unflattering, charged at her but Jazz ducked away, used her agility to trip him. The man flailed, stumbled over her leg and fell on his face, still yelling obscenities.

“Are you alright?” Mr. Ponytail came over, helped Jazz up from her crouch

and away from the now wailing man on the ground.

“More or less. I’m sorry you had to see that.” Back on her feet she waved towards the security, told them to take the man out and get him checked by a doctor before they kicked him out.

“I hope he learned something from this and won’t get that wasted again anytime soon,” she murmured when the two security men dragged the drunk away.

“Looks as if he’s going to have some bruises tomorrow to remind him of his antics tonight.” Mr. Ponytail stayed with Jazz, had put himself between her and the troublemaker until security had detained him.

“His own fault.” She faced him, smiled and bowed her head. “Thank you for your help.”

“Nah, I didn’t do anything. That was impressive, by the way. That leg sweep.”

“Thank you, I will tell my trainer you appreciate my technique.” The polite smile was back in place, a convenient mask for her real thoughts and emotions. “But you shouldn’t stay here. Go back to the party, sir, and have a good time. This area is off limits anyway.”

“Huh?” He looked around, the empty and dark bar obviously not part of the party. “Oh. Well, I’m not that much of a party person. And they don’t even serve beer there. Only wine and cocktails. Honestly, a party without beer?” He shrugged, drew Jazz’s attention to his broad shoulders in the well fitted jacket.

“If that’s your only problem, I can help with that.” The bar was closed but stocked nonetheless. Jazz pulled two bottles of beer out of a fridge under the counter, opened them and handed one to Mr. Ponytail.

“Cheers.”

He waited until she took a sip before he did the same, gulped down a big swig and finished it with a hearty “Ahhh”.

“Better?” The bottle hid her smirk, but her raised eyebrow was visible.

“Yes, very much. Those fancy parties are not exactly my favorites.” The bottles made a soft sound when he touched his against hers. “So thanks for this.”

“You are more the burger and beer type than canapes and cocktails?” She held his gaze, took another sip.

“I’m okay with something more sophisticated, too, but a beer after a long day of work? Sounds good to me.”

Jazz nodded, hummed lowly. If her husband wasn’t so against beer she would have it more often, back in her home country it was common to have a beer or two every now and then. Subaru was more into wine, though. It was more posh.

“Well, my day of work isn’t done yet. Don’t tell my boss.”

He chuckled, drained his bottle and took hers. “Don’t worry, I will keep it between you and I.” A last nod and he wandered off, left Jazz to put the empty bottle away.

 

In the early morning hours Jazz unlocked her apartment door, silently made her way into the bathroom to get ready for bed. There was a teapot on a warmer, some cookies on a plate for her but Subaru had already gone to bed. He had his own very busy schedule, it was normal for them to only meet up once a day and not go to bed and wake up together.

She slipped under the covers, feet hurting and legs heavy, filled with the good kind of exhaustion a successful day of work brought her.

“Hey babe, you okay?”

His sleepy voice made her smile, she turned to face him, snuggled close. One arm around his waist, her face in the crock of his neck she inhaled, enjoyed his warmth.

“Yeah. Long night. But it’s getting better already.”

His hum indicated that he was still listening, the kiss he pressed on her hair missed her forehead entirely.

“Sleep now. Talking later.”

There was nothing to add to this.

 

The office was busy as always, Miho just filed away the report about the arrest of their suspect and sighed. 5:45pm. Almost time to call it a day and get something to eat. A quick text to her husband confirmed her suspicion that she wouldn’t be eating with him, so the next possible choice was her best friend.

“Jazz? You up to dinner tonight? Don’t feel like ramen again.”

“How about some home cooked meal then? Subaru is making Italian tonight. Or at least he will try :D”

“He’s cooking? In that case, yes.”

“Hey, what does that mean? You wouldn’t come if I was the one cooking?”

“You know I love you, but after that strange dish the other day I rather play it safe.” Miho added a smiley that stuck out its tongue.

“You just agreed on bringing the wine as apology for insulting my awesome cooking skills.”

She could live with that. Miho sent a thumbs up and packed her bag, clocked out and rushed off before something new could end on her desk. Being a cop was hard enough, being in a special unit was taxing at best, eating up her whole time at worst.

“Hey, Fujiwara, sneaking out already?” A colleague caught up with her on the way to the elevator.

“Some of us get their cases closed and deserve to go home. Some of us have to stay behind and do their work,” she deadpanned, got a laugh out of her colleague.

“You better help out with our cases, then.”

“Maybe some other day. I got a dinner invitation.” Ichiyanagi could be a real pain in the ass sometimes, but he could cook. Being in a similar field and the son of some bigshot up the hierarchy Miho knew him even before he married her best friend, although she sometimes wondered just how Jazz could put up with him. He was smart and did a good job, but he was also conceited and harsh in his judgement while Jazz was kind, always looked for the good in people and situations.

After a glass of wine he was funny, though. And they often had a glass of wine when they all were together, Jazz and Subaru, Miho and Seiji. On the way to the train station Miho made a stop and picked up a bottle of the red wine they all could agree on and some of the ice cream Jazz liked so much.

 

“Get out of my kitchen already before you ruin the food!”

Jazz laughed, snatched a piece of mozzarella from the chopping board and evaded the hand of her husband who just tried to smack her bum.

“It’s my kitchen, too,” she reminded him and danced through the door, towards the hallway to buzz Miho in.

“You can try your experiments at some other time, but not when I’m making saltimbocca!”

Calling the dishes of her childhood ‘experiments’ just because they weren’t haute cuisine didn’t bother her, taste was a fickle thing after all, subjective and bound to what one grew up with.

So she only mimicked him silently, a grotesque imitation that made Miho laugh when Jazz opened the door.

“What’s he jabbering about this time?”

Jazz took the bottle and the ice cream, shrugged. “My cooking. Or better, that my mere presence in the kitchen spoils the food. Beware, soon I will make all crops wither by walking by.”

“So the same old.” Miho exchanged her shoes for slippers, took off her coat.

“Yep. You want a glass right away or do you want face him sober?”

The banter between Subaru and Miho was often far from friendly, biting comments and some low jabs, especially when neither Goto nor Jazz were around to deflect and de-escalate. Two very headstrong, confident people in one room – an explosive combination. They went way back and sometimes Jazz wondered if there had ever been more between them. The answer to it wouldn’t do her any good so she never asked. Besides, she trusted her husband, he was clever enough to see that he would never find a woman like her again if he messed this up.

And trust she needed, he often worked late, overnight and abroad, with famous people and beautiful women.

“Is Goto on a business trip?”

“No, but he’s working late.”

“No problem, I think I can take care of his share of lasagna.”

Jazz braved Subaru’s glare and wandered into the kitchen, put the ice cream into the fridge rather than the freezer. She liked it soft and not deep frozen anymore. On her way out she grabbed two wine glasses, joined Miho on the couch.

“I always said men belong into the kitchen,” Miho loudly announced, grinned when he huffed and puffed, muttered under his breath.

“Can’t take much longer now,” Jazz assured her and handed her a glass. “He always gets grumpy when he’s close to finishing.”

“I hope that only applies to cooking.” Miho grinned as Jazz poked her tongue out at her, slightly red from the wine.

“You can just go and get some pizza if you keep this attitude up.” The tempting fragrance of bacon and cheese made the threat serious.

Miho sat up straighter, batted her lashes. “No, I will be good, I promise.”

“You better,” Jazz reminded her, took another sip.

They chatted until Subaru announced dinner was ready and Jazz rushed over to help him set the table.

There was just one rule that Jazz had set on early. No police stories at the table. After an especially gruesome tale of jealousy, too much alcohol and a beheaded love rival she had established it and so far all three of them had honored Jazz’s delicate constitution when it came to bloody murder.

Still their conversations were far from boring, between their jobs was a lot to talk about. Subaru was bound by confidentiality but Jazz freely shared gossip and anecdotes, her job as event planner provided her with stories for days.

The wine helped keeping the mood light and upbeat, and Jazz told them about the drunk guest on that party earlier that week.

“He attacked you?” Subaru put his cutlery down, eyes dark and brows knitted together.

“Not really. He tried, but he was too drunk and someone trained me well for occasions like this.” Early in their relationship Subaru had offered Jazz some easy self defense lessons and she had accepted, back then it was a means to get closer with a nice side effect. She hardly ever used what he had taught her but was glad to know how to get out of tricky situations nonetheless.

“Do we have to take care of him?” Between two bites of saltimbocca Miho looked up, offered it as if she was offering to get some milk next time she was at a shop.

“No, it’s all good. My security guys took him outside, and his superior ripped him a new one next day. The guy came and apologized, I made sure he wasn’t in too much trouble and the client gave me a bonus for handling the situation like I did. Everyone is happy in the end.”

Only that Subaru didn’t look happy.

“Why haven’t you told me sooner?”

“Nothing really happened, why should I worry you?”

He pushed his plate away, rested his elbows on the table. “We have talked about this, over and over again. If your job turns out to get too dangerous-”

“Ha! You are one to talk,” Jazz interrupted him. “Your job is literally to throw yourself into harm’s way for a client!

“Ohhh, dinner and a show,” Miho rejoiced, sipped some more wine.

“We are not having this argument again.” Subaru readjusted his plate, cut his meat with more force than necessary.

“You were the one who started it,” Jazz pointed out. She had lost her appetite, got up and cleared her plate away.

“Hey, won’t you eat your saltimbocca? Give it to me then, it would be a shame to waste it.” Bereft of her entertainment Miho focused her attention on the food again.

“Here, enjoy it. I’m going to put some of the lasagne in a container, you can take it home for Goto later.” She vanished into the kitchen, left Miho and Subaru alone.

“You know she doesn’t like it when you do that.” With a quick thrust of her fork Miho impaled a cherry tomato, waved it in front of Subaru.

“That’s none of your business.” He kept eating, ignored the moving vegetable.

“She won’t quit her job just to be your pretty homemaker.”

“How the hell does Goto manage to live with you? You are bossy and nosy and your table manners are horrible.”

“He loves me because I fuck his brains out. And you better stop pestering her about working. As long as she enjoys it, just leave her be. She can look after herself just fine.”

A loud curse from the kitchen made Miho sigh. “Except for around kitchenware.”

MJS (Twilight Zone Edition) Part 1

With a quiet groan, Kaga opened his eyes. His recollection of the previous night’s mission was a little fuzzy, and he struggled to bring his memories into clarity. Another soft murmur sounded in the quiet room, and Kaga tensed when he felt movement against his body.

“Mmm, it’s a little early for that, don’t you think?” a somewhat familiar-honey-laced voice whispered, and Kaga flinched when the supple shape ground back into the curve of his body.

In confusion, he gripped her hips to prevent her from arousing him any further, but it had the opposite effect.”

In a no doubt practiced move, Miho rolled over on top of him, hands either side of Kaga’s had, and grinned down as she undulted her hips.

“I wonder what your colleagues would think, Lieutenant, if they knew you were so dirty,” she crooned, leaning down to speak against his lips.

“Who’re you calling Lieutenant?” Kaga retorted, but he couldn’t – or simply didn’t – untangle himself from her before she smothered his lips with a passionate kiss.

His hands were sliding up her bare sides before he got a grip on himself, turned his head and pushed her back.

“I’ve got things to do,” he declared as he tipped Miho sideways, but his voice rasped.

He had just enough time to see her pouty-quizzical face before he hefted himself out of bed, quick to glance around and then head into the ensuite.

With the door closed behind him, Kaga took stock, pausing a second before looking into the mirror.

Instant.

Horror.

The face that stared back was not his own, but that of Seiji Goto.

I mean, it made sense considering this wasn’t his apartment, and Miho wasn’t his bedfellow, yet there he was having his morning wood stroked by the wife of his colleague.

“What the fuck is going on?” he exhaled sharply, his heart beating rapidly, even as he splashed cold water on his face.

Unfortunately this did not dispel whatever black magic had trapped him in Goto’s body, a body he then began to examine.

“Bullshit,” he snorted caustically when he pulled out the front of his boxers to inspect his – or rather Goto’s – slowly receding erection.

Knowing he couldn’t stay cloistered in the bathroom forever, he took a quick shower before gathering his courage to emerge.

Thankfully, Miho was not in the bedroom and the bed was made, giving Kaga the chance to explore until he found the closet.

“Humiliating,” he muttered as he pulled one of Goto’s uniforms out, but he dressed himself and ventured beyond.

He we was greeted by boisterous barking, as two greyhound puppies came speeding toward him. They pulled up short, however, skidding across the floor before they reached him, and began to growl: tails trembling, teeth bared, then they began to bark.

“Ishigami! Kaga!” Miho shouted from out of sight. “Cut it out!”

Imitating the pair of little pooches, Kaga leaned a little and snapped his teeth, and the pups backed away before turning and racing away.

Kaga had known Kurosawa had named the puppies he’d given to Miho and Goto as a wedding present, but hearing his own name from Miho’s lips like that in his current situation just made it even more surreal.

Something rattling in the kitchen drew the lean dogs back down the hall, and rubbing the back of his neck, Kaga followed. There he found Miho, in a short, satin robe, her hair a messy bun, pouring a second cup of coffee which she then held out to him.

“You okay?” Miho frowned, scrutinising her husband closely.

His response was from his lips before he’d paused to think.

“This better have enough sugar in it,” he snuffed, and was alerted to what he’d done by the surprise in Miho’s expression.

“I’d hope by now, as a dutiful wife, I’d know how you take your coffee,” she retorted, a little hurt behind her eyes.

“Gah,” he spluttered, wincing after he’d taken a sip. “Moron! This isn’t coffee!”

Stunned, Miho blinked a couple of times before her expression darkened.

“Uh… sorry?” he stammered, the word feeling somehow easy on his lips, despite being almost complete foreign to his brain. “Had… weird… dreams.”

Desperately trying to figure out what the hell was going on – considering the possibility he was indeed still asleep – Kaga stiffly sat down. Under the watchful gaze of two very wary greyhounds, he sipped his coffee while Miho made them some breakfast. He knew his objection hadn’t been very Goto-like, and it was clear his colleague’s wife was not at all accustomed to being insulted, but he too was at a loss.

“Actually, you know what?” Kaga grunted, as she put a plate down in front of him. “I should…”

Then he was interrupted by the ringing of a cell phone.

It rang, and rang, and rang, until Miho snatched it from the counter and handed it to him.

“It’s Captain Kaga,” she declared, having glanced at the caller I.D.

“What?” Kaga greeted, though he REALLY needed to talk to… um… himself?

“Is Miho there?” came Kaga’s own voice, but he hadn’t spoken it.

Kaga could only assume if he was in Goto’s body, Goto was in his.

“Of course,” Kaga grunted. “Her coffee is terrible.”

As if reacting on Miho’s outraged behalf, Ishigami let out a high pitched bark.

“Let me talk to her,” Goto rushed.

“And say what? You are worried about her?” Kaga snorted. “We have bigger things to worry about, so get your ass to the Academy.”

Then he hung up.

“Hey,” Miho blustered, ignoring the weird one-sided conversation she’d just heard. “You haven’t touched your breakfast.”

“Not hungry,” Kaga grunted, leaving everything on the table and heading to the front door under canine escort.

“Since when?” Miho persisted, following him closely. “Seiji, slow down.”

“No time. Very, very busy,” Kaga pressed on, reaching the door and slipping his feet into Goto’s shoes, stooping to tie the laces.

“I think you can make time to spare me a few words,” she volleyed, as Kaga straightened and reached for the doorknob.

But Miho’s hand slammed against the door with force, startling the pair of puppies.

“Goto Seiji, I’m talking to you,” she insisted, her tone low and authoritative.

Many – most people – would back down when faced with Miho in serious mode, but this only triggered Kaga’s defiance.

He’d taken her wrist and spun her around before she could blink, and though she well and truly knew how to defend herself against a stranger’s attack, Goto pressing her cheek flush against the bevelled surface, using his body to trap her there, was restricted to intimate scenarios only.

Intimate, this was not.

Something was definitely wrong.

The greyhounds snarled but Kaga ignored them.

“I’m talking to you, wife,” he whispered behind her ear, and the hairs on the back of her neck stood to attention. “I’m busy. I’m going to work. Don’t wait up.”

When he stepped back, Miho slid sideways and crouched to calm her puppies.

“Well shit, have a peachy day then,” she dropped caustically – confused, hurt.

Kaga exited with no further comment.

Honeymoon over.

 

Goto arrived at the Police Academy flustered, and found Ishigami in the main area of the Instructor’s Room pouring over the previous night’s reports.

“Sir!” Goto exclaimed, rushing up to his superior while – of course – wearing Kaga’s face. “Captain, we have a serious problem.”

Lifting his head, Ishigami blinked at Kaga in puzzlement.

Usually it was hostility and insult.

Usually it was biting sarcasm and venom.

But, Sir and Captain?

This was surely the Twilight Zone.

As if realising his folly, Goto straightened, blushing a little as he put some distance between them.

“Sorry, Sir, you’re right,” Goto stammered, and this simply blew Ishigami out of the water. “Maybe we could discuss this in your office?”

As Ishigami stood, Kaga arrived – of course – wearing Goto’s face.

“Ahh, four-eyes,” he sniffed. “Has your lacky filled you in on this shitstorm?”

He looked at Goto inhabiting his skin, and Goto peered right back at Kaga wearing his skin.

“Goto,” Ishigami said curtly, though he was looking at Kaga. “If this is some sort of joke…”

“No, Sir,” Goto assured, but all Ishigami saw was a long-time agitator mocking him.

“Captain?” Goto prompted, sending Kaga a somewhat pleading look.

“Well… shit,” Kaga sighed, and Ishigami swore – in Goto’s body language – he saw Kaga’s arrogance and disdain. “Captain Ishigami,” Kaga went on, and he couldn’t have looked any more like he’s just bitten into a lemon. “It seems as if Lieutenant Goto and I have… somehow… switched bodies.”

Homecoming – Day 13-3 Finale

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

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

“Hi.” That smile.

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

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

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

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

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

“Sam’s a girl?!”

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

“You – you are here. You are real.”

“I’m here. I’m here, love.”

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

I stand no chance.

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

“So, are you happy to see me or-?”

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

“But how?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m so sorry for just running away.”

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

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

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

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

“I can’t believe you’re really here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If you say so.”

Another advantage of a bigger city, people care less.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I deserve that, huh?”

“That and so much more,” I confirm.

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

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

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

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

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

Dammit, I’m blushing now.

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

“I do my best, sir. She deserves it.”

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

“So, uhm, how did you two meet?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, sorry for jumping to conclusions.”

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

“So Sam is-?”

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

“Like girl meets girl?”

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

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

“They,” I offer and Miho nods.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We will. Afterwards.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Depends. How many days have you off?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mhm?”

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

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

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

“Why is it so hot when you say that?”

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

 

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

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

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

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

“Hi. Do you still serve breakfast?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hahhh… how I missed you, babe.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let me.”

“No, I can do it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks, that’s kinda heavy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s your money, I can’t-”

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

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

I sip my coffee, she sips hers.

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

“Gone.”

Quelle surprise.

“Another festival?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait, what?”

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

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

When did I become the one to feel sorry for?

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

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

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

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

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

I wave towards Sam, motion them to come over.

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

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

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

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

We both sit down, hands still clasped.

“Yes, Ma’am. Sam Glausner.”

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I mean-”

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

She looks at me intently, her smile fades.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I flinch, guilty as charged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Take a seat.” Sam, polite as always.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, she is – something else.”

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

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

“So, you guys are going back today?”

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

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

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

“Yes?”

“You better take good care of her.”

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

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

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

“You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m great.”

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

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

 

The End

 

 

 

Homecoming – Day 13-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I like what you did with the hem.”

“I shortened it.” Nothing worth mentioning.

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

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

“Shoes?”

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

“Accessories?”

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

“Jewelry?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It has a floral pattern, very unobtrusive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben inhales, chuckles and pulls back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay. Come and find me later.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

“I didn’t bully you.”

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

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

Banter. Banter?

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

“What?”

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

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

“Ben’s nickname for you?”

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

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

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

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

“I thought you would catch it!”

“You spilled hot coffee all over me!”

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

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

“That wasn’t planned, okay?”

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

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

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

“Did you?”

He scoffs, still only inches away from me.

“The notebook? The hair tie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nod, no need to hide it anymore.

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

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

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

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

“Jazz…”

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

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

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

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

“This again?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“You having fun?”

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

“What are you doing here?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What drama?”

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

“Oh, dinner with a show. Nice.”

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

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

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

“I’d rather not.”

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

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

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

“Mads. What are you doing here?”

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

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

“Oh.”

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

“What the heck was that just now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you having fun?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You okay?” Miho whispers and I shrug.

“Not sure. How about you?”

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

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

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

“Shit!”

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

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

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

“Jazz? What’s wrong?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you, though?”

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

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

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

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

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

Jake motions for the barkeeper, orders two gin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, you got my number.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sam…”

Homecoming – Day 13-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I call that progress.”

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

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

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

“Got it. No interruptions today.”

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

 

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

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

“Morning.”

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

“I tried to call you.”

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

No excuses, no running away.

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

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

“No?”

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

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

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

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

“Still listening.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new information only slows her down for a second.

“Money? What money?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“Jayjay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are you heading to?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until my phone rings. Miho.

“Sorry, I have to take this.”

“Sure thing, go ahead.”

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

“Yes?”

“Where are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So it’s nothing I did, right?”

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

 

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

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

“What happened here?!”

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

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

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

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

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

“That doesn’t fit anymore.”

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

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

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

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

“No clue. Should I ask him?”

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

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

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

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

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

“But black?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How was your talk with your Mom?”

And there goes my appetite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That would only make it better.”

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

“Will you stay here again tonight?”

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

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

Miho snorts, sets her plate on the coffee table.

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

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

“If it’s really not too much to ask…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homecoming – Day 12-4

Could that person be him?

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

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

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

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

“Jazz?”

“Hm?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jazz?”

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

“Oh, hey… you had fun?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miho pats my arm, shares another glance with Jared.

“Yeah, I get it, don’t worry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

“You wanna take a shower?”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And that’s all?”

Dammit, she’s sharp.

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

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

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

“Ouch. Now that’s embarrassing.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Not exactly a smooth talker, that Benjamin.”

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

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

“And what?”

“And will you be his dinner partner?”

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

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

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

Oh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It can get worse?”

I nod, prompt Miho to shake her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He wanted to help, so what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I noticed. Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Totally sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

“And the first was…?”

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

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

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

“Whoa.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then why did you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?”