Homecoming – Day 13-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I like what you did with the hem.”

“I shortened it.” Nothing worth mentioning.

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

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

“Shoes?”

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

“Accessories?”

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

“Jewelry?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It has a floral pattern, very unobtrusive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben inhales, chuckles and pulls back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay. Come and find me later.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

“I didn’t bully you.”

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

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

Banter. Banter?

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

“What?”

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

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

“Ben’s nickname for you?”

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

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

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

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

“I thought you would catch it!”

“You spilled hot coffee all over me!”

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

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

“That wasn’t planned, okay?”

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

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

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

“Did you?”

He scoffs, still only inches away from me.

“The notebook? The hair tie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nod, no need to hide it anymore.

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

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

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

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

“Jazz…”

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

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

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

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

“This again?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“You having fun?”

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

“What are you doing here?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What drama?”

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

“Oh, dinner with a show. Nice.”

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

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

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

“I’d rather not.”

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

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

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

“Mads. What are you doing here?”

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

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

“Oh.”

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

“What the heck was that just now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you having fun?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You okay?” Miho whispers and I shrug.

“Not sure. How about you?”

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

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

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

“Shit!”

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

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

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

“Jazz? What’s wrong?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you, though?”

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

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

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

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

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

Jake motions for the barkeeper, orders two gin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, you got my number.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sam…”

Homecoming – Day 12-4

Could that person be him?

That question takes me by surprise and it must show on my face because he immediately backtracks.

“You don’t have to answer me right now. I know you’re stressed out and feeling sick, but – think about it, okay? We can talk about this tomorrow. I…” He pauses, scratches the back of his neck without looking at me. “I would like it if you could sit next to me during dinner.”

It’s still warm outside but that must be some illusion. After all hell just froze over and hell, that is here. At least for me.

“I will think about it.” My words sounds strange to me, like in trance I nod, get up and turn to leave.

“Jazz?”

“Hm?”

He follows my example, gets up from the bench and peers into my face.

“Will you get home okay? Or should I take you?”

The image of me and Ben in that small Ferris Wheel car pops up and I shudder.

“No, thanks. I need a bit of fresh air now.”

“Okay, but call me if you need anything.”

I nod, stare right past him and stalk off, away from him and this strange festival.

Only a few minutes later I realize that I don’t know where to sleep tonight. I don’t want to go back to Mom’s place, not as long as Dad is still there, playing his sick impression of a good husband.

But I don’t have enough money for a hotel, not even for a hostel. Besides, I don’t know if the town actually has one by now. There is no one I could call, despite his offer I won’t ask Jake for help. He could take that so very wrong.

In the end I sit down on a bench, far enough from the festival ground not to run into Mom and Dad but still in walking distance – after all I walked here and in my current condition I’m not very fast. At least the dizziness has faded a bit, only a slightly unpleasant sensation left, a tickle in my throat. The headache is still raging, though.

“I should have never come back home,” I let Domo know, use him as a small pillow. The night air is warm enough and I my exhaustion drags my eyelids down. I mustn’t fall asleep here, in this public space. What might people say tomorrow? Just because I plan to hightail out of here after the dinner party doesn’t mean that I don’t care.

I hear footsteps and laughter, hushed talking, and sit up straight, blink the sleep away.

“Jazz?”

The footsteps come closer, I turn to see Miho and Jared, arm in arm, with a huge pink unicorn dangling from Jared’s free hand.

“Oh, hey… you had fun?”

If I look only half as bad as I’m feeling it’s a miracle no one bolted at the mere sight of my sorry state. Miho furrows her brow, rushes over and peers at me.

“Holy, what happened to you? You look like crap!”

“Well, thank you.” I would be miffed if it wasn’t true. “I got a migraine after we split up.”

She looks back to Jared, tilts her head and raises both eyebrows.

“We can take you home,” he offers with a nod. “My car is just around the corner.”

“Ah, yes,” I slowly answer. “That’s nice but – I can’t go home. Sorry, but-”

Miho pats my arm, shares another glance with Jared.

“Yeah, I get it, don’t worry.”

Of course she does, she has been there when I yelled at Dad and witnessed my small meltdown afterwards.

“Okay, it’s decided. You stay with me tonight.” Her tone leaves no room for objection but I still shake my head.

“No, it’s fine. You are having a date, I don’t want to butt right in.” I just have to stay awake long enough for the sun to rise. And find a nice secluded spot to nap there. No biggie.

“Nope, we are not playing this game. Running into Jared here was a lucky coincidence, it’s not a real date. Hell, I wouldn’t have walked away with him if I had known you crash that hard when I’m not looking anyway. Besides,” she winks at him, grabs my arm to help me up, “who is talking about butting in? We could just ask you to join us.”

That at least makes me laugh, I stop fighting and just give in.

“Fine, thanks. Hey, can we stop at my Mom’s place and get my dress for tomorrow?” That way I wouldn’t have to face her at all. But this suggestion also gets quashed by Miho.

“Sorry, hun, but you have to talk to her at some point. Maybe not tonight since I guess you are both still angry, but eventually it’s necessary. Running away, turning a blind eye to your problems won’t solve them, you know?”

“‘Hun’?” I raise my eyebrow at her. “Do I look like Attila?”

Miho snorts a brief laughter, pulls me closer. “Nah, but you do look knackered. So move your ‘not butting in’ butt, Jared can take us home.”

I still feel bad for ruining their evening, but Jared smiles at me, jingles his keys enticingly.

“What about the unicorn?” This thing is huge and looks completely out of place, even if Jared’s not wearing a suit for a change.

“Its name is Cornisparkle McFluffbutt and it’s a present,” Miho lets me know, flashes Jared a smug grin. “Tell Jazz where we got it?”

He sighs, shoulders slumping, but he still smiles. “Miho won it at the shooting gallery. A solid 100 percent. No misses. I guess she was a sniper in a past life.” The affection shines through his words, lights up Miho’s face.

“Close. I was an assassin, but go on. Tell her how amazing I was.”

Their banter isn’t as annoying, rather amusing. A nice distraction from my screwed up life.

“It’s not as if I haven’t won anything, mind you,” he just explains, jingles his keys again. A small key ring dangles from it, cheap plastic in bright colors.

“What’s that?” I squint, in the low light of the street lamps it looks misshapen.

“It’s an octopus. See? Those are the tentacles and that’s the head.”

“It’s pink. Why is it pink?” I would even say it’s fluorescent.

“I have no idea. It was what I got after Miho scooped the big price.”

I can’t stop laughing until we are at his car.

 

Back on Miho’s couch she feeds me some pain killers and makes me drink a glass of water tall enough to pass as a vase. I apologize for cutting their night short and she for letting me walk off alone. It’s stupid, we were both the ones to make a decision while the other went along with it, but with that out of the way we can talk more freely now. And Miho isn’t one to mince words to begin with.

“You smell awful,” she informs me, nose scrunched up. “Hey, is – is that carrot in your hair?”

I duck away, screech in embarrassment, comb my fingers through my hair to find the offending piece of regurgitated vegetable.

“You wanna take a shower?”

The clock tells me it’s past 11pm and I feel like shit. Perfect time for a shower indeed.

 

Dressed in a shirt, courtesy of Miho, and with a slightly mellowed migraine I stumble out of the bathroom and onto the couch where Miho awaits me with a cup of tea and some cookies.

“Eat if you can, but you should definitely drink something.”

I groan and make a face, take the tea nonetheless. Hydration is key after all.

“Rooibos and ginger. Great for headaches, migraines and hangovers,” she explains, sips from her own cup. I nibble at a biscuit, without much of an appetite.

“Okay, you wanna tell me what happened? Did you just get a migraine out of the blue?”

“More or less. I mean, the stress of the last few days – very different to my normal stress – and those pesky emotions, it’s kinda overwhelming.” Like the taste of the tea. I’m usually pretty adventurous when it comes to tea, but this is not a pleasure.

“And that’s all?”

Dammit, she’s sharp.

“I had some – let’s call it triggers.” The tea doesn’t get better with every additional sip, but I am stronger than some boiled, colored water. “I ran into Ben.”

“Oh.” Her eyebrows shoot up, expectantly she stares at me over the rim of her cup.

“Yeah, ‘oh’.” I have troubled wrapping my head around the whole scene with him. “So I thought he was my secret admirer in school because – well, it made sense, he knew so much about me and some stuff in his room that just fits. Turns out he’s not. I asked him.”

“Ouch. Now that’s embarrassing.”

My hum sends small waves through the cup, stirs up the steam and directs a new waft of the aroma directly into my nose. It tickles, probably the ginger.

“Yeah, I thought so, too. But it turns out that despite him not being my secret admirer, he wants me to be his date for tomorrow. Oh, and he tried to kiss me.”

The clack of her cup being set down on the table is loud in the otherwise calm living room.

“He ‘tried’ to kiss you? What does that mean?”

“Exactly what I said. He tried to kiss me, I turned away, he let it go. Said he liked me, now that I’m hot and interesting.” Sounds shallow now that I say it.

“Not exactly a smooth talker, that Benjamin.”

“Yeah. And he doesn’t waste any time with moping after he got dumped.” The question is, was it Maddie or Ben who didn’t put enough effort into their relationship so it doesn’t have a lasting impact on him? Either way, if Sam was that indifferent after our – let’s call it breakup, it would be all the proof I need to know that the feelings weren’t that deep to begin with.

“Classy.” She grabs her cup again, no steam is rising from it anymore. “And?”

“And what?”

“And will you be his dinner partner?”

If he had asked me that five years, hell, even one year ago, I wouldn’t even hesitate.

“I do like him. I mean, I dreamed of him for years. He’s pretty much my ideal of a man.”

Her eyebrows knit in confusion. “Ben? Really? Not Sam?”

Oh.

“It’s complicated.” It always is. There’s no easy explanation for feelings and attraction after all. My gaze drops to my cup again, the pressure in my head increasing again.

“Okay, then… if you’re curious and just want to find out if he’s really the boy of your dreams, just go for it. You get this chance presented on a silver platter, don’t even have to get rid of his girlfriend anymore.”

From the corner of my eye I can see her still looking at me.

“Maybe that was your problem with Sam all along. You’re still hung up on Ben and what could have been. So now you can find out if it’s him holding you back – or maybe just you.”

She shrugs, downs her tea and makes a face. At least I’m not the only one bothered by the taste of it.

“You know what’s even worse?” I ask with a chuckle, a wry sound that scratches my throat.

“It can get worse?”

I nod, prompt Miho to shake her head.

“Goddammit… okay, should I get a drink? I mean, something with a bit more umph than tea?”

“Can’t hurt. At least for you.” And it gives me a moment to gather my thoughts. I have been stumbling from one disaster into another tonight, I haven’t really had the time to analyse every word. But even after mulling them over and over again I can’t make much sense of what Jake has told me.

“Okay, I’m ready.” The glass in Miho’s hand is half filled with a clear liquid, I’m not even asking what it is.

“So after I had my little – I don’t even know how to call it, but after I rode the Ferris Wheel with Ben-”

“Wow, Ferris Wheel. Very romantic,” Miho pipes up but motions for me to go on.

“Yes, very.” I rub my temples, the pain sharpens again. “Anyway, after he invited me for tomorrow and I left him hanging without a real answer, I already felt miserable. Sick, not guilty,” I quickly elaborate. She nods, lets me talk.

“So I tried to find a place where I could rest, ran into some bloke who made a fuss about spilling his beer all over me and while I was still dealing with him Jake showed up, playing some strange ‘hero rescues damsel in distress’ act.” I snort, slump down on the couch into a nice slouch.

“He wanted to help, so what?”

“No, he didn’t want to help me, he just didn’t want to miss the fun of me being in trouble. Too bad for him that I’m all grown up now and can take care of myself.” I’m just so tired of all of this mess. Especially Jake.

“You might be wrong about his motives, but okay. Go on.”

I roll my eyes, but continue my strange tale. “He dragged me to safety and spilled his guts after I had spilled my dinner – more or less over his shoes.”

Her loud laughter makes me wince, I really need to sleep soon.

“Turns out that – surprise, surprise – Jake wants me to be his date, too. So now I have two Rosenfeldt guys wanting me to spend that dinner party with them. The one I used to dream of when I was younger, who turned out not to be my Prince Charming, and the other one who made my life hell but just told me that he loved me for years already.”

“Oh my god! What if Jake was your secret admirer!” Totally invested into my story now Miho bounces on the couch, glee and excitement fueled by the booze.

“Thanks for pointing out one of my biggest fears.” It makes sense, he was also always around, even after school at their house. And most of the presents back then came from someone who knew me well enough to give me a new pen in my favorite color or a notebook without lines so I could doodle.

“I just don’t get it,” I say after letting that possibility sink in. “He always teased me, called me ‘short stuff’ and ‘pipsqueak’ when I was younger. When his friends were around he ignored me completely. He humiliated me countless of times in front of my Mom, my friends, the whole damned school and suddenly I should believe that he loves me?”

“You’re preaching to the choir here, I’m not a big fan of him either.”

“Yeah, I noticed. Why not?”

She downs the rest of her glass, leans back in the couch.

“Well, he’s just another privileged prick. Always managed to get away scot-free. One time he got detention for the whole drama class by swapping our prop bottle of wine with some real cider. And whenever Pat got into trouble you can bet your sweet ass that Jake wasn’t far. Oh, and you know that stupid nickname? Mount Fuji-wara? He was the first to call me that.” She scoffs, rolls her eyes.

“Stupid prankster,” I sum it up, earn an agreeing hum. “What bothers me most is that he never even apologized for anything he did to me.”

“Lemme guess, that thing at school with the coffee and your blouse, that was him, right?”

“Ding ding ding, we got a winner.” Absentmindedly I scratch the skin of my cleavage until it’s red and tingling.

“Sounds like him. Screwing up, but not taking the blame.”

“And that wasn’t the only time. Or the worst.”

“Wait, worse than scalding you with hot coffee?” She sits up straighter again, eyes a stormy grey that would make every sailor tie up the boat in the harbour.

“Yep.” The pressure in my head now also takes hold of my throat, it gets tighter with every breath. “My ear. The hearing loss. His fault.” Panic claws up its way to my chest, deeply rooted in the pit of my stomach. And just like that words rush out of my mouth, as if getting rid of them is the only way to save myself from getting dragged into some abyss. Making me lighter.

“I told you about my secret admirer, right? Well, he sent me an invitation for Jake’s graduation party. The one at his home, after the official one. Everyone who was somebody went there, half of the school was invited and the other half tried to sneak in somehow. So I had this invitation and a note saying my admirer would meet me there and like the stupid idiot I am I went there. Secretly hoping it was Ben who invited me.” My fingers play with the hem of the shirt, I find a loose thread I can tug on.

“In every teenage movie he would have,” she comforts me but we both know that teenage movies are crap. The outcast won’t become the prom queen, the scrawny nerd won’t become the secret weapon of the football team and the nice guy certainly won’t date the poor but ambitious wallflower.

“I showed up there late, had to sneak out after Mom was in bed. Everyone was already drunk.” I have no idea where Jake got that much beer and booze, but bottles and cups were everywhere. If anyone had found out that the mayor’s son engages in underage drinking and also provides drinks for his friends, that would have been a scandal that could have ended Elias’ career.

“I was there, too. For a while. But then Pat and I – let’s say we had something better to do.” Miho clicks her tongue and winks at me, but it’s not enough to ease my tension.

“Can’t remember if I saw you there,” I admit, but in retrospective I can’t remember that much of the party anyway. “But there were tons of kids and I had no clue how to find the one I was looking for. So I tried Ben’s room first, but there was a bunch of guys playing some video game. Everyone was older than me and I wasn’t that popular at school anyway, so I didn’t know anyone. I knew some names and some more faces, but that’s about it.” Back downstairs someone had spilled their beer and as my mother’s daughter I took it as my duty to clean that away.

“I found Ben eventually – in the broom closet. He didn’t see me and that was good because he was – he was just…”

“Uh-oh… I don’t like where this is going.” Miho jumps up from the couch, paces the floor with aimless strides.

“Yeah, me neither. I walked in on him getting a blowjob from some cheerleader.” That was the exact moment my teenage dreams and my heart shattered, millions tiny pieces I never manage to put fully together again.

“I knew it!” Miho points a finger at me, shakes it once, twice. “Goddammit, that stupid manwhore!”

“What? Just because of one blowjob?” She has lost me during her triumphant march.

“Huh? No! Don’t tell me you haven’t heard the rumors back then?”

I shake my head, nothing had ever prepared me for what I saw in that closet.

“That baseball coach was really strict and the boys weren’t really allowed to date if it impacted their performance. Mind you, that didn’t mean they weren’t allowed to date at all, just that they could get into trouble if they got too distracted during a game or something like that. So some guys started seeing girls in secret, not because they had to but because they wanted to. That way they had a good excuse to dump the girls in case they got too clingy. Rumor has it that Ben was especially tricky. He only dated a girl long enough to get her into bed and afterwards he told her the coach had found out and would kick him out of the team if he didn’t break up with the girl. And that she was not to tell anyone under no circumstances or he would lose his spot in the lineup.” Miho’s couch pillows get a good punch and she flops down again.

“That – that can’t be right. Ben isn’t like that.” I refuse to believe it, some rumor won’t change the image I have of Ben.

“Sorry to be the one to tell you that, but he did that with at least four girls I personally know.”

With a sharp tug I rip off the thread I have played with, cut my finger in the process. Not my biggest concern now.

“Are you sure? I mean, one hundred percent? Not just gossip and hearsay?”

“Totally sure.”

“Shit.” I feel sick again, force back the gagging with slow, deep breaths.

“Doesn’t mean he can’t have changed, you know?” she softly points out, rubs my back comfortingly.

“Yeah, I – I know. Sorry, I need a moment to process that.”

Once I calmed down again I nod, bob my head up and down to answer a question no one posed.

“Anyway, back to Jake.” It’s easier to put my feelings for him into words, I have lots of practice with it after all. “I was a bit – rattled after seeing Ben like that and someone handed me a cup and I thought: ‘Why the heck not?’ and downed it. In one go. Second mistake of that night.”

“And the first was…?”

“Going to the party in the first place, thinking my stupid teenage dreams would come true in some Hollywood worthy scene.” I can’t believe I was that naive. “It was the first time I had alcohol. You can imagine that it hit me like a truck. Not even in college I was drinking much, and back then I was completely clueless. Stumbled into the kitchen when I got dizzy, looking for some water. Instead I found Jake.” And a bunch of his friends, boys and girl, playing some game.

“Truth or dare with drunk teenagers, some of them even high on weed – not a good idea. Someone dared Jake to kiss me, all of them giggling at the mere idea of it. And he did. Kissed me right on the lips, I could taste the spliff on him. Full on, with tongue and everything, until I managed to shove him off me, slap him as hard as I could and run off.” He chased me out of the kitchen and into the backyard. Yelled after me to stop, still chuckling manically.

“End of the story, I slipped and fell into the pool. Hit my head and panicked. Jake panicked, too, left me underwater until I lost consciousness. I woke up in hospital, with a busted eardrum and a nice infection that caused my hearing loss.” And cemented my conviction that he is indeed the worst thing that could happen to me.

“Whoa.”

It’s a heavy silence, coupled with my migraine it’s almost pulling me under.

“But – you know, a shitfaced teenager in such a situation, there wasn’t much he could have done.”

“You mean besides getting me out of the pool? Yeah, not much.” We never told my Mom or the mayor the truth about it, but Jake and I know what happened. “He never apologized…”

I sit up straighter again, chase the gloom away. “But enough of me and my tragic backstory. Did you have fun with Jared?”

Changing the topic, running away, everything but facing the actual problem – that’s me. I mastered this technique long ago.

“Yes, sure.” Suspicion shines through her words, slowly uttered, and her eyes narrow slightly.

“Yeah, I can tell.” It’s my turn to point a finger at her now, directly at her neck. “You got something there…”

Her hands flies up, slaps over the patch of skin in question. “What? Dammit, I told  him not to-”

My laughter is hint enough that she fell into my trap. “There’s nothing, don’t worry. But there could be, huh?”

A smile blooms on her lips, the storm in her eyes gives way to sun. “We – got a  bit closer.”

“How close? I mean, you didn’t bang outside in the woods, did you?” It’s my turn to be curious now.

“No, but we made out a bit. Under that old oak, you know which one?”

I nod, every kid who grew up here knows the old oak. It’s just out of sight enough to be without an audience but close enough to the actual city that you don’t get lost.

“He’s picking me up for brunch tomorrow.” Her glow dims when she starts chewing on her bottom lip. “I’m thinking about telling him how my last relationship ended.”

“What? No!” There is being honest and slapping someone with a truth they don’t even need to know.

“You’re not even really dating yet, why don’t you save the heavy stuff for when it comes up?”

“Shouldn’t he know what he gets himself into?”

I give her a pointed look, a raised eyebrow and a snort. “And you think he’d know after you give him this one detail about you and your past? Miho, I have spent the last few days with you and I can already tell that you are absolutely unpredictable. In a good way,” I hurry to add. “You are a human, not some cyborg. Yes, you made a mistake, but does that mean you will repeat it over and over? Did you ever cheat before Pat? Or after that?” She shakes her head, still chewing on her lip.

“And do you plan on doing it again?” For such a smart woman she’s pretty stuck in a loop of stupid thoughts and guilt.

“No. I didn’t even plan to do it the first time around.” Her breath whooshes out through her nose, her lips pressed together tightly.

“Then why did you?”

“I was stupid, okay? Everything was fine with me and Pat and suddenly there was this guy and everything was like a dance. Stirred up the same old, same old.”

I mull her words over, there’s more to it than just a guy with a nice smile and a firm booty. “Everything was fine, you say? And was that all? Just fine?” ‘Fine’ and ‘the same old’ doesn’t sound like a very happy relationship to me.

With a groan she slumps further into the couch, trying to melt into the pillows, hands covering her face.

“Sometimes – on some days I woke up in the morning, thinking: ‘This is it? This is all, for the rest of my life?’ and it scared me, you know?”

I know. I know it just too well. I pat her leg, lean over and rest my head against her arm.

“But cheating was a shitty move and I hate that I did it.”

“Not gonna argue about that.” Breaking up is always hard but forcing your partner into taking action like that is definitely not the right way.

“Half of the town hates me now for hurting Patrick like that.” She sniffles, rubs her nose, exhales deeply. “But he’s happy now with his new girlfriend who will probably never cheat on him or even put the empty milk carton back into the fridge or – I don’t know – leave her worn panties on the bedroom floor until laundry day.”

“Ha! Now that’s something you should warn Jared about.”

She emerges from her pillow hideout, wipes her face with her hands.

“I guess he will find out eventually. Or not. We’ll see. I want to take it slow.”

“Like not knowing his name for four months slow?” My quip earns me a slap on my arm and I laugh, finally laugh again after this trainwreck of a night.

“Hey, I’m sorry for cockblocking earlier.” It’s really time for me to go to sleep now.

“That’s fine, helps me with the whole going slow thing. But you better go and sort your life out, at least the part with your parents. First thing tomorrow morning. I might cave in and bring him here after brunch.” She hands me a blanket, gets up from the couch.

“Well, you better go and pick up your old panties from the floor. If only to make room for new ones.”

My laughter follows her into her bedroom where she hopefully cleans a bit while I catch up on sleep.

Homecoming – Day 12-3

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

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

“Hey Jayjay!”

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

“Hey Bennie,” I lamely greet back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There just enough alcohol in my blood left to nod.

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

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

“So, your friend ditched you, huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uhm… Bennie…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You sure? Did I say something wrong?”

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

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

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

 

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

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

“Eh, Missie, look where ya walking!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I never asked you to butt in!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait, what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Holy-! Are you okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just can’t make sense of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And could that person be me?”

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.

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.

Homecoming – Day 11-2

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello, sir, I’m Jacob Rosenfeldt.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What the heck has gotten into you?”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you stop calling him that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your ladder, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sam? Who is Sam?”

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

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

“Jacob! Give it back!”

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

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

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

“Wrong. You can do that better.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t I have a say in this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poor Ben, trapped between them as voice of reason.

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

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

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

And I’m back in the focus.

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

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

“What did you just call me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“And how did Ben take it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I pick some more at the cake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“Dad?” My head spins. “Mom?”

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

“Jazzy-bee! How’s my big girl doing?”

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

“I think I’m getting sick.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He hummed in agreement but Jazz frowned lightly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A childhood friend?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you know what she looks like?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow, that’s really low.”

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

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

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

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

“Me? Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure. Sapporo can be cold after all.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey! I came here to talk to you!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For how long?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She pumped herself up mentally before she dialed the number.

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

“I think we should talk.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you decided to actually let him go?”

This was it, the moment of truth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jazz? What is going on here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I just – I tried to – I thought…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He stared at her, speechless, mouth agape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MJS Out of office drama: Jazz x Kunihiko One line, two lines

Jazz stared at the small test in her hand. She had been doing that for quite some time already, unable to bring herself to actually pee on that test stripe, afraid of the truth it would show her. What is she really was pregnant? There were a lot of symptoms hinting at it. She was constantly tired, gained weight, her period hadn’t shown for quite some time. But she was also taking the pill. Maybe she needed another one? She would have to see a doctor, that was for sure, but she’d rather know in advance than having the doctor tell her that she was pregnant.

With a sigh she read the instructions again. Did she have to pee in a cup and take the test like that? Or did she have to pee directly on it? And how should she do that without peeing on her hand? Who invented tests like that?! She knew she was just stalling and she also knew that she was a damned coward, so she took a deep breath, hovered over the toilet and just – let it flow. There. Done.

What followed were the longest 60 seconds of her life. One line meant she wasn’t pregnant, two that she was. And she had no idea what she was actually hoping for. A baby would change her life forever, there was no way back if she was pregnant. But she was sure that she had found the right man to start a family, Kunihiko would be a great father. They were married and she had always wanted children. Eventually. But right now? Well, she was over 30 already, there wasn’t much more time. She didn’t want to be an old mom, she wanted to crawl all over the playground with her kids, wanted to be active and running around with them.

She stared at the test in her hand again. How long could 60 seconds be? Her heart was pounding furiously, the nervous energy making her almost jump up. Instead she took another deep breath and put the test down at the edge of the sink and fixed her clothes. With all those conflicted emotions she didn’t know what to do, what to think. Anxiously she waited for her phone to chime and tell her that 60 seconds had passed.

She grabbed the test. The result was not what she had hoped for – or was it? She couldn’t even tell, she felt lightheaded and unsteady, like crying and laughing at the same time. She definitely needed a doctor’s appointment.

When Kunihiko came home Jazz was already calm again, smiled for her husband and kissed him deeply.

“I missed you,” she sighed at his surprise.

“I missed you, too. And I really like being greeted like this.” He smiled warmly at her, the love in his eyes bringing her to the brink of tears. Again.

Jazz pulled back and turned towards the kitchen. “Are you hungry? I cooked. I wanted to eat some of the food I know from back home, so I hope you feel adventurous.”

He chuckled and followed her into the kitchen were a pot was still simmering on the stove.

“Since I know you I’m much more adventurous anyway,” he said and curiously peeked into the pot. “What is it?”

“Soljanka. A soup, sweet and sour. Mostly a leftover food, you just throw in what’s in the fridge, some pickles, some tomatoes, et voilà – Soljanka. I hope you like it.” She handed him a bowl and a piece of bread before she took some for herself. They were eating in the kitchen, casually and in comfortable silence.

“It’s good,” he said after the first spoonful and Jazz smiled. It was a comfort food for her and she really needed this today. But it was something special that she could share her own comfort with the man she loved, especially since she couldn’t share her worries with him right now. Not before she had seen the doctor.

Jazz was stubborn. Stubborn and persistent. That was why she got an appointment three days later instead of having to wait for weeks. But it was so hard to hide it from Kunihiko. She had promised not to keep secrets from him, had demanded complete honesty and offered the same in return, and now she didn’t even mention this to him.

And Kunihiko acted strange. Maybe he knew that she was hiding something or he simply noticed that she was a bit off lately. He was pretty perceptive when it came to her, she had noticed this already. He seemed to be more at home the last couple of days. Sometimes they only met for breakfast or dinner, every now and then in the bar, but he was at home around 8 every night for some days in the row.

Jazz shifted in her chair in the waiting room and smiled at the thought of her husband. He would be a good father… patient and kind and full of love for his kid. Kids. Who knows? She put the magazine down that she had barely glanced at, too nervous and anxious to read at all. How could one single line on a test make such a difference? How could that test make such a difference? She still wondered what she would have done, thought, felt if it had been another result. Would she have been happy? Shocked? Disappointed? Would she have felt as numb as she did now? Confused and afraid of the future? So many thoughts, so many emotions were swirling around in her head and heart and for now she was glad that she didn’t have to decide anything right away, didn’t have to plan before she got certainty.

“Miss Mann?”

Jazz looked up and gave the doctor’s assistant a tight smile. “Yes.”

“Would please come with me?”


She closed the door. Leaned against it and exhaled. She felt as if she was suffocating, as if her collar was too tight, her chest constricted. Women must have felt like that when corsets where still high fashion. What should she do now?

She let her bag drop to the floor and kicked off her shoes, padded barefoot into the kitchen. A glass of wine… no. No wine for her anymore. For a while.

“Hey love, you’re here already?”

Jazz flinched at the sound of his voice but greeted him with a smile.

“Yeah, one of my clients cancelled for today. I just thought about making us dinner.”

Kunihiko hugged her and looked at her face, frowning slightly.

“What’s wrong? You seem – tired.”

She laughed briefly, not actually amused at all.

“I feel as if I’m constantly tired lately.” She sighed and leaned against him, trying to draw some energy from the contact. It helped at least to calm her down.

“Maybe we need a break. A weekend trip somewhere. No work, no stress. How does that sound?” He gently stroked her back and she inhaled his scent, the familiar, comforting scent she’d grown to love.

“Sounds like heaven,” she admitted. “But I just don’t have the time.”

He brought some space between them, looked at her, searching for something.

“You need a break. Some rest. There has been so much going on lately and all you ever do is working more. And more. That can’t be good for – you. Us. I love you, I just want you to take care of yourself.”

She could tell how serious he was so she didn’t argue any further.

“Okay. A trip, one weekend. But not the next weekend or the one after that. I’m booked solid for the next two weeks.” She smiled apologetically and placed a hand on his cheek. “Thank you. For taking care of me.”

There was so much she wanted to tell him and at the same time she felt so extremely guilty, she just couldn’t.

“Miho’s bachelorette party, huh?” He chuckled slightly and Jazz nodded.

“That, too. But also work. I’m not always partying,” she said with an exaggerated pout.

“I know, I know. Although I love to see you cheerful and relaxed, so I’m fine when you are celebrating whatever you like.” He peered into her face, searching her eyes. “Is there something you’d like to celebrate?”

“Mhm, as soon as Miho and Goto had their wedding I really want to celebrate ours. And our engagement, no matter how short that was.” She smiled genuinely now, for the first time since – well, since taking that test. Maybe even before that.

“Nothing else?” His hand caressed her cheek and she leaned into the touch. This moment felt so fragil, so precious, she didn’t want it to end. Funny how they went from mind blowing sex to being each other’s home. Not that the sex was any less spectacular now, but there was just so much more than that. And still she wasn’t completely honest with him.

“Nothing else. For now.”

He nodded and smiled slightly before he kissed her softly.

“How about we order some food and just cuddle a bit on the couch for now? I miss just being with you.”

Jazz looked at him, amazed how wonderful this man was.

“That’s a great idea, love. I miss you, too. Hey, how about sushi?” She twisted a bit in his embrace to open the drawer with the delivery leaflets.

“Sushi? Uhm… no, I don’t feel like sushi. How about… Italian?”

Jazz stared at him. “You don’t feel like sushi? Sushi handrolls are your absolute favorite food, why don’t you feel like it?”

“I had sushi yesterday.”

“Oh, okay. Italian sounds good, too. Carpaccio, proscutto… yeah, I could go with that.” It’s been some time since she had Italian food.

“Carpaccio – that’s the raw beef slices, right? Uh, how about French? Or Indian?” He almost looked a bit panicked and Jazz got suspicious now.

“Kuni, what is going on? Why can’t we just order already?”

“How about I order us something and surprise you with it?” he tried to distract her. “Any cravings?” He made a face as if he had said something incredibly stupid and now Jazz really was confused.

“No. Well, maybe something spicy. Lately my food is tasting bland, at least I have that impression.” She shrugged and stepped out of his arms.

“Do you want some coffee? Or wine?”

“No, don’t bother. I can take care of that. You go and sit down on the couch.” He grabbed a leaflet of an Indian place and browsed the menu.

“Okay, but I would like some coffee.” It wasn’t that late yet and she could really need something to perk her up.

“Wouldn’t you prefer some tea?”

Jazz shot him a glare. What was wrong with him that he was so picky about what she ate and drank?

“I bring you some coffee, okay,” he relented with a sigh.

Five minutes later Jazz sat on the couch, a cup of coffee in her hand, her feet resting in Kuni’s lap while he absentmindedly rubbed them.

“That feels like heaven,” she sighed and took a sip of her coffee. Kuni really made the best coffee. He was so sweet and thoughtful. But…

“Did you forget the sugar?” She peered into her cup, the bitterness of the coffee a bit too much.

“Oh, I just thought – well, sugar’s not really good for you, is it?”

Jazz pulled her feet back and sat up. “I swear, if you start telling me to watch my weight I WILL demand a divorce.”

“What? No! I love you, I love your body, I don’t care if you gain weight. I can’t wait for you to gain even more! The more the better!” he frantically explained.

Jazz put her cup down. “Kunihiko, you are acting strange. Care to tell my why?”

He frowned, gnawed at his bottom lip. Sighed.

“Okay. Okay, here’s the thing. I – I think I found something very – personal from you…” he began, obviously choosing his words carefully.

“Personal? And now you don’t know how to act naturally around me anymore?” She was amused by the thought he might have rummaged through her underwear drawer or something. Until the thought crossed her mind that he could have found a client report or two.

“I, ugh, it’s just that I don’t understand why you hide something like that,” he admitted, wiping the thought of client reports from her mind. If he seemed – what? Happy? – it couldn’t be that.

“A woman has to keep some secrets,” she said with a shrug.

“Sure, and you should have some small secrets, I don’t mind. But that?”

What did he find? Oh. OH!

“So it’s the – uhm the size of the ‘secret’ that bothers you?” She was blushing, actually blushing, but felt like laughing at least. Typical male.

“Yes. I mean, that’s not only about you after all. It affects me, too. Shouldn’t we – shouldn’t you at least tell me?” Oh. He looked hurt and Jazz immediately felt guilty. Again.

“Kuni, I love you, you know I do. I married you. I want to spend my whole life with you. But I’m also a grown woman, I have the right of some privacy. And privacy involves having sex toys. That doesn’t mean that you can’t satisfy me or that I don’t love our sex. It just means that I’m having some toys in case I need them.”

For a moment it was silent between them.

“What?” He shook his head slightly, as if to shake off his confusion.

“What do you mean, ‘what’? Isn’t this what it’s all about? You found my vibrator?” She had a bad feeling all of sudden.

“No. No, I’m not talking about a – a sex toy. I’m talking about the pregnancy test.” His frown deepened. “And I really think you should talk with me about that.”

Jazz drew a sharp breath. Exhaled again. “Okay. Okay, you are right, that is – well, personal enough. I didn’t mean for you to find it. But it doesn’t matter anyway, does it?” The sadness in her face was getting to him and he hugged her.

“Hey, it’s nothing bad. I mean, sure, we haven’t planned it and I thought you were taking the pill, but I’m happy. Genuinely, incredibly happy. I just thought – I don’t know, I thought you would tell me with a sweet gesture and I was really on edge the last few days. I didn’t know that you were worried about it.” He wiped the first tears away that welled up in her eyes. “Did you think I wouldn’t be happy? That I wouldn’t want a baby with you?”

She shook her head, so tired, so sad. So empty.

“I don’t know what you think you found, but I’m not pregnant. The test was negative.” Her voice was blank.

Kunihiko tensed for a second. “No… two lines, right? Two lines mean positive.”

“Kuni, there was only one line. I’m definitely NOT pregnant.”

“Oh…”

Neither of them said anything for a short while.

“You know, it’s possible that after some time, an hour or so, the second line appears but it’s still a negative test. It’s just – I don’t know, eventually every test has two lines. Important is the result after the time written on the box. And after 60 seconds there was just one line. I’m sorry…” She gave him a brave smile. “I didn’t know that you found it. I didn’t want you to get your hopes up just in case…” She shrugged.

“So, you never were pregnant? Or did you…?” He couldn’t even finish the thought. One second he was convinced they would become a family and the next one everything was just – gone.

“I never was pregnant. I would have told you the second the test was positive…” Jazz sighed, the disappointment in his face breaking her heart. “I’m so sorry.”

“No, no it’s – it’s fine. I jumped to conclusions… well, it was nice thinking you and I would, would become a real family, but – that doesn’t mean we can keep trying, right?” He cupped her face, confused when she started crying again. “What? What’s wrong?”

“Kuni – I… I was…” She sobbed, cried, clung to him. Reality was finally catching up with her and ripped down every little lie she had built up as defense so far, it made her dizzy.

“Jazz? Baby, talk to me. What is it?” He had never seen her like this, not even when Mino had disappeared. Not even when they had the worst of fights. Never.

“I’ve been – I have seen the doctor today. I – I… something isn’t right… they will… they will have to – to remove one of my – my ovaries…” She could hardly breathe, speak, think. All she could was feeling a loss of something she had never had and still taken for granted. She had always thought she would have a family one day. A baby. Maybe two. A husband, a house, but first and foremost children. And now she wasn’t even sure if that was possible. If she could have children.

“I’m so… I’m so sorry…” she muttered over and over. Now that she knew that he was thrilled by the thought of being a father the pain was even sharper, deeper. It wasn’t only about her, it was about them. About him. What if he left her? What if he would want someone who could give him that? What if?

“Shhh… it’s okay, love, it’s okay… as long as you are here I don’t care…” He rocked her in his arms like a crying child, waited until the tension subsided, the tremors running through her had calmed down.

When she could finally breathe again, still sobbing a bit, she wiped her face, not caring for the running makeup, and sat back a bit.

“I will have surgery the day after Miho’s party. I don’t want anyone to know, we had enough drama lately.”

He nodded, understanding what she meant. Especially Miho had been through a lot but the others had suffered, too. That was why everyone was looking forward to the bachelor/bachelorette party, just to let off some steam, take their minds off things.

“You’re not going to tell Miho, then?”

She shrugged. “No, not now at least. Maybe afterwards. You know that she’s not keen on babies anyway, I’m not sure if this is something I want to share with her until it’s done.”

Kunihiko pondered her words silently before he changed the topic slightly.

“Okay, I think I need more information about all that. If that’s okay with you,” he added and looked at her. Crying had helped clearing her mind and although the pain was still there, sitting prominently in the forefront of her mind and heart, she nodded.

“What exactly do you have and what will they do? What does that mean for you in the future?”

Jazz sighed. “I’m not a medic, I can only explain it in my own words. Obviously one of my ovaries, the left one, is twisted in a way that makes it necessary to remove it. That would explain some of the very heavy cramps I had in the last years. It’s called ovarian torsion and they will make a laparoscopy to remove it. It’s good that we found out about it now. There’s the risk of something called an ovarian infarct and that would be really painful and dangerous.” Her shoulders slumped a bit but she went on. “Once it’s removed the other ovary should be enough to keep the hormonal balance, but getting pregnant might be a problem.”

“A problem or impossible?” he asked, holding her hands, his thumbs rubbing over the back of her hands reassuringly.

“It’s not impossible, just – not that likely anymore. We might have to see a specialist.”

The doorbell rang, signaling the arrival of their food. Suddenly Jazz realized why Kuni had been so picky about their food earlier and a fresh round of tears welled up in her eyes. She loved him so much, wanted him to have everything that would make him happy. Children included.

Kuni came back with bags and boxes of foods but simply put them down on the table, ignoring them for now. Their conversation was more important after all.

“Okay, one last question, maybe the most important one. Do you want to have a baby?”

She nodded, her lips trembling. The 60 seconds before the test showed a negative result she has actually hoped for a second line. Yes, it would have change their lives forever, but she was sure it would have been in a good way.

“Good.” He smiled warmly. “In that case we are at least on the same page. I actually was a bit excited, maybe a bit too much. I – I ordered something, online.” His smile wavered a bit.

“What did you order?” Jazz snuggled close to him, needed the contact, the reassurance it gave her.

“It’s a bit embarrassing… but I ordered a onesie. ‘Daddy’s sweetheart’.”

She choked up a bit but smiled. “I bet it’s cute.”

“Yeah. I will return it, though.”

Jazz sat up a bit and looked at him. “No. Keep it. When it arrives, give it to me. I will give it back to you when we will actually need it.”

“So you want to keep trying? Or better, start trying?” The love in his gaze was too much for her now but she nodded despite her tears. “Good. Of course only after you have recovered and all. Until then – what was that about a vibrator earlier?”

Jazz chuckled, wiped her cheeks and grinned. “Hey, what about a girl being allowed some secrets?”

“Too late, you already told me. And now I really want to see it in action…” He winked at her, actually winked, and she laughed even more.

“First dinner. After that we can see what you can do with the information of me owning sex toys. But I bet there’s something you’d enjoy in my collection.” She felt much lighter now, after having told him everything. After sorting out her feelings.

And for now they could just enjoy being a newlywed couple. Everything else would be okay. She looked at him and was truly convinced of that. Everything would be just fine.

MJS Out of office drama: Jazz x Kunihiko Meet the family

When Jazz came back home after a long day of visiting venues, trying cake and picking out the right napkins to the right tablecloths she was surprised to see the lights on in the living room and kitchen.

“Kuni? Are you home already?” She took off her shoes and padded towards the kitchen where she could hear him rummaging through the cabinets.

“Oh, hi.” He looked up from his search for the right pan and smiled sheepishly. “I wanted to be done before you come home.”

Jazz walked over to him and gave him a peck on the cheek.

“And with what did you want to be done before I came home?”

“Dinner. Something simple, but I thought I haven’t cooked for you for a while now. It’s only pasta, though.” He motioned towards the pot on the stove.

“Thanks, that’s great. I didn’t have time to eat much today.” She skipped towards the fridge and opened it. “Do you want a drink? Maybe some wine for dinner?”

“If I drink I will fall asleep right away. It was a hard day, week, month,” he said, slightly sour.

“Yeah, I get what you mean. We could use a break. Maybe a lazy weekend.” Jazz put the bottle of wine she held in hand back into the fridge.

“You don’t want any?” he asked and motioned towards the closed fridge.

“Nah, I’m also a bit tired lately. Might be good to take a break from drinking for a while.”

Kunihiko faked a shocked gasp and Jazz chuckled and swatted his arm lightly.

“Don’t act as if I’m always drinking!”

“You’re definitely drinking more than I do,” he teased her just for Jazz to grab his face, still laughing, and kissed him.

“That’s just because you’re rather a lightweight when it comes to alcohol.”

One kiss followed the other and they would have forgotten about their exhaustion and taken things further if it wasn’t for the pot and the water in it boiling over. She chuckled when she pulled back.

“I leave you to your cooking then. I go and change into something more – comfortable.” She winked at him and left for the bedroom, glad to get out of her dress and the rather constricting bra. Maybe she needed some new clothes. Maybe – and she shuddered at this thought – a bigger size. Kunihiko and his good cooking… she had definitely gained some weight. Well, he seemed not to notice or maybe he just didn’t care and Jazz felt better than she ever did in a relationship. As long as it were only a few pounds she was fine with it. She should work out a bit anyway.

Dressed in a tank top and shorts she came back into the kitchen and helped him getting their dinner ready.

“Oh, by the way, you got mail. Seems important. Manila envelopes and all. I put them on your desk.”

“Them? More than one?” He seemed surprised and Jazz shrugged.

“Three or four, and some other stuff. Sorry, I have just grabbed the mail and rushed up here.” She grinned sheepishly. “I really needed to pee.”

He chuckled and kissed her. “You are so sexy, you know that?”

It was strange, even this, domestic evenings, nights without the passionate and hot sex from the beginning, just lazing around on the couch, sharing meals, getting to know each other better with every passing day – this was so much more than Jazz had ever hoped for. Sometimes she was a bit scared of the extend of her own feelings, her own happiness, but then she remembered how hard she had fought for this, how hard THEY had fought for this. It wasn’t a gift, it was the result of persistence, communication and a lot of trust.

They talked some more, ate in a relaxed atmosphere and afterwards Jazz took care of the dishes as thanks for him preparing dinner. When she came out of the now clean kitchen she found him staring at some files in his hands.

Drying her hands with a towel she walked over to him.

“Why the serious face?” she asked, taking a seat next to him. “Business?”

“No,” he blankly said and handed her a file.

“This is… a marriage candidate? What-?!” She stared at the profile. Japanese woman, 28, good at housework. Loved to cook. Good education. The picture showed her in a kimono, very traditional.

“What is this crap?” She threw the file on the coffee table and grabbed another one. Almost the same, just the age and the name were different.

“You know, back then when I came to MJS… my family wanted me to find a bride. My parents are – rather conservative. Traditional. I guess they think they gave me enough time to find a wife on my own.” He sounded a bit shocked, but also sad. Of course. He hadn’t told his family about her, about their marriage because she asked him to keep it a secret for now.

“But this? I mean, look at those profiles… how many are there?” She quickly counted the files. “Five? And all of them are – so completely dull. Nondescript. Here, this doesn’t even say if she gives good blowjobs. Or blowjobs at all. All the important info is missing! Who should be able to make a decision based on this crap?”

It was one thing that his family meddled with his love life, Jazz had already understood that it wasn’t an uncommon thing in Japan. But her professional pride was another thing. This was exactly why they had founded MJS – because the dating world in Japan was really tricky. Like everywhere else.

Kunihiko only chuckled and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her closer until she straddled his lap and rested her head against his shoulder.

“You know, I often wonder how your profile would have looked like,” he mused, gently stroking her back.

“Well, there would have definitely been a whole paragraph about my fellatio skills,” she answered, slightly muffled against his shoulder.

“And that alone would have gotten my attention,” he played along before he got serious again. “No, really, what would you write in your own profile.”

“Hmm…” She thought about this, it had never occurred to her to create a profile for herself. “I would have asked Miho to make it, so it would have been full of praise of course.”

She chuckled, imagining Miho writing things like: ‘Great body, but damaged heart. Handle with care or I will hunt you down and rip your balls off.’

“Of course,” he agreed with a grin. The friendship between Miho and Jazz was definitely something special, and he was aware that he had crossed a line when he doubted it. It would take some time to fix things with Miho, but he really wanted to prove her that he was the right one for Jazz, that he would make her happy.

“So, what are we going to do about this?” Jazz wearily motioned towards the stack of matchmaking profiles.

“I’m going to meet all of them and ask them about their opinions about blowjobs. Just so their profile is complete. And then I tell them that I already found the perfect woman for me.”

She swatted his chest playfully. “Stop joking, I’m serious!”

He sighed and kissed her once more.

“I know you wanted a relaxed, lazy weekend, but I think we’d better go and visit my family. I will call them tomorrow. We can take the bullet train and be back in the evening.”

Jazz sighed. It was her fault that they were in this situation; only because she asked him to keep their marriage a secret for now. Now she had to fix things. Sooner or later she would have to meet his family anyway, although she had hoped for some better circumstances.

“Okay. I think I have time this weekend, no weddings so far.” She raised her head and cupped his face, kissed him softly. “I’m sorry for bringing you into this position.”

Kunihiko chuckled lightly and kissed her back, not that softly. “I actually like the position I’m currently in,” he almost purred into her ear, making her giggle.

“Yeah?”

His hand dropped to her ass, squeezing lightly. “Yeah…”


Three days later they boarded the train, Jazz with conflicted emotions. Kunihiko had already warned her that his family was rather traditional, conservative and strict. Not so much his parents but his grandparents and aunts and uncles. She was nervous. Last time she met her parents-in-law she found herself under scrutiny of Akane Kujoro and we all know how THAT ended. And back then she hadn’t even been working for a marriage matchmaking agency where the clients had to literally bare everything of them in order to create a profile.

She was nervous. She was beyond nervous to be honest. Although she had brought her laptop to work during the trip she couldn’t focus at all. Instead she fidgeted with her clothes, her hair, her hand until Kunihiko sighed and grabbed her hand, squeezed it lightly and smiled reassuringly.

“Relax, love. It’s okay, it’s not as if they could do anything. We ARE already married. You are just going to meet my family and I’m just informing them that they can stop looking for my future wife because I already have a wonderful wife.”

She smiled back, still nervous. If it only was that simple.

“Tell me again that you love me,” she demanded, almost pouting.

“I love you. Only you. You are the only woman I want to spend my life with, the only I can see myself with in the future.” He raised her hand to his lips and kissed her fingertips gently, one after the other. “And that is exactly what I am going to tell my family.”

Jazz took a shaky breath and nodded, slightly choked up. “Thank you…” She knew she would need some strength to face his family but she wanted to be a wife he could be proud of; a wife who would support him, fight for their love.

The trip seemed to take forever but they arrived before noon.

“We can have lunch somewhere but I assume that my family has prepared something,” he said, giving her the choice and effectively a short reprieve.

“We don’t want to keep them waiting,” she firmly answered, putting this off wouldn’t help after all. Better to get over with it before her anxiety spiked.

“Okay. Don’t worry, everything is going to be alright.” Kunihiko hailed a cab and Jazz wished it would drive anywhere but to the address he gave the driver. She was such a coward.

They were heading towards the house of his grandparents, a huge and traditional estate that took her breath away. Jazz knew that Kunihiko was quite wealthy but she had assumed that he had earned the money with his company, not that money ran in his family.

“Wow…” She couldn’t help but stare in awe and growing terror. Her own family was rather – well, average. Her parents had a small house, nothing fancy, and both worked hard for their money. She and her siblings – a brother and a younger sister – had been brought up in the knowledge that working was necessary and that there was nothing to be ashamed of in earning their own money. So Jazz had started working part-time jobs as soon as she had been old enough. It helped her pay for clothes and her hobbies and later to get her through college. She had been a babysitter, worked in retail and service, fully aware that her future career better offered a bit more glamour. She would have never guessed to end as an event planner in Japan but she loved that job. She loved working at MJS even more, being an associate, a founding member of the agency was something that filled her with pride.

She might not have the same background but definitely the same dedication to her job like Kunihiko. Jazz straightened up and took a deep breath. She was ready to face whatever would come, with Kunihiko at her side.

At least that was what she thought before stepping into the house, with the tatami mats and the paper doors it felt like stepping into another century. Or one of the historic dramas they showed on TV. Hadn’t Saeki just written some script about a forbidden love in the Edo era?

She quickly focused again, the surroundings making her nervous again.

Someone dressed in a kimono took Kunihiko’s jacket and threw Jazz a questioning glance but Kuni simply helped Jazz out of her jacket and handed it over. Was that a relative or some kind of staff? She didn’t dare to ask, simply followed her husband without a word. She didn’t want to embarrass him after all.

In front of some paper doors they stopped and Kunihiko turned towards her. Jazz could hear voices and her heart started to race again.

“It’s okay, just breathe. We will be fine, I promise.” His voice was only a whisper but it helped her to calm down. When she nodded Kunihiko opened the door and they stepped into a huge room, filled with several people, all clad in traditional Japanese clothes, sitting on the floor.

“Ah, Kunihiko, you finally arrived.” A stern looking, older woman beckoned them closer, or better, him. She frowned when she noticed Jazz.

“Who is that? You didn’t say you were bringing someone.”

Kunihiko bowed his head slightly and straightened up again.

“Sobo, thank you for having us. This is Jazz Mann. My wife.”

With a nervous smile Jazz bowed her head, just enough to show respect but not so much that she would make herself small. She was a smart and proud woman after all. And she was married to Kunihiko.

“Obaasan, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”

Kunihiko’s grandmother didn’t even spare her a glance, instead she glared at Kunihiko.

“Your wife? What is that nonsense? We send you a choice of profiles for suitable young women. Why did you bring someone like her?”

Now that escalated quickly. Jazz bit her tongue, didn’t want to make a bad impression right from the start.

“Sobo, you wanted me to get married and I did. Even before you sent those profiles to be honest. But I preferred to choose my wife on my own. I wanted someone I actually love and here she is. She is smart, successful, independent and at the same time she supports me, helps me to see where I’m wrong without being presumptuous.”

Jazz blinked a few times. She knew he loved her, he told her often enough, but hearing him saying all these things about her in front of his family was something else. She felt the love well up inside of her, her smile grew and was genuine now. But only for a second.

“You already married this woman? Without introducing her first? Without asking for our permission?” His grandmother seemed disappointed, clearly disapproving of their marriage.

“I didn’t know I needed ‘permission’,” he replied, still respectful but standing his ground. His grandmother made a sound between a snort and a click of her tongue.

“It would have been only proper to introduce us first. Why did you hide her from us?” She shot Jazz a taxing gaze, finally acknowledging her presence. And all the others followed her gaze so that Jazz found herself the center of attention.

“Besides the obvious issues.”

That hurt, but Jazz kept her head up high and her eyes trained on his grandmother, still slightly smiling.

“And what would be the obvious issues, obaasan?” She sounded calmer than she felt, proud that her emotions didn’t show in her voice.

“You are not Japanese. We know nothing about you and your heritage. Your family. We can’t know if you are honorable.” There was no accusation or malice, she was just stating the truth.

“You could just ask me. I can tell you what you need to know.” Jazz’s offer caused a stir in the group but Kunihiko stayed calm so she figured she hadn’t just accidently offended everyone in the room.

“You could lie,” a woman, probably Kunihiko’s aunt, said.

“I could, but what would that do for me? I’m actually a stickler for honesty.” Jazz shrugged, but she knew that if they didn’t want to listen to her they wouldn’t.

“I think we should have a more private conversation. Miss Mann, would you excuse us, please?” Kunihiko’s grandmother pointed towards the door and Jazz shared a short glance with her husband who gave her a smile and a nod. She was guided away by the same person who greeted them first, still unsure of their status in this house. But since it didn’t matter much to her she was simply polite and thanked the woman who bowed her head briefly and left Jazz in a smaller room without much furniture. This wasn’t going well.

She hadn’t expected them to welcome her with open arms, but at least to be allowed to stay for the explanation. Not getting send out of the room like a child when the grown-ups talked. Jazz made up her mind and slipped out of the room, tried to find her way back to room with Kunihiko and his family. She followed the faint sounds of voices until she could hear them more or less clearly. These walls were really thin.

“… the matchmaker? No one marries the matchmaker! That’s just not –“

“Sobo, I am not discussing this! Marriage matchmaking is a respectable business; after all you hired a matchmaker for me, too. So what if I fall not for the potential bride they show me, but the one who is trying to set me up? She knows me, she knows me better than anyone else. And she still fell for me. I think that is the most important part of this whole story: we LOVE each other. She has proven that over and over and I am willing to prove it for the rest of my life.”

Her heart felt like bursting at those words. He really stood up to his grandmother, only for Jazz. Only for them.

“But she is a foreigner!” someone else said, a male voice.

“That doesn’t matter. She is a wonderful person, honest and kind. Respectable. She comes from a respectable family, has studied and worked hard to get where she is now. She and her friends have their own business and lately they have even expanded their service, now offering wedding planning as well. They are making people happy and Jazz is making ME happy. I don’t care about where she was born.”

Jazz held her breath, trying not to make a sound and give the fact away that she was eavesdropping.

“What if one day she decides she wants to back?” another voice asked.

“Then I will go with her.”

They had never talked about this and honestly, Jazz hadn’t even thought about going back home ever since they had cleared everything, ever since she had decided to really do this, to accept her feelings for him and not to hold anything back anymore.

“If you had introduced her before rushing into a marriage like a fool we could have at least find someone to do a background check on her,” his grandmother stated.

“And I would have asked you not to do that,” Kunihiko shot back. “I trust her. She has told me everything I need to know, even if it wasn’t flattering.”

“Son, you have to admit that it looks rather strange when you go to matchmaking agency only to marry the matchmaker in the end. Head over heels. We are simply worried she might have – ulterior motives.”

Was that his father? Jazz blood started to boil. She wasn’t some money grubbing gold digger, she had her own business! (And the divorce settlement from Ai, but that wasn’t the point here.)

Jazz cleared her throat loudly, announcing her presence.

“May I enter?” Her heart was pounding like crazy but she wouldn’t back down now. Not when all this was about her.

“It is rude to eavesdrop,” his grandmother said, rather miffed.

“It also rude to talk about people behind their backs,” Jazz firmly answered. Not backing down.

“I understand that you are concerned,” Jazz continued, “and I take it as a sign of your affection towards Kunihiko. But I don’t like what you are implying. Fact is that we have a prenup, and fact is also that it was ME who wanted that. I understand that he is a successful business man and that his name and property have to be protected.”

She looked at Kunihiko who seemed relieved to see her. Good, at least one person here.

“Actually Jazz didn’t want to marry me at first,” he suddenly said, earning some surprised and some disapproving glances. “I had to woo her and convince her to give me a chance. And when she said ‘yes’ I just jumped at the chance.”

That was a very sugarcoated version, but it wasn’t a lie after all. What if they learned of her divorce?

“Is there a reason for your hasty wedding?” his grandmother asked, glaring at Jazz.

“What do you mean, sobo?” Kunihiko tensed a bit and Jazz could feel her stomach churn.

“There are two likely explanations,” the older woman went on. “Green card or… Kunihiko, did you – get her with child?”

Jazz gasped. She paled before the blood rushed into her face. “Are you implying I tricked him into marrying me?”

Kunihiko grabbed her hand, surprised to feel it trembling in his.

“I think we are done here. If you are rude towards my wife I feel not obliged to stay any longer.”

“If you go now – Kunihiko, you know what might happen,” his grandmother almost threateningly said.

“If that is what you have to do, then do it.” Kunihiko bowed his head slightly and tugged at Jazz’s hand. She had trouble to hold her tears back. This wasn’t what she wanted for him, being threatened to get kicked out of the family because he married her.

She managed to pull herself together until they were outside, standing at the street trying to find another cab.

“I’m sorry,” they said at the same time, just for Jazz to lose it and burst out into tears.

“I’m so sorry, really! I didn’t – when I asked you to keep it a secret for now I didn’t think this would happen…”

“Hey…” Kunihiko hugged her tightly. “It’s okay, it’s not your fault. They would have been unhappy with my choice even if I had introduced you before. It’s not about me being married, they want me to marry who they see fit. But I want you, so tough luck for them.”

“Shit,” she muttered. “Kuni, I feel as if I should offer to set you free so your family can be happy – but I can’t. I know I’m selfish, but I don’t want to give up on you. Give up on US. On what we have.”

“Shhhh…” He cupped her face and kissed her softly. “I wouldn’t accept that anyway. You have said ‘yes’, now you’re stuck with me. You are my wife and you are the only one I want. It will be fine, don’t worry.”

“But they are your family!” Jazz sobbed, thinking about her own family back home. They might fight every now and then but they still loved each other. They wouldn’t turn their backs on her just because she married someone they didn’t approve of.

“You are my family now,” he corrected her and wiped some tears off her cheek. “Although it might be difficult now to get you into my family register so you can have my name.”

She shrugged. “It’s only a name, right? As long as I can be your wife I don’t care. It was just – it’s nice to have the same name. Not necessary, but nice.”

He chuckled. “I could still take your name, you know?”

That made her laugh. She had never even thought about it. “Wouldn’t they be furious if you did?”

“Do you really think that’s important right now?”

She shook her head before she rested it against his chest. “Let’s go home, okay?”

But before they could call for a cab the gate to his family’s estate opened.

“Kunihiko?” It was a middle aged man and Jazz practically jumped back a bit only to get pulled back by her husband. He didn’t want to let her go, not even to preserve appearance.

“Otousama,” he replied and Jazz’s eyes widened. His father.

“I am sorry for the way things escalated. You know your grandmother can be – rather stubborn. I am sorry if she has offended you and your wife.”

Jazz could see the similarities between the two men; if Kunihiko looked like that in 20 or 30 years Jazz wouldn’t complain.

“I know this is a bit sudden, but this is my choice,” Kunihiko firmly said, squeezing Jazz slightly.

“It is. And I am sure Miss Ma- Jazz is a wonderful woman. After all she is the one who captured your heart. It might need some time but I will do whatever I can to calm the waves. I only hope next time we meet will be under better circumstances.”

Jazz pushed against Kunihiko’s chest until he finally gave her free and she could face his father.

“I am grateful for your words and I also hope that we can meet again soon. At a more joyous occasion.” She looked at Kuni briefly and he nodded.

“We are going to have a ceremony in some time and want to invite you. And mom of course. And whoever is happy for us.” Kunihiko bowed his head slightly and his father exhaled loudly, apparently relieved.

“We will gladly come and celebrate with you. Jazz, take good care of my son. He can be a bit foolish sometimes, but he is a fine man.” Mr. Aikawa bowed back and Jazz nodded.

“Don’t worry, I will.”


On their trip back home they both were unusually silent. Jazz couldn’t focus, her mind was racing like the train they were sitting in. She stared out of the window, unable to actually see something. All she could think about was the expression on Kunihiko’s face when his grandmother insinuated that he had knocked Jazz up. And the small box in the bathroom, hidden behind the towels. The pregnancy test she had put off for much too long already.

MJS Wedding: Ishigami x Liana (with some past Jazz x Katsuragi smut)

Jazz checked the last details to make sure that everything was taken care of. The flowers, the caterer, the band. Check, check, check. The guests were already waiting and the priest had just arrived. Showtime.

She quickly made her way over to the groom’s room and knocked. Goto opened the door.

“It’s time,” she said with a smile and nodded towards the door. “Get into position already.” He smiled slightly and left.

“Ishigami-san? Are you ready?”

She approached the groom, waited for his unspoken approval to fix his tie and the boutonniere.

“Congratulation, Ishigami-san. Your bride is a wonderful woman and I’m sure you will be very happy together.”

“Thank you,” he earnestly replied.

“But you better get going now, I’m going to get Liana next. Only five more minutes and you will be wed.”

She waited until he took a deep breath and nodded firmly.

“I am ready.”

It was good that there was no awkwardness between them, they both knew that whatever had happened between them had been part of a business, although it had been fun after all. Well, the act itself had been fun, the way leading there not that much. Ishigami-san had been the most difficult client in Jazz’s career but now he was happy and would marry the woman Jazz had found for him. All’s well that ends well, right?

After making sure that the groom was on his way Jazz hurried over to the bride’s room. She knocked again and when the door was opened she slipped inside, handed the bridesmaid a bouquet, and shooed Kurosawa out who was busy taking pictures of the bride in the last moments before the wedding.

“Liana? Your groom is waiting,” Jazz finally announced and the bride beamed at her.

“It’s really happening, isn’t it?” Jazz was slightly touched by how nervous the bride seemed. She had gotten to know her as a reasonable, not overly emotional woman so seeing her like this gave Jazz the good feeling that she really had matched up the right people.

“It is. He is looking very handsome and you are stunningly beautiful. I really hope that you will always be looking forward to seeing each other like you are in this moment. Congratulations and all the luck in the world to the both of you.”

Liana swallowed once and suddenly chuckled, a bit teary-eyed.

“Don’t ruin my makeup now, I can’t cry before he has seen me at least.”

Jazz smiled and handed the bride a tissue. Liana took a deep breath, grabbed her bouquet and nodded.

“I am ready.”

Yes, they were really a good match.


The ceremony went on without a hitch. The guests ‘ahh’ed and ‘ohh’ed at the bride’s entrance, the groom was visibly moved by her appearance and the bride was glowing, smiling all the time. It was perfect.

Their vows were simple but heartfelt, assuring each other of eternal support and trust. Ishigami was a bit nervous when it came to sliding the wedding band on Liana’s finger but he managed and for a moment it looked as if he would kiss her finger, but he held back. Probably because of their audience. But he was looking very relieved when the priest announced them husband and wife and this time, there was a kiss. Chaste but sweet and both blushed lightly. Very cute.

This was definitely the most emotional Jazz had seen Ishigami and considering what she heard from Goto and Subaru, she wasn’t the only one surprised at how visible touched the usually stony-faced detective was. Liana did have a softening effect on him.

When the first glasses of champagne were passed around Jazz slowly relaxed. The most important part was over, they were actually married. Whatever could go wrong now would be unpleasant but couldn’t change the fact anymore that Liana and Ishigami-san were newlyweds.

Jazz quickly checked on the serving staff and the caterer but they told her everything was fine. Of course Jazz wouldn’t drink at a day like this, she was on a job after all. But she got a glass of ginger ale that at least looked a bit like champagne and watched the guests and the bridal couple. She also watched Miho and Goto who were standing together, chatting and drinking with as much of physical contact they could get away with in this setting. Jazz knew that Miho was practically shameless but also that Ishigami was Goto’s boss and she was proud that Miho seemed to hold back. At least for now. What would happen when she had some more drinks was unpredictable.

“They are next, huh?”

Jazz slightly flinched, she hadn’t expected for anyone to talk to her.

“They are. What about you?” She turned to face Subaru who simply shrugged.

“MJS couldn’t match me up with someone suitable after all,” he casually said and took a sip of champagne.

“You mean you didn’t really give anyone else a chance,” Jazz shot back and he shrugged.

“Maybe I’m not the kind of guy that can be set up with someone easily.”

“Maybe we wouldn’t want our clients to have to deal with you all their life,” she said with a sweet smile.

“You are one to talk,” he grumbled but Jazz laughed happily.

“I am. After all I already am married.” He raised both eyebrows, surprised at her announcement.

“I mean I was. I already was married,” she quickly corrected herself. Dammit! Being Kunihiko’s wife felt so natural and right that she sometimes forgot to keep it a secret for now.

“You were. Well, well, the fact that you aren’t anymore doesn’t surprise me. I bet he got fed up with your talking back to him all the time.” His smug grin made her roll her eyes.

“No. He simply got fed up with lying to me about not being gay.” She shot him a challenging glare but he seemed to understand that this wasn’t something to joke about.

“Oh. Well… by the way, the flowers are great.” Subaru motioned towards a flower arrangement, a wordless olive branch of peace.

“Thank you. Haruka Utsunomiya made them.” She could tell by his expression that he actually was impressed, at least for second.

“What? Did you sleep with him, too? Isn’t he a bit young for you?” A very short second indeed.

“With whom I sleep or not shouldn’t concern you, but no. He’s an old friend of Kunihiko.” Jazz looked back at Miho and Goto who looked happy and relaxed, something that had been rare lately, while they chatted with Ishigami and Liana.

“Thank you. For taking care of her,” Jazz quietly said. It wasn’t easy for her to say something nice to Subaru but she was really grateful that he had made sure that Miho was safe. He tilted his head slightly and accepted her thanks graciously.

“Couldn’t let him lose another one,” he muttered and downed his champagne.

“Hello, everyone! Welcome here today! Who would have thought that we would ever celebrate the wedding of Ishigami one day?” a cheerful voice suddenly boomed through the speakers.

“Oh god, who gave that fool a mic?” Subaru muttered and Jazz jumped into action, ready to give the sound guy a sign to cut Kurosawa off if necessary.

“But I hardly know anyone who deserves this as much as Ishigami-san. He is a very dedicated boss and seeing him happy like this since he met Liana gave me hope that I, too, will one day find the love of my life.”

That earned some giggles and “awww”s alike. For now Jazz simply let Kurosawa talk, it was rather cute after all.

“But I guess I’m talking for everyone here today when I wish the bridal couple all the luck and love in the world. And demand a repeat performance of the wedding kiss!”

The crowd cheered, the call for a kiss quickly wandering from mouth to mouth. “Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!”

Jazz rolled her eyes and gave the soundman a sign to take the mic back.

Ishigami frowned slightly but when he looked at his bride – no, his wife – a small smile played on his lips. He leaned in a bit and placed a soft kiss on her forehead just for Liana to pull him down again when he pulled back, pressing her lips against his. The guests cheered loudly and Jazz laughed with them. It was cute to see Ishigami blush lightly and Liana grin happily.

She excused herself to Subaru and made another round through the venue, making sure that everything was alright. The cake should be next and after that, the first dance. Later dinner and the party. Her job would be done when bride and groom left for the honeymoon.

She was deep in thought when she thought she saw a familiar face. For a second she froze but then relaxed. No, that couldn’t be. One of the caterer’s staff demanded her attention and Jazz forgot what she had been thinking about.

The cake was a huge success. Of course there was no childish smearing of cake into each other’s faces with Ishigami but Jazz noticed the way his eyes lit up when he got a first taste of it. Obviously Liana had picked the right flavor.

It was strange, although there wasn’t the usual exuberant display of love at a wedding there was a very touching, deep, almost serene connection between bride and groom that made not only Jazz a bit jealous, but only for a moment. After all she was happy in love, too.

When it was time for the speeches Jazz looked for Goto. Hadn’t he been here a minute or five ago? With Miho? A strange sense of foreboding washed over her. Miho wouldn’t actually do that, would she? Drag him off at the wedding of his superior to make out somewhere? Maybe even more? Hell yeah, she would.

She needed help to track them down and she knew it. Jazz looked for Subaru, hoping he had seen them sneak out or at least would help her, maybe check the men’s restroom.

She found him chatting with a group of men and politely cleared her throat to get his attention. Subaru turned to face her and she just wanted to ask him to help her search for Miho and Goto when she noticed one of the men standing there with Subaru.

“Jazz?”

“Daichi?”

Suddenly Jazz had the attention of all of those men, the short blonde one, the one that looked slightly familiar, a dark haired one. And of course of Subaru and Daichi.

“’Daichi’?” the smaller one asked but Jazz didn’t even react.

“Uhm, sorry, I am… I can’t find Goto, his speech is next,” she stammered, slightly taken aback by this sudden reunion with an old flame. This was awkward.

“We can help you look for them,” Subaru offered but Jazz quickly shook her head.

“Knowing Miho it would be better if not ALL of us went, if you catch my drift.” She made a face and Subaru snorted a laugh.

“Yeah, I get it. Okay. I check the groom’s room and the men’s restroom.” Subaru nodded and Jazz smiled slightly at him. At least he was getting what she wanted from him without her having to actually ask. She would check the women’s restroom and the whole staff area. With a quick smile she apologized to the other men and shot Katsuragi an apologetic look before she rushed off, hoping she wouldn’t find Miho and Goto in a situation that would scar her for life. Again.

After Goto finally had held his speech – still a bit flushed and slightly disheveled – Jazz wanted to yell at Miho and laugh at the same time. She had to admit, it had been funny. At least a bit. And she liked seeing Miho happy and as long as no one else had noticed she didn’t care that her best friend had a quickie with her fiancé at the wedding of his superior.

Jazz sighed. She could use a drink but she was still on the clock. And somewhere in the crowd was a man that had broken her heart once.

Jazz was relieved when the band started playing the song for the first dance of the bridal couple. After a long discussion they had agreed on “The look of love” by Diana Krall. It was a very good song, slow and with wonderful lyrics.

Liana beamed at Ishigami when he led her to the dance floor; they just couldn’t take their eyes off each other. They swayed in each other’s arms, completely enthralled and in their own world.

“Jazz?” She knew who it was before she even raised her gaze.

“Daichi.” She simply acknowledged him with a small nod.

“Can we – talk?”

She took a deep breath.

“I am working, Daichi. I’m sure you know what that means.” She knew she was being childish but she couldn’t help it. He had hurt her back then, had cancelled their dates too often, had left whenever a call came. She had spent too many nights alone although he had promised her he would be there. All for his work.

“Then maybe when you’re finished?” There was hope in his voice but she wanted to shoot him down on the spot.

“No. When I’m finished here I will go home – to my husband.” She directly looked at him. “I wanted to talk after your trip to Moscow. I waited for you for almost eight hours. And when you finally came? What did you say?”

The guilt in his face wrenched her heart but she couldn’t back down now. “What did you say, Daichi?”

“Not now, I’m too tired to talk,” he repeated his words from back then.

“I have waited eight hours in a fucking coffee shop!” she hissed at him. “And instead of calling me and sending me home you kept sending me texts that you would be there soon. Eight fucking hours, Daichi.” With a last glare she turned back around to watch the last few seconds of the dance.

The guests clapped politely and so did Jazz, a strained smile on her face. The band started the next song and Jazz weaved through the forming couples that crowded the dance floor now that the bridal couple had their moment in the spotlight. She knew he was following her but she didn’t care, she was too angry. Still. She was still too angry and that angered her even more. She had thought she was over him, hell, she had thought she was over him when she met Ai some time later. Funny, but without Daichi treating her like a backup plan of sorts she would never have fallen for Ai. Now she could see that, of course, but back then she thought that Ai was really the perfect match for her. Just because he actually called when he promised. She had pretty low standards back then. Pathetic.

Jazz quickly gave some orders to the barkeepers and the waiting staff, rushed off towards the kitchen to check everything there and when she came back to the party 15 minutes later Daichi was nowhere to be seen. Good. She had no time for that now.

Dinner went well and afterwards there was more music, more drinking. The bride and groom left for their honeymoon but the guests stayed and celebrated on without them. Who needed a bridal couple at a wedding anyway?

But Jazz didn’t care, she was happy that the wedding has been a success. That Ishigami and Liana enjoyed this day and would remember it fondly their whole life.

And now was the time she actually considered getting a drink. But of course Subaru had to come between her and her hard earned champagne; he actually asked her for a dance. Reluctantly Jazz agreed, mostly because she loved to dance and Subaru actually looked as if he knew what he was doing.

“So, you and Katsuragi, huh?” he asked after the first few steps.

“Just. Stop. Okay? I really don’t want to talk about it.” It had been a long day, lots of little catastrophes she had to take care of without anyone noticing, plus meeting her former lover – that was just too much.

“Hey, I’m just curious. I mean, he’s my boss and I didn’t even know he was dating someone.” Subaru twirled her once and pulled her back close. He was really a good dancer.

“And that’s part of the problem,” she admitted, so tired of all this that she actually considered resting her forehead against his shoulder. But this was Subaru and she wouldn’t show any weakness in front of him.

“What do you mean?” She could hear the frown more than she could actually see it from her angle.

“Well, we were dating back then, but we – he wasn’t really committed. Only called when it crossed his mind. Always put work first. I know that his job – your job – is important and dangerous, that you have to be dedicated and ready to do whatever is necessary to protect your client. It’s a hard job and not everyone could do it. I understand that.” She exhaled and bit her lip briefly.

“But I am not the kind of woman who is happy on the backseat,” she muttered.

“No? I would have bet you enjoy a backseat every now and then,” Subaru quipped just for Jazz to slap his arm once.

“You know what I mean. I’m not a stopgap, I’m not only second best. And that’s exactly what he made me feel.”

“Huh. Wouldn’t have guessed he’s like that,” Subaru muttered and Jazz shrugged.

“Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be. If he meets the right one I’m sure he would make it work somehow.” But she could still be sad that she hadn’t been the one after all.

“Mind if I cut in?” Katsuragi suddenly ask, standing next to them.

“No,” Subaru answered the same moment Jazz said: “Yes.” There was a brief moment of confusion but in the end Katsuragi gave Subaru a stern look that weighed more than Jazz’s glare. He was Subaru’s boss after all.

“You are looking stunning,” he awkwardly said and took Jazz hand. She only tensed for a split second before she gave in and let him pull her closer, one hand in the small of her back.

“I know.” She couldn’t help being miffed, there was nothing he could say to make things right again.

“You never took my calls.”

“There was nothing left to say after all. I thought I’d save us both the time and the embarrassment.”  She couldn’t look at him. She still remembered how she had rushed out of that stupid coffee shop, how she had gone home and packed the few things he had left at her place and sent them back to him, adding a note with a list of her stuff and the instructions how to send them back to her. She didn’t even want to talk to him again.

“I tried to explain,” he defended his actions but Jazz only snorted once.

“You did, but that didn’t change anything. You stood me up too many times, you ditched me too many times. Just saying there was a problem at work doesn’t change that.”

They had never really fit together, it was mostly a physical attraction. Jazz had to admit, the spark was still there. He really was a hunk after all, tall and with broad shoulders. That had attracted Jazz back then. She had felt safe in his arms.

And now? Her body betrayed her, molded perfectly against his, remembered every touch.

“We have danced to this song before,” he suddenly muttered and Jazz felt like crying.

“I remember.” She really did.


Daichi had taken her out to dinner. It was some kind of celebration, Jazz had successfully finished a very important event and he wanted to spoil her a bit for it. And apologize because he had to cancel the last two or three dates they had planned. But this night they had dressed up a bit and he took her to a wonderful, very intimate restaurant. Champagne, dinner, dancing.

It was a perfect date, a perfect night. Jazz had just the right level of tipsiness to feel both bold and relaxed with him. They were dating for a couple of weeks already and the sex was – unf, it was just incredible. Although he was so strong, with these big hands, and Jazz was rather small he always treated her gently, carefully, until she ordered him to be rougher. Sometimes she was afraid they would break the bed.

But he held her as if she was made of glass when they danced.

They were already kissing and touching on the way back to her place, building the passion and desire, and Jazz just knew this was one of those nights when they wouldn’t even make it back to the bedroom. When the door was closed behind them Daichi pushed her against it, dress hiked up so he could grab her thigh and wrap it around his waist, pinning her against the wooden surface with his body.

“I missed you so much while I was in Singapore,” he muttered and Jazz was already fumbling with the buttons of his shirt. She loved his chest, loved to run her fingers over the firm planes of it, the bit of chest hair and old scars. So manly. So sexy.

“Missed you, too,” she breathed against his skin, moaning when he pushed his hips against hers, letting her feel his state of arousal.

“Dammit, Daichi! Stop talking, get naked already!”

They both knew they wouldn’t even manage to undress completely, just tugging and pushing at clothes until they were bare enough. Lips and fingertips greedily explored every bit of naked skin in reach, Jazz’s hands quickly opened his belt and pants. She pushed one hand under the waistband of his boxer briefs, curled her fingers around his cock, reveling in its hardness and girth. Good thing everything was proportional to his huge build.

When he impatiently pushed two fingers into her core she yelped and tightened her grip only for him to groan and buck his hips. With her free hand she managed to reach into the inside pocket of his jacket and grabbed the condom she knew he had there. He always had one when they met.

She ripped the foil open with her teeth and he only stopped circling her clit with his thumb for long enough so she could get the condom in place before he hoisted her up a bit – showing off his strength, knowing it turned her on like hell – and held her place with one hand under her ass, the other guiding his cock into her.

With a low hiss Jazz welcomed the slight burn, the stretch, urged him on to move with an impatient roll of her hips. Daichi needed a moment to shift, to find foothold before he could grab both her hips and slowly pull back just to slam back into her, making her cry out. Jazz clung to him, arms wrapped around his shoulders, face buried in the crook of his neck, biting down to muffle her moans.

It was rough, it was quick, it was loud and oh so satisfying. Her back hurt, her head spun, she had lost her shoes and was fairly certain that her dress was ripped, but she didn’t care. Jazz loved it when he was like this, demanding, taking, using his height and strength to keep her in place while he fucked her mercilessly. Later there would be cuddles and kisses, he would examine every mark, every little bruise he had caused on her body and kiss them all better, but now all she wanted was this. Raw desire.

He growled against her neck and sucked a mark into her skin and Jazz gasped, grabbed the hair at the back of his head and yanked him back, just enough so she could kiss him. She lightly bit down on his bottom lip and giggled when he hissed but her laughter turned into moans when he slammed into her harder, punishing her for her teasing.

“You’re… a little… minx…” he grunted between thrusts and Jazz only laughed, spurred him on to be even rougher. Her legs around his waist were already trembling, the tension in her body almost too much to take but she just wasn’t quite there yet. So she carefully slid one hand from his back between their bodies, making him groan when he realized what she was doing. It took only a bit of pressure, one, two circles of her fingertips around her clit to send her over the edge, to make her cry out and cling to him, shuddering in his arms. When she came down from her high he kissed her gently, still panting, and with a short start he hoisted her up, holding her whole weight now to carry her over to her bed. This time they undressed properly and he took his time, lots of kisses and touches and whispered words of affection while he made love to her now.

And in the end Jazz fell asleep in his arm, really hoping this could work out.

It didn’t. The next morning Jazz woke up to a note on the pillow next to her, simply saying: “Work emergency.”

Lust and physical attraction simply weren’t enough to build a relationship on it and Jazz had to accept that Daichi would always pick his work over her. She had to put an end to whatever they were having before she fell even further for him. And after that coffee shop disaster it was surprisingly easy.


“You are divorced.” Daichi’s words pulled her from her thoughts. “I asked Subaru about it.”

“I am.” There was no use in denying or hiding the truth.

“You said you were married,” he pointed out.

“Again, I am. I got divorced and now I’m married to someone else. Subaru doesn’t know everything about me.” Jazz started feeling uncomfortable in his arms, a place she used to love. She looked around, feeling a bit guilty that her mind had flashed back to this particular memory.

“I thought you had left the country by now.”

Was that it? The reason he had held back? Had he been hesitating because he knew she would leave eventually? They had never talked about it, but they had never talked much at all.

“As you can see I’m still here.”

“Working as a wedding planner?” He readjusted his grip on her hand a bit, his big hand enveloping hers.

“It’s not that far from event planning and actually I enjoy it very much.” Just not this moment.

“And you’re doing a great job. Ishigami was full of praise.”

It was so much harder not to cry when he was sweet like this. Jazz shouldn’t feel like this, she shouldn’t be sorry for this lost chance when she was happy with Kunihiko. She shouldn’t wonder how things could have been when her life now was so wonderful.

“Mind if I cut in?”

Daichi was a bit puzzled when Miho suddenly stood next to them.

“You want to dance with me?” The crease between his brows showed his confusion and Jazz had to laugh.

“No, I want to dance with her. If you excuse us,” Miho boldly said and grabbed Jazz’s hand, pulled her closer and started to dance.

“Lemme guess, you want to lead?” Jazz asked, somewhere between laughing and crying.

“Shut up, I have to focus here,” Miho snapped back, but Jazz knew that Miho came to rescue her.

“But don’t even think you can drag me off somewhere like Goto. You have to get me a drink first.” Jazz was really grateful for having friends, especially in situations like these. She rested her forehead against Miho’s shoulder and giggled.

“You sound as if you’re already drunk,” Miho grumbled. “So, you’re going to tell me the story about you and that hunk?”

“Later maybe. Now I just want to enjoy this dance.” She earned herself a slap on the ass from Miho but kept giggling.

“Huh. Now that’s quite a sight,” Subaru muttered and grabbed his phone, trying to take a picture of Miho and Jazz on the dance floor. Goto’s simply reached out and took the phone, shook his head and sighed.

“I think we’ve had quiet enough photos, don’t you?”

“Come on, don’t tell me this isn’t hot. Hey, you think they ever…?” Subaru raised an eyebrow and motioned towards the dancing women.

“No.” Goto’s face gave nothing away until the corners of his mouth twitched lightly. He didn’t have to think. He knew.


It was way after midnight when Jazz silently sneaked into the bedroom, tired but over all pretty satisfied with her work that day. She carefully slid under the covers only to feel an arm wrapping around her.

“Hey,” Kunihiko greeted her sleepily.

“Hey. Go back to sleep.” She snuggled closer and sighed in contentment. These were the arms she belonged in.

“How was the wedding?” He nuzzled her neck and a wave of love for him washed over her.

“Chaotic. Hectic. Beautiful. The bridal couple was very happy in the end and that’s all that matters.”

“Good… I knew you would make it a success…” He was already drifting off but Jazz wouldn’t want it any other way. He needed his sleep, after all he had a busy and tiring job, too. And she was more than ready to close her eyes, too.

“Good night. I love you.”

“Love you, too…” he mumbled and was asleep again.

Yes, this was where she belonged. This was home.