Snakes and Starships: V

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orion exhaled a husky chuckle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orion coughed, then cleared his throat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Orion responded, confused.

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

Orion blinked at Miho openly, and she chortled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Or princesses,” Jaxon muttered under his breath.

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

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

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

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

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

“Magic,” Miho offered through a wicked grin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Deflate?” Tyrian repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homecoming – Day 12-3

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

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

“Hey Jayjay!”

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

“Hey Bennie,” I lamely greet back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There just enough alcohol in my blood left to nod.

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

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

“So, your friend ditched you, huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uhm… Bennie…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You sure? Did I say something wrong?”

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

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

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

 

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

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

“Eh, Missie, look where ya walking!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I never asked you to butt in!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait, what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Holy-! Are you okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just can’t make sense of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And could that person be me?”

Homecoming – Day 12-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow is Sunday. The dinner party.

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

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

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

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

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

Okay.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No one’s gonna come anyway.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, what do you want to do first?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait, isn’t that your Mom?”

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

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

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

“What the hell are you doing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s what I thought.”

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

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

“Shit.”

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

“Fuck. Now that’s low!”

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

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

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

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

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

“I know. But not him. Never him.”

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

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

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

 

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

“Where are we going next? Ice cream?” I point towards an ice cream vendor and Miho shrugs, just follows me but pouts when I tell her it’s my turn to pay now. I can afford two servings of ice cream.

“Oh, you are here, too.”

The familiar voice makes me grin and Miho blush.

“Hello, Mr. Sanders.” I wave at him, give Miho a pointed look before I order her some strawberry ice cream.

“That’s not what I wanted,” she grumbles.

“Well, it’s what you get. Because it fits your teint so well.” She jabs me in the ribs but I know she’s not really angry. She would have hit me harder in that case.

“Do you want some ice cream, too, Mr. Sanders?” I like saying his last name, mostly because he looks so sheepish when I do. No idea why, calling him by his first name without ever actually introducing first should be worse, at least by my standards.

“Vanilla would be nice,” he answers and Miho’s mumbled: “Now that’s disappointing,” is almost drowned out by the sounds of some carousel nearby. But I can hear it, snort a laughter before my poker face is back in place and I order some vanilla for Jared and some cherry ice cream for me.

“Are you having fun at the festival?” I ask him, hand him his ice cream and grin back at Miho who glares at me. So much for our nice girls’ night out.

“It’s a welcome change for sure.” He tries his ice cream, frowns when he looks at my bag where the Domo is tied on. “What’s that?”

“Miho won it for me. Apparently she’s a genius when it comes to festival games.”

His raised eyebrow says enough for Miho to raise to the unspoken challenge.

“What? You don’t believe it?”

“I didn’t say that,” he points out, but doesn’t deny it.

“Oh, she’s really good. Never saw someone whack a mole like that. As if she holds a personal grudge against the game.” I was only getting all my aggression out of my system, but Miho – well, she took it seriously.

“And? Do you?” He’s turned to her now, stares at her intently. I’m definitely out of place here.

“A grudge? Sure. That pesky lil’ fella had it coming, though.” A smile tugs at her lips and she hides it behind her ice cream cone.

“And is it only the mole or do you take all the games so seriously?”

Time for me to get out of here. The ice cream should buy me some time before the heat in their gazes sets something aflame. Their clothes, probably.

“That’s for me to know and for you to find out,” she replies with a smirk. “But if you ask nicely I will win you a plushie, too.”

That’s my cue to just scam, I guess.

“Try the shooting gallery,” I suggest, not without hidden agenda. It’s the most macho game after the strongman game after all.

“Why not?” Jared agrees. “And maybe I can win something for you, too.”

“By shooting?” Miho scoffs, but complies. “Don’t cry if I show you how it’s done, though.”

She looks back at me, tilts her head inquiringly. “You coming?”

“Nah, you kids go and have fun. Me and Domo, we need a break.”

Her eyes narrow at me slightly and I open mine wider, wordlessly signalling her to go with her crush. If only she knew some more sign language. But she gets what I mean, shrugs casually.

“Fine. Take care, will ya?”

“Me? Why? I’m not the one standing next to you when you handle a BB gun.” I poke my tongue out at her and earn a slap on my bum in exchange that only fuels my laughter. “Go, it’s okay, I promise.”

She nods, warily, but smiles when she turns to Jared. I watch them walk off, no contact but each seeking the other.

“Yeah, I give them a week before they bang,” I tell Domo and wander off to see what else I can do with my remaining eleven dollar.

Snakes and Starships: IV

“Anyone here surprised to hear that?” Jaxon piped up and Miho snorted.

“I suppose you lump me into the same category as the Emperor just because I’m his daughter?”

“Seems likely,” Orion responded.

“Malicious? Genocidal? Sadistic? Megalomaniacal?” she lists off.

“Accurate,” Orion nodded again.

“Well I’m not him,” Miho declared. “Whatever you’ve heard is ninety percent fiction. I’m just a monster by association.”

“And the other ten percent?” Jazz prompted.

“Accurate,” Miho grinned proudly.

“There’s nothing average about your fighting ability,” Tyrian noted, and Miho’s smile grew wider, throwing him a wink.

“I enjoy what I do,” she announced. “I’m just miffed I wasn’t around to deal Sol’s much deserved final blow.”

“So, you’ve admittedly been on a killing spree but you’re not a murderous savage like your father?” Orion posed sceptically.

“Doesn’t it depend on who I’m killing?” she volleyed. “Or have you never been responsible for the death of an Empire soldier.”

“We’re not a bunch of murderous space pirates,” Jazz frowned, but Orion seemed to be waiting for Miho to continue, and she looked all the more smug for it.

“In order for Rastaban to usurp the former emperor, he needed supporters everywhere. Now, those Empire big wigs are working on expanding my father’s territories into both Union, and independent space.”

“Aggressive Empire expansion isn’t anything new,” Tyrian noted, but Miho was clearly not finished.

“He has people placed in more colonies than the Union knows,” she explained. “And when he calls for them to take control, it will be with the backing of armadas the Union will not be prepared for.”

“Let me get this straight,” Orion levelled. “You, daughter of the emperor, are colony hopping to assassinate your father’s sleeper agents?”

“Attractive and smart,” Miho grinned. “And oddly familiar… have we met before?”

“Definitely not,” Orion replied quickly.

“And that is pretty much it,” Miho added lightly. “So, if you don’t mind, I would like to get on with my work.”

“You still haven’t explained why?” Tyrian pointed out.

“Does it matter why?” she chuckled. “At the end of the day, less assholes are a good thing for everyone.”

“That depends,” Tyrian pressed, though his manner remained calm, “on what happens after they’re gone.”

“And why you’d defy your father when in your position you could live a life wanting for nothing,” Orion added.

“There is a lot he’s done, and continues to do, that I disagree with,” she answered simply. “Because he is a blood relative means nothing, when I know he’d sell even me if that would forward his goals.”

“So, you’re petulant?” Jaxon snorted.

“Petulant – exceptionally well trained, and vehemently at odds with your enemy,” Miho clarified. “So I’d have thought you’d be happy for me to carry out my business.”

For a moment, Orion looked pensive, before he spoke again.

“And Fairchild is a part of the Emperor’s domination plan?” he asked slowly, studying her with renewed scrutiny, and she returned his gaze with equal intensity.

“The GLF is still very fractured,” she answered him, and he could tell she was being careful in her response. “There are countless pockets of Empire forces – some of them very powerful – that operate outside Rastaban’s mandates, just as they did before with my father’s predecessor. For all his faults, Commodore Fairchild fits into one such pocket, so I don’t need to kill him… yet.”

“So why does he want to get you back so badly?” Tyrian persisted. “If he’s not one for toeing the line.”

“Well, ingratiating oneself with the emperor is not without its benefits,” Miho shrugged, then shifted a little uncomfortably, twisting her wrists where they remained bound. “And speaking of benefits, either someone needs to remove these hardlight cuffs, or one or more of you needs to step up the kink game.”

Tyrian blushed.

Orion crossed his arms.

Jaxon stepped a little closer and appeared to be giving Miho’s ill-fitting clothes another examination.

“Hmm…” he began, one full of suggestion.

“No, I’m not going to sterilise the infirmary again,” Jazz broke in.

“Ugh, come on,” Miho growled, sitting up straighter. “I kill Rastaban’s allies, so unless you’re pro-totalitarianism, you’ve nothing to fear from the likes of me.”

Tyrian nodded slowly, the turn of his head a silent question to Orion, who also considered Jazz and Jaxon’s reactions.

“I want to see this for myself,” he declared finally, and with a soft click, Miho’s cuffs fell away.

“Which part?” Miho grinned suggestively, rubbing her wrists a little before sliding her feet to the floor.

“Hey, take it easy, you took a really hard blow to the head not that long ago,” Jazz warned, but Miho stood, grinning, obviously reflecting on Jazz’s choice of words.

“I wasn’t the one taking it, but let’s not focus on that,” she chuckled, seeming completely at ease despite her foreign surroundings.

“Who is your next target?” Orion asked, refusing to react when Miho drew closer to him, far closer than she needed to in order to reply.

“Admiral Darsius Yuul,” she revealed. “He was personally overseeing the transport of some particularly sensitive military grade materials and I had intended on taking him out there, but someone had to get in my way.”

“What happened to your ship?” Tyrian questioned, for obviously she hadn’t just been floating about in space waiting for the admiral to fly past.

“Waiting for me to make contact, which – by the way – I would like to do now.”

“We’ll find Yuul’s current whereabouts,” Orion announced.

“We will?” Jaxon piped up, then looked a little sheepish.

“And,” Orion continued, “when we find him, I’d like to witness your conviction, personally.”

“You’ve a taste for blood, Captain?” Miho teased, licking her lips a little.

“Words are cheap,” he noted. “Forgive me for doubting your word until I’ve see them brought to action with my own eyes.”

“That is… exceptionally inconvenient,” she sighed, rolling her eyes toward the ceiling before fixing them on Orion’s face again. “If I let you tag along, you’ll walk away?”

“And leave you to carve your path of anti-Emperor carnage,” Orion nodded.

“Lovely,” she chirped, smiling at everyone, “though I’d quickly put some distance between your and Commodore Fairchild afterwards; he’s a sore loser.”

 

Atlas was unimpressed with Orion’s plan to accompany Miho on her next assassination, but stopped short of calling the decision madness. Of course, he had no love for the Empire or the Union, had taken his fair share of lives, but being party to straight up murder didn’t sit right with him – and he thought Orion would have felt the same.

Still, when Jaxon used some of his contacts to locate Admiral Yuul, the Promise headed to the tropical resort colony of Eryl and made as inconspicuous a landing as possible.

“Gee, I wish we were here on vacation,” Jenna sighed, moving to disembark.

The remark had been meant for Atlas, but he lingered on the bridge with Jazz a moment before catching up.

“There’s more to this place than clear water and high-end hotels,” Atlas grumbled in his usual, cheerful tone.

“Right you are,” Miho affirmed, joining them with Orion behind her. “I’m not surprised Yuul is here. Eryl may consider itself an independent colony an have a reputation for being a perfect honeymoon spot…”

At this point she winked at Orion, before continuing.

“… but it’s been used as a waystation of sorts for difficult to get, exotic and dangerous materials for as long as I can remember.”

“So, he’s here to offload whatever was on the ship you missed?” Tyrian concluded, coming to stand on Miho’s other side at the bottom of the Promise’s boarding ramp.

“Not just a pretty face,” Miho smiled, and she’d gently stroked his cheek before he had even thought to recoil. “He’ll no doubt be picking up some bits and pieces for his next project as well, buuuut, sadly he’s not going to be able to complete it.”

Tyrian was a soldier, like Atlas, he too had killed in the name of duty, but the flames in her eyes as she spoke so casually of murder? That concerned him, even if Yuul was a really bad guy.

“Let’s go on with this,” Orion prompted. “Don’t hang around, Atlas; get what you need to patch the Promise up, and get back to the ship as soon as possible. If this goes south, we’re going to need to get out of here in a hurry.”

“Oh ye of little faith,” Miho smirked, her enthusiasm undampened. “I’m going to need to get some equipment first, and definitely something else to wear, then we’re good to go.”

Trading one last glance with Atlas, Orion then followed Miho away from the Promise and out of the spaceport.

“So, what is your plan?” he asked, as they walked through the exceptionally clean streets bright and warm.

“Acquire gear, find a vantage point, kill the bad guy… then celebrate,” she replied happily. “Oh, that’s cute!” she exclaimed suddenly, snatching his wrist and dragging him unceremoniously over to a boutique.

Shaking his head, Orion had little choice but to trail behind her as she headed inside and demanded the clerk find the outfit in the window in her size. Shopping wasn’t exactly what he envisioned from a highly dangerous mission to kill a high-ranking Empire official, but it was quickly becoming clear to him that this woman – the Emperor’s own daughter – operated by rules entirely her own.

“How does this look?” she enquired, emerging from the dressing room and striking a dramatic pose.

The sleek bodysuit flattered her figure in ways that made Orion shift a little where he sat, and he took a few seconds before answering.

“I think you know very well you would look good in even rags,” he admitted, and Miho’s eyes narrowed on him in an almost predatory fashion.

“Even better out of them, Captain,” she announced, then turned her attention to the waiting clerk. “I’ll take this.”

The process of payment was quick and clean – an electronic transfer keyed to Miho’s bio-signature, and they were out of the boutique in under ten minutes.

“You’re not concerned about your account being traced?” he wondered aloud, as Miho dumped her old clothes into a garbage receptacle.

“I wouldn’t be a very effective covert operative if I didn’t have means to cover up my movements,” she chuckled, “so no, I’m not worried.”

Indeed, nothing about her suggested anything sinister, and Orion found himself struggling against being swept away by her open enthusiasm for their locale.

“I really should come back here for some r and r when I’m done with this crap,” she mused, now carrying a brightly coloured bag over her shoulder.

She’d known exactly where to go to get the equipment she desired, and the ‘vendor’ had been an unassuming woman at a garage with a dizzying array of very specialised weapons.

“That’s the plan?” he probed. “Kill Rastaban’s collaborators then go on holiday?”

“I think I’ll have earned it,” she shrugged. “Conscientious homicide is quite a thankless job, you know.”

Frowning, Orion allowed some of his consternation to show.

“I’ll admit it,” he declared. “I have no idea how you, given your upbringing, became the person you are – what little I know of you that is.”

“It’s not that complicated,” she responded easily. “My upbringing is exactly why I am who I am. A well-trained killer…”

“A conscientious killer by your own admission,” he pointed out, and Miho grunted in confirmation.

“You think a girl brought up with Empire rhetorical poured into her ears could only turn into selfish, carnivorous monster who cares nothing for others?” she posed, watching him with a gentle and unwavering smile.

“That’s what my experience has largely taught me,” Orion nodded, their path drawing them up a steep hill overlooking a public square.

“You’re right in that I was educated a certain way,” she agreed. “But you cannot simply discount the will and conviction inherent in a person. Even the most heinous creatures have choices, decisions they make that are purely self-serving at the expense of others when there are other options.”

“You’re saying something intrinsic in you is the compass that directs your behaviour in opposition to your upbringing?” Orion surmised, but still didn’t sound entirely convinced by her argument.

“My father sees people as a resource, and while he has the ability and want to take for himself alone, that is precisely what he chooses to do. To him, I too am a resource,” she pointed out. “And don’t think simply because he’s half way responsible for my existence I am immune to his outlook. I could follow in his footsteps and reap the rewards of blood and brutality, but that isn’t what I want.”

Her tone had become firmer toward the end of her assertion, and it was a clear message to Orion she had grown tired of being doubted, even though she knew – logically – it was smart for him to be cautious.

Silence wrapped itself around them, until Miho had chosen her vantage point and set herself up.

“So, according to your incredibly modest crew member, Yuul has a meeting with another ranking Empire officer… there…” she murmured, and though she was sort of talking to Orion, it sounded to him more like vocalised thinking.

Orion watched her scan a building in the distance through a recon-scoped rifle of some description, the price for which could have financed more than half the advanced upgrades Atlas wanted for the Promise.

There they waited as time ticked by, Orion occasionally using a long-range scanner to check the room under Miho constant stare.

“Oh, I’m going to wipe that smug expression permanently off your face, you smug son of a bitch,” Miho hissed, and Orion refocused his scanner to find Miho target striding into view.

“And who is he there to meet wi…” Orion began, before his question was answered, and Miho cursed.

“For fuck’s sake, Antares,” she growled under her breath, but Orion heard her colloquial reference to his brother. “I swear, this guy seems to be making it his mission lately, to get in the way of mine,” she continued, and Orion watched her adjust her aim a little.

“You’re going to kill them both?” Orion scowled, and cringed at the amount of concern that had leeched into his voice.

“I should,” she replied with an irritated grunt, then clicked her tongue, then muttered again. “Conscientious homicide.”

And she pulled the trigger.

It was a remarkable shot – just one – that fired a highly compressed sonic ‘dart’ across the considerable distance between Miho and her target; it smashed cleanly through the glass of the window and found its mark perfectly.

What followed, however, was not what anyone expected – not Miho, not Orion and not Antares, who stood but a few feet from the victim. Like a deflated balloon, Yuul’s skin sagged as Miho’s invisible projectile penetrated one side of his skull, and instead of a graphic explosion of skull fragments and grey matter, Antares’ witnessed a rush of flashing purple energy escape the man’s body. His ears were assailed by the most horrific chorus of screams, as the light dissipated, and when silence returned he stared at the bizarre pile of skin, hair and clothing that used to be Yuul.

“That was unexpected,” Miho exhaled, watching through the scope as Antares crouched to more closely inspect Yuul’s remains, before beginning to search along the murder weapon’s most likely trajectory. “Let’s reflect on that later hmm?” she then posed, rocking back and folding her weapon before stuffing it into her bag. “Time to go.”

No doubt thanks to Antares, alarms began howling, and Orion quickly followed behind Miho as they headed toward a river.

“That guy really is a pain in the ass,” Miho muttered, scanning the river bank for a suitable vehicle. “Oh, there.”

Without waiting for Orion’s input, and either assuming he’d continue to follow – or perhaps not really caring at all – she waved over one of the automated water taxis and hopped on board.

“Head for the spaceport,” she instructed, though there was no pilot to speak of, and Orion only just made the leap onto the aft of the vessel before it began to move from the bank.

Her eyes sparkling, Miho settled against the cushions in the surprisingly spacious cabin and kicked her boots up onto a table.

“Isn’t it a little early to be so relaxed?” Orion questioned, shaking his head a little at her satisfied expression.

“This isn’t relaxed,” she told him promptly. “I’m… reflecting.”

“On why Admiral Yuul…” he began.

“Yeah, why a guy who was – according to my intelligence – one hundred percent human, didn’t turn into bloody nuggets, and why instead, he vented pretty lights like a plasma piñata.”

Orion blinked a few times as her description.

“Looked like Fairchild had no idea either,” she mused, gnawing on her lower lip a little, but sitting up a little straighter when sirens sounded much closer, and a robotic voice rang out of nearby loudspeakers.

“Attention citizens and guests. In accordance with city code AWV117, all public and private spaces will be subject to lockdown for an indeterminate period.”

“Just peachy,” Miho grumbled, getting to her feet.

“Please remain calm, until authorities have resolved the situation,” the voice continued, “and thank you for your cooperation.”

Miho managed one step toward the cabin door, before a metal shutter fell swiftly to bar her path, followed by others that covered the windows.

“Well, that complicates matters,” Miho admitted, shoving her bag back down.

“Somehow I’m beginning to see everything with you is complicated,” Orion responded, rubbing the back of his neck and looking around for a panel that might reveal some manual override mechanisms.

“Ha!” Miho snorted incredulously, but it didn’t sound offended. “Don’t go getting all sassy with me, Captain,” she continued, for some reason unperturbed by the fact they were trapped. “You wouldn’t be here if you’d just let me do my thing.”

“Would you have let you go?” he volleyed, rolling to the side to sit and peer at her.

“Okay, I’ll concede that point,” she grinned. “But, only because a part of me is happy you’re here.”

“And why would that be?” he queried, watching her body language change.

“Oh, come on, Orion,” she drawled, eying him up and down. “Your heart isn’t pounding? Blood… throbbing?”

Homecoming – Day 12-1

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

“Nope. Even worse.”

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

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

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

“And that’s bad?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great role models.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Must have been in college.”

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

“You like the fireworks, don’t you?”

I shrub harder. How does he know that?

“They are okay, I guess.”

“I know a good spot to watch them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s not there.

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

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

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

“Goodness, what are you doing here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jayjay, you okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, you ok-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Jazz?”

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

“Yeah?” I blink, shake off that daze.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like with Jake?”

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

“Okay, anything else you need from me?”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fancy for sure.

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

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

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

Her Love In The Zombie Apocalypse

Happiness doesn’t last, does it?

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

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

Embrace.

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

Because you never truly know when the dream will end.

 

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

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

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

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

Seiji doesn’t know it yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything to ease his troubles.

Anything to lighten this heart I love.

Anything to protect it from breaking.

But I can’t.

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

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

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

Liar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Our room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I can’t be here when that happens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So innocent.

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

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

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

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

Then there is the letter.

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

… is being torn apart.

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

Go.

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

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

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

 

BONUS

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

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

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

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

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

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE AUDIO OF THE BELOW LETTER

My dearest Seiji,

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

I am sorry.

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

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

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

Please remember the brush of my fingertips against your forehead.

Please remember the warmth of my body curled against yours.

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

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

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

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

I love you.

Your dearest wife.

 

The bed beside him was cold.

When in the night had she left him?

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

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

“Did you see her?!” he shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

If Miho was MC Part 2

In Your Arms Tonight 2

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

My Forged Wedding

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

Her Love In The Force

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

Serendipity Next Door

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