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put your lips close to mine (as long as they don't touch)

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this slope is treacherous / this daydream is dangerous

____________________

The first time Aster talks to Ellie, it’s freshman year of high school.

She knows of the other girl, of course. The only Chinese student in the entire school district gives her somewhat of a reputation, but Aster has never talked to her. In fact, she isn’t sure she’s ever seen Ellie talk to anyone.

She’s so busy staring, she doesn’t notice the steps she’s about to go down. Gravity does its job anyway, and she suddenly finds herself palms down on the cement.

“Oh, my God.” A voice calls out from across the hallway, and a hand pulls her to her feet. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” Her voice catches in her throat, which she blames on her near-death experience, and she clears her throat. “I’m Aster Flores.”

“I know.” Ellie looks up at her through those big glasses, and her eyebrows furrow.

Then she’s gone.

They don’t speak for another three and a half years.

Two months into freshman year, however, Aster’s on her way back to class from the bathroom when she hears the most melodious piano floating down the hall. The technique is precise and fast, and she’s just thinking there’s no way a student plays like that, when she pokes her head in, and is proven wrong.

Ellie Chu has her back to the door as her fingers flow over the keys as effortlessly as the air she breathes. She doesn’t notice Aster, and Aster isn’t about to change that.

She tells her dad about it, though. She figures he might be able to overlook the fact that Ellie isn’t a practicing Christian in favor of her piano skills that are miles above those of the current accompanists. She’s right, of course, and has to choke back a giggle when he actually refers to her as a “heathen.”

Part of her knows Ellie could use the extra cash, even if it’s only ten bucks. The other part of her wonders if this is her way of finding an excuse to see her, even if it’s just once a week, and even if Ellie’s positioned above her and out of eyesight during the service. The other part of her can’t find a single reason why she’d be wanting to see Ellie in the first place, so the notion is dismissed as soon as it comes. Sort of.

Sophomore year of high school, she’s managed to wrangle Trig into studying with her in the library, even if he hasn’t touched his textbook in the last hour. She’s about to tell him to just go home, when she spots a paper sticking out of his bag with an A on the top.

The first sentence reads, Though she is no angel, Daisy — an intelligent and savvy woman —shows the struggles of a woman in the early twentieth century.

“You didn’t write this,” Aster accuses.

Trig shrugs, an easy smirk sliding across his lips. “I didn’t even read it.”

“The essay or the book?” Aster sighs.

He tilts his head to one side. “Both?”

“So, who wrote it?” she asks.

“Ellie Chu,” Trig says. “You know, the Chinese girl.”

“Yeah, I know,” Aster mutters. She lets Trig get back to whatever he’s busied himself with doing, but slips the essay into her own folder.

That evening, her father finishes the prayer before dinner with, “And may the Good Lord send His blessings to the Toeller family.”

“For what?” Aster blurts out.

Her father gives her a pointed look. “Amen.”

“Amen,” she corrects herself, “right. For what?”

He sighs, exchanging an incredibly non-subtle glance with her mother. “The Toellers discovered their daughter with another girl.” Aster shakes her head. Her eyebrows furrow. He sighs again. “With another girl.”

Oh.

“Which, of course, is a sin,” her mother interjects. Aster must pause for too long, because she glares at her. “Right?”

“Right,” Aster says. “Of course. She’s… going to Hell.”

Her father doesn’t look like he quite believes her, but he swallows his doubt with a bite of pasta. The essay in her backpack feels heavy, and that evening, when she reads it three times over in the shadow of the moonlight, there’s a pit of guilt that settles into her stomach.

Two days later, Trig asks her to be his girlfriend. When she tells her father, he says, “And what did you say?”

“I said ‘yes,’” Aster says. Her tongue feels thick in her mouth, and her father’s stare is withering as he examines her.

He nods. “Good.

“Why Trig?” her little brother’s voice pipes up from the couch.

Aster turns. “Why not?” It’s a joke, sort of, but when she turns to look back at her father, the look of disappointment and utter terror sends a pit straight to the bottom of her stomach. He doesn’t say anything, and he doesn’t mention it again, but she can tell it wasn’t the right response.

The essay thing becomes a habit after that. She never really figures out exactly why, and chalks it up to her thirst for some proper intellectual discussion from someone her age. Perhaps she can’t actually debate with Ellie, but she can read her essays, which sometimes disagree completely with Aster’s opinions in the most delightful way.

First is the Great Gatsby, confirming everything that Aster had thought about Daisy while reading the book. Next comes Romeo and Juliet, and a strangely amusing piece on the idiocy of Romeo. On and on, book after book. She manages to swipe them every time she’s sure he’s had an essay done, and the conclusion of sophomore year leaves Aster with a stack of fifteen.

She’s read them all, of course. Even annotated. Highlights here and there for particularly thought-provoking arguments, underlines for blocks of text that were so well-written it makes her wonder how no teacher has cared that it’s alarmingly obvious Trig had no part in this creation. Her favorite part is her comments. Questions, agreements, challenges. She wishes she could talk to Ellie about it, but she settles for letting her pen whisper everything she would have said into the paper.

Three months into her junior year, Aster is walking the halls to get out of class, when she hears it. Guitar. Something in her gut tells her to look, so she follows the trails of string plucking to the music room.

Ellie Chu is bent over a piece of paper on a music stand, and the guitar is in her lap. She strums again, picking up the same, but slightly altered picking pattern. And then she begins to sing. The song is simple, catchy, and Ellie’s voice delivers the message so sweetly it makes Aster’s heart ache.

She hopes someday, someone besides herself and the teachers gets to hear the words that Ellie is capable of writing.

Senior year, Aster is pressured into joining choir with the rest of her friends and Trig. Does she enjoy singing? Debatable. Does she like Trig? Not really. Does she like her friends? Even less so. Still, day after day, she lets them drag her into the room, though she insists on bringing a book to rehearsal. She sits in the back row, angled just perfectly for her to get a view of Ellie if the person next to her leans forward.

They don’t speak.

Despite the fact that Ellie seems to be on Aster’s mind at least once a day, they haven’t spoken in some three years.

And then it happens.

Trig gives her a kiss, that stupid smirk he always has on, and a, “See you later, babe,” and then he’s off and down the hall. She watches him go, though she’s not sure why, and catches the tail end of Trig slamming into Ellie Chu.

He moves on without a second thought, which is just so like him, and Aster watches as Ellie rolls her eyes, and starts grabbing at her papers as quickly as she can. Without thinking, her feet are moving, and she’s kneeling in front of her.

“These hallways are murder,” Aster says.

Ellie doesn’t seem to notice it's one of the dumbest things she's ever said. She just looks up at her with a hint of confusion, awe, and something that Aster can’t quite place. “I’m Ellie Chu.”

“Yes, I know,” Aster laughs lightly. Crap. Is that creepy? Her tongue feels thick in her mouth as she pushes out, “You’ve only been playing my dad’s services every Sunday for, like, four years.” She doesn’t mention that she’s the reason Ellie even got that gig in the first place. “You’re his favorite heathen. He can’t handle mediocre accompanists, even if they are saved.” Ellie still hasn’t said anything, and Aster is still trying to figure out what exactly is hiding in the back of her eyes, so with a quick glance down at the book on top, she continues, “Remains of the Day. Loved it. All that barely repressed longing.”

She hands Ellie’s phone back, and she’s not sure whether it’s her hopeful mind leading her astray, but she swears she feels Ellie’s finger slide across hers just a little bit longer then necessary. And then there’s nothing left to say, so she stands up, offering one last smile on her way out.

It takes the entire drive home, but she decides her infatuation with Ellie is because the girl is such a damn mystery. Her mind is clearly a place that’s constantly thinking, and yet she barely talks to anyone, and certainly doesn’t speak her thoughts out loud.

Ellie is a mystery, and Aster always did love those books the most. That’s all it is.

A week later, a letter appears in her locker. It’s sealed tightly, no writing on the front at all. Frowning, she picks it up carefully, sliding her thumb under the fold, and pulling out a piece of paper.

It’s addressed to her, obviously, and starts off with a sentence that sounds extremely familiar, though she can’t place it. The whole thing reads a lot like those essays of Ellie’s she has stored in her room, but it’s a signed Paul Munsky.

She frowns, because, really?

But then she thinks about it, because if this is really from Paul, that makes him the literal only student, besides Ellie Chu, of course, with more than half a brain. He may not own half the town, but he will own a family business, and he’s cute enough.

So, she writes back.

Dear Paul,

I like Wim Wenders too.
Wouldn’a plagiarized him, though.

Aster

It’s a joke. Kind of. It’s also a test. Because the idea that football player Paul Munsky is even capable of stringing more than two words together amazes her, and if he’s anything like he claims to be, he’ll take this as a challenge.

And he does.

Dear Aster:

Okay, you got me.

I sometimes hide behind other people’s
words. For one thing, I know nothing about love.
I’m 17. I’ve lived in Squahamish my whole life.
I hang out with my friends, I keep my head down.
I’m a simple guy.

Which is to say, if I knew what love was,
then I would quote myself.

Paul

She reads the note as soon as she opens her locker to find it, then again during class, and again on the back of Trig’s pick-up truck, while he’s off doing who know’s what.

The reality is, Paul is exactly what she needs. He’s the perfect bridge in between the dreary future of marrying some man, probably Trig, in Squahamish, and the dream of moving out into the great wide somewhere, and doing… well, she hasn’t gotten that far.

Paul is respectable. Paul will provide. Paul will be caring, and gentle, and apparently intelligent, and while he won’t be Trig Carson, she’s sure her father will accept him as an alternative. And, Aster will, too.

So huddled into the blankets and the moonlight, she writes back.

Dear Paul,

You know it takes 11 muscles to yawn?
This is the sort of weird fact I find myself recalling
to keep myself from, well, yawning.

She pauses. Before she can talk herself out of it, she adds,

Or showing anything I’m feeling, really.
So yeah, I turn to other people’s words, too.

Her heart jumps to the stack of English essays tucked under her mattress, but she shakes the thought away.

When you’re a pretty girl, and I know
that makes me sound conceited, but that’s why
you’re even writing me, right? When you’re
a pretty girl, people want to give you things.
What they really want is to make you like them.
Not, ‘like them’ as in, ‘I like you,’
but ‘like them’ as in, ‘I am
like you.’

So, I’m like a lot of people.
Which makes me kind of no one.

Aster

It’s a risky letter, all things considered, but Paul just takes it in stride. Back and forth, note after note, a healthy type of playful banter that Aster hasn’t experienced in ever. The only thing that has ever come close are the one-sided arguments Aster has with Ellie’s discarded essays.

Ellie, who plays piano and guitar, and sings like an angel. Ellie, who has more brain cells than the rest of the entire student body combined. Ellie, who she’s now spoken to literally twice. Ellie, who could very well graduate without ever having another conversation with Aster.

Ellie, who’s washing her hands at the sink when Aster walks in.

She pauses, though she doesn’t look up, and resumes scrubbing at her hands as Aster tries to look anywhere but her. She’s suddenly all too aware of how difficult it is to act natural, and settles for letting herself watch Ellie. Quietly, of course. Subtly. Aster tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, as if inviting Ellie to look up, and she does. She stills at the sink first, and then hesitantly flicks her eyes to the mirror, where Aster’s reflection leans against the wall behind her.

Clearly, Ellie wasn’t expecting Aster to be looking at her too, because freezes with the most deer in the headlights expression Aster has ever seen, then shakes it off, and resumes washing her hands. It’s cute. Kind of. For lack of a better word.

Aster can’t help but smile, looking down at her shoes, and then up just past Ellie’s head into the wall, then back down. She doesn’t know why, but the more she tries not to smile, the more her lips betray her. Her heart is beating out of her chest, she thinks she might actually be blushing, and though she doesn’t know why, she gets the feeling her father wouldn’t approve.

Her thoughts are drowned out by the yapping of Karen What’s-Her-Name and Helen Whoever-the-Fuck in the big stall at the end. They’re chattering on and on about some poor girl named Molly, and Aster thinks that Ellie must have some witty remark she’d make about the whole thing if they were friends, and then her ears start listening to the conversation.

“Trig checked in at Dick’s Fry Fry.”

Ellie freezes again. Interesting.

“Aster is so lucky.”

“Totes lucky. His family owns half of Squahamish.”

“Hers doesn’t even own their house.”

Giggling.

“You’re so rude.”

More giggling.

Ellie looks up, a flicker of understanding in her eyes.

Aster holds her breath, and walks out.

She knows she’s not like them. She knows she’ll never fit in. She knows. But, God, would it kill them to just be a little bit more subtle about it?

First it was the fact that she didn’t grow up in this shitty little town like the rest of them. They’ve never even left the state, much less the country, and many have had their families here for generations.

Not Aster. Aster moved at the beginning of high school. And seeing Ellie Chu’s face amidst the sea of frozen-in-time white kids was more refreshing than she thought it would be.

The funny thing is, Aster is also white. Apparently, it’s tough for the kids of Squahamish to do much thinking, because just the fact that her father speaks Spanish to her in their home is enough to mark her as an outsider. Her only saving grace is the fact that her father, who would have a stroke if he knew she was using the Lord’s name in vain, is the pastor, and the fact that Trig, who is the town’s golden boy, is her boyfriend.

Her hands itch to write something, and she begins crafting a letter to Paul. It’s comforting. It’s a start.

I’ve been thinking about what you said:
about seeing, and not seeing.

I had a painting teacher once tell me that
the difference between a good painting
and great painting is typically five strokes.
And they are typically the five
boldest strokes in the painting.

She hopes he’ll understand what she means.

I get it. After one has slaved away
at making a pretty good painting,
the last thing you want to do is
make a bold stroke,
and potentially ruin everything.

He does.

Exactly.

That’s why I gave up painting.
Sometimes I wonder if that’s how
I’m living my life. It’s a… pretty good life.
Probably the best life one could
hope for in Squahamish.

As soon as she writes it, she knows that it is the undeniable truth, and also knows that it might be the saddest realization she’s ever had.

But how well do you really know Squahamish?

Underneath are coordinates, which Aster rolls her eyes at, but goes looking for anyway. She happens upon a blank concrete wall, with the words, ‘Any 5 strokes,’ and spray paint cans against the wall. She smiles.

At first it’s just playful. Another challenge, so to speak. On and on it goes, a witty, silent banter. On one occasion, she passes Ellie Chu on her way to the wall, and offers her a smile. The girl just widens her eyes, averts her gaze, and walks faster.

Strange, but the smell of fresh paint when she arrives at the mural is enough to distract her. For some reason, the thought of Paul being here so recently makes her blush the way she knows she should when she’s with Trig. At least someone is making her feel this way.

They’re in Aster’s room, as they do every Saturday night, and Trig is on his phone, leaning against the headboard, while she rests gingerly against his side with a book in her lap. There’s no doubt Trig is the good painting. But who’s the great one?

It must be Paul. It must be. But as Trig’s kisses sear confusion into her skin, the essays underneath her mattress burn guilt into her soul, and later that night, after Trig leaves, she throws them out.

She’s at another one of those terrible hangout events with the same seven people, when Paul texts her for the first time. It’s a string of emojis. Very strange. Very casual. Very… Trig.

Her heart sinks, because is this it? Is this the real Paul? Was everything else just an extremely dedicated, and surprisingly effective ruse at getting her to hang out with him? Is her great painting gone? She doesn’t have an alternative. The alternative is something much too crazy and unrealistic for her, not to mention she doesn’t even know what it would be. Or who it would be. Regardless, it wouldn’t happen.

She’s just not bold enough.

Before she can roll her eyes at herself for being so naive, her phone buzzes again.

Sorry, little sister hacked my phone.
Can we take this to a safer platform?
Ghost messenger?
My handle’s SmithCorona.

It sounds a lot like the old Paul. She has half a mind to just leave the boy on read for the rest of her life because she cannot let herself get her hopes up like this, but then Trig does what he does best, and reminds her why she hates it here so much.

So, she texts him.

She’s already sitting at Sparky’s Diner when he arrives, and that stupid smile he has on his face makes her heart skip a beat for the first time. He waves clumsily, nearly taking out the waitress behind him, and apologizes profusely while hurrying down the restaurant aisle, and into the seat across from him.

“Hey,” she says.

He looks nervous. “Hey.”

Aster slides a book across the table. “I got two of them signed when he came to Powell’s Books last year.” He’s looking at her a little funny, so she adds, “I drove all night to get there.”

“Oh, uh…” he trails off, searching for the word he’s looking for, and apparently chooses, “Cool.”

“You’ve probably already read it,” she realizes, like Duh. “I just thought you’d like one.”

“Uh, yeah, totally,” he says. He looks confused. Adorably so, if it wasn’t making her so confused. It’s a daring idea, but he reminds her a lot of Ellie Chu, and her cat-and-mouse eye contact refusal game they’d played in the bathroom.

“It’s up to you,” she offers.

Paul’s eyebrows furrow. “No,  I — I love Nazis.” Aster raises her eyebrows. “I mean, the ones in the book. I mean, like more of those Nazis, am I right?”

She wants to ask him to elaborate, but he’s looking like he wouldn’t even know what that word means. Instead, she offers a, “Speaking of Nazis, thank you for meeting me here.” It’s a stretch of a transition, but Paul doesn’t seem to notice, so she continues, “My dad isn’t a Nazi exactly, but, uh, he can be pretty strict.” Paul doesn’t say anything. “You know, people talk.”

“Yeah, talk,” he says, like it’s almost painful. “Eeuggh.”

“It’s nice, though, to make a new friend,” she says carefully. He freezes, and half of her is thinking it reminds her so much of Ellie, and the other half of her is thinking, Perfect. Intentions confirmed.

The thing is, she doesn’t even like Paul. The guy has nothing going for him, except his weird alter ego that apparently only comes out over writing. She likes what he represents. What he could offer. What it could mean for her sanity. Maybe he’s not a great painting, and maybe he never will be, but maybe he’s the good painting, not Trig.

If she’s going to be stuck as a Squahamish housewife for the rest of her life, she’d rather be Paul’s.

So she texts him.

It’s something stupid, but she knows it’ll be enough to get the guy back going with whatever his plan was to win her over. And thus begins the return of the alter ego Aster thinks she could actually fall in love with.

The first time Aster actually sees Paul and Ellie together is it church. Not that Ellie is a practicing Christian, much to her father’s chagrin, but they arrive together, and when it’s over, they sit in the back of the pews and chat with each other.

Aster thinks it might be the most words she’s ever seen Ellie speak in her entire life.

She then starts to wonder about the fact that the texts and letters she’s accumulated from Paul always erred on the side of sounding a little bit like Ellie. Of course, love notes, and literary jokes are a far cry from the essays Aster’s read, and of course, she can’t compare them because she stupidly threw them out, but she starts to wonder whether being around Ellie has actually made Paul smarter.

It seems like it would be impossible for anything to make Paul smarter, but there’s no other explanation. If there is one, Aster refuses to let herself think too hard about it.

When Paul approaches her after two weeks after their disaster of a first… whatever that was, her eyes settle just past his shoulder, where Ellie is watching them carefully.

“Would you, uh, wanna hang out again?” Paul asks.

Aster feels lips begin to move without her brain’s consent, and she hears her voice saying, “I’d love that.”

And so begins their second purposeful hang out in person. It starts off as the same disaster of the first, but then Paul texts her, and sitting there at the diner with him messaging all the things she wants to hear, she tells herself, This is my great painting.

When he walks her to her car, she turns and leans against the driver’s side door to say goodnight. Her mind can’t help but take her back to the frightening disapproval in her father’s eyes when she’d said, ‘Why not?’ about Trig, so when Paul looks at her like he’s waiting for permission, she tilts her head to the side slightly, and offers a smile.

Do it.

He does.

At least there will be a ‘why.’

There’s no fireworks. There’s no bells and whistles. The amount of adrenaline she feels is the equivalent of lying on the beach and listening to classical music, but his lips are soft, and his touch is gentle, and she could get used to it. She’s starting to think the excitement of kissing is a myth, anyway.

She intends on just sort of… slipping out of Trig’s life until he forgets about her and moves on. He’s so self-absorbed, she thinks it might actually be possible, but she should have known her father would have other plans.

He practically picks her up and physically puts her in her car to go see Trig’s talent show, which she ends up missing anyway. Her head is halfway in the door, and she whispers, “When is Trig going?”

“He just did?”

Some girl is looking at Aster like she’s crazy, and she just rolls her eyes. The only person not madly in love with Trig for some unknown reason, and she’s the one actually dating the guy.

Aster is about to turn and leave, when she looks up to see who’s on the stage.

Ellie Chu.

There’s a guitar in front of her on the floor, and Paul is staring up at her, eyes wide, fists pressed together, and whispering something. Ellie doesn’t reply, but she grabs the guitar by the neck, and situates it on her lap.

Hesitantly, her fingers begin picking a tune. Soft, sweet, simple. It’s exactly the type of music Aster heard Ellie playing in the music room. She starts singing a quiet little tune, and Aster can barely hear what words she’s actually saying, but she sort of feels like it doesn’t even really matter.

The message isn’t in the song, it’s in the way she holds the guitar. The way her eyes glaze over, and she goes back to whatever inspired the music in the first place. It’s in Ellie herself.

For the first time, Aster’s heart breaks.

Because she knows Ellie is going places. Ellie is going to leave Squahamish, and go on to do big things. She’s going to see all the big cities of America, and maybe even live in one of them. She’s going to travel the world. She’s going to meet people Aster can only dream of, and she’s going to fall in love with somebody who appreciates her for everything that she is.

Aster is going to marry Paul, or Trig, or some other guy who’ll look at her like she’s crazy if she ever suggests they move somewhere else. Aster is going to hang out with Karen and Helen and Rebecca for the rest of her life.

She has to admit, though, if anyone were to get out of Squahamish, she’s glad it gets to be Ellie. Lord knows she’s the one who deserves it.

Aster just wishes she could go with.

She does make it back to California, though, even if it’s just for some stupid retreat that she spends the entire time hating. It’s a change, though.

SmithCorona
Home early from Sacramento.
You up?
[D]

Aster decides to drive over anyway, though, because she really needs to not be at home now, and her father allows her the entire day to hang out with her math tutor.

For such a strict guy, she has to say he’s one of the most gullible people she’s ever met, but it’s hard to make fun of him when she’s the one slamming out the back door, and driving off to a full day of whatever she wants.

Paul’s mother answers the door. “Hi, Aster.”

“Is Paul here?” she asks.

“No, but come on in,” she says, stepping aside. Aster smiles hesitantly, and follows her down to the basement. “Paul is at practice, but you can leave it in his room.”

“Thanks,” she says. “It’s just something stupid I thought he’d like, but —“

“You know, I’m shocked you went on that trip,” Paul’s mother muses. “We went as far as Seiku once, but never all the way to California. You’re quite the —“

Ellie.

“— oh, it’s Paul’s Chinese friend!” Paul’s mother says. She smiles. “I didn’t hear you come in.”

“I was just dropping off some books,” Ellie says, with absolutely no weirdness at all. She looks terrified, and it would almost be amusing if it wasn’t so confusing.

“Aster was just dropping off — Tommy!”

And then Paul’s mother is gone, and it’s just the two of them.

Aster is suddenly sort of glad she decided to wear something nice, though she can’t figure out why, and she feels herself stepping forward, which is absolutely not what she planned on, so she forces herself to a stop with, “Hi.”

“Hi,” Ellie says.

It suddenly hits her that maybe Paul isn’t the guy she thought. Maybe it’s him and Ellie, not him and Aster. Maybe he’s going to leave with Ellie. Maybe she’s going to be left here with nobody, not even a sweet jock with a family business. “So, you and Paul, you guys…”

“Oh, God, no. No, no, no. He is like, totally, one-hundred percent into you,” Ellie practically word vomits.

The vehemence in dying Aster’s implications is strange, but Aster just raises her eyebrows. “Oh.  You know about us?”

Ellie nods off-handedly, but her posture is stiff, and Aster can see her brain working a million miles a minute. “He wanted to do some extra reading, so I lent him some books.”

“He’s doing extra reading?” Aster almost laughs.

Ellie doesn’t. She just nods again. “For you.”

“That’s sweet.”

“It is.”

Aster chuckles slightly. “On our first date, I just kept talking about books. I think I almost drove him off. I can be such a nervous idiot.”

“You could never be an idiot.” Ellie’s tone is harsh, despite the soft words, and in her eyes is that same look from when she helped her up. Aster still hasn’t figured it out, and she doesn’t get to, because Ellie blinks it away and continues, “I mean, Paul would never think that about you, because he’s way into you.” Silence. “I should get back to the station.”

“No, yeah, no,” Aster says, hoping she’s masked her disappointment, but knowing she hasn’t. Ellie looks like she wants to quite literally run away, and she’s almost brushing past Aster’s shoulder, when she looks down at the painting in her hand. “Oh, it’s just some silly thing I made on…” Ellie takes it from her. “…my trip.”

Ellie’s face is impassive, but then she says, “I like this stroke off to the side. It’s lonely, but hopeful.”

And suddenly, Aster knows.

She doesn’t know exactly what she’s figured out, but she knows. All the strange looks from Ellie, the weirdness from Paul, her obsession with Ellie’s essays, the talent show, the feelings, the confusion.

All the answers were given to her when Ellie said, ‘Lonely, but hopeful.’ Aster just needs to finish putting the pieces together.

Which is how she finds herself driving down the winding roads of Washington with Ellie in her passenger seat.

There’s music playing, but Aster doesn’t hear any of it. She’s too busy trying to look nonchalant, while also interesting, which is ridiculous, because she shouldn’t care what Ellie thinks, and she decides that her stupid obsession comes down to the fact that Ellie is Paul’s best friend, and they should get along.

Duh.

What else?

She doesn’t let her brain dwell on the fact that she started hoarding Ellie’s essay like a maniac before she even knew Paul, because she really just has no explanation for that. I n the end, it doesn’t even matter, because Ellie isn’t paying the least bit of attention to her. After asking, “Where are we going?" to  which Aster replied, “My secret favorite spot,” Ellie just tucked her chin under hand, and leaned out the window slightly.

Aster smiles. Carefree is a good look on Ellie.

She hopes Ellie knows that this is what freedom feels like, all the time. Going where you want, doing what you love, being with those you choose… that’s freedom. Aster may only ever get to experience that through the temporary act of sticking her head out of a window and feeling the wind blow away her dissatisfaction, but it doesn’t have to be that way for Ellie.

She wants needs her to know.

They walk only a short distance into the forest, and Aster hopes the whole “drive into the middle of nowhere and hike into the woods with someone you barely know” thing is cool, and not creepy.

She’s rewarded by a, “Whoa,” when Ellie sees the hot spring for the first time.

“Right?” she smiles.

She turns, stripping her shirt off, wondering why the simple action is so much more nerve-wracking than it ever was when she did it with Trig.

“Are these deciduous trees?” she hears Ellie ask.

Aster slips into the spring. “I wouldn’t know.”

Ellie’s just standing there, which is absolutely adorable, and makes her feel a little judged at the same time. She figures if Ellie is feeling anything like she’s feeling, it’s the right thing to do to turn around. So she does.

Her urge to look is squashed by her voice pulling her thoughts away, and saying, “We don’t have trees like this in Sacramento. Everything’s reversed, so things die off in summer, turn green in winter.”

“Is that were you grew up?”

“Born there,” Aster says, tracing patterns with her eyes in the rocks in front of her. “Moved here.” She frowns, and then adds, “My life story,” because the odds that it gets any more interesting is devastatingly low.

She hears Ellie pull herself into the water, and turns around, slowly. She’s not sure why she’s equally grateful as well as disappointed, but Ellie has taken off just her jacket.

Aster lets out a chuckling, “Is that long underwear?”

Ellie’s silent. Then, “Yes.”

If she’s being honest, Ellie’s whole self is reminding her a lot of Paul. She brushes it off, because the comparisons between the two are ridiculous at this point, and says, “I almost forgot.” Ellie practically jumps out of her skin as she moves past her to turn on the radio, switching the father-approved gospel music to a station she actually likes, and hurries back into the spring as fast as she can, so Ellie can stop staring at the moss. “It’s like no one can reach us here,” Aster sighs.

And then they actually start talking, and joking, and speaking with none of the Squahamish-influenced inhibitions. Ellie is surprisingly funny, maybe the only person to actually listen to what Aster has to say, and looks at Aster in a way she’s never been the subject of before.

Trig iconizes her. To him, she’s a concept. She’s a pretty girl, who will become his pretty wife, and be his pretty thing to come home to. He’ll treat her well, because he’s not a bad person, but he’ll treat her as he’d treat anyone. To him, anybody can be ‘Aster.’

Paul worships her. The ground she walks on is sacred, and the things she says are like the secrets of the universe. But he’s never looked at her the way Ellie is doing.

When Aster speaks, Ellie tilts her head to the side, and carefully absorbs her words intently, like she’s appreciating, analyzing, and dissecting all at the same time. When Aster makes a joke, Ellie laughs like it’s the funniest thing. And when everything is silent, Ellie just watches her.

There’s something in her eyes. The thing that’s always been there. Understanding, compassion, and a swirling emotion that Aster can only describe as affection.

It’s nice.

It’s nice, and it’s scary. It’s scary because Aster begins wondering about why no boy has ever looked at her that way, nor why she’s ever wanted to look at one in that manner. The answer is at the tip of her tongue, but she swallows it down.

“You know, I’ve never hung out with a girl before,” Aster says.

Ellie frowns. “Oh. Sorry.”

“No,” Aster says quickly. Her hands move delicately through the water. “Don’t be.”

“Paul’s cool!” Ellie offers.

Aster sighs, and then, because if anyone should know, it’s Paul’s best friend, “He’s confusing. It’s like, when I’m with him, I feel safe. He’s a sweet guy. Then it’s like he writes these things that feel… not safe.”

“Not safe?”

“I overhead Trig talking to my dad,” Aster says, “about our future wedding. I mean, he hasn’t even asked me yet, but he’s just… so sure.” Ellie doesn’t say anything. “And maybe that’s love. I should marry Trig.”

“Oh.” Ellie looks appalled by the idea.

“Should I?” Aster almost thinks Ellie might actually respond, but she doesn’t. “Oh, well. God doesn’t know either, if it’s any consolation.”

“I don’t believe in God,” Ellie says.

Aster smiles, a half-hearted one that’s warped by too much bittersweet to reach her eyes. “Must be so nice.”

“No,” Ellie says. She frowns. “It’s lonely.”

“I wish I knew what I believed,” Aster says, as if Ellie’s going to tell her. “I keep asking God for a sign. And then Paul’s letter appeared in my locker.” She’s not sure if she should smile or cry, and her lip ends up doing a strange wobble that almost sends her to tears. “I’ve never felt so understood.”

Ellie is looking at her like she wants to say something. Like she needs to confess. Aster feels like she knows exactly what it is, but the fear of what she’d have to deal with if Ellie did overwhelms her, and she pushes the moment aside.

“It’s silly,” she says, and then, before Ellie can say anything else unsafe, she makes a joke and forces the moment to pass.

Paul is outside when she drops Ellie off. She approaches him, because she should, and because maybe if she does it enough, it’ll become a want rather than a need.

“Do you believe in God?”

It’s a careful question. Careful because she is her father’s daughter. Because they live in Squahamish. Because nobody can ever know that she asked such a thing.

“Of course,” Paul says.

Aster nods. “Right. Of course.”

“I got your painting,” he says. He smiles, as though he doesn’t understand why. “It was pretty.”

“Thanks.”

Paul is the person writing those letters? Those texts? It’s almost impossible

Except that of course it’s him. Of course it is. It has to be.

But if it is, why does she walk in on a scene much too confusing for her to process? The only thing she does understand is the very clear implications of, “You don’t want me to kiss you?”

“No!” Ellie practically screams.

“Why not? Is there someone else?” Paul demands.

And then Ellie sees her. Her face falls. “Aster.”

Aster turns and walks out.

Because if Paul isn’t her great painting, or even her good painting, and if Ellie isn’t… anything. Then maybe there is no good painting. Maybe there is no great painting. Maybe this is just her life, and no amount of metaphors can save her from that.

Which is why, when Easter service comes along, and and Trig asks her to marry him, Aster just nods.

She doesn’t open her mouth. She doesn’t even say anything. She knows if she did, she would scream or cry or say something far too close to the only confession her heart hasn’t even caught up with yet. She just stands, nods, and reaches out to take her hand.

The whole church is clapping, and she wonders if they know they’re applauding the last day of the rest of her life. They just keep clapping, and her father looks so happy, almost relieved, and Trig is standing there with his stupid smirk, and then —

“No!” Ellie. Aster looks up. “Love isn’t… it isn’t — it —“

“— thank you, Ellie,” her father says, and she just knows that he’s thinking, This is what I get for letting a heathen into my church.

Aster is preparing to take Trig’s hand again, and then —

“Love isn’t pretending,” Paul says. “I know, because I’ve been pretending. Only for a few months, but it sucks. And I’ve been thinking about much it would suck to have to pretend to be not you your whole life.” He looks up at Aster. For the first time, she thinks he actually sees her. “I always thought there was one way to love.”

Aster wonders, Has Paul Munsky figured out my issue before I even have?

“One right way,” he continues. “But there are more. So many more than I knew. And I never want to be the guy who stops loving someone for loving the way that they want to love.”

It is the smartest thing she’s ever heard him say. at once, just as she’s starting to think that maybe, maybe Paul is actually the author of all those letter, she suddenly knows that he’s not. At the same time, she realizes he isn’t talking to her, he’s talking to Ellie, and knows the author only has one other possibility.

“I also have been pretending.”

Ellie.

“Love isn’t patient and kind and humble. Love is — love is messy. And horrible. And selfish.” Ellie pauses, and then looks up at her. And there it is again. The understanding, the compassion, the affection, the risk, the daring. “Love is bold.”

You.

“It’s not finding your perfect half, it’s trying, reaching, and failing. Love is being willing to ruin your good painting for the chance at a great one,” Ellie is speaking directly to her, and she knows that everyone else can see it too. A shuddering breath. An exhale. “Is this really the boldest stroke you can make?”

You.

Her heart may as well beat its way out of her chest, because in just a few sentences, Aster realizes what she’s been scared to consider this entire time. She realizes what she wanted to hear. She realizes who she wanted to hear it from.

You.

Her mind takes her back, all those years ago, to her father telling her about the Toeller’s daughter. Well, not their daughter anymore, he’d said, with a wicked smile.

You.

The look on his face after she’d taken just a few seconds too long to denounce the poor girl was one Aster sees in her mind every time she closes her eyes. Anger. Fear. A reminder of what would happen if Aster ever even thought about it. A reminder that was both a promise and a threat.

You.

Her father has always been so set on appearances. Sit up straighter. Talk quieter. Be more lady-like. If he was willing to make a show of the downfall of a family he barely even knew, to his own family, in the privacy of their home, she can’t imagine what will happen if he ever finds out about his own daughter. Find out what exactly, she isn’t sure. All she’s sure of is —

You.

And then she’s angry. At Ellie for making this even a possibility. At Paul for letting it happen. At both of them for — something. She’ll decide later.

Aster takes a deep breath, though she’s not sure she takes in any air, and chokes out, “You.”

“Yeah,” Ellie says. It almost sounds like an apology, and maybe it should be, because Aster’s heart sinks as she realizes what this means for herself, her life, and her future.

Paul was right. Pretending for the rest of your life would be damn near impossible. It was easier when she didn’t know what she was pretending. It was easier before she realized the person she fell in love, despite her best efforts, with was Ellie.

Her plan is to never to talk to Ellie ever again. To take classes at the local community college, and hound the definitely underfunded art department until she manages to get herself to art school somehow, and then… well, she’ll figure it out.

It’s a terrible plan, because she’s come to know Ellie quite well, and she’s hardly surprised when she shows up outside the restaurant.

“Hey.” She’s leaning against a tree, not at all perturbed by the look of absolute malice Aster knows is on her face. “You haven’t been at church.”

Aster brushes past her. “I’ve been busy. You need four portfolio pieces for art school, so…”

“Art school,” Ellie says. “That’s great!”

“Yeah, well, nothing’s great yet,” Aster says. “But we’ll see.” Ellie just smiles, and because Aster really just can’t help but make her life more difficult for herself, she asks, “What’s going on with you?”

“Well, I’m heading East to Grinnell,” Ellie says. And, yep, there it is. She’s leaving. She’s leaving tomorrow, and —

“That’s great, Ellie, take care,” Aster sighs. She turns away.

“Aster.” Ellie’s voice is deep, commanding, and hurt. “I’m sorry. It was just supposed to be one letter.”

Aster turns. Ellie looks so hurt, and so apologetic, and a lot like how Aster is feeling, and she suddenly realizes that it’s not entirely Ellie’s fault. “Deep down I probably knew the truth,” she admits. She swallows, knowing what she says next can never be taken back. “For what it’s worth, it’s not like the thought never crossed my mind.”

Ellie doesn’t say anything.

“If things were different,” Aster starts. Then, “Or I was different.”

Then Ellie starts walking away. “You could never be different. ‘Am I sure I’m different?’” she mocks. “‘How do I know I’m sure?’”

“Hey, I can be sure,” Aster says, catching up to Ellie in three long strides.

“What does God think?” Ellie asks.

And suddenly, she’s angry again, because Ellie doesn’t get a say in this. Ellie doesn’t get to go off to Iowa, escape Squahamish, and then mock Aster for the way she deals with the fact that she has to stay. Ellie, who has always been slightly… frustrating.

And correct.

“You watch,” Aster says, like she’s giving a pep talk to herself. “In a couple of years, I’m gonna be so sure.”

“Good luck with that,” Ellie says, and it could be a joke, if the smile on her face wasn’t so warm.

“Find something good in Iowa to believe in, heathen,” Aster says.

Ellie nods, turning, and walks away. Aster watches her go, until the sight of someone else’s dreams coming true just hurts too much, and she looks down. She still means it; Ellie deserves this.

The sound of a bike clattering to the pavement brings her head back up, just in time to see Ellie sprinting towards her. She only has time to wonder if this what it’s like to feel alive, when Ellie grabs her by the face and kisses her.

Her lips are soft. They’re soft, and they’re warm, and they hold Aster’s like they’re the only ones who know what words they’ve said to each other when they knew they shouldn’t. Ellie’s grip is firm, and strong, and safe.

Aster kisses her back. She doesn’t even think about it, she just does, because this is what kissing is supposed to feel like.

It feels like hidden essays beneath a mattress. It feels like letters written under the guidance of the moonlight. It feels like the intoxicating smell of spray paint creating something beautiful. It feels like not-safe words in the hot springs of Washington, and driving with the windows down.

It feels bold.

And then Ellie is mumbling something about a couple years, and is walking away, and Aster just stands there with a smile on her face.

Because, God, she just kissed a girl in the middle of the town, in broad daylight, where her parents could have seen. Where anyone could have seen. Where God definitely saw. And Aster is still standing, isn’t she?

If she can do that…

Aster laughs. She laughs, because she’s happy. She laughs because she’s decided that she’s getting out of Squahamish. Where she’ll go, she has no idea, but she’s not staying. She laughs because she suddenly understands that her great painting isn’t Ellie, and it isn’t Paul, and it most certainly isn’t Trig.

In one exhale, she releases so many more years of confusion and hurt and fear she didn’t even know was harboring inside. In one exhale, she accepts herself. In one exhale, she realizes she doesn’t care if her father doesn’t. In one exhale, she realizes that things can be different. That she can be different.

In one exhale, she realizes her great painting is herself.

And maybe, one day, the great painting that is Ellie Chu will find its way over to her again. Maybe.

Aster smiles, and turns away. Maybe in a couple of years.

____________________

this slope is treacherous / and i like it

Chapter Text

hey, everyone! too head empty to write anything else right now, but i really wanted to make a playlist about these fools. from aster’s point of view, of course, it loosely follows the plot (ie chronologically how she was feeling at one point in time), so listen in order!!

(p.s. i say it’s chronological, but it does go into post-canon that i like to believe happened. check out my other fic on here for an epilogue i wrote.)

so, without further ado:

  1. strangers - the jonas brother
  2. treacherous - taylor swift
  3. dear patience - niall horan
  4. plant life - owl city
  5. open - rhye
  6. slip away - perfume genius
  7. the saltwater room - owl city
  8. heaven is a place on earth - belinda carlisle
  9. she’s not there - the zombies
  10. don’t you - simple minds
  11. miss missing you - fall out boy
  12. storms - fleetwood mac
  13. out of the woods - taylor swift