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Emptiness

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Ass

Ash parked in the driveway of his sister’s house, right next to her car. He’d only been to her place a few times, and always before it had been hers and her husband’s. Now just hers.

He debated for a moment over whether to start bringing stuff in, but left it all where it was. Keep things easier at first.

The front door opened before Ash could decide whether to knock or try the doorbell. Val stood there, the same crooked smile on her face as when they were kids. Maybe slightly different now. More knowing and tired, less smug and whimsical.

“You made it,” she said.

“Of course.”

“Never know. It was only ever a fifty-fifty any time I invited you.”

“That’s different.”

“Is it?”

“Yeah.”

Val moved back to let Ash in. “Because those were social things?”

“Partly? Also… Carl kinda sucked.”

Val’s grin widened, but a touch of sadness hit her eyes. “Guess now that he’s the ex you feel safe saying that, huh?”

“Safer than before.”

“Sure.” Val shrugged. “You never liked him that much. S’not like I don’t know that.”

“I tried.”

“Not very hard.”

“No.”

“But then… here we are.” Val punched Ash lightly on the shoulder. “You win.”

“You know I’d rather have been wrong.”

“I know. What can ya do, though.”

“What can ya do,” Ash echoed.

The siblings stood awkwardly for a moment.

“You wanna bring your stuff in?” Val asked.

“Kinda might as well, right? Just as easy now as later. And I’ve still got my shoes on.”

“Sure. Lemme slip my boots on. I’ll help.”

It was cold out. Not bitterly so, but enough for Val to start whining by the time they made the last trip from the car. She blew on her hands, fruitlessly trying to warm them up, then stuck them straight down the back of Ash’s shirt.

“Ah! Hey!” Ash squirmed away from Val’s icy touch, but since her hands were down his shirt he couldn’t easily escape.

“You’re warmer than I am,” Val argued calmly. “Share the wealth.”

“At least warn me.”

“You’d just be on guard then.”

“Yeah. Exactly.”

Val pulled her hands back, now closer to room temperature again. “You remember where your room is?”

“You mean the one I stayed in that one time I slept here?”

“Yep. Yours now.”

Ash shrugged awkwardly. “I swear I don’t mean to stay long. Just… you know.”

“Pff, whatever. It’s stupid having this whole house on my own. Was always too big for two as it was. I just bounce around going crazy on my own. That or use, like, two rooms for days at a time.” Val waved her arms. “What was I ever thinking?”

Ash stayed quiet. He assumed he knew what she’d been thinking, and didn’t want to be the one to bring it up.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Val said. She picked up a bag and started walking.

“Wasn’t looking at you like anything.”

“I saw you.”

“Yeah. And there was no look.”

“There absolutely was.”

They arrived at what was now Ash’s room and set their respective loads down. It was a somewhat barren room, not having been properly lived in, only ever being a temporary place for guests. Since most everything Ash owned was going to be put in here somewhere, that would at least fill some of the empty space.

Val looked at Ash and raised her chin slightly, daring him to say what they were both thinking. He squirmed under her gaze just as he had when she’d placed frigid fingers on his warm back.

“You could always get a different place,” Ash said.

“That wasn’t what you were thinking.”

“No. But it’s true. You could.”

Val sighed. “Technically, sure.” She waved a hand around. “I actually do like the place, though. Like, I picked it for… for living in. Forever, maybe. I love it, really. Just… not alone.” She shrugged. “And Carl gave it to me in the divorce, so it’s easy. I don’t feel like going through the process of selling and moving again.”

“No, sure, I get that.” Ash’s eyes darted around for a second, involuntarily seeking escape. “At least it wasn’t a messy split? I guess?”

“No. He was fair about it. More than fair, really. Got the house, came out decent financially. I can’t fault him for any of that.”

“Buuuttt… he did leave.”

“Yeah. That I can fault him for. And… not, too.”

“Not?”

“He wanted kids as bad as I did, Ash. And I never really told anyone, neither of us did as far as I know…”

“What?”

“It’s me, Ash. I’m the one who couldn’t have them.”

Ash tensed up. Val was already well past tense.

It was more than either had intended to discuss. Ash knew about the kids thing being an issue. And knew that it was the reason for the size of the house and yard and everything. He hadn’t actually known they’d figured out what the problem was, though maybe he could have guessed something close if he’d really wanted to think about it. The way the divorce went down and all.

“His new girl doesn’t have that problem,” Val said quietly.

“Aw fuck, Val.” Ash enfolded her in a deep hug. “I didn’t mean to bring any of that up.”

She shrugged miserably in his arms. “Was gonna happen sooner or later. cihangir escort I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it, but I would with you sooner or later. ‘Specially with you living here.” She managed a forced chuckle. “Might as well get it out of the way.”

Ash kept holding her. “You didn’t have to tell me if you didn’t want to.”

“Ah, dear brother, but of course I wanted to.”

“You did?”

“I did. And I didn’t.”

“Oh. Right.”

“Hold something in too long, something that needs to get out…” Val sneaked a hand out from Ash’s hug and made a false explosion with her fingers. “S’gonna blow first chance it gets.”

“Ah.”

“Better to you than… well, anyone else, really.”

“Even Mom and Dad?”

“Especially them, are you kidding me?” Val managed to wriggle free and push Ash to arm’s length. She stared straight at him. “Do you even know how excited they’ve been? Thinking I had everything set and grandkids were on the way? I mean, you’ve not been giving them much hope-“

“As little as possible.”

“-and here I was finally… finally getting set…” Val turned and headed out of the room. “At least with the divorce I’m getting all kinds of sympathy and no one’s asking impossible questions yet. You want a drink?”

Ash struggled to shift mental gears. “Are you having one either way?”

“Yes.”

“Then sure. Why not. I’ll finish bringing stuff to the… to my room, then-“

“Later.”

“It’s just sitting in the entryway.”

“So? Whose way’s it gonna be in?”

“… ok, later.”

“Correct.”

****

‘A drink’ turned into more than one, though spaced widely enough through the afternoon and evening that both Ash and Val stayed closer to sober than not. Val perhaps just a tad less so.

Ash made a few valiant attempts at bringing more of his stuff to his new room, and eventually managed to bring most of it over, shoving the better part of it in the corner.

At least after that there wasn’t anything much else to do, and he could let himself properly relax into an ongoing, mildly-alcohol-lubricated conversation about whatever they felt like.

“I think you should tell me what happened,” Val said as they sat together in her living room.

“What happened with what?”

“That’s the question, isn’t it.” Val had her knees pulled up to her chest. She rested her hands on them and peered suspiciously at her brother. “I said I wasn’t going to pry-“

“You did.”

“-but now that my shit’s out there already… what’s yours?”

“Who says I have any?”

“You did, more or less. In all my years… well, the ones we’ve been living out in the world on our own anyway, I’ve never had you beg me for a place to crash.”

“Ok, whoa, I did no begging. I merely asked, and you were nice enough to say yes. I’m now regretting asking, just for the record.”

“Yeah, yeah. But still, though. You’ve been all independent and shit. Never really needed me or the ‘rents or anyone to bail you out, so far as I know.”

“That’s me.”

“So what happened?”

Ash sighed and rubbed his face. “It’s stupid.”

“That’s ok. Hit me with it.”

“You really wanna know?”

Val fixed her brother with a Look. “I think I’ve been very clear that I really, really wanna know.”

“Fine. But it’s not that interesting. Or particularly flattering.”

“S’fine. It’ll distract me from my life for a bit.”

“Oh gee, well I’m so glad to be sharing for the sake of… distracting you.”

“And also I very much care about my darling brother and his emotional needs. Obviously.”

“Ah, yes. Obviously.”

Val took a sip of her latest drink, then arched her eyebrow. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Ash ran his fingers through his hair. “So the short version-“

“I want the long version.”

“I don’t wanna tell it. The short version is… we opened a bakery.”

Val stared at Ash, waiting for the punch line to whatever joke this was going to turn into. None was forthcoming.

“You did not,” she said.

“Did.”

“You?”

“Yes. Me and Marcy.”

“Marcy? Who’s that?”

“My girlfriend. At the time.”

“What happened to Fiona?”

“Uh… nothing. Just… not together by then.”

“You only met her two months ago!”

“Three. At least. Have I not mentioned Marcy?”

“No. How the hell did you possibly have time to fall for someone new and open a fucking bakery with her?”

“I told you it was stupid. You had fair warning.”

“Fuck’s sake, Ash. I didn’t think you meant it quite that literally. You don’t even know how to bake!”

“Correct.”

“Or how to run a business.”

“Better at it then baking though.”

“Uh huh. So this bakery…”

“Was a disaster basically immediately.”

“Ah.”

“I didn’t really lose much on it, not after we managed to sell it, but I didn’t have a hell of a lot of money, and hadn’t been working for a bit… not counting trying to run that place.”

“Sure. And Marcy?”

Ash shrugged. “We fell apart when the bakery did. Made for a clean break, at esenyurt escort least.”

“Small mercies.” Val took a longer drink. “You really thought going into business with a girl you’d hooked up with the night before was a solid plan?”

“Hey, we had a connection, ok?”

“A connection?”

“Well… yeah.”

“Is that code for ‘she had a pretty face and knew this trick with her tongue?'”

“… no.”

“It totally is, isn’t it?”

“… maybe.”

Val sighed and leaned her head, resting it on her propped up arm. “Brother mine, I do so love and care for you, but goddamn do you need a chaperone to function in society.”

“I do fine.”

“You chase after whoever your newest love of your life is just like a puppy. A puppy who somehow never learns better.”

“Do not. Most of the time we just… have fun for a while. Marcy’s only the second… third…” Ash stopped and thought a moment. “Fourth girl tops I really thought I had something with.”

“Oh. Only four.”

“That’s not bad.”

Val nodded. “All things considered, it actually isn’t.”

“But, you know, I guess I didn’t.”

“Seems that way.”

Ash sighed and slumped in his seat. “Am I just bad at relationships? Is that what it is?”

“I mean… this one sure sounds like you were.”

“Oh thanks.”

“Just this one, though. I mean, usually you don’t come out of one bad enough to come seek asylum with your sis, right?”

“It’s financial! That’s all.”

“Mmhm. You coulda gone to the ‘rents, you know.”

“Mom and Dad? No way. Woulda either been too much sympathy, or told ya sos, or Mom trying to set me up again…”

“She tries to help.”

“Uh huh. I don’t need that kind.” Ash raised his glass in a haphazard salute. “Honestly, Val, I think you’re who I needed. I need that weird mix of support and sarcasm. And, like, it’s nice that you’re a girl I don’t have to worry about falling for, y’know?”

Val tilted her head. “Is that what I am?”

“Among other things.”

“Huh.” Val contemplated silently for a minute. “Yeah, I guess that all makes sense. Some of it’s kinda why I’m happy having you here too. For real, don’t worry about finding somewhere else. Just… just let’s both chill a while, yeah? Together?”

“That sounds nice.”

“Right?”

“Mmhm. No pressure. So much easier.” Ash scratched his cheek. “But, uh, you think it’d be awkward if one of us, like, met someone?”

“Oh god. Do you already have someone you’re into?”

“No! No no. Nothing like that. Just… what if?”

“I dunno. Go with it, I guess. We’re both adults.”

“Ok. Yeah. Maybe.”

“How about try to go at least a week without falling for someone though, ok? Just see how you like it.”

Ash casually flipped Val off, making her giggle. “Four times I’ve fallen for someone, ok? We established that. Maybe five. Four or five.”

“Uh huh.”

“Sometimes I know what I’m doing.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“Now I want to go pick up a girl just out of spite.”

“Be sure to announce that. Girls love that sort of thing. Drops panties like no one’s business.”

“Maybe I will.”

“Good.”

“Good.”

The siblings stared at each other a long, unblinking moment, then Val stood up.

“Another drink?” she asked.

“Yes please.”

“Same again?”

“Sure.”

“Coming up.”

****

Val woke up the next morning with a bit of a dry mouth, but otherwise none the worse for the wear. It took her a moment to remember the day before, and that she had her brother staying with her. It was so easy to fall into a routine of being all alone in an overly large house.

Val threw on a long shirt and hit the bathroom, then the kitchen. Ash was already there, rummaging confusedly through cabinets.

“Starving already?”

Ash smiled crookedly at her. “Couldn’t find coffee. I assume you have coffee? The maker is right there.”

“Of course I have coffee, silly.”

Val gently pushed Ash out of the way. He went to stand on the other side of the kitchen island.

“It’s just up here at the top,” Val said, having to stand slightly on her toes as she reached the top shelf of one of the cupboards. “That’s all.”

When she turned around, coffee in hand, she found Ash with an insane blush on his face.

“What’s up with you all of a sudden?”

Ash coughed awkwardly. “Val, you, uh, don’t have underwear on, huh.”

Val’s face took a bare instant to match Ash’s red colouring. “Oh. Oh shit.” She looked back at the top shelf and thought about how she’d had to stretch to reach it. “Um, how badly did I just flash you?”

“Um… pretty badly.”

“Frick. Dammit.” Val set the coffee down. “I thought I was doing well to remember putting anything on at all.”

“Usually naked?”

“In the mornings. I mean, why not? S’just me. Was just me.” Val took a deep breath, not quite daring to meet Ash’s eye. “I’ma go find some pants.”

“Probably a good idea. I mean, even just panties would help.”

“Yeah, no. Full on pants time, I think. I just…” Val stopped. There etiler escort bayan really wasn’t anything else to say. She pointed back the direction she’d come from, toward her room. “I’ll… yeah.”

Ash put coffee on while waiting for his sister’s return. He thought about getting dressed himself, since he was only in a shirt and boxers. Which, really, he’d remembered underwear, so this wasn’t on him. Somehow, though, more clothes seemed more appropriate all of a sudden.

Both sibs had their faces down to a dull pink by the time Val came back, now wearing jeans. Her cheeks flushed a little darker as they looked at each other, but the main blush had passed.

“That’s a hell of a way to start your stay, huh?” Val said quietly.

“It’s something, alright.”

“You think, like, how many years we lived together, I never, uh, did something stupid like that.”

“Never flashed me your whole butt?”

“Oh god, the whole thing? Really?”

“Well, no. Like half of it. Aaannnd…”

“Oh fuck. Don’t say it.”

“Ok.”

Val waited. Ash didn’t say it.

“Well tell me!”

“You said not to!”

“Yeah, but… I didn’t mean it. I need to know.”

Ash squirmed and held up his thumb and finger slightly parted. “Like, maybe, a li’l something else.”

Val covered her face with her hands. “Fuuuccck. I haven’t even done anything down there in… a week?”

“That’s what you’re worried about?!”

“No, but… if you had to see it, coulda at least been presentable.”

Ash stared at Val. She peeked back at him through a gap in her fingers. With no warning, he abruptly broke out laughing.

Val smiled shyly and dropped her hands. She managed a giggle, though mostly only because of how hard Ash was laughing.

“This is such a disaster,” Ash said, still giggling in the wake of his laughter.

“You think?”

“Don’t you? I mean, not in a bad way. Just, like, in a disastrous way.”

“What’s the difference?”

“I dunno. It’s funnier, I guess?”

“Is it?”

“That or embarrassing. Or both.” Ash turned. “How do you know when this coffee machine’s done?”

“It stops making noises.”

“Ah. Fair enough.”

A few minutes later, the siblings were sitting across from each other on stools pulled up to the island. They each sipped coffee, using it as a distraction from either having to talk or sit in horrible, awkward silence.

“You look thoughtful,” Val said.

Ash nodded. “I guess.”

“Whatcha thinking about?”

He hesitated. “You want the truth?”

“Is it my butt?”

“Maybe.”

“Then tell me a lie.”

“Ok. I thought maybe we should get a painting for your living room.”

“… a painting?”

“Yeah. For that bare wall.”

“Ah. It was gonna be for pictures. I have a bunch already, actually. They just never went up.”

“Oh. Should we put them up?”

“No. Mostly Carl’s in them. Or they remind me of him.”

“Oh. Shitty.”

“Yep.”

“Lucky that thought was only a lie then.”

Val snorted. “Yeah. So lucky.”

Ash cradled his coffee mug, sitting thoughtfully for a minute. “This isn’t gonna be weird, is it?”

“What?”

“Living together.”

“Shouldn’t be. This morning excepted.”

“I mean, it’s been less that a full day, though. You can’t just except a big chunk of that.”

“My house, my rules.” Val waved her hand. “Honestly, I just need to adjust to having someone around. No biggie.”

“Mmk.”

“Seriously. It’s good.” Val stood up. “Let’s make breakfast. You being here’s an excuse to actually make something, and not just, like, throw a bagel in the toaster when I get hungry enough.”

“Yeah, ok. Maybe I’ll go get dressed first.”

“Why?”

“I dunno. You are.”

“Yeah, well, there’s a happy medium that I didn’t find this morning. You’re doing ok, though.”

“Still. I’ma grab pants.”

“Whatever floats your boat, I guess.”

“Uh huh.”

Val watched Ash until he was gone, then sagged, leaned on the island, and shook her head. What the hell kind of mistake was that anyway? Forgetting about panties of all things. Flashing her brother.

They were adults. It wasn’t a big deal. Or maybe it was more of a big deal. Either way, it was just such a dumb thing to do.

****

Making and consuming breakfast led to no further moments of awkwardness. Ash volunteered to do the dishes afterward, partly just to get a better sense of the kitchen.

Once he’d finished and went to find Val, she was in the living room playing a game on a fairly massive tv.

“Whoa, where’d that come from?” Ash asked. “I shouldn’t have missed that.”

Val pointed to the side of the screen. “There’s panels there that slide over it. I never wanted anything this big, but Carl did. So he built it to hide away. I think he just liked having a secret compartment for his tv, honestly.” She shrugged. “He wanted to pay for it, who was I to say no?”

“Plus now it’s awesome and it’s yours.”

Val grinned crookedly. “Plus now it’s awesome and it’s mine.”

Ash flopped down next to her and watched her play. “I keep wanting to say something like ‘it kinda all worked out for you’ or something. But I know that’s not really right.”

“No, I get it. As divorces go, it was a good one. Still coulda done without the little things like heartbreak and questioning all my life choices and things.”

“Yeah, no, I mean those aren’t always the most fun.”

“Not so much.”

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