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the long way around

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At first, Ellie contemplated not going. Those years of her life weren’t exactly highlights - the town, much like the way the trains ran through it, felt like a place where time moved only so it could reach it and then move beyond it. Time never really went, in Squahamish. Definitely not for her family. 

Besides, life was good for Ellie now. After finishing at Grinnell, her and her father moved to Seattle, chasing after a job offer in the public transport industry there. And when he had got it - well. Neither had looked back since.

Which was why Ellie was on FaceTime, having her ear talked off by one Paul Munsky. 

“Come on, Ellie,” Paul whined, his pout annoying even through the phone screen. At one point, it had been Ellie’s weak spot, reminding her of a puppy being kicked across the road. Now that she’d gotten used to it, she wondered how anyone could take her best friend seriously. “I haven’t seen you since the last time I was in the city. And that was months ago.” 

“Three months is hardly a long time, Munsky.” Ellie barely glanced up from the manuscript she was proofreading. “And you stayed way longer than you should have.” What Ellie didn’t say was that she had been elated to have him, his long limbs and boyish charm bringing life to the usually dour apartment she shared with her father. His mental health had improved in leaps and bounds, but neither really put effort into making the place lived in. Especially since Ellie spent more time in the office than was strictly healthy. 

“As if you didn’t cry when I got on the train back.” Paul’s video shook as he got himself comfortable on his bed. “Besides, I heard Aster’s coming back too.” 

That got Ellie’s attention. “Oh yeah?” Ellie said coolly, hiding the way her heart kicked into two-step. “What a surprise.” Ellie hadn’t kept in touch with Aster since she left all those years ago. There didn’t seem to be any real reason too, both of them acknowledging that there were things they each had to work through before anything could really happen. And besides that one afternoon six years ago when Ellie was back to help her father move out for good, nothing else had been said between them. 

“Yeah, for sure.” The words twisted behind a yawn. He smiled sheepishly when Ellie finally raised her head to fix him with a stern glare. “I promise, I’m not overworking. It’s just been really busy lately sorting out the distributors and that.” If the years had been kind to Ellie, they had been doubly so for Paul. Ellie would never have guessed the goofy teen who could barely string two words together in front of a pretty girl would be able to hold court in the business world against big time investors. Then again, Ellie had reflected, they probably had seen what Ellie had always seen in Paul Munsky: a man who always tried his best, no matter the situation. 

Still, that enthusiasm needed to be tempered sometimes. And it was Ellie’s job to do that. “Uh-huh.” 

“Aw, El. Just tell me you’re coming to the stupid reunion so I can hang up and go to bed.” He stroked his wispy beard with an impish grin. “You’re always telling me I need the beauty sleep - you wouldn’t want me to lose all this handsomeness, do you?” 

Miming gagging, Ellie turned back to her manuscript as she shrugged. “I’ll think about it.” Paul cheered. “This is not a yes. This is a maybe, at most.” 

“I’ll send you the details.” And damn Munsky for always seeing right through her. “And you can stay at mine! I’m more than happy to live at home while you’re here - I know how much you love your privacy.” 

“It’s a maybe , Munsky!” 

- - - - - 

Of course, two months later found Ellie stepping off the train onto the familiar Squahamish platform. Everything was almost exactly as she remembered it - the lonely conductor’s box, the stationmaster’s office. They’d gone fully automated, was what Ellie had heard. The system was being run by someone two towns over, and so the places in which Ellie had grown up in seemed sadder now. Paint-worn and barely holding up against the wind. She noted with melancholy that some kids had probably thrown rocks through the windows of her old house, the bedroom. Ellie imagined that she could have stepped through the front door and found it exactly as it had been all through her childhood and teen years - same dated wood panelling, same second-hand furniture. Same aching loneliness permeating every seam of the place. 

Shaking her head at her own nostalgia, she turned her back on the padlock the sheriff’s office had no doubt slapped on to stop trespassers, and faced instead the Munsky home. By the bins was a familiar face, stronger and more grown up, but familiar nonetheless. And when she hugged him, Paul smelled like home. 

“Hey there, stranger,” he yelled as he picked her up and spun her. “Fancy seeing you here!” 

Giggling madly, Ellie slapped him on his broad shoulders until he set her on her feet again. “You are such an ogre.” Paul laughed at the comparison, offering his arm for her to take as he reached down to pick up her duffel. “I’ve missed you too.” 

Paul drove her to his place, his old pickup traded for a newer model that didn’t sound like it would break down while navigating potholes. The best part was finding out that he actually had a stereo system in there, instead of just the radio. They sang along to the rock playlist Ellie put on, uncaring of the looks they were getting as they made their way through town. That was Paul’s magic, Ellie mused as she reached over the center console to punch him lightly in the shoulder. He always had a way of making her feel young again. 

“And this is Casa el Paul.” Paul’s place was considered big for Squahamish. Two bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen and living room that functioned as his home office when he didn’t have guests. People didn’t really move out from their family homes in this small town. But he’d always maintained that Ellie’s dorm experience at college had inspired him. 

“You know, you really don’t have to stay with your mom while I’m here. I’ll be happy on the couch even, if you didn’t want me having the guest room.” They were sat on his couch, the television playing the news quietly in the background. Paul just rolled his eyes. 

“You’re my best friend, Ellie. No way are you sleeping on my couch.” Hearing her title in his life never ceased to make her feel warm, no matter how many times he said it. “And anyway, you’re taking my room. Someone else is staying in the guest room.” 

Ellie choked on her sip of tea. “What?” 

“Yeah.” Oh, she did not like the playful smirk on his face. “Aster needed a place to stay when she came down, so I offered her my guest room.” 

Aster Flores. In the guest room. Down the hall from where Ellie would be sleeping. 

“I’m sorry?” The smirk on his face grew into a full shit-eating grin. Ellie wanted to slap him. “ Aster ?”

Paul shrugged as if it wasn’t a big deal, the biggest deal ever. “Yeah. She wanted to attend the reunion too, but obviously her and her family aren’t on speaking terms anymore, so I told her she could stay here.” 

Ellie’s head spun. “Did you - does she know - me?” She ended up pointing empathetically at herself. Paul raised his eyebrows. 

“Yeah, sure. She was a little hesitant until I mentioned you, actually. Apparently, she didn’t want to impose, but since you were already staying…” 

“I hate you.” Ellie was sure her blush could be seen from space. “You truly are hateful.” 

“Oh come on, Ellie.” Paul kicked his feet up onto the coffee table, his socked feet wiggling in his excitement. “It’s not like it’d be weird or anything, right?” His tone made it very clear he was enjoying her discomfort. “I mean, it isn’t like you guys really saw each other after that one kiss before you left for Grinnell, right?” 

“I knew I should never have told you about that,” Ellie grumbled as she leaned back into the couch as well, avoiding his gaze. Paul wasn’t the brightest, but he was loyal. And he knew exactly what a big deal it was for Ellie and Aster to see each other again. “And you need to shut up about it. It’s been ten years.” 

Paul didn’t know about that afternoon six years ago. Despite being more open with him than anyone else in her life, Ellie had never been able to bring herself to tell him about it. And it wasn’t like she didn’t trust him - it had just been a magical moment, for Ellie. A secret she wanted to hoard forever. Saying it out loud made it feel cheap, and if there was one thing Aster Flores was not, in Ellie’s eyes? It was anything less than perfect. 

“Hey, all I’m saying is you’re finally single again. She’s single.” Paul nudged her with his shoulder. “See how it goes.” Ellie wanted to grudgingly accept that logic, except Paul had to ruin it by continuing with - “And if you guys do get married, I want to be best man.” 

Ellie took great pride in being able to whack the ex-football player in the face with his own couch cushion. 

- - - - - 

Aster arrives two days later, while Ellie was in the shower. She’d been up late the night before, finishing off a script she’d been sent to read, and now stood under the warm water while contemplating what to get for dinner, since she’d missed lunch. Maybe if she bullied Paul into coming over and cooking for her she wouldn’t have to brave the phone call for takeout. 

She was just stepping out in a cloud of steam when she heard the front door open and voices fill the house. Cursing at the realisation that she was nowhere near ready, she wrapped a towel over herself and tried to sneak her way back into Paul’s bedroom without them noticing. She was not prepared to face her teenage crush. Physically or mentally. 

Of course, like all things in her life, Ellie wasn’t really given a choice. As she opened the door to the bathroom, she came face to face with two surprised faces, her hair dripping into her face as she grimaced awkwardly. 

“Hi Aster. Hi Paul.” The other two stared at her a moment, and Ellie wanted the ground to swallow her up whole. “The bathroom’s free now, if you wanted to use it.” 

Thankfully, Paul was the first to snap out of it. Turning around resolutely so he couldn’t see anything, he said - “Right. Yeah. I was just showing Aster around. And this… is the bathroom.” 

Aster seemed to ignore him. Her eyes - as warm and piercing as Ellie remembered them being - were fixed firmly on Ellie, dropping down to where the towel barely covered her breasts. Seeming to catch herself, Aster lifted her gaze with the beginnings of a smile on her lips. “Hey there, Ellie Chu.”

“Hey there, Aster Flores.” Six years apart, and Aster looked different. Her hair shorter, the beginnings of smile lines around her eyes and mouth. Her fashion had changed somewhat too since high school, Ellie noted. Gone were the sundresses and modest tops. This Aster had on a worn jean jacket over a white tank top, a delicate heart necklace drawing her attention to the hint of cleavage she could see. And where Aster might have been wearing heels, she instead had platform boots. As if she needed to be any taller. 

Paul cleared his throat, breaking the staring contest the women seemed trapped in. “El, you wanna put some clothes on? I was thinking we could head out to Sparky’s, get some dinner?” 

“Sounds good.” Ellie felt her lips pull into a thin smile. “I’ll be out in a bit.” 

“Take your time.” Aster reached out just as Ellie brushed past her, her touch tingling as her fingers tangled in Ellie’s for just a moment. “I’m a little tired anyway.” 

“Uh, s-sure.” 

Ellie felt like a teenager all over again, she reflected as she paced in the safety of Paul’s bedroom. Tongue-tied and wanting, when she hadn’t been that way in years. Not since college. 

Sighing angrily, she began to get dressed, taking the time to get the worst of the wet out of her hair with a hairdryer before throwing it into a loose bun. Unwilling to root through her still unpacked suitcase for something decent, Ellie tugged on the jeans she had been wearing since Seattle and snagged a flannel from Paul’s closet. It’ll have to do, she mused at her reflection. She would have liked to have time to pop in her contacts, but compromised by putting on a smidge of lipstick and lining her eyes instead. It was a far cry from the put together figure she liked to portray herself as at work, but she was beginning to feel overdressed for little old Squahamish.

Aster and Paul were chatting in the kitchen when she was done, leaning on opposite ends of the lived in kitchen. Ellie knew Paul liked to spend a lot of time in here, using it as a test kitchen of sorts for new recipes. She spotted the scorch mark on the backsplash from the time he experimented with flambe and nearly burnt the place down. Good times. 

“You good?” Aster was the first to notice her, her smile warm and easy. Not at all like it meant to make Ellie’s heart flip in her chest. “You can ride with me.” Ellie wasn’t given a choice as she felt her hand being taken in Aster’s and tugged towards the door. She managed to give Paul a helpless look over her shoulder, which only earned her that same shit-eating grin from before. 

She truly did hate him, she thought as she pulled her seatbelt over herself in Aster’s car. It was different from the one she drove in high school, and looked more similar to what Ellie would see in the city. Not for the first time, she wondered what Aster had been up to all these years. 

They kept the topics light as Aster followed behind Paul’s pickup into town, both tacitly agreeing to really catch up when the three were together. Ellie marveled at how easily they kept up conversation, how natural the silences were. Almost as if they hadn’t spent six years apart. They talked about the changes they could see in the town from the drive in, the familiar places that seemed stuck in time. The non-existent traffic and the sight of high schoolers getting let out from their old school. 

It was nice. 

Sparky’s Diner was another one of those steady constants. The wait staff were the same, if not older, and they recognised the trio as they stepped into the dingy light of the fluorescents.

“Well I’ll be! It’s Aster Flores and Ellie Chu!” Margot crowed from her spot behind the counter as they settled into their booth. “Elliot, come out and say hi. It’s Aster and Ellie!” 

“Hey, what about me?” Paul whined as he turned in his seat. “I know where you keep your meats, Miss Margot, and I’m not afraid to tell everyone the secret to your plum pie.”  

“Oh you don’t scare me, Munsky.” Margot huffed as she came up to them, notepad in hand. “Y’all back for the reunion, then?” 

“Yes, Mrs Pilsner.” Aster shared an amused look across the table from Ellie. “And we just had to come here to catch up.” 

Margot’s beamed proudly. “Well now, it’s nice to know that you city people haven’t forgotten what good food tastes like. For that, milkshakes on the house.” She rattled off their usual orders with unerring precision, and Ellie wondered what exactly it meant that Margot could remember their favourites even ten years later. 

“Incredible woman.” Paul moaned around his straw later. “If she wasn’t so much older than me, I’d ask her to marry me.” 

Rolling her eyes, Ellie reached out to punch him for his comment as Aster giggled opposite them.

“I never pegged you for the type, Paul.” Aster’s eyes gleamed as she worked on her chocolate milkshake. “I thought you liked them young.” 

Paul sputtered as Ellie found herself surprised into a chuckle. “She’s got you there. Where is dear Penelope, hmm?” 

“Pen’s at college, as you two know.” Her best friend straightened in his seat with a belligerent stare. “And she’s not that young!” 

“I don’t know, wussy,” Ellie found herself glancing at Aster’s amused smile. “21 is just barely legal still.” Ignoring Paul’s groan, Ellie found herself meeting Aster for a high five as they laughed at his expense. 

“I’ll have you know -” 

“You got a little bit of something on your face, cradle robber.” Ellie reached out with her sleeve to wipe the flecks of milkshake off his face. Paul just ducked out of her reach and grumbled as he slid out of his seat to head to the bathroom. Shaking her head at him, she turned back to Aster.

“What a dork,” she found herself saying, when the silence stretched too long. “Some days I can’t believe he’s the same age.” 

“Maybe you keep him young.” Aster innocently sucked on her straw. “I know I feel a little more teenaged being here.” 

“Oh?” Ellie raised an eyebrow as she crossed her legs under the table. “Thinking back on all the dates you brought to the diner?” Aster blushed, and Ellie traced shapes into the condensation of her glass with a small smile. “Must be nice to have memories like that.” 

“I’ve never seen you in here.” Aster tilted her head. “I think if I really thought about it, I never really saw you anywhere outside school and the station.” 

Ellie shrugged. Her teenage years were pretty lonely, everything different shades of grey after her mom died. But there were spots of light. Paul Munsky, for one. For two…

“I have been here before,” Ellie looked out the window, her lips twitching as she deftly avoided the heavy stuff. “The parking lot counts, right?” Aster rolled her eyes. “No, I mean I was sat right there.” She pressed a finger out to where Paul parked the first time, before dragging it across the glass to where he parked the second time. “In Paul’s old truck. I chaperoned your dates.” Her shoulders shook with silent laughter as she rested her temple against the window to look at her conversation partner. “Paul needed moral support. I always left halfway through, so. I’m not a creep or anything. Promise.” 

“You were right there?” Aster wasn’t looking out the window, her gaze instead on Ellie. Ellie looked away shyly as she shrugged a shoulder. This was the closest they’d ever come to acknowledging the mess that was their last year of high school. And while Ellie knew it was water under the bridge, there was always a degree of discomfort that she couldn’t shake off surrounding the events. “Both times?”

“Yeah.” Feeling her uneasiness rise, Ellie leaned forward with a sigh. “Look, Aster, I know it was ages ago. But I’m still -” 

“If you say sorry again,” Aster’s amused smile was how Ellie distracted herself from the fact that the other woman had pressed a finger against Ellie’s lips. “I’m going to start wondering if I truly am that scary.” Ellie shook her head, catching Aster’s hand as her finger was dislodged. “Good.” 

They stayed like that for a moment more before, Aster let out a quiet breath. Her eyes flickered up to Ellie’s hair. “You know, when I first saw your hair on instagram, I didn’t know if I liked it. But it looks really good in person.” She reached up with her free hand to tuck a light brown lock behind Ellie’s ear. “What made you want to change it?” 

Ellie wondered how to answer the question. “Short answer? I needed a change.” 

“And the long answer?” Aster’s eyes were patient and steady, reminding Ellie so much of their afternoon six years ago. Looking away to hide her blush, she focused instead on tracing the lines of Aster’s palm. 

“Dad fell ill. Not depressed like he was after mom died. Like, truly ill. He’s been going to dialysis treatments for the past four years.” She felt, more than saw, Aster’s fingers twitch. “It all got too much - shuttling him to appointments, trying to keep the apartment, I was just starting at the publishing house.” Ellie laughed mirthlessly, recalling the echoey nature of that time. “I got overwhelmed, living for someone else again. Dad and I were equals for the most part, ever since he got his job with the Metro. But the sickness - it was hard.” Aster turned her hand, palm up. Let Ellie play with her fingers, folding them in hers, pressing them against the table. “So I tried to get some control back. Dyed my hair, hit the clubs. It was… a dark week.” When Ellie tried to pull away, Aster grasped her fingers with hers. Holding her there. “I, uh. I got it out of my system and went back home.” 

Ellie didn’t mention how it was her father collapsing one night that did it. Didn’t tell Aster about how scared she had been to lose him. How she had called the ambulance when he didn’t respond to her shaking, how she spent the night in the hospital waiting room, praying to a god she didn’t believe in. It was a harrowing few hours, and Ellie kept her hair that colour to remind herself of the night where she thought she would lose everything. 

“And are you doing better now?” Ellie looked up at Aster’s question. People tended to ask how her father was doing since, and Ellie had said that he was fine more times than she can count. Only a few ever asked how she was dealing with it.

Before she could answer, Paul Munsky slid back into his seat with a smile and their burgers. “Thought I’d check in and say hi to Elliot since the kitchen was on the way. Sorry for the wait.” 

“Don’t worry about it,” Ellie muttered as she reached out for her plate. “We weren’t talking about anything important.” 

- - - - - 

Dr Aster Flores was now managing her own art gallery in Seattle, as Ellie would learn over the course of dinner. Bachelors of Fine Art from MICA, before continuing into her MFA. For her PhD Aster had gone to NYU, and lived in New York for a while before moving to Seattle to open up a gallery with a friend. 

“So you travelled cross-country just to study art?” Ellie raised an eyebrow at Paul’s question. “That’s pretty cool.” 

“I would have loved to study in Europe, to be honest,” Aster shrugged as she munched on a fry. “But my scholarship was particular about keeping it to national schools. I’m in a shit ton of debt, but.” The use of a casual swear made Ellie’s lips twitch upwards. “I’m happy, and the gallery is doing well. And when I’m not busy with that I’m working on my own art. So I’m pretty happy with my life.” 

“That’s great.” Ellie meant it. She remembered talking with Aster through letters about it, discussing the insecurities the other woman had about pursuing arts as a career. It made her chest warm to think that it was a reality for Aster now. “We would love to see some of it. Your art, I mean. You were so good already in high school. I’m sure you’re super amazing now.” 

The praise made a blush rise in Aster’s cheeks, and she ducked her head in an uncharacteristically shy move. Ellie stuffed her mouth with some more burger to ignore Paul’s knowing smirk. The yelp he tried to stifle when Ellie discreetly kicked him under the table was worth it. 

“What about you?” Aster leaned forward, propping her jaw on her fist. “What have you been up to?” 

Ellie blinked at the sudden attention. “Me?” When Aster only nodded, Ellie coughed        awkwardly as she set down the fry she was about to eat. “Nothing interesting.”

“Nothing interesting?” Paul looked scandalised to hear her talk that way. “Ellie here is like, doing lots for the Chinese community in Seattle. Right? You’re like, some hotshot editor-in-chief -”

“I’m just a normal editor -”

“And like, you’re producing big fancy tv shows too -” 

“I’m also a part-time script reader for a production house, it’s not a big deal -”

And you’re in a band!”

“I just play some gigs for a friend when their usual players can’t make it. Hardly amazing.” 

Paul gaped. “Dude, you went to Coachella. Twice.” 

“I told you to come! It’s not my fault you had a stomach flu the week before.” As they devolved into their usual bickering, they were interrupted by Aster tapping the table with an amused smile. 

“So… Ellie Chu is as modest as ever, huh?” The way she said it made it sound like a compliment and a joke all at once, and Ellie wasn’t sure how to process it. Because there was also a voice in her head - that sounded suspiciously like Paul Munsky - telling her it could also be, under the right circumstances, like flirting

Ellie scoffed as Paul nodded enthusiastically. “She went to Coachella. Twice ,” he whispered, as if afraid Aster hadn’t heard it the first time. “It’s insane.” 

Rolling her eyes, she pinched her brow. “Paul, I love you, but truly. Shut up.” 

“Honestly, I already knew all that,” Aster admitted, leaning back in her seat. “I do follow you on social media, El.” 

That made Ellie nearly choke. Ellie didn’t post often, if at all. In fact, her Instagram - which she had made a few weeks after freshman orientation - had only eighteen posts. In ten years. She was a lurker, and proud of it. So in order for Aster to have seen all that…

Smiling playfully, Ellie joked that Aster must’ve been stalking her. And lost her breath when Aster just shrugged mysteriously without missing a beat. 

Before Ellie could ask any follow-up questions, Aster turned the attention to Paul’s happenings since they’d last seen each other. And if it weren’t for the way Ellie sometimes caught Aster glancing at her, she would have been able to ignore the sticky feeling in her stomach at the thought that Aster Flores had evidently thought she was important enough to keep track of over the years. 

- - - - - 

That night, Ellie found herself unable to sleep despite her tiredness. Paul’s bed was comfier than the one she had back in Seattle, but it felt like her brain was in overdrive. Loud and full of thoughts. 

Her father had been interested to hear that Aster had returned; he had expressed a want for them to reconnect. Ellie had never told him about what happened senior year, but got the feeling he knew. Especially when she came home with her first girlfriend from college that one year. 

“And don’t use me an excuse again, Ellie Chu Ting Wei,” his grumbly voice seeped through the phone. “We didn’t bring you here so that you could pretend to live a life.” 

“Yes, papa.” The Mandarin rolled off her tongue, tasting familiar in Squahamish and grounding her in the darkness of Paul’s room. “Have you taken your medicine today?”

“Yes, of course. Stop worrying about me. Auntie Ling will help me.” 

“Tell Auntie Ling I said hi then. And I’ll make sure to cook her something nice in thanks when I get back.” Ellie smiled at the mental image of her father and the woman he swore he wasn’t dating for a year or two. “And pa?” 

“Hmm?” 

“Thank you,” Ellie finally managed, too chicken to tell him she missed him suddenly. “I’ll see you when I get home.” 

“You take your time, Ellie.” He chuckled, and Ellie let the familiar sound warm her. “I’ll still be here when you get back.” 

Frustrated at her inability to turn her brain off, Ellie padded out to the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea. Maybe she should take the time to start reading the next manuscript she’d been assigned; it was a sci-fi novel, so she was excited. She was in the middle of correcting a grammar mistake when she jumped at the feel of a hand on her shoulder. 

“I’m going to assume you were swearing at me,” Aster said simply once Ellie had finished calling her every bad word she knew in her native tongue. “I didn’t mean to scare you, sorry.” 

“It’s okay,” she admitted warily as the other woman pulled up a chair to sit next to her. The artist looked sleepy, slouching across the table as she yawned. Her pyjamas were cute, Ellie noted. There were bunnies on them. 

“A Christmas present from my sister,” Aster responded wryly when she saw Ellie looking. “Why aren’t you in bed?” 

“Couldn’t sleep.” Ellie normally found it hard to admit things. But with Aster’s warm brown eyes sleepily blinking up at her, how could she resist? “You?” 

“Saw the light from under the door. Figured I should go check that it wasn’t a murderer or something.”

A raised brow. “You came out barefoot and without a weapon? You’re such a white girl.” 

“Hey!” Ellie dodged the slap to her arm. “That’s an insult to my cultural heritage.” 

“Your ancestors did not go through significant hardship for you to pull cheap horror movie tricks like this,” Ellie taunted as she set her work aside. “I’m sure they’re turning over in their graves.” 

“Oh please,” Aster sat up, more awake now. “I’m not the one doing the white girl moping. Where’s your usual Asian ‘get up and go’?” Ellie blinked. “You have a tell, when you’re worried about something. Your jaw gets all tight and your fingers -” Aster reached out to capture her hand, halting the mindless movements they were making with her pen. “Your fingers don’t stay still.” 

“Wow, you truly are a stalker, Aster Flores.” Ellie pulled her hand away to hide her flush. “Should I get a restraining order against you?” 

“Depends.” Aster turned around in her chair. “Would that make it easier for you to ignore that we slept together?” Ellie reared back as if she’d been physically slapped. Aster stared at her unflinchingly, piercing and alert. 

“I don’t -”

“I woke up alone the next morning, Ellie. I called your house, but no one picked up. And then you ignored my calls to your phone and my texts. Next thing I know, Paul told me you had left that evening. So you were ignoring me on purpose.” 

“I wasn’t - my dad -” 

“And then I think, okay maybe she just needs some time to wrap her head around it. I’ll give her some space.” Aster looked small at that moment, just like she had that day so many years ago when Ellie said sorry for the first time, that it was only ever meant to be one letter. “But then you never got in touch. And I thought, okay. That’s fine. She’s not into me anymore.” The way she bit her lip let Ellie know just how much she’d hurt her. 

“Aster -”

“But then when I graduated from NYU, there were flowers sent to my apartment congratulating me. No name, just. A quote from Jang Eun-Jin.” It feels as though the beginning and the end are intertwined, thus leading to a never-ending cycle, Ellie remembered writing, all those years ago. Surely this will not be the end.  

She’d hesitated over sending it, mulling over the idea for days until it was almost too late. And in the end, she couldn’t help herself. Imagined the way the smile would sneak onto Aster’s face at the sight. Ellie was, always, at the mercy of Aster’s happiness. 

Damn romantic. 

“Paul gave me your address. He… well, he didn’t like the idea. But he’s a good friend.” Ellie started to restlessly rap her knuckles on the table in a soothing tune. “So don’t be mad at him.” 

Aster scoffed as she stood up. “I carried that card in my wallet for years after. I still have it right now. It’s so worn and tattered, and when I need a stroke of good luck, I pull it out and run my fingers over it.” She sighed and looked so worn, older than her twenty eight years. “But I don’t know if I can keep making do with a paper version of you, Ellie Chu.” This time when she lifted her head, Aster softened and reached out. “Don’t cry, El. I will always want you in my life, but you have to choose in what capacity that is.” 

And the words were there in her throat, but Ellie couldn’t say it. Because really, what right did she have? She had pined and longed and loved this girl for years. And while she had flourished in college, and had a few relationships, her heart had always been stuck on the girl who just wanted to be understood. The girl who had taken her to her favourite spot and let her drift in a pool as they looked up at the sky and talked about life and loneliness and longing. 

Aster Flores had always had her heart, in one way or another. And maybe it was simply because she was the first. Maybe because Ellie had yet to find anyone else who could match her intellectually, engaged her emotionally. Maybe because it was all of those things, and maybe it was none of them at all. 

Ellie didn’t want to lose Aster Flores for real by mistake. She didn’t think she could bear with that heartbreak. 

As the silence stretched on, Aster - sweet, understanding Aster who always seemed to understand things that went unsaid, could always read between the lines even when the intent wasn’t deliberate - leaned down and kissed her forehead gently. 

“Don’t hurt your pretty head over it.” She cupped Ellie’s jaw, smoothing out her thumb over the tense muscle there. “I’ve waited ten years. I can wait a little while more.” 

Ellie kept her eyes closed as she felt the touch leave. And when she opened them, she was alone. 

Chapter Text

Ellie left the house before Aster woke up to go for a run. It had become a part of her daily routine, especially since there weren’t a lot of opportunities for her to stay fit by riding her bike back in the cities she’d been. She found herself tracing the route she would take to get to school in the early dawn, the shadows shortening as the sun crept over the horizon. A few cars passed by her on their way to town, but no one called out to her the way the bullies did. The feeling that left behind made her wonder. 

She turned around just as she saw the school in the distance, and eventually found herself making her way to her old home. It looked the same as it did yesterday, the exterior peeling and empty. She reached it just in time for the morning train, and there was the instinctive jolt in her chest that made her want to run to the conductor’s box to signal it. 

But that was ridiculous, she chuckled to herself. Because the station didn’t need a conductor anymore, or a stationmaster, or anyone to live above it. The thought made her uncomfortable, and she crossed the tracks to knock on the basement window she knew belonged to Paul. 

Ten minutes later, they were sat on the steps of his home, Paul blearily handing her one of his old hoodies to wear. It smelled like sausage and Paul, and Ellie burrowed into its warmth as she stretched her legs out in front of her. 

“You’re such an early riser,” he muttered as he yawned into his arm. “You don’t need to catch the trains anymore, you know.”

“Force of habit.” She leaned her head against his shoulder and rested there for a moment as Paul fell quiet. The door opened behind them for Paul’s mother to hand them each a cup of coffee that they cradled in their hands. 

“Do you remember all the things we said about love? In the church?” Her voice was quiet, unwilling to take away the attention from the sound of the birds chirping as the world woke up around them. “About it being selfless but also selfish? And bold?” 

“I think I remember Aster slapping me more,” Paul snorted, as he sipped from his cup. “But go on.”

“I think I was wrong. A little.” Paul didn’t say anything, just waited for her to go on. Ellie loved Paul so much. “Maybe love is all those things. But it’s also something that changes its shape to exist. That maybe it stretches with distance and doesn’t snap, and that maybe it gets forgotten but exists still, under your skin.” Her inhale was shaky. “My chest feels so tight whenever I’m around her, you know? And I feel clumsy and ineloquent and afraid to mess up. But mostly,” she leaned more of her weight against her best friend. “I think love is scary.” 

“Scary good or scary bad?” 

“Scary in the way it could make you feel so much.” She closed her eyes and breathed in the comforting smell of Paul and Mrs Munsky starting on breakfast. 

To her surprise, Paul started to laugh. “Wow, your ex really did a number on you, huh?” He tapped his mug with hers to get her attention. “This isn’t the Ellie Chu I know.” 

Ellie blinked. “Excuse me?” If she wanted to be laughed at, she’d have gone to someone like Aster’s dad. 

“Of course it’s going to make you feel things. It’s an emotion .” Paul nodded his head in agreement with an inner thought as he continued. “I mean, yeah, you basically had to learn how to be a human in college, but like, love is one of the coolest emotions of all because it’s one of the few that can make you do things, you know?” 

“What about anger?” 

“How many songs about anger do you know?” 

“Wow, you’ve just insulted rock and punk musicians.”

“Yeah, but they do it out of love too, don’t they?” Paul shrugged. “When I first started playing football, Coach told me to be careful. He said I was big. And because of that, I could never get angry on the field. Because I could seriously hurt someone.” 

“I’m not understanding where you’re going with this.” Sometimes Paul said things that really were just him working things out aloud. It frustrated her when it happened without warning, because she would have to listen to him do it. 

“I’m saying, you don’t get moved to do something super poetic like art when you’re fueled by anger. And hate. And any other emotion. Or maybe you do. Maybe I’m wrong about that too. But with love, the possibility is like 99.9%.” 

Ellie gaped as she tried to follow his line of thought. “ 99.9 %?” 

“You’re the one who’s always telling me nothing is absolutely certain.” Paul sipped from his cup, sounding pleased with himself. “There’s always a chance for change.” 

Ellie took a deep breath, trying to temper her frustration. Because she’d gone to Paul for clarity and got only more questions. “Your brain astounds me, wussy.” 

Paul rolled his eyes. “You woke me up before noon. You’re lucky I’m not drooling on you right now.”

“Gross.” They finish off their drinks and Paul grabs hers to pass it back to his mom through the kitchen window. 

“Come on,” he says as he holds his hands out to haul her up. “I’ll give you a ride back.” 

“I don’t want to go back yet.” 

“Then we’ll go get pancakes first. But you’re paying for Aster’s share to bring back.” 

“Fine.” 

- - - - - 

If there was one thing Ellie disliked, it was uncertainty. And so it was that she could feel her concern rising when she arrived at Paul’s place and saw Aster sat on the porch swing that Paul had made her build one summer, brown eyes lost to the distance. 

“Hey Aster!” Paul called out as he tumbled out of his truck. “Isn’t it a bit cold to be sitting outside?” The sun never really came out in Squahamish, and so there was always a chill in the air. Paul and Ellie exchanged a worried look when Aster didn’t respond. 

“Hey,” Ellie whispered gently as she nodded at Paul to fetch a blanket from inside. Kneeling by Aster’s feet, she dared to reach out to trap the artist’s hands in both of hers. “What’s wrong?” 

“Ellie.” Aster seemed to blink herself out of wherever her mind had gone. “You’re back.” 

Ellie frowned. “Of course I am. Where else would I have gone?” The lost look was still in Aster’s eyes, and she shivered as she looked around. “Hey.” She seemed to struggle to focus. “You’re starting to scare me here.” 

“My - um. My dad called.” Aster didn’t seem to notice the blanket Paul draped over her shoulders before joining them outside. “Someone told him I was staying here. He called the house.” She was shaking, Ellie realised, her hands trembling in both of hers. Ellie simply pressed tighter. “He told me it was - it was time to come home.” 

Paul’s jaw tightened. “He wants you to come back?” Aster nodded jerkily. “No. He doesn’t get to do that.” 

“Paul!” Ellie didn’t understand why her friend was being so brutish. “Don’t you think that’s Aster’s choice to make?” 

“You don’t understand.” Paul’s normally placid features had morphed into something angry . “Father - Mr Flores kicked her out when she came out to him as bi. She had to live with us for a while.” He glared at the floor. 

“Dad ended up preaching about the sacred nature of the family unit at church that same weekend.” Aster rubbed at her face harshly. “Mom sent my sister with a bag of my clothes. They didn’t even want to see me.” 

Shit. “Come here.” Ellie moved to sit next to Aster on the seat, pulling her into a loose hug. “We got you.” 

Paul didn’t need any prompting. “Yeah, for sure. You need us to give your dad a kick up the butt, we’ll do it.” 

“I wouldn’t go that far, Munsky.” As always, Ellie had to play the rational role. “Aster doesn’t have to go back if she doesn’t want to. I doubt Father Flores is going to march down here or anything.” 

“He said he would give me something. If I came back.” Aster exhaled shakily. “My grandmother’s ring.” Ellie felt the woman start to shake in her arms. “It was meant to be mine. She wanted me to have it before… before .” Ellie nodded in understanding, her hands rubbing circles on the artist’s back. 

“She died?” Ellie wasn’t sure why she was asking, per se. But maybe it was because this was, as many things had been, simply another part of Aster she hadn’t known. 

“When I was thirteen.” Aster sniffled as she pulled away, dabbing at her eyes. “She practically raised me. When my parents were travelling all the time.” 

Paul and Ellie exchanged looks - Paul, hopeless; Ellie, tired. “Well, Aster,” Paul pulled out a crumpled handkerchief from his pocket and offered it to her. “Whatever you need, we got you.” Aster smiled shakily. “But for now, let’s go get some breakfast okay? Ellie and I picked up some of those pancakes you like from the diner.” 

“Thanks guys,” Aster murmured as she stood to follow them inside. “I was just… overwhelmed.” 

“Don’t worry about it. Paul gets the same way before he has any food in him.” Teasing, Ellie dodged out of the way of her best friend’s shove as she held the door open for Aster. “He once cried when I wouldn’t admit that sourdough went much better with avocado than regular white bread.” 

“That was one time!” Paul groused as he started pulling out plates. Aster laughed weakly, but it was a start. “And I stand by my statement.” 

“You’ll see,” Ellie whispered as Paul bustled about serving the food and pouring coffee. “You don’t have to do this alone.”

And oh, if her heart didn’t do a funny flip when Aster simply leant forward to tuck her relieved smile into Ellie’s neck. 

- - - - - 

Before Paul, Ellie had never gone to a friend’s house before. Growing up Asian meant that there was nobody your parents trusted more than other Asian parents. And since Squahamish was in short supply of that, Ellie had always just made her classmates meet her at school or the library. 

The first time she’d been invited in to the Munsky home, she’d felt like an intruder in the worst way - a voyeur to a scene that Paul insists is normal for his family. Ellie had been overwhelmed by the loud noises and good-natured ribbing, things she had only ever seen on a screen and not present in her own life. 

Since then, she’d been back to the Munsky house so many times, Paul’s mother kept a stock of Ellie’s favourite beer and tea just in case she ever came to visit. 

Still, Ellie had never really been able to shake the feeling that she was uninvited - that places like family and home never really was where she flourished. Not where she belonged

She was reminded of those feelings yet again as they sat in Aster’s nice city car, Paul in the backseat with his head leaning over the console, his hands gently resting on each of their shoulders. Next to her, Aster inhaled deeply as she finally loosened the death grip she had on the steering wheel. Ellie tapped on her knee to get her attention, and simply raised her eyebrows. 

It was meant to say you good? and we can still turn around if you want and you’re not alone all at once. 

Aster managed a shaky smile in response. 

Ellie made it a point to stand by Aster’s side as she reached for the doorbell of her father’s home. Close enough for the back of their hands to brush, close enough to look intimidating to Father Flores. Ellie had always had kind thoughts about the man for whom she’d played church services for four years. But that opinion had changed quickly when she realised what he had done to his own daughter. 

“Aster.” Father Flores looked older than she remembered. Ten years, and Ellie could point out how his face had grown softer with age. Where once he had a strong jaw and high brows, they seemed to sit lower on his face, lifted only when he narrowed his eyes at the sight of Ellie and Paul. “You’re late.” 

Ellie wasn’t sure if anyone else heard the way Aster’s breath caught slightly. Noticed the way her back straightened as if being called to the front of the class by a teacher. Could see the way Aster’s face betrayed the slightest hint of anxiety in the way her lips trembled just so. She had to hold herself back from reaching out for Aster’s hand. 

“You didn’t specify a time.” She nodded into the hallway behind him. “Is mom home?”  

Father Flores just grunted and cast his stare over Aster’s companions. “I’m sorry, Ellie. Paul. It’s nice to see you two again, but this is family business -”

“Then we’re right where we need to be, Mr Flores.” Ellie couldn’t bring herself to touch Aster in front of her father; but she could do this. “Shall we begin soon? We still have to get ready for the reunion. You know how girls are.” The last sentence was spoken with sarcasm. Ellie barely held herself back from flipping her hair for effect. 

“I see.” Father Flores squared his shoulders. “Well. I’ll just tell Maria to set out two more plates.” 

He turned to head down the hall, and Aster seemed to visibly deflate. Away from her father’s eyes, the enormity of what she was about to do finally seemed to sink in. This time Ellie did reach out for Aster’s hand, tangling their fingers for a squeeze. “Come on.” 

Aster nodded and lifted her head as she crossed the threshold of her once-home.

The Flores home was a study in contrast. Where Ellie’s old home above the station was cluttered and almost impossible to keep dust-free thanks to the trains, the Flores’s seemed to take great pride in organisation and cleanliness. Surfaces seemed to sparkle and every inch that could house Catholic paraphernalia, did. The walls were filled alternatively with iconography of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, and family photos through the ages. Ellie spotted one right by the living room with a young Aster Flores, grinning toothily at the camera. Her heart squeezed at the sight. 

Mrs Flores was just setting two more plates at the table as the trio entered the dining room, her hands wringing themselves nervously in her apron. Her smile looked porcelain - the kind that Ellie didn’t dare touch even as an adult, an ingrained fear of breaking it instilled in her as a child. Her dad had a small collection of ceramic dogs that he took great pride in displaying on one of the shelves in their living room - Ellie hadn’t had the heart to tell him he couldn’t. 

“Aster.” Maria Flores looked like she wanted to reach over and pull her daughter into a hug. But Father Flores had sat himself at the head of the table and he chose that moment to cough and clear his throat. Mrs Flores settled for that same porcelain smile. Aster mirrored it in turn. 

Paul chose the seat next to Father Flores, saving Aster the trial of deciding where to sit. Ellie smiled proudly at her best friend before settling next to Mrs Flores with a glance to see if it was okay. Aster’s smile grew more real at the sight, and underneath the table, Ellie felt her tangle their feet together. 

There was the awkward small talk as they were served enchiladas and some roasted vegetables - Ellie made sure to heap the latter on under Aster’s watchful eye. She rolled her eyes at the artist over the table, as Paul complimented their hosts on the food. His mouth was already full as he mumbled around it, and Ellie winced internally at the grimace Father Flores made. 

“So Aster.” Father Flores finally decided to speak up. “What have you been up to lately?” He spoke casually, as if the past few years of radio silence between himself and his daughter didn’t exist. Ellie watched carefully as Aster’s frown tugged at her lips. 

“I went to school. Graduated a couple of times. Now I own a gallery.” There was none of the pride she had when she had recounted the tale to Paul and Ellie the night before. 

“A gallery? So you’re still doing the art thing, then?” 

“Yes.” 

“Aster’s really good.” Ellie found herself filling the empty silence. “I mean, she was already good when we were in school. I’m sure she’s only gotten better since.” 

“That’s great, honey.” Maria Flores seemed to really mean it. “You were always so detailed and talented. I remember you coming home from school with your work and we would stick it on the fridge.” 

“Elena tore down the turkey I made one year.” Aster’s grin was wry as she remembered. “I threw such a fit.” 

“You always were a sensitive soul,” Maria chuckled. “You always felt so deeply.” Mother and daughter shared a smile and Ellie found herself stuffing her face with more vegetables to avoid it. “I’m glad you’re doing well for yourself.”

“Yes, we’re all very glad.” Father Flores set down his utensils as he dabbed at his mouth with his handkerchief. “How much are you making then?” 

Ellie didn’t need Paul making wide eyes at her to know that it was the wrong thing to say. Aster huffed at the question, breaking her moment with her mother to glare at her father. 

“Enough to get by. I’m quite proud of the things I’ve achieved, dad, and I would like you to respect that.” 

“Respect.” Father Flores shook his head. “You want to talk about respect?” 

Sensing an argument, Maria Flores looked between their guests and her husband furtively.  “Miguel…”

“No, no, Maria.” Father Flores held up his hand. “Let’s talk about respect. Did you think you were respecting us when you walked away from Trig’s marriage proposal all those years ago? In front of the whole congregation?”

“I was barely eighteen. This isn’t the 1900s anymore dad. No one gets married at that age.” 

“Fine. But walking away from him again when he asked you again four years later?” Aster sucked in a breath, her eyes darting to Ellie’s for a moment before looking away. “Do you know how much talking I had to do with his father to even get him to consider giving you his blessing again? And then you, with your bullheadedness, saying you wanted to go back to school, take out a loan, try to make it in the city. Was that showing respect?” 

Ellie felt sucker punched. Trig had proposed again? Aster had gotten back with him? Aster had walked away again

Paul wasn’t meeting her eyes. That was never a good sign. 

“I still wasn’t ready to settle down.” Aster’s eyes flashed with anger. “Contrary to popular belief, dad, there is a whole other world out there beyond Trig and Squahamish.” 

“Ah yes. A whole other world. Full of heathens like you .” The way he said it felt like an insult. Ellie opened her mouth to step in, but Paul shook his head vehemently. 

“Now we’re talking about something that actually matters.” Aster’s grip around her fork was white. “You’re still upset that I came out.” 

“I told you before that I will not have that kind of behaviour in my home.”

“And I’ve told you it’s not something I can choose .” Aster’s hands were shaking now, and she had to put down her cutlery so as to not make it obvious. “Who I fall in love with, regardless of whether it’s a male or a female, has nothing to do with how I feel about you, or God. And I wish you would see it that way.” 

“I fail to see how -” 

“That’s enough .” For a moment, Ellie couldn’t figure out who had said it. She looked at Aster, then Paul, then Father Flores in turn. But it became clear that the person who spoke was the mild-mannered woman to her left. Maria Flores was looking steadfastly at her plate as she spoke, her tone stern but controlled, as if she was holding back a wave of emotions that threatened to overwhelm her. 

“Mom?” Aster called out softly when the silence dragged on a beat too long. 

“I said, that’s enough .” Aster flinched back as if she had been slapped, and Ellie felt her heart about fall to her feet. But when Maria Flores lifted her head, it wasn’t to look at her daughter. No, her angry gaze was set firmly on her husband, who was simply watching her with his eyebrows raised. 

“I should’ve known.” She sounded so disappointed in herself that Ellie’s fingers twitched, and she had to sip her water to wet her dry throat. “When you said it would be nice to have Aster home, I should have known. You have never… you will never accept a point of view that isn’t your own. Not if it doesn’t fit into your view of what the world should be.” 

There seemed to be a collective intake of breath at the words around the table. Father Flores’s face pinched in confusion as he realised the person he had thought was his ally, wasn’t. “Maria?”

“I have had to spend years . Years away from our daughter’s life. Because I let you fill my head with the supposed words of the Lord. With words of someone that hadn’t held her in their arms when she was born. Watched her grow into this beautiful, strong woman.” Maria Flores turned to look at her daughter. “I don’t know if I believe that your love is a sin. The Lord has made us in his image, and the Lord makes no mistakes.” She sniffled as she reached out across the table for her daughter’s hand. “I will not stand in the way of your journey in this life. I just hope that I can be there to see the rest of it.” 

Aster’s mouth hung open in shock, blinking stupidly. She stared at her mother’s outstretched hand as if it were alien. Paul nudged her gently to jar her out of her daze. 

“Oh my god, mom.” One hand reached out to grab her mother’s while the other covered her tears, her sobs painful and relieved. “ Oh my god .” 

“Oh dear, please don’t cry. You’re going to make me cry as well.” She flapped her free hand at her own eyes to lessen the sting. They both laughed at that, and Ellie shared a smile with her best friend from across the table. 

“I can’t believe this.” Ellie had to admit she jumped. She had forgotten Father Flores was even there. “You’re okay with this?” 

“I will not turn my back on my family, Miguel. Not the way you so clearly have.” Maria straightened in her seat. “If you have problems with it we can discuss this later when our guests have left. Until then, I ask that you keep your silence. And if you can’t, maybe it’s your turn to leave.” 

The quiet gasp Aster let out had Ellie turning to her immediately. “ Mami , you don’t -” 

“It’s okay niña. This is between your father and I.” Maria stared down her husband. “Well?” 

It felt like watching a rubber band snap. Father Flores’s face twisted in anger as he set his handkerchief calmly on the table and stood. “We will be talking about this. Later.” 

“Yes, of course darling.” Ellie’s respect for Maria Flores grew exponentially higher in that moment. Father Flores’s jaw kept working, as if he were looking for words to say. But eventually he simply left, his anger sucking the air out of the room until the sound of the backdoor closing echoed through the house. 

“Part of what makes him such a good pastor is his flair for the dramatics.” Maria shook her head into the silence. “Sometimes I wish he would remember to leave work at the door.” 

Ellie laughed. It was an ugly bark of a noise. Ashamed, she clamped her hand over her mouth, her cheeks already blushing as she looked apologetically at her host. But Maria simply laughed herself, breaking the last of the tension in the room as everyone else joined in. 

“Mami, you didn’t have to do that,” Aster finally managed after the last of the giggles died down. “I don’t want things between you and dad to get weird because of me.” 

Maria’s eyes softened as she looked at her daughter. “I only regret I didn’t say anything earlier.” She stood and rounded the table, her hands reaching out to cup Aster’s face. “You look so beautiful, niña.” Ellie and Paul stood and left the room as quietly as they could to give them some privacy. “I have missed you so much.” 

Ellie caught Aster’s eye as they left, and was relieved to see it shining with happy tears. 

“That could have gone worse,” Paul remarked as Ellie closed the front door behind them. He leant against the railing of the patio as he stared out at the neighbours’ houses. “I’m glad Aster’s mom was so cool.” 

“Yeah.” Ellie thought of the way Father Flores had looked as he left, his lips twisted and his eyes sad. “I just wish her dad was as cool.” 

“He’ll come around.” Paul made a face immediately after he said that. “Or maybe not. If he’s still angry about it after all this time, I can guess where Aster got her stubbornness from.” 

Ellie hummed tunelessly as she reached into her pocket to draw out her battered pack of cigarettes. Paul simply watched as she lit up, knowing that she was thinking very hard. 

“Paul,” Ellie spoke after a long drag. “Why didn’t you tell me Aster and Trig got together again?” 

Paul sighed. “Because it didn’t matter?” 

“Yeah?” 

“Yeah. Besides,” Paul shrugged as he tried to knock the cigarette out of Ellie’s hand. “It always looked like she was thinking of somebody else.” 

Ellie told herself not to put too much stock in Paul’s words. It didn’t matter, after all. 

- - - - -

Stepping into their old high school felt like the beginnings of a nightmare. Ellie could remember every locker she’d been shoved into, could point out which bathrooms she’d hidden in to pretend she couldn’t hear what the bullies had to say. Ellie liked to think that by the time she hit senior year, she didn’t care anymore. But the truth was that if she wasn’t writing essays for them, she was a target to make fun of for no reason other than for something to do. Ellie got really good at being under the radar for most of her school career, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t lonely and took no effort. She’d learned early on it didn’t matter if she fought back or not - she was the minority, and thus had no power as there was no one else to stand for her. No one but herself. And herself didn’t carry much weight in the social hierarchy of Squahamish High School. 

“Oh my god Paul, they put your picture back up.” Ellie pointed to the end of the hallway just before the sports hall where the reunion was taking place. “You haven’t changed a bit.” 

“That’s not true. Pen says I got better-looking.” Ellie shoved him for his joke. “Wanna go see if the Yakult machine is still there?” 

“Hells yeah.” Turning to Aster, she offered her hand. “Come on.” 

Aster looked beautiful in her black jumpsuit - the collar dipped between her cleavage, almost brushing up against the chunky belt she had around her waist. Pinned to her top was a simple flower brooch - she’d mentioned that an old girlfriend had made it for her during their college days, when Ellie had complimented it earlier. “She was such a sweetheart,” Aster had finished with, her gaze fond as she fiddled with the back of the pin. “Shame it didn’t work out.” 

Ellie had wanted to ask why. How long? When? Who? But none of the questions had made their way out of her mouth, unwilling to sully the quiet air of happiness that surrounded the artist after their visit to her home. On her right ring finger, a simple silver ring glinted, the band engraved with an intricate leaf design. Her grandmother’s ring had been a perfect fit, and Aster had promised to never take it off when she put it on. Ellie already couldn’t recall how her hands had looked without it on. Almost as if the ring had always meant to be there. 

The Yakult machine was indeed still there, though it was no longer selling Yakult. Ellie made a noise of despair at the sight, grabbing the machine in anger. “I feel so abandoned .” 

“You know Seattle has like, so many Asian stores right? Like, so many.” Aster’s amusement made Ellie whirl around in indignation. “I’ll even take you to one when we get back.” 

“It’s not the same, Aster. It’s the principle of the matter.” A playful grin spread across Ellie’s lips despite herself. “I mean, this vending machine made me lose my first kiss.” 

“Wait -”

“What -”

“That was your first kiss?” Paul looked at her in horror. “You let me take your first kiss?” 

“The kiss that I saw?” Aster looked surprised. “That kiss?” 

Ellie laughed. “I didn’t let you take anything, you wuss. You just leaned in and kissed me .” 

“You were giving me the look!”

“There was no look, Munsky. There will never be any look.” Ellie punched him in the shoulder. “Jerk.” 

“I didn’t - I was -” 

“That bad, huh?” Aster stepped up next to Ellie, tangling their fingers together. “Did I interrupt something then?” 

“Worse.” Ellie laughed at the affronted look on her best friend’s face. “He was all sweaty and he had scratchy cheeks.” 

“I shaved !”

“I bet I was really good though.” Ellie waggled her brows. “I lowkey want a do-over.” 

“Yeah?” Aster tilted her head. “Right now?” 

“Yeah, man. It’s not fair my first kiss was with someone I didn’t even - mmph!” It took a moment for her brain to catch up, but once it did, Ellie’s heart kicked into double time. It was brief and close-lipped, but Aster’s lips were as soft as Ellie remembered it, her shampoo heady as her hair brushed against Ellie’s cheeks. 

As soon as it started, it ended, and Aster pulled back with a considering look on her face. “You’re right, you are pretty good.” She winked at Ellie’s bewildered expression and turned. “Come on, we should go see if anyone’s spiked the punch. I cannot do this thing sober.” 

Paul matched Ellie’s confused expression with one of sheer joy. As Ellie was being tugged by their still tangled fingers, she resisted the urge to press her other hand to her lips. They tingled, but Ellie wouldn’t acknowledge that. She was a grown woman, damn it. She would not act like a high schooler with a crush - even if that crush had just kissed her like it was no big deal. 

Maybe Aster had a point - alcohol sounded like a good idea right now.

Chapter Text

Alcohol was the best idea. Ellie had lost track of how many glasses of punch she’d downed, but it was enough to make her limbs feel weightless. Which was a good place to be. Her brain was often very loud, which left her limbs feeling really heavy. Especially her shoulders. Maybe she should get that looked at. 

“What are you looking at?” Paul laughed as he looked at her slumped in her chair. “Seriously. Stop looking at me.” 

“You look like a kid.” Paul grinned as he crouched down by her side. “Maybe we should have paced ourselves, hmm?” Good old Paul had pulled through once again when he pulled out a flask of rum from his jacket pocket when they realised the punch was indeed, not spiked. So maybe Ellie had been leaning hard into the liquid courage. So sue her. It wasn’t like anyone was really interested in her anyway. 

People kept coming up to talk to Paul, who refused to leave her side, the stupidly loyal boy. Aster had been tugged away a while ago by a group of the popular girls, and Ellie had lost sight of her amongst all the lowkey fans of Paul Munsky. The conversations kept circling around bragging about the cool lives they’d set up for themselves in Squahamish, the day trips they took to the big city every month, the bars around the area that they kept trying to get Paul to join them at. Some of them had gotten married already, and one had excused themselves to take a call from their babysitter because kids that young are so fussy when they don’t have their parents around . It wasn’t even that late, Ellie thought bitterly. The kid would be fine, even without a mom. A parent, she meant. Not a mom specifically.

Geez, maybe Paul was right. 

“I’m gonna go pee,” she mumbled as she heaved herself out of her seat for the first time since arriving. Paul wordlessly asked if he should come along, and Ellie shook her head. She could handle going to the bathroom by herself just fine, thank you very much. She was a strong, independent woman. 

Her father’s voice was soothing in her ear as she stared at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. He could tell immediately that something was off.

“You’ve been drinking.” The disapproval ticked her off and Ellie wondered why she had felt the need to call him. “You promised you’d stopped.” 

“I promised I’d watch myself.” Ellie reached up to smudge the edge of her lipstick. “Don’t worry about me, pa.” 

“Where’s Paul? Pass the phone to him please.”

No , pa. Why do you want to talk to him? I’m right here. Talk to me .” Her English sounded harsh and tired under the shitty lighting, and Ellie suddenly wished she were sitting down instead. 

There was a beat of silence in which Ellie considered apologising, but her father speaks before she can. “I’m listening, Ellie.” Ellie felt a sting in her eyes. “What do you want to say?” 

“Do you miss ma?” It was nowhere near what she really wanted to ask. Nowhere near the precise words she needed to calm the storm raging in her chest. “Like, do you think about her still?” 

When he speaks, it is measured and heavy and beautiful all at once. Her father had always been so eloquent in Mandarin, almost poetic in the way he understood the language and its syntax. “Everyday, Ellie Chu. I think of her every day.” 

“Tell me about her.” They didn’t do this, not even after her father got better and she moved out of Squahamish. It was one of the many topics that they had never been able to broach, even on their best days. 

“She was beautiful.” And all over again, she could hear her father fall in love with her mother. “You look like her. It’s in your smile, and the way you are so restless when you’re sad. Or scared. Or nervous. She had the prettiest voice.” She could hear his smile from over the phone. “She was always singing. Washing the dishes, doing the laundry, even in the bathroom. Always singing. She liked the classics. Anything and everything. Dionne Ip. Theresa Teng.” He chuckled, and she imagined the sound sliding down her throat, warming her up like the rum had. “She used to sing you to sleep. You were always an energetic baby. Never wanted to go down for a nap. But she would hold you, and sing to you. And you would sleep.”

“I don’t remember that.” Her tongue felt clumsy, and she slid down the wall for support as she sat against the dirty tiles. “I can’t remember what her voice sounds like.” 

“It has been a while.” He sounded sad. “We didn’t take many videos back then. Your mother always wanted to be behind the camera, not in front of it. She said she wanted to frame the important things in life.” Ellie closed her eyes, the many pictures and videos of her growing up, her father young and happy. “Your mother was one of the most generous people I had ever met.” 

“But how can you still miss her?” Ellie felt a little like she was grasping. “Even though she isn’t here anymore?” How can you still bear it , was what she wanted to ask. Longing after someone who you could never have? 

“I will always miss her.” She imagined her father was in bed, the blankets pulled up to his chest to keep warm. His eyes staring out the window at all the plants cluttering the balcony. Looking out at the city outside his window, the lights painting shadows on his wizened face. Ellie hated that he looked old. “It doesn’t hurt as much anymore, but there will always be a part of me that misses her. You never forget your first love. Your heart, your soul - everything makes way for every person you have ever loved.” He chuckled without mirth. “You should tell her.” 

“Maybe.” Ellie stood, feeling warm all over. “It’s been so long.” 

“Tell her. For yourself, if not for her.” Her father sighs. “I would have told her so many things, had I known.” 

“What would you have said?” 

“Hmm?” Ellie imagined her father dropping his gaze to look at the framed picture he kept on his bedside. Of her ma holding her as a baby, her pa smiling at them both. She imagines the smile on his face. The simple shrug he sometimes gave when words eluded him. “Maybe that I wish I could have been a part of her journey for a while longer.” He yawned. “Your mother always knew what I meant to say. She was very smart. Just like you.” 

“Thank you, pa.” I love you. “Get some sleep.” I worry about you. “I’m sorry I called you so late.” I wish we could be this honest with each other always. 

“I’ll see you when you get back.” I love you too. “Don’t forget to eat.” Take care of yourself. “Call me before you leave town.” I’ll be waiting.  

Ellie murmured a goodbye and hung up. Rubbing the back of her neck, she looked into her reflection and wasn’t startled when she saw Aster leaning against the wall behind her. 

“How fast do you think I could get a restraining order for you? Reckon they’ll get back to me within two to three working days?” 

“You sound different when you speak Mandarin.” Aster smiled as she stepped up to the sinks next to her. “Gentler.” 

“That wasn’t what you were saying when I cussed you out last night.” That startled a laugh out of the artist, and Ellie beamed in triumph. Flicking the last of the water on her hands at Aster, Ellie tucked her hands into her trouser pockets and gestured towards the door. “Wanna get out of here?” 

“Please. I’ve had to deal with Veronica hanging off Trig’s arm all night and acting like it’s the Ritz-Carlton.” Aster rolled her eyes so hard Ellie wondered if they were going to fall out of her head. “Been there, done that. Trig always puts on too much cologne. Used to make my allergies go crazy.” 

“You’re allergic?” Ellie held the door open as Aster slid out into the school hallway. “I didn’t know that.” 

“Pollen. Spring wreaks havoc on my sinuses.” Aster walked backwards so she could keep her eyes on Ellie. “And I guess, I’m also allergic to Trig. Sounds scientific enough.” 

Ellie shook her head in amusement, her limbs still that pleasantly numb feeling. “We should go get Paul.” Something in Aster’s eyes shutter at that, but Ellie attributes it to her drunken state when  the artist simply beams. “You think he’s sober enough to drive us to Sparky’s?” 

“I’m thinking, no.” Aster peeked into the sports hall. “Besides, he sent me to find you because he said he was going to play a quick scrimmage with the other football guys. I figured that means us girls are on our own for the rest of the night.” 

Her statement was proven by the text Ellie realised Paul had sent her while she was in the bathroom. “He’s getting a ride home with some of the guys.” She declined to mention that Paul had added have fun with aster you stud. don’t think too much! just feeeeeeeeelllllllll followed by a bunch of hearts and eggplants. 

Texting back that eggplants were not appropriate for the situation, Ellie nearly walks into Aster when she realises she wasn’t looking where she was going. “Whoops. Sorry.” 

“It’s okay.” Aster’s hands were warm on Ellie’s arms, even through the cloth of her rolled up sleeves. They stood in front of the glass cabinet displaying the school’s trophies and awards, pictures of smiling teenagers lit up by small lights. Ellie turned her head to look at them, not really expecting to see her name or face anywhere. 

“What award would you have wanted to get?” She found herself asking. “Like, in another life.” 

“What do you mean?” Aster’s brows were knitted together in confusion. It was cute. 

“I think you’d make a cute cheerleader.” Ellie felt her lips turn up at the image. “Really digging into the popular girls trope.” 

“Hardly. My dad would have flipped at the length of the skirt.” 

“You could have pretended you were doing it to change the system from the inside out. Turned them to godliness and modesty or something.” 

“Uh-huh. And who would you be in this scenario? A jock?” 

“A music nerd.” 

“You already were a music nerd.” 

“No, I was a regular, all-rounded nerd. There’s a difference.” Ellie pressed her finger against the glass, pointing at the photo of the music society. “I would have joined a club then.” 

“You mean you would have a place besides the library to hang out?” Aster wrapped an arm around Ellie’s shoulders. They took a moment to look at the bright, grinning faces of their teenage years. It was weird to think that those same people were standing less than twenty feet away, and neither had any real urge to find out how they had grown. It was better this way, Ellie rationalised. To not let themselves be disappointed by the truth of things, and to remember these people the way they used to be - when the world seemed endless and their youth embraced them fully without fear. 

“I wish,” Aster spoke softly, her gaze tracing an image of the football team, herself stood under the arm of Trig. “I wish that we had been friends in high school.” 

“I’m glad we weren’t.” Ellie ducked her head when Aster turned to look. “I wasn’t…. Well, I would have made it very hard.”

“I doubt that.” There was wistfulness in her voice, and when Ellie chanced a glance through her eyelashes, she saw Aster looking at her with that same piercing gaze. She opened her mouth as if to say something more, but eventually just shook her head sadly. Ellie’s chest squeezed as she dared to lean into Aster’s warmth. 

“I’m glad you’re here.” There was always a best part , she remembers her father tell her. Maybe this was it.

Aster held her close for a moment longer before pulling away. Tangling their hands together, she began to tug them towards the exit. “Let’s get takeout on the way home.” 

Ellie tried not to linger on the fact that Aster had just called Paul’s place home . “Yeah.” Aster smiled at her from over her shoulder. “Home.” 

She tried to shake off the voice of her father telling her to just say it. She wasn’t feeling that brave yet. 

She just hoped she was at some point.

- - - - - 

Ellie had spent so much of her teenage years studying Aster from afar. Sounded creepy. But it was true. Studied the way she smiled, laughed. The things that got her excited, the things that made her frown. 

Maybe study was the wrong word. Beyond all the research her and Paul did in their senior year, of course. Even before that, Ellie had always noticed Aster Flores. 

It starts freshman year, when Ellie finally shares a class with the girl. Ellie is used to literature being the most boring class, not because she didn’t like it. But because she wasn’t challenged in it. The teacher almost never called on her, having heard of her reputation from her middle school teachers. Ellie Chu will derail all your lesson plans , they probably whispered in the staff lounges. She’s too smart for the other kids to keep up with. Don’t do it unless you absolutely have to. 

Whatever the case, Ellie only had to read the book to pass the class. So she often spent the actual class itself doodling over music sheets or reading other books. There was rarely any merit in listening to the in-class discussions - most of the other students never read the books or had any good opinions to share. 

Until Aster Flores. Ellie found herself fascinated by her thoughts on Animal Farm, Red Sky in the Morning, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime . For the first time in a long time, Ellie was engaged, and she often found herself speaking up to counter or add on to Aster’s ideas. The other girl would often glance back when Ellie did so, a little smile on her lips as if she was impressed or frustrated, depending on Ellie’s response. Ellie never met her gaze then, though. It was simply an intellectual challenge, she told herself. Becoming friends with the enemy was a surefire way of letting your guard down. 

And so she repeated that to herself until the end of the school year, and by then it was too late to do anything beyond stare at her in the school halls when she passed by. They didn’t share any more classes for the rest of high school, and honestly, Ellie didn’t think their lives would have ever intersected again if not for Paul. 

Damn Paul. 

It was because of him Ellie found herself sharing the couch with Aster Flores, boxes of takeout from the diner spread out on the coffee table in front of them. They were both in their pyjamas at this point, music playing softly out of Paul’s bluetooth speaker that they had commandeered. 

“I can’t believe you think Lorde is overrated.” Aster rested her head against Ellie’s shoulder as she thumbed through Ellie’s music library. “It just makes sense, based on your choice of songs.” 

“I’m not saying she’s overrated. I’m just saying if I wanted to feel all… I don’t know, heavy , I’d make myself sit through an episode of the Kardashians.” 

“Oh come on, don’t tell me you’ve turned into one of those Seattle folks.” Aster laughed loudly. “Fuck, the idea of you being a hipster is so not you.”

“Oh yeah?” Ellie used her beer bottle to push her glasses back up her nose. “I think if you have to try to be one, you automatically fail at being one. So in that sense, I’d argue I’m the best hipster.” Aster mimed gagging as she selected a song. Ellie nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah, this is a good one.” 

“I haven’t heard these guys in forever.” A tipsy Aster was touchy, Ellie realised. Ellie had known this for a while, but she was - as always - unprepared for anything Aster Flores. “They were the soundtrack to my teenage years.” 

“I can totally see you listening to them in your spot.” Ellie hadn’t thought of that first afternoon in ages. The memory made her feel warm inside. 

Aster gasped. “We should totally go!” 

“What, now?” 

“No, silly. Tomorrow!” Aster was animated now, reaching out for Ellie’s hands and giggling. “Before we leave.” 

“My train leaves in the morning.” Aster pouts. “I’m serious. I was planning on staying up till I have to leave. I’m all packed and everything.” 

“I’ll drive.” Aster had Ellie’s hands trapped between both of hers, clutching them to her chest as she looked up at Ellie through her eyelashes. “Please? We can head back to Seattle as soon as we visit. It’ll be more fun driving back that way. And you can keep me from falling asleep on the road.” 

“I don’t know…” The weekend was coming to an end, and with it, this illusion that they had been sharing all week. This illusion that they were friends. 

(No, not friends. Something more than friends.) 

(Because friends didn’t sit this close, or reached out for each other constantly, or stole a kiss in front of Yakult vending machines.) 

Ellie heard her father’s voice in her head again. She knew she should just say it. Rip the Band-Aid off. Aster would probably not remember it tomorrow anyway. Or Ellie could pretend not to. It would be easy. And Ellie could jump on the morning train way before Aster had even woken up. 

But then she remembers Aster telling her she couldn’t make do with a paper version of Ellie anymore. And Ellie felt shame heat her insides. 

“Aster.” Ellie shifted away, pulling her hands free. She stared at her drink, because suddenly the feel of Aster’s stare on her was too much. “I’m in love with you.” 

Silence. Ellie couldn’t bring herself to look at her. “I always have been. My pa says that we make space for the people we love, even long after they’re gone. You’re that. Not like a one that got away kind of girl. You’re just… the girl. I’ve had other partners, other relationships. But being with you is… easy. Always has been. You get me. You’ve seen me at my worst. I’m selfish and cowardly and don’t know how to live for myself. But I want to be better. I’m trying.” Ellie smiled wryly. “I don’t want to just be a piece of paper for you. I want to be with you.” 

She looked up finally when the silence got too much. Aster was staring at her, frozen. “Aster?” Fear made her sober. And with it, the rushing clarity that she’d fucked up. Fuck, fuck, fuck - 

“Oh thank god.” Aster surged forward, grabbing Ellie’s face in her hands and pulling it close. “It’s been way more than a couple of years.” 

Ellie has kissed Aster before. Multiple times even. But not like this. Not like Aster wanted to devour her, keep her this close, her hand grasping desperately at Ellie’s neck. Not like Aster wanted to savour this, the kiss turning gentle, questioning and searching. Ellie sighed into her lips, and felt like she was coming home. 

Damn Paul Munsky and feelings

- - - - - 

Paul was awake and waiting for her on the steps of his family home, his hands clutching two mugs of coffee. “You are a monster,” was all he said as Ellie jogged up to him, sweat beading her brow. “How are you even alive?” 

“Good morning.” The truth was that Ellie hadn’t gone to sleep yet. Aster had kept her up the rest of the night, and had grumbled something along similar lines as Paul when Ellie slid out of bed to go for her run. “One of those better be for me.” 

“Mom got a new roast.” It was bitter and energizing, and Ellie sipped at it contentedly as she leaned against the wall of the Munsky home. Paul looked up at her as she stared out at the tracks, and smiled. “I’ll let her know it’s a hit.” 

“Anything your mom touches is magic.” Ellie cradled the mug between her hands to warm them in the early chill. “Tell her I’ll send along some of those dumplings she likes when I get back to the city.” 

One of the best things about Paul was his comfort in silence. He always maintained he wasn’t good with words, but Ellie had always appreciated his ability to listen most. He was content to let Ellie linger in her thoughts, always patient when she went off on tangents that no one cared about. And best still, he tried. Paul Munsky was no brainiac, but he tried for his best friend. 

“Did you have fun at the reunion last night?” Ellie found herself asking after a long moment of just listening to the dawn birdsong. “We lost you after a bit.” 

“Yeah.” Paul grinned into his coffee. “It was fun to catch up with everyone. It’s weird how easy it is to lose touch with people. Even the ones who’re like, a street away.” 

“It’s a choice, isn’t it?” Ellie shrugged as she swirled her drink in the mug. “ You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.

Paul snorted. “Winnie the Pooh? Really?” 

Ellie grinned. “No one knows friendship better than the expert himself.” Ellie pushed off the wall and finished off the rest of her drink. “Thanks for the coffee. And company.” 

“I’m going to miss you, Ellie Chu.” Paul stood as well, his arms opened wide. “Give me a hug before you go.” 

“You always say that. Wussy.” Ellie hugged him tight, breathing in the faint traces of sweat and the scent of her teenage years. “Come visit Aster and I in the city.” 

Paul waggled his eyebrows with his shit-eating grin. “You and Aster, huh?” 

Ellie rolled her eyes and slapped his shoulder. The sound of his laughter followed her all the way home, warming her from the inside out. 

- - - - - 

Aster was still in bed when Ellie slipped back in, breakfast in her hands. She placed the takeout on the kitchen counter, wondering if she should wake the artist or let her sleep in. Ultimately she decided on the latter, setting herself to quietly cleaning up their mess from the night before. Aster would appreciate it, Ellie thought to herself, as she pulled her hair into a messy bun. She would be driving later anyway, and while it wasn’t a particularly long drive Ellie was sure any extra sleep would be nice. 

Her phone pinged with a notification as she was stuffing the last of the trash in the bins outside. It was her alarm for her train arriving at the station. Ellie smiled at it and dismissed the notification as she headed back inside.

“You showered?” Aster mumbled when Ellie finally slipped back into bed. “‘smell nice.” Ellie stifled a chuckle at the yawn. “‘time is it?” 

“A little before noon, sleepyhead.” Ellie propped herself up on her arm as she used her other to tuck a lock of hair out of Aster’s face. “You always sleep in this late?”

“You mean wake up at a normal hour?” Ellie pulled her eyes away from the extra skin that showed as Aster stretched lazily. The artist laughed at her blush. “You’ve seen more than this, you know.” 

“Still.” Ellie reached out and pulled the sheet gently over her exposed chest. “I’m not like, a perv or anything.” 

“Ells,” Aster caught her hand as she was pulling away. Ellie wasn’t sure if she liked the playful gleam in her eyes. It hadn’t bode well for her every other time she’d seen it. “It’s fine. I want you to look.” Ellie’s fingers twitched in response. This was new, Ellie noted. This itch to touch

“Aster,” Ellie called softly, willing herself to not lose her nerve. “Can I kiss you?” 

Aster rolled her eyes. “You don’t have to ask every time, nerd,” she whispered as she pulled Ellie closer. It was a gentle thing, full of comfort and familiar even after only a day after their first time. As they pulled away for air, Aster kept her hand on the back of Ellie’s neck, her eyes closed in happiness. “Mm. This is more like it.” 

Ellie wasn’t sure if she was meant to hear that. “Hmm?” 

“This. This was what I wanted that day.” She didn’t need to specify which. “I woke up fully expecting cuddles.” 

“I’m sorry.” Ellie punctuated that with a nuzzle along Aster’s jaw, delighting in the shiver it elicited. “I was scared.” 

Aster hummed in understanding. “And now?” She tugged gently on the nape of her neck to get Ellie to look up at her. In the sunlight tumbling in through the windows, Aster was a study in contours and curves, reminding Ellie of ornate golden frames and expressionist paintings. 

“Still scared,” Ellie admitted, because she knew Aster would carry her secrets for her. “But I don’t want it to hold me back anymore.” She tucked her face in Aster’s neck, breathing her in. She was still sleep-warm and soft, and Ellie dared to believe that she could live in that spot forever. “If that’s okay with you?” 

“Good.” Aster pressed a kiss to her forehead, wrapping her limbs around Ellie as if to trap her there. Ellie giggled when Aster airily announced she was still keeping the mushy card Ellie sent her all those years ago. There was no way Aster was going to let Ellie live it down. 

And Ellie found that she could be okay with that. 

- - - - - 

When they pulled out of Squahamish for good some hours later, the sun hung low on the horizon. Damp from the hot spring, their windows rolled down to let the late summer air in, Ellie reached out to rest her hand on Aster’s thigh. 

“Gotta focus on driving here,” Aster teased as she shivered under the innocent touch. “Don’t be a road hazard.” 

“I bet you’re the grandma that drives according to the speed limit. I’m not worried.” Aster’s phone was plugged into the speakers, some rock playlist playing softly in the background. “Did you enjoy being back in Squahamish?” 

Aster was quiet for a moment, the lyrics of the current song washing over them. “Parts of it.” Aster smiled wryly. “I mean, dad was an ass. But mom was the best surprise.” Ellie once again admired the way the light bounced off Aster’s grandma’s ring. It really was an elegant piece - and therefore suited Aster perfectly. “And it was nice to see Paul again. I’ve missed him.” 

“Just Paul?” Ellie wasn’t really sure how to bring up the question she truly wanted to ask. If she’d gone to her father for advice, he’d have told her to just say it plainly. No beating around the bush. If she’d gone to Paul, he would have no doubt told her to do some big romantic gesture. Ellie could do neither of those things, reserved as she was. It felt embarrassing to be the first to admit it, after the weird would-they-won’t-they dance her and Aster had kept up over the years. It felt a little too vulnerable in the daylight. 

Aster laughed. “Why, Ellie Chu, are you fishing ?” 

“I am not .” Her hot cheeks told Aster otherwise. “Do you really think I’d stoop that low?” Absently, she began to run her nails over the denim at Aster’s knee. 

Aster took a hand off the steering wheel with an eye roll as the song rolled over to the next. “I missed you too, you nerd.” She squeezed the hand on her thigh. “I just wasn’t sure if we were really going to have that conversation now.” 

“Do you - I mean - is this not a good time?” Ellie felt like a teenager all over again, wanting to hide behind her hair. “Because I just want you to know that I have no expectations for you. I mean, I don’t - mmph!” 

It was a quick peck, because Aster was driving, but it was enough to stop her uncharacteristic rambling. “Well, I have expectations. I don’t just sleep with someone twice if I didn’t have feelings for them.” She smiled slyly into the rearview mirror. Ellie felt like she’d been slapped. 

“Me?” The sputtering was not attractive. “You? Have feelings for me?” 

“Yeah.” Aster grinned bashfully. “If that’s okay.” 

“Are you sure?” Ellie blinked. She had waited for Aster for so long, had convinced herself that it would never happen, that it was all in her head - she had to hear it.

That startled a laugh out of Aster. “It has been more than a couple of years. So yeah, I’m sure. Doubly so after last night.” She paused to merge into another lane before chancing a glance at Ellie. “I was going to wait till I dropped you off to ask you to be my girlfriend. But as always, you keep me on my toes Ellie Chu.” 

Despite herself, Ellie felt her eyes begin to sting. “That’s so lame,” she sniffled to herself, turning her face to hide her tears. “I didn’t peg you for a cliche, Aster Flores.” 

“Why knock the classics.” Aster squeezed her hand again. “Besides, you saying you don’t want me to press you up against my car and kiss the snot out of you?” 

The image made Ellie’s heart jump. “That… is agreeable.” 

“Cool.” Aster tapped the back of her fingers. “So that’s a yes? To the girlfriend thing?” 

“It’s a… maybe.” Ellie inhaled as she faced Aster again. “I don’t want to mess things up with you. We’re different people now, and yeah, last night was great. Amazing. Best thing ever.” Ellie bit her lip, hoping Aster would understand. “But I want to take it slow. Get to know you, for real this time.” 

“As Ellie Chu?” Aster raised an eyebrow. “A concept.” The sun was beginning to set, colouring the sky in deep purples and pinks. Ellie could stare at her forever. Aster’s lips twitched as if she could hear Ellie’s thoughts. “But I can get behind that.” She glanced at Ellie, for just a moment, her gaze smoldering and doing all sorts of good things to Ellie’s insides. “You chased after me, all those years ago. Now it’s my turn.” 

Ellie couldn’t hold herself back from pressing a kiss to Aster’s cheek. As she pulled back, she saw the blush climb up the artist’s neck. She thought of more sneaky kisses and mornings waking up to Aster’s sleepy smile and constant texts on GhostMessenger like they had so long ago. Ellie still wasn’t sure what love meant, but maybe she and Aster could figure it out together. 

“Bring it, Flores.”