Blood Spatter: Part Seven

RECAP of Part Six: Kiril and Miho finally relent to the inexplicable attraction that has been drawing them together, and Miho finally contacts a concerned yet still cryptic Sebastian. Following information from the vampire king of Prague, Jazz and Konstantin are discovered, but it is not entirely a happy – nor peaceful – reunion.

In the past I have felt like a bit of a grandma for carrying a handkerchief, but right now I’m glad to have it. If I could, I’d be sitting in Jazz’s lap. I want to curl my arms and legs around her and never let go, but I actually feel pretty weak with relief that she’s still… alive.

That’s the other thing isn’t it? Kiril and I talked about the possibility, but now the reality is squeezing my hand almost painfully.

Jazz is a vampire now.

Even in my ugly crying state, I can tell Konstantin is highly apprehensive. He’s not letting Kiril out of his sight, like maybe he thinks Konrad sent us here to kill them both, but at the same time he wants to comfort Jazz who is clearly struggling with the moment.

No one really knows who should talk first, but eventually, I cough something out – the biggest question of them all.

“Why?”

“How did you even find us?” Konstantin scowls, ignoring me.

Kiril’s response is curt.

“I didn’t, she did,” he points out, indicating with his thumb in my direction. “Now answer her question.”

“Why what?” Konstantin glares, and I have to fight not to shrink back.

“And watch your tone,” Kiril snaps icily, and Jazz places her hand on my knee before leaning toward the two men.

“Cut it out, both of you,” she growls, then looks to me with such an apologetic shadow in her beautiful blue eyes I nearly forget how mad I am at her. “I’m sorry, Miho, really. It was never my intention to hurt you. Things just got… complicated… really quickly.”

Her hand is cold.

“I didn’t even know,” I sniff, “you were serious… but becoming a vampire serious?”

Jazz winces.

“We didn’t plan it like that,” Konstantin replies. “And it is my fault.”

“Not just yours,” Jazz quickly adds. “I didn’t say no.”

“I just got… carried away,” Konstantin frowns, looking into Jazz’s face apologetically.

“That is usually my line,” Kiril snorts, perhaps an attempt to lighten the mood in his own way, but it falls flat.

“It is what it is,” Jazz rationalises. “And I don’t regret it, not the vampire part anyway.”

Though Konstantin is still peering at her, Jazz’s eyes return to Miho and rest there.

“I can’t go back to London, Miho, or the UK even,” she goes on, and instantly both Miho and Kiril are shaking their heads.

“I honestly do not care what you do,” Kiril declares, pointing at Jazz, “but he is going back, unless he wants Konrad’s finest hunting him down and killing anything that gets in their way.”

Konstantin winces, so it’s clear he knows the truth in that statement.

“I won’t be leaving him,” Jazz announces forcefully, and I feel as much as see the tension in her hand, the creep of her fingers toward a fist.

“Do you even understand the predicament you have put yourself in?” Kiril presses, and I – at least – feel as if he has grown ten feet. “Konstantin is Konrad’s golden child, the one upon whom he pins his legacy because he is purportedly the elusive perfect mix of blood powers.”

It’s a surprise Konstantin doesn’t interject; he shifts uncomfortably, for though in another tone Kiril’s assertion could have been a compliment, even to my ears it sounds like a terrible and oppressive yoke.

“He has spent centuries breeding for a vampire like Konstantin,” Kiril snorts, and there is bitterness there. “Many women and many children slain because they did not meet his standards – he will not let his hard work run away with a turned for something as foolish as love.”

“You only say love is foolish because you lack the capacity to feel it,” Konstantin spits, and I cannot help the flit of my focus between the two brothers.

And in a split second that doesn’t go unnoticed by either Jazz or Konstantin, Kiril and I meet somewhere in the middle.

“No way,” Konstantin blinks, and Jazz goes that little bit further, snatching both my hands and nudging me sideways, putting her legs between Kiril and I.

No way,” she reiterates, but Kiril is unfazed.

“Do not project your foolishness on me,” he derides, a dark, jaded sound that hits me far more solidly than it should. “At least in my own pursuits I have the good sense to keep clear of Konrad’s zone of absolute destruction.”

“This wasn’t planned!” Konstantin charges, rocking to his feet, and Kiril is standing beside him that same instant, an intimidating obstacle between Jazz and I, and his brother.

“It does not matter how or why,” Kiril grates through his teeth, so low I physically feel his words. “As your reckless lady friend said, it is what it is, and what it is is a mess no amount of running will mediate.”

“You are the mess mediating expert,” Konstantin snaps back, and I’m finally at my limit, leaping to my feet and placing a hand against both their arms. Tingles spread up through my fingertips, but my annoyance overwhelms it.

“Enough!” I bark, taut and pointed. “This stupid circular bickering is getting us nowhere.”

Silence fills the space vacated by my patience.

“You want him to go back, Kiril – he needs to or Konrad will send Narumi and others after him,” I go on quickly, before I lose my steam. “Jazz won’t leave him, but going back for her is suicide – so what now?”

Licking his lips and looking slightly destabilised, Kiril takes my wrist and slowly lowers it away from his body.

“Konstantin needs to return post haste,” he says, evenness returning to his demeanour. “For now, until Konrad is appeased, he comes back with me, and Miss Mann here can take refuge at one of my estates on the outskirts of London.”

“Hide?” Jazz exhales.

“Bide your time,” Kiril corrects. “If there is any suspicion – and to be frank I would not put it beyond Arno or any of his people to attempt garnering Konrad’s favour by divulging what they discovered here – then there must be distance between you that leaves none.”

“And then what?” Konstantin huffs, sliding around his brother to sit on the arm of Jazz’s chair.

“Then I cure cancer, end war and solve world hunger,” Kiril sneers. “You be a good boy and play Konrad’s foot-stool until it is safer, but make no mistake – her life will always be in jeopardy if you continue this… relationship.”

“Could you say it with any more distain?” Jazz glowers, and Kiril’s self-confident grin only grows.

“You hooked up with the nice brother,” he leers, and I’ve had enough of the snarkiness.

“Will you come back?” I ask Jazz, but of course I’m caught between wanting her back in my life, and keeping her safe.

Biting her lip, I can see she too is in the grips of indecision, and it’s not one she wants to make without Konstantin’s input.

“I hate you, you know that?” Konstantin drops acerbically, the comment definitely meant for Kiril.

“Because I am right?” Kiril sniffs.

“Because you’re only ever right at the most infuriating of times!” Konstantin spits back, and Jazz takes this as the signal to move.

There is absolutely no way I’m letting her out of my sight, so I follow without so much as a glance back at Kiril, though the brothers remain glaring at one another.

Jazz and Konstantin had been travelling light, so there wasn’t much for them to pack up before they were ready to go. Miho, on the other hand, had far more luggage.

Though there was still so much to say, a weighty silence – a storm cloud on the very brink of breaking – followed their progress all the way to the airport where they boarded Kiril’s jet. They had encountered no problems – nothing from Arno and nothing from Konrad, and arrived back in the U.K to nothing but a limousine with heavily tinted windows. And still the thick tension persisted, all the way through the city, glancing over their shoulders, until it all gave way to much greener scenery.

But the rolling hills the farthest thing from Miho’s mind. She took very little in about the grandeur of Kiril’s sprawling estate, focused instead on trying to put all her questions and statements about everything that had happened since Jazz’s disappearance in some sort of order.

In a bedroom fit for a queen, the two men left Miho and Jazz sitting on either side of the bed. Both of them look down at where their hands were folded in their laps until Miho lifted one to rub fingers against the slowly increase throb of her temple.

“When did you know?” she asked quietly. “About the vampires?”

“Not right away,” Jazz answered, staring across the room at the balcony doors. “But, before…”

“Before what?” Miho pushed, rocking to her feet and turning around, though that only aggravated the ache in her skull. “I mean, I knew he’d been at the club, that you’d seen him outside a couple of times, but we used to share everything… I’d have thought the existence of supernatural creatures would count as pretty important to tell your best friend.”

“I think you’re well enough informed now to know why I couldn’t say anything,” Jazz frowned, tipping her chin toward the door in a gesture meant to indicate somewhere in the great manse, Kiril and his brother were no doubt having their candid own discussion. “I wanted to protect you.”

A noise something akin to a snort punctuated Miho’s incredulity.

“Did you expect me to accept you’d dropped off the face of the Earth and just get on with my life?” she questioned rhetorically, kneading the back of her neck. “Because that’s the only explanation I can think of that might have led you to think I wouldn’t do everything in my power to find you, and in doing so, put my nose in vampire business anyway.”

There was little for Jazz to do but cringe, because Miho was right.

“It was a difficult choice to make,” Jazz began awkwardly.

“You chose him, Jazz!” Miho exclaimed, the thundering in her skull doing little to aid in the containment of her sense of betrayal. “And I would never stop you from seeing someone you loved, but you actually chose to be with him, to keep his secrets, to become one of them, rather than stay with someone you’ve known practically your whole life! You just, threw me away.”

Cringing for the twisted expression on Miho’s face, Jazz finally tried to approach, but the wild slashing motion of Miho’s arm warned her not to get too close.

“I’m sorry,” Jazz sighed, and she’d lost count of how many times she had said it. “I fell in love with him and he with me, and when he confided his secret…”

“You couldn’t have told him there is nothing we don’t share?” Miho snapped, her eyes losing focus. “You couldn’t have told him we’re practically sisters and nothing can… nothing should have come between us?”

“Miho, be reasonable…” Jazz tried again, but she had seen Miho lose her cool enough times to know a temper like that was beyond reason and logic.

“You’re a fucking vampire!” Miho shouted, her whole face scrunching up as she backed away, the animated nature of her expressive hand movements causing her to wobble. “There’s no coming back from that, and what’s worse, if Konrad finds out his favourite son has gone and given his heart to a turned, you’re dead, dead!”

Breathing heavily against the boiling emotions in her chest, Miho leaned against the sideboard. Oh she was angry, no two ways about that, but now her fingertips felt as if they were burning away from the bone and her skull was cracking from some inexplicable pressure that distorted her vision.

Obviously, Miho was very angry, but it became clear when she blinked away large tears rolling red ribbons down her cheeks, that something else was very very wrong.

“Miho!” Jazz gasped, dashing forward in time to catch Miho before she hit the floor.

“Everything’s on fire!” Miho panted through teeth tightly clenched, and Jazz wanted nothing more than to comfort her, but blood was now dripping from Miho’s chin, and within Jazz a dangerous hunger called.

“Konstantin!” Jazz shrieked in panic, laying Miho gently against the carpet and moving swiftly to throw open the bedroom door. “Kiril! Help!”

She didn’t know where either of them were in the spacious mansion, they could have been in another wing entirely, but as Jazz took a necessary step onto the landing – away from the scent of blood that taunted her – two blurs flashed toward her at great speed.

“Jazz? Are you o…” Konstantin began, but his sentence broke off when he too was reached by the sweet smell of Miho’s distress.

“Take her down stairs, now,” Kiril barked sharply, and with eyes flashing an uncompromising warning, he spared neither a second more before disappearing into the bedroom. “Miho,” he hissed, pulling her gently into his lap.

And instantly the razorblades that had been digging through his veins were somehow dulled.

The beast within him paced irritably as Kiril weathered the tantalising spectacle of Miho’s blood-smeared face, but he hoisted her into his arms and carried her whimpering to the bed.

“What is this?” he whispered coldly, not to her but to himself, as he gently wiped her face clean with a hastily acquired pillowcase, before tossing is as far across the large room as he could. “Miho?” he breathed again, and finally she seemed to rouse from her agonised state enough to focus on his face.

And her mind was clear, her skin prickling pleasantly in the wake of each soft pass his fingers made down her cheek.

“That was…” she croaked thickly, reaching out to take his other hand and draw it down between her breasts, pressing his cool palm over the rapid pulsing of her heart. “I thought I was going to die.”

“What happened?” he soothed, his voice sounding foreign to his own ears.

“Nagging headache just, got worse and worse,” she murmured, savouring the sensation of his fingers sliding through her hair and the pressure of his hand that ensured they were connected. “Then it just, erupted… but…”

The last few tears fell, but this time they were clear.

“The moment I touched you,” Kiril continued, his brows knitting, “the more I touch you, the pain subsides.”

“You too?” she exhaled, examining his face as it drew closer.

Less than a minute ago it had felt as if she was being torn apart; but now she wanted to taste Kiril’s tongue, ravenously claw away his clothing and bury him so deeply within her the memory of that pain would be erased completely.

“Just relax,” he instructed, lips brushing lightly against hers with the promise of more, but to her disappointment he then sat up. “There is something I do not like about this.”

“Bleeding from the eyes was sort of traumatic for me too,” Miho piped up, shifting his hand over to her right breast. “But…”

Her pause was filled with puzzlement.

“… all I want now is to feel you,” she finished finally, frowning. “Kiril…”

“I know,” he admitted, but it was through gritted teeth.

He was fighting himself, Miho could see his struggle.

“Why am I not freaking out?” she exhaled, clutching his hand more firmly. “I should… see a doctor.”

“Liana will examine you,” he asserted, rocking back and standing, but Miho dug in her fingernails.

“Don’t leave!” she gasped quickly, a reflex, and Kiril’s gaze narrowed on her grip.

“I will return momentarily,” he told her, strain tightening his voice. “But until Liana has examined you, your friend will have to stay away. She is still young, and if you bleed again she may not be able to control her primal urges.”

“But not you,” she stated, rather than questioned, not removing her grip.

“No, not me,” he smiled with a gentleness Miho had not yet seen from him, and she allowed her hold to fall away.

True to his word, just minutes later Kiril returned, a woman a step behind him.

Though she again found relief in Kiril’s presence, this did not detract from the sharp, clear blue of the other woman’s eyes, and her instantaneous study of her new patient. And there was something old-world about her – from the modest ankle length of her skirt, to the well-loved leather doctor’s bag she carried to the bedside and opened.

“You may leave now, Master Kiril,” Liana said softly, placing a stethoscope around her neck.

“I shall stay,” Kiril responded, much to Miho’s relief, but Liana turned to frown at him – and when she spoke it was much more crisply.

“Master Kiril,” she began, firmly, the tone of an uncompromising woman. “I should like to begin my examination of your lady friend, however, I shall not do so without the requisite privacy necessary to uphold her dignity and confidentiality.”

Miho blinked; people generally did not speak to Kiril in such a manner. She expected a storm to break in the room – gale force winds and lashing rain, but Kiril simply looked annoyed.

“She is…” he began, but Liana cut him off abruptly.

“In capable hands,” she finished for him. “I shall call for the young master if I require assistance.”

This made Kiril ruffle, but Miho lifted her head a little.

“I’ll be okay,” she forced out, though she honestly didn’t want him to go.

Wordlessly he ground his teeth for a few seconds, while Liana simply peered at him expectantly.

“Fine,” he huffed, then stalked out, closing the two women into the room alone.

If she was pleased, or felt any form of satisfaction over her victory, Liana’s expression showed none of it. There was an intensity of focus about her, a stare that told Miho she missed very little, and practiced hands that spoke of experience.

There was little talk between them, save for questions and answers, and when Liana had determined Miho’s basic physiological details were normal, she requested more comprehensive tests to be performed… in the basement.

“So,” Miho quipped, much of her strength returned as she walked beside Liana out of the elevator into the incongruously sleek and sterile décor of the basement. “Kiril really is Batman.”

“He has considerable wealth, if that is what you mean,” Liana nodded, guiding Miho past various rooms before urging her to enter another.

“He doesn’t have a mask wearing fetish?” Miho quipped, settling into the indicated chair before a piece of medical equipment.

“Not to my knowledge,” Liana replied, taking her time to calibrate the machine. “However, what Master Kiril does outside the estate is his own business.”

There were still so many unanswered questions – like who this woman really was, and what her relationship to Kiril was, but Miho didn’t want to just blurt them out. She felt suddenly, acutely aware of his age, and what that meant for his relationship history – not that she was all that clear on his relationship at present either.

“Just relax, and look straight ahead,” Liana instructed with a small smile, indicating the chin rest, and Miho complied.

What followed was a gamut of tests, at the conclusion of which, Liana showed Miho back to her room wherein Kiril arrived shortly.

“Well?” he prompted impatiently, but Liana seemed completely unfazed by him.

“She has no evidence clinical conjunctival hyperemia, periorbital or palpebral edema, and maintains normal vision and extraocular movement,” Liana explained. “The young master is currently examining pathology for some underlying cause of the hyphema, though there are no visible indications of infection.”

Miho caught a handful of the medical jargon, and surmised what Kiril then vocalised.

“So you have no idea what happened,” he dropped, clearly displeased.

But the hand he had on Miho’s shoulder was light, warm.

“As yet, no,” Liana responded, and appeared a more than a little irritated by the fact.

Konstantin had been the one to contact Konrad: Kiril’s idea. Since he and his father didn’t get along – to put it politely – and to increase the chances of distracting the king from his rage – however unlikely.

Eyes followed the pair as they made their way silently through the lobby of Konrad’s primary place of business, but no one questioned them. Kiril strode with his typical air of self-confidence despite the derisive daggers shot his way.

Oh, if only they knew.

Better that they didn’t.

“When was the last time you were here?” Konstantin asked as they reached the elevator.

He was not so practiced at hiding his discomfort.

“A year or so,” Kiril shrugged. “Daddy dearest is not especially welcoming.”

“Like you ever tried to make peace with the guy,” Konstantin snorted, stepping into the gilded cabin of the lift.

Very conservative.

“What, drawn, and talk of peace?” Kiril smirked.

“Yeah, yeah, you hate the word, and he started it,” Konstantin huffed. “But you can’t tell me you’ve done anything to try and appease him.”

“No, I cannot,” Kiril agreed with mirth, not the slightest bit repentant. “That is what happens when you kill a man’s mother.”

“That’s your excuse?” Konstantin snorted. “Really? Because yours is not the only mother he’s killed.”

“So I should not hold him accountable because he has a full complement of victims on his ledger?” Kiril retorted.

“And I suppose your hands are clean?” Konstantin challenged. “Perfectly clear conscience?”

“Do not be absurd,” Kiril sniffed. “But by comparison…”

“Bad is bad, Brother,” Konstantin argued, looking up as the elevator chimed.

“I will keep that in mind as I’m bailing you out of the grave you have dug yourself into,” Kiril smirked, and was first to saunter out into the plush antechamber.

“Hmm, new carpet,” Kiril noted flippantly, causing several chatting in the large room to stop and stare.

As if it was his house, a crown upon his brow, Kiril strode unaffected by the attention he had drawn; in fact, Konstantin noted he seemed pleased and entirely unsurprised.

The way he pushed through the double doors was anything but subtle. Indeed, he announced his arrival like a performer: exaggerated, confident movements, boldness, and an aura that drew and held gazes.

“Father!” he exclaimed in an overly affable tone, clearly intending to mock the poor relationship they shared.

Konrad did not turn from the conversation in which he was engaged, though two other bodies in the room inched away from the king.

Not only unaccustomed to being ignored, but already looking to stoke the fire of opposition, Kiril filled the hall with his presence. As much as Kiril clashed with his father, this magnetism was what had allowed him to build his own empire despite the king’s enmity, and Konstantin had to admire that.

When there was no reaction after a few more seconds, Kiril’s upper lip began to curl, and Konstantin saw all the theatricality recede.

“You have ten seconds to acknowledge my presence, or your favourite and I return to our fun and games,” Kiril growled.

Challenge accepted.

It was the sudden slamming of the doors they had entered through that drew Kiril and Konstantin’s focus, and there they found Narumi with arms crossed over her chest.

“I am listening,” Konrad stated, his voice reverberating most unnaturally. “But not for long. You have already kept me waiting.”

“Drop the drama, Konrad,” Kiril dismissed, hands deep in his trouser pockets and looking completely relaxed. “We are here of our own volition at your most insistent behest.”

“And yet it was not you I called for,” Konrad dropped, only now turning to rest his unsettling scrutiny upon his children.

Kiril, however, he looked right through.

“Explain,” he added, cold and commanding.

“I sent Konstantin to address sensitive interests in Europe I could trust to no one else,” Kiril answered, and that more directly drew Konrad’s ire.

“And who are you to send my son, anywhere?” Konrad glowered, Kiril’s demise swirling in his eyes, his disdain carving his mouth in jagged lines.

“You would not question the contributions my business assets make to this kingdom,” Kiril replied calmly. “Because you would notice a significant decline in both revenue and influence were I to transfer my operations to say… Australia?”

“Do not over-estimate your worth,: Konrad retorted, approaching his elder son with a predatory gait.

“Oh, I know exactly what I’m worth,” Kiril chuckled, and the two vampires who had skirted to the edge of the room began their way toward Narumi, perhaps for protection from the oncoming affray. “But I stopped measuring myself by your skewed standards many years ago. After all, when you’re that small…”

Knowing he was playing with fire and brimstone, Kiril made a ‘tiny’ gesture with his thumb and index finger.

While the eyes of the three who were not important enough yet to be given names froze in absolute shock, Konrad began forward. It was Narumi, however, who took firm hold of Kiril’s chin and forced him to look at her.

“You owe your king the truth,” she hissed into his face, eyes boring into his, and he knew her power would catch him in a lie if he attempted to tell one. “So I suggest – for once in your life – you do not lie.”

“Konstantin was working for me,” Kiril told Narumi confidently, and instantly her nose wrinkled.

“As much as it surprises me, my Lord, Kiril is telling the truth.”

With his full focus on Kiril, Konrad didn’t notice the most unsubtle double-take Konstantin performed.

“It is truly touching how much you trust your children,” Kiril sniffed. “Now, if there is not anything else, there are a great many other things I would like to be doing.”

“Konstantin, remain,” his father ordered, and Kiril made no quarrel.

IF he dropped himself in it now, both he and Jazz deserved to be hunted as far as Kiril was concerned.

Following his retreat, Narumi waited with Kiril for the elevator and stepped in beside him.

“And what did that little ruse just cost me?” Kiril drawled, working the ache of his jaw and touching the throbbing pain of one temple.

“The truth would be nice, but I know it’s unlikely you’ll give me that,” she shrugged nonchalantly. “So, for now I’ll keep that one banked. Need I tell you whatever game you’re playing is a most dangerous one?”

“No,” Kiril grimace, and this certainly did not escape Narumi’s notice.

“What is wrong with you? You’re paler than usual.”

“It was a long trip and I am famished,” he answered flippantly, but his tone was tainted by discomfort.

“Have you been feeding from junkies again?” she snorted in amusement, knowing full well his response was a falsehood.

“Best you mind your own business, Narumi,” Kiril warned. “You want none of mine, and if the king learns of your complicity in my deception there will be little left of you but dust in the wind.”

“I knew what I was doing, cousin,” she smiled. “And I know – whether you tell me or not – I will uncover what you’re hiding.”

As swiftly as inhumanly possible, Kiril returned to the estate. Blinding pain seared his consciousness, and so he feared Miho was in an even worse state.

He was directed to Liana’s infirmary by an anxious Jazz, but he left her alone upstairs to ponder Konstantin’s failure to return.

“I was forced to sedate her,” Liana reported, when Kiril showed alarm at Miho’s unresponsiveness. “She was thrashing about quite vigorously, in addition to the symptoms you described earlier.”

Sliding his palm up Miho’s arm, Kiril’s own anguish abated swiftly, and when he touched his lips to the warm of hers, a buzzing joy flooded his veins.

“This is most unnatural,” he exhaled in relief.

“I have been able to determine no medical explanation for Miss Fujiwara’s condition,” Liana admitted. “And could certainly not yet venture the correlation with your own afflictions, save – it seems – that it intensifies the longer you are parted.”

“Unacceptable,” Kiril snapped, but he was gentle in the brushing of Miho’s forehead.

“It is all very well and good you saying that,” Liana grumbled. “But at this stage I must consider the cause to be rooted elsewhere.”

“Such as?” Kiril prompted expectantly.

“Witchcraft, obviously,” came a rather impertinent voice from the doorway. “Clearly, both you and your visitor have been hexed.”

Carrying a tome almost as large as his entire body, the lean child moved effortlessly toward Liana.

“I’ve been reading,” he announced.

“That is all you ever do, Kai,” Kiril pointed out, but he was clearly listening.

“And a good thing too, since you do so little,” Kai snorted, though he sobered and straightened his shoulders when Liana looked displeased.

“Did you know,” Kai began again, “that the Cerchio di veli coven in Florence during the Renaissance were well reputed for their love spells?”

“Are you truly suggesting I am subject to a love spell?” Kiril scoffed.

“Wealthy families paid fortunes for political gains founded in love spells that caused infidelity and broke politically motivated marriages,” Kai elaborated, much to Kiril’s disdain.

“Have you upset any witches lately?” Liana queried. “Aside from me, that is.

“No more so than usual, and even if I had, they would certainly not be alive enough at present to curse anyone,” he asserted.

“Unless,” Kai piped up, “she is the primary target of the manipulation?”

Appreciatively, Liana nodded, and Kai smiled broadly.

That Kiril did not immediately shut down this concept, told Liana Kai’s postulation had some merit.

“So, who exactly is your little friend?” Liana asked, since Kiril was not forthcoming with the details.

“A hunter, I suspect,” he replied, and both Liana’s and Kai’s eyes bugged. “You have plenty of blood to test so I want it confirmed,” he added waspishly. “I need to be sure.”

“So, you’ve been out and about cavorting with a hunter?” Liana questioned, though it was obviously rhetorical.

“Unawakened, but yes,” Kiril confirmed, his top row of teeth scraping over the lower.

“Are you insane?” Liana hissed, leaning over Miho toward him.

“No, hexed apparently,” he retorted, glaring icily, and Liana moved back. “Return to the library, Kai,” he then commanded. “I want to know which spell and who I need to kill to break it.”

“And you’re going to be doing what meanwhile?”

For a second Kiril pursed his lips, his fingers paused mid-way through stroking Miho’s hair.

“I have a child to teach the ways of our world and a couple of nightclub owners to manage.”

“You’re going to leave here with her? With both of them?” Liana blinked. “If you are indeed connected by magic, it may very well be ill advised to kill her before the spell is broken, but to allow her out in public? Have you lost your senses?”

“Watch your tone, Liana; you know who you are talking to,” Kiril snarled.

“And it’s because I know, I think this is a terrible mistake,” she tried to reason. “Were the king to learn of this…”

“He shall not, unless some poor creature no longer wishing to live should tell him.”

Both fact and a warning Liana heard loud and clear.

I rouse to a melancholic piano melody drifting purposefully through the mansion. Though I picture the simple press of keys, the sound each makes is far more than that; there is a ubiquitous pain woven into the undulating tempo, a graceful, sorrowful longing in every hanging pause and a hand offered in my direction.

Wrapping myself in the satin robe hanging at the end of the bed, I pad out of the bedroom I don’t remember returning to, coaxed by the music’s sweet desperation, completely under its spell. And half way to the lower floor, I find myself unable to move – peering down into the lounge I discover the source of that beautiful distress.

Transfixed, unblinking, I watch Kiril’s fingers glide across the concert grand, the monstrous instrument of dark, varnished wood tamed by the skilful touch of his cold fingertips; and I wonder if it’s possible to be jealous of an inanimate object. Yet it seems so alive, the silver strike of each hidden string taking flight and fluttering upward to where I stand – and I can almost see those hazy wisps of sound shuddering toward me: fragile, hopeful, fervent but somehow laces with fine threads of irritation.

When the final reverberation gives way to silence, I inhale a sob and finally release the tears that have been swimming across my vision.

Clear at least this time.

Kiril looks up at me, his expression unreadable, his thoughts so shielded compared to the open emotion of his unguarded tune.

“You’re such a trope,” I declare, my voice still thick with a clinging sadness. “Sullen vampire playing broody music on his piano in the dead of night.”

“The pipe organ was taking up too much space,” he replies, and it might have been humourous had his tone not emerged so darkly from between those perfect lips I have kissed fervently and want to partake of again. “And it’s a little past noon.”

Impassively, he turns a couple of sheet music pages and begins again to play, ignoring my approach.

What am I supposed to make of that?

Have I irritated him by interrupting, offended him with my remark, or is there someone worse still than the wracking pain connecting our separation?

Persisting despite the ache in my chest, I complete my descent and tread slowly across the space until I am directly behind him. The swaying rhythm of his new malady causes me to frown; he is right there within arm’s reach and yet he somehow feels very far away. To reassure myself, I lightly place a hand against his shoulder, but immediately recoil when the piano shouts a single, dramatic discord and Kiril becomes still.

“What?” I scowl, with equal parts indignation and upset, and Kiril turns his whole body, suddenly trapping my legs between his, possessively drawing me close again with one arm around my waist.

I’m looking down at him, but the power is all his; not something I’m used to nor entirely comfortable with.

“Spit it out,” I huff, even as his hand floats downward over the curve of my backside.

“I am angry,” he answers finally, and as much is evident in the arctic sharpness of his eyes.

“I can see that,” I retort, trying to maintain my train of thought as he begins to gather up the back of my robe.  “It’s not like we both don’t have plenty of reasons to be pissed off at the world right now, so what particular frustration has got your goat right now?”

“I want you beyond all reason,” he snarled, but hidden beneath it was a despairing purr. “I want to consume you entirely, but then you would be gone and that I simply cannot allow.”

This confession is so incredibly frightening, but at the same time the most mind-blowing statement I have ever heard – of this I am sure.

Expressing this is nigh impossible, however; emotions refuse to be converted into words. All I can do in response is climb into his lap, lock my fingers at the nape of his neck and drink that sweet affection from his lips. Fervently, he searches for the places about my body of greatest warmth, until he’s straining against my inner thigh.

“Wait,” he utters, incongruent with the insistent press of his fingertips. “Wait.”

“For what?” I rasp. “A written invitation?”

“This,” he begins again, swallowing his desire in a massive gulp, “this isn’t real.”

“You’re going to let witches tell you what is and isn’t real?” I challenge.

We’d spoken in the infirmary about the theory of a curse or spell binding us by lust, and at first I was outraged and sickened and frustrated. To be manipulated in that way, to be robbed of emotional freedom made me feel trapped, suffocated.

As Kiril kissed me good night, however, and left me alone I couldn’t reconcile what I knew of my desire’s falseness with how powerful and real it felt.

How it feels.

“I will let the facts do so,” Kiril clarifies, and the icy edge causes me to recoil, rock back and pull free easily because Kiril allows me to.

“Oh well, in that case I’ll just be on my way and waste your time no longer,” I bite back, the lashing of a wounded and confused animal.

“You are overreacting,” he says from his seat. “You know very well you and I cannot be apart at present.”

“Enjoy your headache, Kiril,” I spit, failing to resist the burning hurt of a knife twisting between my ribs.

“Are you a woman or a toddler throwing a tantrum?” he hisses, in front of me before I can dodge.

“I’m a woman taken for a fool!” I shout into his face. “Caught up by your unnatural charm and swagger – maybe drawn by magic if you want to blame it – but preyed upon and lured nonetheless until I gave myself to you!”

“And I am the only one who has ever had the pleasure I suppose?” Kiril volleys.

I don’t know if he’s just caught off guard, or if my rage has given me supernatural speed, but my palm snaps loudly across his face.

“Miho?” Jazz calls from above, but all my focus belongs to Kiril for another barb before I stomp upstairs.

“I hope you have a good memory, Kiril,” I snarl. “Because hex or otherwise, screaming fits of bloody murder, it’s a pleasure you’ll not have again.”

The scent of smoke – Part 6

A blink, a heartbeat before he recognized her Jazz was already staring at him, eyes wide, a shy smile tugging at her lips. It only widened when he looked directly at her, eyebrows shooting up only to sink again when a genuine smile crinkled the corners of his eyes.

“The beer fairy. What are you doing here?” He motioned towards the seat next to her, slid on it when she nodded.

“Beer fairy? Wow, I got called a lot in my life already, but that one is new.” She motioned towards the barkeeper, ordered a pint of their draft for Jinpachi and grinned when he laughed.

“Well, Mr. Photographer, I’m here to see the band. What’s your excuse?” Over the rim of her glass she watched him, sipped from her straw, glad she had something to hold in her hand.

“Actually I’m looking for a location and heard of this bar. Thought it could be what I need for a photo shoot.” He raised his glass once, eyes widened at the first swig. “Wow, that’s good. You tried it before?”

Back home, in Europe, beer was more common than wine and she had drunken countless of different kinds. This one was new to her, though.

“No, but I take your word for it.” She sipped more fruit juice disguised as cocktail. “But then again, what did you expect? I’m the beer fairy after all.”

He laughed, wiped a bit of foam from his upper lip.

“So if you are here to scoop out the location and I’m here to scoop out the band, is anyone here for fun? Or are the others here for work, too?” Jazz set her empty glass down, smiled at the barkeeper who took it immediately only to bring her a new cocktail.

“I’m just here for the music. And the pretty girls,” the barkeeper said, earned a laughter from Jazz this time.

“I’ll remind you of that later when you bring me the bill.”

When she turned around to face Jinpachi again he was looking at her intently, a light crease between his eyebrows.

“What?”

“Nothing. You know that guy?”

Her eyes followed the lazy wave of his hand towards the barkeeper who just chatted with another guest.

“No. Why do you ask?”

“You seem familiar. I thought maybe since you work in a similar profession…”

“You think everyone who serves drinks knows everyone else?” Her chuckle got muffled by the cocktail, she set it down after another sip.

“Not?”

A shake of her head and both grinned. The band started a new song, Jazz didn’t recognize the original version but liked the slow, light melody, the way the singer breathed half of the words. Her seat was too small to dance on it, so she swayed only lightly, watched the few couples and even some solitary dancers on the floor.

“You wanna give it a go?” He tipped his head back, drained his glass and slid from his seat.

“What?”

“Dancing. You’re here for the band, right? Come on, let’s see if their music is any good for dancing.” His hand was right there, palm open, facing upwards, waiting for her to place her own hand on top.

It was just a dance, right? Nothing wrong about that. And she had to be thorough in her rating.

“Okay, yeah. I hope you can dance, because I’m really good.” Years of dance classes, only for fun but still, had made her picky when it came to dance partners. A simple two-step wasn’t enough to impress her. Even Subaru had taken some lessons before their wedding, fully aware that he wouldn’t be able to keep up with her otherwise.

“I can manage without hurting myself or others,” he assured her, squeezed lightly when her hand rested in his, warm and fortunately not sweaty.

On the dance floor he placed his free hand in the dip of her waist, safe territory so Jazz relaxed a bit. Close, but not too close. After a few steps she found her rhythm, matched it to his, gave him the lead, one hand on his shoulder. Just a dance.

“Hm, not sure what I like better,” he mused loudly, tilted his head lightly when she looked at him. “Watching you is really interesting. But this? Dancing? Having you in my arms? Also great.”

Jazz bit her bottom lip. So far everything had been innocent, easy. Not even really flirting. Should she tell him?

“So, a photographer, huh? Shouldn’t you be great with details and such? Notice the small things?”

“I’d say so, yes. Why?”

Heart pounding she pulled her right hand from his grip, raised it with the back towards him. “Did you actually miss the wedding band or are you flirting like that with every married woman you meet?”

She gave it a teasing tone, flashed him a smile. His brow furrowed before he shrugged, twirled her once, his hand now landed further up her back.

“Only the interesting ones who conjure beer bottles out of thin air.”

“Ah yes, that’s my most attractive trait. Capable of beer magic.” She still laughed when he twirled her once again, pulled her back into his loose embrace.

“Maybe not your most attractive trait, but definitely in the top three.” An easy smile played on his lips, no signs of discomfort or disappointment.

The song ended, Jazz let go of him to clap politely. He was a good dancer, not on a professional level, but solid.

“Thanks, that was fun.” Ready to go back to the bar she bowed her head lightly, not enough to be formal, just to indicate her approval.

“Night’s not over yet, and so is the music.”

A new song started, for once one that she knew. Everyone knew it, it was a classic.

“Huh… I thought they took modern songs and turned them vintage, not taking old songs and made them a different kind of vintage.”

“Are you an Elvis fan?” Again he held out his hand, this time she didn’t hesitate.

“I know ‘Suspicious minds’ mostly from the Fine Young Cannibals,” she admitted, listened for the tempo, the slow, almost lazy rhythm far from the pop version she was familiar with. Jinpachi led her over the dance floor, evaded other couples, his free hand just barely grazing the bare skin of her back, above the deep cut of her dress. Her breath shouldn’t hitch like that, it was just a dance after all.

“You’re too young to know Elvis, huh?”

Jazz snorted, glad she had an excuse to lighten the mood again with some banter.

“What do you think how young I am? And how old are you that you act as if you knew the King personally?”

“I’d say you are quiet young, but I’m not old enough for that. Still, I grew up with his music.”

Se threw her head back, shook her hair once and looked back at him.

“We all did. That’s why he’s a legend after all.” Another spin, a turn and he led her closer towards the stage.

“So, if I dip you now, will you help me up if I throw out my back?”

“How about you don’t risk it and don’t dip me?”

“And where’s the fun in that?” With one fluid motion he bend her backwards over his arm, kept her there for a heartbeat or two. Or ten, if her racing heart was the standard. Without a hitch he pulled her up again, spun her around and got back into a slow sway.

“You like danger?” she asked once she was upright again, chest heaving with what she swore was heavy breathing due to the dancing.

“I like – excitement. A bit of uncertainty. You know people who are all about security and certainty? Good for them, but life can’t be planned through completely so I decided long ago to just enjoy the changes and the chances they bring.”

To Jazz, who actually liked a certain amount of safety – hence the marriage – it sounded elusive.

“Isn’t that what someone says who’s not ready for commitment?”

The last notes of the song just faded, applause filled the air between them.

“I wouldn’t say that. I committed to a job just fine, I’m doing this for years already and it never got boring.” He clapped his hands, waited for the next song to begin. An upbeat number, more swing than smoochy dance. With a raised eyebrow, a small tilt of his head he looked at her. Jazz shrugged. Why not?

“I guess your job is pretty exciting. All those locations, all the people you meet.” Faster songs required a tighter grip so they didn’t drift apart during the spins. She adjusted her grasp, reduced their distance.

“It is. And once you get this one shot you have envisioned the whole time – incredibly rewarding.” He spun her once, led her in a circle around himself and got her back close against his chest afterwards.

“What are you doing when you’re not working your beer magic?”

Dancing was one thing, but actually telling him about herself crossed a line she didn’t dare touching at all.

“I’m a beer fairy 24/7, I’m afraid. Not very glamorous, but it pays the bills.” Let him think she was a waitress. The less he know about her the better, the smaller the risk. She refused to think about the risk at all.

“Well, as long as you are content with it, it doesn’t matter, right?”

Jazz tilted her head, almost rested her forehead against his shoulder, only pulled away when she noticed how close she was.

“It’s safe at least. Freedom and safety unfortunately are mutually exclusive, so if I wanted to have more freedom in my working life, I would have to sacrifice some of my security.”

“And you don’t want to renounce your safety.” His nod was brief, his smile wavered. His grip on her hands tightened, he spun her once, twice, led her into a step sequence.

“Do you want to renounce your freedom?”

“For a dance or two, I just might.” He grinned, dipped her low.

Jazz laughed again, somehow he managed to keep it classy and fun, not smarmy at all. Not pushy or demanding.

The song ended and this time they decided to go back to the bar, finish their drinks.

“What’s your verdict?” he asked, laughed when she looked at him with eyebrows raised high, eyes wide. “Of my dancing skills.”

“Oh, that. Well, I had fun, so you passed.” A last smile in his direction and she downed her drink, grabbed her purse and slipped off her seat. “I think I’m done with my research here. Have a nice night, Yushima-san.”

“Hey, gorgeous,” he stopped her, but didn’t get up from his seat. “I hope we’ll meet again.”

From beer fairy to gorgeous in only three dances. Warm pride prickled in her belly, shone in her eyes when she waved at him.

“We’ll see.”

The warmth in her belly didn’t fade until she reached home.

 

Children screamed and laughed, someone shouted into their general direction and the scent of grilled meat and sausages wafted through the park at the annual picnic for police forces of any department.

Jazz looked around, today in her role as guest – her husband was a police officer after all, even if he wasn’t working in the regular service – and as event planner. Mostly had already been decided when she got the award job, but she brought Liana, just in case she needed a helping hand or two. No ulterior motives at all.

“Every year I have to sit through this and there’s no booze in sight,” Miho grumbled, glared at the fruit punch as if that would turn it into something with more ooomph. It didn’t.

“Why do you even come here if you hate it so much?” Despite her sunglasses against the warm spring sun Jazz’s eyes were closed, the few rays she soaked up would have to suffice for a while. Even someone as pale as her had to be careful, white skin still was a beauty standard in Japan.

“Seiji and I had our first date her in this park. So this is our anniversary party. And of course there’s food.”

Every year they hauled a few barbeque grills over, some men from different departments volunteered to grill countless sausages, burgers, pieces of meat and fish. Salads, bread, dips and vegetables offered some alternatives for those who didn’t like meat or simply needed something to snack on before the actual picnic started.

Most members of the force brought their partners, some even their kids, especially the couples with both parents working for the police.

Subaru was manning a grill, just like his superior, Katsuragi. Goto chatted with someone, Liana was just checking if there were enough napkins and Jazz simply relaxed for once, listened to Miho’s explanations of people’s jobs, backgrounds and general flaws. Quite entertaining.

“Hey, tell me one thing,” Miho just said, set her glass down. “Lately you seem in a pretty good mood. Anything I should know?”

Glad her eyes were hidden behind her glasses Jazz straightened up. “What are you hinting at?”

“Dunno. Earlier, when this kid fell and cried, you went to comfort it. We haven’t been out for drinks since our little celebration the other day. You complain about smells more.”

Having detectives as friends held the risk of having secrets exposed before one could come up with a good explanation. But not this time.

“I only complain when Subaru smells like cigarette smoke because that makes my stomach churn. It’s not my fault you don’t have time to go drinking with me and I only comforted that kid so it would stop crying already. So if you have something to ask, by all means, ask me. But not in this roundabout way.”

“Since this is your normal level of bitchiness I take that you’re not pregnant.” Unfazed by the strict tone Miho grabbed a handful of grapes, popped one into her mouth.

“No, I’m not pregnant. You think I wouldn’t tell you if I even considered that?” Despite the hints Subaru dropped every now and then there was a clear agreement between him and Jazz. She wanted to work a couple of years longer before she put her career on ice for their family.

“You know I’m not a big fan of kids, so I thought you wanted to present me with a fait accompli.”

“Nah.” Jazz waved off, leaned back in her seat again. “Still got that handy little thing inside that should prevent any visitors getting too cozy in there.” She patted her belly, frowned and sat up again. “Since we are already talking about filled tummies, I could use a bite. Food better not takes too long anymore.”

Liana came back, a clipboard in her hand. “Okay, we got everything.”

“Great. In that case, take a seat. Our only job today was providing the supplies, the rest is up to the others.” Jazz pointed to the bench across from her seat, divided by the picnic table. “Get a drink and enjoy the nice weather. This is one of the easier jobs of the year.”

With a sigh Liana complied, the clipboard clattered on the table. “Just sitting around, doing nothing?”

“Not exactly,” Miho piped up. “You can eat, drink – albeit nothing stronger than fruit punch – play some stupid games. Go and mingle. Have fun.” Miho emphasized her words by downing her glass, or better paper cup, and waving towards a tall man with glasses who passed in a short distance.

“Captain! You remember Ichiyanagi’s wife?”

He changed his direction, now headed towards the table.

“Hello, Sergeant Fujiwara. Mrs. Ichiyanagi.”

“It’s Mann. Miss Mann.” Jazz smiled brightly, took off her sunglasses. “Let me introduce my coworker to you, Captain. This is Liana Starling, most of today’s plannings are her work.”

“Miss Starling.” A brief nod and Miho pitched in.

“This is Captain Ishigami, Goto’s direct superior. One of the best police officers I know.”

“Captain,” Liana retorted with an equally brief nod, but a smile tugged at the corners of her lips.

“Okay, I’m going to check on Subaru and the food. I’ll be right back.” Jazz casually grabbed her drink and strolled towards the smoking grills, a grin on her face.

“Oh, is that Officer Nasaki? If you excuse me, there’s something I gotta ask her.” With Miho so hastily gone Liana found herself alone with the captain, his expression serious, observant.

“So, you planned the picnic this year? Impressive. As far as I can tell there are finally enough napkins this time.” He pushed his glasses up a bit, stared at the bench next to them.

“There are some things you can never have too much of. Like napkins. Do you want to have a seat, Captain? I was told to mingle but to be honest, there are still some things left I want to check before I can relax.”

“Very well, Miss Starling. Don’t let me keep you from doing your work.”

They both sat down, Liana took the clipboard and flipped the first page. “If you notice anything amiss, please let me know, Captain. I like it when things are in order.”

He cocked one eyebrow, a faint smile ghosted over his lips. “So do I, Miss Starling. So do I.”

With a carrot stick between her fingers Jazz wandered over to Subaru, greeted a few people she knew on the way. In the last three years she had met a couple of coworkers, former academy mates and other friends of Subaru, all working in the law enforcement. As if he had no life outside of his job. He was successful in what he did, with his father the former superintendent of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police he also had the best connections. Elite schools and universities, a father who had big plans for him – the only flaw in his life was his choice of wife. A strategic marriage would have paved his path to mayor of Tokyo in ten, fifteen years.

And now he was standing there, flipping burgers, chatting with some simple police officers instead of sucking up to some influential bigshot. He looked happy, though, laughed just with that woman he was talking to. She was slender, around Jazz’s height, but slimmer, less curves. Long, black hair, big eyes, pale skin. A Japanese beauty, probably named Sakura or Yuri or something equally floral and cute. Subaru nodded every once in a while, but focused on his task.

“Hello, handsome. If I needed something hot, would you be able to help me out?” Jazz batted her lashes, nibbled at the carrot with a smile.

“Hey Jazz, have you met Takamura Mei already? She’s the newest member of my squad.” Subaru put a piece of meat on a plate, carefully checked the fish and added a piece of that, too. “Here, cut into the meat and tell me if it’s done, will you?”

Armed with a fork and knife Jazz cut it right in half, nodded once. “Yep, it’s perfect. And sorry, where are my manners? I’m Jazz Mann, nice to meet you.” She dipped her chin low, not even half a bow but considering she was too close to the grill it had to suffice.

“Ichiyanagi-senpai has already told me so much about you, Mann-san. It’s a pleasure working with him, I can learn so much.” Takamura bowed perfectly, her hair like a silk curtain.

Jazz almost choked on her hastily chewed piece of fish. “‘Ichiyanagi-senpai’?”

She turned to her husband, grinned widely. “Is it too hot at the grill for you, senpai? You are flushed a bit. Should I get you something to drink?”

“No, I’m fine. Do you want some chicken kebab, too?” His eyes fixed on the grill he busied himself with turning the meat, a crease forming between his eyebrows.

“Sure, give me whatever you have, I’m sharing with Miho and Liana.” A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed her suspicion; Ishigami was still sitting with Liana. “Do you know what kind of meat Ishigami prefers?”

“The cyborg? I’m not sure he’s eating at all. Probably only recharges at night.” He piled more food on a new plate, handed it over once he was done.

“Takamura-san, would you like something to eat, too?” Jazz asked before she could marched off with most of the ready food.

“Don’t worry about me, Ichiyanagi-senpai is taking good care of me. I have already eaten.”

“Barely,” he piped up, rolled his eyes so that Jazz could see, but Mei couldn’t.

“Oh, Mann-san, I want to apologize for the smoking. I heard you dislike it when Ichiyanagi-senpai smells like it after our shifts together. I will try to cut down on it, but it’s too hard to stop just like that.”

“Most bad habits are.” Jazz shrugged, still balanced two plates. “It’s your decision, really. Subaru could just as well use some air freshener or change his clothes. He’s an adult after all and can either avoid the smoke or take care of his clothes afterwards.”

When Mei didn’t reply to that Jazz smiled politely. “It was nice meeting you, Takamura-san. I’m better taking this to the others before it gets cold.”

Out in public she had learned not to kiss her husband, especially not with so many coworkers around. He didn’t approve and she didn’t want to embarrass him.

“Tell me if you need anything, okay?”

“I will, don’t worry. Go and enjoy your meal, tell Miho not to choke on the food.”

At home he would be more affectionate, but he was Japanese after all. Reserved whenever others were around. Years ago Jazz had accepted this and now it was easy for her to simply smile and wink at him, leave with a spring in her step.

 

“I got some food for us. Captain, do you want to eat with us?”

Both Liana and Ishigami were hard to read, but since they were still sitting at the same table introducing them couldn’t have been a bad idea.

“Let me get some sides. Captain, is there anything you don’t like?” Already on her way Liana paused, smiled when he shook his head.

“I’m not exactly a picky eater.”

“Me neither. That makes it easier to decide what to get. I’ll be right back.”

Jazz watched her, glanced over towards Ishigami whose eyes also followed Liana.

“Have you seen Miho or Goto, Captain?”

“Not since – well, since I came over to your table, I suppose.” He straightened slightly, shoulders squared and chin up.

“Huh. Well, I won’t wait until the food gets cold. Please, help yourself. I hope it is okay that we invited you over, but Miho mentioned how much you dislike these gathering so I figured you might feel more comfortable with a few familiar faces.” The plate with the pile of grilled meat and fish ended in the middle of the table, the other, smaller one with Jazz’s already cut piece of meat and the half eaten fish in front of her.

“And that is why you left me with a woman I never met before?” Ishigami pushed his glasses up, turned up his mouth.

“No, I left you with her to get us some food. You could have left at any point.”

His short huff hadn’t even faded when Liana came back, balancing three plates with snacks and salads.

“I got us a small selection.”

Jazz helped her, took two plates from her hands and arranged them on the table. “Have you spotted Miho somewhere in the last ten minutes?”

“No, but if she doesn’t hurry most of the food will be gone.” Liana fixed a plate for herself, nodded towards Ishigami. “Help yourself, Captain.”

“‘Ishigami’ is sufficient.“ He took a plate, some veggies and chicken.

Jazz hid her grin by stuffing some bread into her mouth. Once she had finished her food she would have to find another reason to let them alone. She could look for Miho, but since Goto has vanished, too, Jazz was pretty sure she didn’t really want to find them. Not again.

 

The scent of smoke – Part 5

Just a chat, nothing more.

Jazz shrugged, scooped some curry into a bowl with rice and handed it to Subaru.

“Thanks. Do you want some tea?”

“Yes, please.” She filled another bowl with curry, shuffled over to the table. “So, today I was hunting for locations and you will never guess who I-”

“Sugar?” He set the cup down, turned back to get his food.

“No, thanks. But you will never guess who I met today.” She made a pause for the dramatic effect, waited until Subaru sat down.

“I probably won’t, but I guess you will tell me now.” He dipped his spoon into the curry, blew on it.

“Yushima Jinpachi.” Her chair scraped over the floor when she leaned back, smiled at her husband.

“Who?” He ate, focused on temperature and taste of his food.

“The photographer? Yushima?” Someone as sophisticated as Subaru had certainly heard that name before.

“You are aware that I am working with top of the political hierarchy in Japan, plus countless of actual celebrities, aren’t you?” He stirred a few drops of soy sauce into his curry, tried it again and scrunched up his nose. “Did you forget to season the food?”

The clank of her spoon on the table got his attention, with a frown he stared at his wife.

“What?”

“Nothing. You know what? You always complain about my cooking, so it’s all yours now. Either you cook or we order in.” She pushed first her bowl back, then her chair.

“Are you miffed now because I like my food to actually taste like something?” Subaru yelled after her, but Jazz just waved over her shoulder, slammed the door to the bedroom shut behind her. Out of her clothes and into the shower, to wash away the anger, the vague nagging guilty conscience talking to Liana had caused. The warm water poured down on her, all over her, swirled down the drain, but didn’t take the emotions with it.

Eyes closed she could almost believe she was somewhere else, but the cool tiles she rested her forehead against anchored her to reality. A last sigh and she lathered up, massaged shampoo into her hair.

“Jazz?”

The water took the suds with it, but didn’t drone out Subaru’s voice. It echoed in the bathroom, got clearer when he came closer.

“Hey, listen, I like your cooking. And I know you had a long day, so taking time to make dinner for us – I appreciate it. Do we really argue about a bit soy sauce now?”

She turned off the water, took a generous amount of conditioner, worked it into the lengths.

“How long do you plan to make me talk to your back?”

“Why? You used to like that view.” She looked over her shoulder, watched his crossed arms unfold.

“Is that an invitation?” His fingers already worked open the tie, but he didn’t pull it off yet.

“Depends. Are you going to season me with soy sauce?”

“I’m going to season you with something else,” he announced, quickly stripped down and stepped into the shower with her.

“Wash my back.”

Armed with a washcloth and body wash he did as told, moved his hands over her back, down to her butt, from there over her hips before he pulled her closer against his chest. With his chin on her shoulder he whispered into her ear.

“You little outbreak earlier wasn’t because of the soy sauce, was it?”

Jazz tipped her own head back, sighed.

“Not really. I wanted to tell you something exciting and you had to one up me again.”

“You wanted to tell me you met a photographer?”

Jazz squirmed, turned in his embrace and looked at him.

“No, I wanted to tell you I met this photographer – not for the first time by the way – in a wonderful art museum while looking for a location because – and now comes the really exciting part – I got the G&A awards job.”

“You did? What happened to Yamamoto?” Water dripped from his hair into his wide eyes, he blinked, wiped it off with one hand.

“Well, his trusty combination of catering and a ballroom somewhere in town couldn’t convince the higher ups, not even with Tres Spade as possible venue.”

Considering how fancy some of the artists could be Jazz was surprised, usually they jumped at the chance to walk down some red carpet.

“And your idea was a bit more extraordinary?”

“Everything about me is extraordinary. Haven’t you noticed yet?” Her breasts pressed against him she grinned, wiggled her hips.

“Oh, I noticed. First thing I noticed about you.”

There it was again, her laughter. Carefree and happy.

“Let’s get rinsed off,” she suggested, but didn’t move.

“And afterwards?”

“You get me dirty again.”

 

Wrapped up in her robe Jazz padded barefoot towards the kitchen. She was starving, her interrupted dinner plus the physical activities were taking their toll on her body. On weak knees she put her bowl into the microwave, set the time and went back into the bathroom where Subaru’s clothes were still on the floor. His tie, his shirt, his pants – she picked them up, took them to the hamper.

“Subaru?”

A lazy hum from the bedroom told her he was at least listening.

“Have you smoked?”

The bed creaked, fabric rustled.

“Not me, but our new squad member is a smoker. We shared a car today.”

Jazz scrunched up her nose, glared at the clothes in her hand.

“Cold, second hand smoke. Yuck.”

“I know you don’t like it, so I’ll take care of the laundry.”

“Tell your coworker to stop smoking when someone else is around. That’s not only rude, it’s harmful,” she grumbled, buried the offending clothes deeply in the hamper.

“Hey.” In his boxers he stepped behind her, nuzzled her neck with his arms wrapped around her. “Less angry now?”

She hummed, the ping of the microwave alerted her.

“Some food and some make up sex – best combination.” She turned around just enough to peck his shoulder, ran off towards the kitchen.

“Didn’t I pay enough attention to you lately for you to get moody?” He wandered after her, found her singing an easy tune under her breath.

“I like it when you’re happy.” Arms crossed in front of his chest he leaned against the doorframe, watched her milling around.

“Because you get more sex when I’m happy?” She flashed him a grin, handed him a cup of tea.

“Because I just like it when you are happy. I love you, that’s part of it.”

“You old sap.” A quick peck and she got her bowl from the microwave, slid on a chair and dug in. The first spoonful was quickly gone, the next she chewed thoroughly. “And it’s seasoned just fine.”

This time he didn’t argue.

 

“The flowers and the cake are ordered, but Miss Osmond asked for assistance picking out her wedding dress.” Liana handed Jazz some papers, waited for feedback or an order.

“Okay, can you schedule an appointment in our usual bridal shop? Try to get one from noon to open end.” Jazz scribbled some notes on one of the order forms, put it aside. “Anything else?”

“No, not really. Do you have any instructions for me?”

“Have you already booked a band or DJ? Asked if they want some performances? A photographer maybe?” The word was out before Jazz could think about it, but the way Liana’s eyes narrowed at her served as a reminder of their conversation the day before.

“No. Do you know a good one?”

“Several.” Jazz opted to ignore the dry sarcasm in Liana’s voice, reached for her file with flyers and contact infos of wedding photographers, handed it over. “Pick one, they are all good. Not exactly award worthy, but good.” With her sweetest smile she sent Liana back to her own desk, wondered again why this was such a big deal for her assistant.

 

Miho stared at the print out in her hand. This was impossible. Weeks and months of research and painstakingly reading, comparing and marking thousands of maps, papers and phone transcripts she had found a solid lead. Well, as solid as it could be.

“Seiji! Get your sweet ass over here, I need second opinion!”

Goto, buried in a similar high pile of papers, cleared a path and trudged over, leaned over the shoulder of his wife and looked at the part she pointed at.

“That’s the third time I see the name of this ship. Can’t be a coincidence anymore, can it?”

“Unlikely. How about I make some phone calls and see if we can get our hands on some waybills and such?”

“Good idea. You got someone for that?” She turned her head just enough to notice the crease between his eyebrows.

“Mhm, I might just have. Will tell you after the call.” He straightened, changed his mind and leaned in again, kissed her ear. “Good job.”

“I’ll show you ‘good job’,” she grumbled, with a smile though. “If this turns out to be something, I’m going out for a drink tonight.” Arms high above her head she stretched, worked out the kinks of her back and neck, rolled her shoulders. Caught him smiling at her.

“If this is what we were looking for, I will buy the first round.”

 

“What are we celebrating?” Jazz asked, the fruity cocktail in front of her begging to get tasted sooner rather than later. Before ice watered it down too much.

“Small success at work. And you? I heard you have some good news, too.” Miho swirled her glass with bourbon, looked at Liana who held a margarita.

“We got a highly coveted award show job. Snatched it from a coworker who thinks it’s enough to offer champagne and hors d’oeuvre.” A lot of careers had skyrocketed after such a chance, some had crashed furiously. Jazz was hellbent on making it her breakthrough, not a nosedive.

“Congrats.” Another round of raised glasses.

“And she ran into that guy again. The ponytail one.” Liana pursed her lips, not because of the lime in her drink.

“Oh?” Miho blinked into Jazz’s general direction, raised an eyebrow. “Do I have to look into that after all?”

“Nah, it’s fine. I already know everything I need to know. His name, occupation, Instagram account.” Jazz leaned back, but shot a sharp gaze towards Liana.

“You looked him up?”

“I found out his name by accident so I figured I could just – you know, stalk him a bit.” Jazz shrugged, made Miho grin.

“That’s not all you did,” Liana pointed out. “I was there when you talked to him, don’t forget that. I saw you do this – thing.”

“I what?” Jazz blinked, waited for an explanation, hackles already rising.

“You did this thing, this beaming smile and the cutesy head tilt. No need to give a guy your number or your name when you look at him like that. He’s getting ideas anyway.”

“Liana, may I ask a question?” Miho’s glass made a clinking sound as it touched the table in front of her. “Why did you get divorced?”

The direct question and seemingly random change of topic stilled the conversation briefly.

“I – we didn’t fit that well together anymore.”

“Regarding what?” In detective mode Miho wasn’t easily thrown off a track, her observational skills impressive.

Liana pursed her lips, wiped the salt off her finger by rubbing it with her thumb.

“He wasn’t as committed as I was.”

“Did he cheat?” Jazz had never asked before, they weren’t that close yet after all.

“No. He just – he stopped caring. Everything was a joke and when I got angry he shrugged it off. Basically he avoided taking responsibility for anything.” Head held high Liana met Jazz’s gaze.

“That’s a very rational, well reflected answer.” While Jazz considered herself a sensible person she was definitely more emotional when it came to past relationships. Not talking badly behind her ex’s backs, but in some cases unable to let it just go, the anger and annoyance caused by heartbreaks and breakups.

“I already talked about that with my therapist.” Not enough though, as Jazz assumed from the big gulp Liana took from her glass.

“So you prefer the serious type? Straight-laced, rational, responsible?” The look Jazz and Miho shared, a raised eyebrow here, a light nod there, and everything was hashed out.

“Well, he should have some sense of humor at least, but not just run off whenever there’s a problem or try to get out of by joking.

“A hard worker? Dedicated? Not easily distracted?” Jazz added to the catalogue, her grin grew when Liana nodded.

“Sure, sounds better than some lazy bum.” Catching up on the sneaky glances the other two traded Liana straightened up. “Hey, wait, we are not talking about me right now. It’s about you and the ponytail guy.”

“No matter how often you bring that up, there’s nothing between me and him. Glowing or not, I wouldn’t risk my marriage for some attention from random men.” Jazz gaze wandered through the bar, back to Liana. “Without wanting to sound cocky, but I could go and chat up at least four, maybe five guys here. I have a pretty good idea what kind of man is interested in me and who not. That doesn’t mean I would actually do it and pick them up. I’ve been on the other end of that situation before and honestly, it was shitty enough, I wouldn’t do that to anyone else.”

“You have been cheated on before?” Liana’s eyes widened, her glass paused only inches away from her mouth.

“Yep. Ruined my final year in university for me. Great guy, we were together for a bit more than two years. He banged this other chick behind my back for three months. He broke my heart, I broke his nose, and we still aren’t even.” Years later there was this tension in her stomach and her heart when she thought about it, less intense than when she had found out but too strong to ignore. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, smiled when she opened them again.

“Wow. I – I had no idea.” Slumping back into her chair Liana exhaled.

“Of course that doesn’t rid me of suspicion and it also doesn’t guarantee that I won’t make mistakes. Never say never. But I would not knowingly get myself into a situation that would destroy my marriage and hurt my husband. I love him after all, and he doesn’t leave me wanting for anything. Not attention, nor love or satisfaction. I would be stupid to throw that away for some fling.” With a shrug Jazz ended her short monologue, followed up with a swig of alcohol.

“And if she’s one thing, so it’s not stupid,” Miho concluded.

“Thank you.” Jazz raised her glass towards her friend who reciprocated.

“But you are still an attention whore and a limelight hog, so you love your audience and them fawning over you.”

“Hey, I thought you were on my side!”

Snickering into her glass Miho motioned for the waiter. “I am, but I’m also honest.”

“A little less honesty next time.” Jazz pouted, only perked up when Miho ordered her another cocktail.

Their conversation moved to lighter topics and after a few more rounds they shared a cab, dropped Liana off at her flat before Miho and Jazz headed towards the next stop. Jazz’s place.

“Should I call your hubby to help you inside?” Swaying lightly even while sitting Miho giggled at Jazz’s pout.

“Nooooo… I can do it. I’m just – I need to find my keys…” A hiccup rattled Jazz and her purse, the jingling of keys muffled by layers of clutter.

“You could just ring.”

The cab stopped, the driver waited for the women to figure out who actually had to get out.

“Don’t wanna wake him,” Jazz muttered, dug deep in her purse and howled a triumphant ‘Aha!’ when her fingers curled around cool metal.

“Okay, text me when you get home. Love ya…” It took her two tries to open the door and find her feet, slowly she staggered towards the door, one hand on the wall for support. Tomorrow her hangover would be the just punishment for going overboard, but her buzz pushed all the thoughts of consequences aside for now. The world spun and wouldn’t stop, Jazz managed to down a glass of water before she fell into bed, without even taking off her makeup or clothes.

 

The morning sun woke her up, found her grumpy and tired, her eye makeup smudged and her clothes wrinkled. The morning sun – Jazz turned around, patted the empty bed next to her. It was cool, the sheets smooth. Subaru hadn’t slept there last night.

With a groan she sat up, ran her hands over her face and squinted at the alarm clock. Not even 6am, still enough time for a shower and a bucket full of coffee. On the way to the bathroom she checked her phone, found a text saying Subaru had to fill in for someone and stay for the night shift. Wasn’t the first time and would definitely not be the last, so Jazz just shrugged it off, pulled off her clothes while walking and reached the shower already naked.

Clean, dressed and with a huge cup of coffee she already felt human again, smiled when she heard the key turning in the front door.

“Morning, darling!” she chirped, poured Subaru a tea – coffee wasn’t a good idea, he would go straight to bed after a full day of work after all – and hopped from her chair.

“Hey.” He pressed a kiss on her cheek, walked right past her towards the kitchen.

“You smell like smoke again.” Nose scrunched up she watched his back, how he opened the fridge and grabbed some leftovers.

“Yeah, same coworker. Asked her to stop smoking but – well, it was a shitty night and dealing with any withdrawal symptoms wasn’t worth it.”

“Sorry to hear that.” Despite the churning in her stomach she followed him into the kitchen, hugged him from behind and rested her chin on his shoulder. Or better, she tried to, but without heels she was too short.

“It’s not that bad. I will throw my clothes into the hamper later and take a shower before I go to bed.” He shoved a piece of braised vegetables into his mouth, chewed slowly.

“Okay. I gotta get ready for work now. You will be here when I get home?” Jazz drained the rest of her coffee, put the cup in the dishwasher. Subaru was a neat freak after all.

“I guess so. You want anything special for dinner?”

She kissed him, didn’t mind the drop of sauce on his lips.

“Nope. Surprise me.” A last pat on his bum and she rushed to get to work, left Subaru behind to sleep and take care of his clothes.

 

Snatching the biggest chance of her career so far didn’t mean Jazz could skip out of her other obligations. With the Nomura-Osmond wedding delegated unto Liana she had some wiggle room but still more than enough work to keep her busy and distracted all day.

One glance at her planner, just before she wanted to finish for the day, destroyed her dream of a quiet night in that would allow her to nurse her still aching head back to health.

“Liana?”

“Yes?” a voice answered from the other office, just through the door.

“What day is it?” Jazz still stared at the planner, there was no chance to miss the date.

“Wednesday, why are you asking?”

She had forgotten about it. Dammit.

“Nothing, I just realized that I have to go to this thing tonight.” Did she still have the spare dress in the closet?

“What thing?” Liana’s face, with furrowed brow, appeared in the doorframe.

“This band I wanted to check out. I consider adding them to my live music options for events and they invited me to see them play today.” Sorting through her purse, packing the essentials into a smaller one, more fitting for the evening Jazz looked up, smiled at her assistant. “What do you say, you want to come with me? Good music, maybe a drink and dinner?”

“Are you hitting on me?” A perfect eyebrow cocked Liana smirked, shook her head. “No, thanks. I can’t go out every night, I’m still feeling the last two cocktails of last night.”

Since Jazz was in the same boat she didn’t argue, just nodded. “Okay, in that case I’ll tell you  how it was tomorrow. Go home now, I’m out in ten, too.”

 

Changing into her spare dress and touching up her makeup didn’t take long, Jazz sent Subaru a quick message and hailed a cab to the small club where the band would play. Pop jazz. Thanks to countless puns with her name Jazz wasn’t into that music genre anymore, but a friend told her about this band that gave pop music a new spin with old instruments and vintage vibes.

The club was clean, had a cozy interior. Actual red velvet ropes separated private areas from public ones, lots of polished dark wood on the walls and the bars. A stage filled with instruments and four musicians. With her burgundy shift dress Jazz fit right in, she fluffed up her hair once more – the golden color guaranteed her instant attention in a country where most people were brunette – held her chin up high and her shoulders squared to ward off the annoying guys, preying only on weak and insecure woman. Her openly worn wedding ring wasn’t enough of a repellent, there were always the smarmy ones who didn’t care about her marital status, only about conquering.

The bar counter was mostly empty so she slipped onto a barstool, motioned for the bartender and asked for a virgin cocktail. Something that would make it look as if she was drinking but only raised her blood sugar, not the blood alcohol.

The singer joined the other band members on stage, they started with something easy, a catchy tune that sounded vaguely familiar but she didn’t recognize it until the singer crooned the chorus. A few jotted down notes and Jazz could focus on listening. At least it wasn’t a waste of time, after the second song she found herself turned towards the stage, her feet tapping in time with the music. A few other guests chatted, watched the band or drank, but the club was far from being crowded. So it was easy to spot him right when he entered.

“Holy crap…” Jazz muttered when Yushima Jinpachi, photographer and apparently music lover, walked through the door, directly into her direction.

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.”

MJS – 6 Feet: Part 2

Both Ishigami and Kaga were more than excited to see the figure on the other side of the door, leaping at him with reckless abandon, but Miho slumped against the door frame. Jazz appeared behind her, biting her lip as Subaru fought the puppies off to wrap Miho in a tight embrace.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered into her hair, shoving the foil covered casserole he had in one hand at Jazz.

This time, Miho didn’t cry, even if Subaru did.

“It doesn’t have coriander in it, does it?”

“You love coriander!” he attempted to joke, but the look on Jazz’s face told him he’d made a terrible blunder.

“No,” Miho disagreed quietly. “That’s Seiji.”

“Oh,” Subaru dropped, cringing a second but he had a smile affixed when he finally brought Miho to arm’s length.

“It’s fine,” she smiled back. “Everyone’s in a bit of a tizzy at the moment.”

“Except you,” he noted a little quizzically. “The very picture of calm and collected.”

“How many times has he nearly died?” she asked, turning and heading into the living area with the pups on her heels. “Every other week, really, right?”

Glancing sideways at Jazz, Subaru followed, shrugging awkwardly. It was clear to Jazz that Subaru didn’t have the words, not to comfort Miho, or himself. True, Subaru and Goto always bickered, but their actions had proven time and time again they were best friends.

“Tea? Coffee?” Miho chirped, obviously attempting to change Subaru’s grim expression.

“Yeah,” he answered ambiguously, scrutinising the house’s interior as he trailed Miho and Jazz into the kitchen.

“Yeah what?”

“What happened here?” he replied, only looking more confused. “This place is spotless.”

Another blunder for anyone who knew Goto was a bit on the untidy side.

“Are you suggesting my home is usually a mess?” Miho sniffed.

“Well, no,” he stumbled. “But there’s clean, and then there’s I could eat off the tiles clean.”

“We’ve been keeping busy,” Jazz clarified.

“Because work isn’t enough to keep us occupied apparently,” Miho dropped sarcastically.

“Should you even be wandering around?” he then asked of Jazz, who while obviously pregnant did not seem to be in any discomfort.

“Being pregnant isn’t a disability, you know,” she grunted, then dropped her voice. “Unlike being an idiot.”

“I heard that,” Subaru grated sourly, but his brows lifted when Miho let out a chuckle.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d think this comedy routine was for me.”

Both her friends fell silent.

“Oh, cut it out will you?” she huffed, throwing up her hands in annoyance. “Come on, Subaru, you’ve known Seiji far longer than me, so you should know this is bullshit.”

“Um…” he squirmed. “I’ve seen the evidence, Miho, the forensics…”

“Yeah?” she snorted. “You know who saw the evidence for Daisetsu’s ‘death’? The forensics? I did, and we all know how that ended.”

Knowingly, and not very discreetly, Jazz rolled her eyes to Subaru.

“Cut that out,” Miho snapped. “He’s not dead, and that’s all there is to it.”

She left them both standing in the kitchen a little bewildered by her curtness, but Jazz eventually let out a heavy sigh.

“I tried to talk to her about funeral arrangements, but she just shuts me down,” she explained solemnly. “I get where she is coming from, what with Daisetsu’s faked death, but if Captain Ishigami and the whole of Public Safety is sure, then…”

Helplessly, she shrugged.

“She doesn’t want me to comfort her,” she exhaled, her eyes misting over a little, and Subaru drew closer. “I don’t know how to comfort her, and I’ve always known.”

“We just be here,” he said, offering his arms and an awkward but honest hug. “So, when she figures out what she needs, we can be there to give it.”

 

People came and went, but it was the arrival of Goto’s parents and brother that complicated the situation more. Under any other circumstance, the presence of family might have brought some solace, but Miho was… as Miho was – forward about her opinion.

“I’m not interested in burying an empty casket,” she declared stubbornly.

Haruka looked tearily helpless.

Shinichi scowled.

Issei became angry.

“I thought you loved him!” he barked, and Miho’s face darkened in response.

“I love him, present tense,” she snapped. “And it’s because I love him, know him, trust him, that I can’t and won’t believe he’d be stupid enough to get killed.”

“But Miho,” Shinichi beseeched, and in an unusual sign of physical affection he attempted to hug her.

Miho dodged.

“No, Dad,” she argued.

“You’ve always known his work was dangerous,” Shinichi continued, his tone settling back into something gruffer. “As much as we might want this not to be true, there are things beyond our control, beyond Seiji’s control.”

“You go,” Miho told them, nodding emphatically. “I understand. If you believe this, then you need to find closure, but I will not put another box in the ground.”

The door slammed, Kaga and Ishigami lucky to scoot through with tails intact.

In the bedroom, Miho paced back and forth until her eyes came to rest on the pinstripe suit laid out across the grey duvet.

Haruka had picked it out. Even though there wasn’t a body as such to put in it, she’d felt it symbolic of his professionalism, of his nature, and an important part of letting him go. Kaga and Ishigami, however, thought the suit made perfect bedding, and curled up together to watch their mother scowl.

“What the hell, Miho?” Issei charged, bursting into the room. “Where do you get off talking to Mum like that?”

His eyes were red – he had been crying, but now he was just angry.

“You think you’re hurting? What about us?” he snapped, spittle peppering the air between them.

“He’s not dead, Issei!” Miho shouted, right into his face, then pointed at Goto’s suit. “It’s empty, you see that? EMPTY.”

“Because what’s left of him is locked up in a mortuary!” Issei fired back, not backing down – but that only drew him into striking range.

Redder still, Issei looked absolutely shocked with Miho’s palm print emblazoned across his left cheek.

“Your brother would be heartbroken you’ve so little faith in him,” she hissed, her eyes wild and her tone low, seething. “Go pick a casket, choose music and scripture and flowers to lay at a hollow grave, but do not think for a moment I will partake in such a farce.”

She moved so quickly her puppies didn’t have a chance to catch up. Bursting from the bedroom, she stalked to the front door past a bewildered Shinichi and Haruka and snatched her jacket.

 

After stomping several blocks, Miho hailed a taxi, glad she left emergency money secured in the inside pocket of her coat. It was enough to get her to Station, where Agasa raised an eyebrow at her in recognition. The death of a police officer, regardless of what department they belonged to, did not remain a secret for very long, and though Agasa might have seen Goto and Miho only a handful of times – if that – Second Unit had raised more than a few glasses in honour of a fallen comrade and a good man.

“Mrs. Goto,” he greeted softly, as Miho sat herself down on a stool at the bar. “What can I get you?”

“Enough whiskey to make it all go away,” she replied, not questioning how he knew her, just tapping the bar with her fingertips expectantly.

Agasa knew well enough when to argue with a customer and when to let them drink. At least if she was there, he could keep an eye on her, call in backup if things got a bit too ugly. He placed the bottle down beside her, though it was only a third full, then a glass.

“Don’t go too overboard,” he warned her softly, and in response she grunted and poured for herself.

As she drank, she muttered, but she was not looking for a response from Agasa or those who came and went.

“Shouldn’t have done that,” she murmured, shaking her head.

Hitting Issei like that – she knew she’d done a bad thing and would have to apologise.

“How can I convince them?” she sighed, staring into her glass but quickly turning her head when she sensed a presence close behind her.

“Convince who of what, Princess?” Baba enquired in his usual happy tone.

“You know what,” she replied dryly, taking another sip as he sat down beside her. “You know everything.”

“It is true I know a lot of things,” he smiled, waving to Agasa before pointing at Miho’s glass. “Not quite everything, though.”

Working with Baba at the agency had proven both a blessing and a curse at times. He had this infuriating way of being jovial no matter what happened, this ability to see the upside in even the darkest of situations. It could be both uplifting and excruciating at the same time. There was also the fact that he had made himself available on and off through Miho’s single years as a physical comfort: the best kind of friend with benefits.

“What are you doing here?” she asked him, still not looking into his face.

She wasn’t sure she could stand to see the sparkle in his eyes or the playfulness on his lips.

“You know this is a police bar, right?” she added.

Baba shrugged.

“I don’t know why I should be concerned,” he smirked. “I’m a law-abiding citizen; besides, I don’t think Detective Ayase meets the height requirement to get in.”

Miho might have snorted, but the air in her lungs was lethargic, morose.

“Come on, Princess,” he crooned, giving her arm a gentle nudge with his, as Agasa put a tumbler down in front of him. “I tracked you down because I thought you’d have given me a call by now.”

“I’ve been a little preoccupied,” she pointed out, emptying her glass and pouring herself another, then one for Baba.

“Yes, yes, funerals – so many little details to plan for,” he agreed, one hand moving in an animated way as he spoke. “Eulogies and floral arrangements and boxes for burial.”

Now, Miho looked at him, her eyes narrowed. But she said nothing, studying him, searching him. What he said was not meant to hurt her; no, he was teasing her because…

“Tell me,” she demanded in a cold hiss, turning her body to his. “Tell me I’m right.”

“Right about?” he poked, obviously enjoying the little game, pushing her because he indeed knew her well enough he knew her limits.

“I will fucking deck you, Mitsunari,” she growled, leaning forward and baring her teeth. “Tell me I am right. He isn’t dead.”

“Hot damn, you’re sexy when you get angry,” he grinned. “You really ought to wear more leather.”

Limit.

He probably could have dodged, but he didn’t, so when Miho grabbed him by the tie and dragged him off his barstool, he slid off easily.

“Riding crop, too,” Baba added, allowing himself to be dragged to a booth and shoved into it.

“Cut the shit,” she hissed, dropping in opposite him. “Playtime is over.”

“A little birdy told me something fascinating,” he admitted finally, triumphant. “Did you know that DNA identification of burnt bone can be pretty reliable?”

Eyes sharp, Miho brain raced ahead to find Baba’s point before he voiced it.

“In extremely bad cases though, if someone was to use, say, white phosphorus or thermite, for example, bones don’t leave much at all – no nuclear DNA – and even mitochondrial profiles are sporadic in their reliability at best.”

“The gang he infiltrated had access to thermite and white phosphorus?” Miho blinked.

Of course, she knew Public Safety worked dangerous cases chasing really dangerous people, but for criminals to have and use dangerous chemicals like those put a whole new perspective on it.

“Maybe,” Baba mused noncommittally, “but I think the point is more that it’s highly unlikely any remains burned to that extent could be positively identified.”

Miho licked her lips.

She knew better than to ask about Baba’s sources, and knew through experience – even if she didn’t know how – that his information was always accurate.

“Captain Ishigami wouldn’t, he wouldn’t tell me it’s him if he wasn’t sure,” she exhaled to herself. “He wouldn’t accept the death of a subordinate if there was any doubt.”

“You know the guy that well?” Baba posed. “I mean, these Public Safety guys lie for a living, right?”

“To me? About that?” Miho wondered, her throat dry.

Trembling hands took her mobile phone from her pocket.

“That I don’t know the answer to,” he admitted, leaning a little closer to see what Miho was texting. “Going straight to the top, huh?”

“No, Namba’s out of town,” Miho murmured, as she fired off her text message to Liana, “but Captain Ishigami will do.”

“I wouldn’t want to be him,” Baba smirked swirling the drink he hadn’t touched yet. “You have a plan?”

“Yeah,” Miho rumbled, slipping from the barstool and throwing a fist full of money for her drinks on the counter. “I’m going to get really, really angry.”

 

Rationality still existed, Miho felt it tugging her in the opposite direction to her destination, but she ignored it. Her rage was a blaze bringing warmth back to the numbness of her flesh, and she allowed it to fill her to overflowing before she arrived at the restaurant Liana had unwittingly revealed as the location of Miho’s target.

“Miho?” Liana blinked, as Miho stalked between the tables – definitely a woman on a mission.

“Mrs. Goto,” Ishigami added, seeming surprised but quick to rise to his feet. “Are you alright?”

“Out of respect for our friendship and your personal and professional relationship with Seiji,” Miho began, her tone an ice-pick: cold, pointed, “I’m going to give you the opportunity to step out with me and have this conversation.”

Understandably, Ishigami looked surprised, but Liana appeared downright shocked and both their mouths hung open too long for Miho’s liking.

“Very well,” Miho grunted. “Explain the conviction you have Seiji is dead, when the extreme heat you’ve admitted rendered the remains you found to nothing but bones?”

People looked in the direction of the standing pair as they remained facing one another, though the volume of their voices was not especially loud.

“I’m no scientist, Captain,” Miho went on to fill the void once more, “or a weapon’s expert, but to reach the kind of temperatures needed to reduce human bone to the condition you found them in, in an open space like that warehouse, you’d need some seriously restricted firepower.”

“Where did you get this idea from?” Ishigami asked finally, his expression a good approximation of concerned.

“You mean, how do I know you grossly overstated the certainty of my husband’s death?” she snapped, the crack of a whip that silenced everything else in the restaurant.

“Miho,” Liana whispered, reaching for her hand, but Miho yanked it away.

“Look into his eyes, Liana,” Miho growled, pointing into Ishigami’s face. “Imagine Seiji is telling you your husband is dead, all the while you’re holding evidence it isn’t true in your hand.”

“I know this is very difficult for you,” Ishigami attempted, watching the maitre’d cautiously approach in his peripheral vision. “No one wants Lieut..”

“I am his WIFE!” she roared, and people at nearby tables flinched at the violence of her retort, the rawness of her emotion. “Difficult is an understatement I will not bear when you know he’s alive.”

“Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you t…” the maitre’d interrupted, but the freeze of his jaw when Miho’s eyes fell upon him made it clear he saw death in them.

“Tell me where he is,” Miho demanded on little more than a breath, an imperative she exhaled into Ishigami’s face. “Give me the truth.”

“I can see, Mrs. Goto, the truth is too much for you at present,” Ishigami said evenly, but Liana saw him adjust his glasses – noted and filed it. “Grief is…”

“I will not mourn the living,” Miho snarled, blind to the much larger man who had come to back the maitre’d.

“Ma’am,” came a firmer, warning voice.

Miho tilted her head in some form of acknowledgement but maintained eye contact with Ishigami.

“I will never forget this pain,” she hissed, gaze like razor-wire. “And I will never forget your part in it.”

Before she could be manhandled out of the restaurant, Miho turned on her heels and strode out, to bystanders a vengeful force of wrathful energy.

 

(GUEST WRITER @BelXsar! Scene RPed)

There was a full moment of silence, then another, and another, before the interior of the restaurant finally started to return to its former activity before the human whirlwind that was Miho Fujisawa Goto had blown in and then just as dramatically swept out.  The restaurant staff resumed their former duties, and the other patrons’ gazes went back to their dining companions, while Liana studied her husband with hers, even as he just as studiously avoided it. They had just been contemplating what to have for dessert when Miho had arrived, but it was clear that any appetite for sweets had vanished just as abruptly.  With a sidelong glance towards the discarded dessert menus lying on the table, Captain Hideki Ishigami emptied his water glass, then signalled their waiter and coolly asked for the cheque. The bill paid, he got up, and his wife followed him out of the restaurant.

His hand reached out for hers on the street outside, and Liana took it, noting his grasp was on the cool side as usual but his grip a bit tighter.  They strode silently, hand in hand, to where their car was parked, and he opened the door for her before sliding into the driver’s seat. As the car pulled into traffic, he still had yet to meet his wife’s gaze which had remained mostly fixed on him all the while.

On the silent drive home, Liana pulled out her phone and tapped a quick text to Jazz Mann Akiwa, hoping their shared friend would update her on what was going on when clearly her husband had no desire to do so.

Ishigami remained silent even as they arrived home.  It was after they entered their flat, taken off their shoes, hung up their coats, and he seemed to be heading towards the bathroom, that Liana finally quickened her stride and cut in front of her husband, putting her hand against the wall to block his path.

Enough was enough.

She had given him the appropriate discretion while they had been in public, despite the maelstrom of questions running through her mind.  Now, in the privacy of their own home, she could remain silent no longer.

“Hideki,” she said quietly, softly, yet no less firmly.  “What is going on?”

Her dark blue eyes sought out his grey ones, intent.

His hand was half-way to his glasses before he actually stopped himself.

“I thought perhaps I would take a shower,” he explained, as if as much was obvious. “I have an early meeting tomorrow and will not have time in the morning.”

If he knew what she was actually getting at – and the man wasn’t a moron, so he knew – there was not a single hint of it in his expression.

Liana tilted her head slightly and gave him a look, one eyebrow raised.  “Please don’t insult me, and I won’t return the favor. You know very well what I mean.”

With practised zen, Ishigami’s expression didn’t so much as twitch; still, when he spoke again, there was at least a little emotion in his tone.

“It is understandable Mrs. Goto would not wish to believe Lieutenant Goto is gone,” he explained, “and regrettable her desire seems to have manifested so strongly. You are right to be concerned; I shall organise for a counsellor to touch base with her tomorrow.”

Liana’s eyebrows drew together a little.  “As passionate as Miho can be, she’s not a woman prone to hysterics.  And I think you appreciate that, Hideki. This is not just a grieving widow deep in denial and going off the deep end.  She said something about extreme heat, and remains being reduced to nothing. Which you didn’t deny. You’re deflecting.  Whatever it is, I think Miho has proven in the past she can handle it, any truth, rather than a bunch of lies. As Lieutenant Goto’s wife, she deserves that much, at least.”

Responding seemed a little difficult for Ishigami – not because he didn’t know what to say, but because saying it to his inquisitive wife would not be easy.

“You know I cannot discuss an ongoing investigation,” he told her gently, his brows lowering just a little bit.

He wasn’t without empathy.

“Doing so could put further lives at risk, and that is the very reason rules and protocols exist.”

“Then she’s not wrong.”

Liana’s words were murmured to herself as much as her reticent husband, said in confirmation more than any triumph.  She looked back up at Ishigami. “You don’t have to tell her any details. But can’t you at least indicate you’re still just trying to confirm the identification of the remains, and that it’s still an ‘ongoing investigation’?  If you tell her to keep things to herself, she will. She understands the importance of discretion, as much for her husband’s safety as the case itself. Just don’t add to her trauma, Hideki. You know she’s not someone you want on the warpath against you, and that’s what’s going to happen if you keep lying to her and suggesting she’s crazy.”

His wife calling him a liar was something he knew he just had to weather. Despite his absolute devotion to the job, it hurt no less.

“I do not believe she is crazy,” he said carefully. “Grief takes a great many forms and denial can be a natural part of the mourning process.”

This wasn’t anything Liana didn’t already know.

“If I lost you,” he continued, hazarding to raise his hand toward her cheek, “I would not wish to believe it, either; I would do anything to undo it… But I cannot give this to Mrs. Goto, or to you, no matter how much we both want to alleviate her suffering.”

She looked down for a moment, shaking her head briefly before taking a breath and looking back up at her husband.

“Things don’t always have to be zero sum, you know.  I believe rules exist for the spirit of such protocol rather that the strict letter of them.  You don’t want to compromise an ongoing investigation, I understand that. So does Miho. But in this case, especially for her — and I’m not just saying that because she’s my friend; I think she’s proven herself in situations like this –, I think you can maintain the integrity of the investigation while not having to deceive her at the same time.  Rules are a dead and static thing, made by humans to serve the needs of a situation. And by the same token, situations can change, and so we can be flexible to adapt while remaining true to overall protocol. It’s not ‘either or’ in this case, Hideki, you must be able to see that. Things need not be robotic; in fact, I think something as dynamic as a complicated investigation is best served by anything but.”

Her look was beseeching as much as it was resolute.  She wanted, needed, him to understand that there was more than one alternative, and indeed, a better one existed than what dead, strict rules dictated.

His hand had reached her cheek, his thumb had been lightly grazing the skin as she spoke, but the moment she’d mentioned his way was ‘robotic’, his arm sank back to his side.

“You are operating under the assumption I do not know how to effectively perform my job,” he stated, and indeed, this time he sounded more mechanical, “that I am intentionally wounding Mrs. Goto. Please do not forget our duty is not without risk – risk Lieutenant Goto has always accepted as a necessary evil in the pursuit of people who want to destroy our way of life (writes a presidential speech). Lieutenant Goto’s death will not be in vain provided the integrity of this investigation is not compromised, and in time, Mrs. Goto’s pain will diminish.”

His stoic mask was now firmly affixed, a sure sign to his wife he had been affronted. It was rare he showed anger, whether he felt it or not; it was far more common for him to shut down.

Which is what he did – and before she could speak again he had stepped away.

“I am going to take a shower now,” he asserted.

“Is that part of the fake eulogy you’re going to give?” she threw at his retreating back before she could stop herself, her sarcastic side finding voice in her frustration.

She almost wanted to throw something at the firmly closing bathroom door, but knew it would accomplish nothing but a momentary childish satisfaction of noise to punctuate her ire.  She thought she understood her husband enough to get beyond the “cyborg” persona his colleagues often referred to him as, but now she wondered how much she was really able to understand him in the dire situations when she felt she should most.

She bit her lip, and after only a moment’s thought, grabbed her phone to text a quick thanks to Jazz for what she was able to surmise by now.  She followed this with a quick text to Miho:

“I believe you.  I’m sorry about him.”

Liana didn’t want to go more into it than that, over what was really essentially not that secure a channel.  She hoped her friend understood the “him” was her infuriatingly stubborn husband.

Liana stood halfway between the hallway and her bedroom, wondering whether she should get ready for bed or go to Miho to apologize to and try to comfort, and help, her friend.  She doubted if she would get much further with Hideki tonight, though a tenacious part of her wanted to try, as well as to make him understand she was not against him, but trying to help him as well as her friend and Lieutenant Goto.  Or if it would be more helpful to the situation as a whole to go to discuss things over with her friend. A chime from her phone alerting her to an incoming text helped make up her mind.

“I’m going to need more ice cream.”

It was Jazz, and no doubt Miho had chowed her way through all available potential sources to cool her ire.

“Will hijack an ice cream van and be right over. Preferences?”

“Surprise me.”

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.