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Music To Her Ears

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Hey Blue Rose, heard your new single! Kaede loves it and it's stuck in my head, lol. Are you out of school yet? Kaede's already out. Seems early to me. Anyway, congratulations! I hear it's selling really well.

It was kind of amazing. Tiger texted like an illiterate teenager, but in email he used complete sentences and punctuation and everything. It made her feel like she had to step up her game and never leave out any apostrophes at all, partly so he'd think she was mature and partly so she'd have the moral high ground to tease him about his awful texting. In person, someday, hopefully, so she could be sure it wouldn't come off as too mean.

She was already out of school; her last summer of high school. It meant they could pack her Blue Rose schedule, setting up a series of Stern Bild concerts and even a short, three-city tour starting next month. She was still trying to decide how to mention that to Tiger, and whether to offer free tickets — Kaede was a fan, that gave her an excuse — and if she did, how to offer them. She spent a lot of time debating how to say things to Tiger. It was easier to do that now, communicating all in text. They were almost more in touch now, with him living three hours away by train, than they were when she saw him every day at the gym.

She told herself not to make too much of the emails and texts; he was probably just bored. He stayed in close touch with her because she pounced on her phone whenever she got a message and always answered his immediately, not because she was his favorite or anything. But this gave her a chance to get to know him better, for him to get to know her better, and also for her to actually think about what she was saying instead of just blurting things out like she sometimes did around him. And to think about what he said, too. Like the fact he asked her about school just as often as he asked her about hero stuff or music. He was never going to forget she was still in high school.

You never actually said YOU liked it, she tapped out on her phone. Is being stuck in your head bad? :P, she added, so he wouldn't think he'd really hurt her feelings or anything. It's doing pretty well. Busy summer coming up! She was owning all this textual analysis stuff her English teachers wanted her to do. She practiced on every scrap of communication Tiger sent her way. She wasn't going to be rusty at all in the fall.

It means it's catchy! He must not have even left the computer. It's not bad, but I like your own stuff better. You still play at that bar?

 

She still played at that bar. She'd quit, for a while, worried that Tiger was right, that dividing her attention was too risky, but then she changed her mind; as long as she gave heroics her all, it didn't matter if she was doing the same for school, and singing at a bar, and anything else she wanted to do. Mostly singing.

When Blue Rose gave a concert, people screamed and applauded just because she was there, but Karina Lyle only got applause when she earned it. If it was an off night, if her new song was no good, if she'd strained her voice, the audience reactions showed it. So when they liked her, it really meant something. Most of them weren't coming for her, and when a few of them did start to, that really meant something, too. She'd had three number-one singles in the past year and she was still nearly speechless, flustered and pleased, when one of the bar's patrons came over after her set ended to tell her he was a big fan.

She nearly texted Tiger about it, then she decided against it, and finally she emailed him, from her laptop, when she was supposed to be writing an essay. She figured he'd email back, and picked up Hamlet again, but instead, her phone rang.

"Hello?" she answered, like she hadn't seen that it was Tiger, like she was casual and maybe a little rushed and her hands weren't shaking at all.

"Hey, Blue Rose," he said, still not using her civilian name even though he was a civilian now, and damn she'd missed that gorgeous stupid raspy voice. "Congratulations!"

"About— you read my email?"

"Yeah, just now."

"Jeez," she said happily, running a hand through her hair. "You didn't need to call me about that. I know it's silly—"

"No, it's awesome!"

"You think so?" He made an affirmative noise on the other end of the line. "You jumped right on it, though."

"What can I say? Slow day at the store. My brother only leaves me in charge when he's pretty sure no one's going to come in."

"So you can't screw it up?"

"Right."

She didn't know if he'd ever mentioned his brother before — Kaede had, telling them her uncle was coming to take her home, but that might be it — or if he'd ever talked about what he was doing now. She knew they hadn't talked on the phone since he left. "Should you be talking to me, then? What if somebody does come in?"

"Meh."

She was giggling, she couldn't help it. She felt giddy. "You are the worst employee."

"If he gets mad, I'm just telling him he gets what he pays for."

"So what kind of store is it?"

"I never told you? I thought I translated that towel for you..."

 

The summer ended, the season ended — it was Sky High, again, but Tiger texted her a "GRATZ" all the same because it'd been close and she'd set a point record for heroines — and then one night she sat down at the bar's piano and gasped out loud. He was half-turned around on his bar stool, sitting with Bison, and he gave her a little wave.

And somehow she was supposed to just pretend it was no big deal and play the piano and sing?

But that was what she did, for easily the longest hour in the history of the universe. It had to have lasted a couple of years. Her distraction didn't seem to hurt her performance any, at least, but she barely even heard the applause as she bowed and smiled and hurried off the stage.

Bison was gone when she reached him at the bar, and he smiled at her as she climbed onto the barstool. "Sounded good tonight," he said.

"I always sound good," she said, but she was still basking in it. Just a little. Knowing you were good didn't mean you didn't like to hear it. "What happened to Bison? What are you doing in town?"

"He had to take a call. I was here for Bunny's birthday, and I figured I'd stick around a little longer."

"How's Barnaby doing?" she asked, automatic, when all she was really thinking about was the fact they'd come here, when Tiger knew she'd be here.

"He's, um..." Tiger was fiddling with a toothpick or something. "Has his ups and downs, I guess. Who doesn't?" She just nodded. "So you're a senior now?" he asked, and she tried not to sigh visibly, but he was never ever going to forget she was in high school, was he? She looked at his face, stubble starting to come in around his beard, his almost gold-colored eyes and those bags beneath them that always seemed to get airbrushed out of her memory, and that lopsided half-smile that made her bones melt. Not for the first time, she reflexively went over the math on their ages, how old she'd be before he stopped being twice her age.

Eventually she'd stop being in high school, though. In less than a year, in fact. Much sooner than she'd stop being half his age, but it was something.

"How long are you going to be in town?" she asked, rather than answering — he knew she was a senior anyway, it was just small talk — and took a sip of her water.

If he'd just dropped the news like a bombshell, he was signing a new contract as a second-league hero, she probably could have done a classic spit-take, but instead he hemmed and hawed and dithered about it and it took her a little while to sort out what this meant. By the time she had, Bison had come back, and she had to act like a normal person who wasn't floating three inches off the ground.

This must be how Sky High felt all the time, she thought, as she went back onstage. Her feet might not touch the floor, but they could still reach the pedals on the piano.