Mike was already back in bed by the time Crandall returned to his bedroom. “Just let it go,” Mike said.
“Why hasn’t Ash had that surgery?” Crandall sat on the edge of the bed and looked down at Mike.
“I said, let it go.”
“I pissed him off, and I didn’t mean to. I want to know so I don’t fuck up again.”
Mike sighed. He rolled to his side so he could wrap his arms around Crandall’s waist. “Tomorrow, okay? I’m exhausted. It’s been a long night.”
“It’s okay,” Ash said. Mike and Crandall looked up to find Ash standing shyly in the doorway. “I won’t be able to sleep anyway. we can talk if you want.”
“You don’t have to,” Mike said.
“I do.” Ash looked at Crandall. “I’m sorry I snapped at you. I’m obviously self-conscious about…” He shrugged. “Them. Do you have any cocoa?”
Crandall said no, but Mike spoke up. “Yes, in the cabinet above the fridge.”
Ash turned and walked down the hall. Crandall leaned over Mike and kissed his cheek before snorting and shaking his head. “Fuck. How often can you be wrong?” he said.
Mike frowned, but Crandall laughed and kissed him again. As he headed out of the room, Crandall said, “And you think I don’t know how to fucking joke.” He laughed. “Get some sleep, Mike.”
* * * *
Crandall sat at the table when Ash insisted on making the cocoa. He wanted a distraction while they talked.
“I don’t usually talk about this stuff,” Ash said. “Maybe because I’m so frazzled from the fire, but I want to tonight.”
Crandall got up and went to a cabinet. He pulled out a bag of chocolate chip cookies from the grocery store’s bakery, and then ripped several pieces from the roll of paper towels lying on its side next to the sink.
Ash waited until Crandall settled at the table again. As he set several cookies on two different towels and then folded three more in between them, Ash found his voice.
“I always bind my chest,” he said. “I hate them. I hate seeing them in the mirror. I hate feeling them… move, jiggle, just…” He shook his head and moved to the fridge to find milk.
“I can’t sleep like that though, so when I woke, and the room was already getting smoky, I didn’t even think of it. I rolled out of bed and rushed to the door.” He set the milk on the table and then returned to the microwave to check on the water.
“As I was running down the stairs, I realized I had nothing. No shoes, no wallet, and my ugly fucking tits were uncomfortable as I ran. I almost went back, but there were so many people coming down, I didn’t think I could get back up without getting knocked down. Several of them were panicking, screaming and pushing already. I already wish I did go back.”
“We’ll go shopping tomorrow. Is there a place to get one of those binding things around here, or do you have to go online?”
Ash poured the hot water into two cups already prepared with instant cocoa mix. He carried both to the table before answering.
“Yes, but I have to get new credit cards, ID, clothes, all of that stuff. I don’t think I can afford everything, and the binders aren’t cheap.” He added a splash of milk to his mug and then wrapped his hands around the mug, seeking the warmth.
“Don’t worry about that,” Crandall said. “I can help.”
“I can’t, but thanks.”
“Like fuck, you can’t. I’ve saved up some money, and I know where you work, so you’re not going to run off and not pay me back.”
Ash grimaced. “I have a little saved. I’ve been setting money aside when I can.” He lifted his cup, sniffed the cocoa, but didn’t drink any. “Maybe you know already, but we don’t have health insurance at the Crane. For vampire related medical emergencies we go to the church.”
“I met Father Chris.”
“Right, him. I really want to start hormones, but I can’t afford it, or the therapy that’s required. Either way, it’d be nice to do the therapy so I can talk openly to at least one person.”
Ash smiled but he knew it was a pathetic effort. He met Crandall gaze for the first time since they entered the kitchen. “I usually try to stay strong in front of my friends. I have this picture in my head of who I was meant to be, and that’s who I show to the world. I should apologize now for any moping I do. I save that for home — when I’m alone I decompress – but until I have a home again, it might slip out.”
“Don’t you fucking dare apologize to me,” Crandall said. “You are who you are, and if you’re frustrated, or whatever, then that’s what you are.”
“I am, but that’s not your fault.” He wanted to cry, but he forced the smile to stay. He’d been getting glimpses of the Crandall beneath the snarky exterior little by little, but tonight, Ash was happy to get the full experience. Tonight, he understood why Mike put up with Crandall’s attitude. It wasn’t only a small part of the man, and friends, apparently, got to see what no one else could dare imagine.