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“I dunno, Ash.”

The two of them stood on a rooftop, overlooking the freeway below. It was one of three possible routes their targets could take, and so they’d split up, a pair for each possibility. Ashley had volunteered to go with Capricorn, which had earned her some odd looks, but they didn’t get many chances to interact without the group around, and she preferred to keep important matters limited to verbal interactions.

“Not very helpful,” she snapped back at Tristan, who had made himself a simple chair out of his power and was now draped lazily over it, legs apart.

“Hey, you asked for my help.”

She took a breath, let it out. “...you’re right. Sorry.”

“S’okay. But yeah, I’m sorry too, but there’s just no real way to know for sure. Not without asking her directly,” he amended, “which you’ve already ruled out?”

She confirmed his question with a tight-lipped nod. Too vulnerable, too dangerous, to put herself out like that, even with Victoria. Maybe she’d be there someday, but… “Not an option, no.”

“Then, yeah, that’s all I have. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Vicky, uh… she keeps herself pretty tightly locked up.”

Not always, she wanted to say. Not when she was curled up on the couch in their apartment, engrossed in a dog-eared file, her eyes burning with the quiet, happy intensity of digging into her passion project. Not when Ashley was having breakfast with Kenzie, and she’d glance up to see Victoria leaning against the counter, nursing a cup of tea as she watched them, warmth and affection in her eyes.

Not when she’d tackled Ashley to the ground during the Fallen raid, body pressing down against her, breath hot on her cheek, respect and worry warring in her eyes as she told Ashley how well she was doing-

“I’ve noticed, yes,” she replied, voice hoarse. If anyone had asked, she would have blamed it on her medication. “...what do you think? Your personal opinion.”

Tristan started to speak, then paused. “Actually, wait a second, sorry. By, do you mind if we talk about this stuff? I know it can be kind of uncomfortable.”

He blurred, red armour shifting to blue. “It’s fine,” Byron’s quiet voice replied. “I don’t mind.” 

He shifted back to Tristan, who gave a quick nod to the air. “Thanks, man. Appreciated. I mean,” he said, resuming the conversation with a single-shoulder shrug, “I’ve never had a great gaydar, I’ll admit that much, and she’s definitely into at least guys.” Ashley’s fingers clenched tighter around her forearm. “But… I dunno, sometimes I kinda get a vibe, yeah.”

“A ‘vibe’?”

“Well, don’t get the wrong idea, but sometimes when she looks at you-” and despite the warning, Ashley felt a little flutter of hopeful excitement in her chest, “-or at some of the other female capes we meet, there’s definitely some kind of something. Maybe she’s just judging their fashion choices, though.”

Ashley gave a short, sharp laugh. “She would.”

Bare minimum, she’s judging their fashion choices, then. I wouldn’t put money on it being,” he waggled his fingers, “lesbian energies, but it’s definitely a possibility.”

“Hm. Would Sveta know?” It still felt strange, to be so open about asking for advice, for help. “She’s her ‘best friend’, and all that sappy nonsense.”

Tristan snorted. “Are you kidding me? Don’t get me wrong, I love Sveta, but she’s just about the straightest girl I’ve ever met.”

“Ha,” Ashley acknowledged with a smirk. “She once told me she loved how Parian and Foil were ‘such good friends’.”

“You think that’s bad?” he countered. “It took me an hour to explain to her why I liked Weld so much. And, even then I had to make a bunch of really tactless jokes about my iron levels before she got it.”

Ashley sniffed, not quite keeping the smile from her lips. “Puerile and lazy.”

“Hey, it could have been worse - I almost talked about using a metal dildo and the power of imagination.”

“I could,” she flicked her fingers, “blast you off this roof. No-one would mind.” She couldn't help but laugh, though, and Tristan sat back smugly.

“Now that you’ve mentioned it, though, I will say this much: there’s definitely something different about the way she acts around you and the way she acts around Sveta.”

“Mm. I thought so.” She’d half thought she was imagining it, but even while being seemingly oblivious, there was a charge to her interactions with Victoria, something undefinable hanging in the air between them. “Not very helpful, but better than nothing.”

“Honestly, if it was anyone else, I’d say to just keep doing what you’re doing.” She arched an eyebrow, and he hastily elaborated. “Look, don’t take this the wrong way, but you are very obviously into her. Like, extremely obviously.”

Ashley bristled. “I am not.”

Tristan held up a hand and started ticking off fingers. “You touch her constantly, and not in the kid-cousin way you do Rain and Kenzie. Whenever she talks directly to you, you perk up. If she compliments you, you look like an over-eager puppy.” She made a face at that. “Okay, like... the cat that ate the canary, then.”

“Better.”

“You cook for her all the time according to Kenzie,” he continued, “and I know she didn’t buy all of that iced tea in your fridge even though you ordinarily hate it. You’re always looking at her when you think she won’t notice, except if her costume gets torn up or she’s wearing something nice, cause then you don’t look at her at all. ” He let the hand fall with a rueful smile. “Do you want me to continue?”

“...that obvious?” Being read so easily made the old rage swell inside her, but for the most part, the confusing mess of other feelings dampened it, tempered it.

“Well, not to her, obviously, and probably not to any straight people either. But… yeah. Vicky’s sharp, but she can be pretty fucking oblivious when she wants to. If it’s any consolation, it’s not just you - Natalie was practically drooling over her before she found her guy, and Vicky barely noticed she existed.”

A surge of vicious emotion shot up at that; old, familiar ones, the unwanted gifts of the girl she both was and wasn’t, the girl she had and hadn’t been. Anger that someone would dare to take what was hers, jealousy that they had tried where she hadn’t. Fear that they could succeed. 

And, still fresh and unfamiliar but entirely her ownbecause of it, shame, for thinking of other people as possessions to covet or own.

“Mm,” she said eventually, trying to force the raging storm back down. “I suppose that’s some consolation.”

The conversation lapsed into silence for a few minutes, the noises of the cars taking their place. The exercises still felt trite, but as her emotions settled Ashley had to acknowledge their effectiveness, especially in concert with the medication. She’d concede that one to Mrs. Yamada, the next time-

She sighed aloud. Except there was no next time. One of the only other people she’d come to trust to understand her, to not drag her through the same litany of irritations and trials, and she was gone as well. Oh, she might still be around, but she somehow doubted Jessica would be as willing or able to deal with her as Mrs. Yamada had been. 

“...can I ask something?” When she glanced over, Tristan was looking up at her, the projection on his helmet deactivated so she could see his eyes. “Why her? I may be gay, but I’m not that gay; you’re objectively hot as hell. Plenty of fish in the sea, y’know? Even if you keep it to just capes, I’m pretty sure I saw Fume Hood giving you the once-over at the last check-in.”

“Doubtful. She’s… otherwise occupied.”

“Oh?” Tristan leaned forward, and she could hear the feline grin in his voice. “Do tell.”

She shook her head. “Not my secret to share, unfortunately.”

“Aww. I know you can’t tell under the mask, but I’m pouting very hard right now. It’s very convincing.”

She chuckled, one hand in front of her mouth, palm facing away. “You’re not nearly pretty enough for that to work, I’m afraid.”

“Hey,” he replied sourly, “I’m pretty as fuck.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I do, but stop dodging the question.”

She could refuse, rebuff him. He’d let it go, too, but… 

“Isn’t it evident?” she said after a few moment’s consideration. “I like things, and people, with style, with grace. Panache. If I’ve come across someone who manages to at least begin to approach my station, it’s hardly a surprise that I should want to secure her for myself.”

“Okay, thank you, Damsel of Distress,” Tristan said drily. “Can I speak to Ashley now?”

“You’re lucky Byron doesn’t deserve to die,” she shot back. She’d intended it as a joke, but it came out sharper, with more of an edge. “...and,” she added grudgingly, “neither do you. Keep pushing and we’ll see, though.”

“I’m honoured by your mercy.”

It took a moment for Ashley to collect her thoughts. “She... cares for Kenzie, then. Understands how best to keep her safe, from others and herself. I… appreciate that. Need that, if I don’t want to have to hover over her constantly but still ensure that she excels without destroying herself.”

“Well, that’s very sweet, Swansong. Ashley, you gonna chip in any time soon?”

She bit back the first remark that came to mind, then the three that followed it. This is good, she reminded herself. Respect is not fear and fear is not respect.

“She… tempers me,” she said, quiet enough that she though Tristan might not hear. Hoped that he might not hear. No such luck, though - when she glanced over, she found him listening attentively, eyes relaxed and neutral. “I… calm does not come easily to me. It likely never will, but she… helps, in a way that even my imbecile of a sister doesn’t.” The words were starting to come slightly easier now. “I will always feel angry, always… mercurial and vicious, always the woman who has done what I’ve done, killed who I’ve killed. That will never wash away, but… love can make it easier to-”

The word had slipped past her lips before she’d even realised what she was saying, what she’d admitted to, and with the rush of comprehension came the icy, burning cold, urging her on pushing her to make sure he'd never be able to tell anyone about her mistake, about her weakness.

“Ashley,” Tristan started to say, but she spun away from him, stalking over to the edge of the roof, hands clenching at her arms hard enough to hurt. The pain focused her, distracted her, and she used the brief respite to focus, closing her eyes and shutting out the world.

You could kill him if you wanted to. Reassuring, if dark. 

Killing him would mean letting yourself be beholden to what he thinks of you. Less reassuring, but working within the logic. 

You won’t feel any better if you kill him . Uncomfortable, but true.

The others will never forgive you. Uncomfortable for how self-serving it was, but true.

Victoria will never forgive you. Embarrassing in how much it mattered to her, but true.

(Kenzie might actually forgive you. Worrying, and true, but not relevant.)

You don’t want to kill him, because he’s a good person. Because you want to be a better person.

Because he’s your friend.

Slowly, she exhaled, letting her hands fall limply to her sides. It didn’t work if she went straight to the ‘correct’ reasons, if she didn’t measure her pace. She had to work up to it, had to slow the car before she stepped in front of it or it would just flatten her. 

“Ashley?” Tristan asked again from behind her. He was scared, she could tell even through his attempt to hide it, and while a small part of her revelled in that, mostly she just felt sick and hollow.

“Thank you,” she said, hating how unsteady her voice sounded, “for the advice. For… your patience.”

“That’s what friends are for, right?” Slowly, she turned, and found him offering a bottle of water. “Thought you could use it. Can’t threaten the puny mortals with a sore throat, right?”

The laugh was forced, but maybe someday, it could be genuine. “I’m glad you at least understand that,” she said, taking the bottle. “Perhaps there’s hope for you yet.”

“Glad to hear it. And hey, if worst comes to worst, there’s always-”

“Swansong, Capricorn.” At the sound of Victoria’s voice through their comms, Ashley immediately perked up, before realising what she’d done as Tristan tried and failed to contain his laughter. 

“Not one word,” Ashley snapped at him, before turning her microphone on. “ Please tell us you have something for us to do. I’m pent up enough I might just murder Capricorn otherwise.”

Kenzie’s tech was good enough that it felt like the person on the other end was talking directly into your ear, which is why Victoria’s soft, amused chuckle sent tingles running down Ashley's spine. “Please don’t.”

Thank you-”

“Byron doesn’t deserve that, after all. We got three,” she continued over the sound of Tristan’s protests, “but Retcanon got away - blue truck, two red barrels in the back, should be passing you in thirty seconds. Tress and I are on our way; stop her if you can, slow her if you can’t.”

“Understood.” 

The call cut out, and Tristan turned to her, a grin evident in his posture. “‘Pent up’?”

Not. One. Word.