My voice comes out strangled and quiet, and I try again, pushing against the darkness that's tightening around me.
"Kyre!" Her voice seems so, so far away. I follow it, trying in vain to ignore the light tap-tapping of mice that echoes throughout the tunnels. The darkness coils around me, and I impatiently pull off my hoodie to feel less confined. The cold feels biting at first, gently stinging my skin, but I welcome it.
"Ashe!" I call again. The darkness in front of me is unyielding, unknown things lurking behind its black cover. But Ashe is there. My Ashe. I shake my head at the thought, wondering where it came from. Now's not the time.
No matter how I widen my eyes, I can't see anything. I strain my ears to hear her answer. A dull roar echoes in my ears, before a clear voice drowns it out.
I break into a run once I'm certain that I'm going in the right direction, feet hitting the stone in a way that hurts my shin even more. But I don't care. Soon I'm close enough to hear her breathing again, and I reach a shaking hand out, spanning the area until it hits something solid.
That solid something is Ashe's head.
I breathe a sigh of relief when she pulls my hand off of her head.
"Ashe," I breathe, pulling her head to my chest and wrapping my arms around her. My voice is hoarse even to my own ears. "You scared me so much."
"There's something on the ground," she starts, pulling my arms off of her. "My foot got stuck in it. I pulled it out, but I think it might have some sort of a tracking purpose. You did say that these are hidden tunnels, right? Kyre, I think we should come back here. Maybe tomorrow."
I nod, even though I know she can't see me. If it were Boss giving me orders, I'd feel anything from a twinge of irritation to full-blown anger. But with Ashe, I'm not annoyed. I ponder the fact for a few moments before speaking.
"Alright," I say, then reach out to grasp hers. "So you don't get lost again."
"'Kay," she replies, and brings her other gloved hand to wrap around mine. The warmth gives me a much needed sense of comfort in the stifling darkness.
We walk in silence the rest of the way, my left hand on the powdery wall, my right in Ashe's hand.
The dark doesn't seem so intimidating anymore.
"You probably hate me now, right?" Ashe says, craning her head back slightly to look at me before returning her focus to the the isles of vegetables. "I mean, I made you go all that way, even though you have nyctophobia, and then to top it off I got lost, just for food."
I don't answer, watching curiously as she tests the firmness of a tomato in her hand. The truth is, I don't know what I think. I'd always hated orders, and only ever followed what my mother said. The teachers at my school had labelled me as a "trouble child." It's only through the tracking device and the threat to hand me over to the Government that Boss has any control over me.
But there's just something about Ashe that, in the short time that I'd known her, makes me want to do what she says. Without threats. Without false promises.
As a friend.
"But I didn't do it without reason. I haven't eaten since yesterday afternoon. Food is hard to come by Below, because many artists don't make a lot of money and it's difficult to ship there as most delivery bots lose their connection underground." She drops the tomato into a reusable canvas bag from the store. "It's hard."
I still don't say anything, gesturing for her to continue.
"I'm vegan because I'm allergic to many animal products, artificial preservatives, and food coloring. Milk, shellfish, chicken, red 40, yellow 5, and eggs, to name a few. I could stay in the same room as them, breathe air with them, but if I eat any, I'll get an allergic reaction. Hives, itchy eyes, etc. I promise I wasn't being spoiled. I just want to say that I'm sorry."
Now I don't say anything because I don't know how to respond. She continues checking the vegetables and dropping them in the bag, humming a very familiar song under her breath. Carrots, leeks, red onion, potatoes.
She moves to the fruit section, grabbing another canvas bag. Making her way through the aisle, she drops bananas, peaches, strawberries, and some other fruit into the bag. I hover behind her, keenly watching the experienced movement of her hands.
Ashe goes and picks up a small container of dried basil, then asks if I have salt at home.
"No…" My voice trails off, and she picks up a glass jar filled with white powder. Handing the jar to me, she motions toward the checkout area, muttering under her breath. I catch a few words and phrases: "How do... even live?"
"You'll have to pay, because I'm making food for everyone." She gives me a dazzling smile.
I push my hoodie sleeve up and tap to turn on my tracker. I feel Ashe's gaze on it, and a glance tells me that she is staring at my wrist. Opening the bank app that's connected to Boss's account, I swipe the tracker at the scanner to pay for the groceries.
I pull a heavy key out of the pocket of my jeans and jam it into the lock. Boss never upgraded the security here, and the mass of metal before me is the only thing keeping us outside. The lock clicks loudly, and I push the door open. Warm light filters through, and I rush inside, dragging Ashe with me.
The warmth instantly envelopes me, and I pull off my fingerless gloves to absorb the heat better. Ashe does the same, handing me the pair with a quick "thanks." I pocket them, simultaneously checking my tracker for any new messages from Boss. Nothing.
When I look up again, Ashe is gone. Again.
With a sigh, I go on yet another trip to find her.
She's standing in the kitchen, back turned to me as she chops tomatoes with a sort of careless precision. She doesn't notice my presence.
I duck through the doorless doorway and lean against a particularly tall cupboard, easing my weight off of my right leg. Ashe sweeps the tomato pieces into a bowl, and then starts with the onions, frequently pausing to wipe her eyes from the fumes. Her hair is pulled up in a messy bun, and a few curls escape at the nape of her neck.
I suck in a quick breath. In that moment she looks so much like my mother.
Ashe starts at the sound, then yelps sharply. She turns to face me, giving me a quick smile through teary eyes before sucking on a bleeding finger.
"Do you have a bandage?"
I'm at the table eating the tomato soup Ashe made. I'd given her a bandage earlier, and she fiddles with it now, looking very serious about something. She spoons up some soup, blowing on it impatiently before putting it in her mouth. I look away, tilting my head to the ceiling. Faint starlight catches the details of the glass above me.
The silence is stifling.
"Kyre," she says suddenly. Her tone seems certain, a current of power running under the inquisitiveness. "You know your way around a computer, right? Someone from here stole some things from my laptop, and now it won't turn on. I was wondering if you knew something about it."
Ashe stares expectantly at me, gauging my reaction. Her head is tilted slightly, almost like a bird, as though she's analyzing my face in every angle.
The blood drains from my face. I fight to keep my expression neutral, but I must have given something away because she nods to herself.
I think she knows.