There was another boy on the bus, and he was asleep. Ashton wasn’t a frequent bus-taker-person, but he suspected that this was a bad idea. Especially at 6 am on a Tuesday. Who’s leaving campus at 6 am on a Tuesday? And on the bus, too. The bus was gross. It congested the air and stunk up the roads. If public transportation had to be a thing, it ought to be at least eco-friendly. And clean. Ashton glowered out at the rain before giving the strange boy another concerned look. He didn’t look like he should be going anywhere, him with his messy blond hair and that baggy red flannel and… yeah, Ashton probably should have gotten more sleep. He’d be going around waxing poetic about random strangers all day.
He was distracted from this train of thought by an abrupt outburst of ‘Uma Thurman’. Ashton approved of the music taste, but it was admittedly a little startling. Seconds later, Blondie started awake and dove for the bag at his feet, extracting from the front pocket a phone in a black-and-white case. It was the culprit; the boy punched a few buttons and Uma shut off just as Patrick Stump started to sing about burying. The boy unfolded his long, lanky figure and yawned wide, slowly and painstakingly shouldering his bag, and the bus slowed to a stop. Blondie didn’t seem to notice Ashton ducking behind the bus seat as he passed, but he smiled at the driver before loping out the door into the rain.
At least, Ashton thought, he wasn’t sleeping on the bus. He was wide awake at 6 am, on his way to a double shift.
(That didn’t sound any nicer.)
“There was a guy giving out free hugs on the quad today,” Ashley announced. “He looked like someone you’d be interested in.”
“You didn’t give him my number, did you?” Ashton groaned. “You know how well that went the last time.”
“Nah, I remembered,” Ashley said, tossing him a book from the cart. “He was really cute, though, like. He was worried that he was trying to cheat the system,’cause apparently his mark looks like it’s from a hug. He was so serious about it. And he had a really cute face. It was all squishy-looking. And he was wearing a Green Day shirt.”
“You’re really trying to sell this guy,” Ashton said, and shelved another book. Ashley shelved two. Ashton said, “That does sound sweet. And he’s got good taste.”
Ashley gave him a knowing look, and he stuck out his tongue at her before grabbing a handful of books and taking off down the row. “Did you ask him what he thought about the environment?”
“That’s your weird shit, not mine,” Ashley said, taking the last two books from the cart just as Ashton returned. “Dibs on circulation!”
Ashton made an indignant noise at her before resigning himself to the cart and the stacks for the rest of the afternoon. (And a sore back. Also that.) Ashley texted him a running commentary during her shift on circulation (omg a guy just came in here with hair pinker than mine, that’s unfair), and Ashton shelved a lot of books, successfully evading the majority of inevitable back pain. Towards the end of Ashley’s shift, when he went to collect the cart from circulation and leave an empty one in its place, Ashley said to him,
“You know the Lovelis girls? From across the hall? They’ve invited me out tonight, kind of last-minute. I said yes.”
“Duly noted,” Ashton said, feeling a small weight in his chest. He wondered what Michael’s plans for the night were. “What about Violet?”
“She’s got squad plans, I’m pretty sure she won’t care,” Ashley said.
Ashton said, “Also duly noted.”
“You’ll be staying up with Michael, won’t you,” Ashley said.
Ashton said dryly, “Until he drives me to drink.”
“Good luck,” Ashley said in her very serious voice. “Now go on, you’re burning daylight.”
“Think about that next time you have a thing to tell me!” Ashton said, and took off with his load of displaced books.
When he returned to the front for lunch around 2 Ashley was long gone, the only suggestion she’d ever been there a forgotten snapback with a few stray pink hairs stuck to the lining. Ashton picked it up and realized it wasn’t even Ashley’s: it was a black number emblazoned with the motto DESTROY EVERYTHING/REGRET NOTHING and an eagle between the phrases. Ashton texted Ashley: whose hat u got?
She promptly replied, ah, thank fuck. it’s that hugging guy’s. i gave him my bitch hat, we’re trading for the week. apparently ppl do weird things in college. She probably meant uni. Ashton texted, ill get it to u tomorrow?
Ashton put on the hat and went on with his day, definitely not thinking about how some guy out there had a hug mark. (There were plenty. Ashley’s roommate Violet had one. Ashton had one, sure, but it was kind of put off by the fact that he had two others-- awkward, that.) Some time later he was back on campus, equipped with hat and mountain of homework, and he found himself outside his dorm room door. This is your chance to redeem yourself, Michael, he thought, unlocking the door.
Michael was stretched out on his bed, controller in hand. Ashton tried not to groan out loud, dumping his work bag on the bed and grabbing his school bag from the closet. “Evening, Michael.”
“Hi Ashton,” Michael said without looking up.
“I don’t suppose you’ve got plans tonight?”
“Apparently not. Nice hat. Not very you.”
“I’m saving it for a friend,” Ashton said, pulling his sandals from the closet. He eyed Michael’s bright pink hair and had a thought. “Did you stop by the city library today?”
“Yeah. Saw a girl who had hair like mine, she was pretty cool. Is that her hat?”
“Yeah. Play nice.”
Ashton closed the door between himself and Michael’s obnoxious video games. Michael wasn’t even a bad guy-- from what Ashton could tell of him when the console wasn’t on, he was pretty sweet-- but Ashton kind of valued his concentration. He texted Ashley: when does ur roomate leave again?
A moment later she replied, just knock, and if she replies there u go. if she doesn’t, u have a key.
“Real helpful,” Ashton muttered.
Violet wasn’t there, but Ashton was nervous anyway. He managed something before she returned around eleven, but it wasn’t much, and he was relieved when she sent him out with an uneasy look. Maybe, he thought, glancing at her rigid shoulders as he passed, she shared his problem. Maybe not. He caught sight of her smudgy mark peeping out her shirtsleeve before he stopped staring (because it was weird) and left (because he was a decent person sometimes).
She probably didn’t have three marks.
Ashton wound up in the lounge, laptop pulled up to his chest and headphones draped over his shoulders to be pulled up at a moment’s notice. The campus radio was playing over the speakers on the near table, and most of what played was the rough, raging punk music Ashton loved (ironic, he knew); it was quite relaxing, and with the lounge empty save for one other kid doing their homework with their headphones on Ashton found himself feeling productive (that was new). His essay (see: tirade on green eating) was toast. Then his music theory homework. Then he took a pause to listen to the radio and realized that it was probably the fourth time he’d heard ‘I Miss You’ since sitting down. He wondered who he should complain to. That was surely an effective way to use his break.
While he was thinking about it, Blink ended and a cheery voice over proceeded. “That was ‘I Miss You’ by Blink-182 and I’m Luke for The Graveyard Shift. Call lines are open, if anyone is awake and listening to this. Once again, this is The Graveyard Shift on HOHR, and this is ‘Uma Thurman’.
Sure enough, it was. Ashton looked up the HOHR website (keep you like an oath) and found the number (CK eternity, oh hell yes) and dialed (I can move mountains, I can work a miracle) and waited (may nothing but death do us part) and wound up on hold with Uma playing through both his phone speakers and the radio. Ashton decided that the universe was telling him to enjoy the music. Uma played, and ‘Whatshername’, which Ashton thought was an odd choice, and then Luke with his pleasingly familiar accent said, “Line 1, you’re up. Why are you up this late?”
“Wondering what kind of thing you have for ‘I Miss You’,” Ashton said. “You’ve played it like 5 times, what kind of DJ does that? Poor taste, son.”
“This is The Graveyard Shift, caller,” Luke said, sounding somewhat affronted. “Anyone up this late doesn’t usually give a damn.”
“Shame on you, swearing on air,” Ashton said. “Congratulations, you’ve found someone who cares. Take note, Luke the Australian!”
“Noted, Caller the Australian,” Luke said. “Any chance you can tell me what you’re doing off the continent? Ease the monotony of the night shift?”
“Nope, I’m just calling to complain about your music tastes,” Ashton said cheerfully. “Maybe next time, Luke the Australian.”
“There won’t be a next time, because next time you’ll be in bed like a sane person,” Luke said. “Thanks for your call, mate.”
“Thanks for answering, mate,” Ashton said. “G’night!” And he hung up. The other kid studying was giving him an amused look; Ashton promptly packed up and left for his room.
Michael was asleep in front of the TV. Ashton turned it off and went to bed, thinking about an Australian voice teasing him over the phone/radio. Felt like home, a bit.
He woke up to a text from Ashley: heard u on the radio last night geeeeet iiiiiiiiit
He fired back, funny. when do u want to get ur hat back? and whilst waiting for a reply (she didn’t have classes on Wednesday mornings, she was going to sleep in for sure) he collected his bag and his clothes and codename:hugger’s hat and shook Michael awake (he had class at ten, the idiot) and made for the quad. It was That Day again, and Zack was making breakfast. (That Day just meant it was the morning that none of the Fucking Hippies had class, so they could hang out on the quad and tell people about conspiracies. And sometimes Zack made breakfast, bless his heart.)
That morning, Zayn had brought a friend. He was sitting between Zack and Ella, all brown curls and tattoos and a sunny smile, and Ashton felt a funny unease before Ella looked up from behind her own mane of brown curls and said, “Morning, Ash,” and beamed.
“Morning, Ella,” Ashton said, settling down in the empty space on the so-called picnic quilt between her and Zayn. Ella was barefoot; Ashton promptly felt overdressed. Zayn said, “Ash, this is Harry Styles, he’s a friend of mine.”
“Hello,” Harry said. Ashton said, “Morning.”
“We heard you on the radio last night,” Ella said. “Didn’t realize you were such a night owl.”
“Well,” Ashton said, “Now you know.” He abstained from the tangent of explaining his roommate’s nocturnal habits. Harry’s eyebrows puckered like he was trying to think of a word, and then he said,
“That was you on the radio last night?”
“Harassing the Graveyard Shift at 12 am? Yup,” Ella said, saving Ashton the trouble of replying. He wondered what she’d been doing up that late. “This guy Luke sounds hot, though,” she added.
“Oi, Ash obviously has dibs,” Harry said.
Ashton said, “I don’t have anything!”
“Relax, Ashton, it’s not herpes,” Zayn said. Zack choked on his whatever-it-was. Ella laughed and didn’t stop laughing.
Ashton blushed and muttered, “Hilarious,” which only fed the general mirth.
“We’re surrounded by idiots,” Ashton told Harry.
Harry said, “What?” and Zayn started laughing. Zack recovered enough to pass Ashton breakfast, which was apparently some kind of scone. Zack carried his breakfasts in a reusable grocery bag, and he was wearing Birkenstocks, which gave you the impression that he might smoke weed and probably didn’t play in a band. Both impressions were false.
Ashton took the scone and thanked Zack and said, “How’s stuff?”
“Good,” Zack said. “I called off practice the other day for a protest and Jack nearly flipped his shit, poor guy. Alex thought the whole thing was hilarious.”
“Wait a minute, Alex Gaskarth?” Harry said. “From Lowtime?”
“All Time Low,” Zack corrected. Harry grinned. “You’re Zack Merrick! That’s awesome. Do you take the Monday class?”
“Yeah,” Zack said. “Unlike everyone else.”
“I take the Monday,” Ashton supplied.
“My ex takes the Monday,” Harry said. “Well, one of them. Do you know Taylor?”
“Yes,” Zack said. “She’s incredible. You dated her?”
“You’re her ex?” Ella said. Harry looked affronted. Ashton took the moment to take a bite from his scone. It was pretty good, for a scone.
Zayn said quietly, “Harry dated Taylor dated Ella. Ella takes the Friday with Harry, the rest of ATL, Harry’s other ex, and me. Taylor takes the Monday with you and Zack and that friend of the Lovelis’, Casey. It’s very convenient until it isn’t.”
“And very simple,” Ashton said. Zayn snorted. Someone said, “Hey, that’s my hat!”
Ashton was the only one wearing a hat; he looked up. There was a dark-skinned boy in a leather jacket looming over Ella’s shoulder.
Harry said, “Calum!”
“Are you the ‘Free Hugs’ guy?” Ashton said. “Because he gave it to my friend, and I’m saving it for her.”
“And here I thought you were exploring yourself a little,” Ella said dryly. Ashton wrinkled his nose at her before returning his attention to the boy, who was admittedly quite cute. His dark hair had a strip of blonde worked into it above the eyebrows. Also quite cute. And he was wearing a snapback.
“Yep, it’s my hat,” he said. “Ashley, right? This one’s hers.” He pulled his snapback off and showed them: the front had BITCH written on it in big white letters.
Zayn said, “That explains a lot.”
“I honestly wouldn't haven’t been able to tell,” Harry said. Ella snickered. “It’s a nice hat, Calum.”
“Ashley’s picking this up later,” Ashton said, tapping his head. “It’s kind of obviously not mine.”
“Shame,” said Calum. “You’re too hot to be a hippie.”
“Impossible,” Ashton said, feeling his face warm but pressing on anyway. “Look at Zayn.”
Zayn, who moonlighted as a dark, broody, artsy type, gave Calum a smoulder. Zack went pink.
Calum said, “You’ve got me there, mate.”
“Eeeeeey, mate,” Harry said. “You’re Australian too?”
“Oh my god, did you hear the radio thing too?” Ashton said. Calum grinned. “You bet. Nice to know I’m not the only other one on campus, at least.”
“We should start a band,” Ashton said dryly. Then, “oh, shit, I’ve gotta run, I’m almost late. See you guys later.”
“Come on, Ash, you can miss one class over your college career,” Ella said. Ashton said, shouldering his bag, “Nope, not possible!”
He scrambled to his feet and found himself looking at Calum; his brown eyes were crinkled like he knew a joke and wasn’t telling. “Bye then, mate.”
“M’name’s Ashton,” he said. “Bye!”
Later, in class, he found a text from Ashley telling him to meet her for lunch. Then he got another text from an unknown number, and it read: hey mate, it’s Harry. Zayn gave me your number-- i was wondering if u were up for a drink or somethin sometime? i mean, if you go that way, Ells suggested you might, sorry if this sounds weird.
Ashton thought it was cute that he called Ella “Ells” and replied, no problem, Harry. im defs up for a drink-- time/place? And yeah, maybe he got a few butterflies in his stomach. Maybe it was because he was a massive weirdo, but maybe also it was because Ashton didn’t usually get people making passes at him. (Unless they were drunk, like, very drunk. And hey, drunk girls were sweet, but they were still drunk.)
Harry texted back a few seconds later. awesome! there’s this really cool place downtown that doesn’t card too thoroughly, wanna meet there around 8?
Ashton tensed. It took him a long moment to type out, sorry man, i dont really go for alcohol. any other ideas?
There was a long pause between Ashton’s question and Harry’s reply, long enough for Ashton to question all his life choices and wonder if Harry had already decided it wasn’t worth his time. Just in time for him to decide to move to Canada, Harry replied, sorry, man, I shoulda asked. my friend knows of this cool diner downtown that does really good milkshakes, does that sound cool?
The tension in Ashton’s chest subsided almost immediately. that sounds awesome! i gotta go for now, im in class. text u later?
sure! Harry replied, and Ashton quickly pocketed his phone and resumed paying attention like a responsible human being.
And, oh, shit, Harry probably had a soulmate. Did he start with a hug? Did he have marks? Would he be weirded out by the fact that Ashton had soulmates (plural or singular)? Was Harry the sort to take off shirts on the first date? Ashton was definitely overthinking this.
“Irwin, what happened?”
Ashton looked up from his lunch to see Ashley giving him one of her Very Serious looks. The hat Calum had traded her was perched on top of her pink hair, where it looked far more fitting than on Ashton’s head. Ashton said, “I have a date. With a friend of Zayn’s. He takes the Friday.”
“Seriously?” Ashley said. The corner of her mouth had turned up in something that might have been a smirk and might have been a pleased smile.
Ashton nodded. “We met at breakfast and we struck up a conversation, and now I’m a nervous wreck.” Then he explained. He used several bad similes and he probably rambled a bit, and his lunch was doubtless getting cold, but Ashley was the best friend ever and she listened very patiently and didn’t laugh at him. Not even a little.
“Alright, first of all,” she said when he had finished, “Harry Styles? Get it. Second, it’s just milkshakes. You’re not getting married.”
“I know,” Ashton said. “It’s just… I’m hoping it works. And he seems excited. But what if the whole soulmate thing’s off-putting? And he gets put off or I get put off and we’re both disappointed? You can ignore me anytime, I’m freaking out.” He looked at his plate and not at Ashley.
Ashley said, “I’m not going to ignore you when you’re freaking out, man. We’re friends. Anyway, just remember, you’re fine. Harry asked you out because he saw something in you that he liked. And don’t go denying it. You’re handsome and sweet and witty and all that positive shit. You’re a good guy, and you know what that means coming from me.” Ashton did. Ashley went on, “Like I said, it’s just milkshakes. It might work out and it might not, and either way you met a really cool guy. Yeah?”
“Yeah,” Ashton said. “Thanks, Ashley.”
“That’s what friends are for,” Ashley said, and they briefly clasped hands across the table like good friends do before shutting up and letting each other eat, like best friends do.
Ashton texted Harry after lunch, hey, ive got a later class today, but my tomorrows free. what bout you?
Harry texted back, i’m in.
Because Michael was Michael and Ashton was a man of little backbone, Ashton wound up in the student lounge again, curled up on the sofa with the campus radio playing right by his ear. This time the lounge was empty, and Ashton banged cheerfully away on his laptop as Luke the Australian DJ rambled away about music and penguins and soulmates. He seemed to like the idea of soulmates a lot, though Ashton noticed he didn’t talk about his own mates or marks much. Just other peoples’.
At one point Ashton paused his work to listen to Luke on the phone with someone telling their soulmate story; the guy on the phone sounded like he wasn’t much of a phone person, but Luke was really sweet and managed to get the guy relaxed and legible. As it turned out, it was Calum the Free Hugs guy on the phone, and his story had occurred roughly two days before. When he was giving out free hugs. He started with the story of Ashley and the trading of hats, making note of her pink hair, and then he moved on to when he’d met someone else with pink hair. Small world. (This was the part where Ashton pricked up his ears.)
“I’m standing out there with the sign,” Calum said, “and he walked up to me and said he wasn’t feeling the hug vibe, but he’d totally go for a high-five. And I went with it, and bam.”
“Your mark resolved?”
“Yup!” Calum said. “It was so cool. The mark-- you know how it’s a smudge before, and when your soulmate touches you it resolves into a clear image? Where he high-fived me, now it’s got this really cool swirly design like storm clouds.”
“That’s awesome, Calum,” Luke said. “Is that the end of the story, then?”
“Pretty much,” Calum said. “He and I are going out tomorrow, but we’ve been texting all the last coupla days. He’s pretty cool.”
“I’m really happy for you, Calum,” Luke said. “Is there any song I can play for you guys in honor of this truly romantic story?”
“Hmm,” Calum said, and Ashton thought he could hear the laugh in it. “How about… ‘What I Like About You’, by The Romantics.”
Ashton could definitely hear the smile in Luke’s reply. “Romantic. Coming right up, Calum. Good night!”
Calum hung up. “That was newly-resolved Calum Hood on HOHR,” Luke said. “I’m Luke for the Graveyard Shift, and this is ‘What I Like About You’.”
The music followed. Ashton shook his head and smiled at Calum’s punny choice and then thought about Ashley telling him about Calum’s hug mark. Did Calum have more than one?
Well, obviously. But… dude.
“That was ‘What I Like About You’ by The Romantics,” Luke announced. “Requests are open here on the Graveyard Shift, so if you’re awake and up for a tune call now and we’ll hook you up! This is ‘I Miss You’.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Ashton said, half to himself and half to the radio. Then he picked up the phone and dialed. He was treated once again to the dual serenade, as no one had thought of a better hold tone yet, and Ashton set his phone on the end table and scratched out a few sentences as he waited for the end of the song.
“Line 1, you’re live. Choose your poison.”
“You really can’t stay away from that song, can you?” Ashton said.
“Good evening, Caller Australia,” Luke said. “Are you here to request a song, or are you here to complain?”
“Both,” Ashton said. “I’m here to ask you to stop playing that song ten times a week and I’m here to request a song.”
“One condition,” Luke said, and Ashton could hear a teasing tone to his voice but he somehow said,
“You say ‘stop’ again.”
“Stop?” Ashton said, somewhat dubiously. Luke said, “Alright, I accept your terms. What song do you want to hear?”
“I didn’t think that far ahead,” Ashton said. “Um… what the hell. Play Bohemian Rapsody.”
“I can do that for you,” Luke said. “Coming up for Caller Complaining Australian, Bohemian Rapsody. Go to bed, Complaining Australian.”
“I can do that,” Ashton said. “Goodnight, DJ Luke.” He hung up.
(Is this the real life, is this just fantasy?)
Ashton pulled up the station on his phone and packed up, and Freddie Mercury serenaded his journey upstairs. Michael was, as per expected, stretched out on his bed; his laptop was hooked up to the TV, and Portal was flashing across the screen. The other boy looked up from his work and said, “Be nice to Luke.”
“You heard that?” Ashton said. “I heard your boyfriend, by the way.”
Michael said, “He’s an idiot.”
“He seems nice,” Ashton said. “He’s borrowing Ashley’s hat.”
“Small world,” Michael said. “The bitch hat?”
“Yup,” Ashton said. His hands felt a bit clammy as he added, “Hey, d’you mind turning that down a bit? I’m fixing to turn in.”
“Sure,” Michael said absentmindedly, like Ashton sucking it up and asking for something wasn’t a big deal at all. “You know it’s like, barely 12?”
“I have class,” Ashton said. “You do too, for that matter.”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” Michael said.
Ashton said, “I’m not,” and went to shower. When he got back, Michael had switched down to the laptop and plugged his headphones in. He waved to Ashton as Ashton scrambled into bed, and Ashton waved back before turning the light off and turning his face toward the wall.
Michael was up the next morning, early enough that he caught Ashton when he got back from his run, and told him that he’d be out with Calum that night, “So you’ll have the dorm to yourself.”
“Gross,” Ashton said.
“I know for a fact that you’ve got, like, at least five gay bones in your body,” Michael said, “So don’t feed me that.”
“Sure, man,” Ashton said.
“You know I’m from Sydney?” Michael said suddenly. “I know I don’t sound like it. I adjust quickly, like. I start sounding like I’m from wherever I’m living.”
“I didn’t know that, actually,” Ashton said. Had Michael lived a lot of places? “That’s pretty cool, Mike.”
“I know, right?” Michael said, and Ashton could have sworn he was deflating. “See you later, Ashton,” he added, and left, taking his tattoos and combat boots and bright hair with him. Ashton got his sandals and went to class. Harry texted him halfway through (what did the guy do with his life, Ashton wondered) and confirmed the time for half-four. Ashton’s pulse spiked temporarily. Then he texted Ashley for advice on dressing for dates. Her advice (dress like yourself, but a bit prettier than usual) left little room for error. Ashton made a note of it.
It was it was his day with the drum practice room again, and for the first time in several weeks the beats weren’t slow, the sort that would come with a moody my-life-is-slow-and-sad tune. They zipped out of him like a party tune, and Ashton recognized one bit as the intro to ‘Uma Thurman’: bat bat bat bat batbat batbat badadadadada (buuuuumbudum). That one he rolled with. He got back to the dorm a little sweaty and a lot happy, and with Ashley’s advice as aforementioned taken to heart spent ten minutes staring at his closet. (As it turned out, himself but prettier meant a bandanna and real shoes and skinny jeans instead of ridiculous shorts. He thought he looked alright.) Ashley, like she magically knew when he was having a moment, texted him: don’t panic. He replied, panic? whose panicing? im not panicing.
*panicking. I know when you are.
fine. i will be okay.
yes you will.
Ashton put his phone away, made a note to get a new best friend sometime in the near future, and hurried down to the quad to meet his date. His date. Yeah, Ashton was freaking out a little bit. Or maybe a big bit. He was ready to turn and run by the time Harry arrived, but Harry looked absolutely thrilled to see him. And Ashton didn’t see any resolved marks on his bare arms, just a handful of enormous dark smudges mingling with a menagerie of tattoos. Nice tattoos, actually.
Ashton fell in next to Harry with a murmured greeting, and Harry grinned. He was wearing a tartan scarf over his mass of curls, and Ashton had several opinions about it, but Harry was the one who chose to ask a hippie out. That at least was evidence of a lack of taste.
“So,” Harry said, as they meandered toward the bus stop, “You don’t drink. Is there a story behind that, or…?”
“Just tryin’ to keep clean,” Ashton said. “Which is a pain in the ass with today’s market, but I can start with my liver.”
Harry grinned. “That’s cool. Are you like, carnivorous? Or does the regime leave you on rabbit food or sommat?”
“Omnivorous,” Ashton said. “Omnivorous. Man shall not live on bacon alone. And yes, I am.”
“Awesome,” Harry said. “The diner apparently serves these awesome burgers, but I didn’t want to go gettin’ one if that wasn’t something you were up for.”
That’s incredibly sweet. “You’re thinking vegans, Harry,” Ashton said. “They’re a little crazy sometimes.”
“I don’t believe they’d all be crazy,” Harry said. “Like, a lot of people think my ex Taylor’s crazy. She just dates a lot, though, and people think that’s weird in a world where you know somewhere is this perfect other half. Where was I going with this? Right-- I don’t like taking people at face value like that.”
Also incredibly sweet. Ashton said, “I get it.” The bus pulled up to the curb, and Harry stepped aside to let Ashton on first. Ashton felt his face get a little hot. This was going, he thought, far too well. The bus pulled away from the curb again as Ashton sat, and Harry took the seat in front of him and leaned over the back. “So tell me about yourself, Ashton. Are you a musician? You said you took the Monday.”
“I’m a drummer,” Ashton said. “And, like, I could probably play guitar in an emergency, but there’s never an emergency.”
“That’s pretty cool,” Harry said. “I play a bit, but I like to sing more. Can you sing?”
“Theoretically,” Ashton said. Harry grinned like Ashton was the funniest person he’d ever met. The butterflies in Ashton’s stomach hit the warpath.
“I take it you like Nirvana, then,” Harry said.
Ashton glanced down at his shirt and said, “Yeah, that would make a lot of sense.” (Nirvana t-shirt. Clever.) “Do you listen to them much?”
“Nah,” Harry said. “More a pop guy, myself. They’re pretty cool, though, I like ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.”
Ashton huffed. “It’s iconic.”
“Yes it is.” Harry glanced up. “S’is our stop. I can’t wait, I can taste the milkshakes from here.” Ashton rolled his eyes and pulled himself up by the back of Harry’s seat, and Harry lead the way at cheery loping pace to the front of the bus. The man moved like a giraffe, or a baby gazelle. All long legs and little to no coordination. Ashton couldn’t help but smile.
--Then freak out a little as Harry promptly tripped over his own feet and tumbled down the bus steps. He even had the audacity to land on someone, another student apparently trying to board. Both of them tumbled to the sidewalk, although not too painfully by the looks of it, as Ashton bounded out of the bus and ran to investigate.
“--So sorry,” Harry said, “I’ve got no coordination sometimes, are you okay?”
“Yeah, fine,” the other guy said. “Could you maybe get off o’ me?”
That was about when all three of them recognized the marks spreading black across his bare arms where Harry had flailed for support. And Harry, scrambling off the guy and onto the sidewalk, straightened his shirt and saw the dark lines spreading across his skin.
Ashton said very softly, “Oh.”
Harry said, “Oh.”
The stranger said, “Oh.”
Ashton felt something inside him withering. The stranger got to his feet and helped Harry up, looking at him like everything in his world was knitting together. “I’m Louis.”
“Harry,” Harry said. “You’re from Britain.”
“So’re you,” said Louis.
Ashton thought, I could walk away and they’d never realize.
Harry turned around and said, “Ash, I’m so sorry, I--”
“Nah, it’s fine,” Ashton said, because he was an amazing actor. “You go on.” And he was able to be happy for Harry, as Harry’s face lightened just a little and he told Ashton to stay safe, and Ashton turned around and started walking and Harry got on the bus with Louis. Ashton glanced up at the grey clouds and thought, I should have expected that.
And he walked back. It wasn’t too far, anyway. He biked farther, when the sun shone (which it hadn’t been, incidentally).
Around the time he got back to the dorm, Ashley texted him: how is it?
Ashton felt sick to his stomach, but it felt like an overreaction. He put his phone away and trudged back to his room, fumbled for his keys and unlocked the door, kicked it shut behind him and kicked off his shoes and fell into bed. He fumbled for his phone and texted a reply to Ashley: it went fine.
Michael reappeared. He seemed surprised to see Ashton there.
“Don’t you have class?”
Oh, Ashton thought. He did. And Michael came back from his class while Ashton was out, and either he got his gear and left again or he stayed in until Ashton arrived and then Ashton left again and didn’t come back until it was late.
“That went out the window, apparently,” Ashton mumbled.
“You never miss class,” Michael said, vacantly. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Ashton said. “Have fun on your date.”
“Thanks,” Michael said. And because he could take a hint, apparently, he just got his shit and left. Ashton rolled over onto his stomach and pulled up campus radio on his phone. It was way too early for Luke to be on; as it turned out, some guy named Niall was on duty. He had a deep Irish accent and he played a lot of weird Indie and techno stuff. It wasn’t awful.
(Just… it wasn’t Luke, playing all the weird pop-punk stuff they liked. That Luke liked and Ashton also liked. That Ashton somehow needed.)
He wound up turning off the radio and playing from his own music, putting the whole library on shuffle to avoid choosing something. Then he wound up skipping everything but the sad ones. Then he wound up falling asleep.
(you don’t believe in god, i don’t believe in luck, they don’t believe in us, but i believe we’re the enemy)
Ashton rolled over and opened his eyes. His headphones were tugged out of his ears and tangled around his neck; his phone was nowhere to be seen. No, wait, it was on his desk, plugged into the speakers, and it was playing. Ashton rolled out of bed to see what was playing, and as he did it switched from ‘Destroya’ to Luke’s cheery voice. Oh. There was a pizza box on the desk, and a glance told Ashton there was a note on the top. The handwriting was barely legible: [olod?] starve, have pizza. i turned on the radio. -mike. He suspected the first bit actually meant don’t. Ashton opened the box and found three slices of room-temperature pizza. It was, at least, better than nothing. Ashton had a slice and listened to Luke ramble about the weather “it’s like someone’s really sad and taking out on the rest of us. Whoever you are, feel better!” and thought about the hollow feeling in his gut. At least he wasn’t hungry. And apparently Michael had stopped by and left food, that was nice.
But then Luke was on about soulmates again, and the moment he invited callers who was talking but Harry, talking about how he “met this really dreamy bloke on the bus this afternoon” and Ashton felt sick to his stomach, and he couldn’t turn off the radio fast enough. He turned his phone off altogether and left it next to the pizza box before climbing into bed and pulling the covers over his head.
God, he was an idiot. He’d gone into this certain it wouldn’t work, and one look from a pretty face and he’d completely forgotten his metaphorical training. Don’t get attached: you’re temporary. Don’t get excited, you’ll put them off. Always keep the system in mind, that system you hate thinking about because it’s weird and complicated.
He found himself thinking about the system then, because he was a contrary S.O.B.: he’d had to sit in for a lecture on it in freshman year, for his history credit. The professor who’d spoken was enthusiastic and he’d made an effort to make sense, which was a pretty high bar to aim for when the subject one taught was Intrapersonal Destiny. Ashton had taken notes as a precaution, which had wound up being the only way he’d stayed alert and not mopey about the whole ordeal.
Soulmates were compatibility, the professor had said. Soulmates were people who made each other better, who brought out each other’s better parts and covered each other’s weaknesses. Some deity or other had decided before the world began that soulmates would need a way to find each other; according to one myth, the gods touched everyone at birth where one day their soulmates would first reach to touch them. The places marked would resolve at that first touch, turning from smudge to a symbol that would represent what one’s soulmate meant to them. There had been photo examples of a few couples showing off their marks, and commentary to go with: flowers and crescent moons and crashing waves and archaic symbols and more, too many to remember. Thoughts of inspired confidence and grounding influences and one memorable audio clip of a girl who said about her soulmate, “She makes me bloom…” Ashton had listened, taking notes, storing the stories away for no reason he could clearly determine.
Perhaps, he thought, for an episode of disappointment and crippling self-doubt like this one. When he could curl up during sleeping-time and think about what he was too afraid to accept he was getting. This was supposed to be the ideal; someone who backed you up, made you better, made you right.
But Ashton couldn’t stop thinking about his father. His father, his father, his father: a caricature hidden by a newspaper, seemingly only there to make Ashton’s mother cry. There was a mark on his arm where Ashton’s mother had reached to steady him at a floor meeting, when he was a temp and she was going places. There was a matching mark on her shoulder where he’d given her a condescending pat. They’d talked, and they’d flirted, and they’d undoubtedly gotten freaky seeing as Ashton was around to tell the tale, but the magic had never worked for them. They’d talked, and they’d bickered, and they’d fought, and Ashton’s father was gone. Ashton’s mother never wore sleeveless shirts.
“Childhood fling?” People asked, when they saw her alone with her brood of misfits.
“You could say that,” she always replied, looking sad, but she always seemed determined too. Ashton wondered how she was doing, all the way back home across the sea. It couldn’t be more than midnight for Ashton; it would be early afternoon for Anne, and she’d probably be at work, worrying about Laur and Harry’s plans for after school. Ashton wouldn’t interrupt her.
At least, he was up early the next morning without any effort. Michael’s bed didn’t look like it had seen any traffic since Ashton went to bed; Ashton scribbled a thank-you note for the pizza and left it on the box, then realized he really ought to throw the pizza away. He left the note on Michael’s desk instead and carried the pizza out with him on the way to his morning run. The note was gone when he returned, but so was Michael.
He filched lunch from the hall that day, and ate alone in a back corner of campus in the twenty minutes he had before class. Zayn had texted him: heard about Harry. you alright?
Ashton turned his phone off.
He had a shift that night, five to eleven, and he took another run around campus after; he came back to the dorm tired enough that even Michael’s ridiculous video games couldn’t keep him awake.
On Saturday, he was more than ready to stay in bed and not think about anything (except maybe his homework), but Michael had other plans. He was already up when Ashton returned from his run, and when he saw Ashton was there he paused the game and gave Ashton his full attention.
“You missed class on Thursday,” he said. “That’s new.”
“Wasn’t feeling well,” Ashton said slowly. Michael obviously had a point with all of this, and Ashton wasn’t sure he wanted to know what it was.
“You haven’t missed a single class in the time we’ve been roommates, and then suddenly you just blow it off ‘cause you’re not feeling well?” Michael said, levelling him a Very Serious look. Ashton said, “Yeah. That’s it in a nutshell.”
“Right,” Michael said, and it was obvious he was displeased with the answer, but Ashton was pleased to note that he didn’t push the point. “Anyway,” he said, “Cal and I and a friend of his are doing a bit of a music thing, and I remembered you played drums, and Cal wanted to know if you were interested in playing a gig sometime this month. ‘Cause, like, we don’t have a drummer and it’s really important if you’re playing an actual gig to have a drummer.”
Ashton felt his eyes go wide for a brief moment. “They want me?”
“Well, you’re the only drummer we know,” Michael said, “And you’re pretty good, I’ve heard that stuff you record. And you like the same obnoxious music they do, so it seemed like a smart choice.”
“That’s real thoughtful,” Ashton said. “I’ll… I’ll think about it, Mike. Thanks.”
Michael lit up like a kid on Christmas. “Sweet, man! I’ll tell Cal. Let me know when you make up your mind, yeah?”
“Absolutely,” Ashton said. “And er… I think I’m hanging out with Ashley today, so there’s that.”
“Cool,” Michael said, turning back towards the TV. “I’m probably going back over to Calum’s tonight, so you’ll have the place to yourself.”
“Cheers,” Ashton said, and grabbed his bag before leaving and realizing he hadn’t changed.
“Well, shit,” he said.
He arrived on the quad in his sweaty running shorts and found Ashley sitting on top of a picnic table, wearing Calum’s DESTROY EVERYTHING hat. He sat next to her and studied the monograms carved into the table. “Hey.”
“I’m no psychologist or mind-reader or anything,” Ashley said dryly, “But I’m pretty sure a date that goes ‘fine’ doesn’t end with you locking yourself in your room and not answering your phone for a day and a half.”
“Yyyeah,” Ashton said, “Probably true.” He didn’t look her in the eye. He didn’t even look in her general direction. Ashley said, “Ash, what happened?”
Ashton said, “He met his soulmate. Right when we were getting off the bus. Fucking fell on top of him like it was a romance novel-- not that I have ever read a romance novel.”
“Well,” Ashley said, “Shit.”
“That’s what I said,” Ashton said. “In my head. I didn’t have the guts to say it out loud.”
“You never do,” Ashley said. “I’m sorry, Ash.”
“It’s not-- it’s not anyone’s fault,” Ashton said. “S’just… I missed class, after.” He glanced up long enough to see Ashley’s eyebrows puckering before going on, unable to shut his stupid mouth, “and Michael was weirded out because I never miss class, and you know I never miss class and I keep my grades up because I have nothing better to do with my life than be a good student in a fucking twisted system? Everyone think’s I’m magic. I’m not. I just suck at being a human being and the one time I actually actively gave it a shot it blew up in my face.” He didn’t want to look at Ashley. He didn’t want to look at anyone. He wanted to wilt into himself and find his own body in a ditch somewhere.
Ashley said, “You don’t suck at being a human being, Ashton.”
He looked up. Ashley’s arms were folded against her chest, and her eyebrows and mouth were all puckered into a scowl. Ashton said, “What?”
“I said, you don’t suck at being a human being and you should suck it up and stop moping and just expand on what opportunities you have,” Ashley said. “You’ve got friends. You’ve got the hippies. You’ve got Michael. Ash, you have me. You’re not a sucky human being.” To emphasize her point she reached out and pinched his arm, hard.
Ashton, caught by surprise, yelped. Then for want of anything smarter he said, “That was a pretty good motivational speech, Ashley.”
“Kind of the point, dumbass,” Ashley said.
Ashton couldn’t decide what the knot in his stomach was trying to do: whether it was unravelling relief, or tightening in humiliation. He couldn’t decide which he’d rather it be doing.
“You know,” he said, “Sometimes it feels like you’re the one doing all the supporting in this relationship. Like I’m over here being a massive wreck and mooching all your love and you’re being a badass even when you’re not.”
“First, I’m always badass,” Ashley said, shoving him. “Second, I’m the one with a stable, healthy lifestyle. When you cultivate one of those, we can talk about getting you a ‘supportive friend’ card.”
“Challenge accepted,” Ashton said, trying to make his voice sound big and winding up sounding like a cartoon character. Ashley laughed. Ashton managed a giggle. He added, “Michael asked if I wanted to play a gig with his and Calum’s band.”
Ashley grinned. “About damn time someone recognized your awesome skills.”
“About damn time,” Ashton repeated, the corners of his mouth turning up to mirror hers. “I said I’d think about it.”
“What have you thought?”
“I think I’m gonna do it.”
He tried to text Michael after he and Ashley parted ways, and realized he’d never gotten Michael’s number. (Granted, before this it had never been a concern.) He decided eventually just to go back to the dorm and change and hopefully let Michael know he was in, it was happening, Ashton was taking a walk on the wild side and playing for a band. With a band. In a band? As it turned out, Michael wasn’t even in the room, and Ashton wound up just changing and texting Zayn: im good now.
Zayn replied quite promptly, that’s good. Harry felt really bad, you know.
good for him.
hey, me and Ella are hanging out, care to join us?
that sounds pretty cool, Ashton replied. Then, with trepidation, im afraid im kinda busy, tho. rain check?
sure, man. tomorrow?
sure. say hi to ella for me.
And Ashton could breathe normally again. He had a mess of homework to catch up on (thanks a lot, existential crisis), and a glance at Michael’s desk told him the bright-haired boy had the same problem. Ashton wondered where he could find Michael’s number, so he could nag him to do his work.
(In the end, he didn’t see Michael at all that weekend, which meant he was in by eleven both nights. Man, he sucked. He did hang out with Zayn and Ella, though, and because it was all of their days off they all looked like rockstars. Well, Zayn and Ella looked like rockstars. Ashton looked like himself. It was cool.)
It was Monday, which meant Ashton’s favorite class was at the top of the agenda. Unfortunately, it also meant that everything else went wrong.
The grey clouds that had loomed over campus all week finally decided to burst, for one thing. At six in the morning, during Ashton’s run. Which meant he found himself flagging down the outgoing bus for want of any better ideas and wound up sitting across from a familiar blond. The boy was once again sleeping; Ashton found himself concerned along with being soaked and shivering, which was not a very comfortable state. He sat on one of the hard seats and eyed the slumbering boy with half his attention as he tried to collect his soaking hair, and around the time he succeeded the bus had slowed down again.
“It’s his stop,” said the driver.
Ashton said, “What?” He was, as far as he could tell, the only conscious passenger. The driver replied, “The sleeping guy. It’s his stop. Don’t look like he’s waking up.”
Ashton remembered the sudden outburst of ‘Uma Thurman’ the last time he’d been on the bus.
“I’ll wake him up,” he said. “Hang on.” Completely unsure of what he was doing, he got up and crossed the aisle to where Blondie was stretched out on his seat.
He was wearing a Nirvana t-shirt, Ashton noticed, the one with the smiley face. The red flannel from last week was tied around his waist. His hair looked like it had been styled sometime in the recent past, but now it was all smashed to one side where he was leaning against the window. Ashton’s hand was shaking as he reached out and nudged the boy’s shoulder.
“Hey,” he said. “Wake up.” He gently shook the boy, feeling a bit of triumph as he groaned and shifted. “Sorry, mate,” he said as the boy blinked, “wish I coulda let you sleep, but the driver said it’s your stop.”
The boy’s eyes fixed on his, and Ashton’s mind jarred. For a brief moment, everything was blue blue blue
and then Blondie said, “You.”