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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.