As it turns out, they have a lot to catch up on, after the entire nursing net debacle is over and done with. Or at least, Batou does. She can’t blame him– he’s at the distinct disadvantage that Ishikawa was never able to build anything she couldn’t hack back into if she wanted to, and she’s been keeping taps on Section 9 the entire time. Because they could be a potentially fatal thorn in her side, of course, not out of any kind of sentiment. At least chiefly.
But she gets tired of Batou’s questions, eventually.
“Enough about what I’ve been doing.” She waves his next query off and is surprised to find her posture open, as if they’d never been apart. The ease to which both of them have settled back into the same pattern they always have is almost unsettling. He scowls and she lets out a little huff of a laugh. It’s too easy to tease him.
“What about you? There’s no one new in your life that I should know about?”
If he could, she gets the distinct feeling that Batou would be rolling his eyes. As it is, he throws his head back to convey a similar gesture. “Like a girlfriend? C'mon, what do I need that for? I’ve got you.” he snorts.
She only stares back in confusion and uncertainty. It seems to take him a moment to catch her expression out of the corner of his vision.
“You nag me more than any wife,” he amends a moment later, grinning, but something seems to catch in her mind instead of floating off.
It’s probably nothing, just an odd turn of phrase, but it keeps her up at night, analyzing it from every possible angle. Were it anyone else, she’d brush it off, but she’d like to think she knows Batou pretty damn well at this point, and nothing she knows about him would make him say something like that. Unless there’s something she doesn’t know.
Even the slightest possibility that his feelings might run deeper than a war-forged friendship terrifies her, so she does her best to avoid him as much as possible in the meantime. Once she has his motives rationalized out into something she can understand and accept, she’ll face him again.
Of course, she doesn’t manage to rationalize a thing, except the fact that his eyes would have let him see her expression immediately. Therefore, the pause was genuine. And that supplies more questions than it answers.
[[Look, I’m sorry. You don’t nag me like a wife, or nag me at all]], he eventually cybercomms her on a Sunday afternoon. [[You can quit giving me the silent treatment, I get it.]]
[[The hell kinda response is that?]]
[[What do you want?]]
[[Talking to me again would be a start.]]
[[I mean actually talk to me, not short, carefully planned conversations so you can pretend you’re not avoiding me. Did what I said piss you off that damn much?]]
[[I’m not mad.]]
[[You’ve got a funny way of showing it.]]
She doesn’t answer, but notices that he starts avoiding her back.
Another week passes and she has no further leads on figuring him out. She’s run herself ragged in tighter and tighter mental circles, but nothing seems to be forthcoming by sheer analysis, much like the purpose of life or the secrets of the universe or anything else that’s worth thinking about at length.
But if she doesn’t start talking to him again, she risks losing him as a friend, and that’s something she does value, to say nothing of the havoc it would wreak on the team to have them at odds. And so she ends up asking if he wants to hit the bar after work, the way they have a hundred times past. The same bar, the same people, the same drinks. It’s nothing new, but it feels different, somehow, and the reason behind that is not any more forthcoming than the first one when she tries to pick it apart.
He seems surprised but agrees.
She drinks far, far more than she means to but doesn’t flip on her alcohol processor– the warm glow it’s lending the room is nice, and for once, she doesn’t feel like puzzling out the world in cold lines and rationality.
“You’ve never thought of me as more than a friend, have you?” It is possibly, the worst break of comfortable silence in recorded history, but she’s sick of dodging the issue and goes straight for the throat, the same way she’d make a ghost-dive in the middle of gunfight.
It says something about the situation, or her, or both, that she’d rather fight a tank, but the alcohol’s making her braver than she is, and her mind’s exhausted from itself cannibalizing itself over this, and she just wants an answer, any answer, more than anything else.
“What? Nah.” he replies, instinctively and too quickly, and the second it comes out of his mouth she knows it’s a lie. And as if that isn’t enough, she watches afterwards what she’s quite certain is Batou mentally kicking himself.
Dammit. Damn it all.
They part ways shortly after in something that they both pretend isn’t cowardice.
[[Why?]] she comms him, after a few weeks have passed.
[[Why do you have feelings for me?]]
[[Is this an interrogation now?]] He tries to make a joke, but there’s no humor. It’s barbed. He’s on the defensive and it’s obvious.
[[It’s a conversation.]]
[[What does it matter?]]
[[I’m curious]], she answers, honestly, and apparently that’s the wrong answer, because he cuts off the connection a moment later.
Which in her opinion, is childish, so she goes back to ignoring him.
Time passes again, and what counts as a apology from Batou pings itself into her brain at a god-awful hour of the morning on a Thursday. Not that she’s asleep, either, so she can’t exactly throw stones.
[[Look, it doesn’t have to be a big deal, just forget it ever came up]]
[[You still haven’t answered me.]]
[[You know damn well what I think of you.]]
There’s silence on the line for almost a half hour, but then–
[[You’re the most brilliant person I’ve ever known, clever to a fault and brave to the point of being almost stupid. I’d follow you anywhere.]]
She doesn’t know how to answer, so she doesn’t. Another half hour passes.
[[Like I said. Forget it.]]
For months, she does forget about it. Until things get dicy, they split ways in a pincer movement and the comms get jammed, there’s bullets flying all around them and smoke billows up from where the lower level’s gone up in a gas fire.
There’s another explosion in the distance.
As soon as the mech across from her lies motionless on the floor, she looks around, a tight worry curled in her stomach that she can’t reach out to verify Batou’s position though the comms, frustration that she’ll have to search visually and might find him too late–
–last time she’d heard him he’d been swearing and engaged with six hostiles–
–and it’s at that moment that he comes into view. He’s dragging himself up a mostly-collapsed staircase, heavily singed and with a mangled left leg, and gives her a weary all-clear signal.
Time seems to stop, and she blames it on the fact that the comms have just gone up again and dozens of backlogged messages are pinging through her brain at once.
But she can’t deny that she understands, suddenly, what the says means when it says to be so relieved you could kiss someone. Could, not would, so she merely helps Batou limp over to the van as she directs Borma and Pazu on where to start mop-up over comm.
“Good to see you’re still alive,” he comments as he drags himself into the passenger’s seat, and she nods.
The fact that she wanted to kiss him, even briefly and with epinephrine substitutes flooding every CC of her brain, sticks in the back of her mind. Like everything else in this whole mess has been, it’s a persistent undercurrent in the ocean of her consciousness that refuses to be written off. So she makes an exercise out of trying to list the things she feels towards Batou. It’s harder than expected, since they’ve all long since collapsed into a single unnamed category.
Trust. Friendship. Camaraderie. Warmth. Affection. A shared history, at least to an extent. The enjoyment of his thoughts and company. A desire to keep him safe.
And now that she’s increasingly considering it as a possibility, the idea of having her way with him is far from unpleasant.
She’s not sure why she’s so confident it would be that and not the other way around.
Now that she’s faced the possibility of something between them existing, or at least letting something exist, she can’t let it go. The entire thing consumes her, day in and day out, bothers her at the most inopportune times and at least once, almost gets her killed from the distraction in the middle of a firefight.
(A firefight that would have killed her, if not for a timely intervention from Batou. The irony.)
It’s the last straw. Without really thinking, or planning out her actions in advance at all, she catches him taking a break in the dive room late at night, pushes him against the back of his chair, and kisses him hard. It’s filled with anger and confusion and all of the frustration of being so god damn helpless to make it all stop.
He goes still under her, doesn’t kiss back, and she feels his familiar style of coding slamming frantically against her ghost line, which a few dozen millisecond later, she easily swats off. He’s not at his best and her brain give her home field advantage. In real time, as she pulls away from the kiss, she sees the slightly vacant look that generally means he’s running a diagnostic on himself.
“You’re not being hacked. I’m not being hacked.” She’s stating the obvious that Batou has probably worked out for himself by now, but there’s nothing else to say in the wake of the present awkwardness. Far too late, she remembers it’s been almost a full year since the beginning of all of this. And that he has no idea about what’s been plaguing her for the last several months. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, it would seem.
“Forgive me for being skeptical in our line of work,” he grumbles. It sounds half sarcastic and half embarrassed. His diagnostic finishes and he seems to return to himself, but only watches her.
She doesn’t have the nerve to pull the same stunt twice, and drops into the next dive chair over, avoiding his gaze.
“…did something change your mind?” he asks, at length.
“I only just made up my mind in the first place.”
“Jeez, if you took this long in the field we’d all be dead by now.”
She shoots him a glare. Silence falls again, until Batou gets to his feet, crosses the distance between the chairs in half a stride, and leans over her. It’s deep into her personal space. She doesn’t move.
“Should I take that as an indication of your interest, then?” he breathes, barely above a whisper. His fingers reach out, brush her hair back in a feather-light touch.
She says nothing, but reaches up to run a thumb along his cheekbone. It’s captivating, for some reason, even though she knows the manufacturer of his face and the brand of his skin.
As she cranks her skin sensitivity up to better discover what fascinates her about the angle of his jaw, he kisses her, reserved and soft. His hand finds the back of her neck, brushing just below the QRS port, and stays there, steadying.
Slowly, slowly, she forces herself to let down her guard and lose herself in this. Lust, she expected, but this sets prickles across every inch of her body, and she still isn’t entirely sure she likes it so much as she’s hoping giving in to this feeling will finally let her focus on other things again.
It does. And she does like it, once the feeling that she only recognizes as fear in hindsight subsides.
They keep a cybercomm line open most of the time, even though they don’t actually use it. She likes the feeling of comfortable silence between them, even kilometers apart and in the absence of words, and thinks he probably does, too. But there’s something to be said for genuine, physical silence as well, the kind where she stretches across his couch and lays her head in his lap, eyes unblinking as she uses her optical display to look at the new Seburo specs she’s hacked out of their R&D databases. When she finishes, she glances up and catches the title of the book he’s reading.
“Don’t waste your time with Schlick,” she says lazily, the first thing either of them has uttered in a quarter of an hour.
“And why is that?”
“’Positivism is every view which denies the possibility of metaphysics,'” she quotes, in deadpan, and he barks out a laugh.
It’s only in the middle of a briefing when Batou makes a seemingly inappropriate snort under his breath that the subtle change between them is remarked upon. And it’s because it’s obvious he’s laughing at a comment that no one else in the room can hear.
“Are you two ever going to tell anyone about your private connection?” Ishikawa asks, to which Pazu immediately remarks, “That’s the worst euphemism I’ve ever heard,” and there’s only a brief attempt to keep the snickers in check before the rest of them are in full out laughter.
[[Just let them have their fun]], Motoko sighs, on the aforementioned channel.
Ishikawa starts up again. “So, when’s the wedding?”
[[I’m gonna punch him if he’s still like this tomorrow.]]