"Yes, yes, I was." My voice is a little flat, chilly but not cold, like a barely-perceptible breeze instead of a harsh gale.
He doesn't even notice, just smiles a little and begins, "Not all bad—"
And I drop it on him. "I met Lucila because of that," I say over him. He flinches just a bit at that, a wince flashing across his face.
"Y-yeah," he says, stuttering, flailing to recover. "And then I... I kidnapped Lucila by accident," and I can tell it pains him to even bring her up, because he knows, just knows that he's leaving himself wide open again, "and you have to believe that it was totally an accident--"
"She told me," I say, quiet and neutral, no inflection to give him a clue what I'm thinking.
He just deflates a little, mutters, "Y-yeah, and my name..." He sits silent for a moment, and I start to feel bad for what I've just done, but he rallies – barely, but he rallies – and spits out a rambling summary of everything since we last saw each other, of thefts and a fight and hiring and adventure, and how he has one more big thing, "And next I'm going to retire," he says. I open my mouth to apologize and ask him what he's going to do after that, but he runs me over finally just blurting out a last, little thing:
"And it's my birthday," he says. "Which I should've said first, but totally forgot."
Ned grabs up the pie and shoves a huge forkful in his mouth, chewing with that desperate need of escape from conversation, filling his mouth so he doesn't have to embarrass himself further, so he doesn't give me any more chances to slide my words between his ribs. The sad, forlorn look on his face cracks my icy resolve, the wall of hurt feelings I wanted to hide behind. I feel like I've been kicking a puppy.
I wait for him to swallow, then grab him by the shoulders before he can scoop up another load of pie. He looks over at me, a wave of surprise, confusion, and – almost unbearable – a little fear crossing his face. I don't give him time to say anything, and just pull him close against me.
I don't kiss him. I really want to, but I don't know if I could cope with the guilt that'd bring to bear. I'd probably run away if I did so, all dramatic-like as if I was living in a cheap romance, so I just hug him close to me as tight as I safely can. I close my eyes and whisper, "I'm sorry. Happy birthday."