Notes: Jasmine POV here, because we needed it. Some aftermath, some consequence, some ambiguousness and then next time around we’re back to Ben. Gosh, in some ways this is the most adult thing I’ve ever written, because I’m not diluting the emotion with action scenes, or giving up the quick and delicious HEA I tend to love. Instead there’s impact and rebound and decision and it all takes time. Grr, so much time. This story is going to end up spanning close to a year, at least in the book’s timeline. Wow. Good thing I’m writing something incredibly fun and easy to leaven the mood on this blog. I’m enjoying Love Letters more, though, now that I’m over the dreaded fight scene. Later this week comes Cody!
Title: Love Letters
Part Thirty-Two: Changing the Angle Mid-Swing
To say that Jasmine was surprised to be hearing from Ben was an understatement. One thing his trip to Boston had shown was that Ben wasn’t the type to reach out, especially not for simple social reasons. Jasmine, on the other hand, was that type, but whatever Ryan and Ben had going, it was prickly enough that she didn’t want a random phone call to dislodge anything. So she beat back her occasional impulses to give Ben a ring and focused on her own life.
Jasmine’s life got a lot harder when Ryan left to go back to Concord—mad preparation for deadlines filled her days, and finagling with printers and banks and reviewers all while trying to keep Ryan focused on getting the next part of the story done consumed all her free time. The incident with Joey ruining some of Ben’s canvases was enough to make Jasmine want to pull her own hair out, but fuck it, shit happened. One of her own brothers had accidentally set her senior prom dress on fire half an hour before she was going to be picked up—she hadn’t been wearing it, thankfully, but it wasn’t the kind of thing you could patch up with string and duct tape. That was only one of about a million times that things hadn’t gone as planned, and Jasmine had learned to ride out the waves and make as much use of the calm periods as possible.
She knew enough about Ryan’s family to know that there was no way in Hell, capital H, that she would ever be caught dead at Maydays. It was nice that it was Ryan’s birthday and all, but hanging out with a bunch of waspy southerners who’d probably spend every second snickering up their bespoke sleeves at her? No fucking thank you. It had been a surprise to hear that Ben was going, and Ryan had sounded so happy about it that Jasmine hadn’t had the heart to ask him if he really thought that was the best idea. Ben would fit in with that crowd better than she ever could. He could probably handle it.
Oh yeah, he’d handled that shit all right.
It took five phone calls over twenty four hours to get everything ironed out. The first one had been mostly reaction, and Jasmine would be the first to admit that she was heavily biased to come down on Ryan’s side, so it took her a few minutes after she hung up on Ben to get a handle on herself and look at the situation logically. Then she called him back.
“I’m sorry, I was totally out of line. You’re right. He’s a dick.”
“It’s not that I don’t understand why he’s acting the way he’s acting,” Ben said tiredly. God, Jasmine could hear the fatigue threaded through his voice like a bass line in the kind of somber song that left you wanting to slit your wrists. “But I’m not going to be able to help him any more, not directly. I can’t.”
“No, I get that,” Jasmine said, tugging on her braids. It was a nervous habit her mom had tried to break her of when she was a kid, and mostly had, but it came back under periods of stress. “What can I do?”
“First, you can head to Concord. Ryan’s going to need someone to rely on, and he’ll listen to you. I think you being there is probably the only way you’ll get him to do anything not directly family-related anyway, so…”
“Oh Jesus, of course,” Jasmine sighed, mentally kissing her carefully-organized schedule goodbye. “What else?”
“I’m about to get on a plane, but I’ll call you after I get back home. I’ve got some ideas, but they’ll take a little bit to set up.”
“Are you going to talk to Ryan?”
Ben was silent for a moment. “No,” he said at last, “and I don’t think you should tell him you’re talking to me either. Not yet. At least, please don’t give him any details.”
“What kind of details would I give?”
“I’ll tell you when I call you back,” Ben said cryptically, and hung up.
It turned out that Ben had all sorts of ideas, from connections to a law firm in Winston-Salem to a contact with the head of human resources with the Concord Police Department to see about some of the details of Brody’s mandatory life insurance policy. “I don’t know how much of this they’ve already tried,” Ben told her as Jasmine sucked down coffee at ten o clock the next morning. She’d only slept about two hours, trying to get everything ready for her unexpected road trip. “I know that getting a fresh perspective from an outside lawyer will be new, but that’s about it. Melissa Carter is a very good lawyer, though, and she’s giving me the family rate for this, so I think she’ll really be able to help.”
“I thought you didn’t have any family,” Jasmine said unthinkingly, then cursed herself out in her head as silence reigned for a few seconds.
“She’s a distant cousin,” Ben said at last. “On my father’s side. I actually called him to make sure she was the right one, it’s the first time I’ve talked to him in five years.”
“Yeah. Listen, the only person who needs to know that I’m paying for the lawyer is DeeDee, okay? I don’t want Ryan knowing, I don’t want him feeling indebted, I don’t want anything from him. I’m just happy to be helping Brody’s family, and that’s all. If DeeDee has a real problem with me paying then she can pay me back once they’re out from under her brother-in-law’s control, but that’s it.” He sounded determined.
“Does that mean it’s over between the two of you?” Jasmine asked, kind of dreading the answer but needing to know. She knew a lot about Ryan, about how he threw himself into things with complete abandon, always looking for something to make up for everything that he hadn’t had. She’d always thought she’d done a pretty good job being a surrogate sister, but no one had held Ryan’s attention like Ben since she’d known him.
“It means…that I don’t know, but I do know that we’re not a priority. Getting his life and his family back together should be Ryan’s priority, not thinking about me. And honestly, I really don’t want to talk to him right now, so…” She could practically hear his shrug. Ben sounded so cool, so controlled. If Jasmine hadn’t met him before, and wasn’t as good with people as she was, she would have thought he was entirely unaffected. Instead, she knew that there was a lot of pain in there, and the only way he could deal with it right now was to put up a wall and shut it down. Which, hey, not a perfect picture of a healthy psychological response to stress, but whatever.
“Want me to let you know how things go?” Jasmine asked instead of digging deeper.
All of her preparations led to a twelve hour car trip, including two flat tires (fucking lug nuts and the way they could roll off bridges, she was never doing that again, never) and copious amounts of coffee, and finally Jasmine standing on the front porch of Ryan’s mother’s house, after not being able to get through to him on the phone.
When a kid who looked a lot like him opened the door, looked at her and said, “One,” Jasmine knew who she was dealing with.
“Hi Joey. Is your Uncle Ryan around?”
Joey didn’t say anything, just turned and walked back into the house. A minute later Ryan came to the door, and when he saw her his jaw dropped. “Jasmine…what…”
“I just drove all damn day to get here, don’t I get a hug?” she asked archly, holding out her arms.
Ryan moved into her embrace and Jasmine wrapped him up, sighing when she felt his tension melt against her, so fast that he was barely keeping his feet. He looked ten years older than usual, and like he hadn’t been sleeping if the dark smudges beneath his eyes and the sallow color of his skin were any indication. “Rough couple of days, huh?”
“You could say that,” he muttered into her shoulder. “How…wait, what are you doing here?”
Saving your ass. “Being your backup,” Jasmine said. “Ben called me.”
Ryan pulled back and stared wide-eyed at her. “He called you? You’ve talked to him?”
“Briefly.” Like, only for five hours or so. “He told me about your uncle and said you could use a little support. And since my work is mobile and is mostly you anyway, I thought I’d come down. Problem?”
“No, of course you’re welcome. I meant to call you, but my phone is…you talked to Ben? How is he?”
Oh yeah, that was guilt in Ryan’s voice. “How do you think he is?”
Ryan winced. “Angry?”
“Try shell-shocked, baby.”
“Oh my god.” Ryan covered his face with his hands. “I told him to leave but I didn’t expect him to actually leave the state, he was supposed to be here for one more day and I was going to go talk to him but he’d checked out of the hotel, and now he’s not taking my calls or answering my texts.”
Jasmine was going to say something about that, but her attention was distracted by the willowy blonde walking up behind them. Her eyes were bloodshot and she looked a little unstable on her heels, but her voice was clear enough. “Ryan, who’s this?”
“This is Jasmine Napuna, Cheryl, she’s my publisher and my roommate and my…pretty much everything else,” Ryan said, snapping out of his momentary fugue.
“It’s a pleasure to meet another friend of Ryan’s,” Cheryl said graciously, extending a hand. Her fingers were far too cold, but she seemed sincere. “I’ll go tell DeeDee.”
“Is she out of bed yet?”
Cheryl sighed. “I don’t know. I’ll go check.” She wobbled away and Ryan turned back to Jasmine. “Let’s get your stuff inside.”
Getting this family to do anything out of their brittle routine, Jasmine found out, was an almost Sisyphean task. It didn’t take long to realize that Cheryl was a barely-functioning alcoholic, DeeDee had a wet blanket for a spine and Joey required almost all the attention that Ryan and his sister Molly could give him now that he didn’t have the structure of school to occupy him. Even mentioning lawyers brought tears to DeeDee’s eyes, and it took every bit of charm and conviction Jasmine had to get her to agree to a meeting with the lawyer Ben had recommended. Ryan was an unexpected source of support, maybe in an effort to make up for his earlier failure with Ben, who still wasn’t taking his calls.
Thankfully Melissa Carter, born a DeWitt, was just what they needed. She was friendly but brisk over the phone and just the same in person, and even better, the day she was available to meet was one where Ryan was out of the house with Joey and Molly. She spent several hours secluded with DeeDee in the drawing room—which, this was the first time Jasmine had ever stayed in a house that had a drawing room, what was this, Downton Abbey?—and by the time they emerged, DeeDee looked a million times more hopeful and Melissa had an armful of financial papers and was ready to get a subpoena for the rest.
“I’m so grateful, you’ve no idea,” DeeDee said as she showed Melissa to the door. “Do you really think you’ll be able to straighten things out with the annuity? Only Bill has so many friends…”
Melissa Carter’s lips pursed into a tight line. “Bill Kuzniar’s law firm has been investigated twice in the past year for fraud, and it’s only the good old boy’s network that’s keeping him alive. I know how to handle bullies with powerful friends, Mrs. Kuzniar.”
“Thank you so much.”
“It’s my job,” Melissa replied. “I’ll have more information for you tomorrow.”
After she left, DeeDee turned to Jasmine. “Would you mind helping me in the kitchen for a bit, honey?”
“Only if you’ll let me do some of the cooking,” Jasmine said with a smile.
“Oh, certainly. There’s some chicken in the fridge, make whatever you want.”
It was a big, beautiful kitchen, the kind Jasmine had always wanted in her heart of hearts. She had memorized the layout of the drawers her first day here, and she and DeeDee worked in silence for a while, Jasmine boiling the chicken in preparation of making it kelaguen-style, and DeeDee getting started on collard greens and black eyed peas before she started to speak.
“Mrs. Carter told me that her services are being paid for by someone else. That’s not you, is it honey?”
“No,” Jasmine said firmly. No matter how much she would have wanted to or been willing, she didn’t have that kind of money, not even in credit.
DeeDee sighed. “Then it must be Ben. I asked Mrs. Carter and she got cagey. I’m afraid myself and my family made a terrible impression on that poor young man.”
“I think that’s true,” Jasmine agreed. She’d decided early on not to pull her punches, and even though she wasn’t trying to be cruel, she didn’t blink when DeeDee looked down at the ground ashamedly. Jasmine could see where Ryan had learned some of his more submissive mannerisms. What the fuck must his father have been like in person?
“It wasn’t Ryan’s fault things went so badly, it’s mine,” DeeDee confessed. “It’s my mess, and he just got sucked into it. I…I haven’t been very good to my family lately.”
“Your family has had it rough, I get that.” Oh, she’d been there. “But you can’t just dwell on the rough parts, because that’s how you get stuck.” It felt awkward as hell, standing here cooking in a gorgeous kitchen with Ryan’s mother, offering up advice like Jasmine had a handle on all the tricky parts of life. Ha. Still, someone had to offer a little guidance, and it couldn’t be Ben.
“Mmhmm,” DeeDee murmured quietly, stirring the peas. “You know, Cheryl and I have an appointment with the insurance company tomorrow,” she offered after a moment.
“I know.” Jasmine had unashamedly listened in while Ryan made the appointment. A lot had happened in the past few days. Ryan had even had some time to paint, which was good because his panels needed to be done in five days to keep to the schedule.
“If Mrs. Carter can do what she thinks she’ll be able to with the annuity, then we might be able to get a caregiver for Joey too, for half days at least. So Ryan can have some time off.”
“Good.” He needed it.
There was clearly more she wanted to say, but DeeDee hadn’t quite worked up to it and Jasmine wasn’t going to prod her into it. She was here to keep things moving smoothly, not help people having epiphanies or come-to-Jesus moments or whatever they needed to get on with their lives. They spent the rest of the afternoon cooking a ridiculously large meal—at least Jasmine and DeeDee had that in common—and talking about little nothings, and that was fine.
It was a week before Ryan was finally able to get through to Ben, and Jasmine wasn’t around for that conversation. She’d been teaching Molly how to make Chamorro Latiya, one of her favorite desserts, when Ryan walked into the kitchen looking—well, devastated was the best Jasmine could come up with. She knew it wasn’t because of anything happening here, since Cheryl was set to go into rehab next week thanks to some financial wizardry with a life insurance policy that no one had remembered, and Melissa Carter had fucking Uncle Bill on the ropes and was moving in for the knockout. He had left a long, vituperative message on the home answering machine which Cheryl had replayed for her with glee. So it wasn’t what was happening here…it was personal, then. It had to be Ben.
“Go ahead and put that in the fridge, Molly, and I’ll come back and help clean up in a few minutes, okay?” Molly nodded and Jasmine headed over to Ryan and pulled him out onto the back lawn. It was beautiful out there, bright sunlight filtering through the tall birch trees as it slowly set. The grass was cool on her toes, and Jasmine sat down on the ground and tugged Ryan down next to her. He sat slowly, almost crumpling, like a puppet being discarded once the show was over.
“Bad news?” she asked softly.
Ryan shrugged, still staring down at the phone clutched in his hand. “I guess…we’re taking a break. That’s what Ben said, but I don’t think that’s what he really meant.” He sighed and looked over at her. “At least he picked up the phone this time. He actually apologized to me for not answering earlier, he said he just…couldn’t.” Ryan shook his head.
“Honest,” Ryan corrected. “I actually…you know, it makes me feel sick, physically ill, that I actually fucked up so badly Ben couldn’t bear to talk to me for a week. What kind of person does that make me?”
“The kind that makes mistakes,” Jasmine said, as comfortingly as she could. “You’re not perfect, for sure. Your situation has been pretty bad, though.”
“Yeah.” Ryan gazed off into the distance, his eyes unfocused. “I wish I could blame it all on that. It would feel a lot better if I could say Ben was the judgmental one and had fucked me over just as much as I have him, but that’s just not true. This is on me.”
Jasmine hadn’t been prepared for quite that much honesty. She’d actually thought that comforting Ryan would entail hugging and soothing, not sitting and talking about things like rational adults. “Did you tell him that?”
“Yeah, I did. And he thanked me for apologizing. Then he said goodbye.”
They sat quietly for a while, Ryan watching the lengthening shadows on the lawn and Jasmine watching Ryan. “What are you going to do next?” she finally asked, a little unnerved by the silence. Ryan wasn’t the type to let stillness linger.
“I’m not sure. Stay here, make sure things are okay for Mom and Cheryl and the kids. Get the paintings finished. Although,” he turned to look at her, “I have to change the last one.”
“Ryan, no,” Jasmine groaned. “There’s no time for a new scene, we’re due to get these to the printer in three days!”
Ryan shrugged. “I’ll work through the night if I have to. I’ve got to change it. The story’s not the same anymore.”
“Honey, you’ve gotta dissociate yourself from your main character some,” she argued. “Her arc doesn’t have to follow yours, that’s not how writing works!”
Ryan sat up straight and looked her right in the eyes. “It’s how this story works,” he said seriously. “It always has been, and you know it. Everyone does. I can’t write this one way when I’m feeling another, not Janie. If I don’t feel this one, I can’t write it.”
“So, what then?” Jasmine demanded. “You’re going to have her get all the way to the Phantom only to have him say, ‘Get lost’? Because that’s not gonna fly for your fans, Ryan, and like it or not your do have to consider them and not just yourself in this.”
“I know. And no, I’m not going to do that. I’ve got another ending in mind. It’s a little ambiguous, but that’s life.”
Jasmine felt the mental lightning bolt of a sudden insight. “Ryan…is this…are you making this into an apology? Because I don’t know if Ben will appreciate that.”
“He doesn’t have to appreciate it. He doesn’t even have to accept it. I just have to make it,” Ryan replied. He seemed perfectly calm, determined. Jasmine felt a little lost. Where was the playful guy, the sweet, slightly hapless one that she just wanted to wrap up and protect? Holy crap, and when had she become his mother? Although from the looks of things, Ryan and his mom had never had that sort of relationship. Maybe that was why he’d clung so hard to her when she’d offered to be his support system. Enabler, her mind taunted her. Jasmine shifted uncomfortably.
“What is it that gets to you about him so much?” she asked. “Really. He’s not the guy you read about, Ryan. That guy was your brother’s friend, not your boyfriend. Shit, you guys barely had time to be boyfriends!”
“I know,” Ryan agreed. “And it’s…look, you think I’ve got him on a pedestal. I know he does too. And that might be where I started at, but it’s not where I am now. When he was here, when we were fighting, I told him he wasn’t Brody. And he isn’t. But I think that should be a good thing.” He tilted his head up at the sky. “Maybe a break is a good idea. I’ll need to figure this out before I talk to Ben again. I want him to know I’m sincere.”
“Actions speak louder than words.” Jasmine felt stupid right after she said it; couldn’t she do better than stupid clichés at a moment like this? But Ryan was nodding.
“Exactly. Which is why we have to start with the story.” He stood up and brushed off his jeans, then held a hand out to her. He was wearing a t-shirt today, and seeing the colorful curve of the serpent on his arm was reassuring, like Ryan was coming back out of the dark shell he was hiding in when she got here. She took his hand and let him help her up.
“Let me show you what I have in mind.”