George Cooper thinks he's probably as close as it comes to an expert on drunkenness and hangovers. He's been drinking since he was fourteen and a bartender since he was eighteen, and he knows all of the signs and symptoms and things that drunk people experience. If there were a Jeopardy category called "Things Drunk People Do," he would sweep it.
And while some drunk people hallucinate, George himself never has. Especially not the morning after, even if he is hung over enough that he decided an it would be worth going to the coffee shop around the corner and spending five dollars just so he didn't have to figure out the mechanics of his own coffee pot. He still doesn't hallucinate.
Which means there must be another explanation for why his favorite Dancing Dove patron, scrawny little Alan Olau, is behind the counter in a polo shirt and apron, red hair down to his shoulders, earrings in his ears, and definitely breasts on his chest. He's--she? No, he until George hears otherwise--leaning against the counter top talking to a very tall guy with a pony tail, and when George gets a little closer he can hear him saying, "Look, I'm not saying don't date her, just wait until you're not her TA. And maybe until she's nineteen. I know eighteen is legal, but--"
The voice is Alan's, clearly, but not quite as harsh or deep as George knows it. Recognizable but different, like seeing someone's face underwater. George leans on the counter, smiling as amiably as he can, and Alan turns to see him.
To his credit, he doesn't react. Or if he does, George is a little too hungover to catch it. He gives him a pleasant but hollow smile, the kind people master when they work in the service industry, and says, "Good morning, how can I help you?"
"Mornin'," George drawls. He'd try to flirt with Alan like he usually does, but it's too early and too bright and too confusing for that. There's no name tag on his apron, so George can't get any more information there. "Coffee, regular, black, biggest you've got." George manages a wink. "If you've got a bucket back there you can fill up, I'd be much obliged."
Alan is all business, as usual. "So, large black coffee," he says. "Two-nineteen."'
George fishes around in his pocket for his tips from last night and gives him a five. He dumps the change directly in the tip jar and is rewarded with a small, quick scowl from Alan, like he's personally insulted by George's generosity. George never gets tired of riling him up.
"Thanks," he says, touching his forehead like he's tipping a hat. Alan's friend looks incredibly amused; Alan's back to a bland, customer service smile. "Have a great day."
Alan doesn't say anything, and despite how bright it is and how much his head hurts, George smiles the rest of the morning.
"Just have Thom come with you next time," Jon says, not looking away from Smash Brothers. Not that he can afford to; Raoul is kicking his ass. "Thom can introduce you to George, say, hey, here's my sister, Alanna! Ha ha, funny you thinking I was a girl."
"I can't just bring Thom!" Alanna says, glaring at him. "For one thing, Alan would have no idea George saw Alanna at the coffee shop."
"You could just be introducing them so George would stop hitting on you and start hitting on Alanna," says Jon. Link loses his last life, and Jon glances back over his shoulder to grin at her. "Maybe even finally get laid."
"I don't want to get laid. And if I'm going out to meet George with you and Thom, it defeats the whole purpose of me being Alan in the first place! I'm not supposed to be seen in public with you. And pretending Thom is me--Alan--might have worked when I was twelve, but he's got a few inches on me now. Height and shoulders. George would notice."
"You could just tell George," Raoul says mildly. Alanna whips around to glare at him and he raises his hands in self-defense. "Do you think he'd care? He'd probably think it was funny."
"I can't just tell him," Alanna snaps, but it's reflexive.
If she's honest, Alanna mostly doesn't want to explain because it's stupid, and she feels cowardly for taking the easy way out of her conflicts with her father. She should be fighting back, not sneaking around, pretending to be a boy just so she can spend time with her best friend in public.
"Well, I still want to go out tonight," Jon says. "So you can either stay home and stew or come with us and figure out something to tell George."
Alanna thinks about staying home, just because Jon isn't taking this nearly as seriously as she'd like, but she doesn't want George thinking he's scared her off. If he asks, she'll tell him it's none of his business. Or something better, that she'll come up with later.
But he doesn't ask.
"Evenin', darlin'," he says, slow and easy, just like every time he sees her. "What can I do for you?"
She recovers fast, but probably not quite fast enough. George is sharp. "Why do you even ask?" she asks, rolling her eyes. "I always get the same thing."
"I'm hopin' you're gonna be adventurous sometime," he says with a wink. "Maybe try somethin' new. I've got a lotta ideas."
Jon comes over and slings his arm around Alanna; he and the rest of his frat brothers pre-gamed the bar, as usual, so he's already pretty drunk. "'S'alright?" he slurs vaguely.
"S'alright," Alanna agrees with a smile. "That girl's checking you out."
Jon looks over and grins. "Yeah she is! You're the best wingman." He gives George a look, and Alanna wants to throttle him. "You be good," he says firmly.
"I'm always good," says George, giving Alanna a look that makes her blush down to her toes.
"You're a menace," she mutters, and George tweaks her nose.
Three weeks later, George still hasn't said anything. He's been back to the coffee shop twice while Alanna was working, and Buri told her he was in once more while she was in class. He's polite and always tips with his change, which Alanna faithfully brings back and gives him at the Dove. He doesn't show any sign of recognizing her, and he doesn't even flirt that much, just a smile and a wink here or there.
If she didn't know better, she'd honestly say he didn't recognize her, but he's obviously got some other plan.
"Your admirer is back," Numair tells her. It's Thursday, and this makes George's third visit. On the bright side, it's a break from Numair moaning about the very intelligent and very cute freshman in his intro biology class who's flirting with him. There are only so many ways she can say "Just wait until the semester is over."
"He's not my admirer," Alanna hisses back, and gives George her most professional pleasant smile. "Afternoon," she says. "What can I get you?"
"Any of your pastries you recommend in particular?" he asks, leaning against the counter. "Goin' to visit my ma, wanted to bring her somethin' sweet."
The mention of his mother catches her off-guard; they've chatted a good deal while she's been at the Dancing Dove, but never about his family, and she's curious. But she stops herself from asking and says, "Are there any flavors she particularly likes?"
"She likes everything," says George. "What's your favorite?"
"I like the blackberry muffins," Alanna says. "They're seasonal, we only have them in spring and summer."
"Then I'll take two of those," says George. "Thanks for the recommendation."
It's so polite and easy that Alanna wants to hit him. Instead, she asks, "Any coffee?"
"No, just the muffins."
He drops three dollars in the tip jar and takes off, and Numair gives her a pointed look. "He's your admirer," he says. "He admires you greatly. I believe he would like to admire you over dinner and then take you home to admire you further."
"I think I liked it better when you were complaining about your underage crush."
"She is eighteen!" says Numair, loudly enough to draw the attention of the rest of the patrons. He blushes. "I'm not going to come talk to you about this anymore," he huffs.
"I don't know what makes you think that's a threat."
"Why don't you just ask her?" Eleni Cooper asks, taking a bite of her muffin.
"Him," George corrects. "Until he tells me otherwise, I'll stick with him. And it's his business to tell me otherwise."
"And you're going to his place of employment to bother him while he's working until he tells you otherwise?"
"Ma, come on. It's the same coffee shop I went to before I found out he worked there. It's right around the corner!"
"The same coffee shop you never went to because you said if you wanted coffee you'd make it your own self and save the money?" she says pointedly.
"I'm not gonna ask him," says George. He never could lie to his ma very well. "But I know him pretty well. He's gonna lose it soon." He smirks. "He can't stand not knowin' things either."
Eleni shakes her head. "I tried so hard to raise you straight and honest, George Cooper, where did I go wrong?"
George beams at her. "I don't know, Ma, but it must have been real early."
Friday is the last day of class before finals, so Jon convinces Alanna to come over to the frat house and pre-game the Dancing Dove. She and Raoul destroy Gary and Jon in beer pong, and then they celebrate with shots. She's not wasted by the time they get to the bar, but she's drunker than she usually is when she leaves.
"Evenin'," says George, when she staggers into her usual seat after a round of Buck Hunter 3000 with Raoul. "Special occasion?"
"Classes are over," says Alanna. He gives her a glass and she's about to remark that he's finally learned her order until she actually looks at it. "What is this?"
"It's water," says George. "You'll drink it and then you can have your beer."
Alanna scowls at him. "You're a terrible bartender," she says.
"But a very good friend."
Alanna scowls at him for another minute and then she finally cracks."Why aren't you asking?"
"You know what," Alanna says, soft and a little sad. She's not sure why.
George slides his hand under her chin, pulling her up to meet his eyes. "It's yours to tell when you're ready, darlin'. Any time you want to."
"It's nothing good," she says quickly. "Nothing--it's so stupid. It's--" she waves her hand.
George glances around and waves to someone. Solom, the owner, sides into place by the taps, and George comes out from behind the bar. "Come on, Alan," he says, sliding his arm around her. She's going to object, but once she's standing, she's grateful for the support.
"I'm drunk," she says, mildly surprised.
"You don't say," says George dryly. "Come on, I think this is the kinda conversation we're meant to have in private. Wave to Jon and smile, he looks like he's thinkin' about tryin' to stop me touchin' you, and I don't like his odds in this fight."
Alanna glances around and finds Jon. George is right, he's glaring daggers, so she gives him a thumbs up. "Where are you taking me?" she asks George, realizing maybe she shouldn't be telling Jon everything's fine.
"I live upstairs," says George. "Like I said, private."
"You're taking me to your place?" Alanna asks. "I'm not sure that's appropriate."
George snorts. "If I ever take you upstairs for somethin' inappropriate, I'll make sure you're sober enough to enjoy it."
"Oh good," she mutters, flushing all over. "I feel so much better."
George's place is small and neat, not exactly what she'd expect from a bachelor pad over a bar. "Is it okay that you left? Will Solom be able to handle it alone?"
"It's not too busy," George says, sitting her down on the couch and handing her another glass of water. "And I'm not plannin' to be gone all night." He sits down next to her, putting his arm on the back of the couch, not quite around her. "So, you want to talk about it?"
"My name's not Olau," she blurts out. "It's not Alan either, obviously. I'm Alanna. Trebond." His low whistle tells her he gets it, and she smiles wryly. "Yes, that Trebond. My father is--a bastard. You probably know that too."
"Most CEOs these days are," says George evenly.
"Back in high school, he found out I was friends with Jon," Alanna says. She shakes her head. "It's all so stupid. He hates Jon's father. He's a liberal and he's done some legislation. That my dad didn't like. He told me I had to stop spending time with Jon because it reflected on him badly. We fought about it. He probably would have disowned me if my brother Thom hadn't talked me down." She makes a face. "I should have let him disown me. But Thom told me to wait until I was done with school and just--pretend I'd stopped being friends with Jon. So I'd have a degree to support myself."
"You dress up like a boy so your father won't know you're friends with a senator's son?" He doesn't sound judgmental, just like he wants to make sure he has it right.
"I should have told him to go fuck himself," says Alanna. "It's a good thing he never pays any attention to my classes. If he knew he was paying for my history degree he'd be furious."
George takes off her baseball cap and smiles, sliding his hand through her hair. Alanna leans into it. "Why wouldn't he want you studyin' history?" he asks.
"It's not useful," Alanna says, yawning. "He wants me and Thom to take over his company. Thom will do wonderfully. He's double-majoring in business and computer science, he'll take over and make the family even richer. Not that I'll get any of it. I'll certainly have done something to be disowned by then."
"That's my girl." He pauses. "You do prefer bein' a girl?"
"Mostly," she says, leaning against him and closing her eyes. This is why she doesn't get as drunk as Jon and the others. It just makes her sleepy. "I used to pretend to be Thom when we were little sometimes. Father wouldn't let me take karate lessons, so Thom signed up and went to the library and I pretended to be him. Got a brown belt." She feels George's laughter rumbling through his chest, warm and low. It's nice. "You don't mind I'm a girl?"
"I don't mind," George says.
She's going to ask if he likes girls, as pathetic as it feels, but luckily for her dignity, she falls asleep first.
It's been a long time since George slept on a couch, but his ma raised him well enough to not climb into bed with the girl who got drunk, told him about her bastard CEO father, and passed out in his lap. As tempting as it is. He carries her to his bed and leaves water, advil, and a note on the bedside table, in case she wakes up before he gets back, and goes back down to help old Solom.
"Where's Alan?" Jon slurs, fighting his way to the bar.
"Sleepin' it off," says George. "My apartment's upstairs. Left him water and advil, didn't take advantage at all."
Jon glares at him for another few seconds before one of his frat brothers drags him off for something, and George finishes his shift without incident. Alanna's still asleep when he gets back, and he takes a minute to appreciate the sight of her in his bed, in case he never gets to see it again.
Then he grabs a blanket and goes to sleep on the couch.
He wakes up early and realizes there's a reason he stopped sleeping in places other than a bed--he's getting old. "Twenty-six," he mutters, puttering around the kitchen to get coffee going. "Twenty-six and can't even sleep on a couch anymore."
Once it's done he goes back to his little bedroom to check and see if Alanna left and finds her sitting on the bed, sniffing the air. "Is that coffee?" she asks. She looks and sounds pathetic.
George smiles and hands her his mug. "Haven't even had any yet," he assures her. "Drink the water too."
"I know how to take care of myself," she says, prickly as ever. "I've been hungover before."
"Not as much as I have," George says. "You hungry?"
She makes a face, sniffing her shirt. "Do you have a shower?"
So George makes eggs while Alanna showers, and breakfast is ready by the time she comes out wearing one of his t-shirts and a pair of Rispah's shorts she left here sometime. It's a real change from how he usually sees her, ratty baseball cap and baggy fratboy jeans or buttoned up work polo and starched apron. He's uncomfortably aware that it's what she'd look like if she'd really stayed over, and he turns away to swallow past a lump in his throat. "Hope you like scrambled. I'm a bartender, not a chef."
"That's fine. Thank you." It sounds like it's actually painful for her to force the words out. "I guess you took care of me last night."
"I hope you didn't tell me anything you didn't want to," George says.
There's a pause, and when he goes to her with the eggs, she looks like she's thinking hard. "You don't think it's--cowardly?"
"I should just tell my father I don't care. I'll choose my own friends and he can't stop me. I nearly told him we were more than friends, and that would have been the end of it. He would have kicked me out." She shakes her head. "It's ridiculous. As if anyone but him cares who my friends are."
George knows people care--Roald Conte is one of the most famous senators in the country, a successful businessman in his own right and on the short list of potential presidential candidates for the next election. Jon has a reputation as a playboy and is rich and famous enough to occasionally feature in tabloids. And the Trebond Corporation is big and evil and it's well known that Conte would love to shut them down. If certain parts of the press found out, it would probably turn into a Romeo-and-Juliet epic.
He could say that, but all he manages is, "More than friends?"
Alanna looks at him sharply. "Not anymore. Just once, back in high school."
"Ah," says George, relaxing. "Well, darlin', I don't think you're a coward. I think your brother's right. Your father's rich and mean, and you should take as much of his money as you can before you piss him off enough to disown you. And if you want to dress up as a boy to do it, you should."
She smiles a little. "I like going out better as a boy. I can pick fights and know they aren't holding back on me, and no one tries to flirt with me. Except you," she adds, looking at him askance.
"I'd do that if you were a boy or a girl," George says easily, getting up to refill their coffee. "I like both."
"Good to hear it's inescapable," Alanna says, but she's smiling.
George winks. "What can I say? You're just too charming."
George is back at the coffee shop on Monday for Alanna's afternoon shift, leaning on the counter like he owns the place, like nothing's changed.
"I thought I got rid of you," Alanna tells him.
George flashes her a smile. "Come on now. You're never gettin' rid of me."