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“I still haven’t found out where that shoe went.”

Aubrey shot her eyes to the right, gauging Basil’s reaction to her sudden statement- swiping through the pregnant silence as they sat at the lakefront. Aubrey swung her legs back and forth as she watched Basil blink rapidly, trying to figure out what she was talking about.

Aubrey laughed, in one short burst. “It’s alright, you know. You look like a deer in headlights. I’m not mad if you don’t remember. Maybe I didn’t tell you about it.” She huffed a stray tuft of her fading pink hair out of her face. Aubrey had decided to let the pink come out. She might just dye it back to brown, soon. Or not. Whatever came first, the dye coming out, or her forceful action.

“To be honest, I’m not sure why I remember it, myself. I think it’s just because that little shoe is how I met everyone.”

 

“...What do you mean?” Basil still sounded lost, that tremulous, uncertain lilt in his voice present as always.

“You weren’t around then. I had some more trouble at home. My dad had read a book recently. He read a lot of those self-help books. I think that was another one of his ways of having control over everything. He was really particular with everything like that. Sorry, that’s another stupid thing to remember. Why do these weird things stick with me?”

Basil shook his head furiously. “...It’s not stupid.”

“You don’t even know what I’m talking about,” Aubrey couldn’t help it when a smirk, somewhat pitying, crept across her face. Classic Basil, ready to jump to people’s defense, even before he got the full picture. They were very different in how they went about it, but Aubrey considered them to be similar in that line of thinking.

“But whatever it is… it’s not stupid.”

“I can’t believe that that’s the only kind of thing you’ve got one-hundred percent confidence about. Assuring others. Well, I can believe it, but I guess it’s kind of annoying.”

“...I’m sorry,” Basil’s eyes darkened, and Aubrey groaned in annoyance.

“Ugh, Basil, just shut your head up for once and listen. Please. Or else I’m gonna have to explain each and every little thing I say.” It was a little harsh, but Aubrey wasn’t about to take that back. She wasn’t in the habit of taking things back, for better or for worse. This time, though, she felt she was in the right. Basil engaged in levels of overthinking she was pretty sure were unhealthy. Someone as slow as he was probably shouldn’t bother turning his little gears that much. He might overheat.

Heh. Aubrey couldn’t help but inwardly chuckle at her jeers, but quickly shut herself down with a sudden wave of shame. She hadn’t said anything out loud, but those weren’t kind thoughts to have. She was so used to it, though. She hadn’t exactly trained herself to be the nicest to Basil. She supposed keeping her ugly thoughts inside her head was a good start, though.

Basil timidly pried open his mouth again, looking ready to apologize, but caught himself. He instead settled for a penetrative silence that was so uncomfortable, it must have been a trait he picked up from Sunny. Well, that or his own anxious neuroticism. Erm, maybe both.

“What I was saying though- I’m not even sure how he came across it. It might have been some recommendation from some idiot church zealot down the block. Who even knows.”

“...Aubrey, you don’t mean that…”

“What, the idiot zealot part? Sure I do!”

“B-but you’d be around the church all the time! And I thought-”

Aubrey drummed her antsy fingers on the worn wood of the dock in frustration. “What, that we were all hunky-dory? Those old farts treated me like garbage. All I’d do was sit there, but apparently I tainted their holy ground. Damn geezers.”

Basil’s eyes flashed with sympathy, clearly upset by Aubrey’s unfortunate experiences, but couldn’t hold back a protest, acting as the Devil’s Advocate as he always had. “I’m s-sorry, but their practices should still probably be respected and stuff…”

“Basil, you sound like you’re reading from a rulebook. No one’s gonna jump you. I won’t hit you if you say something bad about someone for once. You especially can’t be a fan of all that religious shit either, right? I mean, come on.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Basil’s watery eyes were panicked. Aubrey wasn’t sure how those telling eyes were able to keep a lie as big as the one he shared with Sunny in the first place. She frowned. It was probably because she never bothered to look within them before.

In a bout of forced playfulness she’d picked up from Kel, Aubrey lightly shoved Basil with her shoulder, adorning a forced grin. She’d have to ask Kel later how he was able to smile so naturally, because Aubrey felt like her facial muscles were screaming.

“...Whatever, you goofball. That’s a talk for another time.”

Basil coughed. “...S-So, what was the thing about the book?”

“Well, the book was something about parenting. I have no idea if he misconstrued what he read or what, but then maybe I’d be giving the author too much credit. Worse books have probably been written, hah.” Aubrey gulped, prepping herself for recounting the painful memory. She’d never been one to run away from pain. Rather, she almost relished in it, as awful as that admission made her feel. It reminded her too much of her parents, in a way. By having pain under her belt, she acted like her actions were always justified, because as long as her heart was bleeding, if anyone tried anything against her, they’d be bad people for further hurting her, right? You can’t kick someone while they’re down, so you give them a pass. The victim card. She gulped again. “Well… it must’ve given him some idea about discipline. Head of the household, respect, and all that stuff. He was such a jittery guy, but he really would build himself up in his head sometimes.” Aubrey frowned again, her lip trembling. “...I’m pretty sure his thoughts of establishing himself as the alpha or… whatever it was… those are the methods you use for dogs. He thought I was his bitch or something, Basil,” she hissed out the words.

Basil’s eyes misted. He still didn’t get the full picture, but Aubrey could practically feel his heart bleeding out alongside hers. It was comforting and irritating at the same time. She took a deep breath and tried to continue. “...I don’t even remember if I did anything wrong. But he… I was getting ready to go outside. Just to play by myself or something. I was putting on my little pink shoe, and he stopped me. He grabbed the other one from me, and told me…” God, Aubrey thought she had a good grasp on the memory, but when she tried to recall his words, it was as though there was a filter over her father’s voice. Everything sounded broken up and fuzzy. Did she even remember what her father’s voice sounded like anymore?

All of the sudden, Aubrey felt Basil’s arm wrap around Aubrey’s shoulders, and he pulled her close to his side. Only then did she realize her breathing was getting tight and difficult. Normally, Aubrey would be bristly at anyone doing anything of the sort to her, especially Basil, but she couldn’t help but allow the contact, this one time. She didn’t even realize she needed the stabilization, but here she was.

“Aubrey…” Basil’s voice cracked with emotion. “You don’t have to talk about things that hurt you… I’d understand.” His face was shadowed with some demons of his own. “...You don’t… have to.”

Now that was definitely irritating. After what he and Sunny, the two most meek, submissive, cowardly idiots of their group had dropped on them a year ago, Basil expected Aubrey to crumble at the first pain of her own past? What kind of brittle person did he take her for? If they could do it, so could she.

Aubrey shrugged off Basil’s grasp. He looked a little bothered by it, but that wasn’t her concern.

“...I’m fine.” She took a deep breath. Aubrey remembered Sunny telling her how he had been trying to do that to calm down recently, and she had laughed in his face. Duh, everyone knows to take deep breaths when they’re stressed. She thought it had been common knowledge.

But, whenever Aubrey had been in fits of frustration or stress in the coming months, she had found herself, subconsciously taking his advice, inhaling so deeply, it was like she had never truly experienced the sensation of air- all of its smells, feelings and everything. She kept in mind to apologize to him when she got the chance.

“...Well…. whatever he said… it was enough to make me cry on its own. Then he started hitting me with the shoe. I guess that’s a little harder to forget,” Aubrey cringed at the emptiness in her own voice. It felt… not right.

Basil nodded. He knew. He had known before everything about what Aubrey’s parents were like. Obviously then, every piece of information he had received from her was from the lens of a child, but now, Aubrey got the feeling that back then, Basil, always the much more intelligent and thoughtful one of their age, probably understood things more than she initially thought. With both of their parents either out of the picture, or when they were in the picture… unpleasant at times, Aubrey had felt he would understand. Strangely enough, Aubrey remembered, in her ten year old brain, or however old she was when she first met him, feeling a strange kinship with Basil from the start. Maybe kids from bad homes could just kind of sense each other. Weird.

There were only two people Aubrey had fully opened up to about her household situation, Basil and M-

Well. There was one person, now.

Her gut churned. With that sudden reminder, she almost felt the urge to push Basil away from her again. Aubrey peered into those murky depths beneath their legs, swinging off the edge of the dock. The water was stained with the light of the evening, almost looking purple. When she looked back up into Basil’s concerned eyes- not a murderous monster, but Basil, in all of his twisted sympathy and glowing eyes that probably knew much more than a young child should, then and now, she felt even more sick at considering what she had just thought of.

Those eyes urged her on. Basil could listen. Aubrey wasn’t sure if she could ever look at him the same again, after everything, but she didn’t have to look at him to talk.

“...It… hurt a lot. That’s mainly what I remember. I tried getting away from him. I was kind of dumb, not going for the door when I was right next to it to begin with. I tried going back to my room. Can you believe it…?” Aubrey laughed weakly. She felt like her eyes were going hollow. She couldn’t remember her father’s hurtful words, but she could remember her own screams well enough.

Basil reached out again, touchy as always, and clasped a gentle, undemanding hand on Aubrey’s shoulder. “Aubrey… it’s not dumb. You were… a kid. How could you have known any better?” Those words echoed, not just for her. Aubrey nodded. She supposed he was right. Blaming the kid for not running away from the father smartly enough. Maybe it would make more sense to blame the father for beating his daughter in the first place. Aubrey sniffed spitefully. It was crazy how such seemingly obvious facts could be overlooked when such an environment was normal for her.

“...At one point, I tried to go to my mom- she was in her room- and tried to shut the door behind me. I can remember that jackass banging on the door and telling me to open it up and shit.” Aubrey’s mouth contorted into a harsh scowl. “... I think that’s when I started losing faith in my mom. She told me to not try to run off, because it would ‘just make things worse.’” Aubrey shook her head. Disgusting.

“...I’m not defending her. It’s h-horrible, but I kind of feel bad that she felt so helpless that she couldn’t even try to do anything…” Basil muttered regretfully.

Aubrey felt a flash of anger, feeling like Basil was trying to take a side against her, but quickly cooled down when she realized how quickly irrational she was feeling. He was kind of right, if she thought about it. Her mom not really trying to fix anything in her life must’ve been some big indicator about a lack of control. It added up, after all. With her father wanting all of the control everything had to offer, then there would never be enough for her mom. She gritted her teeth. But to have left her kid to that kind of treatment… regardless of what she was feeling? Unacceptable.

“...I guess you’ve got a point,” Aubrey muttered, but didn’t outwardly pursue that train of thought. “That was that for me, though. I tried my best to get out of there, bruises, and one little pink shoe and all, and didn’t look back. I just started running. I was crying and everything.” Her throat tightened with emotion. “And that’s how I met her, and how one of my worst memories turned into one of my happiest ones. Funny how that works out, huh?” Aubrey tried her best not to have the tears run to her eyes, but looked over and saw Basil already had them trickling down his cheeks. Classic Basil. She was kind of happy that she wasn’t alone in this part, at least. Aubrey was always much more enthusiastic to share in her joy than her woes.

“...What about you? You got one of those memories?” Aubrey surprised herself with her attempts at engagement. Basil looked surprised too, but then his aqua eyes quickly turned warm. Her sentimental companion was back at it again.

“I guess… but you’d hate me for sharing it.”

“Basil, there’s nothing more you could do to make me hate you than what you’ve already done,” Aubrey said with complete confidence.

“Ouch… but fair.” Basil took a breath. “That day in the hospital was… awful. In a bunch of horrible different ways. Sunny talked about… everything. Kel cried for the first time I’ve seen him do so in… I don’t even know when. You yelled at Sunny and me, and Kel had to hold you back from slugging me while I was still in my hospital bed…” Basil laughed, despite himself. Aubrey did too, although she felt sheepish. A little. His smile quickly departed when he continued, though. “And Hero… he looked like when he first….” Basil didn’t need to explain. They both knew. “There were… other things, too, that I finally realized. It felt like my world was falling down all over again.”

Aubrey cracked her knuckles. “Damn, what’s the good part, Debbie Downer?” She was starting to regret this conversation choice.

“Well, you weren’t there for it… but…” Basil looked away. “God, it’s silly! I don’t know why I brought it up…”

Aubrey’s curiosity was piqued, now. Her eyes narrowed slyly. The hair dye might be coming out, but the contacts were staying in. She liked how fierce they made her look.

Basil waved his hand away from his face, which had some color leaking into it. Aubrey felt like she knew where this was going. “Just get on with it, you creep.” She laughed.

“Ugh… fine. Well, you all left, and it was just me and Sunny. I… you won’t quite get it, but he looked at me, and it was like… something that changed him…. made him what he wasn’t before… it was gone in an instant. He smiled. So big.” Basil himself smiled, his eyes alight with joy at recalling the memory. Aubrey felt like she was interrupting something. “I smiled back. My face hurt. His face hurt to look at. But it was nice.”

“God dude, you need some better bittersweet memories.”

“H-Hey, you don’t exactly have great ones yourself!”

Aubrey hissed. “I-I guess not! But still! Mine have way less psychotic undertones!”

“...Fine. I’m trying to make new memories, though. Hopefully less bittersweet, and more sweet, but I guess any kind of sweet would be fine.” Basil pouted, and drew his legs up from the side of the pier, brushing off a mosquito that had left a welt on his peachy skin. He rested his temple on his knees, and looked at Aubrey with a cocked head.

“...What?” Aubrey gave him a wary look.

“I was just thinking about you. When you were little. You were so cute!” Basil sucked in his breath, clearly scared of bringing down Aubrey’s thunder with his unsolicited familiarity.

“...Call me cute one more time.” Aubrey growled the words out. The nerve of this guy, sounding like he was in his forties, and coming into an awkward family reunion. Ugh. She hadn’t been to one, but from what she’d heard from Kim, Vance, Charlene, and Mikhael, they were a disgusting concoction of forced smiles and cumbersome sweaty side hugs, all wrapped in badly made casseroles. Aubrey shivered at the thought.

“I won’t.” Basil sucked his breath in, clearly happy he got off easy. He seemed to stew in silence for a moment before he spoke again. “...I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be there for you. That must have been hard.”

Aubrey shook her head, dismissing him. “Like I said, that’s how I was able to meet…” Aubrey took a deep breath in. It had been hard to think about Her as she usually had after… everything. “...It’s how I met Mari. And everyone else. I was blubbering like a little brat when I first met her. She hugged me. She didn’t even ask anything first. She just hugged me. I’d never-”

Aubrey’s throat began to close up again. She wiped her brow. “...I’d never had to not explain myself. I was telling her how sorry I was, and whatever, but she just shushed me. She didn’t want anything from me. She just wanted me to be okay.” Aubrey hadn’t realized the tears were falling from her eyes until Basil reached out to wipe them away, which he immediately apologized for, seemingly not realizing what he was doing either. Aubrey didn’t snap at him, though. When thinking about Mari’s firm embrace around her, whispering affirmations and assurances in her ears, the tender motion felt similar to the girl, long deceased.

The tears came out harder. God, this was embarrassing. Aubrey didn’t ask for this. Basil didn’t ask to put up with this, either.

She crushed the boy in a bear hug, anyway. She hid her tear-laden face from view over his shoulder, too prideful to let him see the absolute state she was in. His arms were hesitant, clearly nervous he was doing the wrong thing, but Basil settled his trembling grasp around Aubrey in return.

“Everyone else joined up soon after that. We all sat there on the curb, and everyone kind of huddled around me. I felt… so safe. I just wanted someone to be there for me, at that time.”

Aubrey’s voice couldn’t conceal the fact that she was crying anymore.

“And then I got four ‘someone’s’ at once!” God, they were irritating! Hero was too agreeable, and lectured her and Kel all the time. Sunny kept on riding the waves of whatever would happen, and was far too passive. Kel was… ugh! Kel!

Mari of course… was wonderful. But… she wasn’t here anymore.

Regardless of everything, she loved them. She was so happy to have met them in that moment. Otherwise, Aubrey might not have known about how much she could love.

When her own heart seemed to be overflowing with the goodwill presented to her through the bonds of friendship, that’s when she had met him. Basil. The nervous, weirdo, flower boy. Her own, self-acclaimed little brother. She thought that, when she saw him sitting all alone at lunch that day in elementary school, she could give him the same feeling she felt then.

Oh, how wrong she had been.

“Basil, I’m sorry.” Aubrey whispered out into the air, and wasn’t sure if he heard it for a moment, but then felt his startled grip loosen from her in surprise.

“...What…?”

“I said I’m sorry! Are you deaf?” Aubrey’s face flushed. Apologizing was hard.

“Why are you apologizing to me?” Basil looked and sounded like he was presented with a complicated problem in astrophysics. That is, completely lost.

“I should have been there for you! I don’t care about what involvement you actually had in everything!” Aubrey stood up, in a fit of passion, and clenched her fists. “I didn’t know about it then! At that point, you were just somebody in pain, like the rest of us! Kel went kind of quiet at school, and didn’t hang out much anymore, Sunny stopped going to school after he kept zoning out in class and hardly seemed there anymore. Then he didn’t even go outside! Hero didn’t really do that for a whole year, either! It was just you and me, Basil!”

Basil only looked up at Aubrey with a tear-streaked, surprised expression. He didn’t try to interrupt.

“It… was just you and me. I should’ve remembered… what it felt like to be alone, and at your ugliest. I didn’t. I only cared about me. I didn’t return the favor. Mari would’ve wanted me to do that.”

Aubrey could almost hear her own voice yelling ’But Mari’s dead,’ and wondered how much more she changed since then. No one told her teenage years were this dynamic.

“I- God, it’s hard to look at your stupid puppydog eyes, but anyways… I should’ve been a better friend. Regardless of the result. That’s it.” Aubrey turned away, stuffing her hands in her pockets, and focusing on some squirrels darting up an oak a ways away.

“...Aubrey. Thank you.” Aubrey could almost hear his smile.

“Yeah, whatever.” Aubrey huffed, but a smile crept along her own face. Hey, maybe all those zealots actually had something right about forgiveness freeing the heart or something. Eh, she didn’t want to give them too much credit.

A comfortable silence passed between the two. Aubrey’s hair rustled in the wind that was picking up, and Basil took off his shoes and socks to dip his toes in the lake water, the chilling liquid allowing him to feel comfortably numb.

“...So what did happen to that other shoe?”

“Which one? The perpetrator, or the one on my foot?”

“The perp- Aubrey!”

“Sorry, don’t mean to make light of it,” Aubrey chuckled. She totally did. Man, Kel really was rubbing off on her. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s buried in my mom’s crap somewhere. Maybe my dad threw it out. Maybe he took it with him for some reason. I dunno. I did keep the one I had, though. It’s still under my bed, I think.”

“Why?”

“...I just wanted something to remember them by.”

“...Did you feel like they wouldn’t stick around?”

“...Yeah. Figured you’d get it.”

Basil swished his leg around.

“...For what it was worth, while it lasted, I’m glad that they did.”

Basil smiled, although Aubrey didn’t see it.

“Me too.”