5.63: Jealous

Sometimes I really hate this.

It feels like as soon as something great happens to me, something else gets all fucked up to balance it out. It’s like the universe doesn’t want anything to be easy for me, I guess.

Anyway, the good news is that everything’s still going great at the restaurant. Better than great, actually. The past couple weeks have probably been some of the busiest of my entire life, but some of the best too. I’ve been putting in way more than forty hours every week so far… And I’ve seriously been loving every minute of it.

I was so terrified that first day, but Victoria’s really been helping me through it. Dom too. Last night after closing time, we all sat down to go over the numbers, and they’re really good. Better than any of us were expecting. I’m hoping we can keep this momentum going once some of the novelty of being a new restaurant wears off.

I know there’s always a huge risk with that, but I’m not too worried, to be honest. With Victoria helping in the kitchen and Dom helping me keep all our finances straight, I feel like this is really gonna work out for all of us. I knew picking them as my investors was a good idea. I trust them completely. And it’s a really great feeling to be able to say that.

I’ll admit there are still days where it almost feels too good to be true. (Jesus, talk about a lame cliche!). But seriously, it’s like I’m living in a freaking dream or something. One I never wanna wake up from.

So I guess it’s the not-so-amazing stuff that reminds me this isn’t a dream after all.

It’s not even anything major, I guess. But it’s enough that it’s really starting to get to me.

It’s Abigail… And Hope too.

It started back on our opening day. I was way too excited talking about all the good stuff that happened that I never really got around to writing about what happened with the two of them. They both showed up for lunch that day, and they ended up finally meeting each other for the first time.

And it was… weird.

I tried talking to Abigail about it first… And I guess I can kinda see where she’s coming from. She said it was “really weird” meeting my “gorgeous model ex-girlfriend”. I think she was kinda trying to lighten the mood by putting it that way… But maybe it wasn’t much of a joke after all.

It kinda got me thinking about how I felt when Hope was dating those model guys back in San Myshuno. Or how I’d feel if Abigail had some hot ex who suddenly showed up out of the blue.

And the answer is, it would suck, and I’d be jealous as hell. So I guess she is too.

But I tried to make her understand. What Hope and I had… It was great (okay, better than great… but I didn’t tell her that), but it’s over now. We’ve both moved on. And I really feel like what me and Abigail have could turn into something just as good someday. She’s beautiful and smart and funny… I still get butterflies when I see her smile. She’s a really amazing girl, and Hope being back in Windenburg doesn’t mean anything’s gonna change between us now.

I guess Abigail seemed a little skeptical at first… But I know she trusts me. I’m with her now. Not Hope. And she gets that.

There are just moments when I still catch her getting kinda weird about things. 

Like if we run into Hope while we’re out together, or she sees me texting her, or I tell her I’m going to hang out with her. She keeps telling me it’s fine and she doesn’t mind… But I can tell by the way she looks at me that it’s bugging her. And I just wish she’d stop being so nervous about it.

And I wish Hope would stop too.

I keep trying to ask her about how she acted when she met Abigail, and the best I can get out of her is that she was “just surprised”, because I hadn’t mentioned I was dating anybody.

But I really had a hard time buying it. I mean, first off, why should I have to tell her what I’m doing or who I’m seeing? She’s not my Mutter or anything.

And I know it goes  way deeper than just being ‘surprised’. She gets really weird too. Any time I mention Abigail or when she sees the two of us together… She gets all stiff and gives us these looks.

I really couldn’t understand what the hell her problem was, until today.

Charlie brought Dahlia over to the apartment for a visit, and we ended up talking about it. Ben’s away on a business trip in Frankfurt for a few days, so she decided to bring the munchkin to come see everybody… Well, everybody who’s still here in Windenburg these days. Which isn’t many of us anymore, to be honest.

The Rosebrooks are still here, at least. Opa, Oma, Tante Joce, Onkel Auggy, me… Even Onkel Stefan ended up back in Windenburg eventually. Opa always says his grandpa Alex is to blame for that. Ever since I was a little kid, he’s been making the same speech again and again. “Grandpa always said he came here to build a legacy, and we’re it. There’s no Windenburg without the Rosebrooks anymore.”

But sometimes I wonder whether it’s the other way around.

Anyway, the point is, enough of us are sticking around that Charlie still likes to come back and visit when she can. Like this afternoon.

She’d spent the morning catching up with Tante Joce, then she came over here for some lunch. And while Dahlia was playing with some of my old action figures, I tried talking to Charlie about this thing with Hope.

And she laughed at me. She actually laughed!

And, okay, yeah, I can kinda see why she made fun of me. I know it should have been obvious. It’s the only thing that makes sense, right? But I guess I didn’t really think it was possible.

Could Hope seriously be jealous? Of Abigail?

She didn’t seem to have any problem when she was dating that dickhead David. Or that loser Sean she told me about. So she’s allowed to move on and I’m not?

I know, I know. I shouldn’t be mad at her. She can’t help how she feels. But… God, this just makes everything so much more complicated! It’s bad enough with Abigail being jealous. But now Hope too?

Ugh. See what I mean?

Nothing’s ever easy.

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Interlude: Grand Opening

Zayne closed his eyes.

For a moment, all the sounds around him seemed to fade away. The crackling of the stoves’ flames, the clanging of pots and pans, the chatter among the kitchen workers… All of it was gone. He took a slow, deep breath and willed the frantic pounding in his heart to subside.

But it didn’t.

“Earth to Zayne…” Victoria’s familiar voice broke through the silence, calling Zayne abruptly back from his moment of near-peace. “Dude, are you okay?”

“Y-yeah.” He stammered nervously, opening his eyes. Victoria stood at the stove beside him, stirring a pot of noodles. “Sorry. I’m just… Having a moment.” He admitted with a small laugh.

Zayne had foolishly assumed that opening day would be a piece of cake. After all, he’d done this all before, hadn’t he? But last time was so different. He didn’t own 80% of the business that time. He wasn’t the sole person in charge of the entire restaurant. The entire fate of the business wasn’t resting on his shoulders.

It was like he’d been pedaling down the street with a set of training wheels last time.  It was fun and exciting, but safe.

Today, the training wheels were off and he was coasting downhill. At top speed. Without a helmet.

He swallowed nervously. Christ, calm down! You can do this.

“Relax.” Victoria seemed to echo his thoughts. “You’ve got this. We’ve been doing great so far, haven’t we?” She reached over as she spoke, adjusting the heat on one of the burners.

Zayne nodded. She was right. They had been doing great… For the two hours they’d been open. They wouldn’t close until 10 that night. Eight more hours. Zayne tried his best not to think of all the things that could go wrong between now and then, but it was hard not to. This was his baby. His dream. And he couldn’t mess it up.

“Look, why don’t you let me take the reigns in here for a while?” Victoria continued. “And you can go check on the dining room and patio until you’re done with your ‘moment’.” She suggested kindly. “The customers would probably like to meet the owner anyway. Good for business, right?”

“Yeah… If you don’t mind, sure.” He replied, grateful. “Thanks, Victoria. I just need a breather, I guess.” Zayne had been going nearly non-stop since very early that morning, getting everything ready for their grand opening. He hadn’t sat down or even left the kitchen in hours.

“No worries, I get it.” She smiled at him. “Aw, shit…” Her attention quickly turned back to the pot she’d been stirring, which now appeared to be boiling a bit too aggressively.

Zayne quickly slipped away, eager to go see how his customers were doing.

“Welcome to LuzLicht.” He smiled warmly at an older couple he found seated on the patio. “I’m the owner, Zayne Rosebrook. Are you enjoying your meals this afternoon?”

“Oh, most definitely!” The woman beamed as she spoke. “This is delicious.”

The man, whom Zayne assumed was her husband, nodded in agreement. His mouth appeared to be too full of food to form a proper reply.

Zayne gave the man a kind nod of acknowledgement. “I’m so glad. If you need anything, please let one of our servers know. Enjoy the rest of your afternoon.”

“You too!”

“Excuse me.” A familiar voice called from over his shoulder. “Did you say you’re the owner? I’d like to file a complaint, please.”

His lips curled into a smile as he turned around. “Of course, miss.” Zayne’s voice was teasing. “What seems to be the problem?”

“This food is much too delicious. I can’t stop eating it.” She seemed to be struggling to keep a straight face. “I can’t afford to get fat in my line of work, you know.”

“My apologies. In that case, I suggest trying out the Corner Kitchen. I hear it’s run by some asshole named Greg who doesn’t know shit about decent food.”

Hope burst into hysterics, finally dropping the act. Zayne smiled as he took a seat across from her.

“I’m glad you could make it.” He said seriously.

“Of course! You think I’d miss your opening day?” She smiled. “The only reason I couldn’t be there last time was that big shoot for Elle in Champs Les Sims.”

Zayne shrugged. “Wouldn’t have been worth it anyway…”

“True.” Hope paused to take another bite from her plate. “This place is so much better… And I’m not just saying that.” Her tone was suddenly serious. “This is the type of place you always talked about. This is your dream. I’m so happy for you!”

“Thanks! I really feel good about this. It really feels like it’s mine this time, y’know?”

Hope nodded. “I do. And I seriously love everything about this place. It’s just what you always wanted. Modern mixed with traditional, right?”

He nodded. “Exactly.”

“It’s so perfect. Especially the name… It’s for your parents, isn’t it?”

“Yeah… I went with the whole ‘light’ thing.” He explained. “And ‘Luz’ kinda sounds like their names too… It all worked out really well.”

“I love it! I think they would too.” She replied seriously. “And I saw your aunt and grandfather leaving while I was walking in. They didn’t notice me, and I kinda overheard them talking about you.” Hope smiled. “They’re so proud of you, Zayne. It was really sweet.”

He felt a sudden warmth in his cheeks, but not an entirely unpleasant one. He opened his mouth to speak once more, but before he could reply, he heard musical voice calling out to him.

“There he is, the man himself!”

Zayne smiled as he rose to his feet and turned to face her. “Hey, stranger. I didn’t think you were gonna make it.”  He leaned down to give Abigail a soft kiss on her cheek, drawing a soft giggle from her lips.

“My boss is still being a jerk about time off.” She confessed. “But I’m on my lunch break, so… What better place to grab a bite to eat?”

“Are you gonna have enough time?” He asked.

“Um… I will if the owner can pull a few strings for me?” Abigail teased. The way she smiled sent a flurry of butterflies through Zayne’s stomach.

“For you? Of course.” He gave her a little wink.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could have sworn he caught a glimpse of Hope rolling her eyes. Zayne glanced down at her. The smile had completely vanished from her face. What the hell?  He did his best to hide his confusion.

“Oh, um… I should probably introduce you guys, huh?” Zayne continued, suddenly nervous.  “Abigail, this is Hope. Hope, Abigail.”

He noticed Abigail’s smile flicker for just a moment. “Nice to meet you.” Zayne did not miss the slight discomfort in her voice.

“Yeah. You too.” Hope’s smile seemed so forced.

Abigail’s, though hesitant, at least felt somewhat genuine. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Oh, really?” The other woman replied stiffly. Her eyes flicked toward Zayne for a moment. “I wish I could say the same.”

What is her problem?! “So… Wanna find a seat, Abigail? And I’ll go whip something up for you?” He suggested. “What would you like?”

“Hm… You can surprise me.” She smiled sweetly at him as she spoke.

“Great!”

Zayne watched as she headed back downstairs to find a table.

He turned back toward Hope as soon as Abigail was out of earshot. “Are you okay?” He asked, half concerned, half annoyed. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I’m fine.” She shrugged, taking another bite of her food. For some reason, Hope seemed unable to meet his gaze. “It was great to see you, Zayne.” The cheerfulness in her voice did not seem to match her expression. “But I should let you get back to work.”

“Uh, okay.” He replied helplessly. “See you later, I guess.”

“Later.”

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5.62: Complete

Yesterday was Tante Joce’s birthday… And Papa’s too.

Every year, I can’t help but feel really bad for her. I mean, birthdays have always been pretty tough for all of us… But I don’t think anyone has it worse than my Tante. It’s been more than twenty-five years since we lost Mama and Papa… But every year, it’s the same. She’s so miserable. I mean, she tries to hide it, but you can tell how hard it is for her. And I can’t really blame her, can I?

It makes me think of the triplets. Alex and Tony are so far away now, but they’re still just as close with Charlie as ever. They’ve been best friends since the day they were born. And it makes me feel sick thinking of what it’d be like if something terrible happened to one of them. How could the others go on? How could they handle growing old without their Schwester?

Anyway, I always try my best to make sure Tante Joce has a great birthday. It’s been extra hard the past few years since Alex and Tony left… But Charlie and I do our best.

And we still do a midnight movie, just like Papa and Tante Joce used to when they were kids. Once I was old enough, Grandpa started letting me stay up to watch with them. I’ve never been big on horror movies, to be honest. Especially those old cheesy ones Tante Joce and Papa and Grandpa love so much. They’re just… so stupid.

Grandpa says Mama never really liked them either, so I guess I take after her like that. But she still used to watch them with Grandpa when she was a kid, and with Papa too. And she never complained about it. So I don’t either. And I guess I secretly kind of love doing it every year, even if the movies are total shit. Maybe that’s why Mama put up with it too… It’s kinda nice doing something special on Papa’s birthday. Especially doing it with Grandpa and Tante Joce.

Grandpa ended up sitting out this time though. He likes to joke that he’s too old for staying up late anymore. “When you’re my age, you go back to having a bedtime!” He’d been falling asleep halfway through the movie for the past couple years anyway… And I love him, but he snores like a freight train! I’m not sure how Tante Joce puts up with it.

I was a little bummed Grandpa wasn’t there, but it was actually kinda cool having it just be me and Tante Joce. We don’t really spend a lot of time together where it’s just the two of us, and she definitely took advantage of it last night. We barely even paid attention to the movie… We were too busy talking.

First we went over some of my plans for the grand opening next weekend, which was pretty fun. Tante Joce has always been one of my number one cheerleaders, I guess. She’s always been on my side, no matter what. And I really love her for that. Of course, it can still be kinda tempting to roll my eyes at her when she starts going into one of her little speeches about how proud she is… But last night, it actually felt really nice to hear.

Of course, as soon as she broke out of ‘proud parent’ mode, she immediately dived into ‘nosy parent’ mode. I guess that deserved a little bit of an eyeroll… All her grilling about Abigail was kind of annoying. But kinda sweet too, in a way. I think she can tell how well the two of us have been hitting it off.

Last night was our fifth date. I took her bowling at the new alley that opened up downtown, and we had a great time. Abigail’s a really nice girl, and so adorable too. She loves hearing me talk about my restaurant. She tells funny stories, and she’s so damn smart. It’s amazing.

I’ve been having so much fun hanging out with her, but it’s still nothing serious right now. We messed around a little after our date last night, but we still haven’t even had sex yet. And we haven’t really ‘defined’ whatever this thing is either. I feel like I’ve gotta kinda ease myself into it, y’know? Especially now that Hope’s back in town.

Yeah, Tante Joce talked about her too. And, just like she guessed, I’ll admit that it’s a little… complicated.

But I can honestly say that I’m in a way better place since last year. I’m not wallowing about it anymore. I’m not spending every meeting with Dr. Hall obsessing about her. I can go on a date with another girl without feeling like I’m ‘betraying’ her or something. And now that she’s back in town, I can spend the afternoon alone with her without us ending up in bed together.

I’ll admit it though — Having her back… It’s amazing.  No matter what happened between us or how hard is to let go of those old feelings, the point is, she’s still my best friend. And now we don’t have thousands of kilometers separating us anymore.

I really don’t think her timing could have been any better. Everything really feels complete now that she’s here, y’know?

I have my family. I have my friends. I have Abigail. I have Hope.

And next week, I’ll have my restaurant too.

————————————–

I totally neglected to thank ra3rei for Abigail (If you read Rae’s stories, she might make an appearance in the future… Can’t say more than that haha). So a huge shoutout to her! Also, Jes2G gets a big thanks for the lovely Victoria Pruett too! (I forget if I ever credited her! Victoria was submitted way back when for my casting call)

And while I’m in the mood for giving thanks to the creators of the three lovely ladies in Zayne’s life right now… Another enormous thanks to ThePlumbob for our beautiful Hope!

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5.61: Happier

I think today’s been one of the best days I’ve had in a long time… But so damn tiring too! It’s barely dinnertime and I’m already dead-tired. But I guess if I’m gonna be exhausted, there are way worse reasons to be, huh?

It started out this morning at the restaurant. They finally finished installing all the appliances in our kitchen, and Victoria and I were like two kids in a candy store testing everything out. It was all so beautiful, at first we were both too afraid to risk dirtying anything. But once we got started trying it, we couldn’t stop!

I really went all-out with our appliances. Everything’s top of the line stuff — even better than what Greg and I stocked the old kitchen with. I’m totally dying for the chance to finally break it all in for real.

I still remember how excited I was before opening day the last time I did all this. It felt like all my hard work was finally gonna pay off… But I didn’t realize until way too late that all that work was wasted. I mean, I put so much of myself toward something that wasn’t really mine. And it sucked.

But this time, I’m doing things right. This is my vision. My DREAM. And three weeks from tomorrow, it’s finally happening.

As of today, construction’s officially finished. Plus we already have all our permits in order, all our deliveries are scheduled for the next couple months, and we start training our new staff on Monday. We’re so freaking close. It’s kinda killing me… But in the best way possible.

I guess a part of me is still scared shitless… But mostly, I just can’t wait. And days like today are when it starts hitting me that everything’s finally coming together. When I turned thirty last year, I kept telling myself this was gonna be like a new chapter in my life or something. And maybe I was right. Guess we’ll have to wait and see.

And I’m not the only one starting a new chapter either.

After Victoria and I finished up at the restaurant, I headed downtown to help Hope unpack some of her stuff — all her boxes from San Myshuno finally arrived this morning. Nothing big, just little knick-knacks and pictures and stuff like that. But she had so much of it.

We had a lot of fun though. I made us some lunch, and we spent the afternoon hanging out and laughing together while we unpacked. It was pretty awesome, actually.

I know it wasn’t easy for her to move back after all this time, but I think this is gonna be really good for her. She’d been telling me for months about the trouble she was having with finding jobs back in San Myshuno… She was having a really rough time. And part of me had almost wanted to suggest she move back here when I first heard about it, to be honest. But I didn’t want it to be weird, y’know?

I’m just happy she was able to figure it out herself. I really missed her.

Anyway, I should probably wrap this up so I can shower and get ready. I’m picking Abigail up at seven for a movie… I know I complained about how tired I am, but we had SO much fun the other night (well, you know that already from how I went on and on about it, huh?) that I decided to call her up and ask her out again tonight… Kinda last minute, I guess. But luckily she was free!

Honestly this is the first time in months that I’ve been the one to suggest a second date. And we usually don’t make it past the second or third anyway — Most of the girls I’ve been seeing are just so fake, y’know? But Abigail really seems different. She’s so sweet and funny and down-to-earth… Cute as hell too.

Obviously it’s hard to tell much after only one date, but we’ve really been having a lot of fun together, and I can’t wait to see her again.

See what I mean? Today’s seriously been the best. I guess I can’t really tell if it’s the restaurant, or Hope, or Abigail… Maybe all three? Whatever it is, it’s amazing.

And it’s made me happier than I’ve felt in a really long time.

—————————————————————–

Today is Father’s Day, but instead of making a sappy little Father’s Day card like last year, I instead thought we should all raise a glass to Zayne, for being the most sexually-responsible Rosebrook so far 😛 (Though I know some of you are growing impatient and wishing he was a little LESS responsible 😉 )

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Interlude: Milestone

“Okay, make a wish!”

Hope leaned forward, her face softly illuminated by the candles’ orange glow. She had no idea what to wish for…. Every year, she drew a blank when the time came to blow out the candles. Wishing wasn’t something you were meant to do under pressure anyway, was it? She’d certainly never thought so.

Her mind had gone completely blank, so in the end, she wished for the same thing she always did — Happiness.

She lifted a forkful of cake to her lips. It was so dry and flavorless. Even the frosting tasted like cardboard… Or worse. Hope suppressed a wince as she swallowed. If there was one thing she missed on her past three birthdays, it was the special cake Zayne always made for her every year, with strawberry filling and buttercream frosting… The thought of it made her feel strangely sad.

Am I seriously getting emotional over cake? She shook her head at her own foolishness. But part of her wondered whether it was truly the cake she was missing.

“So, what’d you wish for?” Carmen’s voice called her back to the present.

The party had been her idea, despite Hope’s protests.“It’ll be a fun night with friends… why not?” She’d argued. Hope was reluctant to call Carmen a ‘friend’, let alone any of the other models who now filled the balcony of her apartment. It wasn’t exactly the ideal way to spend her 30th birthday… But it also beat spending it alone, didn’t it?

“Yeah!” One of the other models agreed. “What was your wish?”

Hope forced a smile. “If I tell you, it won’t come true, right?”

“Oh, you’re no fun!” Another of the party guests laughed. Hope wasn’t even sure of her name, but they’d done a shoot together once. “Fine… We’ll guess then.” She smirked.

“I bet I know what her wish was.” Carmen replied playfully. “To finally book a job other than a department store ad.”

“Right? Or actually do a cover shoot again!”

“Ha! Yeah, or go back to being San Martín’s favorite little pet…”

Hope narrowed her eyes at the other models. Seriously?!

“Wow. Cute.” Her voice dripped with sarcasm. “What the hell is your problem?!” She asked the room at large.

“Oh, come on… We’re just messing around, babe.” Sean smiled. “Lighten up!”

Hope felt her face grow hot. He’d been so quick to ask her out after she’d broken up with David a few weeks ago, but she’d only gone on a handful of dates with Sean. They weren’t even official yet… Who the hell did he think he was he was calling her ‘babe’ and lecturing her about ‘lightening up’?!

Before she could say anything, the other party guests had begun chiming in.

“It is pretty scary to be turning thirty though, isn’t it?” One of them asked, her tone more serious than before. “Especially with things already going downhill…”

Carmen nodded. “My agent’s always telling me every model has an expiration date… So I definitely know what I’d be wishing for in your shoes.”

“Honestly, when I turn thirty, I’ll probably like, die or something.” One of the youngest partygoers cried. “I mean like, it basically means your career is over, right?”

Hope rose to her feet. She’d had enough. “That’s it.” Her voice was practically a hiss. “The party’s over.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

Sean shook his head. “Jeez, can’t you take a joke?”

“Please, just go.” Hope narrowed her eyes at the others. “You too, Sean.”

“But –”

Goodbye.

Hope dropped down on to the bench and held her face in her hands for a few moments, grateful to be alone at last. Worst birthday ever… What the hell was I thinking?! She’d known from the get-go that the party would turn out to be a mistake…. So why had she agreed to it?

There used to be a time where she’d have fun at get-togethers like this. When she was away from home and missing Zayne and needed to take her mind off things. Or after their breakup, when she needed a distraction for the very same reason.

But things had been feeling different lately. Those other models were so young and perky and bitchy. Was that what she’d been like when she was their age?

No, Hope decided. She wasn’t. But maybe she’d had a little more patience. It used to be so much easier to put up with their shit…

Still, there was something that felt different this time around… Something that went beyond their normal catty behavior. And Hope was fairly certain she knew what it was.

As much as their words had hurt her, they were right, weren’t they? There was a terrible truth behind their cruel jokes. She’d just been too stubborn to let the truth sink in, until now.

How many female models had she ever known to keep going past thirty? Almost none. The oldest fellow model Hope had ever met was thirty-three when she retired… And that was considered old by industry standards.

Jesus… Am I really ‘old’ now?!

She’d already started feeling the shift during the past year or so. No one had booked her for a cover shoot in months, and she had been going a week or more between shoots lately.

What happened to the way things used to be? When designers and photographers were practically fighting over her. When her photos were on billboards and magazine covers around the world…

Hope had gone from being one of the most sought-after models in San Myshuno to fading away into the background, tossed aside in favor of those newer and younger than her. It was just like what had happened when she hit her first major bump of her modeling career, back when she and Zayne had first gotten together. But unlike back then, she knew there would be no bouncing back from it this time.

She still remembered how excited she’d felt for Zayne when he’d celebrated his thirtieth birthday last summer. It was already over half a year ago now… Where had the time gone? Everything had changed so much since then, it seemed. He really seemed so happy now  — even happier than he had been last year, when he decided to move on from Greg and start over. And now, his new restaurant was already set to open in less than two months.

Being thirty seemed to be treating Zayne pretty amazingly so far. It was a huge milestone for most people… But for models, it was a dreaded one. And Hope hated that.

Your thirtieth birthday was supposed to be exciting, wasn’t it? A turning point in your life. The start of a new chapter. That’s what it had been for Zayne. And that’s what it would be for her too. She could feel it.

But what kind of story would this new chapter tell? A comedy? A tragedy?

Hope rose to her feet and walked to the edge of the balcony, her eyes drinking in the thousands of twinkling lights that glittered in the city below.

Despite everything, it didn’t feel right to just give up and retire. Not yet, at least. Hope loved modeling too much to say goodbye to it right now. But it suddenly hit her that something needed to change. She needed to let things slow down naturally, let her career run its course, and start thinking about the future.

And something told her that future didn’t lie in San Myshuno.

I don’t really belong here anymore… Do I? Hope couldn’t shake the strange feeling of déjà vu that washed over her at the thought. This was not the first time in her life that she’d found herself faced with this same conclusion… And it was a conclusion that led her to the exact same question as last time.

If she wasn’t meant to be here in San Myshuno, then where did she belong?

It was strange just how easily the answer came to her.

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Interlude: Right Track

Zayne glanced up at the clock on the wall for what felt like the hundredth time. He tried to ignore the uncomfortable sweatiness of his palms and nervous racing of his heart as he waited. God, I haven’t done this in a long time… He thought to himself. I can’t screw this up.

One of the servers came to check on him, but he waved her off gently. “She’s still on her way.” He explained. “I’ll order when she gets here.”

If she gets here… Zayne added mentally. What if she stood him up?

No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than a familiar figure appeared near the entrance of the cafe. He thought that the sight of her would help to calm his nerves, but her presence seemed to have the opposite effect. His heart continued to race, and he felt his throat go dry. Here we go…

Zayne took a moment or two to appreciate the view as the woman drew closer. The years had been very kind to her — she was even more stunning now than she had been when they first met all those years ago. Damn…

“Hey, Victoria.” He smiled warmly at her. “It’s great to see you.”

“You too!”

He hesitated for a moment. How should he greet her? A handshake? A wave? Nothing? Why does this have to be so hard? He’d hoped the fact that he and Victoria had something of a history — albeit an embarrassing and cringe-worthy one — would make this easier. But, if anything, it just made things even more nerve-wracking.

In the end, he settled on a quick hug.

“Sorry I’m late… Traffic was a nightmare.” Victoria explained as she pulled away from him and took a seat at the table.

“It’s fine. I wasn’t waiting long.” He lied. “Have you ever been here before?”

Victoria shook her head. “I don’t usually get down to this side of the city very much… But I’ve heard some pretty great things.”

“Trust me, they’ve got the best coffee you’ve ever had in your life.”

For the briefest moment, his mind traveled back to a time when he’d told Hope the very same thing, but he quickly chased the thought away.

The waitress returned to take their orders, then left Zayne and Victoria to fall back into their slightly forced small-talk. It was strange — Zayne had known Victoria for nearly half his life now, and yet he felt he knew so little about her. After their humiliating breakup, the two of them had fallen out of touch with each other for a few years. However, their similar career paths in the culinary world had eventually brought the two of them into similar social circles, and they began talking more and more as the years went by.

But before today, their only interaction had taken the form of ‘liking’ or commenting on Facebook posts, or exchanging pleasantries when their paths crossed in person.

This was different.

Very different.

While he was busy finishing the last of his cannoli, Victoria’s voice finally brought him back to the present.

“Alright, Zayne, this has been really fun and all…” She sighed. “But do you mind telling me what this whole thing is about? If I didn’t know any better, I’d almost think this was supposed to be a date or something.”

A bright burst of laughter escaped Zayne’s lips at her suggestion.

It was true that he’d been trying to open himself up to dating again, ever since Hope had changed her relationship status on Facebook a few weeks ago. Despite how hard he’d worked to move on over the past several months, the thought of her with someone else still broke his heart. He couldn’t help it. And he’d hoped that finally finding someone of his own would help him cope…

But that wasn’t what today was about. Not by a longshot.

“Oh, no… Definitely not.” He shook his head with a slight chuckle, then realized how terrible that must have sounded. “N-no offense or anything! Like I said in my message, I have a proposition for you.” Zayne continued nervously. “A, uh, business one, obviously…” Smooth, Zayne. Jesus. Don’t fuck this up!

She raised an eyebrow at him. “Business proposition, huh?” Her lips curled into a smile. “I’m listening.”

Zayne took a deep breath and began stumbling over the speech he’d prepared.

And, as promised, Victoria listened.

“So… what do you think?” He asked when he’d finished his explanation. “Ten percent investment in exchange for ten percent of the profits… Plus a salary for your work in the kitchen… if… if you want that part, I mean. It’s up to you.” God, I was NOT cut out to be a business man. He almost laughed.

Victoria did not immediately reply. “Hmm… Ten percent sounds like a pretty sweet deal.” She admitted at last. “And so does this kitchen gig… But how much of a say would I get in how we run things?”

Zayne smiled at her question. After what he’d gone through with Denise and Greg, he understood her concern all too well. “I’ll always let you have a say in all our decisions. And I’ll definitely listen to any ideas you might have too.” He promised her. “At the end of the day, I’ll have the final decision.” He admitted. “But I know I can’t do this thing completely on my own… And I don’t need some stuck-up, white collar business guy bossing me around like last time. I need to work with someone who feels at home in the kitchen like I do. Someone who knows about food and cooking… But who loves it too. Someone who really gets it, y’know? That’s what’s going to make this thing work this time around. And that’s why I came to you.”

Victoria’s drive and passion for the culinary arts had always inspired him. In fact, that was a big part of what had drawn Zayne to her in the first place, back when he was still too afraid of a gas stove to even make a grilled cheese.

He filled her in on a few more of his plans — the suppliers he’d been in touch with, the architect he had working on the building design, some of his menu ideas… To his delight, Victoria seemed more and more interested with each word he spoke, and asked a lot of thoughtful and intelligent questions. Maybe this will work out after all…

“Alright.” Victoria said at last as she finished her third cup of coffee. “Consider my interest piqued.” She smiled slightly. “I’m gonna talk this over with my sister, but I’ll be in touch… probably with a ton more questions.” She admitted.

Zayne laughed softly. “Ask away, anytime.” He smiled. “And uh, thanks for coming to talk to me today. I appreciate it.”

“And thank you for the generous offer.” She replied sincerely. “You’ve definitely given me a lot to think about.”

Before he could say anything in reply, Zayne was interrupted by a sudden vibrating in his pocket. He pulled out his phone, glancing down at the screen curiously.

His eyes flicked upward toward the time. Shit. “Sorry… I’ve really gotta run.” Zayne rose to his feet as he spoke, grateful that he’d already paid their bill a few minutes ago. “But thanks again. We’ll be in touch?”

Victoria nodded. “Definitely.”

Zayne gave her one last nod, then headed for the door. Who the hell forgets their own birthday?! He wondered as he stepped out into the bright afternoon sun.

He was supposed to be at his aunt and grandparents’ house in less than an hour for dinner and cake (both of which, despite their protests, he still insisted on making himself), but he’d completely forgotten until he’d seen Hope’s message. He had a feeling that when he finally got around to checking Facebook that evening, a mass of messages from friends and acquaintances would be waiting for him.

He allowed his mind to wander during the long drive to the outskirts of the city, still marveling at how he’d managed to completely forget the date. Things had just been so busy lately… Between meeting with the architect and contractors, contacting suppliers, and fleshing out the menu, preparations for the new restaurant had been consuming Zayne’s every waking moment, it seemed. And any time he wasn’t spending on the restaurant had been taken up by trying to get himself back in the dating scene… Something Dom and Remi had taken great pleasure in trying to help him with.

Zayne was grateful that wasn’t something he had to worry about that evening. A little family get-together for his birthday, he could handle. But another date with some airhead Dom set him up with? Yeah, no thanks.

As he headed up the steps of his grandparents’ home, Zayne finally felt the fact that he was now thirty years old beginning to sink-in. He could still recall a time when “thirty” sounded so old. But now that he was actually here… Well, he did feel very different than he had back in his twenties. But that was through his own conscious effort. Years of trying to better himself, and finally let go of all the things that had once held him back.

It had been more than six months now since he’d parted ways with Greg. And just as long since he and Hope had decided to stop waiting for each other too. There were still moments where he found himself doubting both decisions, but his meeting with Victoria had helped him feel more confident that he was on the right track. After all he’d gone through, everything was finally coming together for him… For real this time. He could feel it.

His twenties had been such a rollercoaster ride… But with how well everything had been going for him lately, turning thirty finally felt like a chance for a fresh start. A better start. A new beginning.

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Interlude: In the Moment (Part Two)

We get some lovely Zayne-tushy in this one. Fair warning 😛

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Zayne’s eyes slowly fluttered open, staring up at the cracked white ceiling above his head. He lay there in silence for several long moments, fighting through the dense fog that seemed to cloud his mind. Last night still felt like such a blur — it was hard to figure out what parts had been real, and what was a dream.

At last, he slowly pulled himself upright, swinging his legs over the side of the bed with a heavy sigh. Behind him, he heard the soft rustling of someone adjusting the covers and shifting in their sleep. In that moment, Zayne became keenly aware of three things.

First, his head was pounding terribly.

Second, he was completely naked.

And third, for the first time in over a year, he had woken up beside the most beautiful woman in the entire world.

He stood there for a few moments, watching the gentle rise and fall of Hope’s breaths as she slept. Memories from the night before seemed to come rushing back to him as he watched her — every sound, every smell, every taste…

Zayne shook himself mentally, fighting back his arousal as he headed toward the bathroom. Not now, he told himself. Right now, what he needed to do was think.

But not about what he wanted to.

The heat from the shower helped to relax his muscles and soothe his hangover headache a bit… But did little to help clear the muddled and uncertain thoughts that seemed to clutter his brain.

Last night had given him so much to think about… He almost didn’t even know where to begin. It was overwhelming.

When Zayne finally emerged from the bathroom to get dressed, he found Hope still fast asleep. A small, smug part of himself wanted to think he was the sole reason for her exhaustion… But the more likely answer was that it was the lingering effects of her jetlag and busy schedule catching up with her.

Zayne still remembered when she’d sleep half the day away after she returned from one of her trips abroad. He’d let her sleep as long as she needed to, then surprise her with one of her favorite meals when she awoke. Hope never ceased to amaze him with how hard she worked… And now, with the way her career had been going, she was working even harder than ever before.

She’s incredible.

As he headed out to the kitchen to start breakfast, Zayne glanced over by the couch, where their piles of clothes still lay on the floor from the night before. They didn’t even make it to the bedroom… Not the first time, anyway. The moment Hope pressed her lips against his, something had taken over. It was electric. And it had felt so perfect, so right

Shit. We’ve gotta talk about this.

As though on cue, the sound of the opening bedroom door reached his ears. Hope stepped out with a soft smile on her face, looking as beautiful as ever — even wearing nothing but one of his old t-shirts. The sight sent a strange mixture of desire and sadness rushing through him.

“Hey.” She spoke at last, her smile widening a bit.

“Hey.” Zayne shut off the stove as he spoke, though he hadn’t even finished one batch of french toast. Breakfast could wait. “Sorry… I probably should have brought you your clothes.”

“It’s fine… It was kinda fun digging through your closet to find something to wear.” She teased, taking a seat at the counter. “I remember this shirt… I got it for you for Christmas, right?”

He nodded, laughing softly to himself. “Yup… Even though I’d never played Overwatch in my life.”

Hope’s bright, beautiful laughter quickly joined his. “In my defense, you play so many damn games that it’s hard to keep track… But I tried.”

“I know.” Zayne replied seriously as he took a seat beside her. “And that’s why I loved it anyway… And didn’t have the heart to tell you.” He added with a small smile. “It was pretty hysterical when Dom finally spilled the beans though. The look on your face was priceless!”

“I know… You reminded me about it for weeks!” She paused for a moment as her smile slowly vanished from her face. “God, I miss those days.” Hope admitted, her voice very small.

“Me too.”

She hesitated before speaking again. “Well… Maybe it’s not too late to get them back again? I mean, after last night…”

Zayne sighed softly. “I know. We’ve… we’ve really gotta talk about that.”

Hope nodded. “Yeah, we do.”

Neither of them said a word for a long time after that. Zayne was still struggling to find where to begin. Why does this have to be so HARD?

Thankfully, it was Hope who ended up breaking the silence at last. “I know we both had a little too much to drink last night… So maybe we weren’t completely thinking things through.” She shrugged. “But I don’t think it was a mistake. I think we really needed that.”

“We did.” He agreed. “I don’t regret it either, I just…” It seemed impossible to find the right words. “I dunno.”

“Look, I need to be honest with you. I wanted to move on after I left, but the truth is, I couldn’t…” Hope admitted. “I still love you, Zayne.” Despite everything, he felt his heart skip a beat at her words. “I never stopped. And you didn’t either, did you?”

He shook his head. “Never.”

“And you said it yourself last night… You’ve changed. And so have I.” Her lips curled into a slight smile. “We’re both in a better place than we used to be. And, well…” Hope paused for a moment. “Maybe we should try again?”

Zayne took a deep breath. He’d been agonizing about what to do ever since he’d woken up that morning… But everything seemed so clear now. And her question was so much easier to answer than he’d thought it would be.

“No, we shouldn’t.” He said at last. “We can’t.”

As he’d feared, her face fell instantly at his words. “B-but why not?” Hope seemed to be struggling to find her voice. “Last night…”

“Was amazing.” Zayne finished for her. “It really was. But we can’t just jump back into this… One night of hot sex isn’t enough to fix everything, no matter how much we want it to. That was part of our problem in the first place, remember?”

“I do…” Hope replied softly.

“I’d love to be with you again. More than anything… ” Zayne’s voice was pained. “But I just don’t think we can do this right now.”

“Okay, you’re right. We shouldn’t just jump back in and expect everything to go back to the way it used to be…” She agreed. “But why can’t we try taking it slow?”

“With you back in San Myshuno?” He shook his head. “We tried that whole long distance thing before… And it sucked ass.” The corner of his mouth twitched into a smile.

“Okay, it did.” For a moment, Hope almost laughed. “And… I guess moving wouldn’t be a great idea for either one of us right now.” She admitted. “Unless you’re looking to open that new restaurant in San Myshuno?” It was impossible to tell whether or not she was joking.

“Tempting.” Zayne was only half-joking himself. “But… Here in Windenburg is where it’s gonna happen for me. I can feel it.” He paused. “And I’d never stand a chance starting a business in the big city anyway… You know how cutthroat things can be out there.”

This time, Hope actually let out a small laugh. “True. It’s pretty brutal, I guess.”

“And honestly, I feel like I’ve still got a lot of work to do on myself before I’m ready to be with anybody… Especially you. I don’t think I’m ‘there’ yet, y’know? If we got back together, I’d want to do things right this time. I don’t want to make the same mistakes and end up hurting you again.”

He paused, waiting for Hope to reply. But she didn’t, so he continued. “We’d have a lot of shit to figure out if we really wanted to try to make this work again. Mostly me.” He admitted. “But we’d need to be able to work together and give one hundred percent, know what I mean?”

At last, she nodded. “And I guess neither one of us would be able to do that… Not right now, at least. We’ve got too much other shit going going on…” Hope shook her head slowly. “I guess maybe this really isn’t a good idea, huh?”

“Exactly.”

“Well… shit.”

The sound of their laughter quickly filled the air and echoed around the tiny apartment. The past twelve hours had been such a rollercoaster of emotion for both of them… And yet somehow, they’d ended up exactly back where they’d begun. What else could they do now but laugh?

As painful as it had been, Zayne knew they were making the right decision. He’d been so sure he wanted to get back together with Hope — and part of him still did. But not now, he’d realized. And not like this. They simply weren’t ready to be together again, no matter how much they wanted it. Especially not him. And as long as he kept clinging to the past, he never would be.

It was strange how suddenly the realization had hit him… Hope had him trapped in a strange sort of paradox — If Zayne ever wanted to be with her again someday, he needed to learn to let her go first.

At last, their laughter slowly died away and the air between them was tense and still once more. But not for long.

“Just so we’re clear,” Zayne began uncertainly, “I really don’t regret last night. And I still love you… I think I always will.” He shrugged slightly. “And someday, if it is the right time, I’m all for giving this thing another chance. Actually… I’d really, really love for that to happen.”

“Me too.” Hope agreed. “And maybe it will… Remember what happened the first time we met, back when we were kids? The timing wasn’t right then either… And look at where we ended up.” She smiled warmly at him. “The universe brought us back together for a while. Maybe it’ll do it again.”

“Maybe.” Zayne returned her smile. “But… in case it doesn’t… I think we need to stop waiting for each other. ” His smile faltered slightly for a moment. It was so hard to say it, but Zayne knew he had to. “All it’s gonna do is hold us back. We shouldn’t be afraid to see other people.”

She sighed softly in resignation. “You’re right. If it’s really meant to be, then it’ll work out someday. And if it’s not…”

“Gotta have a backup plan, right?” Zayne teased, trying to lighten the mood. “Can’t have you turning into a crazy old cat lady.”

“Ugh, cats? Are you kidding?!” Hope giggled, shaking her head. “Maybe a crazy dog lady though…”

“Mmm, or what about guinea pigs? Those are kinda cute, right?”

“So… what does this mean for us?” Hope asked uncertainly after their laughter had died away once more. “Where does this leave us now?”

Zayne shrugged. “I dunno.” He admitted. “But… maybe in a better place than we were before?”

She smiled softly. “I think you’re right.”

————————————–

It feels like I have so many songs for this ship… And here is yet another that I think fits them today ❤

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