Ah, it has been quite a while, no? Had not someone mentioned this to me (oui, chum-sa, it is you), I might have forgotten to update it yet again, negligent person that I am. Hence I wrote this last night... methinks myself suffering a little hangover from writing Nao in the other story ("The Endless"), though.
By the way, thank you ever so much to those reviewers from last time... One anonymous reviewer, by the way, amused me very much by commenting on the wordplay in the last book's title (S&N). I am pleased you noticed it, darling.
"Where's she going, anyway?"
"Something with her family."
"Why don't you go with her?"
"Nao. You serious?"
The younger girl laughed. "Scared?"
Nao grinned, brushing her hair out of her eyes.
"Now, see, I can't even tease you good about that," she told the other. "No-one teases about that. Not much, anyway, because it's old and everyone feels that way. Too bad."
The other girl turned on the TV in front of them.
"So... What do you want to do?" she asked.
"I don't know. Hell, Natsuki, you're the one who asked me if I wanted to hang out. What do you want to do?"
"Uh..." Natsuki shrugged, her eyes on the game console in the entertainment cabinet.
"Want to play?" she asked. "Got some new games."
"Thrilling as it sounds to mash my fingers on a controller... no, thanks—and my nails could get chipped." Nao made a face. "Besides, the games you got are probably ones I don't like."
The other girl turned to her. "Yeah? What don't you like?"
"Just about everything." She grinned. "Don't you think we're a little too old to be playing video-games til now, Kuga?"
"Idiot." The dark-haired girl smirked. "You weren't too old for Sims, were you? If I remember right, you nearly put your eye out playing it for six hours straight."
"That's different." Nao paused. "It's... a mature game."
The dark eyebrows lifted.
"Sure," Natsuki said. "Mature. Just because you can make characters have sex with each other. Love that vibrating bed."
"Ara, what vibrating bed?" said another voice. "Natsuki has been testing out beds other than ours?"
Natsuki flushed, scowling at the girl who had just entered the room.
"N-no," she told her. "Are you done?"
"Natsuki seems eager to see me go."
The other girl smiled as she said this, opening her purse. She took out a pair of purple glasses, winking at the duo on the couch as she put them on.
"Hey. You wear glasses?" said Nao, surprised. It was Natsuki who answered her, scoffing.
"She doesn't need them," the girl explained. "They're just for show. Nuts—Shizuru can see as far as I can, even without those things."
Shizuru laughed. "But you did tell me you liked seeing me wear them, Natsuki."
"Eh." She fidgeted under the other two girls' smiles, frowning. "When did I say that? I didn't say that."
"Yesterday, when I showed them to you."
"Fetish, Kuga?" Nao crooned.
"You two shut up," she said, pushing herself up from the couch. "And shouldn't you be going now? You'll be late, Shizuru. You sure you really don't want us to take you there?"
Nao interrupted. "All three of us can't fit on that big bad bike of yours, dope."
"You're the dope. I meant if she wanted us to take her in a taxi. Or me. I could take her in a taxi."
Shizuru interrupted them to giggle.
"Well," she said. "That is somewhere we haven't done it yet, isn't it, Natsuki?"
Nao broke into laughter, slapping the couch with a hand as the other, red-faced girl glared at her. Shizuru let out a giggle before saying that she would be all right by herself.
"I shall go now," she said, coming over to Natsuki. She held up her hand. "No, no, you do not have to walk me downstairs—a guest is here, after all."
"I don't mind," Nao managed, still chuckling.
"No, it's all right." Shizuru turned to Natsuki, giving her a wink. "All I ask is that my Natsuki gives me a kiss before I go. But first..."
She took a step back and, while pushing up the glasses on the bridge of her nose, tilted her chin downwards to indicate her clothing.
"How do I look?" she asked, almost nonchalantly.
Natsuki was first to answer.
"Very nice," she said. It was obvious to the other two that she was talking about the clothes and the girl and everything she saw, and Shizuru giggled.
"Useless glasses and all," Natsuki added, with a smirk.
Shizuru laughed, and then Nao gave her answer.
"Yeah, real nice," said the redhead, knowing it was the truth and was probably an understatement. "Real good."
She eyed the older girl carefully, taking in the pastel-coloured summer dress and the white cardigan over it. She gave particular attention to the brown espadrilles, because she liked them and knew how high their price tag was. Everything the other girl was wearing, in fact, had a high price tag. But she wore it with casual grace and like she could not give a damn how much it cost, and that was what made it look better on her.
That's how she reminds me of that old-time American movie actress, Nao thought. The one in the film momma liked to watch, who goes How do I look just like Shizuru did now. They both look like they don't give a damn how they look even if they do ask about it, and that's because they don't need to give a damn about it.
She did not know if she found that a little unfair.
"Thank you. Then I shall be going," said Shizuru's voice. "Kiss, please."
Nao watched as the two girls leaned towards each other for a quick peck on the lips. It amused her that they did that in front of her. She remembered a time when Natsuki would not have consented to doing such a thing in front of someone else, but things were different now.
And besides, Nao was one of her closest friends, after all. She was used to it by now.
She put on a disinterested look as she watched their faces meet. Then she noted the swift flick of the eyes that Shizuru sent her way before turning them back to Natsuki, who did not notice. Afterwards, they parted, the dark-haired girl blushing lightly.
"I'll walk you to the door, at least," she said, putting her hand on the other girl's back. Shizuru made a small yelp as the hand made contact, and Natsuki removed it quickly.
"Shit," said the dark-haired girl. "What—"
"Natsuki does not remember?" Shizuru replied, obviously trying not to laugh. Natsuki's frown deepened for another second. Then it vanished.
"Yes," Shizuru told her. "That's it."
"Oh... crap." Natsuki shook her head, blushing furiously. "Sorry, I'm sorry."
"That's all right." A smirk. "I'm not."
They turned to look at the other person in the room, who was eyeing them with a knowing look. She had a grin, and Natsuki blushed again.
"Not a word, Yuuki," she growled, getting up from the couch.
Nao shrugged, still leering. The other two walked off, and in a few moments, Nao heard the door open. It took a little longer than necessary before she heard it shut, and she knew why. Then Natsuki came back around the couch. She sat on the arm, pulling up her legs so that her feet rested on the seat.
"What do you want to do?" she asked again.
Nao was watching TV, and she took her time replying.
"Want to go to the mall?" she suggested, later.
"'Kay." Natsuki shrugged. "Now?"
"No, I mean—now?" She tipped her chin. "I was talking in English."
"I didn't know you were."
"Yes, you did."
"Yes, I did."
And then, later: "After this show, Kuga."
"Sure. I'll drive?"
"Yeah," Natsuki replied, smirking. "It's not like we have any other choice."
They went to the mall. Since the two of them had somewhat different tastes in stores, however, they simply walked around and pretended to window shop. They passed the time this way, talking.
"Cheats're everywhere," Nao was complaining to her friend. "The other day, some bastard gave me a thousand in fake yen and I didn't notice until I got home."
Natsuki shook her head in sympathy.
"Damn," she said, her eyes on a pair of sneakers displayed by a store. "That sucks."
"Yeah," said Nao. "But, hey, I got rid of it, so no sweat."
The other girl looked at her. "What did you do with it?"
"Used it to buy food—lucky the cashier didn't notice."
Natsuki started laughing.
"God," she said. "You cheat."
They laughed a little more.
"Hell," Nao told her. "I figured I might as well. Get back at the world in general, you know? For trying to cheat me out of my money."
"Hey, I'm not a poor little rich girl with a bike." She shrugged. "Gotta make do with what I have."
Natsuki frowned at her. "Shut up."
She held up her hands in a defensive gesture. "Only the truth, Kuga."
They walked on for a little while. Later, Natsuki asked how she was doing, these days.
"I'm cool now," Nao laughed, waving her hand. "You know. Job pays well."
The older girl nodded, giving her a small smile.
"Though having to dress up in those stuffy clothes..." Nao went on. "God, what a bitch."
"Yeah," she said. "I was like—when Shizuru told me you'd be working as an assistant—no way, Nao in business attire? I have to get a picture of that."
Nao sneered at her, and she smirked.
"But it's nice to have a real job," the younger girl admitted. "I mean, it beats having to work an odd shift nights doing something that can get you killed."
"Ye-eah." Natsuki scratched her head. "I guess... I can't really say anything. I mean, you know."
"Yeah. I know." She grinned. "You're rich."
The dark-haired girl grimaced at her before answering.
"But, yeah," she told Nao. "I guess it must be better... now that you don't have to worry so much about making ends meet."
"Shit, I wasn't even worrying back then about making them meet," Nao snorted. "All I wanted was for them to get close enough to wave at each other."
"Anyway, I'm okay now." Nao smiled complacently. "I don't have to worry about all that crap."
"They've waved to each other by now, huh?"
"Heck, I'm hoping they'll be going on dates in the near future."
They laughed again, the two of them chortling so loudly that a few people turned to look. It did not escape Nao that some of those who did looked a little longer than was necessary, although it escaped Natsuki.
Natsuki was like that sometimes, Nao thought.
"Let's go to the next floor," Natsuki said. "I want to check out something over there."
"Okay," Nao said.
They took the escalator and Natsuki stood a few steps ahead of the younger girl. The latter made no move to move up and join the older girl on that step. Nao liked where she was standing because it gave her a good view of her friend's rear.
She had always liked seeing her friend's rear.
Today it was covered by tight, fitting denim jeans, and that made her like it even more. She remembered that time when the two of them had been on the balcony of Natsuki's flat and the dark-haired girl leaned over the railing as they talked. She herself had been standing a few steps behind the older girl, and been given what she considered a fantastic view of her friend's firm behind, wrapped in faded denim.
She had almost reached out and wrapped that denim in her hands.
"Hey, Nao, come on!"
She snapped out of her thoughts and looked up. Natsuki was already off the escalator, having impatiently taken another few steps ahead, and was waiting for her.
"Yeah, I'm coming," she replied, smirking. "Keep your pants on, Kuga."
They went around for a good while before deciding to get something to eat. They went to a Japanese restaurant, because Nao had a craving for sashimi and rice. Natsuki teased her about it.
"I know it's not the usual for me, but I just thought of it," she told Natsuki, as they ate. "Craving. But, you know, it's so good. I don't eat it a lot."
"I eat it a lot, actually," the other answered. "Especially since Shizuru likes the stuff, you know... traditional Japanese food. Not like I have a choice since she makes it all the time. Or when we go out to eat, she picks places like this."
"Whip. I think they have Miracle Whip here," Nao replied, smiling innocently. "You want to ask?"
"Hell no." Natsuki made a face. "I hate that stuff. You know I only like real Japanese mayo."
"Huh." Nao returned to her food, plucking a slice of sashimi from the dish and dipping it into soy sauce. "Ahh... shake sashimi's the best."
The other girl looked up from her rice bowl. "Don't you think that's funny?"
"What?" Nao mumbled, chewing.
"That Tokyo people say it 'shake' and everyone else says it 'sake'?"
Nao shrugged. "I didn't notice."
She turned to Natsuki, whose hand was reaching out to her.
"On your face," the older girl said, her fingertips touching Nao's cheek. Then the contact vanished, and Nao realized that the other girl had removed a grain of rice from her face. She turned pink and tried to hide it as she watched Natsuki casually put the speck in her own mouth.
"God," Natsuki mumbled with a grin, dipping into her bowl once more with her chopsticks. "Aren't you old enough to eat without scattering rice everywhere?"
She snickered. "But, hey, you'd make a great farmer."
"Ha-ha," Nao muttered. "It's not like you're such a neat eater, Kuga. You're one messy pup, if I remember right. I'll bet you drop more rice than I do, on a daily basis."
"Yeah?" Natsuki put down her chopsticks. "Want to bet now?"
"Sure. Let's see who's going to spend more years in purgatory."
"What?" Natsuki looked confused. "What's that have to do with this?"
"You don't know that thing they say?" Nao asked, grinning. "It's something an old aunt used to tell me. For each grain of rice you drop from your bowl, you spend one year in purgatory."
Natsuki laughed. "You must've been hard to feed when you were a kid."
"Something like that."
"So, want to bet?"
She said this while wiggling her eyebrows up and down.
"Lift your bowl and let's settle this, Kuga."
They lifted their bowls and looked at the surrounding surface on the table. Nao's surface was perfectly clean, whereas Natsuki's had two grains of rice on it. She scowled.
"Hot damn," Nao was laughing. "Two years in one meal! You better stop eating if this is the average!"
Natsuki picked up the grains, unable to keep her mouth from twitching.
"Does it count if I pick them up?" she asked mischievously.
"I don't know." Nao looked superior. "But it doesn't count if it's just sticking to my face, so there. I'm free."
"Okay, so you can go straight to hell then."
Nao sneered. "You wish, so someone would keep you company there."
Natsuki was about to say something, but she stopped. She laughed.
"You're forgetting Shizuru," she told the younger girl. "If I go to hell, she'd go too, just to torment me for eternity."
"Yeah." Nao nodded, eyes dropping to the table as she thought about it. She exhaled. "She would, wouldn't she?"
"Sure, she would." Natsuki snorted. "That's my own personal little devil right there."
Nao looked up, grinning suddenly. "Does she still have that...?"
"Devil suit?" Natsuki finished for her. "Hell, yeah. No pun intended."
"I liked that suit. Loved it when she wore it at the costume party." She nodded to herself. "I'd love to get one of those sometime."
"You're another of my personal devils," she said. "Figures you'd want a suit like that too."
Nao lifted an eyebrow. Then, she looked away and started signalling a waiter.
"Yeah..." she said. "Hey. I'm done, are you? Let's pay?"
"No, not this time." Natsuki shrugged. "I'll pay. I'm the rich girl, remember?"
They walked around again after their meal. They saw an in-mall auction for furniture in the basement, and watched for a little while. They left after Nao reminded Natsuki of her last experience with in-mall auctions. The older girl walked off in a huff, with Nao following her, laughing.
"I love that memory," Nao giggled to her friend, who scowled even more darkly at her. "I still remember it perfectly."
It had happened around a year ago. They had gone out with some of their other friends—Mai, Mikoto, Aoi, all the rest—and happened to pass by an auction taking place in the mall.
It was Nao's fault. She had taken Natsuki's keys as a joke, and the other girl was trying to get her to give them back. Just then, the auctioneer on the platform had been in the process of describing the next item to be auctioned, a statue hidden behind the curtains of the stage they set up in that corner.
And now we have the great goddess of love and beauty, went the man. Guaranteed to bring you a lifetime of never-ending happiness and joy. While he said this, Nao had thrown the keys in the air as a final effort to avoid Natsuki, who lunged after the jangling objects. She caught them, but fell onto the low platform next to the auctioneer as he finished introducing the statue still behind the screen.
Nao and the others had been laughing at their friend's inelegant stumble when, the next thing they knew, several cries of "I'll take her!" had come from a few men—and women—in the audience, sending 'the great goddess of love and beauty' into a purple blush as some of the bidders peered at her appraisingly. Everyone thought it was a funny thing, afterwards. Except for Shizuru, of course. Sometimes the older girl's eyes could be greener than Natsuki's.
Or Nao's, for that matter.
Nao ended her reminiscence and looked at her friend. "Yeah."
"Since we're at the mall..." The older girl trailed off, then shrugged. "You want anything, Nao? Sort of like... uh... a going-away present or something?"
She said this with a stern but pink face, and Nao almost laughed because it was so like her to be embarrassed by something like that.
"Nah," she said, smiling. "I'm cool."
"Uh, okay. But, you know, if you want something. Just say so."
"No, I'm fine. Really."
They walked a little more, and Nao bit her lip. "Hey, Natsuki."
"Thanks." She tried to make it sound casual. "You know."
Nao stretched and looked around.
"I want to get a cigarette," she told the older girl. "You mind if I smoke for a while?"
"No, sure. You have any?"
The younger girl grinned and looked down pointedly at her cut-offs and tight-fitting top.
"Does it look like I'm carrying any?" she asked.
They bought some from a store, then went outside the mall and sat on a bench as Nao lit up. Natsuki watched with a slightly amused expression, and the younger girl asked her about it.
"I love seeing people indulge in their urges," she admitted, making the other giggle. "I don't smoke, myself, but I like seeing people smoke when they like to do it."
Nao took a long pull, then let out the smoke in a steady stream that she pointed away from her friend.
"Why don't you smoke?" she asked, already knowing the answer. "I mean, you know, to round out the delinquent image you already have."
"Ruin my stamina."
Nao sighed out a small cloud. "Why you're still so concerned about that when you aren't even in any varsity teams is beyond me."
The other girl shrugged.
"Why don't you apply for varsity, anyway?" she went on, again knowing the answer. "Any one would kill to get you."
"You said it earlier—I still have a delinquent image to keep up."
"I hate cigarettes, really," Nao said, suddenly, with a grin. "I just smoke them to get them out of my sight."
Natsuki smirked. "Just apply fire to the problem, eh?"
Nao continued to smoke, and Natsuki fanned herself. The afternoon sun was burning now, and even though the two were in the shade, they could feel the heat. The older girl cursed lightly.
"Damn," she said, lifting her hair from her nape and wrapping the black locks around one hand. "It's so hot."
She turned to look at Nao, who had an odd expression on her face.
"What?" she asked.
"Kuga," Nao stuttered, suddenly giggling. "Your... neck sure looks... interesting."
It took a few seconds for it to sink in.
"Shit!" Natsuki said, dropping her hair quickly. It fell back silkily, and covered her neck once again.
Nao could tell she wished it covered her face too.
"Man," Nao taunted. "She sure knows how to leave a mark, eh? I mean, marks."
The older girl growled and Nao held up a hand in defence.
"Down, girl," she whispered, still grinning.
Later, Natsuki grumbled again.
"I keep telling her not to," she said sulkily. "But she still does. I mean, it's harder to cover in summer, you know?"
"Yeah. Not like you can go around wearing turtlenecks in this heat." Nao raised her eyebrows. "Why don't you... get back at her. Do it too."
"No way." A frown. "I don't think it'd be smart to do that. It's not like it gives me a kick, anyway. She's the exhibitionist here."
"And you're not," she said.
A few seconds went by. The younger girl lit another cigarette.
"You're pretty different from each other," she commented, her voice light. "Yeah?"
Natsuki inhaled. "I guess."
"Actually." A pause. "Does she ever ditch class?"
"Well..." Natsuki allowed. "Almost never."
Natsuki shrugged as Nao went on.
"What's your favourite food, you know, really?"
The dark-haired girl grinned.
"You know," she told Nao. "You like the same things I do. Anything fatty."
Nao smirked. "Yeah. The sashimi thing earlier was just a random fluke... And her favourite food is?"
"Anything healthy," Natsuki sighed. "Shizuru's almost a health freak. Almost."
"There you go," Nao said. "I don't even need to talk about clothes, or what colours you like, or even your... um... domestic habits."
"Okay, okay," Natsuki said. "Point taken."
"Points. How the hell do you get along, Kuga?"
Natsuki turned to look at her. Nao was looking up at the sky, however, and breathing out little puffs of smoke as she talked.
"You know," the younger girl continued. "It's cool with all the differences at first. But, later, stuff like that becomes hard to take, doesn't it? Too many disagreements, too many things that aren't alike."
Natsuki leaned back, looking thoughtful.
"Yeah?" she said. "Hm... now that I think about it, the two of us—you and me—have more... similarities... than Shizuru and I do."
Nao glanced at her quickly, so that the older girl could not see it.
"Yeah," she said. "You know... the two of you don't have anything in common."
Natsuki looked at her.
Later that evening, Nao went to a bar downtown. She often went to this bar because she liked it and she liked the bartender. She liked him in a nice, non-romantic kind of way, and talked to him a lot. He liked her too, of course.
They smiled at each other as she ordered a drink. He made it and slipped it across the counter.
"Here you go," he said, standing in front of her. "I thought your flight was tomorrow, girl."
"Yeah," she said. "It is, actually."
"Shouldn't you be at home getting some sleep?"
She smiled. "Tried that. Didn't work."
He shrugged and smiled at her.
"I'll miss you while you're gone, Nao," he said. "You're the highlight of my week, you know?"
"Sure I am."
He took a second to look her over.
"You look tired," he told her. "You okay, girl?"
Then, suddenly, she asked him a question.
"You got a girl, Ken?"
"Not right now," Ken said. "We just broke up."
"Damn. Sorry, fella."
"No, I don't care." He grinned. "Why'd you ask, Nao? Interested?"
She laughed. She did not bother to make it sound nice like she usually did when trying to make a good impression with a man. So the laugh was uncaring and low and had just enough evil in it to be sexy.
"You ever liked someone who had someone?" she asked, suddenly.
"What do you mean?" he answered. "You mean someone who likes someone else?"
"Yeah. Or, no." She smiled. "I mean someone who already has someone."
He stopped his polishing and reached under the bar to put aside the glass he was holding.
"Sure," he said. "I think everyone's gone through that at least once."
"I don't know if that's good to hear," she said, grinning. "So what happened?"
"To what?" he asked.
"You know, that person you liked who already had someone."
"I got over it."
She laughed again, but with less humour.
"Now, that's cheating," she said. "It's cheating to just say that, Kenny boy. You're skipping out on all the good stuff. Don't tell me you didn't try anything."
He grinned as a lock of hair worked itself loose from his pomade and brushed over his brow. He looked very boyish then, and very nice, and Nao thought that it was a pity she did not like him that way. He brushed back the wayward hair as he answered.
"That's the point," he said. "There was no good stuff. So I just suffered for a while and tried to be noble."
"Then I thought, to hell with being noble, let's try something else. So I tried something, yeah, but it didn't work so I suffered again. After a while I just got my quota of the suffering and got over it."
"Sounds like a cold," she said, while inspecting her nails.
"It's more like a fever."
"You ever regret it? Trying something?"
He scrunched up his brow. "Why should I?"
"Because it didn't work. So you might've saved yourself the trouble."
A man took a seat at the other end of the bar and Ken made a sign for Nao to wait. She nodded and watched him go over to the man and take his order. It was a Scotch, on the rocks. Ken poured the golden liquid into the glass with the ice and stopped when it was about four fingers high. He handed the drink to the client and came back.
"I don't know about that," he said. "I don't know about regret. Because I agree with those people who say it's always better to try than regret not doing it later. Besides, it might've worked."
"But it didn't."
"Sure. But it could've. Just because it didn't work that time doesn't mean you can be sure it never would've worked. Maybe it was just wrong timing, something like that. Maybe if I tried it at the right time I would've gotten the right reaction."
He reached under a shelf and came up holding a rag. He went on.
"It was just like, you know, I tried to shoot for a bull's-eye but didn't time it right for the wind or something. So I shot at the wrong time, with the wrong wind. Another time and the bullet might've hit where I wanted."
She was grinning.
"Bullet, huh?" she said. "I like that image. It fits."
He was about to ask her why when she spoke again.
"So," she said. "Let's pretend you like someone who has someone else, just as before. Let's just pretend it. Pretending's safe."
He smiled. "Are we pretending for you too?"
She took a while to consider it, moistening her lips with the drink in her hand.
"Hell, why not," she said. "Sure, let's pretend for both of us. Sound good?"
They smiled at each other.
"Doesn't it, though?" she told him. "But it's the way it is. So, still interested?"
"Heck, I'm game if you are," he answered, letting loose a laugh. "So what happens with these people we like? Don't tell me they're with each other."
"I don't know. It just is, I guess."
She smiled and said nothing.
"Just a little weird." He started to polish the bar surface with small, controlled circling motions. "So what are they like?"
"Hmm." She narrowed her eyes and brought up a hand to chew on her fingernail. "They have dark hair. I mean really dark."
"Works for me."
"They're really pale, and look even paler because of the hair. But we don't mind because they have perfect skin and it looks good with the hair and the eyes."
"What are the eyes like?"
"They're green. Not like my green," she said, wiggling her eyebrows at him. "A really deep green but clear all through, like emeralds."
"Nice. I like green eyes," he said, giving her a smile. "They're pretty."
"They're gorgeous," she said, laughing with him.
"So what else?" he asked, starting to enjoy this game.
"They have great bodies. Lean, but really toned, you know, like athletes. The athletic type."
"Sexy." He grinned. "But what are their personalities like, though?"
She squinted at the countertop he was polishing, which shone like a mirror from his attention.
"They're cold at first," she said. "And they act like they don't give a damn about the whole fucking world. They go around on their own and act like they don't need anyone. And usually skip school. Act tough all the time—you know the drill—with their leather and bikes and brooding expressions."
He chuckled. "Sounds real gruff, all right. Regular delinquents, huh?"
"Yeah." She grinned. "But, see, later you figure out they aren't just that. They're actually pretty nice and thoughtful in their own ways. It's just hard to see because they try not to let it show."
"Why do they do that?"
"Well," she began. "Let's say it's because they're scared. Because they're really flimsy under that thick old shell. They've been through shit so they can't help but be scared all the time. That's another thing that's hard to see."
She paused, her lips pulling into a slow, wry smile. "They've got a ton of angst and the chips on their shoulders are miles wide, but we like them in spite of that. Fuck, maybe we like them because of that."
He had stopped his polishing by now, and was holding the rag in one hand.
"He must be a really interesting guy," he said.
She shrugged, looking away. After a minute had passed without her saying anything, he started the conversation again.
"Anyway," he said. "What do we do about them? My girl and your guy?"
She smiled and wagged a finger at him.
"They're not ours, remember?" she said. "They belong to other people. That's the problem."
"Oh, yeah. So what do we do about the problem?"
"I guess we try to fix it."
He nodded. "That sounds about right."
"It's easy to say that, though," she said. "It's easy to think about doing it, too. But it's hard to do it."
"It gets easier once you do start," he told her.
He lifted his thick, shaggy eyebrows at her. After that, the man at the other end of the bar lifted his hand.
"Wait," Ken told Nao. "I'll just serve him."
The man asked for another Scotch. After Ken gave him the drink, he came back to Nao's side of the bar.
"So," he said. "Let's pretend we do try something. What do we try?"
She had her elbow on the counter and her chin propped up on one hand. Her red hair fell into her eyes and she blew to get it away.
"We hang out with them," she said. "And we make it like a date, but we call it 'hanging out,' because that's safer."
"How long do we do this 'hanging out'?"
"A whole day."
"And the... the significant others aren't there?"
"They're not there."
"What do we do while 'hanging out'?"
"We go to the mall. Eat, mess around a little. Argue, too, because that's the way it always is, and it's fun. We talk a lot."
She gave him a cunning smile.
"First we talk about generally everything," she said. "Then you and I think about how this is a great opportunity that we can't let go to waste. So we start talking about something specific."
"Like all the differences and problems and disagreements that they and their significant others have."
"This is where the scheming starts."
"It started way before."
He chuckled. "Go on."
Her face took on a pensive expression.
"So," she said. "Let's say we do that. Let's say we point out these things and ask them if they never get frustrated by how different they are from them." She made a light frown. "From... that woman."
"What does he say?" he asked, before catching himself. "No, I mean 'they'? What do they say?"
"They say 'yeah.'"
"Don't they get frustrated? I mean, differences can be frustrating."
"Let's say they do get frustrated by it sometimes," she answered.
"That's good," he told her. "That's something. So what do we say next?"
"We start pointing out little things about us having more in common than they do. You know, like how it'd be better with us than those people they have right now. Just not too obviously, at first."
"Power of suggestion."
"So what happens after that?" he asked. "It all seems like pretty smooth sailing to me."
She shook her head at him, a small smile on her lips.
"No," she said. "This is the hard part. This is where I always have trouble solving the problem in my head."
He pointed his chin at her. "Let's have a go. I'll help."
"Two heads are better than one, huh?"
"That's what they say."
She smiled dryly, licking her lips. She checked her watch before looking up at him again.
"Let's say you've done pointing it all out," she said. "That they're like oil and water together and don't fit right."
"Okay." He nodded. "What does she—he, for your case—say to that?"
"Well, let's say the answer is that it doesn't matter. What would you say?"
"Easy," he told her. "I'd say it'd be hard to say the same thing a little further down the road. Differences make relationships interesting at first, but a little later on and they become pure fuel for fights. One day they're going to wake up and realize all they do is bicker and want to get out of it and maybe it'll be harder to do that by then."
"Okay," she said. "So basically, we're going to suggest that they give a good think to their relationship?"
"Yeah," he said. "Perfect way to sow the seeds of discontent."
"Okay," she said again.
"And after that, I guess we point out that they're really different from each other, just to make the point clear."
"I'll go you a step further," she told him. "We'll tell them they have nothing in common. Nothing that matters, anyway. I mean, 'breathing' isn't really something that you can answer to that."
"That'd do it," he said. "They couldn't say anything to that, from what you've told me. See, easy?"
She looked at him.
"But they do say something to that, Kenny."
A pause, before she continued.
"And we don't know what to answer to it," she finished.
"What?" He looked curious and challenging at the same time. "Come on. What?"
She was quiet. He prodded on.
"Come on, Nao. Let's say you say he and this girl don't have anything in common. What does the guy say?"
Her eyes were shut off from him. She opened them after a few seconds, and he thought they were a little too bright tonight.
"The idiot says," she said. "They do have something in common."
His face showed that he had not expected that answer. She smiled, but it looked like a grimace.
"So what do you say?" she asked, suddenly draining what was left of her drink. "What the fuck do you say to that?"
He pulled in his lips, then brought them out again. He looked up at the ceiling, then back at her.
She was expecting an answer.
"I don't know," he said, finally. It sounded like an apology. "I wouldn't know what to say to that."
Again the bitter smile on her face, her mouth twisted into a punctuation mark of feeling.
"What the hell," she muttered, looking like she had just realized what was on her face. "What the hell."
She shook her head as if to clear it, and the bitterness submerged to the point where it was just beneath the surface. But it was no longer secret, and he supposed she was angry with herself for having allowed it to come up for air earlier.
He was about to open his mouth when she slid off the stool in a swift motion, laying a few bills on the countertop.
"You're going?" he asked.
She smiled at him and said thanks, and she had to leave now. It was clear she did not want to talk anymore, so he wished her a good flight and she told him to keep the change.
She said something as she turned away.
"See," she said, sounding almost sorry. "I didn't know what to say to it either."