Let Me Borrow the Map
rating: 0+x

Whoops! This tale is NSFW.


In many ways, Izzy was like a cat. She was agile and graceful, with an almost liquid physiology. Sometimes she could be moody (but then, lots of Ashton's friends were 'moody'). She had a tendency to cling to you like a leash, even if she acted aloof. Her and Ashton were starting an indie pop project together. This metaphor didn't work.

It was the kind of thing that came to mind when Ashton saw Izzy stretching after practice. Focusing on her motions was preferable to focusing on Ashton's feelings, they'd found a while back.

Izzy settled to standing and sighed. "We really need to adjust our schedules, mate. I'm not exactly the pinnacle of stamina."

"Sorry, dude."

"It's fine, really." Izzy hummed. "Really, this is my fault for my inability to find a good gym in the BackDoor. Or, perhaps there's a way to exercise without collapsing into a ball of tentacles."

"Hey, least this warms you up."

Izzy smiled, setting down her bass and collapsing into her favorite pile of boxes. "When I was a child, it was so much easier, don't you know. Mother would have me standing at attention, two hours a day, strumming the guitar until I could make Orpheus weep." She paused. "In hindsight, I'm not sure that story's so healthy."

Ashton shrugged. "Still, dude, I can work. Though, gonna be gone in like a week or two."

"Really?"

"Yeah." Ashton broke eye contact, getting to work collapsing their keyboard. "Yellowface's gonna be doing a tour. Kinda… ramshackle. Start with some money, end when all we've got's enough to get home. Dunno how long it's gonna go."

Izzy grinned, lopsided. "Why didn't you tell us? We'd have loved to tour with your band!"

"Well, uh," Ashton scratched at the back of their head. "Mean, would love y'all, 'sjust… got lives and shit. Real jobs. Not, uh… criminal stuff."

"You kidding, mate?" Izzy scoffed. "Well, that's silver lining to the lay-offs, isn't it?"

Yeesh. "Shit, sorry to hear."

"Don't be, Saint Sebastian's was overcrowded and full of narcissists like me, ha. A blessing in disguise, when you really think about it." Izzy shrugged. "Still going to lose my healthcare in about six months. Might as well take the drubbing while I can pay for it… I mean, if you'll have us."

"Sure, sure." Brad was not going to like having to rework the tour, but he'd be furious if he caught Ashton snubbing his cousin (and potentially his adoptive daughter, too). "Uh… yeah. I'll get the deets. Not gonna be too fancy, warning."

Izzy smiled. "All that rough and tumble business is probably good for me."

"Cool. Uh… so, when we do stay in motels, you and V cool with random rooming?"

"I… suppose so?" Izzy blinked, and titled her head. "Why do you ask?"

"Mean… motel price shifts, the like, yeah. Wanted to know if you wanted a couple's room, yeah?"

Izzy was staring at Ashton like they'd grown a second head. Did something… oh. Oh. Well, leave it to Ashton to turn beautiful serendipity into shit. "God, I'm sorry, I-"

"Why did you think we were still dating?" Izzy shuffled in place. "We separated a while ago, Ash. Did… she not tell you about our break-up?"

This time, Ashton blinked and tilted their head.

"God, come to think of it I don't know if I told anyone, either." It was rare and honestly off-putting to see Izzy snicker like that. "I mean, what else do you do? Really, it's not particularly flattering. Not on my end, and probably not Veronica's end, either."

Ashton pursed their lips. "Er… do you-"

"We just rushed into it! The reptilian vestige of my brain just thought 'wow, I've got this rough 6-foot rocker girl with a mile-wide submissive streak under my thumb' and I didn't even stop to step back and uncomplicate things, you know? No clue what Veronica saw in past me." Izzy shrugged. "I mean I'm glad we ended friendly, that's more than I can say for my only other girlfriend. But… yeah."

"… -" Nope, the gears in Ashton's head were still ticking. Aaaaaand… "… I'm sorry, dude?"

"No, it's quite alright. It's been a year or two, time flies."

what?

Ashton furrowed their brow. "You… a year ago?"

"It's been a fair while, now that you mention it. I'm… fairly certain it was election year? That would be… six months to a year? Hard to believe I've coming up on Hydrocide's time with the new band, no? But… did you seriously never notice, Ash?"

Ashton's mind flashed back to a month ago, when Izzy came over wearing a flannel button-up made for someone a foot taller. A week ago, when Ashton spotted a sucker-shaped mark on Veronica's neck. A truckload of times in the past few months where Veronica had allowed Izzy to put a finger, arm, hand, tentacle on her shoulder, knee, arm, wherever.

With all that input, Ashton's brain, ostensibly an instance of one of the most magnificent computers ever designed by nature, outputted the following: "… but you're fucking?"

"That? What's that…" Izzy blinked. "You really didn't know?"

"[Did Ashton mean to say 'know' or 'no'?]? I…"

"I really thought we were a bit obnoxious about it. Well, I suppose I'm glad we weren't, but… honestly, blessing in disguise. The last thing the music rags need to hear is how friendly House of Spades has gotten with itself."

"Shit, sor-House of Spades?"

Izzy sighed, rolling her shoulders back. She was the very picture of 'at ease', which contrasted really hard with the anything and everything and nothing and what the fuck did she mean HoS had 'gotten friendly'?!

"Bit of a perfect storm, really." That was a rhetorical question, damn it! "Honestly, it's probably the intimacy of having a band around your age, you know? Playing into the night, writing songs together, fussing about our debut album… actually, have you listened to Self-Titled yet? TTTB gave it a 7.2, and while I think BackDoor Examiner and the Metropolitan gave it better scores, I'm not sure how much I trust them as mob fronts."

Sorry, Ashton was still stuck on the revelation that this entire time, Veronica had been fucking her bandmates and Ashton hadn't noticed.

But who cared, right? Veronica was an adult, and so were her bandmates. And… and why would Ashton care that Veronica was doing it, huh? Apparently, so were the others. Good for them. Good! Ashton could be happy for Veronica, and maybe they could ignore the gnawing cold in their stomach the boiled up whenever that stupid fucking bundle of feelings that should have died ages ago reared its ugly head.

"Ash? Are you quite alright?"

"Yeah, yeah." Ashton shook their head. "Uh… yeah. So… put you down as anyone?"


Packing for the tour with Dontae and Brad, Ashton had decided to play a very stupid game. See, paying attention was an incredibly important skill, one Ashton clearly needed to brush up on. Makes sense? Good. So, packing the vehicles for the tour, Ashton mentally tallied every little thing they should have noticed months ago.

Veronica and Jack were the first to arrive, in V's truck. As always, Jack was the first to get out, and Veronica slung an arm around him as soon as she stepped out1. "Hey! Me and Jack did our packing2, but we're happy to help if you'll have us."

"Good to know, kids, good to know." Dontae stretched. "Don't mind the mob van, here. Bradley travels in style."

"People have fuckin' died in this van, Dontae." Brad, meanwhile, was lugging something indistinct and not-at-all instrument shaped into the back. "It's not as funny if it's true."

Sara arrived next, precariously balancing a whole host of bags on her motorbike. It was almost… well, no, it was actually impressive a chick that small could carry that much. "Yo, like, can I leave my bike with y'all? Save the planet, ride a guitarist3, all that." She hadn't bothered to set too much down before she came up behind Jack for a lingering hug4. "Sorry I couldn't come to practice last week, like, work's kicking my ass."

Veronica snorted5. "Don't sweat it, Mips. We're gonna be opening for a noise band, yeah? And work comes first."

"Aren't, uh, half of us out of work?" Jack awkwardly returned Sara's hug6. "I mean… otherwise we couldn't do this. Or… it'd be online, I guess."

"Thank g-d for piracy, or I couldn't make a living." Veronica went to help Sara with her bags, casually taking some of the ones she'd slung around her shoulder7. "I mean work's a sp—a ghost, sorry."

"It's cool, babe8, it's cool. Damn, it'd be cool to have, like, a hobby I didn't have to monetize." All her bags removed, Sara stood up on her toes to pull Veronica into another lingering hug9 before sauntering over to help pack. "Road trip? Hella. Always wondered what magic's like outside of NYC. We're gonna do that, right?"

Brad rolled his eyes. "I ain't taking you through a fuckin' Thoroughfare if I can help it. That shit gets you killed."

"Damn, Brad, way to be a shitty uncle."

"You don't get to call me an uncle, Mips, not this far North10. And I'll tell you when you can get your fuckin' magic on, alright?"

Izzy was the last to arrive, on foot. "Couldn't… couldn't we meet further from your house, cuz? The 'no taxi' rule-" Even with just her bass and a suitcase, she looked winded, nearly tottering over when Sara pulled her into yet another lingering hug11. "… good to see you again, too."

"You know, uh, back when I was… not Jack, I'd do war marches with things in my stomach. Not sure how you do without it." Jack and Izzy traded a curt nod as the former moved to take her suitcase. "You'll be with Nicky, right?"

"I'm not sure I wanted to hear that, and yes, I should be." Izzy pat Sara on the back12 and-

"You feeling alright, Ash?"

Ashton very nearly jumped out of their skin, turning to face the Veronica in their peripheral. She looked… confused. Like there was a bug in Ashton's hair. There very well might have been.

"Oh, fine, fine." Ashton swallowed.

"Really? Looked like you were spacing out there, for a sec." Veronica furrowed her brow. "Are you getting nervous, Ash? Honestly, whole business sounds like it's a recipe for stress.

"Dude, it's cool, heh. I'm… I'm fine."

Veronica… nodded. "Sure, sure. Uh… you can call me whenever you want, if you're feeling nerved out. I'm happy to help you through it, you know?"

Ashton just nodded back.


NOTICE

Black Glass on Rye will be hosting Yellowface from 4:00 to 5:00 PM in the courtyard for Experimental Saturdays, with an opening performance by House of Spades. Entry fee is $5.


For all his talk, Brad hadn't installed soundproofing in the back of the car. That meant Sara's revelry was clearly audible from the passenger's seat. And… okay, sure, she had every right to revel given how well her band's show went. Maybe Ash should be reveling, too. Maybe they shouldn't be a stupid stick in the mud too anxious to look-

"Ash, you're spiraling again."

Ash blinked back to awake.

Dontae sighed, eyes still on the road. "Look, you did really well. You… played what you were supposed to. Hit the right notes. It's fine to be self-critical, that's what drives you to improve, but… I worry about you, man."

"No, it's… it's fine, heh."

"You know," Dontae briefly spared a glance back. "Whenever you lie, you always chuckle. Like someone else might do when they suddenly need an excuse to leave a party. You've noticed that, right?"

Not really, come to think of it. "I mean-"

"This is about House of Spades, isn't it?" Dontae pinched the bridge of his nose. "Don't think I don't notice this, alright? Every time I see you around this Veronica girl it's like you've crawled back into your shell. Believe me, I'm not about to dump on anxiety, that's a dick move. But two and a half years of pining's got you nowhere."

"I… I never said I'd pined."

"You didn't have to, Ash. Asexuality didn't make me blind."

Almost on reflex, Ashton brought their legs up to their chest. "I don't know, dude. She's… she makes me feel weird. Stunted." Ashton gulped. "Don't know."

"No offense, Ash, but you have a full-time job, your own apartment, and a hell of a lot more followers on Bandcamp. I mean, they're opening for us, and it's their album that just dropped." Dontae sighed. "Look, if you like her, you like her. That's not on me. But it hurts to see you keep dancing around your feelings for someone who isn't even in your league." He paused. "In the good sense, I mean. Good for you specifically."

"Mm."

"No, I will not be letting you get away with noncommitment. Either you promise to tell her how you feel, or I'm teleporting you into the back and getting Brad to tell the other two exactly why you've been so cagey. You understand?"

"Yeah, yeah, I get it." Ashton chuckled. "I'll-"

The lights dimmed, and Ashton was suddenly sitting in the back of the van, next to an incredibly perplexed Jack and across from a reasonably nonplussed Sara. "— damn, I was getting to the good part!"

Ashton yelped, then groaned. "I wasn't lying, I just thought it was funny!"

Dontae hadn't gotten their message, apparently, because both Sara and Jack's phones pinged several seconds later. Jack was the first to get to his phone, reading it silently before shooting a look of confusion back to Ashton.

As for Sara, she just laughed. "Yo, you got a crush on V?"

Ashton clammed up, curling into a ball as much as their seat allowed.

"Oh, nah dude, I ain't judging." Sara's giggle seemed to indicate otherwise, at least to Ashton. "She's kinda cute in like, a roundabout swamp witch way. Also, weren't you two, like, college friends? That's really cute, yo! It's like… some guilty pleasure dime novel shit."

Jack coughed. "I, uh, probably wouldn't have made that comparison."

"Damn, can't even have lesbian pulp? I got too much work to be reading, anyways. Gig economyyyyyyy." Sara took a swig of her flask, leaving a smidge of green lipstick on the tip. "Thanks for letting us come on, btdubs. Money's tight so it's nice to guarantee gigs."

Ashton uncurled just the slightest bit. "thanks"

"Don't sweat it, man! Least we can do is help your score with V."

Ashton felt their soul physically leave their body.

"Are we, uh, doing that?" That was probably Jack. How was he so painfully close. "I had assumed you'd, well, been doing that already. No offence intended, but she's not exactly… indiscrete, for a human."

"Yeah, like, retrospect I'm surprised y'all weren't fucking already. Just seems natural, y'know?" Sara hummed. "I just assumed that, like, if Brad introduces two people they fuck. That's why they call it King of Hearts, yeah?

"It's not. More like how I'm… actually, uh, I'd rather not get into why he calls it that."

Okay, okay, okay, okay this was salvageable. They weren't judging Ashton, and they seemed enthusiastic about helping them… fuck their college bff, apparently. But… yeah. Ashton could uncurl the tiniest bit and hear them out, right?

Ashton swallowed, setting their feet back onto the floor of the van. "You'll… help?"

"Of course, yeah!" Sara raised her flask in apparent solidarity. "I mean, like, I dunno if I got good advice. Mostly, my body count's either work-related or a consequence of ~mental illness~. And I mean, like… me and V are weird?" Sara took a drink from her flask. "Workout buddies, and also I caught her crying one time and chose a terrible way to console her. Guess it worked out, though!"

Right, that method. Maybe a drunkard wasn't the best source of advice. Ashton turned to look at Jack, who sported either a similar look of concern or the same look he always sported.

Jack swallowed. "Fifty-seven years of experience. Also, uh, Nicky keeps mentioning something called an 'oviposition kink'. I'm not sure what it means."

Ashton was fucking doomed.


The good news was that Brad had been able to secure them a motel, as well as a few gigs in the area. Looks like this wasn't gonna be as much of a bust as Ashton thought.

At least, the tour wouldn't be.

Ashton swallowed. "You, uh, you're joking. Right?"

Dontae rolled his eyes.

"Look, I'm good. Fine. I play well, gonna play well." Ashton unconsciously tapped at the key with their thumb. "It's not affecting my ability to play."

"If I thought this was affecting your ability to play, Ash, I'd have just told her. I'm doing this for you."

"This is ridiculous, dude."

Dontae did that thing where you hum dismissively. "What's ridiculous is seeing you dance around your feelings for three years. I don't give a damn if you're married or nemeses by the end of this, the two of you are going to work this out however the hell you work this out."

Ashton sighed. "Right. Right."

Taking hold of their pack, Ashton made their way out the lobby and into the night air, down the row of rooms to the one on the far end. Their thoughts drifted back to that one Steven King novel for entirely unrelated reasons. "Green Carpet"? "The Dead Walk"? He was a mediocre writer anyways, but then so were most writers. None could have been as bad as whatever cosmic writer engineered this, though.

The fact that they hadn't fumbled the key into the lock was simultaneously surprising and disappointing.

Veronica was already inside the room, apparently pacing around the room before she'd noticed the door opening. "Shit, sorry for the mess. I've been thinking a lot? A lot of thinking, you know?"

Ashton's eyes fell drifted over to the bed. Singular.

"Do they hate me?" Veronica had apparently resumed pacing from the sound of it. Ashton's eyes were still stuck on the singular bed. "Maybe they're trying to get rid of me. Bet they got tired of my fucking antics." The bed Dontae expected Ashton to share with Veronica. "Drum machine doesn't complain, you know? Isn't some lecherous creep that uses its bandmates for sex." A single bed. Only one. "No offense but fuck, I just need to know, you know? That they're not tired of me."

This is normally where Ashton would assure Veronica that she's fine, they didn't exclude her because they hated her, but that would require them to divulge the exact reason why Dontae roomed Veronica and Ashton together.

"Oh g-d, they're tired of me. They're gonna-"

"No, dude, it's fine. It's…" Ashton brain must have skipped a pulse. "… one bed."

Veronica may or may not have blinked; Ashton wasn't looking and wouldn't be for the rest of the night, but it sounded like the appropriate response to what they just said. "… one… bed?"

"One bed."

"… one bed."

Ashton pursed their lips. "… gonna sleep on the floor, that's okay."

Why did Dontae think this would work?


05-11-2013

See YELLOWFACE live, with opening performances from HOUSE OF SPADES and OUT OF TOUCH WITH THE YOUTH. $5 cover, $2 wells, 21 and up


Someone patted Ashton on the back. "That went well. I liked the part where you killed the lights." Izzy.

Ashton grumbled through their drink, some cider that was barely sweet enough to make up for the alcohol.

Izzy made some kind of… some kind of noise Ashton was too spaced out to parse, taking a seat besides them. "Are you quite alright? You seem a bit… distant. Oh, and no offense, but did something happen with Veronica? Seems quite sullen, that one."

"No. Nothing happened."

"Hrm. Well, if-"

"I'm fucked." Ashton choked down another sip. "Can't get over a college crush. Barely go outside. Barely order my projects like…" The countertop was quite comfortable, actually. Perfect for resting their head. "'member that… bandage dude?"

Izzy hummed. "Halloween of 2011? Hope it likes my song. What, did it reach out to you again?"

"I think…" Ashton groaned. "Think they offered me… guhhhhh." Unsticking themselves from the bar, they turned to look at Izzy, then anywhere else. "Don't… don't fuckin' tell this to anyone. Right?"

"If that's what you want, I won't say a word. Is this about what it offered you?"

"Don't even know." Ashton took another swig from their glass. "Told them to screw off. Think they were…" Ashton's will to talk, and perhaps the top-left corner of the world, momentarily sloughed off into a haze. "… it's fuzzy. Try to block it out but I can't."

Izzy hummed once more, placing a hand on Ashton's shoulder. "You alright, mate?

"Think they wanted me to steal her from you."

Izzy blinked. "… steal who from me?"

"Veronica." Ashton downed the rest of their glass. "Acted like it. Told me it's some… some long term thing. My desire. Thought, you know, long term desire's music… thing. A majig. Like I—shit" Sheer force of will kept Ashton from dropping the glass they'd accidentally slammed into the counter. "Fuck. Sorry, dude."

"Eh, it was empty." Izzy shrugged. "You haven't told me much about it. Though, I suppose you haven't told me much about Veronica."

"What's even to talk about?" Ashton took another swig from their glass, except they didn't because it was empty and they were spiraling. "Met her in college, she was crashing with Brad, I… I had a crush on her, I drop out, don't see her for two years then, like… dude. It's fucked. Fucked, fucked, fucked. Every since that… that bandaged fucker, gotten worse!" They groaned. "Uh… guess 'm also working on some… music program. Teach kids music." A pause. "Still have to learn to code."

"Oh, interesting." Izzy tilted her head. "So you think it was trying to… exacerbate your feelings?"

"Didn't try. It just exascabated."

"Right, right." Humming, Izzy took a sip of her own drink. "That sounds like two problems we can solve together, no?"

"You are the third person to—"

"Jack and Sara told me all about that. However," Izzy's grin was distressingly toothy. "Neither of them were Veronica's girlfriend. Better yet? Neither were her closet key." An entirely inappropriate joviality accompanied her shrug. "I'd say I've got a leg up on them."

Ashton blinked. "… I'm not drunk enough for this."

"Come on, give it a shot!" The bartender quickly made her way back to Ashton, who passed her another two dollars. "Listen, I've been in the same boat as you. I was that young butch with stars in her eyes, once, all kinds of dreams clouded by that one fascinating bird. And true, Veronica's not Alex, but getting over that worry's a big step on the path to your dreams."

"What?" Ashton squinted back at Izzy, barely noticing their glass fill back up. "Dude. You're only a year older than me."

Izzy shrugged. "Point is, you're playing reverse Pinkerton with a bird I know inside-out. You can either kill the crush or stand it steady. But if you ignore it, it'll only eat into everything else. And the more time you ignore it, more you'll want to ignore Veronica, and that will make everything so much harder than it needs to be."

Hrm.

On one hand, it was theoretically preferable for Ashton to resolve their crush, and Izzy was too terrible a liar for this to be some elaborate prank. On the other hand, they weren't drunk enough for this.

Nodding, Ashton took their drink and choked it down in a single take. "Yeah, sounds cool."


"Huh, we're not the only room with one bed. Sara kept making a joke of that point."

Veronica mercifully hadn't noticed them come in; too busy doing something on her electric drums, eyes closed, ears covered by headphones, far too in the groove. Ashton knew better than to break through her flow, or at least that's how they justified not trying to.

Izzy hummed. "Should probably be practicing, too. Ah, well."

Something buzzed, causing Veronica to stop with a grimace. She was reaching for her pocket when she opened her eyes to see Izzy and Ashton, and yeah, Ashton would have had the same kind of startled shock. "Shit, hey, it's, uh…"

Not that it kept Ashton from stumbling when Izzy patted their back. "Hope I didn't interrupt a one-woman jam. So, I just talked with Ash, and they've been working on a digital music program for some time.13 They were hoping they could come to you for some help."

Veronica blinked. "… Sara's the coder. I, uh… I mean most of what I know, I learned from her. I'm g-good at learning, you know?"

"Right, right." Izzy nodded. "But you've got experience building drum machines, no? And the like, of course."

The force of Izzy's pivot seemed to have breezed off of her and onto Veronica, who now looked weirdly crestfallen. "Uh… yeah, you know, I guess I do. But, uh… you know, this is a program, and I have songs to practice. And by the way, how've I been doing? Been practicing a lot, you know?"

"Oh it's fine, darling. You're doing fine. I just think Ash has a lot to learn from someone like you, you know? Practical application, machine-oriented, you know how it goes." Izzy clapped her hands, a move that felt oddly practiced. "Well, sorry to leave you two, but I promised I'd play lookout for the others while they shopped. Hope you have a good rest of the day!" No, she didn't just wink.

The motel door slammed shut like a rock against a tomb. Ashton was pretty sure they were giving Veronica the same look she just gave them.

Veronica was the first to break the silence. "… how do you feel about stolen Python PDFs?"

***

Alright, on one hand, Ashton was making surprising progress with code, if only because that meant any progress. On the other hand, they didn't feel any closer to confessing their feelings.

Ashton shook their head.

"One of the big problems with learning from Mips is that she's not there to teach, you know?" Veronica, at the very least, seemed completely oblivious to any intentions. "Well, at least when it comes to commenting. I don't have the time to watch her videos, and what little I hear they're, uh, a little distracting."

"Didn't know she taught." Ashton clicked their tongue. "What's up with 'em?"

"That's… fuck, that's a trolley and a half. You know, I don't know if she likes it when I spill?" Veronica hummed. "You should ask her yourself. I think she trusts… you know what, let's get back to the program. So, when it comes to lists…"

Ashton's phone vibrated. Christ, of all times for Brad's impromptu jam—

Izzy: You're still with Veronica, right?

Oh, now she came to Ashton's aid. Just as Ashton was actually getting the hang of Python, their life story had to be forcibly dragged back to the romantic comedy mold.

Ashton rolled their eyes. "Learning how to Python"

"Oh, wonderful! Unless you meant the programming language?"

"Yeah" Beat. "Language, I mean"

Setting down their phone, Ashton pawed through their mental process for a good point to catch in Veronica's speech. Some metaphor about mountains, except that just as they'd caught back up, Ashton's phone buzzed again. "Should've known. Last I checked she's only about five inches."

Mm. Ashton didn't need to know that.

Regardless, Izzy continued. "So, one thing that really gets her going is the lighting. As in, 'sunbeams on the couch' lighting. You are on the couch, no?"

"Bed"

"Excellent, dear!"

"Not as romantic as you think. Two laptops together, hunched over. Maybe passing a USB"

Ashton looked back up and oh they shouldn't have expected that to be the end of things. "If that's not romantic, I'm not sure what is. Regardless, you're close, and that's progress. So what's the lean?"

Ashton blinked. "Lean?"

"The lean of you. The angle. Do you look inviting? Is she making herself inviting? Positioning is everything, darling, and knowing you you'll want something that you can fall into without much talk. If you can conquer the lean, you can conquer Veronica."

"Oh my god, I'm surrounded by idiots."

Veronica paused, and so did Ashton. They… hadn't meant to say that out loud.

"Uh…" Veronica scratched at the back of her head. "You okay, Ash? Looks like I lost you."

Shit. Ashton shook their head. "Uh, sorry dude. Izzy keeps texting me."

Odd. Veronica almost seemed to pale at that. "Oh. Oh, uh… shit, I, sorry to bother. What's she texting you about? If you d-don't mind me asking?"

"Nothing. Uh… asking about you. I guess."

The room went silent.

Reality probably should have dawned on Ashton. They'd just confessed to texting about Veronica behind her back; that had to be suspicious even without their blindingly obvious crush on her. And yet something about the room felt rigid, like a cracked cube kept in place by the position of its pieces. Molasses. Some other metaphor, anything to take the reality of the situation off of Ashton's mind for—

"Look, I get it."

Ashton froze.

"I know I've been a dead weight."

… what?

Veronica gesticulated like what she'd just said was anything close to a logical leap. "I mean, fuck, of course I've been dragging them down, I'm the drummer! Drummer sets the tempo, I've been setting it… weird, you know, and fuck, I'm sorry I brought them down, but I've been trying to go clean. Be a… be a better bandmate for those three. Not just some fucking parasite that mooches weed and, and everything else."

Ashton furrowed their brow. "You okay, dude?"

"Look, don't do this to me. Fuck, you deserve them so much more than I do, but—" Buzzing from Ashton's phone cut Veronica off. "I can't lose them, okay?! They're the fucking world to me, I lose them I'm nothing! Just tell me what I'm doing wrong, I'll change!"

"Dude, I…" Gears turning. "… dude. They're not gonna replace you."

"But why wouldn't they? I, I dragged them down to 7.2. Jack and Izzy, they're 9s at least, and fuck, Sara's a killer vocalist."

"That's not how bands work." Ashton sighed. "Look, you can drum, I can't."

"So she wants me to teach you, and, and…" Veronica bit at her finger for stability, only to release a few seconds later. "Look, I don't want to be paranoid, okay? But they're all rooming without me, we've barely jammed since this started, and… fuck, dude, she wants me to teach you drums. They want me gone, Ash."

The universe hated Ashton, that had to be it.

"… they're throwing me away. Oh g-d, they're just throwing me away." A peculiar stillness washed over Veronica. "Done so fucking much for them, but I guess they just hate me now. Fine, whatever. I hate me too. They're not special. But pawn me off to you like you're nothing, well."

Veronica sat up, sliding off the bed to standing, and began pacing the room. "Un-fucking-believable. They're conning you, don't even have the courtesy to tell you what they're doing. Fucking cowards, maybe I'm not good enough but you, you deserve to be in the know."

Okay, this had to stop. "Uh, dude? You're fine, they—"

"Fucking christ, how was I this blind? Izzy told me she was a narcissist. How didn't I—"

"Dude, you're fine. They like you, and—" so do I. "They just—"

"They're trying to freeze me out, Ash! They set me up with you and told you to learn drums from me but they didn't even—"

"Dontae set us up!"

Once more, the room went silent.

"Dontae picked the room!" Practically on autopilot, Ashton hopped off the bed. "Dontae picked the room, not Izzy, not Sara, not Jack. He barely even listens to House of Spades. Thought you were actually a Ween cover band for years!"

Somehow, Ashton had started pacing. "And they don't hate you either!" They were gesticulating now, a million unconscious pleas for shit they didn't have the energy to think about. "Jack stuck with you when I didn't! Sara calls you for hardware shit! And Izzy set this up because you're the best drummer she knows, and, and all of this is my fault for thinking I could half-ass an "I love you" two and a half years in the making!"

And that's when the world came to a halt.

That wasn't supposed to… Ashton just liked her. Right? Love was some big… complicated bullshit, or else what you said to a just friends friend. Not… not right now. Too strong for right now. Fire, not nausea.

So they didn't object when Veronica straightened her posture, coughed into her fist, and said "Yeah, I'm really sorry for that, Ash. I gotta be better about outbursting.". And if that opened yet another impossible ache in Ashton's heart, so be it.

***

The motel had TV. It was presently the most… not so much "interesting" as much as "engageable" thing in the room.

For the past hour or so, the pattern had been relatively simple: Ashton flipped to the next channel, looking for anything in the programming to take their mind off the past afternoon. Then, either they or Veronica (but mostly Ashton) objected to the nature of the content, and Ashton flipped to the next channel. Platonic ideal of an idiot box.

This was stupid. But pondering why it was stupid was worse.

Neither of them had said anything after… the thing. That was just fine. Swell, even. The two of them could forget this ever happened, and to top it off Ashton could cringe themself into a cloud of dust and be blown away by the wind.

Ashton closed their eyes.

"… you want something to eat?"

Ashton blinked back to earth. "Barely got money to order in."

Veronica shook her head. "No, I mean like… like we barely got a kitchen, but I got some ramen after the show, plus a couple hardboileds from that one bodega. There's not much, but… I guess there's actual protein. Better than college fair."

"Dude. You cooked actual food in college."

"When I had you over, yeah."

Ashton shrugged. "Fair. Uh, yeah. Sounds good."

Veronica nodded, heading for the mini-fridge and microwave that passed for a kitchenette in the motel. This was normally where Ashton distracted themself with a critically introspective internal monologue, but instant ramen was too fast for anything coherent.

"Right, decent for what it is. I swiped a few packs of red pepper back in Staten, for a kick." Veronica made her way back to Ashton, cup ramen and plastic fork in hand. It smelled… like cup ramen, Ashton supposed. "Might want to go to the couch, don't want you sleeping in ramen water, yeah?"

Ashton nodded, slipping off the bed and onto the couch. "'scool. I'll… wait. Where's yours?"

Veronica shrugged. "Not hungry."

"Mm. You should eat."

"Later, alright? I'm just…" Veronica sighed. "I'm not hungry."

It breaks my heart to see you do this again., but Ashton's heart had been broken since they'd abandoned their degree. They'd live through this.

Ashton looked down into their cup. It was hard to make cup ramen look good; certainly, Veronica hadn't. But that was cup ramen, and it was better than not eating.

… the food was alright. A little spicy, maybe. But pretty good, for cup ramen at least. Warm. But a kind of equalizing warmth. Insulated Ashton from everything else. A perfect complement to the "dead inside" feeling you got after instant ramen.

Perfect to cap off today's shitshow.

"… yo, Ash." Veronica was sitting so damn close. "You got a bit of red pepper, just above… just above your lip."

"Yeah?" Ashton shrugged. Too much cup ramen to care. "What are you gonna do about it?"

A pause. Both of them blinked.

By the grace of some cosmic deity, Ashton didn't have the time to apologize for their crudeness before one of them fell into a desperate kiss with the other. Wasn't enough time to process which, barely enough brain power to keep from exploding. Not a problem; Ashton had, what, five and a half years of pining to make up for?

Kissing Veronica was almost everything Ashton could have predicted. Her mouth was quick to open, tasted like spearmint gum, made such wonderful sounds even muffled against Ashton's mouth as their hands got to exploring Veronica. She melted so easily into Ashton's touch, that wonderful wiry frame pliant under their fingers. Even the whines as they pulled back, those desperate pleas in Veronica's eyes, were exactly as Ashton could have imagined in their daydreams. Only that Ashton would actually be here, kneeling over Veronica on some ratty sofa like the best and worst kind of mumblecore trash, had they written off years ago as unthinkable fantasy.

Ashton Miyamoto had all the time in the world, and not a single second to waste.

They descended once more onto Veronica, to kiss and bite and wring out every little sound they could. Gentle touch became desperate clinging, frenzied pleas that the dream never end, that the cosmic nightmares above and below grant them this one impossible boon, this selfish assurance that Ashton was here, with Veronica, that this was all real!

That magic was real, that squids could walk, that music could create life, how easy it was to believe! That Veronica could gasp for "more"? Ashton might never have believed it to be so, had they not just heard it.

And Ashton would give Veronica more. More kisses, more bites, that ever-lengthening trail of attention snaking down from her lips, down her chin, down her neck. Their free hand under her shirt, to squeeze and claw and caress her chest. A knee to grind thoughtlessly against her crotch. Ashton would give all this to Veronica and more, give her every little thing she asked of, and let it matter not what Ashton received in return.

Not to say they objected when Veronica kissed back, or when she pulled back from Ashton to strip off her top, or when she returned the favor between her legs and pressed her own knee—

Ashton's mind short-circuited,

but not in the good way.

No, it was that creeping, ugly, sickening

miasma of self-loathsome panic

that permeated everything around Ashton,

come to drag them

from one more good thing.

So back into the shell with you, Ashton.
Yours was a valiant effort.
But if you thought you could ever fill the pit in your stomach, well


"Ash?!"

***

Ashton Miyamoto blinked themselves back into the land of the living.

Standing over them with a look of… panic(?) was Veronica. She was shaking, muttering under her breath, on the verge of pacing a trench into the carpet, doing pretty much everything Ashton should have been doing, had the weight in their stomach not kept them firm on the couch.

"Oh g-d, oh g-d, oh g-d." Veronica broke eye contact, actually started pacing the room. "I'm sorry, Ash I'm so sorry, I should've asked before I, I, shouldn't have just assumed you'd be okay with that, fuck, fuck, why did—"

"It's fine."

Veronica stopped. Might have blinked or clutched herself or looked back to Ashton. They wouldn't know; they weren't looking back.

"You didn't do anything wrong." Ashton swallowed. "I… I thought I wanted it, too."

That was the last thing either of them said to each other for the rest of the night,


and the next day


after that.


It was Ashton's turn to drive.

They'd lucked out on their next stop. Some Albini type, a bit rich to be called "punk" but nevertheless insistent on walking the walk, would be letting them crash with him for a couple of days on the condition they do basement shows. Helped that only six of them needed sleep, and—

Ashton should have objected when Veronica said she could sleep in the van. They didn't, but they should have.

But, at least Veronica wouldn't have to see Ashton again.

***

House of Spades was doing their usual shoplifting. Brad was pacing the van and arguing over the phone in what was probably a pidgin. Dontae was unaccounted for, which was to be expected.

For their part, Ashton was smoking a reasonable distance from the fueling station. What else was there to do? They'd torpedoed whatever they had with Veronica, and by extension probably Brad and HoS. That left Dontae, who was probably convincing someone armadillos were real to keep his skills sharp. And, you know, Ashton could go at it alone. They'd done it this long.

Well, they had the rest of the tour to figure that out. For now, Ashton had the rest of a cigarette to wait for HoS to get out of the station, and—

"Excuse me, Ash."

Jack. HoS was probably back, and—

… there was something off about Jack as Ashton turned to face them. More than what was usually off. It, it should have been self evident, surely, but whatever it was, Ashton couldn't place it.

Ashton swallowed. "Hey, Jack."

"Hi." Jack nodded, stiffer than usual. "Just checking in, seeing how… seeing how things are going. How are things going?"

"Uh… fine. I guess." Ashton took a drag of their cigarette, exhaling to the side but not once taking their eyes off Jack. "Something up, dude? Seem like something's eating you."

"I'm perfectly fine. So, how did it go with you and Veronica." It didn't feel like a question.

Eye contact with Jack was already hard; keeping it after that was an impossibility. "Uh… fine. Alright. Should see what the others are like, heh." Ashton pursed their lips. "See if I do better with others."

There was a pause, pregnant with some invisible malice, before Jack next spoke. "She hasn't talked about what happened with you, but she doesn't need to. It was very bad, and it's affecting her self-worth. Moreover," and Jack took a step forward. "I'm trying really, really hard to not immediately assume the worst about someone like you. So I want you to tell me what happened between you and Veronica, and I want you to keep in mind that for the first two-thirds of my life, I worked as what you might call an 'inquisitor'. So," Jack leaned forward, reaching out to snuff Ashton's cigarette between his fingers. "What did you do to Veronica, Ashton?"

Ice settled over Ashton, and even out, they found themselves attempting to take a drag from their cigarette. "… dude. Dude, I'm sorry."

Jack tilted his head again, now at an angle impossible for a human. "What. Happened. Between you. And Veronica?"

"I, I'm sorry." Ashton pressed back against the wall. "We, w-we were… I chickened out."

A pause.

Jack blinked, and righted his head. "You… chickened out?"

"Fuck, I…" Ashton growled in frustration. "We were together, she made me food, it gave me some… you ever eat cup ramen?"

Jack furrowed his brow. "I don't eat. Is this some kind of edible?"

"Don't fuckin' get you, dude, and no, I… sorry, sorry, I just—" Ashton accidentally flung their cigarette over the road. Too much gesticulating. "Shit, sorry. I just… cup ramen's bad, makes you feel like you're gonna die, mixed weird and I'm kissing her. We… get into it, she puts knee between my legs, and I thought I'd like it but I just… I freaked out."

There was another pause, before Jack relaxed, going back to the twitchy dude Ashton only just realized he hadn't presently been. "Oh, that's… sorry, uh, you had me worried."

"Dude. You had me worried."

"Yeah, uh, sorry Ash." Jack scratched at the back of his head. "I was worried. Nicky's… she's my friend, and whatever happened it's got her in a depressive. But… my god, it's frustrating."

"Yeah, I—"

"You love her." Jack straightened up. Ashton wasn't sure if they'd ever seen him smiling; less so if they ever wanted to see him smile again, if he smiled like that. "Wasn't about just, just fucking her. You love her and… and sorry, I'm still a little angry, but it's so obvious to everyone except you and Nicky." At least his laugh sounded genuine. "God, you know, it's just so stupid."

It was Ashton's turn to furrow their brow. "Should I be—"

"Just tell her!" Jack threw his arms out, before allowing them to fall bonelessly back to his sides. "You know, uh, up front? Bet it would make her feel better. Or you. I mean, no offense but you… probably need it just as much as Nicky."

"… but how?"

Jack shrugged. "I'm, uh, maybe the wrong person to ask? Love's a human thing. But… well, obviously there's some way to tell her? Like… I don't know, er, do what you're passion about."

What they were passionate about…


Saved kokoroach.flac

Izzy wouldn't be happy Ashton leaked a Butch/er demo apropos of nothing. All for a good cause, and… well, Ashton supposed Izzy would have more than enough opportunity for revenge.

Me: If I haven't told V by the time you get this, I'm eating three cup ramens in a row. Keep me to that.

Typing out that message had taken longer than mixing the demo. Ashton wasn't sure if the apprehension was the typical Veronica kind or if it was specifically ramen-related. Not that it mattered; forcing lose-lose onto inaction was the point.

Ashton just hoped it was enough.

Closing out their macbook, Ashton opened their phone. KokoRoach pulled up well-enough, without any sort of warnings or notifications. Not that they'd be able to test it; not even Brad liked to be woken up at 3:17 AM, and testing it outside was a surefire way to attract Jailors. It had to work on the first try.

Now or never. Slowly, steadily, Ashton made their way out of the house, careful not to wake anyone up.

Suburbia, if you could call it that, took on an entirely different air after nightfall. Cold. Calm. Off-putting in a way too abstract not to ignore. You almost wanted to scream, to see if it actually took; but that was how you got cited for noise complaints. Ashton sometimes wondered if it wasn't deliberately engineered to trigger ego deaths.

They weren't sure if the sight of Jack sitting atop the van, clearly awake, made that better or worse.

Ashton yawned. "Can't sleep?"

"I'm, uh… yeah." Jack shrugged. "You could say that."

"Fair." Pursing their lips, Ashton looked both ways down the street before crossing over. "… yo. Thanks for what you said."

It was too dark to make out much of Jack's expression, but knowing him he probably furrowed his brow and broke eye contact. "Yeah, no problem, it's… I don't know. You know, I'm, I'm better at the physical stuff. That's, uh, mostly what I've been doing with myself."

"Dude, half of what Izzy tells me is true you got ridiculous game. Props on not being evil."

Jack paused. "… yeah."

Another pause. Jack seemed to be shuddering; not to worry, Ashton refused to push the issue.

"… Nicky's still awake, last I checked. You know how it… is, with her."

"'swhat it is. Should…" Ashton swallowed. "… it's stupid. Still a lil' nervous. Think you could—"

Jack slid off the van, to the sound of a conspicuous yelp from inside the van. "I'll leave, yeah. Um… this is going to be the last I help you with this. Because either she doesn't like, or, well, you have bigger problems. Ones I can't solve." One last pause. "But I think she likes you back."

With what might have been a smile, Jack disappeared into the night, just in time for Veronica to stumble out from the back of the van with a knife. "I'm not afraid to—" She stopped. "… yo, Ash. Uh… what's up?"

This was it. Better make it count.

"Hey, V." Ashton's heart pounded in their chest; but their brain knew it'd be doing a lot worse than pounding after three cup ramens, and so they forced their feet onward. "So, got a demo. Wanted… wanted you to hear it." Their lips were chapped. "Tell me what you think."

"Everything alright, Ash?" Maybe Veronica blinked; it was hard to tell in the dark. "You should probably be asleep. Don't feel you gotta work on this in the middle of the night, yeah?"

"'sfine, V." Ashton swallowed. "Couldn't sleep, heh…" … no, no. "That's a lie, sorry. Didn't want to."

A pause. Veronica shifted in place, like she wanted to do something but wasn't sure what.

"… demo's anart. Should probably do this in the van. Less you're not awake for it?






In a way, this series is me learning to love myself, in the sense that I put far too much of myself into all of these characters. According to one of my friends, that's a sign that I've become a "real" writer.

This metaphor's going to fall apart in Tape 3 when I make them hate each other.

Thanks to NatVoltaicNatVoltaic and RallistonRalliston for getting a feel on certain fragments!

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