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The Chemicals Between Us

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Ashley huffed and grunted as she finally reached the top of the staircase. She managed to open the door by awkwardly placing the pile of heavy but small boxes on one of her hips, leaving one hand free to fuss with the doorknob. Once she was through, she just stopped short of dropping them on the floor. They had neighbors beneath; she didn't want to give a bad first impression by making too much noise.

 "Okay there, Ash?"

 "Fine!" called Ashley. "Just, you know...out of shape."

 Larry’s face poked out from around the doorway that led to their tiny kitchen. "Here; let me get that," he said, picking the two boxes off with much more ease than she had.

 She folded her arms across her chest. "Show-off," she said, teasingly.

 He just gave her an easy-going grin as he set the boxes on top of one of their kitchen counters. Ashley hadn't even noticed that they had 'Kitchen Stuff' labelled on them. "Moving's such a pain in the ass," she said.

 Larry nodded as he reached for the box cutter in his pocket. "Tell me about it," he said. "Feels damn good being out of Addison Apartments, though."

 Ashley nodded. "I’ll bet." She wasn't a believer in the supernatural, the way her friends were--Hell, she couldn't even really call herself religious--but even she had to admit that that building had felt...off.

 The giant secret labyrinth beneath it and the gruesome murders certainly hadn't helped. "It's all for the best, right? Look on the bright side, like your mom always says."

 "Yeah," said Larry with a smile. It wasn't quite as taboo to bring the subject of Larry's mother, now that she'd been out of the hospital and was now in much higher spirits and health. "Always look at the bright side."

 Ashley put her hands on her hips and glanced around their apartment. "Speaking of bright sides...where's Sal with that last load of boxes?"

 "He left to go get 'em about ten minutes ago," said Larry. Ashley’s father had been kind enough to lend them his pick-up truck, which meant that the three of them now had two cars two move their things, and no one had to splurge on a moving truck.

 "Really? Just now?" asked Ashley.

 Larry scratched the back of his neck, looking a bit sheepish. "We, uh...kinda got distracted while you were gone."

 Ashley smiled slyly. "Oh?" she asked, a hint of meaning in her voice.

 Larry lightly shoved her shoulder. "Shut up; not that kind of distraction." He walked to the other end of the kitchen, where there was another arch. Ashley followed him through it until they reached what would now be their bedroom. Around the queen-sized mattress on the floor and remnants of the bed frame that would hold it up, there were several opened boxes. "We started unpacking and found some shit. Then we just...started reminiscing."

 "Oh." That actually made a lot more sense, Ashley thought; they'd known Sal since freshman year of high school, and each other since middle school. A lot of what had gone into these boxes were pure memories. "Like what?" she asked.

 "Like this," said Larry, pulling out a clunky grey box.

 "Is that an old Gear Boy?" asked Ashley. "Christ, I didn't realize how old it had gotten..." The Rainbow Gear Boy that Sally loved so much now was smaller and showed games in color. He'd saved up for months to get it. The Monsters in your Pockets game he was so fond of apparently looked much better on it.

 "Yeah; technology, right?" Larry folded his legs as he sat down, setting the thing in his lap. Despite knowing how much more work they had to do, Ashley sat next to him. "This thing could detect ghosts, you know."

 "Mm-hmm." Ashley still didn't know if she believed that; it just looked like a handheld gaming device, to her.

 "Led us to Conspiracy Theory #1. And learning that my dad really did leave us."

 That had, apparently, been a hard blow to Larry. The times that Ashley came to visit him, Todd, and Chug afterwards, he'd seemed really down for weeks after. Most of the time, she realized, Sal had been at his side.

 Was that when she'd started to like Sal? Seeing what a dedicated friend he was? It was honestly hard to remember...Sal was such a big part of her life, it was hard for Ashley to picture a time when she hadn't been in love with him.

 Larry wrapped an arm around her shoulders as they both looked at the green screen. It had cracked; had that been during the move, or before? "It was pretty cool, talking to ghosts. Once the whole 'Holy shit, a ghost!' thing wore off."

 Ashley tilted her head up to look at him. His dark eyes seemed to be far away. "You sound like you miss it."

 "Maybe. A little. We knew there'd be a shitload of changes, though, right? And you're right; it is for the best." With that, he kissed the top of her head. She smiled at the gesture; she and Larry didn't have feelings for each other, the way they did for Sal. They'd dated for a few weeks during Middle School before they realized they made much better friends, but that was the closest they'd ever come.

 That didn't mean they weren't important to each other. Far from it; she loved Larry as much as she loved Sal, even if it was in a different way. The situation they had had worked well for so long; moving into an apartment together had seemed like a logical next step for them.

It was right at that moment that the two of them heard the door shut and a muffled voice call out "Package delivery!"

 "In the bedroom!" called Ashley.

 "Come on in, Babe!" called Larry.

 "Really? We're almost done, though, and--"

 "We're taking a break!" said Ashley.

 "Uh...okay!" Seconds later, Larry and Ashley were blessed by the sight of their boyfriend.

 He'd grown taller since she and Larry first met him, but he remained short; shorter than both of them. He'd hit a growth spurt in their junior year, so the baby fat around his stomach and hips she'd first seen him with were now gone. He wasn't quite as thin as her or Larry, but he was still slim. He'd taken to keeping his hair cut shorter, though it was still long enough for him to keep in a short pony tail. It was still that vibrant electric blue, the same piercing shade as both of his eyes, real and glass. He still wore his prosthetic; it was just one more thing that had made him stand out, from the very beginning.

 There were differences, but overall, he was still the same good ol' Sally Face they knew and loved.

 "Reminiscing?" he asked.

 "Yep!" said Ashley brightly. "Wanna join us?"

 Sal shrugged, making the orange-pink hoodie he was wearing that much more obvious. "Why not?” He kneeled down in front of one of the open boxes. Ashley allowed herself to eye his legs; the sweater he was wearing underneath the hoodie was so long, it almost looked like a miniskirt that covered his worn, snug, torn black jeans. She hoped the rough carpet wouldn't bother his bare knees.

 "Aw hey, look!" he said, pulling something out. It was a framed picture the three of them, Todd, and Neil during St. Patrick's Day of their senior year. Todd had forgotten to wear green and Larry was making a pair of bunny ears behind Ashley’s head with his fingers.

 "That was a great day," said Larry.

 "It might've been better if Neil hadn't thrown up," said Ashley. Larry had sneaked some booze for them all to try; his mother had given them permission to experiment with alcohol, but only in the safety of her apartment. Neil had turned out to be the biggest lightweight of all of them.

 "That's just what I mean, Dude," said Larry with a smile.

 Ashley lightly pushed his shoulder. "You're such a jerk," she said. She said it with a smile, so he knew she was joking.

 "You think he and Todd are doing okay right now?

 "They're probably doing as good as us," said Larry. Ashley knew what he meant; they'd moved into an apartment months earlier, themselves. They were young adults starting college and a new life together.

 "I should give them a call soon," said Sal. "We promised we'd all keep in touch, right?"

 Ashley's heart warmed. No matter what had changed over the years, Sal had never stopped being a good friend.

 "We'll do that, yeah. We need to hook the phone up and shit, first, though." Larry had a point.  Besides that, they hadn't gotten things sorted out with their local service.

 "You're right," Sal said thoughtfully. "Jeez, there's still so much to do..."

 "We'll get to it," said Larry, who was scooching closer to Sal as he spoke.

"Larry's right; one step at a time. Right?" said Ashley with a smile.

 "Yeah, but--" Sal didn't get a chance to finish his thought before Larry reached forward and pulled him into his lap.

 Ashley moved closer to them as she watched Larry adjust Sal, until he was he was cradling him. "We've got all the time in the world," she said before jumping into the cuddle pile.

 Not much more work was done that night.

 ---

 Sal and Todd were at the library. They'd been assigned partners for their science project and were both working busily on it, which left Larry and Ashley to their own devices. In this case, hanging out in Larry's room and listening to music. Ashley and Larry didn’t just have ‘being artists’ in common; they also had very similar tastes in music. She was more into progressive rock and grunge, but she liked metal almost as much as he did; they turned out to both be huge fans of Meatallica and Chained Alice. That particular day, she'd brought over a tape by a new band called Nine Inch Heels.

 "You weren't wrong; this rules," Larry told her as he lounged back in his beanbag chair, the very picture of 'laid-back.' Really, if there were any term that Ashley could sum Larry up with, it was definitely laid-back.

 "Told you!" She let herself say it in a sing-songy kind of way.

 He didn't take the bait. "Yep!" he said with a shrug. She’d found that he was impossible to rile up; the only way to do that was to mess with any of his friends, and she didn’t plan on doing that any time soon.

She glanced at the canvas in her friend's room. Larry's latest masterpiece appeared to be the start of a face; ghostly white poked out from the rest of the canvas, which had been covered in dark purple-blue paint. "I like your new piece, Larry," she said.

"Thanks. It's a work in progress," said Larry.

Ashley squinted at the piece and pursed her lips thoughtfully. Now that she looked at it closer, it looked familiar. “Where have I seen your subject matter before?" she asked.

"Oh, uh..." Larry scratched the back of his neck and looked way. If Ashley hadn't known better, she would have said that he looked embarrassed. "I was...having Sal pose for me."

"Oh!" exclaimed Ashley. That was why it looked familiar; it wasn't a face at all. It was a prosthetic. "You were painting Sally! It looks great so far."

"Heh. Thanks." Larry's smile was shy. "It'd be more done, but at the time, I thought it'd be a good idea to have him hold his cat while he posed. Thought it'd be cute or whatever."

Ashley nodded. "That would be cute!" she agreed. The fact that Sal was a cat person had made her like him even more.

"It would've been more cute if Gizmo hadn't freaked out and spilled all my paint. Thank God for old newspapers," he said.

"Still must've been a bitch to clean up, though," said Ashley.

"It was. It could have been worse, though." Larry might have been more mischievous than his mom, but he had a positive outlook on life much like hers.

"That's right; it can always be worse,” agreed Ashley. “At least it didn't mess up the rest of the canvas."

"It actually did; I decided to just paint over Gizmo when the paint dried. At this point, I don't know when I'm ever gonna finish the stupid thing."

 "Don't sweat it, Lar; you've got plenty of time."

 "It's not that...I keep mixing paint, but I just can't get the right color for Sal’s hair and eyes."

 Ashley could see how that would be a predicament; Sal had the most striking hair and eyes she'd ever seen. "Yeah; it would be hard to get those right." She sighed, maybe more dreamily than she meant to. "They're so...pretty..." Could any painter, even one as good as Larry, really get it down properly?

 "Yeah...they are." Larry sounded as dreamy.

 They both started when they realized what they'd said. They stared at each other for a moment before looking away, embarrassed.

 "So, yeah...I've...kinda got a crush on Sal." It was a big 'No DUH' moment, to be sure, but Ashley felt a little better, now that she'd told someone about it.

 "Yeah...me, too."

 Well, shit. Ashley had always hoped that her life wouldn't turn out like one of those clichéd high school movies or shows, and yet, here she was: with a crush on the same person as one of her best friends.

Oddly enough, she was not filled with hatred or anger towards Larry. She had no desire to let her crush get in between her and her friend. Real life really was nothing like the movies. "Great. Perfect."

 "It's just..." Larry shoved his hands in his pockets, trying to look nonchalant, but a sweet smile was forming on his lips. "He's so cool, you know?"

 "He is!" Ashley smiled. "I've always loved his sense of fashion!”

 "He's so tough; I mean, he lived through having his face ripped off, but I'm not just talking about that."

 "Bullies never seem to get to him," said Ashley. "That asshole Travis keeps trying, but he never seems to make a dent."

 "Did I tell you that he goes by 'Sally Face' so bullies can't use it against him?"

 "Really?" Ashley had not known that. "That's so smart! Not, like...book smart, but smart smart!"

 "Though he’s that, too. I gotta be honest, I'm kinda jealous of his grades."

 "Me, too." Sal didn't need to be tutored, she thought with no small amount of insecurity.

 "Hell; he's good at a lot of things. He's just started drawing and painting and photography and shit, and already he's really good at them! It took me years to get that good," said Larry, pointing at the canvas.

 "He says he's not as good at it as us, but that he still has fun with it. That's, like...actually really inspirational. And humble!"

"Seriously; I don't think he sees it," agreed Larry.

"More than that, though..." Ashley folded her hands in her lap. She was painfully aware of the fact that she was blushing and smiling goofily right now. Damnit, when had she become such a...girl? "He's sweet. I mean...everyone who knows him realizes it.”

 "He was there for me when it finally hit me that my dad...that he's not coming back. "

 "I think he knows what it's like. Losing a parent. I mean...it's not the same thing, but he's got an idea of what it's like."

 "He's...what's the word...empathetic."

 Ashley nodded. "Yeah, that's it.” A thoughtful silence passed between the two friends before Larry spoke.

"He's been through so much shit..." he said softly.  "I don't know how he gets through the day..."

 "Me, either." Honestly, Ashley wasn't sure what she'd do if she ever lost her mother, or her face. "Honestly, it kind of seems like nothing bothers him. Nothing, except for..." She didn't finish her sentence. Both of them knew what she'd been about to say.

 The only time she could remember seeing Sal distressed was when his prosthetic was gone. The look in his one good eye had been terrified, the first time she'd seen him without it; as though expecting she'd be disgusted or frightened. As if that were ever possible.

 "Honestly, I kinda want to kiss all his scars until he realizes just how beautiful he is."

 Larry chuckled at that. "That's sweet, Ash, but you know it wouldn't work, right?"

 "I know." Ashley shrugged. “I wanna do it, anyway."

 Just then, the first side of Beautiful Hate Machine came to an end. Ashley quickly got up and walked over to Larry's stereo, where she turned it over.

 The music just barely started when Larry said, almost too softly for her to hear, "You should ask him out."

 She gazed at Larry wide-eyed. His hands were still in his pockets; he was still trying to look nonplussed, but the sad, defeated look on his face gave him away.

 "What?" Ashley blinked in disbelief. "Larry, no..."

 "You're the one he likes back. Have you seen the way he looks at you?"

 Ashley shook her head. "We've just established that he's a nice guy, Larry; he looks at everyone that way."

 He scoffed. "You're blind, Dude.  Todd said that the first time you guys met, he got all stuttery and shit."

 "Huh...that's true..."  Admittedly, she hadn't noticed anything off, that day. She just thought he'd had a speech impediment. Then again, neither Todd nor Larry had mentioned one when talking about Sal. As she’d gotten to know Sal better, she’d noticed the supposed speech impediment less and less. "Still...I couldn't."

 "Why not? You guys'd make a cute couple."

 "But...what about you?" she asked. "If I stole the guy you have a crush on, I'm pretty sure that'd make me a shitty friend."

 "I don't think so..." Larry sighed. "You guys are important to me. If you started dating...yeah, I'll admit, it would kinda suck for me at first. But I'd get over it. I love you guys; I want you to be happy."

 That was noble. Larry was a great friend. And the truth was, Ashley had been planning on asking Sal out, even before today. "So...you're giving me your blessing?"

 He smiled at her, despite the heartbreak she was sure he was feeling right now. "You both got my blessing. Don't hurt 'im, okay?"

 With a grin, Ashley ran over to him and kissed his cheek. "I'll treat him like glass."