For five years, she's been imagining saying the words. Imagining how and where she'd say them. She could dedicate a song to him, sometime when he showed up at one of her gigs. I've been in love with you since I was sixteen, Tiger. She could get up in his face at the training center, some time, and yell it: I've been in love with you since I was sixteen, you idiot! She could rescue him sometime, or get rescued, and it'd be all breathless and dramatic.
But instead she's sitting at the bar with him, on her break, bantering about whether or not it's okay for her to order a hot toddy, and whether she'll even like it, and it falls out of her mouth so naturally and off-handedly she's almost not sure she said it out loud: "I've been in love with you since I was sixteen."
She's spent a lot of time thinking about how to say it, but even more time thinking about how he'd react, and she's honestly surprised he's so subdued. His eyes widen, his hand stops in the middle of reaching for his own drink, but he doesn't yell, doesn't drop his jaw or ask her to repeat herself or make a big show of not believing it.
"Five years, huh," he says quietly. "That's kind of a long time."
It always felt that way to her. But it's a quarter of her life and only an eighth of his, and just yesterday he was talking about how old Kaede was, how fast she'd grown up. How quickly time went, anymore.
The bartender brings her the hot buttered rum anyway, and leaves it in the silence between them, and she puts her hands on both sides of it. Chestnuts are roasting on an open fire, in the background, until she finishes this drink and goes back up on stage. Her hands are only trembling a little.
"Gotta say I can't figure out why," he says. "Seems like all I do is piss you off."
She giggles, her tension dissolving like a sugarcube. "I don't know either!" she says, but that's not totally true. It's because he says things like that. It's because he relaxed visibly when he got her to smile, and it's the way he's smiling back at her now. "You do piss me off. You always have."
He turns his smile on his drink, or maybe on his left hand. "I kind of have a knack for that," he says. He's only mentioned his wife once or twice, in all the time she's known him. She was the brains of the operation, he said once, and another time, She was always ready to kick my ass when I needed it, but I knew she had my back no matter what.
"'Sfunny," he says. "It's been a couple of years now — I dunno when it started. I've been trying not to think of you that way."
"Yuh," she gulps, and she takes a drink of the rum without really tasting it, swallows hard, and tries again. "You have?"
"Didn't want to be one of those creeps counting down till you turned eighteen, y'know?"
"Well," she says. On the one hand, that had really grossed her out, knowing that complete strangers were doing that, as if that was the only thing keeping her from sleeping with half the city. On the other, she'd been counting down until she turned eighteen, herself. At the birthday party Nathan threw her, she'd spent most of the evening trying to psych herself up to say something to Kotetsu, and then before she could they got an emergency call.
And after that emergency call was done, as they all headed back to their transports, he'd said, Happy birthday, kiddo, and she'd deflated like a balloon. "I guess," she finally manages.
"It just doesn't make much sense on your side," he says, and he stops, and then he takes a drink of his whiskey or shochu or whatever amber-ish thing he's drinking. "I mean, if I was twenty years younger—"
"No," she says, immediately. If he was twenty years younger, he'd be a different person. Maybe he'd still have that crooked smile and goofy laugh and never-ending kindness, but maybe he wouldn't. He'd have other things, like his wife, and— "No," she says, and a grin spreads over her face. "I've seen what your beard was like twenty years ago. That triangle shape?"
"You mean when I got— okay, look, I have not been in the business for twenty years."
"Close enough," she says, with a dismissive wave. He plants a fist on the bar so he can turn his entire upper body into glowering at her; his frown is absurd, like an emoticon using square brackets come to life. She sips her rum and basks in the ability to irritate him, even if she can't get him to sweep her off her feet.
"Now come on," he grumbles. "You of all people— don't make me out to be even older than I am!"
"You're the one wanting to be twenty years younger, not me!" She glowers right back at him, leaning forward. He's not going to win this one, damn it.
And then his face relaxes, one corner of his mouth going up, and something that has to be a chuckle pops out of his mouth. "Now what'd I just say my reason was for wanting that?"
"That's— I don't think you said?"
He leans a little further forward, and her heart speeds up automatically because her body is convinced that if he's close enough to touch that might mean they could kiss. He lifts his hand, index finger extended and pointing at her, and he pokes her in the forehead.
So romantic, she thinks, but apparently her heartbeat's immune to sarcasm. "But I don't want you to be twenty years younger," she says. Five years and she wasn't expecting things to go this direction. "I kind of like you how you are now."
"Stupid beard and all."
"I did not say your beard was stupid. I said it wasn't cool, which is different. It's just kind of there, okay? I can't imagine your stupid face without it, so I guess I like it, and what does it take to get you to ask me to dinner or something?"
"You want me to do that?" His whole face lights up. Was she somehow being subtle about what she wanted? God, if they start dating, what will she have to do to get him to have sex with her? "I can do that!"
"Then do it!"
"Well not right now. I gotta find the right moment."
She buries her head in her hands and screams quietly.
And then she feels his hand warm on her wrist, and she takes her hands away and lifts her head. He tugs gently on her hand. Confused, she lets him take it, and he lifts it to his lips and presses a kiss to her palm.
Everyone always says she blushes, and she's never believed them because if she was prone to blushing it should have showed the first time she put on the Blue Rose costume, but right now, she could buy it.
"Promise I'll work on it," he says, looking down at the bar like he's embarrassed. "You have to do these things right, is all."
"Okay," she says, dazedly. She holds her hand loosely cupped in front of her, like she's holding something.
"Your break's gotta be over by now, though."
She hasn't looked at the clock since she started talking to him, and it's not quite a bucket of ice water dumped over her head, but it definitely shocks her out of her daze. "Crap, you're right," she says, and slides off her barstool in a hurry, leaving him with her drink — possibly congealed, for all the attention she's paid it — and heading for the piano.
Her palm still holds that kiss, though, even as she puts her hands on the keys.
"All I Want For Christmas Is You." Maybe she'll let him ask her to dinner in just the right way. Or maybe she's going to step out of this place and into his car and ask him to dinner instead.