NINEEIGHTNINENINENINE
rating: 0+x

"Callin' it fuckin' quits. We got…" Brad set his bass down and checked his watch. "… negative ten minutes till the kids show up."

Ashton Miyamoto sighed, either out of relief or exasperation. Yellowface was their bread and butter project, the thing that got them out of the house; it also consisted primarily of guttural growling and screaming, which was much harder than it sounded when Ashton had to both maintain their posture and work the keyboard.

"At least we kept your shack warm." Dontae sounded glad to be free, at least. "I need to go get groceries. There's a sale at the bodega off Negative 5th, if you like eating pinoy. Otherwise, toodles."

"See ya'.", but Dontae had already left.

In the interim, Brad pulled out a carton of incense sticks, sticking one in his mouth before lighting it with his trademark green fire. "Izzy's ain't one to be fuckin' late, tell you that much."

"Cousin, right?"

"Sure as shit ain't her mother, even if I gotta pick up after that snake." Brad offered Ashton another stick; given they weren't entirely sure how Brad smoked them in the first place, they declined. "Real piece of work. No fuckin' surprise she's a Jailor, Auntie Aggie'll do anything to assimilate. I tell ya, one time-"

Brad's monologue was cut short by the sound of a truck pulling up to the garage.

The truck was… well, it probably belonged to one of the "kids" from that new band he'd assembled. Burgundy where it wasn't chipped, which wasn't too much of the truck. Looked like something that drove in front of a drug-running car to distract the police; some of the (probable) repair work especially made it look less like a truck and more like an active car magnet.

The man who came out of the passenger seat was surprisingly well-dressed. "Oh, uh, yeah, sorry Brad. We, uh… had a bit of a problem."

"Fuckin' hell, Jack, if it's that vague what kept you?"

"Well…" Jack briefly glanced towards Ashton, before breaking eye contact. "It's a, well, it's a pretty long story, and-"

A tall woman came up behind him, throwing an arm over his shoulder with practiced grace. "Two words: Sara rebounded."

Brad pinched the bridge of his nose. "Fine, fine, had a bad week. Not like y'all need more'n one guitarist."

The man suddenly looked to the ground, while his companion grinned.

"… where the fuck's Izzy?"

The (now oddly familiar?) woman grinned wider.

"… sunuva bitch." Brad sighed, collapsing against the armchair in the corner. "Whose fault? Sara I get but… fuck, don't wanna think about this. This'll be the fuckin' death of someone if she can't keep it in her-" and Brad suddenly cut himself off. "… so I guess practice is fuckin' off?"

"I mean I got my drums, Jack's got a guitar, and…" that's when the woman turned to face Ashton, and her grin suddenly disappeared. "… Mitsy?"

Did they know this chick? They were starting to get the feeling they should've known this chick, and getting deadnamed only cemented that. "Eh, I go by Ashton now, but-"

"Holy shit, it's been two years!" The woman broke from the man, bounding over to Ashton and stopping just short of hugging distance, arms outstretched. "I haven't seen you since college! What've you been up to, man?"

This close… ohhhhh.

"'sup, Lye." Ashton smiled, briefly closing the hug gap before pulling back. "Sorry for the cold shoulder, but, your hair's pink, now, and…" Ashton gave her another look-over. "… difference two years on E makes, huh?"

"Prog, too." Lye's smile came easier than Ashton remembered. Hopefully she was doing better, too. "We need to catch up, I've got a library of shit I gotta share with you and knowing you, that shit's mutual."

The man standing at the precipice of the garage coughed.

Ashton furrowed their brow. "Somethin' up?"

He looked to Lye, instead. "Uh… Lyanna? This is, uh… someone you know?"

"Oh shit, Jack, how the hell did I never tell you about…" Lye turned back to Ashton. "What pronoun do you go by now?"

"Them."

"Tight, thanks." Lye turned back to Jack, giddy with a herefore-unseen excitement unmatched by Jack's own strained smile. "But yeah, me and Ashton go fucking back. We got into all sorts of shit back in college, anywhere from like, Halloween pranks to…" Lye suddenly blushed, then snorted. "Oh g-d, what the fuck was I doing back then?"

Ashton looked back to Jack, fidgeting uncomfortably at the precipice of the garage. Taking him in, it was hard not to remember Lye's Jared saga. "Spare Jack the worst of it?"

"Jack's heard the worst of it, trust me." Lye had her arm back around Jack in no time at all. Like most of the men in her tragically heterosexual life, she was out of his league. "Yeah, meet Jack." At least she looked happy. "Brad introduced me a while back, we've been thick as thieves ever since."

"Tight." Ashton couldn't believe they used to crush on this chick.

"But… fuck, yeah. Anyways," Lye looked around the garage. "Since Brad seems to have mysteriously disappeared again, we're short a bass, so… probably not gonna use it that long. You free in twenty minutes? Prolly gonna grab some pizza."

Oh.

"'mean…" A nervous chuckle. "Don't mean to impose…"

"Hey, you're my friend, Jack's my friend… not much to impose on. Not like I have anywhere else to go tonight, you know?"

Damn it, she'd really changed since college, hadn't she? Less antisocial, better-adjusted, not… not a fucking shut-in, like Ashton. But, well… good for Lye.

"Sorry, heh. I've got…" Their lips were chapped. "… promised myself I'd finish a mix tonight, heh, sorry."

Uhhhh, later?, they didn't ask, because they couldn't.


Organisms from the Kingdom Animalia didn't get finished that night, but Ashton gave as good as they could.

Which wasn't enough.


SoHo got colder with the seasons. It was something Ashton never thought about, the idea that a Free Port might match the temperature fluctuations of the world it inhabited. But when you worked graveyard shift security for a Hole to China, the thought was easy to fall back into.

Not like they had much else to think about during their 2 AM smoke break, anyway. Most of the people who were out this time of night weren't talkers; trying to change that didn't bode well for your abdomen or back (it all depended on who one bothered). Maybe if you were lucky, you got a visitor from Chigoku Cellar, too nervous to start shit and about as fluent in English as Ashton was in Japanese. Funny how that works, two years of one language squandered by seventeen years of the other. Buried by…

Ashton wasn't certain what point their internal narration was trying to make. In their defense, it was 2 AM.

With one final drag, Ashton flicked the cigarette butt to the sidewalk, snuffing it with their boot and bending over to-

"Ashton?"

That's… Lyanna's voice?

Ashton bent back up, primarily to flick the butt into the receptacle but also to get a look at the voice. Certainly, there weren't too many other 6 foot something chicks with pink hair who wore ripped jeans on the cusp of winter. "'sup, Lye?"

Lye smiled, but didn't quite meet their gaze. "Oh, not much, man, not much. I'm just, uh… running some errands, midnight, you know? Couldn't sleep, so…"

"Need or wanna talk?"

A nervous chuckle. "Fuck, uh, you know, it's just one of my ups. I'm not getting to sleep for like a day, why not make the best of this?"

"Lye, I work here. Not gonna judge."

Lye blinked. "Shit, you work here?"

"Graveyard shift. Pays well enough, uh…" Ashton scratched at the back of their head. "… did I, uh… I tell you?"

"I meaaaaaaaan, last time I saw you was before my Senior Project. You were still in college, so like… fuck, I don't know. I assumed you were a full-timer." Another nervous chuckle. Lye finally made eye contact. "What do they got you doing here, Ash?"

"Security room."

"Oh thank fuck, I thought you were a cop." She still looked on edge.

"You know, Lye, you're allowed to like porn. I won't judge."

Lye's eyes went wide. "I'm not-I'm here to return a record, Ash. It's… I'm not some kind of pervert who needs d-dubious magic hentai, you know?"

Ashton rolled their eyes. Same old Lyanna. "Got it. Need any recommendations, I got ten minutes before I'm needed in the camera room. Can't promise I do too much absinthe, and if you change your mind, what I think you'll like's gonna be filtered through comphet. Take care, Lye."

Lye nodded stiffly, and entered the store.

***

Lye emerged three minutes later, clutching some album with a subway station on the cover like she was afraid to be seen with it.

Ashton gave a low whistle. "Haven't listened to that one."

Lye jumped, recomposing herself only once she spotted Ashton. "G-d, it's… I'm sorry, it's a whole fucking world in there."

"Don't I know it."

A pause. Ashton fingered the carton in their jacket, fiddling with the lid but not making a move to pull out another cig. "… look, it's cool. The Hole has what you need, shitty noise, whatever. Hole has a lot of what people need. No one's gonna judge you for being human, 'aight?"

"Yeah, yeah, it's, uh… is what it is, you know?" Lyanna sighed, pulling a pack from her bag and removing four sticks of gum, two of which were offered to Ashton. They shook their head, and Lye popped her pieces and put the rest away. "Fucking hell, it's like… I don't know, it's been two years. And… shit, I don't even know how to put it."

"I get you."

Lye sighed once more, opening her mouth to say something until it got lost in her confused expression. In her defense, Ashton wasn't sure how to break the pause, either.

Lye spoke first. "… isn't your birthday coming up? That's… you'll be 22, right?"

It was in-fact, as Ashton only just remembered, coming up in about two months. December 19th. The day it all went to shit. "Mean… I guess?"

"Fuck yeah, cool. You wanna do something for that? Together, with friends, etc.?"

Ashton froze up. "Uh, well…" Yes, no, give me time to think of a valid excuse to get out of this so I don't have to go outside because apparently I'm deathly afraid of that now that I live alone. "… sure, yeah."

Fuck. Damn it.

Lyanna smiled like she wasn't just being polite; Ashton never thought the sight of it could make their stomach drop as much as it did. "Fuck yeah. Yeah, just give me like, the exact date and time, and I'll see if I can't drag my bandmates along." So… genuine, her grin. So hard not to return it. "G-d damn, you'll love 'em. Gimme a date and I'll corral those cats into the cage, or however the fuck you say it."

"Oh, uh, sure, cool." Ashton scratched their head. "Yeah… December 19th?"

Lyanna whipped out her phone. "19th, got it. Well, I gotta go before Brad gets worried. TTYL?"

"Uh… yeah, sure."

Lyanna walked away, not quite in shame but at the very least colored by a cloud of Ashton's.


this still your number?


Oh, hey Lye.




sup girllllll!





fuck, sorry. Trying to think of another term that doesn't sound passive-aggressive











pal?


Don't worry about it, Lye. :)




okay! 😎





how've you been? It's been ages since I last texted you








I'm not being annoying, am I?






shit, fuck. I'm clingy, aren't I






please tell me what I did







if you don't want to reconnect I'm fine with that but i want to know what I did wrong







Shit, sorry. I'm











Call you?

***

Ashton was greeted with a "G-d I'm so fucking sorry," in the intonation of someone who'd just run over their dog as soon as they picked up the phone. Same old Lyanna.

"'sfine, Lye. You, uh… caught me busy, heh." The Vietnamese take-out and now muted public access trash tv suggested otherwise, but that was one of the wonders of the modern world, no? "Seriously, we're cool."

"Fuck, thank you." Lye sighed over the line. "Shit, I told myself I wouldn't get like… g-d, I'm sorry."

"Don't need to apologize, man." A pause. "Shit, sorry."

Lye laughed; a step up, at least. "It's fine, Ash… you don't mind being called that, right?"

"One, you're my friend, you can call me whatever long as it's not 'Mitsuki'. Two, named myself after Bowie. If Ash's good for him, good for me."

"… Bowie?"

"Ash Bowie. From Polvo."

"Wow, I can't believe I'm friends with a fucking nerd."

It wasn't much, but it still pulled a laugh out of Ashton. Things were just funnier at… 1:19 AM, if Ashton's clock was still up to date. "You're one to talk, grease monkey. Have any luck with those RC cars? What about Number 7, ever fix that one?"

Lye sputtered. She knew exactly what Ashton meant, from the sounds of it. "You can't, you… fuck, you can't just bring that up! That was years ago!"

"Yeah, good ol' days, back…"

Ashton trailed off, looking back to the incomprehensible infomercial playing silently on their TV; to the brick view just outside their window; to the tear-off calendar on the wall that, even forgotten, still marked a day almost two years since the last time Ashton had had someone over. They opened their mouth to say something, and nothing came out.

It was, once again, Lye who broke the silence. "… I miss this, Ash. Just… middle of the night, shooting the shit with you. It's… you're still my friend, right?"

"Cried on my couch too many times for the answer to be 'no', Lye."

Lye laughed again, a single chuckle less of mirth and more of… well, Lye's emotions were somewhat complicated, as Ashton remembered it. "Thanks, Ash. It's… fuck, I just worry, alright? I haven't heard from you in years and finding you with Brad again, it feels like, I don't know, maybe I… maybe I wasn't worth remembering."

"You? You're really hard to forget, Lye." Another pause. "In a good way."

"Thanks. It's… I wanna be your friend again, you know? Yeah, we're still friends, but friend stuff. Hanging out, doing… whatever. Weed or Melee or music mixing. You know?"

Ashton swallowed, finding themself looking up at the plaster ceiling. No idea why; certainly there wasn't anything up there, or at least nothing up there that was out of place. Frankly, there wasn't much to their apartment in the first place, given the sheer difficulty involved in hauling things through a shopfront and up two flights of stairs. Or is that yet another excuse, the ones Ashton always-

"You alright?"

Something broke in Ashton's head, putting their mouth went on autopilot. "I'm scared." The world was glossing over itself, now, like warped glass overlooking a dune of plaster sand. "Of outside, of people, of, of…. I'm scared, Lye, I don't know." A ringing in their ears. They closed their eyes. "I don't know."

Lye went silent in turn, for a while. "… I'm sorry, I don't… I don't know, either. But I feel like we did, once. Wanna… relearn it, together?"

A stupid response, and despite everything, Ashton found themself smiling.


"I'm telling you, Mips's patch is a wonder. Sure you don't want the crack?"

Lye hadn't trampled everything as she stepped inside, hadn't insulted Ashton or denigrated their sense of decoration or exposed their deepest, darkest vulnerabilities, brought with her no icon of their mistakes or instrument of their demise or anything other than her dingy laptop and some cheap pizza. Honestly, everything said and done, chatting video games as the two worked on separate projects was rather chill in comparison to most of Ashton's hypotheticals. So that was a relief.

Ashton saved their current track before removing their earbuds and turning towards Lye. "I run Mac, Lye. New Vegas is Windows."

"Knowing Mips, that's not gonna be a problem." In contrast, Lye's fingers and eyes were stuck to the keyboard and screen, respectably. "Girl's a fucking genius. Legitimately surprised she's not signed onto some big-name hacker collective… actually, do they pay anyone?"

"Collectives?"

"Yeah, the spooky ones."

"Guess it depends."

"I mean, yeah, CIA or Google or whatever, but in general, you know?" Lye did something her computer apparently didn't like, and Ashton wasn't certain whether to warn against burning herself or ask if they could sample her fan's noise. Come to think of it…

Ashton re-donned their earbuds and opened Track 2. "Outside that? It's… lots of black hats, I guess. Can't be legal."

"Well, you know what they say, crime pays."

"Don't know if they say that."

"At least it's what they mean."

From there, a lull in conversation. It wasn't too bad; the mere presence of someone else in Ashton's apartment felt nice against the usual loneliness, especially when it was an old friend. Besides, Ashton wasn't much for talking, and they couldn't imagine either of their projects benefiting from continued conversation.

Maybe things were going to be okay.

"Yo, weren't you working on a mix?"

Things were not going to be okay.

Great, Lyanna was going to hear Ashton's stupid joke music and realize what a failure they were. They'd be back to being alone, like what Lye talked about in her… oh fuck it, that was just enough self awareness for Ashton's next words:

"I'm scared about whether you'll like my anart, but I wanna get better about… friend stuff. Can you wait til you're home to open a zip?"

Lye briefly looked away from the screen to smile. "No sweat, Ash."

It didn't help their anxiety once they'd actually emailed Lye the zip, but at least the expense of present Ashton made past Ashton happy.


Ashton picked up their phone. "Yo?"

"Hey, Ash. So I listened-"

An indistinct sound like flesh against leather cut Lyanna off, only to be replaced by a smoother, vaguely English voice. "That was killer! God, I'm almost furious at how much effort you put into that mix, This Town Needs Guns was not meant to be as funny as that was."

"Uh… thanks." Realistically, they should've been panicking at the thought of someone else hearing their music.






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