Some nights on the Delphi Band’s tour were filled 5 star restaurants and four-course meals. Viola, Manny, and Ash -and later, Jaime- would spend hours with attentive waitstaff as unobtrusive as phantoms, refreshing drinks and whisking away plates. Perhaps they would sit by portholes in luxury ships watching the waves lap against the hull, or on a balcony overlooking Mohabumi, glittering magical crystals reflecting off crystal glasses. Conversation flowed like wine over gourmet appetizers. Manny, often three glasses in the hole before the meal, would gush about how great they were, how well they did in the last concert, how lucky he was to have them in his band and his life. Viola would gossip about various people in the crowd, and Ash would nod along even though they hadn’t seen who she was talking about because they focused exclusively on the music, going so far as to kept their eyes closed for every performance.
By the time the salads were finished they’d be fielding fans who saw their last performance or showrunners who had heard of a charming little band from Delphi and the crowds they were drawing. This was when Viola was in her element. It was like a performance, and she knew every step by heart. When to wink and giggle coquettishly, when to wave Manny over, who she should ask to light her cigarette and who would be turned off by it. A man would wish to discuss music and hear where she learned to play, perhaps ending the encounter with a request for an autograph and Viola would be only too happy to oblige. A woman would make eyes with her, enraptured by her beauty in the candlelight but never daring to approach. A thousand wannabe Mannys would try to tempt her away from the Delphi band by offering, money, fame, dressing rooms stocked with her favorite candies in her favorite colors. Sometimes, Viola would feel her resolve shift, ever so slightly, and yet…
Poor Ash was never so footsure. The poor dear would stutter through encounters, hiding behind their prodigious pink hair as if it were a privacy curtain. You could generally tell what sort of person had approached them by their body language. If Ash paid attention before dismissing them with a curt shake of their head, it was a promoter with an offer. If they made eye-contact and smiled, it was a discussion about music. If they kept their head down and stared into their glass, it was a discussion about their mother’s music. And if they blushed hotter than the color of their jacket, it was a suitor.
Viola would jump in when needed -or at least jab a sharp elbow into Manny’s side so he could go rescue them- but she was hardly above making fun of them when the commotion died down.
“Really, Ash, darling, you need to start cultivating a poker face.”
Ash navigated these nights, where it was just the four of them, far more easily. Tonight in particular it was just the two of them, Ash and Viola, in a sleeper car on the Happy Kid Express. It was midnight, and they sat on the couch between their beds, sharing a bottle of champagne that Viola stole from the green room at The Crater. The train itself was stalled, hung up by something on the track that got tangled in the wheels, judging from all the shouting. Neither Ash or Viola could properly determine what it was, and it didn’t seem to be a problem that would be solved by the current favorite method of banging on the train and yelling at the wheels.
Under those circumstances, sleep was impossible. So the two of them passed the bottle back and forth and talked.
“You can’t just let everyone know what you’re thinking.” Viola propped herself up on one arm, legs curled like she expected a photographer to pop out from the closet at any moment. The hem of her fuzzy emerald robe ended at her crossed ankles, completely covering the pink silk nightshirt underneath. “It’s just like being on stage. You can’t hold an audience if you just give them everything they want!”
“Uh, can't you?” Ash started the night sitting straight, but as the time went by and their cup was filled and drained, their posture had gotten progressively worse. Now they were slumping in their seat, rumpling their flannel pajama pants slightly stained with mustard from the bad dining car sandwich the two of them had split.
“Of course not,” Viola tugged at the cuff on her sleeve, which was rolling up against the back of the couch. “Satisfy their every desire and your audience will just consider you used up. Leave them wanting? They'll never forget you.”
“That's fine for you, sure,” Ash muttered, “You’re good at that. But...not for me. I'm just too...well, forgettable.”
Viola gave Ash's free hand a light smack. “Nonsense! What in Eya’ sweet song would ever make you think that!?”
The tiny, tinny radio Ash had purchased second-hand, during one of Viola’s patented “de-stress shopping trips” after a particularly harried performance, crackled out an opera neither of them recognized. The night air was chilly even on the Chistmest border, so they had their pick of opening the window and being too cold or -as they had chosen for now- breathing stale air. The lamp on the wall of their car was designed more for decoration than for light. It did little more than cast the room in a sickly jaundiced pallor and the two of them had long decided, mutually and wordlessly with a nod from Ash and a flick of Viola’s wrist, that it was far better turned off. The workers through the window were a good watch, scuttling around in the spotlights with tools and thermoses of coffee, flashlights occasionally shining through the window. On those occasions, when Ash leaned just right, the shadows would almost carve themselves across their face.
Their conversation tonight had been as winding as the tracks they rode, covering such topics as the proper pronunciation of the label on their purloined champagne (“Nobody in Chaandesh rolls their r’s like that, Viola.” “There is no other reason to use two!”), the scratchy wool on their blankets and the way it reddened both their skin, Manny’s humorous attempt to side-step paying the ticket fee by negotiating a on-board concert, Jaime’s worsening attitude (“He could stop calling my accordion a ‘squeeze-box.’’”), a comparative debate regarding the relative acoustics of the various venues they had played ultimately ending in an agreement that the Crater had been incomparable, a story about a waiter who tried to spill a drink down Viola’s front as an excuse to pat her down with a napkin that she’d already told but forgotten that she had. From there, they had another debate about the merits of calling the attendants for softer sheets which Ash was too shy to do and Viola was suspecting they wouldn’t have anyway, the name of the train they were riding (“I think I heard it was a promotion for some toy.” “You can’t mean those ugly things on clearance in the station coffee shop?”), the best place in Delphi to get instruments serviced, and by 11:30 Viola was attempting to regale Ash with stories about her childhood. Now it was midnight, they had a third of a bottle left, and Ash had gone mostly quiet which paradoxically removed the barriers to Viola’s understanding of how they were feeling.
“I don’t care if you have the light, you know,” said Ash, wrapping both their hands around the small paper cup filled with fizzing libations, crumpling it slightly in their grip.
“The light?” Viola asked.
“Like...what you’re doing right now.”
“And just what is it that I’m doing?”
“Finding your light.” Ash drained their cup, and Viola could feel her eyebrows climb to her hairline in surprise. “You know, I can’t even tell that you’re drunk? You’ve had more than me, I’ve counted since dinner, but you’re just...you. That’s always how it is.”
Viola couldn’t find words, because she was too busy trying to decipher Ash’s. Whatever strange alchemy was at play in the room was affecting her quiet companion as if the music and the heat and the ambient noise outsider were clever stagecraft. The look on Ash’s face suggested they couldn’t find the way to what they really wanted to say, their mind a crowded trunk holding something that had slipped between folds of clothing.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” Viola said, “but if you want the lighting adjusted during our next performance I can speak to-”
“Oh, stop it,” Ash muttered, “you do. You know exactly what I mean. It’s easy for you to get up on stage and handle the crowds and-” they waved their wrist in a loose, sloppy circle as if to indicate the train and world outside it and the whole entirety of life- “do this.”
The spotlight outside shut off all at once, plunging the car into darkness. Whatever was going on with the train wasn’t resolved, judging by how the men were still shouting, and now Viola could no longer see Ash’s face at all. Normally, Viola’s concerns would be about scheduling, if they’ll have to delay their performance, the time they’d have to set up and sound check and bathe, not in that order...But in this moment, Viola had entirely forgotten there was any performance to be late to.
“I’m...sorry.” Their tone of voice suggested they’d come back to their senses, the spell on the room broken. Ash had become much less shy over the course of their travels but they were still nervous about revealing too much of themselves unless she or Manny caught them in the right mood. “I shouldn’t be saying those things. Forget I was talking.”
But Viola couldn’t, and she knew Ash knew it too. They’d been on the road together for months, and pretense was little more than a privacy curtain: easily drawn, but just as easily ignored. “You said you wanted to perform on stage with your mother, correct? Surely you learned something about it from her.”
Viola could hear shuffling in the dark, the thin sound of limp hair brushing against couch cushions audible against the ruckus outside only because she was listening for it. The sound of a cup clicked against the wooden table and Viola extended her hand to brace it against the champagne bottle. Sure enough, groping fingers brushed against her own before following the curve up to the neck, and the bottle left Viola’s hands entirely.
The spotlight came back on as Ash poured themselves another drink.
“My mother-” Ash bit back the word. Viola counted back, heart twisting in sympathy; a year, and still it was hard for them to talk about her. “It was just the two of us after I was born, so she took me on her tours. You’re right there. But even being backstage scared me. Not at first, of course, not when I was a kid. I didn’t think I’d ever do this then. Mostly I stayed in the green rooms with the people in the chorus lines.”
Viola chuckled despite herself. “An entire chorus line to babysit one child? You must have been quite the handful!”
“Mmm, I mostly stayed in the corner and listened to my mother’s music from the stage. Performers would come and go, and they’d all fawn over me because I was so cute, but...the more I think about it, the more I realize how little has changed.”
“You honestly don’t think you’ve changed from when you were too small to hold an accordion?”
Ash paused with the cup an inch from their lips. “I think I’ve had enough to drink tonight.”
“I haven’t,” said Viola and Ash passed the cup to her. Viola took it and begin the slow, painful process of uncurling. Her leg had fallen asleep at some point and she’d hardly noticed. “And I still don’t see what this had to do with me.”
Ash shook their head. “I guess...I see you on stage and I see someone who is meant to be there. I see myself, and...all I see is a carbon copy of my mother. And a bad one at that.”
Viola stared at them for a second, tapping her foot on the floor of their car, the leather couch cushions squeaking slightly as she did. Then, pointedly, handed the cup back.
“You may need this.”
“...Thanks. Uh, but why are you looking at me like that?”
Viola straightened against the back of the couch. Her hands were cold which she could only feel when she moved them. Too far away from the pleasant tingle of the alcohol to be comfortable, she took the bottle back for herself. The drink was almost gone, barely an inch of liquid left sloshing around the bottom, and it splashed out of the cup when she poured it.
“Tell me, Ash…” Viola set the bottle on the floor, out of the way. “Have you thought about what you’ll do after this?”
Ash blinked. “After...what?”
“This. The band. We’ll have toured the entire world twice over when we get back to Delphi, did you realize that?”
“Uh...no, honestly. I didn’t really think about it.” Ash gripped their cup so tightly, creases appeared in the rim. “Are you...leaving the band? After that?”
Viola couldn’t deny she’d become very fond of Ash in the relatively short time they’d worked together, and she felt a tiny pang of wistful sadness at the thought of leaving. “Not now, but someday right? Are you telling me you hadn’t thought about what comes next for you? At all?”
Ash shook their head empathically. “No. I mean, when we first met I thought I’d be hiding in a hotel room for the rest of my life. Then I thought we’d broken up the band when that bard left. Then I thought the world was going to end.”
“So, what you’re saying is that people change?” Ash shrugged, so Viola continued, one eye closed in a wink. “Did you know I’d considered going solo last year? After Jaime joined us, I thought we’d never quite make the magic we had with the bard again. And do you know why I didn’t?”
“You...No, I guess I don’t.”
Viola tipped her cup, finishing the last of her drink. “Well...I couldn’t leave you with him and Manny , now could I?”
Ash rolled their eyes. “Sure that’s why,” they said, in a thuddingly sarcastic tone.
“So,” Viola continued, noting the lack of venom in her friend’s voice, “if you aren’t going to plan for yourself, I’ll just have to plan for you and I think the two of us should become a duo.”
“Of course not! We have such a great chemistry, you and I! My grace and your...emotional affect. We’d move audiences to tears around the world.”
Ash didn’t break their stare, even as they rubbed the back of their neck. “It’s so hard to tell when you’re kidding.”
“Melancholy plays very well, trust me.”
“Am I?” said Ash, finishing their own drink. “I didn’t notice.”