NINEEIGHTNINENINENINE
rating: +16+x

"Callin' it fuckin' quits. We got…" Brad set his bass down and checked his watch. "… negative ten minutes till the kids show up."

Ashton Miyamoto sighed, either out of relief or exasperation. Yellowface was their bread and butter project, the thing that got them out of the house; it also consisted primarily of guttural growling and screaming, which was much harder than it sounded when Ashton had to both maintain their posture and work the keyboard.

"At least we kept your shack warm." Dontae sounded glad to be free, at least. "I need to go get groceries. There's a sale at the bodega off Negative 5th, if you like eating pinoy. Otherwise, toodles."

"See ya'.", but Dontae had already left.

In the interim, Brad pulled out a carton of incense sticks, sticking one in his mouth before lighting it with his trademark green fire. "Izzy's ain't one to be fuckin' late, tell you that much."

"Cousin, right?"

"Sure as shit ain't her mother, even if I gotta pick up after that snake." Brad offered Ashton another stick; given they weren't entirely sure how Brad smoked them in the first place, they declined. "Real piece of work. No fuckin' surprise she's a Jailor, Auntie Aggie'll do anything to assimilate. I tell ya, one time-"

Brad's monologue was cut short by the sound of a truck pulling up to the garage.

The truck was… well, it probably belonged to one of the "kids" from that new band he'd assembled. Burgundy where it wasn't chipped, which wasn't too much of the truck. Looked like something that drove in front of a drug-running car to distract the police; some of the (probable) repair work especially made it look less like a truck and more like an active car magnet.

The man who came out of the passenger seat was surprisingly well-dressed. "Oh, uh, yeah, sorry Brad. We, uh… had a bit of a problem."

"Fuckin' hell, Jack, if it's that vague what kept you?"

"Well…" Jack briefly glanced towards Ashton, before breaking eye contact. "It's a, well, it's a pretty long story, and Sara-"

A tall woman came up behind him, throwing an arm over his shoulder with practiced grace. "One word: rebound."

Brad pinched the bridge of his nose. "Fine, fine, had a bad week. Not like y'all need more'n one guitarist."

The man suddenly looked to the ground, while his companion grinned.

"… where the fuck's Izzy?"

The (now oddly familiar?) woman grinned wider.

"… sunuva bitch." Brad sighed, collapsing against the armchair in the corner. "Whose fault? Sara I get but… fuck, don't wanna think about this. This'll be the fuckin' death of someone if she can't keep it in her-" and Brad suddenly cut himself off. "… so I guess practice is fuckin' off?"

"I mean I got my drums, Jack's got a guitar, and…" that's when the woman turned to face Ashton, and her grin suddenly disappeared. "… Mitsy?"

Did they know this chick? They were starting to get the feeling they should've known this chick, and getting deadnamed only cemented that. "Eh, I go by Ashton now, but-"

"Holy shit, it's been two years!" The woman broke from the man, bounding over to Ashton and stopping just short of hugging distance, arms outstretched. "I haven't seen you since college! What've you been up to, man?"

This close… ohhhhh.

"'sup, Lye." Ashton smiled, briefly closing the hug gap before pulling back. "Sorry for the cold shoulder, but, your hair's pink, now, and…" Ashton gave her another look-over. "… difference two years on E makes, huh?"

"Prog, too." Lye's smile came easier than Ashton remembered. Hopefully she was doing better, too. "We need to catch up, I've got a library of shit I gotta share with you and knowing you, that shit's mutual."

The man standing at the precipice of the garage coughed.

Ashton furrowed their brow. "Somethin' up?"

He looked to Lye, instead. "Uh… Lyanna? This is, uh… someone you know?"

"Oh shit, Jack, how the hell did I never tell you about…" Lye turned back to Ashton. "What pronoun do you go by now?"

"Them."

"Tight, thanks." Lye turned back to Jack, giddy with a herefore-unseen excitement unmatched by Jack's own strained smile. "But yeah, me and Ashton go fucking back. We got into all sorts of shit back in college, anywhere from like, Halloween pranks to…" Lye suddenly blushed, then snorted. "Oh g-d, what the fuck was I doing back then?"

Ashton looked back to Jack, fidgeting uncomfortably at the precipice of the garage. Taking him in, it was hard not to remember Lye's Jared saga. "Spare Jack the worst of it?"

"Jack's heard the worst of it, trust me." Lye had her arm back around Jack in no time at all. Like most of the men in her tragically heterosexual life, she was out of his league. "Yeah, meet Jack." At least she looked happy. "Brad introduced me a while back, we've been thick as thieves ever since."

"Tight." Ashton couldn't believe they used to crush on this chick.

"But… fuck, yeah. Anyways," Lye looked around the garage. "Since Brad seems to have mysteriously disappeared again, we're short a bass, so… probably not gonna use it that long. You free in twenty minutes? Prolly gonna grab some pizza."

Oh.

"'mean…" A nervous chuckle. "Don't mean to impose…"

"Hey, you're my friend, Jack's my friend… not much to impose on. Not like I have anywhere else to go tonight, you know?"

Damn it, she'd really changed since college, hadn't she? Less antisocial, better-adjusted, not… not a fucking shut-in, like Ashton. But, well… good for Lye.

"Sorry, heh. I've got…" Their lips were chapped. "… promised myself I'd finish a mix tonight, heh, sorry."

Uhhhh, later?, they didn't ask, because they couldn't.


Organisms from the Kingdom Animalia didn't get finished that night, but Ashton gave as good as they could.

Which wasn't enough.


SoHo got colder with the seasons. It was something Ashton never thought about, the idea that a Free Port might match the temperature fluctuations of the world it inhabited. But when you worked graveyard shift security for a Hole to China, the thought was easy to fall back into.

Not like they had much else to think about during their 2 AM smoke break, anyway. Most of the people who were out this time of night weren't talkers; trying to change that didn't bode well for your abdomen or back (it all depended on who one bothered). Maybe if you were lucky, you got a visitor from Chigoku Cellar, too nervous to start shit and about as fluent in English as Ashton was in Japanese. Funny how that works, four years of one language squandered by seventeen years of the other. Buried by…

Ashton wasn't certain what point their internal narration was trying to make. In their defense, it was 2 AM.

With one final drag, Ashton flicked the cigarette butt to the sidewalk, snuffing it with their boot and bending over to-

"Ashton?"

That's… Lyanna's voice?

Ashton bent back up, primarily to flick the butt into the receptacle but also to get a look at the voice. Certainly, there weren't too many other 6 foot something chicks with pink hair who wore ripped jeans on the cusp of winter. "'sup, Lye?"

Lye smiled, but didn't quite meet their gaze. "Oh, not much, man, not much. I'm just, uh… running some errands, midnight, you know? Couldn't sleep, so…"

"Need or wanna talk?"

A nervous chuckle. "Fuck, uh, you know, it's just one of my ups. I'm not getting to sleep for like a day, why not make the best of this?"

"Lye, I work here. Not gonna judge."

Lye blinked. "Shit, you work here?"

"Graveyard shift. Pays well enough, uh…" Ashton scratched at the back of their head. "… did I, uh… I tell you?"

"I meaaaaaaaan, last time I saw you was before my Senior Project. You were still in college, so like… fuck, I don't know. I assumed you were a full-timer." Another nervous chuckle. Lye finally made eye contact. "What do they got you doing here, Ash?"

"Security room."

"Oh thank fuck, I thought you were a cop." She still looked on edge.

"You know, Lye, you're allowed to like porn. I won't judge."

Lye's eyes went wide. "I'm not-I'm here to return a record, Ash. It's… I'm not some kind of pervert who needs d-dubious magic hentai, you know?"

Ashton rolled their eyes. Same old Lyanna. "Got it. Need any recommendations, I got ten minutes before I'm needed in the camera room. Can't promise I do too much absinthe, and if you change your mind, what I think you'll like's gonna be filtered through comphet. Take care, Lye."

Lye nodded stiffly, and entered the store.

***

Lye emerged three minutes later, clutching some album with a subway station on the cover like she was afraid to be seen with it.

Ashton gave a low whistle. "Haven't listened to that one."

Lye jumped, recomposing herself only once she spotted Ashton. "G-d, it's… I'm sorry, it's a whole fucking world in there."

"Don't I know it."

A pause. Ashton fingered the carton in their jacket, fiddling with the lid but not making a move to pull out another cig. "… look, it's cool. The Hole has what you need, shitty noise, whatever. Hole has a lot of what people need. No one's gonna judge you for being human, 'aight?"

"Yeah, yeah, it's, uh… is what it is, you know?" Lyanna sighed, pulling a pack from her bag and removing four sticks of gum, two of which were offered to Ashton. They shook their head, and Lye popped her pieces and put the rest away. "Fucking hell, it's like… I don't know, it's been two years. And… shit, I don't even know how to put it."

"I get you."

Lye sighed once more, opening her mouth to say something until it got lost in her confused expression. In her defense, Ashton wasn't sure how to break the pause, either.

Lye spoke first. "… isn't your birthday coming up? That's… you'll be 22, right?"

It was in-fact, as Ashton only just remembered, coming up in about two months. December 19th. The day it all went to shit. "Mean… I guess?"

"Fuck yeah, cool. You wanna do something for that? Together, with friends, etc.?"

Ashton froze up. "Uh, well…" Yes, no, give me time to think of a valid excuse to get out of this so I don't have to go outside because apparently I'm deathly afraid of that now that I live alone. "… sure, yeah."

Fuck. Damn it.

Lyanna smiled like she wasn't just being polite; Ashton never thought the sight of it could make their stomach drop as much as it did. "Fuck yeah. Yeah, just give me like, the exact date and time, and I'll see if I can't drag my bandmates along." So… genuine, her grin. So hard not to return it. "G-d damn, you'll love 'em. Gimme a date and I'll corral those cats into the cage, or however the fuck you say it."

"Oh, uh, sure, cool." Ashton scratched their head. "Yeah… December 19th?"

Lyanna whipped out her phone. "19th, got it. Well, I gotta go before Brad gets worried. TTYL?"

"Uh… yeah, sure."

Lyanna walked away, not quite in shame but at the very least colored by a cloud of Ashton's.


this still your number?


Oh, hey Lye.








sup girllllll!







fuck, sorry. Trying to think of another term that doesn't sound passive-aggressive















pal?


Don't worry about it, Lye. :)






okay! 😎







how've you been? It's been ages since I last texted you











I'm not being annoying, am I?








shit, fuck. I'm clingy, aren't I








please tell me what I did









if you don't want to reconnect I'm fine with that but i want to know what I did wrong







Shit, sorry. I'm













Call you?

***

Ashton was greeted with a "G-d I'm so fucking sorry," in the intonation of someone who'd just run over their dog as soon as they picked up the phone. Same old Lyanna.

"'sfine, Lye. You, uh… caught me busy, heh." The Vietnamese take-out and now muted public access trash tv suggested otherwise, but that was one of the wonders of the modern world, no? "Seriously, we're cool."

"Fuck, thank you." Lye sighed over the line. "Shit, I told myself I wouldn't get like… g-d, I'm sorry."

"Don't need to apologize, man." A pause. "Shit, sorry."

Lye laughed; a step up, at least. "It's fine, Ash… you don't mind being called that, right?"

"One, you're my friend, you can call me whatever long as it's not 'Mitsuki'. Two, named myself after Bowie. If Ash's good for him, good for me."

"… Bowie?"

"Ash Bowie. From Polvo."

"Wow, I can't believe I'm friends with a fucking nerd."

It wasn't much, but it still pulled a laugh out of Ashton. Things were just funnier at… 1:19 AM, if Ashton's clock was still up to date. "You're one to talk, grease monkey. Have any luck with those RC cars? What about Number 7, ever fix that one?"

Lye sputtered. She knew exactly what Ashton meant, from the sounds of it. "You can't, you… fuck, you can't just bring that up! That was years ago!"

"Yeah, good ol' days, back…"

Ashton trailed off, looking back to the incomprehensible infomercial playing silently on their TV; to the brick view just outside their window; to the tear-off calendar on the wall that, even forgotten, still marked a day almost two years since the last time Ashton had had someone over. They opened their mouth to say something, and nothing came out.

It was, once again, Lye who broke the silence. "… I miss this, Ash. Just… middle of the night, shooting the shit with you. It's… you're still my friend, right?"

"Cried on my couch too many times for the answer to be 'no', Lye."

Lye laughed again, a single chuckle less of mirth and more of… well, Lye's emotions were somewhat complicated, as Ashton remembered it. "Thanks, Ash. It's… fuck, I just worry, alright? I haven't heard from you in years and finding you with Brad again, it feels like, I don't know, maybe I… maybe I wasn't worth remembering."

"You? You're really hard to forget, Lye." Another pause. "In a good way."

"Thanks. It's… I wanna be your friend again, you know? Yeah, we're still friends, but friend stuff. Hanging out, doing… whatever. Weed or Melee or music mixing. You know?"

Ashton swallowed, finding themself looking up at the plaster ceiling. No idea why; certainly there wasn't anything up there, or at least nothing up there that was out of place. Frankly, there wasn't much to their apartment in the first place, given the sheer difficulty involved in hauling things through a shopfront and up two flights of stairs. Or is that yet another excuse, the ones Ashton always-

"You alright?"

Something broke in Ashton's head, putting their mouth on autopilot. "I'm scared." The world was glossing over itself, now, like warped glass overlooking a dune of plaster sand. "Of outside, of people, of, of…. I'm scared, Lye, I don't know." A ringing in their ears. They closed their eyes. "I don't know."

Lye went silent in turn, for a while. "… I'm sorry, I don't… I don't know, either. But I feel like we did, once. Wanna… relearn it, together?"

A stupid response, and despite everything, Ashton found themself smiling.


"I'm telling you, Mips's patch is a wonder. Sure you don't want the crack?"

Lye hadn't trampled everything as she stepped inside, hadn't insulted Ashton or denigrated their sense of decoration or exposed their deepest, darkest vulnerabilities, brought with her no icon of their mistakes or instrument of their demise or anything other than her dingy laptop and some cheap pizza. Honestly, everything said and done, chatting video games as the two worked on separate projects was rather chill in comparison to most of Ashton's hypotheticals. So that was a relief.

Ashton saved their current track before removing their earbuds and turning towards Lye. "I run Mac, Lye. New Vegas is Windows."

"Knowing Mips, that's not gonna be a problem." In contrast, Lye's fingers and eyes were stuck to the keyboard and screen, respectably. "Girl's a fucking genius. Legitimately surprised she's not signed onto some big-name hacker collective… actually, do they pay anyone?"

"Collectives?"

"Yeah, the spooky ones."

"Guess it depends."

"I mean, yeah, CIA or Google or whatever, but in general, you know?" Lye did something her computer apparently didn't like, and Ashton wasn't certain whether to warn against burning herself or ask if they could sample her fan's noise. Come to think of it…

Ashton re-donned their earbuds and opened Track 2. "Outside that? It's… lots of black hats, I guess. Can't be legal."

"Well, you know what they say, crime pays."

"Don't know if they say that."

"At least it's what they mean."

From there, a lull in conversation. It wasn't too bad; the mere presence of someone else in Ashton's apartment felt nice against the usual loneliness, especially when it was an old friend. Besides, Ashton wasn't much for talking, and they couldn't imagine either of their projects benefiting from continued conversation.

Maybe things were going to be okay.

"Yo, weren't you working on a mix?"

Things were not going to be okay.

Great, Lyanna was going to hear Ashton's stupid joke music and realize what a failure they were. They'd be back to being alone, like what Lye talked about in her… oh fuck it, that was just enough self awareness for Ashton's next words:

"I'm scared about whether you'll like my anart, but I wanna get better about… friend stuff. Can you wait til you're home to open a zip?"

Lye briefly looked away from the screen to smile. "No sweat, Ash. I mean… you don't have to send it if you don't want to."

Ashton gulped. "I want to."

It didn't help their anxiety once they'd actually emailed Lye the zip, but at least the expense of present Ashton made past Ashton happy.


Ashton picked up their phone. "Yo?"

"Hey, Ash. So I was hanging with Izzy, and your-"

An indistinct sound like flesh against leather cut Lyanna off, only to be replaced by a smoother, vaguely English voice. "That was killer! God, I'm almost furious at how much effort you put into that mix, This Town Needs Guns was not meant to be as funny as that was."

"Uh… thanks." Realistically, they should've been panicking at the thought of someone else hearing their music.

"Really, I'd love to meet up if you-"

Click.

… 'that was an accident', they told themself.

***

By the time Lye called again, six hours later, 'that was an accident' had morphed into 'that was unforgivable'. It was with reasonable apprehension, then, that Ashton picked up their phone.

"Hey, Ash."

Ashton opened their mouth to reply, and nothing quite came out.

"… look, Ash, I just-"

"I'm sorry." Ashton swallowed. "Shouldn't have just, just hung up. Shouldn't have blown her off like that."

"Don't worry about-"

"I was rude to her cause I was scared but I shouldn't have, well, just interrupted. It was rude to her and shit, it was rude to you, Lye-"

"Seriously, Ash, it's-"

"I'm sorry, Lye, I'm sorry, I don't know what happened that I'm so paranoid but I shouldn't be taking it out on-"

"She wants to apologize, Ash."

A pause. "… apologize?"

"Yeah, to you." Lyanna sighed from the other end of the line. "It's… she got angry after you — after the call cut off, and said some… things, which she really fucking regrets. There's also, like, listening to the track and putting you in a corner, you know, but the main thing she wanted to apologize for was the stuff she said."

"I, uh… didn't hear it?"

"She's… Izzy's got a heart in a rough place. It's, uh… I mean it's not my place to speculate. Point is, she's sorry, and it really helps her if you know that."

Izzy… wanted to apologize to them? For something they didn't even hear? That was… fine, really. Didn't make too much sense but whatever floats her boat, huh?

"… yeah, tight. Tell her… tell her I accept, yeah?"

"Got it, yeah."

"… tell her, uh… she can come over. Tomorrow."

"You don't gotta force yourself on our behalf, Ash."

"Yeah, just…" Ashton licked their lips. "… just wanna be better. At this stuff. Like you, Lye."

"I mean, thanks, but…" Lyanna cut herself off with another sigh. "Thanks. I'll talk it over with Izzy. She's got packed work, but we'll work something out, alright? She… does wanna meet you."

"Fucked up."

"Yeah." Another pause. "Night, Ash. I, uh… I love you and appreciate our friendship."

"… same, Lye. Night."

Ashton hung up.


Unlike Lyanna, Izzy was exactly as terrifying to meet as Ashton had expected.

Maybe it was her sense of style, dressed in a pressed button-up and slacks, with a butch cut and the sort of resting bitch face you saw on the likes of bouncers or auditors. It could just as easily have been how she held herself, like she was disappointed at anything and everything before her. Or, perhaps, it was the way parts of her… "flickered", went shapeless for the briefest of instants, whenever Ashton looked at her too hard.

Whatever it was, it'd been there for the thirty seconds of awkward silence after Ashton had opened their door. "… hi."

"Greetings. Ashton, right?"

"… yeah."

A pause.

Izzy tilted her head. "Can I listen to more of your music?"

Ashton exhaled a breath they didn't know they'd been holding. "Yeah, come in."

Izzy moved like a dancer as she slunk inside, settling onto the sofa with a boneless grace almost too practiced not to be a blanket insult to those around her. Like nothing was worth it, Ashton most especially. The idea that her and such an unabashed low-life (in the best possible sense) like Brad were cousins was almost inconceivable.

It was hard to keep Ashton's eyes off her as they made their way to the mac. "I… I dunno what Lye showed you. So, uh… mean, some of this is unfi-"

"Am I bothering you, Ashton?"

They didn't mean to facepalm. "No, no, you're cool. It's…"

Even Izzy's sighs carried the pomp of an actress with them. "You don't need to lie to me, Ashton. I'm… I have a bad tendency of imposing myself. I've been trying to work on it, of course, but it's… very hard to help it, you must understand."

Ashton's mac was under a pile of junk. Why hadn't they taken the time to clean this place beforehand? "Seriously, dude, 's cool. It's… mean, I'm kinda scared I'm bothering you."

"I'd definitely let you know if you were bothering me." Izzy twisted around with uncanny ease. "People always expect me to be direct, no? Comes with being butch."

"My experience, they ignore me." Aaaaaaaand out comes the mac. "You, uh… certain you still wanna hear my shit?"

Izzy smiled. "You say that like-"

***

As Track 15 faded out, Izzy remained wide-eyed and staring at the ceiling from her spot on the sofa.

'So,', what Ashton would've started with if they weren't cringing into themselves enough to start a singularity. What the hell were they thinking? You didn't just unleash experimental anart on someone you just met! Great, she hated it and-

Izzy cleared her throat. "… have any weed? I might need another listen to… process that."

"God, I'm sor-"

"In a good way, mind you."

Ah.

***

Funny how a nugget of weed smoothed everything over; light into light, legitimate fears into paper tigers, metaphors into unfocused thoughts.

The pretense of music had been dropped an hour ago, around the time Izzy had noticed Ashton's (borrowed, right?) copy of Demon's Souls. Currently, she was struggling through the Boletaria Palace; Ashton had to resist backseating her gameplay, which the weed was making increasingly harder. Harder as in resisting backseating. Possibly also Demon's Souls.

Izzy groaned in frustration after yet another death at the hands of the zombie mobs. "This game is awful."

"Eh, you learn."

"Pure masochism, Ashton. Where's the lesson in that?" Izzy set her controller onto the coffee table and sank further into the couch. "I'm… I'm so much better at fighting games."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah… goddamn right I am." Izzy grinned; were her teeth always that sharp? "I'm a ffffucking queen, Ashton. Queen of buttons. Better than… than anyone else."

"I dunno. Lye's pretty good."

Izzy's grin just got wider, as if Ashton's words were just what she needed to hear. She picked up her controller and went right at it again. Ashton didn't mind the lull; watching someone else play video games was kind of hypnotic, even if they'd never been all that into Let's Plays. The specific sort of silence one needed for Demon's Souls was the sort Ashton thrived in.

And so Izzy just went at it, like a bull in a china shop. So confident. Self-assured. Rolling with every swipe of a sword. Water off the back of a duck who played at sogginess. This metaphor was getting away from Ashton. Whatever.

It was after Izzy's first death to Phalanx that Ashton next spoke. "How… how do you do it?"

"You tell me, Ash."

"No, like…" Ashton did a thing with their hands. "… y'know, friendship."

Izzy… might have been smiling as she turned to Ashton, but the expression quickly vanished, along with any of the words she meant to say. It was a hot minute before she finally spoke. "… what exactly do you mean?"

"Y'know, like… friends." Ashton shifted their position, or attempted to do so and merely sunk further into the cushions. "With Lye or Jack, or, uh… what's her name, Sally? Your guitarist."

Izzy opened her mouth to say something, stopped, and broke eye contact. She then looked back up at Ashton, sighed, opened her mouth again, cut herself off and broke eye contact again, set down the controller, furrowed her brow, and began flickering far more frequently than she had in the past few hours. Finally she blinked, licked her lips (did her tongue always look like that?) and shrugged. "… I guess they are my friends."

Ashton furrowed their brow in turn. "What's that mean?"

"I mean they're my bandmates, you know?" Izzy seemed to melt into the couch crevices. "You come together, you make music with them, but… they're not strictly your friends, are they?"

"Dude."

"Okay, yes, thinking about it, that is a bit silly." Izzy paused, bringing a hand to her chin. "If you had a band, you would be friends with them, no? Automatically, I mean."

"Have a band, and…" … oh. "… fuck. How's it done?"

Izzy's current expression was somewhere between a grin and a grimace. "Oh god. This a very… delicate thing, you're asking, you realize. Very bloody delicate. Oh my god."

Ashton did whatever passed for shrugging from their current sitting position. "Can't be too bad."

"I…" Izzy lightly chuckled. "I've just… you know at first, I was just trying to shag 'em."

Ashton blinked.

"In my defense," and Izzy rose from her spot on the couch. "I have a massive weakness for rocker girls. My last ex, Alex… she turned out to be a massive bitch, but my god she was a bloody legend, you know? I thought, you know… establish something first, avoid all the hassle of another knife in my back. So yeah, I just, uh… 'set the pace', so to speak."

A pause. "… so you fucked your band."

Izzy shrugged. "In fairness, I only got as far as Sara. I'm not exactly into men, so that's Jack out of the way, and I don't think Lyanna's catching my signals. But, I suppose that, in the process, I've become good friends with all three of them."

"Right." Ashton rubbed their forehead. "… you realize Lye's straight, right?"

Izzy quirked an eyebrow. "Her? Straight?"

"Yep."

Another pause. "… are you fucking with me? That woman is gayer than a pack of rainbow scissors. When's the last time you saw a straight person dress like that? And… and aren't you two exes?"

Ashton shrugged. "Trust me, had the same reaction. And, uh, no. I just crushed on her."

"Come on." Izzy rolled her eyes. "I swear, the way she talks about you sometimes, it's exactly how she talks about Jack. All this pining."

"… pining?"

Izzy said something, but it was buried under a sudden surge of… of something. Warmth? Residual aching? Something spreading out from Ashton's stomach and filling in cracks they hadn't noticed were still there. Treacherous bullshit feelings they'd gotten over a year ago. Something mixed with something mixed with something that needed to be crushed before they fell back down the rabbit hole.

"Are you alright?"

Ashton sat up and pursed their lips. "Yeah. Yeah, it's… yeah."

"Right." Izzy furrowed her brow and sighed. "I'm sorry. It's just… I don't know, straight women don't obsess about their lesbian friend's feelings. They don't… bloody hell, that woman cannot be straight!"

"It's… yeah."

"Just…" Izzy sighed. "Again, sorry. I… right. So I suppose… all that's how I became friends with my bandmates. I… am guessing your band isn't quite like that?"

"No." Ashton wasn't keeping eye contact. "Two dudes."

"Ah." Another pause. "… let's talk about something else."

"Let's."


Ashton was being stupid. That was common for them, being stupid. They were too stupid to ration sanity through college and now they were too stupid to employ said sanity into… this metaphor didn't work. Because it was stupid.

Their reflection didn't look any less stupid. Dressing like they were going to go out and have a good time, reach out to a friend of their's. Who even wanted to hang out with them? Brad and Dontae pretended they cared, but the moment they found a better keyboardist that was all over. And Lyanna… Lyanna only hung out with Ashton because they were clingy and parasitic. And annoying. Very, very annoying. And even if she did want to hang out with Ashton-

-their thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door.

Damn it, this late it was probably their boss slash landlord. Wasn't Ashton's fault the Hole allowed "honor duels" on the-

Ashton opened the door to an incredibly frazzled looking Lyanna.

Alright, "frazzled" was… not so accurate? A frazzled Lye was normal, especially during her "ups" (as she called what were probably hypomanic states). This was different: for one thing, there was a peculiar bewilderment in her eyes, accompanied by nervous twitches that went beyond the shivering cold. Her posture was… well, Lye was a sloucher, but this was almost… pangolin-esque. Come to think of it, her knocks hadn't been as loud as typical for Lye, either.

Lye opened her mouth, then closed it. Stood there.

"… need my couch, Lye?"

She nodded.

***

Lyanna was delicate, one could say. The kind of crier you wanted to hug, to pat her hair as she worked through her feelings. She also hated being touched, so Ashton did none of that, much to the chagrin of the traitorous part of their mind that had recently woken from its slumber. One just waited things through.

Not that Ashton minded. There was something calming to it, assurance in Lye's catharsis. That all Ashton had to do was be there for her.

Or maybe Ashton was too nostalgic for how it used to be.

Lye's cries eventually shriveled into deep breaths, like they always did. It was a while before she sat up. Longer still until she finally spoke. "… 'msorry about all that, Ash."

"Lye, it's cool." Ashton swallowed. "Want a soda? Know sweets aren't your thing, but… yeah."

Lye remained silent, staring at the floor before suddenly looking up at Ashton. "Yeah, yeah, it's… it's cool. Uh… no thanks. Just water, if that's okay."

Ashton nodded, getting up from their sofa to fetch a cup for Lye. Hope she liked tap water.

Ashton returned with a small glass cup. Lye took it with a weak grip and a weaker nod, taking a few small sips before setting the cup onto the coffee table. There was a brief pause before she finally spoke. "… promise you won't get mad?"

"It's okay, Lye." Ashton settled back into their sofa. "I… you haven't done anything wrong. Or, I don't… it's fine, Lye. I'm not mad."

Lyanna nodded, pausing to collect her words. "… I… I had sex with Izzy."

… hrm.

Ashton furrowed their brow as Lye continued. "It was… I mean we were playing Melee after practice, you know how… how that goes, you know? And… and I…" Lye burst back into indiscernible sobbing.

She kept sobbing as Ashton moved onto the arm of Lye's couch. "Dude, it's… it's not your fault if she took advantage of you. I mean, I'm sorry, Lye. That sucks. But-"

Lyanna laughed, a mirthless cackle with bite like an alligator. "She didn't, Ash. She fucking didn't and I'm a…" Lye interrupted herself with a sniffle. "… I wanted it. Gave into that… that stupid fucking impulse in the back of my skull, leaned in when she did, let her… fuck, I don't know!"

Something dark bubbled up from the pit of Ashton's stomach, but it didn't translate to words, and so they remained silent.

"Fuck, I just… she was just really handsome in that lighting, and she started kissing me and, and… I'm sorry, Ash. I'm just a fucking predator. Some… some stupid fucking predatory man in drag who tricks-"

"Lye."

Lye cut herself off, and turned to face Ashton with a look of… something Ashton couldn't quite place. Perhaps it was the smudged eyeshadow or snot that threw them off.

Ashton moved onto the couch proper. "You're not a man. Even if you-" that was not what they should have gone with. "… look, Lye. You can like other sapphic women. You're a woman, like them, a strong, beautiful-"

Ashton's skin nearly shed off their bones. Why that word?

Eye contact got harder. "Look it doesn't matter if… how you were born doesn't matter. There's, there's things. That you are. And…"

It was then that Ashton ran out of words.

Lye tilted her head and leaned forward, like she needed something. Ashton nodded, and Lye crawled over to wrap her arms around Ashton. It was… nice, in a sense, the spark of a selfish sort of satisfaction. The kind of comfort whose instigation was too raw to feel good about feeling good. Something Ashton wanted, and unlike Lyanna, didn't deserve.

Pulling back just a little, Lye brushed a stray hair from her face and just… stared. At Ashton. Just like they were staring at her.

She leaned in, and-

Ashton blinked, and pulled back. "I'm sorry. This is… you're not in a good place for this."

"Ash, please, I-"

"You're vulnerable, Lye. If we… it's not gonna end well, Lye. Not now."

Lye blinked, and smiled like a shuttered window. It wasn't enough to mask the disappointment in her next words: "I'm sorry, Ash."

"It's okay, it's…"

Ashton took Lyanna back in their arms. They didn't kiss her; against every screaming synapse urging exactly that, Ashton didn't kiss her.


The voice on the other end of the line was not Lyanna. "Hello?"

"Shit, wrong number?"

The (oddly familiar) voice on the other end of the line chuckled. "Well… that depends: did you mean to call Veronica?"

Ashton winced. "This isn't Lyanna, then?"

"Oh, no, you absolutely got the right number. One second…"

There was a soft sound of shuffling over the phone, before a distinctly familiar groan. "Apologies, bit of a mix-up. Can I help you?"

"Lye?"

"… Ash? Shit." Lyanna laughed. "You caught me at a very bad time, Ash. I… no, yeah what's up?"

Ashton swallowed. They had a good enough idea what constituted "bad time" not to press the issue. "Yo, sorry 'bout that. Just… checking in, dude. Who's Veronica?"

"Oh, that's my new name. I'm Veronica Fitzroy, now."

"Shit. Finally got a last name?"

"Yeah, yeah." More rustling from over the line. "Izzy helped me pick it out. You know, like… Aliénor Fitzroy? Famous Enlightenment-era French occultist, one of the few that wasn't a racist or pederast."

"It's a very good name," chimed what Ashton now recognized to be Izzy.

"But yeah, no, like… good to talk to you, man. What have you been up to?"

Ashton smiled, and fought back the rising feeling from their stomach. "Was just… man, I just realized I hadn't, like, planned out the birthday stuff. You know?"

"… shit, right, that's in… that's like a week out, right? Hell, I was worried that was gonna fall the fuck through the cracks, you know? You still interested in a get together?"

"Yeah, yeah. 'd love to."

"Nice! Yeah, I gotta… I gotta bounce, but I'll call you back ASAP. See you in an hour or so?"

"Sure, yeah."

"Great. Love ya', Ash!"

Lyanna Veronica hung up, and despite it all, despite the screaming and bubbling and storming doubts, Ashton left the call smiling.


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