"What do you think?" asks Alanna, twirling around to show off her outfit.
"Don't twirl," says Jon.
"I'm not going to actually twirl," Alanna says irritably. She's got her hair pinned up and covered with one of Jon's ratty baseball caps, her chest is bound, and she's wearing a football jersey and baggy jeans. "Any other critiques?"
"Nope," says Jon. "You look like a tiny little douchebag,"
"Almost done," says Gary. "I'm an artist, okay?"
Hanging out with Jon hadn't really been an issue in her freshman and sophomore year; there were enough girls coming to the frat house than another one didn't leave much of an impression. But his first night on the town after turning twenty-one made all the papers, and he likes going out.
So she's doing an experiment, because she promised Thom she'd try not to get disowned.
"There," says Gary, handing over the fake ID. Alan Olau. Twenty-one, organ donor. It looks good.
"I think we've got this," says Jon. "Ready to take her for a spin?"
"Him," Alanna corrects. "Let's get used to him."
The Dancing Dove is a small, kind of dive-y bar a few blocks from Jon's frat. It's not the most popular place for college students, but Jon's going through this phase where he's pretentious about beer, and he feels they have the best selection. Alanna feels that she's 5'4", all of the frat brothers have at least five inches and thirty pounds on her, and too much booze makes her sleepy, so she's planning to nurse a few beers and hang out.
"Welcome back," says the bartender, when she, Jon, and Raoul sit down. He's a tall guy with brown hair and a big nose, but when he smiles at her, Alanna can't help smiling back. "And welcome for the first time. Goin' to need an ID from you, already got theirs." Alanna fishes out her wallet and hands over Alan's ID. The bartender looks at it for a long time, checking the hologram in the light, and finally hands it back with a smile. "Alright then. What can I get you gentlemen?"
Alanna relaxes slightly. "Whatever he's having," she says, in her boy voice, jerking her head toward Jon.
Jon grins. "I might go mad with power," he remarks. "What's your grossest shot?"
The bartender raises his eyebrows and looks at Alanna. "You can change your order, darlin'," he tells her. She bristles, but he doesn't wink or anything, doesn't seem to know she's a girl. He just seems--friendly.
"Bring it," she says, and the bartender laughs.
"You're the boss."
"You're doing what?" Thom asks flatly.
"It seemed like a good idea at the time," Alanna says. "It still doesn't seem like a bad one. Jon always goes out in this big crowd of frat guys. One more barely registers."
"Aren't you a little more overtly feminine these days?"
"Not that much more," Alanna says. "Baggy t-shirt hides hips, and we got a binder on Amazon. Not that I have that much to bind. And Gary's really good at fake IDs." She hands it over and Thom inspects it.
He hands it back with an incredulous smile. "Really?" he asks. "This is what you want to do?"
"I don't know if I'd go that far," she hedges. "But it's kind of fun. No one hit on me. Except maybe the bartender. But Jon said he's like that with everyone. And you're the one who made me promise not to do anything to piss off Father."
Thom shakes his head. "I don't understand you."
"I know," says Alanna. "I'd never make it to level ninety in World of Warcraft with my attitude."
Thom snorts. "Yes, exactly."
Alanna gets in her first fight two weeks after Alan starts going to the Dancing Dove. There's some guy who doesn't understand that the cute blonde he's hitting on isn't into it. Alanna isn't trying to pick a fight, just distract him long enough to let the girl escape, but apparently doing that is enough to start a fight in these parts.
She wins, but she ends up with a pretty impressive black eye. That'll be awkward to explain on Alanna. Jon and the rest of the frat are busy with a darts tournament and oblivious, so it ends up being the beak-nosed bartender who helps her out.
"That was pretty impressive," he says, handing over some ice wrapped up in a wet cloth. "I was thinkin' you looked a little out-matched."
She scowls reflexively. "So did he. That's why I win fights."
"Underestimated?" the bartender asks. "I'd never make that mistake. You're goin' to have quite the shiner."
She's a little surprised he remembered. "Yeah."
"Looks like you'll be comin' in a lot, so we might as well get introduced." He offers his hand. "George Cooper."
She shakes. "Alan Olau. Nice to meet you."
"Sorry I couldn't come help with that," he adds, jerking his head toward where the fight took place. "Try to kick guys like that out, but I was busy on the other side of the bar. Thanks for takin' care of it."
Alanna's a little taken aback. "Thanks," she says awkwardly. "I'll tag you in next time."
George grins, and it really does--well, he's usually perfectly good looking, she guesses. But he's got such a great smile.
"Your boyfriend misses you," says Jon, knocking on her doorframe before coming in. He's got a brown paper bag, which is weird.
"I know all the words in that sentence," Alanna says slowly, "but they're not coming together. Might be the fever."
"George Cooper at the Dancing Dove."
"Oh, of course. The boyfriend I didn't know I had."
Jon shrugs. "As far as I know, he never asks after me when I'm gone. I told him you had the flu night before last, and last night he had soup for me to give you."
Alanna frowns. "He gave you soup? For me?"
"He likes you," Jon says. He cocks his head at her, like he's looking for something he's missing. "I had no idea you'd made such a strong impression."
"Honestly, I didn't either," Alanna says. She always sits at the bar instead of at tables with the rest of the frat, because only some of them know who she is, and she doesn't want them looking at her too closely. She and George chat when he's not busy with other customers, but not about anything important. She knows he's a few years older than she is, in his mid twenties, that he's an incurable flirt, and that he's quick and funny.
Jon is watching her, and she scowls to get whatever other expression was on her face off it. "We're sort of friends, I guess," she says.
"Sort of friends," Jon repeats.
"Yes. Sort of friends. Give me the soup."
"You came back to me!" George says, delighted, when she slides into her regular seat at the Dove next week. "Feelin' better? Did Jon give you the soup? Told him he'd best not keep it for himself, the greedy bastard."
"He gave it to me," says Alanna. "It was really good."
His smile shifts into something softer and warmer. "I'm glad you're back," he says. "Wasn't the same last week. No one scowled at me once. I felt positively popular."
Alanna tries not to blush, but she's not sure she succeeds. George is--well, he's very charming, and funny, and he has the best smile she's ever seen. Even better than Jon's, and Jon is actually famous for being attractive.
And he thinks she's a boy.
"Thanks for the soup," she says. "It was kind of creepy, but nice. I guess."
George laughs long and hard. "That's the nicest thin' you've ever said to me," he tells her, clearly delighted. "Now, what can I get you, darlin'?"
The thing is, George Cooper is a flirt. He flirts pretty indiscriminately. She thinks he likes girls too, although she can't quite be sure. She really only sees him with the frat guys regularly. He seems to flirt with her the most of any of the rest of them, but he also sees her the most, and she's never gotten defensively heterosexual at him like some of the others have.
If he was flirting with Alanna, though, she probably would have taken him up on it. Even knowing he's a flirt, even knowing he wouldn't ever date her, he's just really--
She groans and rolls over, burying her face in her pillow. "Stupid," she mutters. "Stupid, stupid, stupid."
"So he's--the bartender at the bar where you go pretending to be a boy," Thom says dubiously.
"I can't talk to anyone else about it," Alanna says, groaning. "Jon would just laugh at me."
"And you think I won't?"
"I think you won't ever come to the bar, so you won't say anything embarrassing in front of him."
"Good assumption." He spins his desk chair around, head tilted back in thought. "It wasn't a problem I'd considered. I thought you were still in love with Jon."
Alanna flushes, half with anger and half with embarrassment. "I was never in love with Jon."
"Well, whatever you were with Jon, I thought you still were."
"Jon thinks I should sleep with the bartender." It's easier than explaining whatever she is and was with Jon. She loves Jon, she's planning to be with Jon for the rest of her life, but she doesn't want to date him, or god forbid marry him. She'd kill him. "I've pointed out the bartender would have a very unwelcome surprise if he got me naked."
"It might be welcome," Thom says, shrugging. "But it probably shouldn't ever be a surprise."
"Exactly," says Alanna. "And I don't--" She also doesn't want to explain her conflicted feelings about sleeping with the bartender, when she's sure she'd get attached, when she's sure she couldn't just sleep with him and move on, even if he wanted to sleep with her. "It's just not worth it."
"But it's worth complaining about."
"Well, it's annoying," Alanna snaps. "What if some hot guy thought you were me and kept hitting on you?"
"This is why I don't dress up in drag and pretend to be you," Thom observes. "It makes my life so much simpler."
After about a solid week of being annoyed with herself about the whole situation, Alanna tamps down on it. George keeps flirting, she keeps rolling her eyes, and they develop the kind of relationship she has with people in her classes, the ones she only sees once a week and likes well enough, but never seeks out. She can't help an occasional lapse into fantasy, but she keeps it physical, thinking about his big hands and his mouth and veering away from his warm eyes and fond smile.
And then he's at Maud's, ordering coffee, looking at her in her dorky polo shirt with her long hair and her obvious breasts, and the bottom drops out of everything, and she has no idea at all what to do.