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"Oh," Ellie sighs dreamily, "I missed you." She picks a pink shrimp chip from the bowl of bright pastel shapes in front of her and crunches down happily. "And you." She continues, picking out a seafoam green one. "God, it's impossible to get good snacks at Grinnell."

Paul smirks at her from across the table. "See, aren't you glad you came back?"

"Yes, yes," Ellie says, waving a hand in his direction, "I'm very grateful you emotionally blackmailed me into coming home for Thanksgiving."

"It's not blackmail if it's the truth!" Paul protests. "We'd already bought all the supplies for a four-person Thanksgiving! What were we supposed to do with all the extra food?"

Ellie turns towards Aster, hoping to share a commiserating glance, but Aster is looking down, entirely focused on the dumpling she's folding. Ellie settles for saying, "I don't think you know how blackmail works."

Paul opens his mouth to defend his honor, but there is a ding! from the kitchen and he's up like a shot, dashing over to check on one of the numerous mysterious pots and baking dishes covering every counter and stove-top. Paul said they bought food for a four-person feast but in Ellie's estimation, this dinner would feed a dozen starving teenagers.

Ellie leans back in her chair, feeling a rush of affection as she looks over the mess of flour and dumpling ingredients scattered across the table. Her dad is sitting on the other side, briskly folding—a scoop of filling, a dab of water, pinch and press—the plate next to him already piled high with a stack of plump, uniform dumplings. Ellie is ostensibly showing Aster the dumpling ropes, but her efforts have thus far resulted in a half-plate of slightly misshapen specimens, while Aster has produced exactly three absolutely impeccable dumplings.

"Grinnell has a grand total of one Chinese restaurant," Ellie says.

"Oh?" Aster says, still intent on dumpling number four.

"Chuong's Garden," Ellie replies, spooning a glob of filling onto the wrapper in front of her. "I ordered in Mandarin and I think I accidentally befriended the owners for life? They like to slip me extra crab rangoon when I stop by now."

Aster hums a bit in acknowledgement, and Ellie dabs water along the edge of her dumpling wrapper and folds it in half. There's too much filling and she has to stretch the dough to make the edges stick together at all. As she puts it down on the plate, the top bursts open.

"A bold choice in dumpling design," Aster says, smiling.

"It's a postmodernist approach!" Ellie grins back. "I'm deconstructing the dumpling ideology." She waits for Aster to make a comment about Derrida or Nietzsche, but Aster drops back into silence instead, making another careful fold on her dumpling.

Ellie frowns, trying not to let her good mood fizzle. Her variety of misgivings about returning home for the holiday hadn't included Aster. Clearly a failure of imagination, as Aster's barely said two consecutive words all night.

Paul swoops by to pick up their plates of dumplings and Ellie's dad carries his into the kitchen, leaving Ellie and Aster alone at the table.

"So, how's the artist lifestyle coming along?" Ellie says after a moment.

"I'm not an artist," Aster replies shortly, "I'm not even an art student yet."

"Well," Ellie says slowly, feeling like she's misstepped somehow but totally at a loss as to when, "if you make art you're an artist, right?"

"Sure, I guess." Another silence descends, Aster fiddling with a leftover scrap of dumpling dough while Ellie stares at her hands. She can hear Paul and her dad moving around in the kitchen.

"Oh, that reminds me, my RA—Liz? I think I told you about her—recommended this book, A Timeless Way of Building, which is this incredibly interesting anti-deconstructivism argument about architecture that can totally be applied to art and design too." Ellie pauses again, but Aster just nods. Ellie presses on, "I mean, I think you'd find it interesting."

"Uh-huh," Aster says.

"Okay–" Ellie starts, about to ask what's going on, when Paul sticks his head out of the kitchen to yell, "Food's ready!"

A burst of controlled chaos descends as the table is cleared, plates and silverware are handed out, and everyone crowds into the kitchen to load up on food. In addition to more dumplings than Ellie's ever seen in one place, there are braised ribs, mashed potatoes, glass noodles, green bean casserole, and a tray of slightly orange-hued sausages.

"Pumpkin sausage!" Paul says, proudly. "It took forever to get the ratio of pumpkin to sausage correct, the first few recipes basically melted in the oven." Ellie prods the sausage dubiously before forking one onto her plate but it seems solid enough.

They reconvene around the table, plates piled high, and there's a lull as everyone chews busily for a minute.

"Oh," Paul says, suddenly, "Ellie, have you gone to see the Pig King? I helped set it up this year!"

"It's a giant hay bale with ears taped onto it, I feel like there's diminishing returns on repeat viewing." Ellie says dryly.

"It's different this year!" Paul protests, "Everyone carved pumpkin piglets too—you should see Aster's." He grins at Aster.

"It's all right," Aster says, but she's smiling a little, "We just about cleaned out Mr. Hendricks' pumpkin patch though."

"I'm thinking about starting my own farm—well, a garden, I guess," Paul says. "Just to get fresh supplies and stuff. Almost couldn't find enough pumpkin for the third batch of sausages."

"He grabbed the last one out of Casey McAdams' hands," Aster leans towards Ellie conspiratorially, "Practically stealing candy from a baby."

"Okay, she's in fifth grade–"

"Oh my god Paul," Ellie grins broadly, "You're deciding to live up to those football jock stereotypes now?"

"She already had three pumpkins in her wagon!" Paul gestures emphatically with his fork, nearly launching a piece of the sausage across the table, "Who needs four Halloween pumpkins! And– and a pumpkin is a vegetable! That's like, the opposite of candy! Right, Mr. Chu?"

Ellie's dad has been chewing quietly as the three of them talk, but at Paul's entreaty he pauses, forkful of food halfway to his mouth. Ellie opens her mouth to quickly translate but before she can, he puts down his fork and says slowly, "Pumpkins… are fruits."

Everyone dissolves into laughter. Aster half covering her smile, Paul throwing his hands into the air in defeat, and Ellie helplessly doubled over and clutching at her stomach while her dad smiles serenely from across the table.

"Oh hey," Ellie adds as they collect themselves and turn back to the meal, "Grinnell has a dorm with an attached farm. I could ask if they have any weird seeds or herbs for your grand sausage experiments, if you want."

"Oh man yeah, thanks a ton Ellie!" Paul exclaims. "Aster taste-tests all the recipes, so the weirder the better."

"Ooh, official taste-test duties, that's big." Ellie smiles at Aster, but Aster is looking down at the table again. A weird silence settles where Aster normally would have replied, Ellie frowning a little while Aster nudges her food around her plate as if it's the most fascinating book in the world.

"It's pretty cool." Ellie says, finally, "Grinnell has these project houses—kind of like a frat house, if instead of frat bros it was filled with people who were all really into cooking, or art—this one's just farm themed, I guess."

"Are you going to switch rooms next year?" Paul asks slowly, glancing uncertainly between Aster and Ellie.

"I'm thinking about it. There's a lot of options on campus but I did kind of luck out with a killer view of the field and the forest from my current room assignment."

"Oh yes, tell us some more about how wonderful the rolling plains of Iowa are," Aster mutters.

Ellie turns to look at her, nettled, "Fine, Aster, how's life at the restaurant, then? Has Marcy made any thrilling new breakthroughs in how to defrost a chicken nugget?"

"It's spectacular, thanks for asking," Aster snaps. She shoves her chair back from the table and storms out, leaving Ellie watching, open-mouthed.

She manages a baffled, "Aster!" as the front door swings shut, then she turns towards the others to see if they have any idea what just happened.

Paul immediately puts an entire sausage in his mouth and her dad has adopted the carefully blank look he wears when he's pretending his English is worse than it really is to avoid a conversation. Ellie glares at both of them in disgust and puts her own fork down to go after Aster.

She doesn't have to go very far; in fact, she nearly trips over Aster, who is sitting on the front step and looking up at the sky. 

"Hey," Ellie says, sitting down next to her.

"Hey," Aster replies. It's entirely overcast, in typical Squahamish fall fashion. It's almost comforting, Ellie thinks, the darkness and dense clouds overhead sealing them away from the rest of the town. As if they were in a secret hideout, a bubble outside of space and time. Aster takes a deep breath. "Sorry, it's just... it's hard not to feel left behind. Especially when every other sentence out of you is about your wonderful new college experiences and I don't know if you missed us at all."

It's like hanging upside-down off the couch as a kid—watching the familiar outlines of her living room become suddenly alien. Ellie blinks as the evening's events reorient around her. She tilts her head back to look at the sky, trying to choose the right words. "The stars are different in Iowa. I mean, you can see them, for one," she says. Aster's gaze snaps over, eyes narrowing as she takes a breath to start yelling, when Ellie continues, "And it's so flat that you can see the sky for miles. You wouldn't think that seeing stars could make someone feel homesick but college is all about new experiences, I guess."

"I thought Paul had to emotionally blackmail you into coming back," Aster says after a moment.

"I choked up a bit when the train entered the mountains on the way home, of course I didn't want to come back," Ellie says sheepishly. "I mean, I couldn't wait to get out and find a place where I fit in—and college really is great; hard, sure, but in a good way—it just, it seems so stupid to feel homesick for Squahamish, of all places. What has Squahamish ever done for me?" It should be embarrassing to admit this, Ellie thinks, but the words tumble out of her effortlessly, a crisp mountain stream confessional. She might have guessed. It's always been easy to tell Aster her otherwise unvoiceable truths.

Aster pulls her knees up to her chest, tucking her chin over them thoughtfully. "I guess no matter what, the places you live kind of leave an impression. And I mean, you left an impression here too; you're kind of an impressive person, Ellie Chu." She slants a smile at Ellie. "But, you know, you can miss a place and still be glad to have left it."

I know that, thinks Ellie, but it's different, hearing it from Aster. Truer. "And just because you're not on a train doesn't mean you're not moving forward," she says, in turn. "I've seen your portfolio pieces; I know how hard you're working." 

Aster ducks her head, but the smile doesn't fade and they sit in companionable silence for a few minutes. "Besides," Aster says eventually, "it only makes sense that you were homesick. You left all the cool kids here."

"Hm, 'cool' is certainly an interesting choice of words," Ellie says, "Definitely... an innovative take–"

"Certainly, if you'd prefer 'extraordinary', 'incomparable', 'magnificent'–" Aster gestures mock-graciously with one hand.

"'Hip'–" Ellie interjects, nudging her with a shoulder.

"'Hip' ? What are you, seventy?" Aster laughs.

"I'll have you know–" Ellie starts, when she's interrupted by a bright, startled gasp from Aster, who holds out her sleeve. The snowflake is already gone, liquefied into a pearl of water, but half a dozen more float down to join it.

"First snow," Aster says, hushed. The porch light around them illuminates the swirl of tiny flakes, fluttering down to dot Ellie's hair and Aster's jacket.

"First snow," Ellie echoes. She grins suddenly and pushes herself to her feet, offering a hand up to Aster. "Come on, let's go get the others. I'll bet you anything Paul has panic-brewed an entire gallon of please-don't-fight hot chocolate that we can bring out here."

Aster laughs and takes her hand, and they turn towards the warm glow of the house together.