Jazz Firebrand's Last Dance--Part 2
A story in two parts
They were in their first year of high school when Yuki met Kei. Kei's father was some minor TV talk show celebrity that Masahiro had barely heard of, but Kei walked around as if he was doing everyone a favor with every breath he took. Masahiro hated him on sight.
When they first bumped into him, Masahiro and Yuki were discussing ways Jazz could get out of her latest predicament. They were both convinced that Jazz would live to fight another day.
One time, just before she'd passed out after drinking most of a bottle of whisky, Yuki had told Masahiro that she shared the same dream as Jazz: to find out what happened to her mother and father. Masahiro could understand her motives but he secretly doubted she would ever know the truth. It was all too long ago.
Her aunt once told him that Yuki's mother died when Yuki was a baby and that her father had lost his job, driven to the forest and hanged himself from a tree.
"But don't you tell her any of that," she'd said. "Hope is a gift. Don't you take it away."
Masahiro didn't know why Yuki's aunt told him. It made him uncomfortable and he often toyed with telling Yuki just in case that was what her aunt had intended, but it wasn't really his story to tell, so he didn't. Still, why couldn't Yuki just let the past go and move on with life? Why did she always have to be searching for something?
As they collided in the hall, Kei and Yuki shared a look that Masahiro recognized. It was the look he longed to share with her himself, a look that said, "I know who you are and I know that you get me, too." Even after Kei was gone off down the hall, Masahiro somehow knew that what had passed between the two was still there, twisting, tapering and stretching out between them.
"I've got to go," Masahiro said after he recognized the look. He walked off before Yuki could say anything back to him. Part of him knew that she was never going to look at him the way she'd just looked at Kei. He despised that part of himself more than anything in the world.
Masahiro suspects he knows what happened to Yuki all those years before. Deep down he's pretty sure that he's to blame. He's seen a subtle change come over Jazz Firebrand since Yuki disappeared. There is a saucy arch to Jazz's brow that he is sure was not there previously, and at times Jazz seems to get away from him, rebelling against the direction both he and his pen intended to take her, acting in ways he recalls fondly when thinking of Yuki. This is his biggest secret--that Yuki really did disappear, that she's stuck forever in the pages of Jazz Firebrand Za Spectacular, because that's what he wanted. His pen always follows his heart, and somewhere inside he knows that what he really wants is Yuki. This is his secret. It is also his life's mission. Because as far as he knows, it may be only him and his pen that stands between Jazz and the countless agents of evil who would like nothing more than to see her dead. Only he stands between Yuki and oblivion.
Yuki found him on his way back from the library. He was thinking about Jazz Firebrand and her latest adventure, so when Yuki tapped him on the shoulder he almost called out in fright.
Yuki looked different. Since she'd been going out with Kei, she and Masahiro had barely seen each other. He didn't like what she was becoming. There was a paleness to her, a translucence. She’d faded around the edges like a wilting cherry blossom. For an instant before he blinked, Masahiro thought he could see right through her.
Yuki still wore her school uniform but it was only barely recognizable as having anything to do with education. She'd turned it into a uniform of a different sort. Her blouse was untucked, the top two buttons undone, revealing cleavage. She'd cut her skirt so high that Masahiro found himself holding his breath every time she bent over. She was rude to everyone now, just the way Kei was, affecting the same attitude, ignoring her friends. Even so, Masahiro was happy to see her. He only wished she could once again be the way she was before.
This time there was something else in her expression. Her eyes were puffy and black. Masahiro's heart seemed to freeze mid-beat. She looked lost.
"I need to talk," she said.
They walked together to a local shrine where they used to play as kids, and sat down on some worn, stone steps. Masahiro ran his hand across the timber railing. Its paint was scarred and chipped, but it was no less solid for all its age. The air was heavy with the scent of cedar and when the wind blew, it brought with it the smell of damp earth. Cars drove by the shrine, taking the corner slowly. The road was narrow and cars were parked all along one side of it. Masahiro watched the vehicles making way for each other as he waited for Yuki to speak.
"Kei has asked me to go away with him," Yuki said after a while.
Away? Masahiro felt his throat tighten in terror. He couldn't imagine living without knowing Yuki was close by. "Where?"
She shook her head. "It's not like that."
Yuki didn't reply. They sat there a long time in silence. When Masahiro got tired of waiting he said, "I don't want you to go. I'd miss you."
Yuki blinked and looked up at him, and he realized she'd been crying. She said nothing, watching him.
He shook his head. "You've been spending so much time with Kei. I thought you didn't want to see me."
She put her face in her hands. He could hear her weeping. He reached out an uncertain hand and put it on her back between her shoulder blades. She felt cool to the touch, but soft, the way she was supposed to feel.
He mustered his courage. "Wherever he wants you to go, tell him you can't. Besides, if you went, who would I read the next issue of Jazz Firebrand Za Spectacular with?"
Yuki sniffed. "Okay. I'll tell him," she said, but he heard the taint of resignation in her voice, as if she knew that no matter what she said to him, her path was preordained.
Two weeks later Kei was dead. He’d sealed himself in his brother’s car along with some lit BBQ briquettes. They said he’d left a note about Yuki, that he’d loved her, but if that was true, why would he ever leave?
Masahiro crumpled the pages he’d drawn. He hadn’t quite gotten Kei’s face right, but it hadn’t seemed to matter.
They were squatting on a narrow stretch of concrete outside a Lotteria burger shop watching people streaming from the exit of the railway station. The crowd was mixed. High school boys with their shirts untucked, soccer bags slung from their shoulders, and office ladies, designer bags swinging daintily from their elbows, walked side by side with high school girls and salarymen. A pungent odor like rotten eggs intermittently wafted through the breezeway from a manhole. Yuki played with her hair, occasionally snapping open an old flip-style mobile phone to check her mail.
"I found my mother," she said.
Masahiro nearly choked on his mango smoothie. "What?" Yuki's mother was dead, wasn't she? Yuki's eyes held a hint of engagement--of life--that Masahiro had not seen there for a long time.
"She sent a letter to my aunt," Yuki said. "Turns out she knew where I was all along. She married again to some guy who races cars for a living at Suzuka Circuit."
Masahiro didn't quite know what to say. He opted to play with his shoelaces instead. After a long moment of silence Yuki said, "I went to see her."
Masahiro swallowed and he was almost certain Yuki would have heard the sound of it despite the calls of the part-time workers handing out recycled, eco-friendly shopping bags and the dull groaning of buses pulling into the nearby bus stop. "What did she say?"
"She told me everything. About my father and what happened. She said she was too young to look after a child alone. So she left me with my aunt. Said she was proud of me." Yuki laughed, a caw-like sound that raised the hair on the back of Masahiro's neck.
"What will you do now?"
Yuki pursed her lips and looked up at the awning over their heads. "No idea," she said. "She doesn't want to see me again. Said her new man wouldn't like it."
After a while Masahiro said, "I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault." Yuki flipped her phone closed and rose to her feet.
Afternoon sunlight filters through a stained-glass window from high in the nave. Jazz Firebrand is surrounded by a circle of guards, keeping her attention firmly on the strangely familiar woman. Dust orbits the face of the woman like a halo.
"I knew you couldn't stay away," the woman says to Jazz. Her eyes flick towards the neat rows of weaponry. "You always were a stubborn girl."
Domingo Parco frowns and makes a noise deep in his throat. "Kill her already." He turns to Kim Sejong and Dao Lon, "I'm sorry gentlemen. This interruption is over."
"Quiet, Parco," the woman says. "My daughter and I are talking. You'll have plenty of time for you and your friends to play when we're done."
Jazz tenses, eyes widening as she hears the woman's words. Her mother?
Parco smirks. "Very amusing." He pulls a pistol from his belt and gestures toward the woman, "Take her down."
None of the goons move.
The woman laughs, shaking her head. "That's quite enough from you." The woman's pistol barks twice and Parco falls to the floor groaning, blood leaking from the punctures in his chest. The woman turns to Kim Sejong and Dao Lon. "I'll be right with you. I have some family business to take care of." She smiles. "I'm sure you understand." Her pistol bobs in the air, punctuating her words.
"What is this?" says Dao Lon. "Some attempt to push up the price?" He sneers. "To steal the merchandise?" Tendons stick out at the base of his neck like the buttress roots of a strangling jungle tree.
...a single bead of sweat falls onto the page, narrowly avoiding blurring Masahiro's artwork. Masahiro mops at his forehead with the back of his hand. He'd just finished drawing the next frame, a pulled-back view from a corner of the nave's ceiling showing all the figures on the ground. Jazz Firebrand is ringed on all sides by drawn pistols. Blood pools beneath Parco's prone corpse.
Masahiro knows who the woman is supposed to be. She's the real villain of this story--the Tarantula--the true brains behind the arms smuggling ring and the person Jazz Firebrand is supposed to finally take into custody. But nothing in his plans called for her to be Jazz's mother. His hands shake and he barely avoids dropping his can of vending machine coffee. This was all wrong, but he could still fix it. Jazz could still prevail. She'd made it out of much worse situations. He takes another sip of his drink and a few deep breaths, thinking it through. Jazz, who now looks incredibly similar to Yuki, would somehow fight her way free and arrest the Tarantula, leaving her trussed up for the authorities. The buyers would escape, leaving the way open for a sequel. Masahiro begins to draw once more.
Now to get Yuki out of this without her getting hurt...
Jazz Firebrand senses the moment is right. She thinks quickly. "That's right," she says to Dao Lon. "You're dealing with us now." She laughs. "There are too many players. Thinning out the competition," she jerks her head towards Parco's body, "is just good sense. If you don't like it, perhaps we can thin out the buyers as well."
The woman claps her hands in excitement. "So you really are a Firebrand. I wasn't sure. Here's the deal: you work for me and do what I tell you. I let you live. I've been watching your career. You and I could make a great team."
Jazz smiles, but the smile doesn't quite make it to her eyes. "Is that the deal you gave my father when you married him?"
"I gave him what he deserved. Was it my fault he had no backbone and took the easy way out?"
"Go to hell."
The woman's grip tightens on her pistol.
...Masahiro gasps. Jazz wasn't supposed to be talking about her father. Masahiro knows to the core of his being what the next page will hold. There is a terrible feeling of inevitability to it, as if his pencil was no longer his to control. The scene would show the Tarantula ordering Jazz's death, pistols discharging and Jazz falling to the ground beside Parco.
Determined not to give in, he erases the offending words from the text box, tries to make Jazz's face less severe and starts over...
Jazz smiles. Her lips curve upward like the mouth of a model in a toothpaste advertisement. Still surrounded by aimed pistols, the expression comes across as incongruous and disingenuous. "Sure, that sounds great. And I'll go home with you as well, since I make it a habit to go home with every middle-aged hag that hits on me. You're no mother of mine."
"Jazz, darling. This is meant to be a family reunion. And that is no way to speak to family."
"Go to hell."
...Masahiro erases the text again and some of the images as well. Jazz was not herself and things were escalating way out of control. But he couldn't leave her mid-scene, surrounded by all those guns. He decides to give it one more try...
Jazz smiles, a cold smirk. "How about you take this for an answer?" She spins, the pistol being held on her from behind so close that it presses against her cheek for an instant, mid-turn. A shot rings out, so near that she nearly blacks out from the sheer, ear-bursting volume of it. She drops the goon with the pistol, snapping his neck on his way to the ground, then stands straight once more, hands by her sides. "You lost the right to call yourself family long ago," she says to the woman. "You may as well have killed my father, the way you treated him. You never wanted me; wanted me gone. Why not finish what you started?"
The woman raises her pistol, arm not trembling, even a fraction. Her lips are pursed and bone-white.
...Masahiro knows now for sure. Jazz is no longer his to control. Maybe she never was. He lets his tears stain the page and finishes the rest of the frames.
...a close-up on Jazz Firebrand's open, unseeing eye. The reflection of a woman holding a pistol, still aiming toward Jazz, shone through Jazz's thick lashes. Masahiro sobs. He picks up the eraser, then stops, feeling stretched and empty like a punctured balloon.
This is the conclusion of the story (Part 2). If you have read Part 1, I hope you enjoyed the story. If you have not read part 1 it can be found at the following link: https://steemit.com/fiction/@thinknzombie/jazz-firebrand-s-last-dance-updated-part-1
I posted an early proto-version of this story episodically a few months ago, but this is a new and much improved version after having passed through the cleansing fire of the PALnet MSP Fiction Workshop on Discord. While the framework is the same, I hope you'll agree that this is now a very different, much improved version of what I'd originally come up, with all thanks to the talent of our workshop crew. All errors are my own.