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This Is Our Fate, I'm Yours (and Yours and Yours)

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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?

sure.

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.”

“Bye, Ashton.”

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.”

Wait, what.

“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,

“Okay.”

“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.

done.

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.”



Chapter Text

On the previous Monday evening Calum picked up the phone and said, “Luke, you know you should just text me.”

“I do know that,” Luke said cheerfully. “I had news and I had to say it out loud. With my voice.”

“I got that,” Calum said. “What’s the news?”

“I figured it out,” Luke said. “Our motto. ‘When in doubt, polyamory’.”

...Luke, that’s horrible. Also, we’ve been soulmates for like fifteen years, how did you not come up with that sooner?

“I’m an idiot,” Luke said.

Calum said, "Yes you are. Go to work.”

“I am at work. I just had to tell you that,” Luke said. “See you tomorrow?”

Yeah. I’ll tell Alex to have breakfast put together.”

“Thanks, Cal. ‘Night.”

Night, Lukey. Set your alarm.

“Will do.”

When Luke had first taken the night shift at the radio station, Calum had come by in the early morning to pick him up. Then scheduling and sanity had unfortunately conflicted, and Luke had managed to miss his stop three times before someone (Alex always claimed it was him) suggested timing the trip and setting an alarm. (Genius.)

(Calum was actually the one who figured out the time.)

Luke set the alarm on his phone and hummed the first few bars of ‘Uma Thurman’ as Miranda finished,  signing off in her cheery voice and queueing up one of Beyonce’s new songs. Luke told her goodnight as she left.

“Stay safe,” he said.

“You too,” Miranda said.

(Station management joked that you had to be hot and blonde to work the PM shifts on the radio. To which Niall always responded that he bleached his hair.)

A quick look at the queue as Luke sat down in The Big Chair told him that Miranda had already lined up ‘Jesus of Suburbia’ behind the Beyonce song, which turned out to be ‘7-11’. Luke felt pleased.

“Good evening folks! This is The Graveyard Shift on HOHR and I am your faithful host, Dr. Fluke.  Whoops, sorry, that’s Luke to you.”

 

==

 

Calum called him. (Okay, he facetimed him.) “LUKE,” he said. “Guess who I just ran into?”

“Mark Hoppus? Kurt Cobain?” Luke said, propping himself on the kitchen counter. Calum’s end jostled and he addressed someone out-of-frame, “C’mon, he’ll love you.”

A boy with pink hair appeared in the frame with Calum and said, “Hi. I’m Michael.”

“Well, you’re not Kurt Cobain,” Luke said dryly. Michael grinned.

“Luke, look!” Calum said, and held up his free hand. Marked on the palm, below the thumb, was a swirl of lines that reminded Luke of a hurricane. “Mikey, show him.”

Michael held up a hand of his own, waving it in front of Calum’s face. It was marked with a vaguely familiar symbol: a tidal wave marked in stark black lines, somewhat geometric in composition (where did he learn a term like 'composition'?) and Luke grinned (both at Michael’s antics and the mark). “Hey, Michael. I guess you’ve bonded with this weirdo too?”

“Literally,” Michael said. “What about you?”

“I can’t take off my shirt on camera,” Luke said. “When we met, he pushed me instead of saying ‘hello’.”

“I said I was sorry!” Calum said. Michael laughed.

“What did you do, Luke?” He asked.

“I pushed him back, of course,” Luke said. “We’ve both got the marks to prove it.”

“I’ll show you later,” Calum said, and wiggled his eyebrows. Michael and Luke both laughed.

Then Luke said, “It’s awesome to meet you, Michael. Do you have dinner plans, or anything?”

“Um?” Michael said. “I have a late class. I’m one of those losers who tried to schedule all their classes late so they could sleep in.”

“Luke is also one of those losers,” Calum said. “No one will judge you. Also, shit, I’m going to be late for class. See you, Lukey.”

“Bye, Cal,” Luke said. “Have Mikey text me.”

“Okay,” Michael said. They both waved. The screen went dark. Luke put the phone on the kitchen counter very carefully before whooping loudly and dancing around the room. There was also some giggling. And bouncing. Alex appeared in the doorway and asked if Luke was demented.

“Calum met another of his soulmates!” Luke said. Squealed. A smile marched across Alex’s face before giving way to a full grin. “How about that.”

Luke was beaming, and it didn’t feel like he was going to stop anytime soon. “His name’s Michael and he’s got pink hair. And he was wearing a really cool shirt, I think it said IDIOT on it.”

“Wow, he’s perfect,” Alex said dryly. “Have you figured out how that’s going to work yet?”

“What’s to figure out?” Luke said. Then he added quickly, noting the hint of a frown on Alex’s face, “Calum and I are soulmates. Michael and Calum are soulmates. Maybe Michael and I are soulmates too. When In Doubt, Polyamory.”

“Sounds like a nice idea, Luke,” Alex said, “And I wish you well. I’ve got class in 20 so I’d better run, so give this Michael The Talk for me.”

“I’m too nice for that, Alex!” Luke protested, but Alex was already detaching himself from the doorframe and ambling off.

 Luke’s phone buzzed with a text from an unknown number. It read, upon examination: hey, it’s mikey. what does cal mean by poliamory?

 

 

==

 

im playing a game called see how many times i can play i miss you without getting caught. tune in to find out what happens next.

Calum texted back: weirdo.

Luke grinned and queued it up the first time, right after JOS and ‘The Anthem’. Then he queued up a few more songs. Then he messed around on his phone a bit, texting back and forth with Michael about his new game. He queued up the commercial break. He snuck ‘I Miss You’ into the queue again. (He loved his job.)

Calum texted him: thats one. your commercials suck.

Luke replied: so boring. Then he announced the station and cracked a joke about zombies on the air. Calum texted him: luke srsly. Luke replied: ;)

omg

Luke giggled and tweaked the queue (and added ‘I Miss You’ again). This went on for a while, with Calum announcing he was going to bed around half eleven, and it got boring around midnight. After the sixth play, Luke opened the call lines and played ‘Uma Thurman’. The first call came in 30 seconds into the song, and Luke grumbled a bit over having to put them on hold for a song and a half.

Finally, “Line 1, you’re up. What are you doing up this late?”

Wondering what kind of fixation you have with ‘I Miss You’,” said the voice on the other end, which aside from being a bit blurred like phone voices were was both masculine and very, very Australian. “You’ve played it like 5 times, what kind of DJ does that? Poor taste, son.”

Luke grinned and put on his best affronted voice. “This is The Graveyard Shift, caller,” he said. “Most people up this late don’t give a damn.”

His phone buzzed with a text from Michael: omg omg

Shame on you, swearing on air,” Aussie said. “Congratulations, you’ve found someone who cares. Take note, Luke the Australian!”

Luke’s grin felt like it would eat his whole face. Strange Australian could identify fellow Australians. Also, was he flirting? “Noted, Caller the Australian. Any chance you can tell me what you’re doing off the continent? Ease the monotony of the night shift?” (Where did he learn the word 'monotony'?)

Nope, I’m just here to complain about your music tastes,” Aussie said, and Luke could hear the smile. “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. (He should know. No one sane took the night shift; Calum and Alex said so all the time.) “Thanks for your call, mate.”

Thanks for answering, mate,” Aussie said, with the hint of a laugh. “G’night!

The line cut off. Luke shook his head, trying not to laugh too loudly on air. “Goodnight, Caller the Australian,” he said. “Once again, I’m Luke for the Graveyard Shift here on HOHR. Call lines are still open! This is ‘Welcome to the Black Parade’.”

 

==

 

Michael texted him sometime the next morning, while he was still asleep: sorry i didn’t text u after the call, i fell asleep.

There was another text from him about ten minutes later.

LUKE LUKE OMG LUKE HELP

Luke found both texts when he rolled over and opened his eyes around two. He couldn’t think straight enough to answer them until about twenty minutes later, of course, but when he did he was sure they were perfectly legible.

whas goin on??

Michael texted him back promptly. wow you do sleep late. ASHTON WOKE ME UP TODAY AN WHEN I GOT DRESSED I FOUND A MARK ON MY SHOULDER AND I THINK ITS HIS BUT I DONT KNOW AND IM FREAKING OUT

Wait, what?

It was too early for this.

whose Ashton?

my roommate. he’s a weird drummer hippie dude and i don’t think he likes me very much. HOW CAN WE BE SOULMATES

mike you dont even know if the mark is his. dont. panic.

who’s panicking? i’m not panicking.

are you in class?

no

Luke called  him. Michael was frantic on the other end. “He’s my soulmate, Ashton ‘grumpy cat’ Irwin is my soulmate, he doesn’t even like me, why do I have to be his soulmate?”

“I was going to say it couldn’t get any worse than Calum, but apparently I’m wrong,” Luke said. “I’m putting you on speaker, I need tea.”

Go for it,” Michael said. “I’m just going to keep freaking out.”

“What does the mark look like?” Luke said. Michael paused for a moment before replying, “It’s kinda like a flower? Or a big bunch of leaves of some kind.”

“Pretty,” Luke said. “Does that remind you of Ashton much?”

Idunno, Ashton’s always really gloomy and stuff when he’s in the dorm and I don’t see him much anywhere else. He’s really, like, nature and flowers and stuff guy, though, that could be why the mark looks like a plant.”

If it’s his mark,” Luke said. “It might not be.”

That’s even scarier!” Michael said. “What if I accidentally bumped into this random stranger and they marked me and now I’ll never see them again?! I’d rather it be grumpy cat, at least I know who he is.”

Michael’s soulmate (second soulmate, what could that mean) was a grumpy hippie. Luke wondered what he could do. If he could do anything. He said. “Have you talked to him about it?”

No,” Michael said in a small voice. “I’m kinda-- I’m afraid to talk to him about it. It’s not-- he’s not, like, straight, I know that much, but I-- I’m still scared. Like I said. I don’t think he likes me very much.”

“I’m sorry, Mikey,” Luke said. “I wish I could do something.”

Michael said, “Wanna meet for a late lunch?”

Luke said, “Sure.”

 

==

 

Luke had stumbled across a strange dynamic. Knowing what Michael was to Calum (knowing what Michael could be to him), Luke didn’t dare touch him. Any other friend, any other day, Luke was sure either of them would have been the biggest of clingy idiots; as it was, Michael was hunched in on himself like an awkward turtle in a big sweater and Luke was fixing to chew his bottom lip into a pulp.

Michael sat on top of the table, like he was a bird. Or maybe that was his motto: ‘When In Doubt, Go For the High Ground’. Luke was definitely feeling the doubt. It was too warm to wear sweaters, and the Ashton debacle was looming over them like the likewise-ominous grey clouds. (When did he learn a word like debacle?)

In the end, though, Michael brought up Luke’s job as a DJ, and Luke started talking about the music, and Michael brightened up like the sun coming out from behind a cloud. It didn’t take long after that for  Luke to start talking about playing, and the ‘band’ he and Calum claimed to be in, and Michael wanted to know what they played and what they played on and what their neighbors thought (“You can’t play in the dorms, it’s like an unspoken rule”) and Luke explained about his roommates and how they played five nights a week anyway, and then Michael had an open invitation to break in and use Alex( and Luke and Calum and Jack)’s amps anytime. “And are you and Calum talking about, you know, getting a drink or something?” Luke asked, and Michael shrugged. “We’ve been texting on and off all the time, and we’ve been talking about getting a burger at this place downtown-- my ex and I used to go there, it’s amazing.”

“And you don’t hate it ‘cause you and your ex used to go there and like, hold hands and make googly eyes at each other?” Luke said. Michael shook his head.

“Nah. He and I were great, like, but we kinda knew it wouldn’t work out long-term? Like, I had all these marks and he had his, and that kinda loomed over our heads all the time we were together. And we broke up and it kinda sucked, but he started dating this amazing girl from the Monday class and I kind of, you know, went back to my music and video games.”

“Amazing Girl from the Monday Class doesn’t happen to mean Taylor, does it?” Luke said. Michael said, “Yeah, why?”

“She sits in front of Calum in class. He says she reminds him of me.”

Michael looked at Luke once, assessingly, and said, “Yeah, I can see why. Tall, blonde, amazingly hot…”

“You flatter me,” Luke said. “I’m not nearly as pretty as Taylor.”

“That’s true. Taylor’s like, like a goddess. A music goddess.” Michael was getting heart eyes. Luke said, “Don’t let Calum hear you.”

“I’m pretty sure if I’m sharing Calum with you, Calum can share me with Taylor Swift,” Michael said dryly. Luke felt his face go hot, and opened his mouth to protest before he saw Michael grinning. “Kidding. You’re way more in my league.”

Luke was still blushing. It was getting embarrassing. He said, “Maybe.”

“Is that an invitation.”

“Maybe.”

“You’re way too easy, you weirdo,” Michael said, and it looked for a moment like he was going to reach out and pat Luke on the head. He seemed like the type. Then he just slid off the table into the grass and started pulling up wildflowers. “Come on, weirdo, sit with me.”

Luke sat down in the grass with Michael, and they talked about music while Michael struggled to assemble the random weeds and wildflowers into something resembling a loop. Eventually Luke gathered what he was trying to do and out-performed him; he learned flower crowns way back in year eleven (by accident, of course).

“You look nice in flowers,” Michael said, apparently too heart-eyed to be bothered Luke had won that round. Luke nudged a duplicate over to the proximity of Michael’s knee.

“You do too. Prove me right.” (He was right.)

 

==

 

“I’m pretty sure Michael and I were on a date this afternoon,” Luke told Calum later.

Calum said. “Are you soulmates?”

“I think we’re delicately avoiding the subject,” Luke said. “Although he says he’d date me before trying to date Taylor Swift.”

“Nice,” Calum said. “You know she’s dating Ella O’Connor? From the Friday class?”

“Like no one saw that coming,” Luke said. “When did you hear that?”

“Met a bunch of hippies on the quad, ‘cause one of ‘em had my hat,” Calum said. “You know, the one I traded to the girl with the pink hair? This cute bloke had it, apparently he’s a friend of hers. And he’s friends with Zack, apparently. And Ella, and Zayn from the Friday.”

“All the cool people go to the Friday,” Luke grumbled.

“Not the cute bloke with the curly hair, apparently,” Calum said. “Nor Taylor Swift. Nor you, and you’re cool.”

“You only say it ‘cause you love me,” Luke said.

“Untrue. I love you ‘cause you’re cool.”

Luke giggled and put his feet in Calum’s lap. Then he said. “Did Michael tell you about his soulmate situation?”

Calum frowned. “No?”

“He thinks he’s been marked by his roommate, and he was freaking out about it. Apparently he texted me ‘cause I’m the soulmate weirdo.”

“You are that,” Calum said. “In more ways than one.”

“Come on the show tonight?” Luke said. “For soulmate hour?”

“Maybe,” Calum said. “Only if you let me in your bed tonight.”

“You’re always in my bed, Cal,” Luke said. “Even when I’m not there. Which is, unfortunately, a lot.”

“More often than is acceptable by human standards,” Calum said. “I’m lodging a protest.  Will you cuddle with me before work?”

“Do you even need to ask?” Luke was already attempting the math. It was half five, and he went to work at ten, and Alex and Jack were bringing back dinner.

Calum said, “Usually. You’re an oddly oblivious person.”

“Am not.”

“Are too.” Calum pushed Luke’s legs off of his lap and climbed to the other end of the sofa, draping himself over Luke and pushing his nose into the skin between Luke’s neck and shoulder. Luke pushed him off.

“I’m not cuddling you on this cramped couch. Proper bed or not at all.”

“Fine,” Calum said. And then he grabbed the front of Luke’s shirt and pulled him down close enough to kiss him.

(When in doubt, polyamory.)

 

==

 

Calum told the story of him and Michael (and the epic hat-trading between him and the girl with pink hair) on air that night, over the phone. Luke had to coax it out of him, because Calum was an awkward fuck over the phone. It was an insanely cute story, though, and it got Luke to thinking of the markings on his collarbone and the matching ones on Calum’s chest. They were a pretty cute story too. “Is that the end of the story, then?” Luke asked, even though he knew the end of the story. Calum told him (and the radio) about their plan to go to dinner. “He’s pretty cool.

Damn right, he’s pretty cool, Luke thought. Also, pretty. “I’m really happy for you, Calum,” he said. “Is there any song I can play for you guys in honor of this truly romantic story?”

Hmm,” Calum said, and Luke could see the smug smile Calum got when he was going to do something ridiculous. “How about… ‘What I Like About You’, by The Romantics.”

Luke grinned, already plugging it in. “Romantic. Coming right up, Calum. Good night!” He hoped dearly Calum could hear the smile, the I-love-you-and-I’ll-see-you-in-the-morning. Calum didn’t say good-bye, just hung up; a moment later Luke’s phone buzzed with a text. “That was newly-resolved Calum Hood on HOHR,” he said. “I’m Luke for the Graveyard Shift, and this is ‘What I Like About You’.”

The music followed. Luke read the text, from Calum: you did really good. Another from Michael read, that sounded way sweeter than it actually was. also well played.

Luke grinned. His phone promptly buzzed with another text, this time from Alex: you guys had better be getting your shit together. Luke decided not to think about that one, and took the time instead to text a string of winky-faces to Calum and Michael.

“That was ‘What I Like About You’ by The Romantics,” he announced, when it was over. “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!” Then he smiled a smug smile, even though no one was there to see it, and added, “This is ‘I Miss You’.” He imagined briefly the Aussie from the day before hearing that announcement and groaning, and the smug smile grew a bit. Moments into the song, he got a caller; he directed the call to Line 1 and waited, daring to hope.

“Line 1, you’re live, choose your poison.”

“You really can’t stay away from that song, can you?”

Luke felt like his smile would eat up his whole face. “Good evening, Caller Australia. Are you here to request a song, or are you here to complain?”

Both,” Aussie 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. ‘Stop’. He liked the way Aussie said stop. It sounded cute. He was sure Aussie would be able to hear the teasing, at least he hoped.

Okay,” Aussie said.

“You say ‘stop’ again.”

Stop?” said Aussie, in a dubious tone. Luke said, “Alright, I accept your terms. What song do you want to hear?”

I didn’t think that far ahead,” Aussie said. Luke grinned and thought, this bloke’s adorable. Aussie said, “Um… what the hell. Play Bohemian Rapsody.”

“I can do that for you,” Luke said. He was grinning again. “Coming up for Caller Complaining Australian, Bohemian Rapsody. Go to bed, Complaining Australian.”

I can do that,” Aussie said. He sounded amused, at least. “Goodnight, DJ Luke.” He hung up.

(Is this the real life, is this just fantasy?)

Luke wanted to meet Caller Complaining Australian. He wanted to find out if he was as cute as his voice was, and if he had three-plus soulmarks on his hopefully very hot body. It sounded like a very good use of his time.

Michael texted him: okay holy shit that’s probably the happiest i’ve ever heard ash and we’ve been roommates since september.

Oh. Awkward. Luke replied, that was ashton?

yeah. hang on, i think he’s here

It was a long moment later that Michael went on, he asked me to turn the TV down. i didn’t realize he had it in him.

Then, HES THE FRIEND OF THAT GIRL BORROWING CALUMS HAT

Huh. Small world.

 

==

 

He woke up the next morning at an indiscernible time with Calum wrapped around him, and went back to sleep. When he woke up again (around noon) there was no Calum, but there was a pleasant smell of food coming from somewhere, which was motivation enough for him to roll out of bed and into some pants and shuffle towards the kitchen like a Luke-zombie. There was Calum, along with a someone with wilted pink hair Luke assumed was Michael. They both greeted him with low-grade enthusiasm, which Luke appreciated. (It was too early for them to be too excited.)

Luke meandered up behind Calum and wrapped his arms around his waist and buried his nose in his shoulder, mumbling a greeting. Calum said, “You too. You shouldn’t be up this early, y’know.”

“You weren’t there next to me,” Luke mumbled, and Calum laughed. Michael with his wilted hair watched them across the counter, offering a small smile when Luke met his eyes.

“Calum made you breakfast, but we ate it,” he supplied.

Luke made a small noise of protest, which seemed to entertain Michael to some degree because he giggled. It was a nice sound. Luke could feel Calum laughing, his back against Luke’s stomach, and it made Luke want to laugh too. He said, “Is there any more food?”

“Of course we’re not going to make you starve, Lukey,” Calum said. “Breakfast’s on the stove. The one with the lid.”

There was a pan with a lid on the stove. As it turned out, it contained eggs; Luke ate them straight from the pan while Michael and Calum watched/talked quietly amongst themselves. Something about wait 'til everyone’s awake was suggested. Luke didn’t feel like questioning it for obvious reasons (i.e., he wasn’t awake). Calum put on the kettle, and at some point a mug of tea was placed just out of reach of Luke’s elbow. Michael reached around Calum and stole some of his eggs. Luke swatted at him and missed. Calum said, “Be nice to Luke, Mikey.”

(“Yeah, be nice to Luke, Mikey,” Luke said.

“You’re bad friends,” Michael said.

“I feel stung,” Calum said.)

Luke ate his eggs and drank his tea, which was good progress on the way to feeling like a proper person. Calum gave him a quick briefing on his upcoming day when he was finished, quick enough that Luke was able to process it. “You’ve got class at two and class at half five, which should be enough time for you to do, like, homework and stuff. You’ve got that paper to do for Monday.”

“D’you take the Monday?” Michael said. Luke nodded a bit. Michael said, “Ashton does too.”

“How is it that you’re not friends but you know all his classes?” Calum said.

Michael frowned. “Is that weird?”

“A bit, yeah,” Calum said. “I didn’t know more’n three things about my roommate, first year. Moved in with Luke and Alex after that.”

“What did you know  about your roommate?” Michael asked.

Calum shrugged. “He had a girlfriend who lived off campus, he stayed with her most of the time, and he smoked a lot of weed.”

“Ashton doesn’t smoke weed,” Michael said. “Thankfully. Doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, goes out for runs in the early mornings, all that ‘my body is a temple’ shit. I’m surprised he isn’t vegetarian.”

“You got lucky,” Calum said. “The smell of weed infects, like, everything.”

“I tried it a bit in freshman year,” Michael said. “I know.” Luke wasn’t sure if his Very Serious Tone was sincere or not.

Calum said, “What else do you know about Ash?”

Michael thought about it. “He plays the drums. Like, really well. And he records them on his phone and plays them when he thinks I’m not paying attention. He goes to breakfast with the campus hippies on Wednesday mornings. He has like twelve bandannas and he wears all of them because he refuses to cut his hair, and he’s allergic to cats and I know this because I brought one back before winter break and he wouldn’t stop sneezing. Didn’t complain, just kept sneezing until I figured out for myself that he was allergic. He’s very passive aggressive.”

“Why did you have a cat?” Luke said. The dorms were usually pet-free, unless he was mistaken.

Michael replied, “Harry.” Apparently that explained everything.

Calum said, “Harry Styles?”

“Mm. My ex,” Michael said dismissively. Calum’s eyes grew dark(er than usual). “Tall, awkward, big curly hair? Lotta tattoos?”

“Yeaaah,” Michael said. “What of it?”

“He made a move on Ashton yesterday,” Calum said.

Michael deflated. Luke said, because he was a dick like that, “How do you know?”

“He was hanging out on the quad with the hippie squad yesterday,” Calum said. “Friend of his from the Friday, Zayn, is one of ‘em. Ashton was hanging out, took off for class, Harry asked for his number to ask him out. Zayn gave it to him, and five minutes later they apparently had a date.”

Michael deflated a bit more, and Luke recalled his wilted appearance from earlier. “Mike, did something happen with Ashton before you got here?”

“I, ah, took a shot at talking to him,” Michael said. “He kinda blew me off.” He shrugged, playing cavalier and failing. Luke felt a funny ache in his stomach. He said, “What’d you say?”

“I told him I’d be out today, cracked a joke about how straight he wasn’t when I mentioned I had a date,” Michael said. “An’ I-- I remembered how thrilled he’d been on the radio, Luke, when he realized you were Australian, and I told him about how I was from Sydney-- real shocker, right? And he was like, ‘that’s cool, Mikey’ and that was it. No fireworks, no sudden revelations. He should be able  to tell when we’re soulmates, right?”

Luke recognized the frantic tone to his voice from their phone conversation the previous day, realized how close he was to tears. Just as Calum made to spring to action (soulmates think alike, Luke thought), Luke reached out and grabbed Michael’s arm, pulling him in for a hug. Calum promptly wrapped himself around Michael’s other side, like a soulmate sandwich. Michael’s face was smooshed into Luke’s collarbone, which muffled the sniffling noises he promptly began to make.

“You’ve got us,” Luke murmured. “Ashton can be an oblivious fuck for the rest of his life, but you’ve got us.”

“Luke?” Michael sniffled. “I’m pretty sure it’s Calum I’m soulmates with.”

“Nope,” Luke said. “You’re mine, soulmates be damned. You’re pretty and I like you.”

Michael laughed a bit. “Works for me.”

“Am I pretty too, Lukey?” Calum said.

“No,” Luke said. “You’re manly as hell.”

“Awesome,” Calum said.

Eventually, Michael pried them off of him and went to wash his hands. Calum started the dishes. Luke made tea. About halfway through that activity, the sound of Michael squawking made its way down the hall. “HOLY SHIT, LUKE.”

“What?” Luke said. Michael stampeded down the hall and shoved his bare arm in Luke’s face. “LOOK.” Luke looked. There was a mark there, stark against his pale skin: a burning match.

In that moment, part of Luke’s brain screamed. Part of it said, “HOLY SHIT.” Part of it called for Calum. The part that won, though, was the part that said, “Now I don’t feel bad at all about doing this,” before taking Michael’s face in both hands and kissing him.

“Man, you’re not kissing without me?” Calum said. Michael pulled away and looked at him and said, “Maybe.” Luke took the moment to pull up both his sleeves and look for the places where Michael’s hands had brushed them before being thoroughly hugged; sure enough, he’d been marked: there was a tiny cartoon planet, a set of rings distinguishing it from a random swirly circle,  halfway up his forearm.

“I knew it,” Luke said. “Eat that, Alex!”

“Eat what?”

“Shit, he’s home,” Calum said. “Hey, Alex, come meet our soulmate!”

 

==

 

“What does that leave?” Luke said some amount of time later, when they’d reconvened after classes and Calum had gone off to ‘soccer’ and Luke was trailing after Michael to the dormitories. Michael thought about it.

“None of mine. What about you and Cal?”

Luke thought about it. “Calum’s got the hug mark. I’ve got one on my shoulder, kinda like yours. And we’ve got each others’, and yours, and that’s it.”

“Ashton’s got a hug mark,” Michael said. “Not hard to miss. And he might have one on his arm, though it might also be a smudge. And… Idunno, he doesn’t think much about the system, really. Maybe it’s, like, part of the hippie thing.”

“Maybe he’s afraid of it,” Luke said. “So, like, he aggressively doesn’t think about it in response to that.”

“That sounds smart,” Michael said. “This is us, hang on. It’s a mess in here.” He paused to unlock the door and stepped in, leaving Luke in the hall. There was the sound of soft voices, Michael’s vaguely surprised; a few moment later, before it got awkward, Michael emerged again. “Ashton’s in there,” he said softly. “He should be in class right now, but he said he’s not feeling well.” His eyebrows were puckered nearly to the point of meeting in the middle, and he was frowning, which was pretty easy detective work to the thesis that this story didn’t sit well with Michael. “Is that not right?” Luke said.

“He never misses class,” Michael said. “Never ever. Not in all the time we’ve been roommates. He’s got a 4.0 and he never misses class, ‘cause apparently he sucks too much to have a social life. ‘Not feeling well’ wouldn’t usually constitute missing a class like this, not for Ash.”

“D’you think there’s anything we can do for him?” Luke said.

Michael shrugged. “I don’t know, like. I don’t know not-feeling-well Ashton. I know don’t-talk-to-me i’m-busy-being-moody Ashton.”

“Good point,” Luke said. “We could bring him dinner? Or something?”

“We could do that,” Michael said. “Or, like, I could do that. Don’t you have work?”

Maybe,” Luke said. “I guess that might actually be a priority.” Michael laughed. “Just maybe, though. Come on, I want to watch Calum sweat.”

 

==

 

“LUKE, GET THE FUCK OUT OF BED BEFORE YOU’RE LATE FOR WORK.”

“Shit, is that Alex?”

“AND YOU’D BETTER NOT BE FUCKING ON MY GODDAMN FUTON.”

“Yeah, that’s Alex.”

Luke rolled out of bed, fumbling for shirt and socks. Calum followed, not bothering to pull on his shirt, punching in Luke’s alarm and stuffing it into his backpack before saying simply “I’ll make tea” and leaving the room. Michael reluctantly sat up and watched Luke for a moment before crawling after him and pulling on his boots. “Where’s my jacket?”

“Wherever you left it,” Luke said.

Thanks, Lukey,” Michael replied. “I’m going with you, by the way. I’m gonna make sure no one mugs my pretty new soulmate.” He paused from his search to give Luke a shit-eating grin, and Luke swatted him.

“I can take care of myself,”  he protested.

“I know you can,” Michael said. “Now you just don’t have to. Anyway, I have an ulterior motive for going.” He found his jacket and pulled it on as Luke did up the laces to his shoes.

Calum reappeared and vocally encouraged them both to get on with it, then asked why they both were getting ready to go. Michael explained. Calum said, “Okay. Lukey, your alarm’s set and it’s twenty til, and the kettle’s on.”

“Okay,” Luke said. Michael said, “Is the leftover pizza in the fridge?”

“Yeah,” Calum said, turning back towards the kitchen. “Midnight snack much, Mikey?”

“Sort of,” Michael said, following him. “I’m gonna take it to Ashton. For, like, a care package.”

“Cool.” Calum said. Luke finished with his shoes and followed them, catching up his bag as he went; Calum added, “Alex, Mikey’s taking the pizza!”

“Okay!” Alex replied. Michael said to Calum, as he opened the fridge, “And if he’s like, awake, I’m gonna tell him about the gig, see if he’s interested, yeah?”

“Sure,” Calum said. “Luke, tea.”

“On it,” Luke said, pouring boiling water into a travel mug as he spoke. He jammed the lid on overtop one-handed and slapped the kettle back on the stove, snagging the beanie lying on the counter next to it and pulling it on.

“That’s mine,” Calum protested.

Luke said, “Okay,” and didn’t take it off. He added, “Mikey?”

“Coming, coming,” Mikey said, grabbing the de-fridged pizza from the counter. “See you in a bit, babe,” he told Calum, leaning over to kiss him briefly. Luke mirrored the gesture, adding a “good-night.”

Alex said from the other room, “Oh, god, the sappiness has increased. Get out of my apartment before I get cavities.”

“Love you, Alex!” Luke called. Alex’s groan was cut off as Luke closed the door behind himself and Michael. “He loves us,” Luke said. “He’s like a big brother, though. Apparently showing open affection goes against his bro code.”

Michael snorted. “Wrong house for that.”

“S’what I said,” Luke said. “Weirdo.”

That one had Michael laughing all the way to the street (honestly not too far). He managed to get himself under control about the time that the pair of them arrived at the bus stop on the corner, then promptly asked, “So how did you two wind up living with him and Jack, again?”

“Work,” Luke said. “Alex and Jack are in that band of theirs, and we met at a student showcase in freshman year and struck up a conversation. And then we were friends, and then they offered us the other room in their apartment, ‘cause they got how hard it was to play music on campus, and we moved in start of this year.”

“Huh,” Michael said. “So you’d been a two-piece for an awful long time before I came along?”

“Mm,” Luke said, as the bus pulled up to the curb. “I like it better with you, though.”

Michael beamed. Then the bus pulled up to the curb and kicked up a spray of water, and both of them jumped back to avoid a dousing. Michael swore indelicately. Luke laughed. The bus doors opened, spilling its passengers onto the sidewalk, and Luke and Michael (and a pizza box) climbed aboard. Michael’s attention snagged on something as they took their seats, his eyes drifting towards the back of the bus, but when Luke asked what was up he simply said, “Nothing. It’s nothing,” and looked away. Luke wanted to look, but he didn’t. The bus crawled towards campus.

“Mike,” Luke said, “If someone asks, do you want me to say we’re just friends?”

“Why?” Michael said. “Cause of the gay thing? I’ve been out for years, I don’t mind.”

“I’m out too,” Luke said. “I was thinking more of the, eh, soulmates-polyamory thing. Not forever, of course, just ‘til we figure all this out.”

“That might be a good plan,” Michael admitted. “Has it been the plan for long?”

“Mm,” Luke said. “Since Calum and I realized we’d be sharing our lives with two other people and that it wasn’t normal.”

“And that’s why you never talk about your marks on the show,” Michael said. Luke nodded. Michael said, “That’s real sweet, Lukey.”

Luke felt himself blush. “Thanks, Mikey.”

Michael said, “We can say we’re friends for now. Calum and I have already been declared soulmates, anyway.”

“I wasn’t thinking,” Luke said mournfully. “Oh well.”

“Oh well,” Michael said. “Friends. Friends who kiss.”

“And hold hands and shit,” Luke said.

Michael laughed. “Yeah, that too.” He glanced up as the bus began to slow and added, “Our stop?”

“Um, yeah,” Luke said, leaning up in his seat to check. “Our stop. C’mon.”

“Awesome,” Michael said, collecting his  pizza box. Luke collected his bag, pulling out his phone to check the time. “Ten minutes til.”

“Is that late?” Michael said, getting to his feet. Luke shook his head, following suit. “Not yet. Barely on time, maybe. Miranda sometimes queues up the first song for me so I’m not horrifyingly late, but it’s not a given.”

“Cool,” Michael said. The bus halted completely and the doors opened; Luke and Michael joined the flow spilling out onto the sidewalk, and Luke turned towards the building that housed HOHR with Michael on his heels. They made it all the way inside and up to the studio at a trot, Michael a little out of breath, and arrived to hear Miranda signing off.

Luke exhaled in relief. Michael said, “Just in time?”

“Yeah,” Luke said. “Hey, Miranda!”

Miranda, exiting the booth, waved. “Hey, Luke,” she said, pulling on her jacket and walking towards the door as she spoke. “Who’s this?” She gave Michael an appraising look, eyebrows arching the slightest bit in interest. Luke felt the need to defend his soulmate’s honor, despite the fact that he completely understood. (Michael was, after all, super hot and charming and stuff. But he was also Luke’s.)

“Mikey, he’s a friend of mine,” he said. “Calum’s soulmate, you know.” Michael waved, punctuating it with a smile. He was propping the pizza box on one hip like a laundry basket, which was weird in a cute way. Miranda nodded, promptly shifting from potentially-flirtatious to polite.

“Hello, Michael,” She said. “Luke, I’ve queued up ‘Jesus of Suburbia’ for you. Have a good night, yeah?”

“Thanks, Miranda,” Luke said. “You too.” He smiled too. There was a lot of smiling, awkward there-was-some-untimely-checking-out-going-on smiling and also really-it’s-cool-we’re-cool smiling. Miranda waved once at both of them and headed out the door, leaving Luke and Michael and a room full of ambient music.

“So...” Michael said. “Why ‘Jesus of Suburbia’?”

“Gives me plenty of time to get started,” Luke said, grateful that the previous subject had been dismissed. “Plus it’s a sweet intro, like. Listen to this and don’t tell me when it explodes into electric guitar it’s not gonna sound badass.” Michael looked up a bit and listened to Miranda’s last track. It was a Florence + The Machine bit, heavy on percussion, and it sounded like it had come out of The Lord of the Rings. It wasn’t Luke’s speed, but he had to admit it was awesome.

Michael’s mouth turned up into a smile. “Damn,” he said. “That’s gonna sound amazing.  Like, BAM! Luke’s taking the wheel, let’s fucking rock.”

Luke laughed. “That’s exactly what’s happening. Also, you had better hurry and check on Ashton if you don’t want to walk back.”

Michael’s eyes went wide. “Shit, the bus stops running at eleven, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, yes it does.”

Michael swore four times and said, “I’d better go. You, uh, be good. And, like. Um.” He leaned in and kissed Luke, which was amazing even with the fact that there was a pizza box pressing into their stomachs.

Somewhere above them, JOS blasted to life, all rage and guitar, and Luke jumped. They broke apart, Michael giving a breathy giggle, and Luke said, “That pizza box is going to ruin my abs.”

Michael snorted. “I just saw you shirtless like half an hour ago, Lukey. You don’t have much going for you.”

“Fuck off,” Luke said, gently shoving him towards the door. “Go visit your potential soulmate, soulmate. And get laid. With your other soulmate.”

Michael laughed. “Fine, soulmate. See you tomorrow.”

“Bye, Mikey,” Luke said. Mikey beamed at him, shifted his grip on the pizza box, and darted out the door. Just before it shut behind him, Luke heard someone shout “sorry!” and that someone sounded awfully like Michael. Luke shook his head, grinning like an idiot, and went to work. Billie Joe Armstrong, reveling in delinquency and solitude, serenaded him through queueing tracks and tweaking the commercial break; mostly he was just waiting for Michael to text him. And thinking about how he’d kissed Michael. He’d kissed Michael. He’d only known the bloke for like, three days. They’d only officially been soulmates for ten hours. Less than half a day. Michael was wonderful, though. Everything was absolutely wonderful (except where it wasn’t, but Luke wasn’t thinking about that). Michael texted him just as ‘Dearly Beloved’ faded into ‘Tales From Another Broken Home’, somewhat subdued: ash’s asleep. i left the pizza with a note and turned on the radio. he likes hearing you on the radio.

Luke felt himself blush. He texted back, nerd.

ikr

A while later, he opened the call lines for soulmate stories again. (Half-hoping for the day when Alex would call up and admit Jack was his soulmate, but that would never happen.) A girl called up and told him about how she was sure she’d met her soulmate years ago, but they lived in another country. Another girl admitted she thought she’d lost her soulmate to something stupid. There was more than one story of kids who swore they’d met their soulmates over the internet, but had never met in person to be sure. Luke wished them all the best, and queued up the next batch of songs. A couple of student remixes. ‘First Date’. ‘Kill The DJ’. ‘Destroya’. As he mentally composed his next intro (the weather needed at least one comment that night), Alex texted him: i think theyre having sex w/o u

Luke snorted and replied, gee, thanks. Alex added, my ears r bleeding. Luke replied again, didnt need to know that. leave me to my work, you perv

Alex did. Luke shook his head, felt happy for Michael and Calum briefly, and decided he wanted to know what his alarm was set to. As it turned out, Calum had set it to Uma again. Luke changed it to ‘Kill the DJ’ and snapped back for his intro.

“Hello hello, this is The Graveyard Shift and I am your loyal DJ Luke! Just a reminder, I’m not so loyal as to take the weekend shift as well, so you’ll be seeing our lovely Taylor for the night shift this Saturday and Sunday.” She didn’t bleach her hair, incidentally.  “Anyway, has anyone else noted the really gloomy weather? It’s like someone has been feeling really sad and is taking it out on the rest of us. Feel better!”

His mind wandered for a moment, landing on the one person he knew to be currently upset: Ashton. He hoped Ashton was okay. Then he added, “Anyways, it’s my second to last day for the week, which means nothing, but call lines are still open if you guys still have any sweet stories to tell. Line Four--” he glanced at his console, checking the calls that had come in during the break-- “You’re live. Tell on.”

“Hi, my name’s Harry,” said the bloke on the other end, “And I have been unkindly pressured into this phone call by an obnoxious peer group.” There was a pause, backed by the sound of a scuffle on Harry’s end, and Luke wondered if this Harry was in any way related to Michael’s ex before he popped up again, “Anyway. I meet this really dreamy bloke on the bus today, which totally made up for the fact that I was being a clumsy weirdo.” He was laughing. Luke laughed a bit too. He said, “It wasn’t a very graceful meeting, then?”

Nah,” Harry said. He sounded sheepish. “I was on a date with this other bloke, this really sweet guy, and I made to get off the bus and tripped on my big feet. And this dreamy fellow from the motherland broke my fall.”

“That’s pretty unfortunate about that other bloke,” Luke said, wondering more than ever (and dearly hoping otherwise) if this was formerly-Michael’s-Harry. “But I’m really happy for you and this new bloke of yours. Hope he isn’t too bruised up?”

Not too badly,” Harry said. “He’s healthy enough to sit here and laugh at me, at least.” He was laughing again. Luke grinned. “Oh, it’s like that, is it?”

Apparently my soulmate  is a weirdo,” Harry replied dryly. “At least he’s hot.

Luke laughed. “That’s always a plus, Harry. Any songs I can play for you and your new man tonight?”

Ah, man, I don’t know if I can think of anything on short notice. Thanks, though.”

“I’ll pick something for you,” Luke said. “Darling, you knock me off my feeeeet…

Harry laughed. “Sounds great, mate. Goodnight!”

“Goodnight, Harry,” Luke said. Line 4 cut off. Luke glanced down at his phone just in time to see a text from Michael: oh god harry dumped ash for his soulmate

This was why Luke ought to turn his phone off during work. He looked away from the phone very thoroughly and announced, “Line 2, you’re live. Any romantic tales for us?”

Nah,” said the voice on the other end, deep and Irish-accented. “I’m just here to congratulate ‘Arry and thank the universe for rendering me the only single guy I know.”

(I was alone/I was all by myself)

Luke said, “That’s real unfortunate, mate. Would you like me to play a song for you?”

Sure,” said Irish Bloke. Luke said, “good luck changing your situation, man. Have a good evening, yeah?”

Will do,” Irish Bloke said. “My and my beer. Goodnight!” He hung up. Luke said, “Here’s ‘All By Myself’for Mr. Lonely Irishman. Once again, I’m Luke and this is ‘The Graveyard Shift’ on HOHR.”

 

==

 

Luke woke the next morning painfully aware of the fact that three people should not share a sleeper futon, however cozy. Cozy, after all, turned into cramped when one didn’t have enough sleep. Michael’s elbow was digging into his side, the rest of him fixing to fall off the bed; Calum was pressed against the wall, his arms wrapped around Luke’s waist. His grip was too tight. Luke squirmed, trying to loosen it, and halted abruptly when Michael mumbled and started rolling farther off the edge. The older boy mumbled again, groaned, and rolled into Luke instead.

“Fuck me,” Luke mumbled. Then he snuggled right into Michael’s chest and closed his eyes.

When he opened them again, there was only two of them: Luke, and Michael wrapped around him. When Luke shifted, he opened his eyes; Luke found himself temporarily swallowed in green before he found himself saying, “did you seriously pause having sex with Calum to text me about Ashton? Also, did you have the radio on while you were having sex?”

“Of course,” Michael mumbled. “We thought, if you couldn’t be there…”

“Oh my god, Michael,” Luke said. Michael giggled, sarcastic tone dissipating in an instant. “I don’t know what Alex told you, but we didn’t, like. Break the bed or anything. It was mostly, like, cuddling with sexy undertones.”

Luke raised an eyebrow. Or tried to. Michael must have gotten the message, though, because he promptly shoved Luke (though not very hard) and said, “I’m not going to tell you about sex I had with Calum, you perv. Go back to sleep!”

“You know, I’ve had sex with Calum too,” Luke mumbled, rolling over and pressing his back up against Michael’s chest. “We could compare notes.”

“Go the fuck to sleep, Lukey.”

He must have, because the next time he opened his eyes it was because Calum was shaking him by the shoulder and saying in a rather loud voice, “GET UP YOU HAVE CLASS IN HALF AN HOUR.” Then he rolled Luke out of bed and somehow coerced him into the first pair of jeans they could find before bundling him into the kitchen and shoving a mug of tea into his hands and setting a plate in front of him. Luke thought, in some partially-conscious corner of his mind, that Calum had planned this out very well.

“Michael’s already gone,” Calum said without preamble. “It’s Friday, so he’s got the afternoon class, and he said he means to wait up for Ashton so we’ll see him tomorrow. Moan like a zombie if you understand any of this.”

Luke said, “Mmmmmuuuuh.”

“Good. Your stuff’s by the door, I’ve got a travel mug by the stove, you’re going to French. I’ll be seeing you again at lunch.”

French was Luke’s 11 am class, his partially-conscious brain supplied. Luke was running on less than 5 hours of sleep. “After lunch I go back to bed, right?”

“You go back to bed at 3, after Economics,” Calum said. “Take the time between lunch and that to do some of your fucking work, if you don’t mind. Come on, up you get.” Luke’s plate was empty; Calum pulled him to his feet and stuffed a beanie on his head and guided him into a pair of shoes, sweeping up the travel mug and pressing it into his hands.  “You’re ready for battle. Moan like a zombie if you know what you’re doing.”

Luke leaned forward and kissed him instead. It was brief; Luke pulled back in time to say, “Thanks for looking out for me, Cal.”

“You’re welcome,” Calum said, smiling like an idiot. “Love you.”

“Love you too,” Luke said.

“Now go on, you’re gonna be late!” Calum shoved him towards the door, following behind him to help him shoulder his bag. “Bus is always on time, you need to be moving!” Luke was moving, out the door and down the stairs, calling a last farewell, out the front door and on the sidewalk in minutes. The bus was very much on time.

So, essentially, everything was fine until Luke sat down and fumbled in his bag and realized his phone wasn’t there. Well, Luke thought, shit.

He looked around. The closest person he could see was the girl sitting across the aisle, dressed in sweats and a beanie with a book open on her lap. It didn’t look particularly engrossing.  Luke inhaled awkwardly and mentally composed his will before he leaned across the aisle and said, “Excuse me?”

She looked up and fixed him with a double-barrel stare. Luke put his hands up in surrender and said, “Sorry. I hope I’m not bothering you, I just had a dumb question. I can totally fuck off--”

“What do you want?” She said. She sounded more exasperated than I’m-going-to-skin-you. Luke said with a (very) little more courage, “Can I borrow your phone? I, uh, forgot mine at home and I need to tell my friend before he finds out for himself. He worries about me when I’m operating on less than seven hours.”

“How many have you had today?” She asked. There was no need to clarify what she meant. Only in college...

Luke said, “Five.”

“Ouch,” she said. Then she fumbled in the pocket of her hoodie and produced her phone, shuffling through it briefly and holding it out with the dial screen showing. Luke reached out and took it, mumbling a “thanks so much” before he dialled. Calum picked up after a long moment with a snappy, “Calum Hood.”

“It’s me,” Luke said. “I forgot my phone.”

There was another pause. Calum said, “Goddammit, Luke.”

“There’s always something,” Luke said. “It should be in my room, could you bring it to lunch?”

Yeah,” Calum said. “Love you.”

“You too,” Luke said. Calum hung up first; Luke handed the phone back. He could see strands of bubblegum-pink hair sticking out the front of the girl’s beanie. “Thanks again,” he said.

“No prob,” she said. “Good luck with your phone.”

“I hope so,” Luke said. “Have a good day.”

“Thanks,” she said, and she pocketed her phone and went back to her book. Luke collected his things as the bus quite conveniently slowed down, before glancing out the window and realizing he had one stop left. He dropped his bag on the floor and leaned his head back against the seat. “Dammit.”

“You weren’t lying about that five hours, were you?” Luke opened his eyes and saw that the girl with (apparently) pink hair was grinning at him. Luke said ruefully, “Less than that, even. Four and a half, four and three-quarters, maybe.”

“You didn’t stay up watching LOST or some shit, did you?” She said. Luke shook his head.

“Nah. I work a late shift, don’t have time.”

“Good. Friend of mine tried that, freshman year. He failed like three classes.”

Luke chuckled. The girl looked amused. The bus slowed down again, and Luke sat up. “My stop.”

“Safe travels,” she said. Luke thanked her and grabbed his bag and ambled towards the front of the bus, bumping shoulders with the disembarking traffic and trying not to trip over the boarding traffic. Then he was out under the moody grey sky, burning shoe rubber on the way to French and hoping to hell he wasn’t late. That would set a nice precedent for the rest of the day. (Since when did he know a word like ‘precedent’?)

(He wasn’t late for class, incidentally.)

Calum met him at lunch and slapped his phone into his hand. Luke touched his wrist, the closet to a kiss that he felt safe, and Calum brushed his knuckles with the tips of his fingers before dragging him into the lunch line. Luke was a very patient person; he spent the wait checking his texts, and he had a good handful. One from Rena-and-by-extension-Nia (we left the new mix in your office for whenever, if you see casey tell him to turn his phone on), one from Alex (youve got the house to yourselves tonight, dont drag me into this), and six from Michael.

(i love you… know we’ve only known each other for like 4 days but i still love u

no sign of ash, but he left a thank u note for the pizza

u would not believe how boring this intro to law class is

cal just told me u lost ur phone… sucks man

i think i met that pink haired girl again, she’s badass

what if i dyed my hair purple?)

“Luke, food,” Calum said, and Luke pocketed his phone and focused on lunch/acquiring lunch. When they were sitting down and Calum was (rightly so) paying more attention to filling his stomach than to Luke, Luke texted Michael. did u ask her abt ash?

He responded, couldnt think of a low key way to say ‘i wanted to ask abt your friends wellbeing b/c he might be my soulmate’

good point.

“Eat your damn lunch, Lukey,” Calum grumbled. Luke put his phone down and ate his damn lunch. Then he texted Michael, i think youd look badass w/purple hair.

:-)

He sat in in the library after lunch, buried in his paper for US history and turning a project for Monday over and over in his head (what i wish you were to me/all it is’s could never be) until Calum texted him and reminded him in a timely manner that he had another class to get to. Then Luke pretended he’d thought of it himself and packed up his shit and walked to class like a capable grown adult (which he wasn’t. he liked to pretend).

all i wish could never be flowed better.

 

==

 

Michael texted him later, when he was on the way to work: ashton’s really not interested in talking. he came in, hit the showers, and went right to sleep. i’m playing the concerned roomie card.

Then he texted again as Luke was setting up the queue: wanna go w/me to pick out hair dye?

When Luke had a moment he replied, hell yeah, and those two texts totally weren’t the reason he played the punk-rockest of cheesy love songs all night. Not at all.

 

==

 

The phone was ringing. It was ringing off the mobile-phone equivalent of a hook. Luke rolled over and fumbled for it, and wound up knocking it off the side table. He tried again and found it nesting on top of his bag, ringing all to hell. Luke’s groggy mind registered 8:07 am and a photo of Michael before he consented to answering.

“Hello?” He mumbled, hopefully in the right direction. Calum appeared in the doorway, sweaty from his run. Michael said over the phone, exuberant, “Ashton’s interested! In the gig!”

“What?” Luke said, pushing himself onto his elbows. He could see Calum’s eyebrows draw together in a small frown from where he was. Michael said, “I talked to Ashton this morning about the gig!” Luke’s pulse said, oh. Michael went on, “When I mentioned we wanted him to drum his face got all shocked, like he was surprised anyone’d want his help. And he said he’d think about it! He was so wigged out, I could tell, and wigged out is definitely better than sad.”

“Michael, that’s amazing,” Luke said. “That’s like, really huge.” Calum’s eyes got wide; Luke realized he was smiling, like a groggy demented idiot. He said, “Do you know why he was upset?”

No, but I like, voiced my concerns,” Michael said. “Baby steps.”

“Baby steps,” Luke agreed. “Um… see you later?”

There was a pause. Then Michael said in a distinctly oh, shit voice,“I woke you up, didn’t I?”

Luke said, “Yeaaaaah.”

I’m so sorry, Luke,” Michael said. “I didn’t mean to, I just got excited, like, Ashton just left and I had to tell you so like, I’ll see you later, yeah, I’m really sorry.”

“Love you, Mikey.”

Love you, Lukey,” Michael said, with a relieved smile Luke could hear through the phone. Because he was an asshole he added, before Michael could hang up, “Calum’s really sweaty right now. He just got back from his run and he’s not wearing a shirt. Thought you might like to know.”

Fuck you too, Lukey!” Michael half-shouted, and Luke hung up. He felt smug. Calum said, “What the hell, Lukey.”

“Nothing,” Luke said. His face muscles hurt from smiling. Calum rolled his eyes and said, “Did he call about Ashton?”

“Mm,” Luke said. “Said he’d think about the gig. Sounded pretty enthusiastic, apparently.”

Calum smiled at that. “Sweet. Go back to sleep and stop making people sexually frustrated.”

Luke said, “Okay.”

 

==

 

(Calum complained later that he didn’t get to go along to buy hair dye. That, Luke decided, was Calum’s fault for having stupid “soccer” practice when Michael decided he couldn’t wait any longer. They got it done well enough without Calum, anyway-- ‘purple’ turned out to mean a pale lilac that Luke insisted would flatter Michael’s complexion, whatever that meant. It was a really pretty lilac, anyway, and it looked to Luke like he could say the sky was orange and Michael would say ‘okay’.

[Michael could probably pull the same trick on Luke and win, though.])

 

==

 

“I am well and truly fucked,” Michael announced. Luke, honestly a bit dizzy, giggled. Calum said, “No shit, Clifford.”

Luke giggled again, arching his back as Michael traced a finger down his spine. “Mike--”

Michael said, “You like that, eh?” Then he squeaked. Luke turned over and looked over Michael’s shoulder to see Calum looking incredibly smug. Luke had left a mark on the skin between his throat and shoulder muscle; the sight made him feel smug.

He said thoughtfully, “Thank fuck Alex wasn’t here.”

“Fuck Alex,” Calum said, tracing Michael’s jaw absentmindedly.

Michael said, “We’d need a bigger bed.”

“We already need a bigger bed,” Luke said. “S’too small for three of us, let alone the inevitable four.”

“We just have to crowd,” Michael said. “C’mere, Lukey.”

“I’m already, like, on top of you,” Luke said, but he scooted closer anyway. A full-on cuddle pile was definitely the way to end an evening like this.

Michael promptly started kissing his neck, of course, Calum having moved on to Michael’s spine. Luke felt his knuckles, his long fingers wrapped around Michael’s waist, Luke and Michael’s bodies pressed together like for dear life.

If this were all of us, Luke thought, I could be happy.

But man did tend to get caught up in what they didn’t have, his philosophy teacher liked to say.

 

==

 

Over breakfast, Luke got a call. He wasn’t sure who it was. “Hey, Luke,” she said in a crisp American accent, tone a bit flustered but very composed. “I got your number from the station directory-- I’m really sorry, I tried everyone else first--

“I’m sorry, who is this?” Luke hated to interrupt, especially with her flustered tone, but confusion won. She halted abruptly; then she said, “Oh, god, I’m sorry. It’s Taylor, Taylor Swift. The weekend late shift DJ.”

Oh.

(“I tried everyone else first,” she said.)

“S’alright, Taylor, how can I help you?” Luke said. Michael gaped at the name. Taylor said, tersely like it pained her, “I need to get home tonight, there’s been a family emergency. I don’t suppose there’s any way you can cover my shift?”

Luke had a brief and pained vision of elaborate excuses concocted, falsely apologetic smiles, and Justice! won out over are you insane in a brief mental duel. “I can do it,” he said.

Oh, thank god,” Taylor said. “I so owe you one, Luke.”

“Cover my shift sometime and we’ll call it even.”

Done,” Taylor said. “I do like the Graveyard Shift, you know. I wouldn’t just, like, drop it.”

“I get it,” Luke said. “Good luck with your emergency.”

Thanks,” she said. Luke hung up. Michael and Calum stared at him.

Taylor Swift asked you to cover her shift?” Michael said.

“She asked you to cover her shift?” Calum said.

“You figure I have a shot with her?” Luke joked. Then in a more serious tone he added, “It was a family emergency, and everyone else blew her off.”

Calum winced. “You’re going to regret this.”

Luke took a long drink of his tea, wondering if he could convince Alex to break out the hard stuff. “I know,” he said. “I know.”

 

==

 

“This is The Graveyard Shift on HOHR and I am not Taylor, thanks for noticing. Everyone’s queen has had a family emergency this weekend and can’t be joining us, so… if you’re the type, please be praying for her and whatever emergency this is. I’m Luke, and this is “This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race.”

 

==

 

He should have known there would be trouble, honestly, what with Calum unaccustomed to texting him reminders on weekends (never a need!) and Luke wholly unused to setting alarms on weekends (never a need!). He never anticipated it to culminate in a stranger shaking him to consciousness, though.

A gentle hand on his shoulder. A soft voice, Aussie accent and all: “Hey, wake up.” Luke stirred, blinked, squinted as he looked right into a street lamp. “Sorry, mate,” the stranger said, “wish I coulda let you sleep, but the driver said it’s your stop.”

Stop.

“I’m here to ask you to stop--”

Luke looked up at the stranger who’d woke him, finding his eyes catching on hazel

and he found himself saying, “You.

Chapter Text

“Sorry, what?”

“It’s you!” Blondie said, staggering to his feet, pushing Ashton’s hand away. Poor bloke needed more sleep, Ashton thought, before Blondie managed to go on, “You, you kept calling the show last week to complain about my song choices, you’re upsetting one of my best friends, and you-- you’re the friend of that girl who borrowed Calum’s hat. Ashton. You’re Ashton?” He frowned, his eyebrows puckering in the middle, bewilderment and something else blending in the look. Ashton thought briefly of DJ Luke’s cheery voice announcing that bloody song again and again, rambling on about gloomy weather and complaining Australians.

“You’re Luke,” he said.

“Kid, this bus don’t wait,” the driver called.

Luke reached down to snatch up his bag, pulling it over his shoulder with the fatigue of the sleep deprived, and made eye contact with Ashton just long enough to say, “I have to go,” before darting down the aisle. Ashton watched, utterly bewildered, somehow convinced that he’d just missed something very important.

“You haven’t gone and upset him, have you?” The driver said. “He’s too nice for that.”

“I don’t know,” Ashton said. The bus lurched into motion again; Ashton slumped down into the seat, finally getting around to pulling off his sodden jacket. He peeled it off and balled it up under his arm, and nearly got a heart attack when he saw a mark there: a cluster of half-circles like scales, pricked with tiny flames.

(Well. He’d always had a mark there, but not a resolved one. Where did a resolved mark come from?)

“Shit, shit, shit,” he muttered, rubbing at it like it would wash away like cheap ink. It wasn’t going anywhere. His mind remembered, vivid (his brain had no right, really), the back of Luke’s hand against his arm, his words blurred from grogginess, bright blue eyes widening in recognition and bewilderment and what. Disappointment? Distaste? Something, something hurt, something accusing.

Had Ashton left a mark on him?

(Figuratively or literally?)

Luke. He needed to go after Luke, he needed to talk to him, he needed to know what he’d done wrong, he needed to know where the hell he was going. Where was Luke going? How in the hell would Ashton find a complete stranger he’d met on the radio?

Calum?

“Calum,” He muttered. Calum the cute bloke with the blond highlights and Ashley’s BITCH hat. Calum, Michael’s soulmate. Calum, the bloke with the band Michael had invited Ashton to play drums for, Calum whose name Luke spoke like an incantation even if he hadn’t meant to.

Calum, whom Ashton wouldn’t be surprised if Luke had marked him too.

Getting in touch with Calum-and-Luke meant talking to Michael, of course. Ashton just hoped  he was at home, or at least in the dorm. Ashton couldn’t very well call him telepathically, which would likely be the next best thing to actually calling him.

The bus made its way along, and after a quick calculation Ashton figured he needed to switch rides.This one was going out, anyway-- he needed the one going into campus. He took the next stop that had an awning and waited for the inbound in the rain, hoping Luke didn’t have very far to walk. Rain royally sucked. Ashton blamed global warming.

He was on the bus back to campus within ten minutes, and within twenty he was bounding up the stairs with Michael’s name on his tongue and Luke’s blue eyes seared into his memory. His keys, practically glued into the pocket of his soaked shorts, required a prybar and major surgery to get out; he nearly dropped them twice after that, just trying to get them in the lock. Someone passing by said, “rough morning?”

Ashton said, “You could say that.” The key turned in the lock, and Ashton pushed into his room like he was making for the bunker. Michael was, naturally, not there.

Fuck me,” Ashton mumbled.

“Ashton?”

He and his pulse both jumped. His hand found the edge of the open door and clung to it for dear life as he turned, and as his mind went from OH SHIT to who else would be up this early? he realized he was looking at Este-from-across-the-hall. She looked like she’d been out on a run, too: her hair was pulled back and plastered flat against her head, her athletic jacket soaked to the skin. “Hey,” he said. “Morning.”

“Are you alright, Ashton?” She said. “You look… forgive the analogy, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“I-- yeah, fine,” Ashton said. “Rough morning.” She nodded, relaxing a tiny bit. “Thanks,” Ashton added, and the corner of her mouth twitched up.

“No problem,” she said. “Stay dry.”

“Yeah,” Ashton said, and he closed the door as Este started unlocking her own. Michael had not magically appeared in the last 30 seconds. Ashton crossed the room to his desk and found his phone right where he’d left it, complete with no traffic since he’d checked it an hour ago; he left his keys to keep it company and changed, peeling his wet clothes off like he was shedding a second skin and tossing them in the direction of the hamper. He made a note to run laundry when he saw its state of overflowing-ness.

Said resolve was doubled when he found himself with any clean shirts. He borrowed one from Michael (after a long mental debate) and went over his schedule as he pulled on his last pair of jeans and laced up some normal fucking shoes. Class at ten, class at one, class at half four; breaks for food, a mess of homework that really ought not to be left to stale, and especially his homework for the half-four class; laundry that really needed to be done; and ideally a quick talk with Michael about where he could find Luke. Michael had… two classes on Monday, one at half eleven and one at three. Michael took the Friday. Ashton wondered if Luke took the Monday or the Friday. It was pretty likely, him and his DJing job and his stupid obsession with Blink-182. (Not that Ashton didn’t like Blink, but that was against the point.)

 

==

 

“Luke, don’t panic.”

“Okay?” Luke said. If he’d been any more awake, the instruction would have been a perfectly reasonable cue to panic, but at this point he was too groggy to care. “What is it?” He said. He turned towards the door, trying to identify the speaker, and they said,

“Nono, don’t. Other way.”

Luke turned around the other way. The person at the open door was Alex, scruffy from sleep but fully alert. Luke said (mumbled), “What’s up, Alex?”

“Okay, first off, in the future I’d appreciate it if you closed the door before you took your clothes off.” Alex pinched the bridge of his nose as he said it; Luke looked down and saw that his shirt was in his hand, not on his chest, and both his soulmarks were showing. As he processed this Alex went on, “Second, there’s a mark on your shoulder.”

Luke looked so fast he cricked his neck. Alex said patiently, “Other shoulder, Luke.”

He looked, and promptly decided he was dreaming. Or hallucinating, or experiencing some twisted case of deja vu. “What do you know,” he said, tearing his eyes away from the matrix of curling lines spreading across his shoulder muscle. That was Michael’s mark, anyway. “Thanks for telling me, Alex,” he said, moving to the door and starting to swing it close. “I think I’m going to go to sleep now.”

Alex was frowning as he told Luke good-night. Good-morning. Whatever.

 

==

 

“I think I got catcalled on the way over here,” Ashton announced, hanging his umbrella by the door.

Ashley, still looking at her work, said “Mmmhmm.”

“Who catcalls a guy with an umbrella?” Ashton went on, pulling off his bag and kicking off his shoes. “Where’s the logic in that? Is that what girls face every day? On a freakier, more aggressive scale? Because I am going to lodge a protest.” He plopped down on Ashley’s bed across from her and dug out his sociology homework, and Ashley looked up as the mattress jolted.

“Nice shirt,” she said.

“Thanks,” Ashton said.

“Is it Michael’s?”

Ashton had two seconds to decide to not be surprised, and he took it. “How’d you guess?”

“Not your speed.” That was true. The borrowed shirt was a green flannel with some obnoxious motto painted on the back; Ashton had unrolled the sleeves all the way down and buttoned the cuffs, half an attempt to make it it more Ashton-esque, whatever that meant, and half to avoid awkward questions. Ashton wasn’t used to blatantly hiding his marks-- ignoring was really more his speed-- and he wondered if it was working.

“I needed to run the laundry this morning,” he said, a bit late. “Desperate times.”

Ashley scoffed. “Finally, an excuse to steal Michael-too-hot-hot-damn-Clifford’s wardrobe.”

Ashton considered. “Touche.” He couldn’t very well deny that: cozy, looked good, reminded him-- okay, fine-- reminded him just a bit of Luke, Luke in his red flannel just a bit too big and ridiculously cuddly looking-- Gah. Goddammit. “Since when is Michael ‘Michael Too-Hot-Hot-Damn Clifford?” He said, to avoid the subject.

Ashley smirked. “Since I met him at the library last week. And I saw him again the other day. You really should have jumped on him when you had the chance.”

Ashton huffed. “Sorry, what? Michael? Can’t-get-a-full-night’s-sleep-for-the-love-of-god Michael? I’m not sure where you’re going with this, but it doesn’t make sense either way.”

Ashley levelled him a Look. “You know what they say about denial, right?”

Ashton knew what they said about denial. He sure as hell wasn’t going to admit it out loud, though. “I’m denying having any romantic associations for someone I’ve barely said a hundred words to over a whole semester, my experience with whom has mainly been asking him to turn down the TV, reminding him to go to class, and possibly considering playing a gig with two other complete strangers,” he said. “Yeah, completely weird. Totally not reasonable.”

Ashley paused. “You never denied he was hot.”

“Nah, I can’t do that.”

Ashley rolled her eyes, but that was the end of it. They worked in silence for a while, Ashley on physics and Ashton on sociology, and some time later Ashley looked up and interrupted Ashton’s daydream of lunch with a question. “Did you ever do laundry?”

Ashton didn’t bother looking up to reply, “Yeah, before class this morning.” Ashley made a thoughtful hmming noise. Ashton added, “I’ll return Michael’s shirt tonight.”

Ashley made another thoughtful noise. Then she said, “What do you think about me dying my hair again?”

Ashton looked up at her, past her uncertain expression, allowing his eyes to be snagged on the long pink plait tossed over her shoulder. “Bubblegum not your thing anymore?”

“Well, not now that I’m only the second person on campus with pink hair,” she replied, relaxing. “Just figured it was time for a change.”

Ashton said, “I think if you want, you should go for it. You’ll look amazing either way.” The corner of Ashley’s mouth turned up.

“Damn right, Irwin,” she said. She looked back down at her work for a moment and added, “How does lunch sound to you?”

Amazing,” Ashton replied. “That’s how lunch sounds.” Ashley smirked, and promptly began collecting her things into a pile; Ashton followed suit, stuffing his own into a bag as Ashley dumped hers on her desk. “Umbrella?” Ashton said, pulling on his shoes.

Ashley, shoving on her own, replied “Yes, please.” Ashton crossed the room and took said umbrella down from the wall, hooking it over his elbow as he shrugged on his bag and offered his free arm to Ashley.

“Shall we, ma’am?” He said.

Ashley, pulling on her coat, rolled her eyes. “I only compared you a butler one time, Irwin.”

“I know. The umbrella brings it back to mind.”

 

==

 

Luke opened his eyes. There was a warm someone (that being the usual sort of someone, really) curled up against him, muscular arms wrapped around his waist and long fingers bunched in his shirt, and the whole thing gave off a very Calum vibe. It was a very cozy situation, and he didn’t want to leave it.

He also really, really needed to pee.

Getting up involved some delicate untangling, once he deduced that Calum was actually asleep and not just curled up to Luke for a midmorning snuggle (which was known to happen). Several times Luke feared he’d gone and woken him; there were desperate pauses in which Luke barely breathed, let alone move, as Calum shifted and mumbled in his sleep, a lot of delicate prying, a bit more strong-arming against Calum’s decidedly superior upper-body strength, and finally a desperate dash for the door. When he got back, of course, Calum was sitting up and rubbing his face, mostly awake. “So much for that plan,” Luke mumbled.

Calum, after the brief but inevitable pause-to-decipher-Luke, huffed. “Nice try, babe.”

Luke crossed the room and leaned into kiss him, and knocked their heads together. Calum rolled his eyes and kissed Luke on the nose before scooting aside to let him back into bed. “It’s half ten,” he said. “Go ahead and go back to sleep, we’ll talk later, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Luke mumbled. “Cuddle, Cal?”

“Yeah, sure,” Calum said, and lay back down next to him. “These midmorning naps are sweet, I get why it’s a habit.”

“Shut up.”

Calum chuckled into his shoulder. “Okay, Lukey.”

Some time later, he was briefly woken by someone falling into bed with them. Michael didn’t make much noise; deprived of shoes and jacket, he curled up to Luke and closed his eyes. Luke thought, same.

Then he went back to sleep.

He woke a third time to the mattress bucking, this time due to someone climbing out. Luke lifted his head and found out it was Calum. “Hey, Lukey,” the older boy said. “S’half one, you should get up.”

Luke mumbled assent. Calum jumped to the floor and pressed a kiss to Luke’s temple before leaving, leaving the door open. Luke followed at a pace more appropriate to a sedentary rock, grumbling his way into sweats and slippers before meandering into the kitchen, and he found Alex and Calum chatting over the island as Calum made tea and Alex snagged what looked like a late lunch. They broke off as Luke entered the room.

Alex said, “Morning, Luke.”

“Morning,” Luke said, and he claimed the remaining barstool. Calum put a mug of tea in front of him. “Hey,” he said. “I’ve got another class in half an hour, but I figured we should talk just real quick if you’re up for it.”

Luke shrugged. So long as he didn’t have to do any talking. So Long as Calum talked.-- he liked the sound of Calum’s voice. Calum and Alex exchanged a look-- terse on Calum’s side, uneasy on Alex’s-- and Calum said carefully, “Alex said you got your mark resolved?”

What? No.

Luke shook his head, feeling his grip on the mug of tea tighten. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, ducking his head. Although he thought he did. He remembered Alex saying… something. Something about a mark, but he didn’t remember what the something was. Too tired.

Alex said, “I saw it, you know. Another consequence of leaving the door open when you change.”

Luke huffed. “I get it. Close the door.”

“Or have your personal life accidentally invaded all the time,” Alex said. “And everyone will ask you about it.” He prodded Luke’s shoulder, and Luke swatted his hand away.

“That’s not my mark,” he said. “That’s Michael’s. It was a stupid dream, anyway.”

“We really should have waited on this talk,” Calum said, looking intently at his tea.

Alex said, “Yes, fine, you were right. I’m sorry, Luke.”

“S’okay,” Luke said. “I’m still confused, though.” He took a sip of his tea and waited as Alex and Calum attempted to have a terse conversation mainly comprised of hand gestures. It wasn’t really working; that only worked between Calum and Luke, and occasionally (apparently) Michael. Luke suspected it had to do with soulmates/childhood friendships. The dialogue ended with Alex making an aggravated huffing noise and stuffing the rest of his sandwich in his mouth as Calum turned back to the stove. Luke pretended he didn’t know the instance was primarily his fault as Alex went his way and Calum put something together for class.

“You’ve got class at half four, but that’s it,” Calum said. “Moan like a zombie if you got that.” Luke complied. Calum said, “Kiss before I leave?”

Luke tilted his chin up obligingly. Calum pressed their lips together for a brief moment, and pulled away again still sporting his Very Serious look. “See you soon.” Luke nodded and Calum added, “Be safe. Hey, if Mali calls tell her I’m late, yeah? I’m supposed to call but class might run late.”

“Promise,” Luke said. Calum nodded and made for the door, and Luke got up and made some breakfast. Alex showed up again long enough to say, “You’re an idiot. Be safe,” before heading out the door as well. Luke contemplated going to bed, but decided otherwise. Life to live, or something.

 

==

 

Ashton looked down at his phone and said, “Shit.” Ashley glanced up from her songwriting homework and said, “What?” as Ashton proceeded to collect his papers in a frenzied haste. “I need to talk to Michael,” he replied. “And he’s got class in twenty minutes and I have no idea of the next time I’ll see him. Sorry, by the way,” he added, looking up halfway through shoving everything into his bag without ceremony.

Ashley, looking bemused (or possibly just amused) said, “S’okay. Just make sure someone films your dramatic true-love hallway dash.”

“Shut up,” Ashton said, and went, leaving Ashley snickering as the door closed behind her.

She wasn’t wrong about the dramatic hallway dash, though. There was a lot of “excuse me!”s shouted ahead and “sorry!”s shouted over his shoulder. Also, dashing headlong across campus through the rain (although thankfully, said rain had really died down). He bounded over a curb (and a fence). He almost got hit by a vespa, that was new. He caught the door as it was swinging shut on Este and her sister “--S’cuse me!” --and bounded up the stairs two at a time. Someone called after him, “The world’s not going to end!” Someone else said, “Showoff!” Ashton said, “Sorry!” and tripped on the top step. He didn’t fall, but there was some windmilling arms. Someone snickered. Ashton leaned himself back upright and kept going, allowing haste to overcome extreme embarrassment. It felt like eons running down their floor, wet hair and wet shirt, dodging bodies and apologies, almost tripping twice more and fumbling for his keys as he skidded to a halt in front of his and Michael’s door. The key turned. Ashton bulled in.

“HOLY SHIT, ASHTON.”

It was at about that moment that Ashton realized bulling in, out of breath and wet from the rain, was not the most dignified of entries. Michael, very shirtless, seemed to agree. Ashton quickly shut the door behind him.

“Sorry,” he said. Michael snorted. “Are you late for something?” He said. “Or did some kind of gaydar inform you I was currently half naked?”

Ashton spluttered. “No.”

“What’s up, then?” Michael asked, pulling a shirt on. Some dark corner of Ashton’s brain said, aw. Another part said, purple hair.

The part that won said, “I wanted to talk to you. Didn’t know when you’d be back. Sorry, I wish I could’ve called--”

“Did I never give you my number?” Michael said, pulling his jacket back on. Ashton said lamely,

“No.”

“Shit, sorry,” Michael said, reaching down to snatch up his phone. “Here, we can do that now. What’s up?”

“Luke,” Ashton said. Michael frowned, confused, and Ashton hurried on. “I-- I think he’s a friend of Calum’s? An-and I need to talk to him. I think--” He broke off, feeling ridiculous. He hadn’t even told Ashley, why the hell was he telling Michael? “I think Luke’s my soulmate,” he finished.

Michael’s eyes grew wide. “Ash-- what?

“I met him on the bus this morning, and he was asleep and the driver said he was going to miss his stop, so I woke him up and he touched my arm--” Ashton unbuttoned the cuff, pushing up the sleeve, showing the mark to Michael. “And I don’t know where he was going, but he mentioned Calum. He talked about him like he was important.”

Michael was nodding, awe growing in his eyes, and he said, “Yeah. He’s Calum’s… oh, god, it’s complicated. It’s really, really complicated.”

Ashton said, “I’ve got multiple marks. Try me.”

Michael made a funny noise. “Luke is Calum’s other boyfriend.”

Ashton said, “Oh.”

“And mine, for that matter.”

“Ah.”

“I told you it was complicated.”

“It’s fine, Michael,” Ashton said, pulling his sleeve down and rebuttoning the cuff. “Really. Do you-- could you tell me where I could find him? Just to talk to him? I want--” he halted. Ashton honestly wasn’t sure what he wanted. He wanted to talk. He wanted to know if Luke was as beautiful as he looked, if there was room for Ashton in this complicated world he seemed to inhabit, if it was true and not a vivid dream. He wanted something.

“Yeah, sure,” Michael said. “He lives off that stop he got off at, just around the corner, I’ll give you the address… and I’ll text Alex, I think he’ll be there.”

“Alex Gaskarth?”

“Yeah, he’s their roommate-landlord-something,” Michael replied.

Ashton huffed. “Okay. Um. Thanks, Michael.”

Michael looked up from typing up a frenzied message on his phone. “No problem, Ash.”

“No, really, thank you,” Ashton said. “This is, like, really weird and we barely talk and you’re making it a lot less weird, and… thank you.”

Michael smiled a bit. “You’re welcome, Ash.”

“And, Michael?”

“Yeah?”

Ashton took a deep breath. “I’d love to play that gig. I really would.”

Michael dropped his phone on the bed and hugged Ashton. The gesture startled a laugh out of him, a nice, happy laugh; he returned the hug, which seemed to make Michael tighten his grip. “You’re pretty serious about this gig, aren’t you?” He said.

“Heh. Yeah,” Michael said, and pulled away. “I, well, guess I was just, like, really worried you wouldn’t do it? And I was really hoping you would, so, yeah.” He looked away, blushing, and retrieved his phone. Ashton decided flustered was an adorable look on Michael and added, “I like your new hair. Brings out your eyes.” It did, that. Also his lips, and pretty much his everything. Apparently lilac was Michael’s color-- as was pink, proven by the darkening color in his cheeks.

“Thanks,” he said. “You look good in my shirt, by the way.”

Ashton grinned. “Sorry about stealing it. I had to run laundry and partial nudity isn’t really advisable in this weather.”

“We’re all disappointed,” Michael muttered. He was quite conveniently staring at his phone, so he missed Ashton blushing. “Here,” he added. “Put your number in.” He held his phone out to Ashton, open to the keypad screen; Ashton took it, punched his number in, and gave it back. Michael said, “Alex texted back, he said Luke’s there. I’ve got to get to class, sorry.”

“I know,” Ashton said. “Stay safe, yeah?”

“Will do,” Michael said, pocketing his phone and slinging on his backpack. “Just get on the outgoing bus, I’ll text you directions, yeah?”

“Will do,” Ashton said.

Michael, hurrying out the door, shot a parting remark: “Don’t get my shirt wet!” Ashton laughed and waited a good minute before following and closing the door after him.

Of course, before visiting Luke he had to walk back to Ashley’s dorm to retrieve his umbrella. His phone buzzed as he crossed the rainy campus; when he got indoors again, he checked it to find that Michael had already texted him directions. Ashton wished briefly that he didn’t have to take the bus before bounding up the two flights of stairs he hadn’t realized he was taking in his Dramatic Hallway Dash. Ashley called out “Umbrella’s by the door!” When he knocked, which he took as an invitation to let himself in; Ashley was sitting on her bed, completely absorbed in schoolwork, and he simply said “Yes, I know, I’m a forgetful idiot,” before grabbing it and leaving again. He jogged back down the stairs, waved at by someone who probably recognized him from his last two trips, and someone called “Nice umbrella!” as he paused to open it. He held it up in salute before stepping out into the deluge. Raindrops on nylon drummed an irregular, soothing pattern, one that Ashton wished he could replicate, as he crossed campus over soggy grass and water-shined concrete.

There was, unsurprisingly, a queue waiting at the bus stop, huddling under the tiny awning or making impromptu shelters from binders and jackets. Ashton offered his umbrella to a particularly uncomfortable-looking blond trying to shelter his backpack. He accepted gratefully, and introduced himself as Niall.

“Ashton,” Ashton replied. “I’d shake your hand, but it looks like we’re both otherwise burdened.” Niall laughed at the joke, but it seemed as though something else was on his mind. “Something up?” Ashton said.

“You’re not Ashton Irwin, are you?” Niall said. “I mean, I could be completely wrong, but it seems like there could only be so many Australian blokes named Ashton on one campus, am I right?” He shrugged, and Ashton let him have it. “You’re right,” he supplied. “And yes, I’m Ashton Irwin. Why?”

“No reason,” Niall said. “I’m a friend of Zayn’s, he’s mentioned you a few times.”

This was the part in cheesy romance movies when people usually added, “They never mentioned you were hot,” but life turned out to not be a cheesy romance movie, because Niall just shrugged and then then the bus pulled up. Niall thanked Ashton again, complimented his umbrella, and climbed aboard. Ashton waited in line, and shook off his umbrella first. Someone whistled at him (he thought), and he ignored it. The bus pulled back out into the rain with him on board. Ashton checked the directions Michael had given him again: get off at X exit, go around the corner and find Y address, step under the awning, hit the buzzer and Alex would let him up. (Probably.) Real helpful. Michael was surprisingly good at giving directions, actually.

Ashton added Michael to his contact list while he was thinking about it. He wished he had a picture of Michael. Then he cringed to himself at how creepy the thought sounded,

The bus crawled on. Ashton, if he craned his neck, could see Niall sitting a few benches back and across the aisle with a burlier, short-haired boy/man/whatever they called it in college. They were deep in conversation with the redhead sitting right in front of them. One of Este’s sisters was sitting with an unfamiliar blonde, closer to the front.

Ashton thought, like he tended to upon occasion, small world. Then he checked his progress again. Three more stops. Two more stops. One more stop. Ashton’s hands felt clammy. The bus halted. Niall’s redheaded friend got off. A guy with an obnoxious blond fringe got on.  The bus lurched into motion again. Ashton fidgeted with the handle of his umbrella, running his thumb over the divets of the grip again and again as the bus ambled on. Far too soon and not soon enough, it began to slow again; Ashton picked up his backpack off the floor between his feet. He checked all the zippers. He put it on and fiddled with his umbrella some more. The bus halted, and he forced himself to his feet. He closed his clammy hand on the back of the seat in front of him, feeling the sweat against the vinyl, and grimaced. He tried to dry his hands on his jeans as he made his way towards the front of the bus. His stomach was somewhere near his socks; he thought for a moment, wryly, that the aisle felt more like death row than public transportation. Then he thought, what’s the difference? Then he was out on the sidewalk, opening his umbrella and calling to mind the address he’d been given. There was an alley on on side of the corner, and the other side was building fronts; Ashton followed the obvious direction and looked around the front for Michael’s referred-to ‘awning’. It turned out to be more of a brick nook set into the front of the first building; Ashton ducked inside and found a neat row of buzzers, with one labelled JALEX about two-thirds of the way up. Ashton checked the address again. It coincided with the JALEX buzzer. If JALEX was Jack-and-Alex mashed together, Ashton was going to… do something. It was in very poor taste. He hit the buzzer.

A voice crackled over the intercom: “Yeah?”

“Is this Alex?” Ashton said, and without waiting for confirmation he went on, “I’m Ashton. Michael sent me.”

There was a pause. Then the door buzzed and apparently-Alex said, “Come on up,” before the intercom shut off. Ashton shook his umbrella off and pulled the food open. His pulse was in his throat as he climbed the stairs, and it didn’t slow down all the way up. What was more, he had to hook his umbrella in the crook of his elbow to dry his hands twice more before he halted in front of apartment 3B and took a shaky breath and knocked.

There was a long pause, and then the door opened. Auburn-haired fringetastic Alex Gaskarth looked at Ashton. His eyes snagged (inevitably) on his umbrella.

“Hi,” Ashton said. Alex stepped aside and let Ashton in. “Any idea how you’re going to get him to talk to you?” He said, like it would be an issue. Ashton had no idea what he meant, so he ad-libbed: “I figure I’ll just whistle ‘I Miss You’ like a mating call and hope for the best.”  

Alex paused. Then he nodded. “Yeah, that should work.” He started off down the short hall, and Ashton followed; Alex rounded a corner and made for the sofa, and Ashton halted. “Luke’s up the stairs on the left,” Alex said. Ashton said, “Okay.” Alex pointed in the direction of the stairs. Ashton went. Because it never hurt to try, when he hit the stairs he started to whistle the chorus line.

(don’t waste your time on me/you’re already the voice inside my head)

“I miss you, I miss you,” he sang, and he felt a little silly for it, but as he sang-- much like Alex had predicted, apparently-- a door slammed, and as Ashton climbed the top step he found himself in another short hallway face-to-face with Luke. The other boy was shirtless, hair wet and pushed back in a way that suggested he’d just gotten out of the shower; a soulmark blossomed over his (nice) chest, a swirl of water like a hurricane, and another on his shoulder, some kind of flowering plant.

“Alex let me in,” Ashton offered, uneasy under Luke’s stare. “I was hoping to talk to you, if that’s okay.”

“Yeah, sure,” Luke said in a small voice. His eyes meandered downwards, snagging (once again) on Ashton’s umbrella.

“It was on a discount,” Ashton provided. “It was this or flamingos.”

Luke’s shoulders relaxed at the comment, and the corners of his mouth turned up. He chuckled, once. Then he gestured down the hall. “My room?”

“Sure,” Ashton said. Luke turned to lead the way, and Ashton got a good look at his back from his broad shoulders all the way down to where his hips disappeared into the waistband of his jeans.

“I can feel you staring,” Luke said softly, but there was a laugh in it; not enough to keep Ashton from blushing like an idiot, but enough to keep him from running for the hills. Luke halted in to open the door, and Ashton saw a third soulmark on the inside of his wrist; Ashton thought, someone hit the soulmate jackpot. Then he remembered that he, too, had hit the soulmate jackpot (sort of), and looking at Luke’s tiny tapestry of marks was giving his inner detective a funny feeling. He decided not to think about it. Luke pushed open the door and said, “You can drop your stuff anywhere. It’s a bit of a mess, just a warning; I wasn’t really expecting company.”

“S’no biggie,” Ashton said, shedding his bag. “We’re college students, we’re all used to mess. I think.” Luke hffed a laugh. “I guess you’re right.”

Ashton hung his umbrella on the coathook Luke had specified and turned around to find Luke wearing a shirt and sitting on the unmade bed. “So,” he said.

“So,” Ashton said. Luke gestured to the bed next to him, and Ashton sat.

“Can I see?” Luke said. “The Mark. I can recognize my marks.” Ashton believed him. If he had three marks of his own, there had to be two other people out there with Luke’s touch on them. For the second time that day he undid the cuff of Michael’s shirt, rolling up the sleeve until the mark was clearly visible; Luke’s breath hitched the tiniest bit. “It’s mine,” he said softly, reaching out to trace the edges. “Definitely.”

“Okay,” Ashton. It didn’t look like the greatest news Luke had heard all day.

Part of his brain said, of course not. who’d want Ashton for a soulmate?

Luke said, “I thought it was a dream. Wishful thinking reflected on Mikey’s mark, like. It’s in the same place as his, even, or pretty damn close.”

Ashton’s whole brain said, what?

Ashton’s mouth said, “What?”

Luke pushed up the sleeve of his shirt. showing his marked shoulder. “It looks just like Mikey’s. Same pattern, same place. Probably same intention, too-- ‘wake-up-you-doofus’ or something like that. He thought it was yours, but we couldn’t be sure until--” he pointed to the mark and shrugged. A whole mess of sirens was going off in Ashton’s brain. Michael? Michael Too-hot-hot-Damn Clifford, Michael Gordon Go-to-sleep-for-the-love-of-god Clifford? His soulmate?

Um,”  Ashton said.

Luke’s eyebrows puckered together in confusion. “He still hasn’t told you?”

I,”Ashton said, “No?” His brain remembered, very acutely: Michael’s bare chest and a mark on his shoulder. Michael’s phone resting in his marked hand. A burning match marked on Michael’s wrist. Michael hugging him, the first time (that he remembered) Michael touching him.

His inner detective said, shit.

His mouth said, “Oh.”

“You alright?” Luke said. Ashton managed to say, “Shocked. More than a bit, actually. A lot shocked.”

Luke huffed. “No shit.”

“That’s really it,” Ashton said. “I’m shocked, I’ve been deliberately ignoring the soulmate system for years, this is all really, really unnerving.”

“Did it really bother you that much?” Luke said.

Ashton took a deep breath. He felt in that moment like someone had wrapped a tow chain around his ribs and was pulling it tight, squeezing secrets out of him like water from a dirty rag. “Soulmates aren’t the cure-all,” he said. “They’re not all-binding. They just tell you who’s compatible and leave it at that. And everyone assumes that it’ll just work, that somehow being magically linked will make everything shiny, but it doesn’t. Sometimes it just ruins everything.”

“Ashton?” Luke said. Ashton at least had the courage to look up when his name was spoken; his eyes found Luke’s, wide and questioning, pleading to understand. Ashton thought, I can’t shut my mouth.

“My parents were soulmates,” he managed. “Didn’t keep my dad from leaving.”

Luke’s expression changed from sympathetic to horrified in the time it took Ashton to get the words out; without prompt, plea, or invitation he reached out and enveloped Ashton in a hug, big and warm. It was all the invitation Ashton needed to let out a long, shuddering breath.

“It’s okay,” he said. “It was a long time ago.” Luke gave a brief, disbelieving huff and hugged Ashton even tighter before releasing him. He added quietly, “I get why you wouldn’t want to think about it.”

“Thanks, Luke,” Ashton said. For a long moment, they were silent; Luke’s face was tense with thought, and Ashton didn’t want to interrupt. He resigned himself to studying Luke: the little wrinkle in his nose, the little furrow between his eyebrows. His hair was starting to dry in curls, just long enough to loop into his eyes.

Some part of Ashton’s brain thought, this is a bad idea.

Luke finally said, “Ashton?”

“Hmm?” Ashton said. Luke said cautiously, “How do you want to do this? Like, the whole, soulmate thing?” He added, when Ashton frowned in confusion. “We went straight to kissing with Michael, but it doesn’t seem like you’re up for that, and I don’t want-- I don’t think any of us would want to push you into anything,” he finished awkwardly. He gave Ashton the full brunt of his Big Sad Blue Eyes, all sweet and concerned, and Ashton felt like Luke was gently nudging answers out of him with a quick but deadly combination of adorableness and guilt.

He cast around for something to say-- something, anything-- and landed on, “Well, how’d it go between you and Calum?”

For a pause Luke’s frown turned bewildered, then his expression cleared. “Oh! He and I have been friends since we were little. And I guess it was always there, hey, you guys are soulmates, but it kind of lost its punch. We got to, Idunno, fall in love at our own pace.”

Ashton thought for a moment, must be nice. To be accustomed to the marks on one’s skin, essentially free from their shackles; to fall in love with the one who put them there, maybe, but on his own terms. On Ashton Irwin’s terms.

“I’d like that,” he said.

 

==

 

So… what?” Michael said over the phone.

Luke inhaled, looking up at the grey sky, wondering how long the lull in the rain was going to last. “So, I don’t know,” he said. “I told him we’d just try to be friends, like he asked. We’d make it work. And then we went to class. We both take the Monday.”

I forgot,” Michael said. “Did you talk about him having multiple soulmates?”

“Yeah,” Luke said. “He was really shocked you were his soulmate, but it looks like he’s really trying to process it.”

So we’re going to be friends, too?”

“I guess,” Luke said. “He’ll make a nice friend, I think.”

What makes you like him so much?” Michael said. “You’ve only known him for like, an hour.” Luke thought about it.

“He’s sweet. And he likes Good Charlotte, and he has an awesome umbrella.”

I forgot about that,” Michael said. “Did he look adorable with it? I bet he did.”

“He did,” Luke said, feeling a smile growing. “He acted like it was totally no big deal that he had a Spongebob umbrella, and then he acted like a butler. If we were out any longer, I bet he would’ve started dancing on lampposts or some shit.”

It should be illegal that a guy could be simultaneously so hot and so adorable,”  Michael grumbled.

Luke hmmed in agreement before adding, “That would make you and Calum hardened criminals, though.”

Oh, definitely hard,” Michael joked. “But don’t sell yourself short. You’d be in the lineup right along with us.”

“Aww,” Luke said. “Alright, I gotta get on the bus. Ashton’s coming your way, tell him hi and don’t let him tell you what an unperceptive idiot I am. And don’t be weird.”

S’like you don’t know me,” Michael said, faking injury. “Were you that dumb?”

“I didn’t realize they were telling the truth about my new mark until I got in the shower,” Luke said. “I was a bit of an idiot.”

Niiice,” Michael said. “I’ll keep my ears closed. Be safe. Love you.”

“You too,” Luke said. “See you later.”

Yeah,” Michael said. “Bye.”

 

==

 

Ashton got in just in time to hear Michael say a farewell into his phone. The younger boy turned around at the sound of the door opening, and their eyes met. Ashton braced himself for the inevitable. “Hey.”

“Hi,” Michael said. He gestured to his phone. “That was, eh, that was Luke. He said it went well?”

“I-- yeah,” Ashton said, pushing the door closed and shedding his bag and umbrella. “It was a nice talk.”

“And?” Michael said. Ashton inhaled and prepared to put his foot in his mouth.

“Why didn’t you tell me I’d marked you?”

Michael looked away, sheepish. “I dunno. I guess I was waiting for you to like, come to your own conclusions.”

“Heh,” Ashton said. “Bit of advice: when it comes to soulmates, you might as well smack me around the face with it. S’not likely I’ll pick it up for myself.” Michael snorted.

“Noted. How’s my shirt serving you?”

“Damp,” Ashton said, “But not ruined. I took good care of it.” He plopped down at his desk and dropped his bag on the bed, unzipping it and pulling everything out. Michael dropped down on his own bed as Ashton stacked books and sat down and pulled out his notes from music (the infamous Monday class).

“That’s good,” Michael said. There was a pause before he added, “Luke said we’re going to be friends?”

“I-- yeah,” Ashton said, looking over. “If that’s alright.”

“Yeah, sure,” Michael said, folding his arms. “So long as you just tell me when you need the TV turned down instead of getting all pissed off and running away.”

“Done,” Ashton said. “And, um. How’ll the band thing fit in?”

“Eh,” Michael said, and shrugged. “Luke doesn’t work weekends, so that’s usually when they try to do stuff.”

“He’s got the radio thing,” Ashton guessed. Michael nodded. Ashton asked, “What about Calum?”

“He’s got footie, Thursday and Saturday afternoons,” Michael replied automatically.

Ashton felt a smile turning up the corners of his mouth. “What about me?”

“Double shift on Tuesdays, late shift on Saturdays for the local branch of the city library,” Michael said, “Because you are a loser. But you knew I knew that, didn’t you?”

“Yup,” Ashton said, popping the ‘P’ with a deep sense of satisfaction. Michael shook his head, rolled his eyes, and called him a nerd. Ashton laughed.”How many times have you thought that since we’ve been roomies?”

“Too many to count. I plan on compensating.” Michael plopped onto his bed and pulled his computer to him, plugging his headphones in. Ashton had the good graces to feel flattered before returning to his work.

Some time later Michael said, “Dinner?”

Ashton said, “Yes, please.”

Some time after that, when they’d both been fed and watered and Ashton had gotten back to work, Michael put his computer on the desk and pulled up campus radio. It was playing what sounded like the latest Justin Timberlake song, all bouncy and jazzy, and Ashton opened his mouth to ask Michael what he was doing. Michael said, “Ssh! Wait for it.” Ashton waited. JT played, and kept playing. Ashton was just about to ask what the hell he was waiting for when the song began to fade out and Michael lit up with excitement. “Here it comes!”

Ashton regretted not holding his breath. Michael turned the volume all the way up and it felt like the room exploded, filling the air with a million shards of angst and electric guitar.

(I’m the son of rage and love/the Jesus of Suburbia, the bible of None of the Above)

“Damn,” Ashton said.

Michael beamed. “It’s Luke’s show. You can always tell when he takes charge.”

Ashton fought back to the urge to take a crack at Luke’s definite lack of take-chargeness and repeated, “Damn.” Much better. Michael grinned and turned the radio down.

“I know,” he said.

“You wanna leave it playing?” Ashton said. “I like it.”

“Yeah, me too,” Michael said. “Our soulmate has good taste.”

Ashton’s breath hitched, though he pretended it didn’t. “Yeah, he does.”

There was a pause. Then Michael said, “I wonder if he ever gets angry phone calls about Jesus of Suburbia. He plays it every night.”

Ashton snorted. “It figures that that would be typical Luke behavior.”

“Says the guy who called the station to complain about the same song playing six times in the same night.”

“Exactly!” Ashton said. “It figures that that would stem from an existing problem!”

Michael laughed. “Okay, mister… clever diagnosis, whatever you say.” Ashton laughed in return and went back to work, this time with half an ear tuned to Billie Joe Armstrong’s righteous rage. Michael settled back down on his bed, this time grabbing a textbook off his desk first. Ashton was impressed, but he didn’t mention it. It would probably counteract the effect. Michael quietly muscled through what was probably schoolwork, and Ashton went on with his own.

A good while later, after JoS had switched over to a menagerie of the finer punk-rock anthems, the music gave out to commercials and then to Luke’s cheery voice. “Good evening, folks, it’s that time of night again. I’m your buddy Luke for The Graveyard Shift, here on HOHR. Weather reports say that the rain’s expected to continue on into the night, but it should be well blown out by tomorrow morning. Have no fear, ye grouchy travellers!” Michael was giving Ashton a look, he could feel it. “Shut up,” he said. Michael snickered. Luke went on, “Anyway, I hope all you listeners have had as good a weekend as I have. Once again, this is the Graveyard Shift on HOHR and this is ‘Teenagers’.”

Ashton turned the radio down around midnight and got up to change. Michael glanced up as he pulled off Michael’s shirt and tossed it toward the hamper; Ashton felt his eyes lingering on his shoulders. He turned towards the mirror and craned his neck to look. “Wow,” he said. A pair of wings was outlined along his shoulders, the tips curling around his deltoids.

“Wow,” Michael agreed.

“Figure it’s yours?” Ashton said. Michael studied it for a moment and murmured the affirmative. Ashton pulled on a clean shirt from the basket on his bed. Michael plugged his headphones in and got back to work; Ashton shucked off his jeans and reached for the light. “D’you mind?”

“Nah,” Michael said, a little loud. Ashton switched off the lights.

 

==

 

When Calum had gotten back from classes, he’d promptly hunted Luke down and done everything in his obnoxious, cuddly power to make him sit down and be emotional. It hadn’t been very hard. He’d simply pushed open the door and found Luke waiting, shed his backpack and wrapped his arms around Luke’s shoulders, trading sweet nothings for Luke’s newfound fears. “It’s not bad news,” Luke had mumbled, “He still wants to give it a chance, I’m just scared, I’m scared that we’ll drive him away and mess it all up…”

“S’okay, Lukey, s’alright, it’s okay to be scared,” Calum replied. Luke had removed his face from its burial in Calum’s shoulder long enough to snort and reply,

“I know that. It’s just… scary, you know,” and Calum laughed, a brief, surprised laugh.

“I think I know.”

After that, it had been easier. Alex had returned, left pizza, and vanished again. Calum had sent Luke to bed early. Then he got him up and took him to work, because apparently Luke couldn’t be trusted to go on his own, and as far as Luke could tell he went back alone.

On the way home the next morning, there was someone else on the bus with him: a sad-eyed, curly-headed someone, who got up when Luke climbed aboard and waved a little sheepishly. Luke by way of greeting walked up to him and hugged him. “M’really tired,” he mumbled.

“No kidding,” Ashton said. “Here, sit with me?”

The bus jerked into motion. Luke said, “Okay.” Ashton guided him into a seat and didn’t complain when Luke put his head on his shoulder. “I’ve never seen you on the bus before,” he said.

“I hate the bus,” Ashton replied. “It smells funny and it’s bad for the climate. But it’s been raining an awful lot this week, so I’ve been taking it against my will.”

“How do you get where you’re going?” Luke said.

“I have a bicycle. I bribe one of the groundskeepers to hide it for me.”

Luke giggled. “I see.” He looked up in time to see the smile leaving Ashton’s face, and felt a funny stab in his gut.

Give him time, Luke thought. We’re giving him time. “Where are you going?” He asked.

“Work,” Ashton said. “I’ve got a double shift at the library today.”

“Starting at 6 am?”

“Says the bloke who just got off a night shift,” Ashton said, amusement in his tone. “I’m fine. Been doing it all year.”

“Do you work with anyone?” Luke asked.

“My friend Ashley. She works a regular shift.”

“She’s the one with the pink hair, right?”

“Yup,” Ashton said. “We’ve been friends since Freshman year. Well, we dated in Freshman year, but we’ve been friends since. Better friends than people who kiss.” He sounded a bit ashamed of it. Luke remembered Ashley from the bus, exasperated with everything but not unpleasant, and thought she seemed nice.

He said, “She seems nice.”

“She is,” Ashton said. “Good, functional human being when you need one, too.”

“Do you speak from experience?” Luke said.

After a short pause Ashton replied, “I do.”

“It’s good to have a friend.”

Ashton chuckled. “Yes, yes it is.”

Luke might have imagined it, but Ashton also might have marginally tightened his grip on Luke’s shoulder. Luke said softly, “Do you have many friends, Ash?”

“I have enough,” Ashton replied. It didn’t seem to Luke like a very nice answer. Then Ashton squeezed his shoulder. “S’your stop, Luke.”

Luke looked up, and so it was: the bus was slowing down. As he thought it, his alarm went off; Luke dove for his bag and dug his phone out, punched the code in, shut off the alarm. Ashton got up and offered his hand to Luke. “Here. I’ll walk you to the door?”

“Won’t you be late?” Luke said, accepting the hand up. Ashton shook his head, a little sheepish.

“Nah,” he said. “I’ll be fine.”

“Okay,” Luke said, grabbing his bag off the floor. Ashton followed him off the bus and onto the sidewalk; he halted at the lower door as Luke fumbled for his keys, and in the brief pause the door opened by neither of their volitions.

It turned out to be Calum, dressed for his run, and he squinted briefly at Ashton before turning to Luke. “Morning, babe,” he said. “Did he follow you home?”

“Yes,” Luke replied, leaning in to kiss him. “I think he was on his way to work, though.”

“Just in the neighborhood,” Ashton said. “Thought I’d make sure the sleepy weirdo got home safe.”

“M’not weird,” Luke said.

Calum rolled his eyes. “Yeah, sure, babe. Go on, I’ll see you later.” He pulled the door open for Luke, and Luke hefted his bag and turned to Ashton.

“See you later?” He said. Ashton nodded.

“Yeah, for sure,” he said. Luke turned around and headed inside. The door swung shut behind him, and Luke saw through the glass Calum nodding to Ashton and jogging off. Ashton turned and walked towards the bus stop. Luke turned and walked up the stairs.

 

==

 

“Okay, Irwin, spill.”

Ashton whipped around, trying to casually lean against the bookshelf and falling awkwardly against the book cart instead. In the moment it took him to reorient himself and actually lean against the bookcase, Ashley (now with blue hair, what the hell) had folded her arms and put on her “you’re-pulling-bullshit-and-I-know-it” expression. Ashton thought, well, shit.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “You’ll have to clarify.”

Ashley rolled her eyes. “Okay. Start with, you’re wearing a long-sleeved flannel shirt and it’s almost 80 degrees outside, and finish with your dramatic hallway dash yesterday and the fact that you’re jumpy as fuck. Are you okay?”

“Um,” Ashton said, “Um. Mostly? I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m okay?”

“Explain.”

Ashton folded his arms and unfolded them again. Took a breath. Unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it off, leaving himself in a singlet underneath with his marks showing. “Happy?”

Ashley was scowling like she was trying very hard not to be surprised. Ashton folded his arms again, balling up his shirt between them. Ashley unfolded her arms and folded them again.

“Okay,” she said. “That’s something.”

“No shit,” Ashton said.

“Do you know whose?” Ashley said. Ashton nodded. “Okay,” she said. “Is it a secret?”

“I don’t know,” Ashton said. “Like I said. I’m okay, but I don’t know anything.”

“That’s equal to not being okay,” Ashley said.

“Okay, okay, I’m functioning.”

Ashley unfolded one arm to pinch the bridge of her nose. “Ashton, you need to start remembering sooner that those aren’t the same thing.” Ashton huffed.

“I’ll get back to you when I can start telling the difference,” he said. Ashley started to groan and checked herself.

“Okay,” she said. “Okay. To clarify, I’m not angry, or directing any negative vibes toward you. Yeah?”

Ashton nodded. “Okay,” he said, not sure whether or not he was pretending it wasn’t a significant reassurance.

“Okay,” Ashley said. “I’m not pissed, just concerned. Like, majorly concerned. With good reason. Did I push you too hard?” Ashton shook his head, no. Ashley nodded. “Good. How can I help you figure this out?” At this she gestured to his general torso area, probably meaning his marks. Ashton paused to put his shirt back on and think about it.

“No idea,” he said. “Right now we’re supposedly ‘taking it slow’, which probably means it’s gonna be awkward because they’re already dating--”

“They?” Ashley interrupted.

“They,” Ashton said. “The two of them, and their other soulmate, apparently, and I don’t know if that’s public knowledge--”

“My lips are sealed,” Ashley said.

“Thanks,” Ashton said. “They’re all already together and I don’t know how it’s going to work-- much like everything else in my life, incidentally.” Ashley pressed her lips together, pausing herself to think.

“Do I know them?” She said.

“Luke the radio host,” Ashton said, feeling some satisfaction as her eyes widened. “And Michael.” Her eyes got wider. “And the third one’s Calum-- Michael and Luke’s mutual boyfriend, the guy who traded with hats with you.”

“Man, shit happens behind closed curtains,” Ashley said. “And-- Michael? Our Michael?”

“Too-Hot-Hot-Damn-Clifford,” Ashton replied. Ashley swore under her breath and hastily checked the time.

“I’d best cut my break short before they hate me,” she said. “See you later?”

“Yeah,” Ashton said. “Will do.”

She hugged him. It was a nice hug. Then she quickly withdrew and jogged back through the stacks, leaving Ashton alone on shelving duty. He shelved a few books. Then he shelved a few more, trying to ignore the budding knot of anxiety, the buzz in his head, and when that didn’t work he leaned his head against a shelf and closed his eyes and breathed in, breathed out. He didn’t feel any better, by any means, but it was nice to get a better handle on it. Give it a shape in his mind that he could work around.

In his pocket, his phone buzzed. He fished it out and found that he had a text from Michael.

band practice at luke n calums? bring your funny drum box?

Ashton exhaled. sure, he replied, and its a cajon.

awesome!!! potato potato whatever

Ashton smiled and texted Michael for a specific time before putting his phone back in his pocket and shelving more books. His phone buzzed a moment later; when he pulled it out again at the end of the row, it was to find a time that was blessfully after the end of his shift but not in enough time to pick up the Cajon and still be punctual. i might be late, he texted. Michael replied quickly: no biggie see u then!!1 and Ashton repeated the process of pocketing his phone and shelving a lot of books. It was a very therapeutic exercise, matching letters and numbers, the soft noise of book sliding onto the shelf next to its fellows, the stacks looming above his head blocking out any passing sound. It was just Ashton alone in the library, even though he wasn’t.

 

==

 

Calum woke Luke at what he assumed to be a reasonable time with a kiss and a presented backpack. “Get dressed,” he said. “We’re getting breakfast.”

“Breakfast… date?” Luke said. The corner of Calum’s mouth turned up.

“Yeah,” he said. “A breakfast date.”

Luke rolled out of bed and put his clothes on in a hurry. Calum watched with the patient amusement of someone who had been dating Luke for the past fifteen years, agreeably helping Luke into his jacket and backpack and walking them both to the door. Luke, with the promise of a date, was waking up obnoxiously fast and moving quickly; the display of alertness seemed to amuse Calum. There was a laugh in his eyes as he tangled their hands together and led them out into the afternoon. The gloomy grey of the last few days was starting to clear, showing patches of blue through the clouds.

Luke smiled at the sky. “Calum,” he said, “I think things are about to start getting better.”

Calum chuckled. “What brought that on?”

“The sky’s clearing up,” Luke said, and pointed. Calum’s eyes followed him.

“Yeah, it is,” he said. “Looks nice.”

“Probably means Ashton’s gonna stop taking the bus, though,” Luke said thoughtfully.”

“Hmm?”

“Ashton only takes the bus when it’s nasty out,” Luke said. “So we’ll probably be seeing him on a bike later.”

Calum smiled with the corner of his mouth. “He’ll probably look ridiculous. Hippie.” Luke chuckled and bumped their shoulders.

“He’s a nice hippie,” he said.

“Seems a bit moody and sad to me,” Calum said. “I hope that’s not his normal state.”

“I don’t think it is,” Luke said. “He seems a pretty decent guy. Hey-- how much time have we got?”

“‘Bout an hour and a half,” Calum said. “I’m technically on lunch break, and your alarm would have gone off in another 20 minutes, tops, had I not woken you up for this lovely soiree.”

“That’s a nice word,” Luke said. “It’s a nice date, too.”

Calum gave him a proper, crinkly-eyed smile. “Good.”

They got on the bus and drove toward campus, but Calum got them off early and led Luke into one of the sidewalk hipster cafes that tended to spring up around college campuses. Calum pointed to a table right outside the door and said, “Inside, outside, any preference?”

“Let’s sit outside,” Luke said. “It’s pretty.”

“Pretty it is,” Calum said. “Food? We’re too late for breakfast, but they’ve probably got muffins or some shit.”

“Muffins are good,” Luke said. “Get me a chocolate muffin, I’ll hold the table.”

“Good plan,” Calum said. He pulled out a chair, confiscated Luke’s backpack and set it under the table, and kissed the top of Luke’s head before heading inside. A moment later he reappeared with two thermal cups, a monstrous-looking pastry, and a sandwich. He passed the pastry to Luke. “Happy breakfast, babe.”

“Happy lunch, Cal,” Luke replied, and set the muffin down so he could snatch the cup from Calum. “Tea?”

“With enough sugar to hotwire your brain,” Calum said. “Give me some credit, babe, we’re soulmates.”

“Well, that clears something up.”

Luke twisted in his seat and Calum tilted his chin up to face the intruder. It was the girl with pink hair, except that her hair was bright blue. She quickly added, “I didn’t mean to snoop or anything, I swear. I just saw Calum and I thought I might drop this while I had the time.” She held up a familiar snapback, looking sheepish. Calum smiled.

“It’s cool,” he said. “Afternoon, Ashley.”

“This is actually Ashley?” Luke said.

“This is actually Luke?” She shot back, the corner of her mouth turning up in amusement. “Catch, Hood,” she added, and tossed Calum the hat. He’d thankfully already set his tea and lunch it down; he caught the hat in midair and slipped it on.

“Thanks,” he said. “Luke, Ashley Frangipane.”

“Ashton’s friend,” he said. Ashley nodded.

“You’re Michael’s other soulmate,” she guessed. “And that guy Ashton kept talking to on the radio.”

“Both of those,” Luke said carefully. She nodded.

“He’s told me,” she added. Calum’s eyes narrowed at the comment-- apparently the implication hadn’t sailed over anyone’s head.

“What did he tell you?” He said.

“That he’s scared as hell and would rather the news didn’t leave the five of us,” she said. Calum and Luke both nodded; the tension lifted from Calum’s shoulders.

“That’s good to know,” he said. “Thanks again, Ashley.”

“No problem,” she replied. “See you around? You still owe me a hat.”

“I’ll send it over with your friend later,” Calum said. That was good enough (and perhaps more than a little amusing) for Ashley; she bade them both farewell and left. Luke turned his attention to tea and pastry. Both were obscenely sweet. (Since when did he know a word like obscene?) He loved them.

When he’d finished inhaling the muffin and Calum was about halfway through his lunch, Luke took a moment to sip his tea and contemplate the inner workings of the world.

Except, of course, he was actually thinking about Ashton. Ashley had mentioned he was scared as hell, which lined up with what he’d told (see: confessed) to Luke the day before, and with every new thing he’d been hearing of Ashton recently Luke was getting steadily more concerned. He wondered how many of Ashton’s friends had that problem. He wished he’d thought to ask Ashley-- they seemed pretty close, after all. Close enough that a secret this huge stayed just between her and them.

“Luke,” Calum said around his sandwich. “Stop worrying. We’re on a date.”

“I make a living on worrying and playing loud music about worrying,” Luke replied. “It’s rather hard to avoid.” Calum rolled his eyes and put his sandwich down to grab Luke’s hand.

“This,” he said, “Is a worry-free zone. Please stop, you’re putting me off my lunch.”

Luke laughed. “Okay. But only if you keep holding my hand.” Calum rolled his eyes and picked up his sandwich with his other hand and went back to his lunch, and he didn’t let go of Luke’s hand.

“So,” he said between bites, “Tell me about work or something. Talk about stuff.”

Luke smiled. “Not much to talk about. Aside from Taylor dropping the late shift on me, stuff doesn’t happen at work.”

“Ashton happened,” Calum said.

“Okay, Ashton happened,” Luke said. “And last week Michael dropped me off at work and kissed me goodbye, it was awesome.” Calum’s eyes crinkled at the edges as Luke rambled on about all the things that had happened at work that past week, in no coherent order, from the Lonely Irishman (who Luke had quickly realized was Niall) to Ashton, to Taylor, to Calum dropping him off at work Saturday night. Calum worked his way through his lunch and pretended he hadn’t heard any of these stories before. There was a lot of hand-holding involved. In the end, Luke took Calum’s last bite of sandwich and Calum drained the last of Luke’s tea, and they held hands on the way to the bus stop with Calum’s newly-re-obtained snapback on Luke’s head. The sun shone down, bright and cheery. Luke felt like he mirrored its mood.

 

==

 

Ashton pushed his hair out of his eyes for the fifth time and gingerly wound the second strap around his cajon, fastening it to the bike’s tiny luggage rack. He wished he’d thought to bring a hairtie, or anything to tie his hair back. Biking with loose hair was always a pain in the ass. With the cajon secured he hopped aboard and cruised off campus, tossing his head once or twice to discourage any hair from blinding him. The second time, someone whistled; Michael probably would have found it hilarious, but Ashton just felt his face heat up and pedaled faster. He passed the bus, stationary at the corner of the campus entrance, and waved to the driver as he went. he was probably doing his calves a criminal disservice, pedaling as fast as he could, until he was sure his muscles would be aching during band practice, until the wind was whistling in his ears. Until his anxieties were left in the dust, unable to keep him from whatever happened next.

Between his breathtaking haste and the lack of regularly scheduled stops, the ride to Luke( and Alex and Jack and Calum)’s seemed to take half the speed. Ashton arrived on the sidewalk in front of the building panting, somewhat sore, and blissfully empty-headed, and it stayed that way for the forty seconds it took to chain up his bike and unstrap the cajon. then the reality of, oh, shit, two of my soulmates at least are in that building set in and so did a lurch of nausea. He steadied himself against the bike rack, inhaled, and thought: what would Ashley do?

The simple answer was that Ashley fucking Frangipane would go in there and be simultaneously the coolest and the scariest and when she left everyone would love her. But what she probably did first was take a deep breath and decide she was going to kick it in the ass.

Ashton took a deep breath and decided he was going to kick it in the ass. Then he hefted his cajon bag over his shoulder and set off for the door, but not without checking one more time to make sure his bike was locked. He glared once at the label identifying the apartment as ‘JALEX’-- today there was a post-it note with ‘CAKE’ scrawled on it stuck next to it, and Ashton was affronted for Michael’s sake that Michael wasn’t included-- and hit the buzzer. A moment later someone shouted over the intercom: “WHAT DO YOU WANT. ARE YOU ASHTON?”

“Yes?” Ashton replied. The door clicked; Ashton pulled it open and hauled his sorry ass upstairs. It wasn’t like he could get much sweatier than he already was, so he jogged up. The door was hanging ajar when he got to it, just an inch or so of light and pale green-almost-white drywall showing through the crack, and he pushed it open. “Hello?”

Michael appeared at the end of the hallway and beamed at him. “Welcome to the party,” he said. “Sorry about Jack and the intercom, he’s a jerk sometimes. Come on.” he approached Ashton, grabbed his wrist, and led him down the hall. “You can drop your stuff by the stairs.”

Ashton dropped his stuff by the stairs and followed Michael into the kitchen, where Luke and Calum were sharing tea with a guy with an obnoxious blonde streak. Ashton figured he was Jack, especially with the suspicious look he shot him.

“Jack, Ashton, Ashton, Jack,” Michael said. “Cal, this is Ash-- you guys have met, haven’t you?”

“Yeah,” Ashton said. “Hey.”

Luke offered him a smile. It was just with his eyes, over the rim of his mug, and Ashton wanted to cherish it forever. Calum waved. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Ashton said again. Then he quickly added (realizing his mistake), “Jack Barakat? Zack’s friend?”

“That’s me,” Jack replied. “You’re one of the hippie squad, then?”

“That’s Those Fucking Hippies to you,” Ashton replied. Luke choked on his tea. Calum raised his eyebrows. Jack rolled his eyes and flapped his hands as if to say, potato, potato. Ashton felt pleased with himself. “Are we doing this?” He said. “Whatever… this is?”

“Sure, why not,” Calum said. “Oh, and. Ashley said to send her hat back with you.”

“Doesn’t that sound familiar,” Ashton said dryly. Calum smiled. Except it wasn’t a smile-- or, just barely, the corners of his eyes crinkling up and a muscle twitching in the corner of his mouth. Ashton in the span of seven seconds decided he thought it was beautiful. “No problem,” he added.

Calum nodded. the moment was over. Michael cleared his throat loudly and said, “ANYWAY, all the stuff’s upstairs so we can get started whenever Jack takes off. Don’t want to offend his delicate sensibilities,” he told Ashton in a loud whisper, and Luke and Jack both snorted. Luke won, though, because his snort was accompanied by him spitting out his tea. Everyone-- Luke included-- laughed. Jack told them all to use protection-- Calum flipped him off as Ashton blushed-- and left. Michael took off supposedly to move the cajon upstairs, and Calum followed him, brushing past Ashton and laying a hand on his back for a split-second as he went. Ashton was left with Luke.

Luke said, “You’re sweaty.”

Ashton looked down at his shirt. There was a ring of wet fabric around his collar. “I biked here,” he said.

“I knew it,” Luke said.”Soon as I saw the sun had come out. I told Calum, ‘we’re probably going to see Ashton on a bicycle today. And, I mean, we haven’t actually seen you on a bicycle, but…” he trailed off as Ashton chuckled and took an aggressive drink of tea, which Ashton took for unease. Luke’s long fingers curled around the circumference of the mug, long enough that they overlapped; it was a strangely vulnerable gesture for someone who was six-foot-four and had shoulders like the colossus of Rhodes.

“What did Calum say?” Ashton said. The question made the corner of Luke’s mouth turn up, more of a smile than Calum’s had been but really (the way Ashton saw it) quite the same. Amused, pleased, affectionate. (The third one made Ashton freak out a little.)

“He called you a hippie,” Luke said. “In a nice way.”

“It’s not the worst thing I’ve been called,” Ashton replied. There was a pause after the comment, just long enough for Michael to appear in the doorway without interrupting.

“We’re doing this,” Michael announced. “Get your arses upstairs.”

Luke and Ashton exchanged a look and followed Michael. Ashton was acutely aware of Luke behind him, bare inches taller, barely close at all, and Ashton was sure that he was reading too closely. He halted, and Luke collided with him. Ashton was thankful he’d seen Luke set his tea down in the kitchen, because he hadn’t really calculated the move much and that really would have put a damper on the mood. “Sorry,” he said.

“S’okay,” Luke murmured. Ashton started into motion again. Michael shot them both a look as they caught up, suspicious and maybe even envious, and Ashton made a note to avoid bumping into anyone else.

The second door at the top of the stairs was open; Ashton could see Calum through the doorway, sitting crosslegged on the floor with a bass guitar in his lap. The room was basically music heaven for college students: a row of guitars hung on the wall, a haphazard collection of amps, a chaotic array of cords and stray picks and a single couch with a barstool dropped on top. Calum was leaning against the sofa with a pucker of concentration between his eyebrows, and Ashton had to look away before he could think of anything stupidly poetic. He stepped aside to let Luke in the door first, watching over his shoulder as Michael dropped to the floor next to Calum and brushed their shoulders.

Calum ignored Michael completely for as long as it took for him to finish tuning the third string, but as Ashton sat down across from them and unpacked his cajon Calum looked up and the smile lines around his eyes deepened and he pushed Michael’s shoulder. Ashton, watching Luke take a white electric guitar down from the wall, saw the altercation. He felt a smile turn up the corners of his mouth as Michael shoved Calum back and got up with a muttered “see if I sit next to you again”.

Ashton glanced away as Michael looked towards him, and looked back up to see Michael taking down a guitar of his own. Ashton returned his attention to the cajon. Luke sat down to Ashton and played a riff, and Calum played some complementary riff on the top two strings. Michael sat back down next to Calum and riffed off against Luke as Calum finished tuning. Ashton felt distinctly like a third wheel.

“Oi, lay us a beat, Beat Man,” Calum said. Ashton looked up and said,

“What?”

“Lay us a beat,” Calum said. “Make yourself useful or some shit.” The corner of his mouth was turned up. Ashton set his cajon up and sat on it and played a few quick beats with his fingers. Calum said, “No, no. Bigger.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Ashton grumbled. Then he played a bigger beat. Calum started playing along, quick and low and admittedly rather sexy, and then Luke reached up and turned on the amp. Before he could settle back down and play, though, Michael dove in and started, well, shredding. Luke swore and tried to keep up. Michael was playing too fast for the tempo; Ashton raised the tempo. Then he brought it down again, and the others followed. Without warning, Luke started playing the horn riff from ‘Irresistible.” Calum started playing the tuba riff. Ashton switched beats on a dime and started keeping time. Michael swore twice and started singing. Ashton took about two seconds to assume that this was what people called ‘jamming.”

It felt pretty damn good.

 

==

 

So…

“So we played some jams,” Ashton said dismissively. “We’re not getting married.” The wind whipped around him, but Ashley’s BITCH hat was diverting much of it out of his hair. He flinched in anticipation as Ashley clicked her tongue in disapproval, the sound tinny in the one earbud he was wearing (safety first, and shit).

You know how high the statistics are for soulmates bonding through music?” She said. Ashton cruised around a corner before replying, “No, because I’m kind of not obsessed with soulmates and soulmate statistics.” Ashley ignored the jab.

You’re gonna deserve what’s coming for you,” she said. Ashton shrugged, even though she couldn’t see him.

“I know,” he said.

Chapter Text

“...So?”

“So,” Michael said, “He’s in the band. Forever and always.”

“You’ve only been in the band for like, three days,” Calum said. “I’m not sure you get a say in this.”

“It’s been a week,” Luke said. “He’s been in the band for a week and he’s our soulmate, which constitutes him getting a say.” (When did he learn the word constitute, and how did he know the context?)

Calum said, “Whatever,” and he draped his legs over Michael’s and listened to the afternoon’s successes on his phone. Luke could hear the music through the one earbud hanging loose, just a tinny buzz. It was a good tinny buzz, though, which was completely different from a regular tinny buzz.

“We should call our band Tinny Buzz,” he said.

“What,” Michael said.

Luke said, “Idunno. It sounded funny in my head.”

“Everything sounds funny in your head,” Calum said.

Luke said, “This is true,” and Michael laughed.

Calum added, “Luke, if you wanna nap before work now’s the time.”

Michael brightened noticeably at the news. “Band cuddle!” He exclaimed, and to emphasize his point he detangled himself from Calum and threw himself on top of Luke. Luke pushed him off again.

“Band naps are for beds,” he said. “You two can come, but I expect the sheets to be clean when I get back tonight.” He got up to change and ignored their half-assed protests in defence of each other’s honor, because it wasn’t like they were true anyway, and by the time he got to bed in his and Calum’s shared bedroom Michael and Calum were already there. Making out, what was more.

“Oh, god,” he said. “My eyes are bleeding. I’m scarred for life. Move over.” He dropped down on the bed next to them and dug his elbow into Michael’s side, pandering for room, and Michael rolled onto Calum.

“Luke,” Calum grumbled, “This is your fault.”

“Like I didn’t know that,” Luke replied. “Like you don’t love it, what’s more.”

“Well,” Calum said, making eyes with Michael, “Touche.”

Luke looked away in time for Michael to squawk, “Luke, Calum groped me.”

“Like I said,” Luke said, “I expect clean sheets. Are we napping or no?”

There was a soft thump in response, followed by Michael swearing, and then an arm wrapped around Luke’s middle. It was Calum’s, which explained the thump. Michael had probably rolled into the wall. “Michael,” Luke said, “You okay?”

Michael mumbled the affirmative from somewhere behind Calum. Calum added, “I’m loving this group cuddle thing, by the way.”

“You’ve established this,” Luke said. “Now shut up and go to sleep.”

 

==

 

Ashton got back to the dorm and promptly made for the shower, smelly from not one bike ride but two and sore from the same. On the way out afterward, clean-smelling and damp, he caught sight of his shirtless reflection in the tall mirror and caught his breath. There was a third mark nestled under his shoulder blades, close enough to Michael’s that before this whole resolution business started he could have mistaken the two for a single whole. Rather than a smudge, though, now there was a pair of fish: they looked to be swimming in a slow circle, even stationary, and looking at them gave Ashton a peaceful feeling. Even if he had to crane his neck to look at them.

Someone passed the door, and he flinched. It was getting to that time of the evening when people would be coming in more often to shower; he was risking getting caught with his metaphorical shirt off if he stuck around to gape. He pulled his literal shirt on, collected his things, and bailed. He remembered too late that he hadn’t dried off properly, when his shirt immediately stuck to his skin.

Back in his room with an additional sweatshirt pulled on over his marks and a pen between his teeth (the latter was only temporary), he decided to call Ashley and see if she’d take a picture for him. She answered and cheerily informed him that she was out with friends, but she could stop by later. Ashton said it was fine, he’d see her tomorrow. Then he hung up and did his schoolwork, which had rather fallen behind since the soulmate thing became a thing. The calendar pinned above his desk informed him that he had breakfast with Those Fucking Hippies after his run the next morning. (He’d missed the run last week; he’d missed a lot of runs.) He wondered how he could avoid the soulmate conversation most effectively.

What would Ashley do? He wondered. Ashley would probably own all her marks, walk in there like they were her crowning glory. Ashton could at least act normal about it. He was not naturally prone to theatrics (contrary to what some might say).

Hell. It was going to be hot tomorrow. Own the damn marks, Irwin. Wasn’t like they were going to be a permanent part of his identity or anything.

The Hippies wouldn’t think he was weird, would they?

Oh, jeez, he thought. With a half-minute’s hesitation, he grabbed his phone and dialled Ella’s number. She picked up within three rings. Ashton rather trusted Ella; whether it was because she had been the one to invite him into The Hippies or because she always answered the phone was up for debate. Also he suspected she’d encountered Ashley at some point or another (probably at one of Ella’s-girlfriend-Taylor’s clique parties) and that they compared notes on The Care and Mental Health of Ashton ™ .

Hey, Ash, what’s up?” She said. There was music playing in the background. Ashton was suddenly quite afraid that he’d interrupted a date or a girl’s night out or something equally important.

“I didn’t break something up, did I?” He said. Ella snorted for some reason and quickly uh-uhed.

No, no,” she said. “I’m just hanging out at Taylor’s. The whole gang’s out. Is something wrong?”

“I-- well, maybe?” Ashton said. “I had a dumb question.”

Alright, ask away,” Ella said. Just like that. Ashton wished he had that kind of superpower.

“If I-- If something happened, to me, and I was different in some way, and maybe kind of weird, you guys-- the Hippies-- you wouldn’t kick me out, would you? Like, you wouldn’t go, ‘ew, no, he’s weird’ and never speak to me again?”

No,” Ella said. “I mean, have you met Zack? That was a joke. Anyway. We’re all already really fucking weird, Ash. Whatever’s going on with you, it’s gonna be fine. We’re friends.”

Ashton raked a hand through his hair. “Everyone keeps saying that,” he commented. “Maybe one of these days I’ll start believing it.”

We’ll still be here,” Ella said, her voice hinting at a smile. “See you tomorrow?”

“For breakfast,” Ashton said. “See you then.” He hung up.

He’d left Luke and Calum’s with the knowledge that he’d have to the dorm to himself that night; Michael and his soulmates were getting steadily closer to joined-at-the-hip, and Ashton suspected they’d find some way to move Michael in with them at the end of the year. Ashton went to bed early with confidence in not being abruptly woken, deciding against turning the radio on when he did; he’d end up listening all night if he did, and he was trying to play it cool. Honestly.

When he rolled out of bed the next morning, minutes before the alarm, he pulled on running shorts and the first clean sleeveless shirt he could find without thinking and took off into the grey morning.

The route of his run went the way he’d usually take to go to work, following the bus route. It turned out he’d been running past his soulmates’ apartment for months, which begged the question of how they’d never met. It was about as strange as never realizing he and Michael were soulmates-- they were only roommates thanks to that term’s random assignments, but on top of that, over the whole term they’d never touched. It was weird, was the point.

He considered taking a different route, but that would be weird. Okay, everything was weird about the arrangement, but he digressed. He chose not to avoid running past Jalex/Luke and Calum’s apartment, and because he did-- because the universe was feeling serendipitous that week-- no sooner had he reached the curb outside their building than Calum was stepping out on the sidewalk and closing the front door behind him. He looked groggy, like he’d rolled right out of bed and hit the streets like Ashton had, and when he heard Ashton running up behind him he turned. His eyes widened the slightest but, but all he did was wait until Ashton reached him before taking off in stride. They ran together in comfortable silence, a new experience for Ashton, keeping pace with each other with little effort and somehow successfully navigating obstacles as a pair. Ashton needed to stop seeing metaphors in everyday life.

Eventually they reached the apartment again, and Ashton slowed to a halt in time with Calum. Ashton was entirely unsure of how to handle the talking part of their interaction; for want of anything smarter he said awkwardly, “Say hi to Luke and Michael for me?”

Calum nodded and clapped him on the shoulder, following it with a bit of a wave before going inside. Ashton took off again, suddenly aware of the heat and the fact that he’d been running for the better part of an hour. He kept on, all the way back to the dorms, and jumped in the shower before breakfast; when he returned to his room to change and collect his things for classes, Este-from-across-the-hall greeted him. When Ashton turned to reply, she quickly looked him in the eye like she’d been staring before.

“Nice marks,” she said.

“Thanks,” Ashton said. “Good morning.”

“Morning,” she replied, and slipped into her room. Ashton entertained the idea of grabbing a sweater as he collected his things, but it quickly slipped his mind. He tied on a bandana and slung on his schoolbag and left again, pulling the door shut behind him with one foot; he was halfway down the stairs when he passed passed Ashley’s friends, Nia and Rena and Lynn, who wolf-whistled playfully at him.

“Save some for the rest of us!” Lynn called after him. Lynn was infamous for lacking marks and being quite frank about it; the statement, at least, was funny. Ashton laughed, but he still wished he’d brought a sweater. He quickened his pace to a skip the rest of the way down the stairs and out the doors onto the quad. It was getting steadily warmer, and the student body was already on the move; it was barely seven and there were already people (besides runners like Ashton, Calum, and Este-from-across-the-hall) milling around, headed to the library or an early-early class (who took those?) or just to breakfast. Ashton’s own collective was sitting under a tree, on the picnic quilt, eating muffins. They had company: a tall blonde girl brushing elbows with Ella, picking her muffin apart with precision and exchanging baking tips with Zack as Ashton joined the circle. Zayn scooted over to make room between himself and Zack, and Ashton sat down. He helped himself to a muffin, and Zayn took in his new marks with wide eyes.

At an arch of Ashton’s eyebrows, Zayn murmured an apology and a greeting. “Congratulations,” he added. That was the end of it. Ashton was halfway through his muffin by the time Zack and the blonde (whom he assumed was Taylor, just judging by the context) reached a gap in their conversation; Zack reached around to get a muffin, absentmindedly greeted Ashton, and then noted the marks.

He said, “Holy shit, Ashton.”

Ella, previously nose-deep in a paperback, looked up; Taylor looked over. Ella nodded in agreement.

“Very weird, Ash,” she said dryly. “Totally weird. ‘Guys, I met my soulmate, do you hate me’?” She said in an exaggerated tone, and although Ashton figured she was just being troublesome for the sake of it the comment rankled.

“Mates,” he corrected. “Grow some eyes, O’Connor, there’s obviously three here.”Ella rolled her eyes.

Probably-Taylor said, “They look cool. I’m Taylor, by the way.”

“Ashton,” Ashton replied. “And I figured. Ella’s girlfriend, right?”

“Ex,” Ella said. “As of Sunday.” Taylor nodded in agreement.

“Still friends, though,” She added.

“Cool,” Ashton said.

“This is turning into ex central,” Zack commented. “First Zayn and Harry, now you two.. any other exes we ought to pull out of the woodwork?”

Before Ashton could say, Wait, what? Someone else said, “You rang?” and they all turned to look at the interloper. Ashley nudged Zayn over and dropped into the circle next to Ashton, wiggling her eyebrows at him. Ashton shoved her and murmured a good-morning as she looked over the remainder of the circle. Her gaze snagged on Taylor, and after the barest hesitation she wiggled her eyebrows at her, too. Taylor blushed.

“Unless Perrie or Lynn want to show, I’m pretty sure I’m the last of the exes,” Ashley added.

“Nope, there’s still Jack and Liam,” Ella said. “If we’re getting technical.” Zack groaned.

“I thought we promised never to bring that up,” he said.

“You brought this upon yourself,” Ella said cheerfully. “You really did.”

“Who dated Ashley?” Taylor said.

Ashton raised his hand at the same time as Ella said, “Ashton.”

“In freshman year,” Ashton added. “Really brief. I am not of the disposition to easily get into romantic relationships.”

“Or any relationship,” Ella said. Ashton ducked his head. Ashley bumped their shoulders together, which was a nice reassurance.

Ashley added, “Didn’t you date Lynn, Ella? After she and I broke up?” Ella nodded.

“And Zack dated Jack, before Jack and Alex got secretly married,” she said. Zack turned pink. “Okay,” Ella said. “They deny they’re married. But neither of them are seeing anyone else and they’re joined at the hip, I don’t know about you guys but that sounds like marriage to me.”

“That suggests that Ashley and I are married, though,” Ashton said, “And we all know that’s not true.”

“At least Taylor knows,” Ashley said. Taylor went from a little pink to properly scarlet.

Ashton murmured to Ashley, “Do I want to know?”

“Not yet,” Ashley murmured back. “We’re still figuring it out.”

“Doesn’t that sound familiar.”

Ashley snorted. “Maybe we’re leading parallel lives under different names. Maybe I’m you from a parallel universe or something.”

“Nah, you’re too good-looking to be me.” Ashley grinned at the compliment. Ashton added, “Why’d you take time to stop by, though? I ask out of curiosity, I’m always thrilled to see you.”

“I know,” Ashley said. “Thought I’d stop by to assist you in getting a good look at your marks, like you asked. Is all.”

Ashton paused. Then, “Oh. I remember now. I had a particularly intense conversation right after that, completely forgot. You wanna do that now?”

“If you want to take your shirt off,” Ashley said. “Which I fully endorse, by the way.” She winked. Next to her, Zayn snorted. Abruptly aware of the rest of the circle again, Ashton glanced around. Taylor was back in conversation with Zack, and Ella had returned to her book; Zayn was silent, apparently doing his sit-quietly-and-absorb-everything thing. Ashton said, “Yeah, okay, we could do that.”

“Okay, Irwin, give me your phone and take your shirt off,” Ashley said. The statement gave Ashton a good laugh even as he complied, pulling his phone from his jeans pocket and passing it to Ashley. He hesitated the barest moment at the collar of his shirt before grabbing it and pulling the whole thing over his head; Ella glanced up and whistled, but Ashley just got to work. Ashton heard the shutter click once, twice, three times, and then she said, “Okay, you can put it back on.”

“Oh, thank god,” Ashton said. He put his shirt back on. Ashley handed him his phone and leaned against him again. Ashton pulled up his gallery and found three pictures of his back, showing off the full stretch of Michael’s wings and the two fish swimming in lazy circles. Ashton couldn’t keep himself from exhaling in a funny awed way, glancing from the phone screen to the mark on his arm and back again.

“It’s weird, isn’t it?” Said Taylor. “The marks.”

Ashton looked up. Taylor was studying him, one corner of her mouth quirked up into a smile. It made him feel a bit uneasy, as people studying him always did, but she reminded him of Ashley: like she was studying him, but he was safe in her knowledge. Ashton took a deep breath and said very quickly, before his brain could catch up with him, “Actually kind of terrifying. I’ve been running from this pretty much all my life, and here it is.” Then he looked away. Ashley chuckled; he felt it rather than heard it, through her chest and against his shoulder.

“Safe place, Irwin,” she said.

“Fuck you, Frangipane,” he replied. She responded by ruffling his hair, which wasn’t condescending at all. Then Ashton’s phone buzzed with an alarm, and he only had time for a quick “Oh, shit,” and a snatch-and-grab into Zack’s bag of muffins before he told them all goodbye and ran.

“You need to reschedule your morning classes, Ashton!” Zack called after him. “Or start showing up earlier, because this is getting ridiculous.”

 

==

 

“Since we’ve officially found our fourth,” Michael said, “Can we hold hands?” He showed Luke his open hand, marked palm up; Luke felt a smile eat up his face as he swatted Michael’s hand away. Then as an afterthought he reached out between them and snatched at it, slotting their fingers together. Michael beamed. “Can we kiss, too?”

“I think that falls under PDA,” Luke said. “No one does that. No, correction, they do it in moderation.” (Moderation, really?)

“I can do moderation,” Michael said. He leaned in close enough that their foreheads were touching, grinning like an idiot; Luke shoved him gently, rolling his eyes at the other boy’s antics.

“I’m pretty sure that crosses the line out of moderation,” he said. “Come on, you’ve got stuff, right?”

“Oh, yeah,” Michael said. “Not as important as you, though. Or, like kissing you.” He bumped their shoulders together and glanced both ways before tugging Luke across the road and onto the green.

Luke said, “Well, kissing is pretty important.”

“And you. You’re very important.”

“You’re only saying that because you want to kiss me,” Luke said. It was a joke-- It would have been very difficult to see Michael as insincere in his calling Luke important.

“Is it working?” Michael said, hopeful. Luke rolled his eyes, glanced around them, and leaned in to press a quick kiss to Michael’s cheek. Michael beamed and swerved from his straight course across campus (a pretty good metaphor for his love life, Luke thought) to walk in a few crazed squiggles before straightening out again and bringing Luke with him. Luke bumped their shoulders again and called him dramatic.

“Well,” Michael said, “You’re not wrong. Kiss me again?”

“Later,” Luke said. “Come on. Dorm. Stuff.” He tugged at Michael’s hand and Michael sped up with a pout.

“You want to suck the joy out of everything, don’t you,” he grumbled. Luke rolled his eyes a third time and didn’t reply, which seemed to motivate Michael to get off his ass and focus on getting to the dorm in one piece-- or on time, which was slightly more pressing. The girl across the hall from Michael’s door greeted Michael by name; Michael returned the favor and introduced her to Luke as Este-from-across-the-hall. He added, “Luke’s my soulmate. Other soulmate. It’s pretty cool.” Luke ducked his head and mumbled a greeting. Este returned it, her voice amused, and Michael tugged Luke after him into the room Michael and Ashton shared. The door closed. Luke glanced around.

It looked pretty much like he’d thought the joint residence of Michael and Ashton would look. On the one hand, blankets folded haphazardly and books stacked in some attempt of order, clothes half-hanging out of the hamper, a handful of posters tacked up to the wall and a tv hooked up at the foot of the bed with an array of cables hanging off; on the other hand the bed messily made, books shelved but in no order that Luke could see, a food drive flyer tacked to the corkboard, a calendar with notes in chicken-scratch handwriting tacked above the desk, and… Ashton, stretched out on his bed, buried in a textbook. Luke could see the tops of his eyebrows, furrowed in concentration, over the top.

Michael cleared his throat and Ashton looked up. His eyes widened when he noticed Luke, and he sat up; Luke opened his mouth and closed it again and sat on Michael’s bed, unsure of anything intelligent to say.

“Roommate, soulmate, soulmate, roommate,” Michael announced, crossing the room and shifting around books on his desk. Ashton rolled his eyes at Michael and smiled at Luke, which Luke appreciated. He also appreciated that he wasn’t the only person who occasionally rolled his eyes at Michael.

“Sleep good?” Ashton said. Luke nodded. Ashton marked his page and set the book aside, regarding Luke carefully. He looked tired. He was also wearing a t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, and Luke saw the black outlines of what looked like the tips of wings curling around his shoulders. Luke stared. Then he realized he was staring and looked quickly back at Ashton’s face, feeling his face warm. He was a little relieved in seeing the tops of Ashton’s cheekbones reddening as well. “They’re Michael’s,” Ashton said. “The wings. They’re Michael’s marks.” Luke nodded, glancing at Michael. Michael was paying very good attention to packing textbooks and not looking at Luke or Ashton.

“I like them,” Luke said, looking back at Ashton. Ashton in response ducked his head, whatever expression he’d gotten hidden by the fall of his hair. Michael cleared his throat.

“I’m gonna head to class,” he said. “Luke, you wanna--”

“I’ll stay,” Luke said. “If--” He glanced at Ashton.

“It’s fine,” Ashton. “If you want.”

“I’ll stay here,” Luke said. “I’ve got class later, I won’t be here long,” he added to Ashton.

“Oh, thank god,” Ashton said dryly. Luke smiled and returned his attention to Michael, although he was still appreciating Ashton being sarcastic. The behavior made him seem more lively.

“See you after?” Luke said. Michael nodded.

“Yeah, totally,” he said, and quickly leaned down and pressed a kiss to Luke’s mouth before leaving and pulling the door closed behind him. Luke and Ashton’s eyes followed him to the door before returning to each other.

“That sly dog,” Ashton said. “He set us up, you know.”

“I think I was coming to that conclusion,” Luke said. “Can I--” he pointed to Ashton’s bed, and Ashton nodded.

“Yeah, go ahead-- I’ll, ah, pick these up.” As Luke got up and crossed to the opposite bed, Ashton cleared away his book and notes. He dropped a pen off the edge of the bed in the attempt, and dropped all his books in a heap on the desk before leaning bodily off the bed to pick it up. Luke shed his bag and plopped down on the bed. They sat adjacent to each other, a little awkwardly, Ashton pulling himself back up and sitting crosslegged at the head and Luke with his back against the wall and his legs stretched out in front of him. Within a moment of sitting down, Luke pulled his legs up to his chest and wrapped his arms around his knees. Ashton cracked a smile.

“What’s funny?” Luke said, and Ashton cleared his throat and looked away, going pink at the cheekbones again.

“Nothing,” he said. “Well, I-- it’s just, your body language, it’s kinda-- a little weird? I dunno. It makes you look smaller than you actually are.” He said all this without looking Luke in the eye.

Luke said, “Calum says it makes me look like a three-year-old. I think it’s because, um, I still feel small? I mean, I was smaller when I was younger, so.” He ducked his head briefly before looking back up at Ashton. The other man had a funny smile on his face, charmed-like; Luke felt his face warm and he ducked his head again.

“Were you that small?” Ashton said. Luke gave a jerky nod and reached for his bag, fumbling in the front pocket for his phone. He swiped through and opened his gallery, scrolling past the camera roll to an album of pictures he’d actually uploaded to the phone: the oldest was of Luke and Calum in year ten, both of them skinny and pimpled with bad haircuts. Both of them were leaning against the dining table at Calum’s house; their hands were resting on the table surface, just their pinkies overlapping. Luke remembered how shy they’d been at first, when they’d begun to consider holding hands and kissing as the ideal direction to take their relationship; he remembered Calum shying away for nearly a month before and shying back after, suddenly uncertain in what they meant to each other.

Luke cleared his throat and dropped back into real time, and he held out the phone to Ashton with the picture pulled up. Ashton’s lips parted and his eyes widened the slightest bit; he accepted Luke’s offering with careful hands, grinning and showing all his teeth when he saw the picture. It was the charmed face again, except Luke wasn’t sure charmed was the right word.

“I like your fringe,” Ashton said. “I had one in year eleven-- looked like a loser.” He stopped the commentary there and went back to looking at the picture, his eyebrows pinched in concentration like he was trying to commit it to memory. After a long moment he handed it back to Luke with a smaller smile, a funny sad smile. Wistful, that was it.

“You were definitely small,” he said. “And adorable. You and Calum both.” Luke felt his own smile return as he closed the gallery and put his phone back in his bag. Ashton thought he was cute.

“What about you?” He said. “Did you really have a fringe?”

He eyed Ashton’s mop of golden-brown curls a bit dubiously, and Ashton chuckled. “Yeah,” he said. “Years eleven and twelve, actually. I grew it out after I graduated-- straightening was too much work.”

“I can’t believe you managed to straighten it at all,” Luke said. Ashton laughed.

“There was less of it,” he said. “That helped.” He kept laughing for a moment longer; Luke waited, feeling the funny-charmed feeling himself, until Ashton was finished before asking the next question.

“Can I see?” He said. “I mean, like, have you got a picture of it somewhere? I’ve showed you my embarrassing high school pictures, now it’s your turn to return the favor.”

“Well, when you put it like that,” Ashton said, and Luke burst out laughing. Ashton shifted onto his knees and leaned over the headboard to shuffle around on the desk, granting Luke a glorious view of his bare side through the massive gap in his shirt where a sleeve might have originally been. There was a third mark just behind the joint of his shoulder, a pair of fish swimming in one lazy circle: Luke wondered at it. Then Ashton flopped back down onto his bed, holding his phone in one hand. “I’m not sure I’ve even got a picture of me in high school,” he said, scrolling through his phone. Luke watched; he was scrolling with his right hand and the inside of his wrist was facing Luke, mark and all.

(The mark bewildered Luke. He knew that the marks were supposed to represent something of the relationship between soulmates, but he wasn’t sure what a funny cluster of circles was supposed to represent for him and Ashton.)

“Aha!” Ashton said, and Luke looked up. Ashton had halted his rapid scrolling; when Luke met his eye he explained, “Facebook. Website remembers everything-- see, here.” He held out his phone to Luke, who took it eagerly. True to Ashton’s statement, it was open to the Facebook app, and the boy in the picture was definitely Ashton, but it was an entirely different Ashton. He seemed smaller, the Green Day shirt he was wearing hanging loose off his shoulders; his hair was decidedly shorter, cut into a fringe far better executed than Luke’s. He had a light case of acne, maybe a little worse than Luke’s had been, but it didn’t take away from the fact that he was cute-- way cute. And his crooked grin was just the same, although Luke recognized its forcedness from the day they’d met.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Luke said. “You look hot.”

Ashton went scarlet. “I’m serious!” Luke said, laughing as Ashton opened his mouth to protest. “You looked great. Please tell me people were tripping over themselves to date you.”

“Not really,” Ashton said. “Wrong scene. I was in the wrong scene, I mean. Punk was not the place to be in high school if you wanted to be liked.”

“I remember that feeling,” Luke said. “At least I had Calum. Did you have many friends? Any friends?” Ashton gave a helpless little shrug.

“I had Ashley, in year twelve,” he said. “But she was an entire ocean away. I got on.” He shrugged.

“Wish you didn’t have to,” Luke sad. Ashton looked away, the ghost of a smile crossing his face.

“Thanks, Luke,” he said. Luke handed his phone back.

“Wish we’d met in high school,” he said. “We coulda, I dunno, started a band, made all our loud music together. How long do you reckon Michael spent in Oz?”

“Dunno,” Ashton said. “He said he was from Sydney, but he made it sound like he moved around a lot.” Luke nodded.

“It’s funny,” he said. “You could swear he was American.”

“He’s got the attitude,” Ashton said, and Luke laughed.

“You be nice to him,” he said. “He is the reason we found each other, after all.”

“Damn right,” Ashton said. “If it weren’t for him, I’d be getting to bed at eleven and getting a full night’s sleep instead of listening to the radio show literally called ‘The Graveyard Shift’.” Luke kept laughing. It was like everything Ashton said was specifically meant to make him laugh.

Jesus, he was falling hard. He wondered if he ought to be concerned. Before he could think about it for too long, though, his phone buzzed in his bag. Luke leaned over the edge of the bed to grab it, and found a text from Calum. class in 10 min get your ass over there “Ah, shit,” he said. “I’ve got class.”

“Which one?” Ashton said, looking first at Luke’s phone and then at Luke like one of them would give him a clue. Luke thought about it.

“American History, across campus,” he said. “I’ve got ten minutes, I should probably get over there.” He dropped his phone back into his bag and got up, stumbling to keep his balance as one leg was still propped on the bed while the rest of him was heading for the door. Ashton caught him briefly enough to help him remain upright, releasing him before it could get even the slightest bit close to  weird.

“Reckon I know a shortcut,” he said. “If you’ll have me.”

You bet your unfairly nice ass I’d have you, Luke thought, but all he said was, “Yeah, sure.” Then a thought occurred to him. “Hey, I’ve got a lecture tomorrow, but I’d like to be on campus for lunch… do you mind if I come back here between those? It’s just a two o’clock lecture, I won’t be around too long--”

“Nah, it’s cool,” Ashton said, opening the door. “Totally cool.”

“Oh!” Luke said. “Cool.”

 

==

 

The next morning, Ashton went running again. For the second time he met Calum outside his building, and for the second time they continued on in company. This second time, though, when they reached the turning point Calum slowed down. Ashton followed suit, a little bewildered, and Calum properly halted.

“Um,” he said, when Ashton had joined him at a standstill, “Want to get a coffee?”

“Um,” Ashton said. “Sure.” He was too surprised about being invited for a coffee to think about what Calum meant by it, until they were actually on the sidewalk outside the nearest hole-in-the-wall coffee joint (college towns had plenty of them, and the joint in question actually tended to be Ashton’s turning point on runs). Then a quick series of regrets flashed through his head all at once, none of them particularly pleasant but also reassuringly relevant: He was sweaty and tired, he couldn’t get coffee with anyone. Could he afford a coffee? Why did Calum want to get a coffee with him? It was all very bewildering. He did get a coffee, though-- he needed the caffeine. Ugh. Why was he getting caffeine. Getting a coffee with someone was supremely difficult.

They sat outside, which was nice. The air was cool-ish, and Ashton wasn’t regretting wearing a sweatshirt, but it also meant the claustrophobic feeling of being indoors with someone  important wasn’t added to the feeling of being with someone important and desperately not wanting to fuck it up. Luke had been different; he still felt his pulse going a hundred kilometers an hour (or something of the sort), but it was Ashton’s turf and he’d already been through the wringer of don’t-fuck-it-up the day they’d met. Winning Calum over was a challenge he had yet to undertake. (No, he told himself, playing music doesn’t count.)

“So,” he said, when they were sitting adjacent to each other with a table between them, Ashton’s cup of coffee warming his hands and Calum’s resting on the table next to his phone. Calum looked at him, and Ashton took a quick gulp of coffee. It was very hot. He spluttered, and Calum’s eyes crinkled into a smile. It eased the tension in Ashton’s stomach a bit. “Um,” he said, “What are you studying?”

Calum took a more tactful sip of coffee and tapped his phone before replying. “Photography. Minoring in music, on a football scholarship. You could say I’ve got a full plate.” Ashton chuckled. “What about you?” He added.

“Philosophy,” Ashton replied. “Minoring in music.” Calum snorted, and Ashton managed a smile. It was pretty ironic.

“Luke’s minoring in music,” Calum said. “Majoring in education. Michael’s minoring in music too, isn’t he?”

“No, he’s majoring in it,” Ashton said. “Minoring in obsessive video game playing.” Calum laughed out loud, his eyes crinkling up so much they almost vanished, his head falling back with the force of it. Ashton ducked his head, feeling a little pleased with himself. Calum laughed a moment longer before he recovered and took a long drink of coffee, and then he said, “Does he have a minor?”

“Er,” Ashton. “Video game design, I think. I was close.” Calum snorted and shook his head, which meant he was really trying not to laugh again. (Ashton knowing that with some confidence was a little unnerving.) “And he’s nnnot on a scholarship.”

Calum shook his head. “Are you?”

“Sort of,” Ashton said. “Not based on any special skills, just on my GPA and stuff. Means I have time to study and keep my grades up and thus look impressive to the school board.” Calum nodded.

“Sounds smart,” he said, leaning forward and raising an eyebrow. “Have I mentioned I like smart guys?”

Ashton laughed out loud, leaning away like Calum was about to make a move on him. Calum looked pleased with himself and leaned back again, and Ashton straightened up. “What was that for?”

“Wanted to see if I could get you to relax,” Calum said. “You’re so nervous. Is something wrong?” He turned serious towards the end, concern puckering his features, and Ashton looked away, feeling silly.

“No, it’s fine,” he said. “Just… nerves, Idunno. Don’t want to mess this up.” He gestured between himself and Calum, but then he gestured to his arm as well. Calum’s eyes followed him, and when he caught on his expression cleared; Ashton watched him mouth a small ‘oh’ before pressing his lips together and falling briefly into thought.

“Luke,” he began, then stopped. “Okay, Luke’s been studying psychology this term for some reason-- dunno why. Anyway, he’s been psychoanalyzing everyone he meets because of it.” Ashton felt his chest tighten as Calum began, but Calum must have sensed something was wrong because he quickly shook his head. “No, it’s not bad. He just told me you seemed really, Idunno, down? And he was worried. And he did mention you were really uncomfortable with the whole soulmates thing.” Ashton nodded. That was pretty much public knowledge, after all; it was hard to call it a dirty little secret when he’d avoided the topic for years.

But. “Did he,” Ashton began, “...say why? I mean,” he flapped his hand vaguely, and Calum nodded like he understood perfectly.

“He told me,” he said. “I wasn’t going to mention it, I figured it would make you kind of uncomfortable.” Ashton ducked his head.

“Thanks,” he said. “Now I’ve gone and upset your elaborate plan, too.” He felt silly again; he took a big drink of coffee (not so hot this time) to cover up for it. Calum shrugged.

“Nah, wasn’t that elaborate,” he said. “Just looking out for my friends, you know.” Ashton smiled at that.

“Are we friends?”

“Psht. Our soulmates are soulmates, of course we’re friends,” Calum said. It was a nice reassurance, Ashton decided, and he smiled at it.

“And if we’re soulmates, are we still friends?” He said.

“Touch me and find out,” Calum said, and Ashton snorted into his coffee.

“No thanks.”

“You insult me,” Calum said, but he was laughing. Ashton laughed a little bit too. Then they finished their coffee and subsequently their run, without any more drama on Ashton’s part.

(If he didn’t lean into Calum’s farewell clap on the back, but he did hope dearly for it and love it when it came, that was his problem.)

He found Luke in his room when he got back from his morning class. The younger man was stretched out on Michael’s bed, one long arm brushing the carpet. He had discarded his backpack at the foot of the bed, and it had fallen on its open end. Ashton picked it up and closed the top before he sat down and read half a chapter; he texted Michael on the way out again. did u bring luke to campus wit u? He didn’t expect an immediate answer-- Michael was in class-- but he replied quite promptly: yeah. he’s got the 2 pm lecture, but he plans to be up by noon. set an alarm n everything.

goood, cuz he was pretty conked out, Ashton replied.

lol...see u later?

yeah, Ashton replied. pay attention. He put his phone away and went to class. When he got back before lunch Luke was already gone; Ashton made a mental note to look out for him in the dining hall and went down to eat. Of course, rather than finding Luke he spotted all three of Them, crowded at one end of a table talking about cartoon characters. By the time he arrived with a tray, they were arguing about whether Sandy from Spongebob or Connie from Steven Universe would win in a fight.

“I totally don’t know anything,” he announced, plopping down next to Luke, “But Sandy would lose. She’s a squirrel.”

Luke leaned against his shoulder, apparently thrilled for the company. Michael and Calum seemed to be sharing a single square foot of space and not thinking about it. At Ashton’s argument, Michael stole a french fry off of what looked like Calum’s tray and pointed it at Ashton. “That,” he said, “Is not the point.”

“She’s still a squirrel,” Ashton said before he could regret saying anything. “And Connie has, like, a sword. Connie wins.”

“Sandy has badass karate skills, though,” Luke said.

“Again I say, squirrel,” Ashton said. Michael groaned and ate the french fry, along with two more. Ashton tucked into his sandwich. Luke murmured a greeting. “Saw you in the dorm this morning,” Ashton replied. “Michael’s bed nice and cozy, then?” Luke ducked his head and smiled, and Ashton ate some more sandwich.

“It’s still okay if I hang out there later, right?” Luke said a moment later. Ashton was briefly thrown for a loop, but it didn’t last. Room. Lecture. Crash. Right. “Oh, yeah, no problem,” he said. Luke nodded and laid his head on Ashton’s shoulder, which caused Michael to coo and a myriad of butterflies to explode in Ashton’s stomach. A quick glance down told him that Luke was wearing a shit-eating grin, which was a little too coherent to line up with earlier behavior. “Is this normal?” He said to Calum. Calum nodded, perfectly serious.

“Completely,” he said. “Smugness and all.” Luke actually giggled.Ashton took another large bite of sandwich. Michael and Calum took up the Connie-versus-Sandy discussion, with Calum supporting Connie; between bites Ashton said to Luke, “This is weirder than Batman-versus-Captain America. Also I didn’t realize college students actually did this.”

“You’re friends with the wrong college students,” Luke replied.

“You’re probably right,” Ashton shot back, gently digging his elbow into Luke’s ribs. Luke squirmed.

“Easy on the soulmate,” Michael said, and Ashton definitely didn’t notice Calum’s eyes on him at the mention of soulmates. “Also,” Michael went on, “Have you been living under a rock?”

“Probably,” Ashton replied. It was as good a reply as any. He ate the last corner of his sandwich. Michael rolled his eyes; then he shared some kind of magical Look with Calum and both of them cleared away their trays at once, with Michael informing Ashton they’d see him “later” with aggravating vagueness. “Those two are going on a date, aren’t they,” Ashton said to Luke when they were gone. Luke nodded.

“Some romantic soiree,” he mumbled. Ashton chuckled at his choice of words. Soiree. Sounded fancy.

“Are you about done, Luke?” He said. “I’m finished.”

“I was done ages ago,” Luke said. “You gonna go back up to the room, or…?”

“Yeah, I’ve got stuff to do,” Ashton said. “You coming with?”

“Yeah,” Luke said. Ashton collected the empty trays, and Luke trailed after him first to the drop and then up to the dorms again. Drowsy Luke, as an idea, was beginning to appeal to Ashton. Dreamy Luke was quiet and goofy and cuddly. Ashton wished he could stop thinking of him like that-- it was unnerving. Especially when Luke leaned bodily against him as he paused to unlock the door. It made him feel sleepy. It was upsetting. Everything was upsetting, honestly, and Ashton wished it would stop.

Luke, at least, wasn’t particularly preoccupied with talking over the hour and a half they spent together that afternoon. He sat crumpled up on Michael’s bed fussing between his laptop and a tidy pile of textbooks, and the couple of times Ashton looked up to check on him he paid no attention. At about ten til two Luke’s phone buzzed (phone alarms seemed to be a Thing for Luke) with the theme song from Spongebob, and Luke quickly packed up all his gear before turning it off.

“Sorry ‘bout the noise,” he added to Ashton.

“It’s fine,” Ashton said. “Have fun at the lecture?”

“Fun might be a relative term,” Luke said, then quickly frowned like something bewildered him. Then he pocketed his phone and slung on his backpack and said, “Bye, Ash.”

“Bye,” Ashton said. Luke left and pulled the door shut behind him. Ashton got back to work.

 

==

 

On the way to his lecture, Luke had a thought. He picked up his phone and called Alex.

Afternoon,” Alex said. “Let me guess, you’ve met the fifth soulmate you never mentioned you had.”

“So you’ve met Ashley,” Luke said. “No. Although it is kind of a soulmate thing. I was wondering if you’d mind if we brought Ash back for dinner.”

Have you asked him yet?” Alex said.

“No,” Luke said. “I wanted to check if it was okay first.”

You sound like a twelve-year-old asking his mom if he can have a sleepover,” Alex said, and Luke thought he sounded amused. “I’m cool with it. You ask the others, text me, all that shit. I’ll make sure Jack orders an extra pizza.

“Thanks so much, Alex,” Luke said. “See you tonight.”

Yeah, yeah. Go to class,” Alex said. Luke hung up and went to class, texting Michael and Calum as he went. soulmate night @ jalex?

Calum texted him back during the lecture. yes. michael also says yes. we will ask ash for you.

 

==

 

So, here he was, the second time in three days, looking up at the not-actually-that-looming building that housed two of his soulmates. Ashton felt fatigued with anticipation. Just pizza, he thought. Just pizza and talking and maybe some music. Head back to campus with Luke afterward. There’s a plan here. Plans were good. Ashton took a deep breath and locked his bicycle up before crossing to the apartment door, pressing the buzzer for Jalex-and-Cake. Calum’s voice answered: “Man, we really oughta get you and Mikey keys if this keeps up.” The comment made Ashton’s breath hitch-- were his visits getting too frequent? Was he going to get aggravating?-- but then Calum added, “Luke told me to shut up and let you in. I’m letting you in,” The door buzzed. Ashton pulled it open and made his way  upstairs, making a concentrated effort to not freak out. He rapped once on Jalex’s door, expecting to have the door opened in response, but someone just yelled something about the door being open. He twisted the knob and pushed inside, taking his last deep breath before he was swept into a mess of greetings and hasty embraces. Alex ruffled his hair on the way through to sprawl on the sofa next to Jack, and Calum clapped him on the shoulder on his way to join them. Michael for his part draped himself over Ashton’s shoulders and offered him first a beer and then a coke. Ashton opted for the latter and made his way to the second sofa, where Calum and Luke had decided to attempt Fusion. When Ashton sat down in the far corner, Luke untangled himself and said,

“Hey.”

“Hey yourself,” Ashton replied. “Good afternoon?”

“Lectures are boring,” Luke replied. “But, I’m awake.”

“That is a plus,” Ashton said. “Calum,” he added, and Calum nodded from the other side of Luke. Before he could say anything, Michael bounded over the coffee table and landed between Ashton and Luke, draping his legs over Ashton’s lap. Ashton squawked but didn’t protest. Michael handed him a coke can.

“Don’t open that just yet, I ran all the way from the kitchen,” he added. Ashton quickly set the can on the coffee table and thanked Michael for the warning. “So,” Michael said, “How’s stuff?”

“Stuff,” Ashton said, “Is good. How was your date?”

“The date,” Michael said, “Was good.” Luke snorted. Calum reached across Luke’s lap and offered Michael a high-five, which Michael accepted. Michael added, “We hung out. Bonded. What about you and Luke?”

“If you call extra maths homework good date material, I  had a great time,” Luke said. “I don’t know about Ash, though. Did you enjoy yourself, Ash?”

“Yeah, me and my psych homework get along great,” Ashton said. “We understand each other.” Luke snorted. Ashton had figured that if anyone would get his joke, it would be Luke; he felt satisfied. He was surprised, though, when Michael and Calum both hesitated a moment and then laughed out loud.

“And both of you are messed up, I suppose,” Michael said.

Well.”

“Well,” Jack said, “This is romantic.”

“Shut up, Jack,” Michael and Luke said. Jack rolled his eyes and looked at Alex, who shrugged.

“Shut up, Jack,” he added, and Calum snickered. Jack flipped Alex the bird, then swung it over at Calum, and Calum rolled his eyes. Michael shouted something about defending his soulmate’s honor-- Ashton missed it, because at the same time Michael hit him in the face with one wildly swinging hand-- and jumped to his feet. Luke grabbed at his waist to keep him from getting anywhere and he swore without any grace, trying to pry Luke’s arms off of him. Ashton leaned as far into the arm of the couch as he could to avoid being hit in the face. Calum was doing about the same thing, except that while Ashton watched he fell off the side.

Then Michael distracted Ashton by falling into his lap, laughing so hard he was struggling to breathe. Ashton squawked and pushed him off as Jack shouted something about fuck you and your hypothesis, and Michael rolled into Luke instead. Alex had buried his face in his hands, but Ashton recognized the shaking of his shoulders as laughter; It felt like Ashton’s smile was eating up his face.

“Oh, fight me, Barakat,” Michael shouted, struggling to his feet again as he did. Luke made grabby hands at his retreating back, but he was laughing too hard to get up. Michael was still swaying in place, even. Jack was trying to get to his feet, obviously prepared to fight, but he was wheezing. Calum appeared beyond the arm of the sofa, shaking his head, a smile eating up his face; he must have been sitting on the floor. He leaned over and said something to Luke that made Luke throw his head back laughing, his eyes squeezed shut. Calum just looked smug. Michael turned and said, “What are you looking so happy about?”

“I told him, you might fight, but I don’t think the MMA would be particularly impressed,” Calum said. “You can’t even stand up straight, you’re like a drunken monkey.” Michael squawked. Calum started laughing, and Jack shouted something about him being right about Michael.

“It’s clearly unanimous, so it must be right,” he added. Ashton rolled his eyes.

“A unanimous opinion doesn’t make it right,” he said. “That just means everyone thinks it.”

“And since when does it mean everyone’s wrong?” Jack said.

Well,” Ashton said, “Adolf Hitler did get into office by popular vote.” That had an impressive reaction. Michael howled something along the lines of “OOOOH,” and Calum swayed with laughter, and both Calum and Alex were applauding, and Luke covered his face with both hands. Jack looked petulant.

“Adolf Hitler, really impressive,” he said.

“That, and you’re wrong,” Ashton added. “Michael doesn’t suck, or whatever. You all are just boring.”

“Ouch,” Alex said, deadpan. Calum laughed. Then Jack shouted, “Your face is boring!” and it exploded into shouts and laughter again. Ashton still felt proud as the argument spiraled away from him again.

Then somewhere far away the door buzzed, and Alex said, “Oh, shit, pizza!” and Calum ducked out of the room seemingly to procure it. Ashton wondered  if they’d gotten his pizza order, but he didn’t want to ask. He just got up and waited in the kitchen for Calum instead, which had the added bonus of a moment to dwell on the fact that it was fine, he was doing fine, they were all doing fine. He checked his phone and found a text from Ashley that simply said, you’re doing fine. He wasn’t sure when she’d sent it. He hadn’t checked his phone since before he’d left campus; he hadn’t heard from Ashley since he shot her a quick text outlining his dinner plans earlier in the afternoon. It was a nice text, though. He sent her a quick thank-you in reply and pocketed his phone as Calum arrived in the kitchen, balancing a pile of pizza boxes on his hip with one hand and pressing his phone to one ear with the other. Ashton recognized the tense set of his shoulders moments before he recognized the frantic look in his eyes: Calum was scared. Badly so. When he saw Ashton his chin went up, his lips pressed together, a gallant attempt to convey alright-ness, and Ashton ducked his head and waited. Calum finished the call with a few sparse sentences, finishing with a “see you soon”, and lowered the phone.

“Something wrong?” Ashton asked as Calum set down the pizzas and inhaled, deep and shaky. Calum looked at him and hesitated the barest moment before saying,

“That was my sister. My dad’s in the hospital-- apparently it’s serious, my mom won’t leave him, and I just--” he gestured helplessly around the kitchen, denoting far away. His expression was frantic bordering on nervous breakdown, and Ashton wished-- wished he were someone who’d earned Calum’s trust, wished he knew he wasn’t crossing a line, but there was nothing for it. He stepped around the kitchen island and offered open arms, and Calum took the offer. Ashton felt him shaking the barest bit and tightened his grip, feeling the pain of someone else’s upset like a stabbing in his chest.

“Hey,” he said. “It’s gonna be okay. You said you’d see your sister soon, right? You’re gonna figure something out, you’re gonna be okay.” Calum nodded into his shoulder. “Brace yourself,” Ashton added. “Everyone’s about to come in here, and they’re going to be excited about pizza and not know a thing about what’s going on with you. It’s gonna be upsetting.” Calum nodded again. Ashton released him. Then Calum took another shuddering breath and looked down at his arms, bare in a cutoff t-shirt. Ashton followed his gaze: strong black lines were twining around his shoulders.

“Well,” Ashton said. “That answers that question.” Calum laughed a quick, surprised laugh. Ashton managed a smile. Calum hugged him again. It was a nice, reassuring hug. It was one of the few times thus far that Ashton hadn’t felt crippling terror when thinking about The Soulmate Thing.

“Oh, hey, pizza!” Calum jumped, and Ashton immediately released him. Michael was standing in the doorway with Luke at his shoulder, and when they caught sight of Calum matching expressions of joy crossed their faces. Michael actually whooped and bounded forward, grabbing them both into a hug. Luke followed immediate suit, and there was a happy knot of hugging for about thirty seconds. The thirty-second mark was both when Ashton started getting uncomfortable and Alex and Jack appeared in the doorway.

“Dammit,” Alex said conversationally, stepping around them to get to the pizza. “This just got like, twenty-five percent soppier.”

“Go fuck yourself, Alex,” Michael said, and broke away from the group hug to get to the pizza. Calum followed him. Ashton was left in Luke’s undivided attention.

“What happened?” Luke asked. Ashton hesitated.

“You should probably ask Calum,” he said. “But in a minute. Give him time to eat and stuff first.” Luke’s expression darkened, but he nodded like he understood. “Come on,” Ashton said. “Dinner. Pizza. Stuff.”

“Yeah,” Luke agreed. “Pizza stuff.” He stepped past Ashton, brushing their shoulders, and Ashton waited in line for the others to get theirs. On his way away from the island, loaded with pizza, Alex told him to check the bottom box. When Ashton got to the island and checked the bottom box, he found his pizza order.

(He was totally just running off leftover emotion from the Calum situation. Totally wasn’t this emotional over pizza.)

He followed Calum back to the living room and, seeing as he was going to get forced into sharing a sofa with three other people anyway, he accepted his fate and sat on the arm next to Calum. Michael and Luke were already tangled together on the far end, stealing each other’s beer. Ashton took a few minutes to just work on his pizza before asking Calum in a low voice, “You alright?”

Calum nodded and finished chewing. Then he added, also in a low voice, “Just trying to figure out how to break the news.”

“News like this?” Ashton said. “Sometimes just happens. Easier to control the outbreak, I’ve found, and just get it over with.”

“You’re not gonna tell me to wait ‘til after dinner?” Calum said wryly. Ashton shrugged, and he would have added something else but Jack interrupted.

“Hey, what are you two whispering about? Keep it PG.”

“Keep your face PG,” Ashton shot back. The damage was done, however; Michael and Luke both turned to investigate, curious, and Alex put down his beer.

“I was gonna ask, Cal,” Luke said, “What happened earlier? Ash said to ask you.”

“Didn’t want to say anything out of place,” Ashton added. Calum nodded, took a long swig of beer, and put the bottle down.

“Mali called. She’s with Mum and Dad in London, Dad’s been in an accident.” Luke’s sharp intake of breath in response was audible all the way over where Ashton was sitting; he looked over and saw Luke wide-eyed, the color draining from his face, and Luke’s and Calum’s hands clasped so tight both sets of knuckles were turning white.

Alex said quietly, “Jesus.”

Luke said, “Is Mali okay? Is your mum?” Calum nodded.

“Mali’s fine, she’s upset,” he said. “Mum won’t leave Dad alone. I told her I’d fly up there as soon as I could, but I don’t know how soon that is.”

“There’s a flight through to Iceland tonight,” Michael reported. Ashton looked past Luke to see Michael on his phone, reading fast. “And there’s a flight from Reykjavik to London early tomorrow morning. Wow, convenient.”

“I’ll go with you,” Luke said. Calum shook his head.

“You can’t. You’ve got work, and you’re already so close to falling behind, you can’t afford to be out of town that long.”

“Someone has to go with you!” Luke protested. “You can’t do this alone, Cal, it’s not right.”

“I’ll go,” Ashton said. He hadn’t meant to, but it wasn’t like he could take it back now. Everyone was looking at him, both a little surprised and in a couple cases a little hopeful; Ashton took a deep breath and prepared to defend his case. “My grades are fine,” he said. “I can afford to miss a couple of classes. And I’ve been working all semester on a scholarship, which means that I can theoretically pay my way. I’ll go.” He shrugged like it was obvious (it wasn’t), and everyone else nodded like they agreed (did they?).

“Okay,” Calum said. “Let’s do that.”

Chapter Text

Calum slept on the plane. Ashton didn’t. Calum slept on a hard airport chair between flights; Ashton didn’t. Calum slept on the plane to London; Ashton managed to catch about half an hour’s nap before the plane hit a patch of turbulence and woke him up again. Everything in his head was too loud, too agitated, to let him settle down.

According to the clock on Calum’s phone (which he had allegedly changed to the right time zone as they went through airport security), it was one in the afternoon. According to the clock in Ashton’s brain, it was about eight in the morning after ten hours of sleepless flight. Who’d ever heard of connecting flights through Iceland, anyway.

Ashton shifted the strap of his duffel on his shoulder and squinted up at the face of the building Calum had led them to, pretending he was processing any of what he saw, as Calum rang the buzzer. There was a hurried greeting (again, of which Ashton processed next to nothing) and the door buzzed open. Calum pulled it open and held it for Ashton, which he appreciated, but he still waited for Calum to lead the way. It was far easier to just focus on someone’s shoulders than actual directions. He was pretty sure there were some stairs, and a pause for an elevator, and a pause in an elevator, and maybe some hallways. There was definitely the pause in front of the one door where Calum hit the brakes and Ashton didn’t and he ran into Calum head-on. He thankfully wasn’t going too fast, and the most damage done was Calum grunting at the impact. Ashton decided Calum’s back was a nice place to remain for the moment and propped his chin on his shoulder, letting out a long breath. From the angle he was at, he saw a muscle twitch in Calum’s cheek.

The door opened. Calum’s breath hitched, and Ashton felt it against his chest; he had just enough time to step back before Calum lurched forward, falling into the arms of the woman in the doorway. The two of them stood together for a long moment, hugging and swaying, and Ashton stood back and tried not to feel like a third wheel.

“--Ashton.” He looked up as Calum put an arm around his shoulders. Apparently in the past thirty seconds he’d separated from the woman; Ashton looked up at her and found himself looking at a woman maybe a little older than him, a woman with Calum’s smile. She was offering it to him; Ashton offered one in return.

“Come on in,” she said. “Both of you, not like I needed to clarify. You look exhausted.”

==

Ashton woke up to the sound of singing (more specifically, someone singing Fall Out Boy). That, and a horrible crick in his neck: as it turned out, flat on one’s stomach was not really the ideal way to sleep. He wondered how Luke managed it. Then he rolled out of bed and took stock. He was in a living area, sitting on the floor next to an air mattress that had apparently been provided for him. The drapes were flung open, letting in grey afternoon. The living area bled into the kitchenette, and the whole thing was furnished hodgepodge but tastefully so.

As he looked around, the singing resumed. It had the echoing quality of someone singing in the shower, and the voice was feminine and young-sounding, so Ashton could comfortably assume that it was Mali-Koa Hood singing in the shower. (That had to be the woman he encountered last night, younger and with Calum’s smile.) He listened for a moment: she had a good voice, and he was pretty sure she was singing ‘Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down’. It sounded good. There was a pile of blankets on the sofa; next to the arm was propped Calum’s things. Ashton cast around for his backpack, and found it at the foot of the mattress with his duffel; he grabbed it and rummaged through for his glasses. With their assistance he clarified that Calum’s things appeared to have been rummaged through rather recently, and the sofa was grey and might have been manufactured in the 90’s. The sound of Mali-Koa’s voice was coming from what looked like the hallway, and Ashton could comfortably assume she was occupying the only bathroom.

Well, at least he didn’t need to pee. Ashton grabbed his backpack again and plopped onto the grey sofa and unpacked his laptop, taking mental stock of all the classes he was missing as it booted up. He’d need to call the library, too, and make sure they had someone to cover his Friday night shift. Three professors to warn of his absence (thus far), and a good bit of homework to keep up with if he wanted to not burn at the stake for failing everything ever.

Two and a half emails later Mali-Koa ambled into the common area, fully dressed with her wet hair hanging loose. Ashton saw her approach and closed the laptop, more from instinct than anything else; she just smiled at him. Fully coherent, he recognized a few more details: that her hair was several shades lighter than Calum’s, even dark with water, and her skin was the same warm shade of brown, and the shape of her face matched his just enough that they would compliment one another. And she still had his smile. “D’you like coffee, Ashton?” She said, crossing into the kitchenette. Ashton had a quick (not unpleasant) flashback to Calum, the day before, asking him if he wanted to get a coffee. He wondered if the incident counted as a date. Then he said,

“Sometimes.”

Mali-Koa raised an eyebrow and turned to fuss with the percolator on the small stove. Ashton set his laptop on the coffee table, which looked like it might have been a dining table at one point, and got up, crossing over to the kitchenette. “Um,” he said. “It is Mali-Koa, right? I don’t remember being properly introduced so I just assumed, unless Calum’s got a second sister in the woodwork somewhere…” he trailed off as she laughed.

“No, just the one,” she said. “I’m Mali-Koa Hood. Nice to meet you.”

Ashton found himself smiling. “I’m Ashton Irwin, nice to meet you, too.” Mali-Koa laughed again, and Ashton supposed it was at least a little funny.

“Coffee sounds good,” he added. Mali-Koa nodded. Ashton went on, “I don’t suppose you could fill in the gaps in my memory from… earlier this afternoon? It feels like this morning. Either way, I was incredibly sleep deprived.” Her smile grew into a grin at the comment.

“Yeah, you told me,” she said. “Not much to tell, really. You followed Calum around like you’d imprinted on him--” (irony) “and then you crashed when found out it was an option. Calum took a nap, too, but he was up a couple hours ago and went back to the hospital with mum.” That cleared a good deal up.

“Makes sense,” Ashton said. “Thanks.”

“So,” Mali-Koa said, slapping the lid onto the percolator and turning around. “What’s your story?”

Ashton faltered. “Story?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Story. Where did you come from, who are you, what did you do to make Calum like you so much? He texted me on the way to the airport last night, ‘it’s all good, ashton’s coming with me’, like that was everything. So, what’s your story?”

“Um,” Ashton said. Calum clearly hadn’t broken the news to Mali-Koa yet, which maybe he hadn’t had the presence of mind, but now that left Ashton in the awkward position of having to explain and his mind was still snagged on it’s all good, ashton’s with me. “We’re soulmates?” He managed to say, and watched Mali-Koa’s head tilt up, the soft exhale of an ‘oh’ barely audible.

“How did you two meet?” She said.

“Luke,” Ashton said. “And, um, I’m roommates with their other soulmate, Michael, and Michael told me how to find Luke, and Calum was there, and it turns out we’re all soulmates. So.”

“So,” Mali-Koa agreed, taking the percolator off the heat. “Milk? Sugar?”

“No, thanks,” Ashton replied. Mali-Koa dug two mugs out of an overhead cabinet and poured the coffee out, passing one steaming mug to Ashton. The side of the mug read #1 GRANDMA in big technicolor letters. There was a dark smudge on the outside of Mali-Koa’s wrist. She took her coffee with milk and two sugars; her own mug was patterned with blue roses. Ashton, because he really didn’t want to ask the next question (it made him sound like a lovestruck teenager sue him), thought instead about Luke’s long fingers curled around his mug of tea and wished he knew what Mali-Koa was thinking.

Oh, fuck it. “Did Calum really phrase it that way?” He said. “Like, ‘everything’s fine, ashton’s with me’?”

Mali-Koa took a sip of her coffee and smiled at him over the rim. She looked smug. She’d probably been doing this to Luke and Calum for years. With obviously deliberate slowness she set down her mug and fished in the pocket of her sweatpants, producing her phone and scrolling through.

On the way to JFK,” she read aloud. “Got a ride from a friend. Everything’s okay, Ashton’s with me. Much more abbreviated than that, of course. My dear brother is not the most eloquent texter. What?”

Ashton didn’t answer. He was too busy grinning into his coffee. Calum thought his presence made things better.

“Oh, god,” Mali-Koa said, sounding very pleased. “I forgot how cute new soulmates are. You’re like lovesick puppies.” Ashton’s face burned.

“Shut up,” he said. “It’s not like that.” Calum thought he made things okay. That was completely different from starry-eyed infatuation. Mali-Koa rolled her eyes and took another drink of coffee.

Then she said, “Hey, do you want to use the shower or anything?”

Yes,” Ashton said. “I mean, yeah, I’d like that.” She smiled an amused smile and pointed down the hall, where Ashton identified three doors. “Door in the middle,” she said. “Cal got a shower earlier, his stuff should be in there. Help yourself.”

“Thanks,” Ashton said, and took another long drink of coffee before going to root around in his things for a clean pair of pants.

When he got out of the shower about half an hour later, there were three Hoods gathered around the kitchen counter. The second was Calum; the third was an older woman with  dark hair and deep smile lines around the corners of her mouth. Ashton was grateful he’d decided to put his shirt on before coming out of the bathroom. He offered all three Hoods a smile as he crossed the living area back to his luggage, making an effort not to listen to their conversation as he deposited his things; when he got up to approach them, hoping to ask Mali-Koa where his coffee mug went, the older woman looked up and appraised him.

“So this is him?” She said to Calum after a slightly uncomfortable moment (for Ashton). “Your Ashton?”

“He’s not my anything,” Calum mumbled. He looked tired, about as tired as Ashton felt, and his hair was a mess of dense curls. It made the blonde in his fringe more chaotic. He did look at Ashton, and he added, “Nice glasses.”

“Thanks,” Ashton said. Then he said to the older woman, “Are you Mrs. Hood?”

“That’s me,” she said. “But my son’s soulmates call me Joy.” She offered him a smile, finally, and Ashton returned it with a relieved one of his own. Mali-Koa coughed.

“Your coffee mug’s over here,” she said, turning to grab it and passing it to him. “There’s a bit left.”

“Thanks,” Ashton said, and set the mug down in front of him. Then he added, “Nice to meet you, Joy.”

“Well, you’re polite,” she said, taking a drink. She had a mug too, with Calvin and Hobbes dancing around the circumference. As Calum and Mali-Koa protested-- a very good synchronized “Mum!”-- Ashton glanced back at Calum. He was holding a mug too, decorated with Disney princesses. Ashton wondered, looking down at his own #1 GRANDMA mug, if Mali-Koa was distributing deliberately.

“Alright, fine,” Joy said dryly, dragging Ashton back to reality. “It’s nice to meet you too, Ashton.” Ashton grinned, mostly at the ridiculous face she was pulling. “Now that that’s out of the way,” she added, “Where are you from, Ashton?”

“Just outside Sydney,” Ashton said. “On the north side.” Mrs. Hood raised her eyebrows and took another drink.

“Imagine that,” she huffed. “Could have met in secondary and got it all over with before you skipped the continent.” Mali-Koa facepalmed.  Ashton frowned and exchanged a look with Calum, who just looked amused.

“To be fair, Mum, we still needed to meet Michael,” he said. Joy nodded, her expression conveying fair point.  Mali-Koa added, “Ah, the famous Michael. Have you called him yet?”

==

Michael’s phone buzzed when they were sitting together on his bed, actually not making out. Michael had suggested it, and Luke had been thinking about it, but they both decided that logistically it was a poor idea. They could, Luke reasoned, do it later. Anyway, they were both sitting on Michael’s bed and definitely doing homework when Michael’s phone buzzed with the Gravity Falls theme song and Michael fell of his bed trying to grab at it. “It’s Calum!” He yelped, fumbling to grab it off his dresser. He missed and pulled a pile of papers off onto his face. Luke sighed loudly and picked the phone up. “Passcode?”

Michael told him. Luke punched it in and accepted the call, which was actually a face time. He was greeted by a chorus of hellos, four of them, and four faces in a tiny kitchen. “Hello, Hoods!” He said, feeling a smile cross his face. “Hello Hoods and Ashton,” he added, because Ashton was leaning over Calum’s shoulder. He had wet hair and he was wearing glasses, which Luke thought was incredibly cute.

Michael squawked over the head of the bed, “Hello Hoods and Ashton!” and Luke and Calum and Ashton all laughed. So did Mali-Koa and Joy, and Mali-Koa waved, going out of frame.

We’re here, obviously,” Calum said. “And Mali approves of Ash, we’re all good there.” Ashton made a strangled noise that sounded like protest, and it must have amused Calum because he added, “and Mum likes him too.” Ashton groaned and leaned his face against Calum’s shoulder. Michael fell back onto the bed, jostling Luke.

“Stop mortifying our soulmate, Calum.” he added, when Luke had straightened the phone again. “He’ll leave you for us and break your heart.”

Shut up,” Ashton mumbled into Calum’s shoulder. Calum switched phone hands, which both gave Luke a bit of motion sickness and cut half of Calum’s face off. He got a full view of Mali-Koa and Joy, on the other hand, and that was nice. Mali-Koa looked good, not incredibly exhausted. Joy looked tired, but not dying.

“How are you, Mum-in-law?” He said. Joy smiled at him and shrugged, a little ruefully. Mali-Koa leaned over her shoulder and explained that they were both good and missed his pretty face.

Although Ashton’s making up for it, look at him,” she added. Calum laughed. Ashton groaned again.

They keep talking about me,” he said. “I don’t understand why they keep talking about me.”

Because we like you,” Calum said. “Hey, Luke, guess what? He’s from Riverstone, too.”

“You’re shitting me,” Luke said. Joy cleared her throat, which sounded to Luke like a preemptive warning to not swear. “Sorry, Mum-in-law,” he added. “Seriously, Ash?”

True story,” Ashton said. “I even played a couple of gigs for Norwest parties, believe it or not.

“Holy shi-- shoelaces,” Michael said, correcting himself mid-sentence (quite possibly in fear of Mrs. Hood). “NCC? I did year six there!”

Joy gave a long, exasperated sigh and turned to look at Calum. Calum made an open-mouthed noise of protest, which made it sound to Luke like this had been discussed before.

Mali-Koa added, “Mum, we couldn’t have known!”

“Honestly, I’m still not sure I believe it,” Calum said. “I think I’d have remembered that.” Michael made a pleased noise and buried his face in Luke’s shoulder.

“Now see what you’ve gone,” Luke said. “You broke him.”

Calum looked smug. Mali-Koa said, “Well, this has been fun, but I’m hungry. They’ll text you. Right, Calum?”

Sure thing,” Calum said. “Have you guys eaten, Mikey?”;

“Shit, it’s about that time, isn’t it?” Michael said, detaching himself from Luke’s shoulder. Calum rolled his eyes.

If it’s half past five here, it’s lunchtime there,” he said. “Both of you get lunch, we’ll text you.

“Yes, mum,” Michael said. “Love you. And Ashton. And Hoods, I guess?” Mali-Koa rolled her eyes and waved. Joy waved.

Luke added, “Love all of you, byeeee,” and ended the call. Michael flopped forward onto the bed, unfortunately landing on one of Luke’s textbooks. He groaned.

“Did not calculate for that,” he added, as Luke dropped Michael’s phone on his back and started looking for his own shoes. “So, food?”

“Food,” Luke said, finding his shoes and shoving his feet in. Michael rolled off of Luke’s textbook, fumbled for his phone, and sat up, fussing with the screen. Then he tossed it to Luke and crawled to the far end of the bed where he’d left his shoes. He pulled them on with both hands and took his phone back. “I texted Ashley, see if she’s already had lunch,” he said. “Maybe we’ll run into her.” He pocketed his phone and got up, offering Luke a hand.

“Are you texting Ashley?” Luke said, accepting it. Michael shrugged.

“On and off. She’s pretty cool.” He tangled their fingers together and tugged Luke towards the door, clearly more enthusiastic about lunch than Ashley Frangipane. Luke didn’t mind all that much.

Ashley was already at the dining hall when they got there, as it turned out. She’d seemingly laid claim to one end of a table all for herself, which didn’t stop Michael from sauntering over and plopping his tray down across from her. Luke followed a little reluctantly and sat down next to Michael, minus the clattering.

“I sent you a text,” Michael said matter-of-factly, cutting his enchilada into bite-sized chunks.”I didn’t check to see if you replied, but you were here, so.” Ashley looked up from what looked like the remains of a  fajita and examined Michael like she was trying to decide the best way to dissect him. The action was both terrifying and possibly a bit of a turn-on for Luke, who ignored the second part and took a large bite of quesadilla instead. Michael at least had the dignity to pause and eat some enchilada before continuing: “Ashton said you were staying in Queens after you dropped them off, did you enjoy yourself?”

Ashley swallowed a bite and deadpanned, “I’m still hungover.” Michael nodded like that made perfect sense and ate some more.

“Have you got friends up there?” He asked. Ashley shrugged, and Luke thought he could see in the light in her eyes change as she shifted gears, suddenly distant.

“Something like that,” she said. Luke decided she seemed a bit discomfited by the line of questioning (when did he learn ‘discomfited’?) and cast about for a change of subject. His eyes fell on the trail of letters visible on her forearm when she took a bite, and the metaphorical lightbulb went off in his brain.

“I like your tattoos,” he said. Her eyes over to land on him, and Luke felt uncomfortably like he was being x-rayed for a moment.

Then she said, “Thanks,” and ate some more fajita. Michael opened his mouth like he was going to ask another question, and Luke kicked him in the leg.

“What?” Michael hissed.

“Just eat some food,” Luke replied, and took his own advice. Michael shrugged and started eating a bit more in earnest, which relieved Luke and seemed to please Ashley, because when she packed up her empty tray a moment later she bade them both goodbye.

“What was her deal?” Michael said when she was out of earshot. Luke shrugged.

“Rough morning, I reckon,” he said. “You know you were making her uncomfortable?” Michael frowned and shook his head. Then he ate some more.

“I didn’t realize,” he said a moment later. “Wow, I suck.”

Luke shrugged and tried to process the rest of his mouthful quickly. “Everyone sucks,” he said. “That’s like, part of the human condition.”

“Yeah, but I still suck,” Michael said, and stuffed a generous bite of enchilada in his mouth, effectively ending the conversation.

==

They walked back to Michael’s room together with their hands linked, and Luke only had time to grab his schoolbag and kiss Michael goodbye. “Sorry I gotta go, babe,” he said. “Just… class.” Michael nodded and insisted on kissing him again, leaning against the doorframe one-handed as he kicked off his shoes.

“Don’t go and be too charming to anyone,” he joked. “There won’t be room in the bed.”

“There already isn’t room in the bed,” Luke said dryly. “See you soon.” He took off, and Michael waved after him.

He was all the way down the stairs and out the door and making his way across campus when someone ran up behind him and fell in step, stuffing their hands in the pockets of a pale pink hoodie. It was Ashley, looking a little wan (when did he learn wan?) with her hair loose under the hood. “Hi,” Luke said. “Hi?”

“Hi,” Ashley clarified, in a crisp voice. “I was going to ask about Ashton. Have you heard from him?”

“Yeah, he and Calum facetimed just before lunch,” Luke said. “They got in this afternoon-- their this afternoon-- and I’ll wager Ash didn’t sleep very well, he looked exhausted.” Ashley nodded, satisfied.

“Thanks,” she said, and picked up the pace. Luke, sensing an end to the conversation and having yet to apologize for the lunchtime debacle, followed.

“Hey, Ashley?” He said. She turned and peered at him through a curtain of blue hair, which Luke took as an invitation to continue. “I’m sorry about earlier,” he said. “At lunch, with the tactlessness thing. I’m sorry, and Mikey’s sorry, although he’s not here to say it. Are you doing alright-- aside from the hangover, that is?”

Ashley shrugged and made a vague “eh” noise. Then she raised one hand and tapped her temple. Luke said, “Oh. Head stuff?” When she nodded he added, “Anything I can do? Besides, leaving you alone? Apparently that works sometimes.”

Ashley made another noncommittal noise. “Leave well alone it is, then?” Luke said, and she nodded. “Okay,” Luke said. “Take care.”

“Thanks,” Ashley said. Luke, feeling profoundly awkward, sped up and rounded the next corner. He was still thinking about “head stuff” when class started, although there wasn’t much leeway-- he was barely on time.

==

Mali-Koa made more coffee (decaf, for some reason, Ashton did not understand why anyone would make decaf, it was taking away the whole point of coffee). There was also food, mostly leftover takeout from Mali-Koa’s fridge. Then they moved into the living room, Joy Hood in the one armchair like it was her throne and Mali-Koa and Ashton on the sofa, and there was a lot of talking, most of it small, which seemed to irk Calum because he vanished a little way in. Ashton suspected there was napping involved, especially considering the decaf. It wasn’t like he was much better off; after about an hour of wading through polite conversation/interrogation, Ashton himself started to yawn and Joy Hood’s eyebrows got pointy.

“You,” she announced, “Are going to bed. I suspect Mali-Koa and I will do the same. We’ve all had a long day and I’m bored of reciting family trees, let’s break this up.” She set down her mug on the end table with a resounding clunk and got up, promptly picking it back up again and marching towards the kitchen. Ashton got up and offered Mali-Koa a hand.

“Your mum,” he said, as she accepted and pulled herself up, “is awesome. And a bit scary.”

“Don’t let her hear you, it’ll go to her head,” Mali-Koa replied. Ashton snorted.

“Goodnight, Mali-Koa,” he said. She gave him an amused smile, like he’d said something funny. He wondered what it was. Was it the goodnight? Was it her name? Before he could wonder too long, she said,

“Good night, Ashton,” and gathered up their mugs and ambled towards the kitchen after Joy. Ashton kicked off his shoes and unfolded his blanket as they milled around in the kitchen, and as they made their way down the hall he flopped down on the couch again, this time horizontally. It was a very comfortable sofa.

He woke back up in darkness, with the blanket he vaguely remembered dropping draped over him up to his shoulders and a proper pillow replacing the throw pillow he’d been lying on before. The drapes were letting in a square of pale light, casting weird shadows everywhere. Calum was lying on the mattress on the floor and his eyes were open, just visible in the diffused-pale light.

“Can’t sleep?” Ashton whispered. Calum started the slightest bit, and then he shook his head.

“S’not that I’m not used to sleeping alone, either,” he said. “Not with Luke’s schedule. I just can’t sleep.”

“Could be jetlag,” Ashton suggested. Calum made a hmming sound that sounded like agreement. Ashton added. “Could just be unfamiliarity.”

“Could be,” Calum said. “I’ve been here before, though, over holidays. Luke and I flew up together, hung out… it was nice. The unfamiliar thing doesn’t make sense.”

“Well, I still hold out for the jetlag thing,” Ashton said, rolling onto his back. “Also, I’m wide awake now and I think it’s your fault.” Calum snorted, and Ashton looked over in time to see him smile so wide his eyes disappeared for a moment. Ashton didn’t think it was that funny, but he felt a funny tug in his stomach anyway.

“If that’s how it is, can you share the sofa?” Calum said. “I can feel the floor from here.” Mali-Koa’s floors were hardwood. Ashton liked them, but he suspected he wouldn’t like lying on them for long periods of time, especially when he was trying to sleep.

“Sure,” he said, sitting up. “But only if you promise not to try and cuddle with me, I’m not ready for that.” He phrased it like a joke, but Calum nodded like he hadn’t.

“Promise,” he said, like he meant it. Ashton made room on the sofa. Calum sat up and gathered his blanket and tossed it to Ashton, then turned to fuss with something by his bed; the pale light caught the slope of his bare shoulders, and Ashton stared. He was staring. That was a thing. The Mark on Calum’s back was a tree, and the trunk stretched all the way down his spine, the roots curling around his hips and disappearing into the waistband of his sweats; the branches curled around his shoulder blades and up over his shoulders and the back of his neck, the very top disappearing into his hair. Ashton’s mouth felt a little dry. He was still staring. He was really, really staring.

Calum straightened up, and the spell was broken. He straightened up, pulling on a shirt, and Ashton saw his bag open behind him; that was what he’d been doing, fussing with it. He pulled it on and turned, and Ashton looked away, feeling his face heat up. Calum apparently didn’t notice or he was pretending very well, because without missing a beat he flopped down on the other end of the sofa and closed his eyes. His head fell back, and the light from the window found the long slope of his bare throat. Ashton pulled his pillow out from under him and held it in his lap, hugging it like a teddy bear. This was not a good evening for Ashton and his dirty mind, apparently. Time, he thought, we’re taking our time, we’re taking our time. He buried his face in the top of the pillow and willed his mind to get its shit together.

“You’ve been here before?” He managed to say. He said it into the pillow, though, and Calum only replied with, “Hmmm?”

“You’ve been to London before?” Ashton repeated, taking his face out of his pillow. “With Luke?” Calum nodded, lifting his head and opening his eyes again. Ashton looked away.

“Last summer,” Calum said. “Not Australian summer, American summer. We wandered around a bit, when Mali was at work and stuff. I like it here, although it’s kind of cold.”

“I’ve suffered through winter in New York,” Ashton said. “That’s pretty cold.”

“Uni in America is weird,” Calum said.

“We’d suffer through the cold even if we went to Uni at home,” Ashton said. “Just, less of it, and not at Christmas.”

“Thank god for winter hols,” Calum said.

“Amen to that,” Ashton said. There was a long pause, in which Ashton didn’t look at Calum and the mood was comfortable. Then Calum said,

“Would you like to see some of London?”

“What?” Ashton said, breaking his own rule and looking at Calum. He’d turned his head to look at Ashton, eyes heavy with sleep, and Ashton wished he hadn’t looked.

“Would you like to see some of London?” Calum repeated. “I could show you.”

In the context of what Ashton had been thinking, I could show you had a significantly different connotation. He paused for a moment to force that thought out of his head, grateful for the pillow in his lap, and thought about Calum’s offer the way Calum had surely meant to say it. “That sounds like fun,” he said, and it didn’t sound particularly strangled, so he considered that a victory. Calum smiled, too, apparently excited about the idea, and he counted that a victory as well.

“We could go tomorrow,” Calum said. “Mali’s got work and Mum probably wants to stay with Dad, we could go while they’re doing that.”

“Don’t you want to visit your dad?” Ashton said.

“Of course,” Calum said. “Yeah I’ll do that. Maybe after that? We could go to the hospital with Mum, you could meet him.”

“I’d love to,” Ashton said. Calum practically beamed. Then something buzzed, and Calum sat bolt upright and jumped for his bag as it began to play the Steven Universe theme song. Calum swore under his breath and dug his phone out and shut off the ringtone, slumping down and sighing in relief in record time. Then he got up and returned to the couch, carrying his phone. He was smiling at it, the sort of smile that meant he was really trying not to laugh. Ashton wanted to know what was amusing him so badly; he really wanted to know. As Calum, still grinning, typed out what looked like a reply, Ashton asked, “What is it?”

By way of a reply, Calum handed Ashton his phone. It was open to a text conversation with one ‘smol penguin’. It read:

what time is it 4 u

luke its 3 am

oh SHIT sory ill call later

Ashton grinned and handed Calum his phone back. “Smol penguin?”

“Old nickname,” Calum said. “Luke ran with it.”

“It’s cute,” Ashton said. He felt his face warming when he realized what he’d said, but Calum just smiled.

“Yeah, it is,” he said.

==

“Hello again, I’m Luke, and this is The Graveyard Shift. Just a reminder, I am going to be off the job this weekend as always, and Queen Taylor will be taking over as always. Except last week, ‘cause that was weird. Anyway, I’m missing my soulmates tonight, so I take that as good an excuse as any to play ‘Miss Missing You’ by Fall Out Boy. Here we go.”

==

Something nudged Ashton’s foot. Ashton opened his eyes at the sudden brightness; the drapes were open, and sunlight was streaming in the narrow windows. Calum was draped over the other end of the couch, fast asleep with his head lolled forward, and Ashton worried for his spine. Then he looked up and saw Mali-Koa looming over him.

“Morning?” He said.

“Morning,” Mali-Koa said. She offered him a mug. “Black and bitter?”

“Yes, please,” Ashton said, and reached out to accept it. The sides were warm, warm enough that Ashton hissed and grabbed at the handle. With his free hand he found his glasses and slid them on; Mali-Koa had chosen him a mug reading Y’ALL MOTHERFUCKERS NEED BEYONCE and the coffee was tongue-roastingly hot. Ashton was thankful he’d only taken an experimental sip.

“So,” he said, unfolding his legs and getting to his feet. “Is this the beginning of the Shotgun talk?”

“The what?” Mali-Koa said, as Ashton made his way toward the kitchen. He wasn’t up for waking Calum up with this conversation.

“The shotgun conversation,” Ashton said. He paused by the counter and waited for Mali-Koa. She rounded the counter and faced him, curling her fingers around her mug. Ashton went on, “The don’t-fuck-with-my-brother conversation. I didn’t get it yesterday, it’s been throwing me off.” Mali-Koa laughed.

“No,” she said. “No shotgun talk. Why should you need one? You’re soulmates, aren’t you?”

“Everyone needs the shotgun talk,” Ashton said. “Soulmates don’t get a free pass. You need to be sure your loved one’s in safe hands, don’t you? Like, you gotta be sure they’re gonna treat each other right and not be weird.” Mali-Koa chuckled and took another drink of coffee. The milk must have made it cooler than Ashton’s, because it was a long drink. When she finished, she was still smiling.

“I think,” she said, “You’ve already given that talk to yourself. Possibly more than once.”

“I’ve heard it more than once,” Ashton said. “Thought it beared repeating. Not like it’ll be necessary just yet, but.” He set his mug on the countertop and leaned against it, feeling the edge dig into his forearms. He shifted, first leaning on his elbows and then the heels of his hands.

Mali-Koa hmmed. “So you’re taking it slow?” She said. Ashton nodded. Mali-Koa nodded back.

“I had a friend in uni,” she said. “Met her soulmate just after a really bad breakup. She insisted she was going to take it slow, not dive back into romance so fast.” She leveled Ashton a serious look, all pointy eyebrows. “It backfired. Badly.”

“Hey, I didn’t say it was a good plan,” Ashton said. “It’s not really even a plan at all, it’s just… making an effort to fall in love instead of blind infatuation.” He took a drink of coffee. It was still blistering hot. Mali-Koa sighed.

“I see,” she said. “So you don’t know what you’re doing, but you’ve got a good idea of what you don’t want to do?”

“Pretty much that,” Ashton said.

“I’ll light you a candle,” Mali-Koa said, and took a drink. Ashton took a drink. Mali-Koa looked past Ashton’s shoulder and beamed. “Morning, Cal-E.”

Ashton turned his head just in time to see Calum coming up behind him before he wrapped his arms around Ashton’s waist, mumbling a greeting into his shoulder. Ashton felt like his face was going to combust. “Good morning, Calum,” he said.

“Coffee?” Calum said, undeterred by the fact that he was leaning on Ashton and not whoever else he might have thought it was. Mali-Koa grinned and got out another mug, filling it straight from the percolator. Calum detached himself from Ashton’s spine to pick up the mug, and Ashton read the mug’s side. It read BE YOUR OWN BEYONCE, which Ashton decided was very motivational.

“How many Beyonce mugs do you own?” He asked. Mali-Koa grinned.

“Enough,” she said.

“That’s very informative,” Ashton said. Calum snorted and choked on his coffee.

“What time is it?” He said.

“About half-past seven,” Mali-Koa said. “Bright and early. Visiting hours don’t start til nine, and Mum’s still in bed.”

“Breakfast?” Calum said.

“Help yourself.”

“Don’t want to,” Calum mumbled into his mug. “I’m tired. And Ash is cuddly.”

“I hate to break it to you, Calum,” Ashton said, “But we’re not going to work out long term. Mainly because I am hungry and will not be here for you to lean on.”

“Will you get me food?” Calum said.

“No,” Ashton said.

Calum offered him a pleading look.

“Maybe.”

Calum nodded and smiled, apparently satisfied with the compromise. Mali-Koa pointed out the dry goods cabinet, and Ashton made himself a bowl of cornflakes. He also made Calum a bowl of cornflakes, because he was a sucker for the puppy eye treatment (not that he would ever admit this to Mali-Koa).

 

==

 

True to plan, Calum and Ashton walked with Joy to the hospital. The sunshine was intermittent with patchy grey clouds, and the umbrella hanging from Joy’s arm seemed to Ashton more of a prediction than a precaution. Calum was cheery for most of the trip, keeping quick pace with his mother and cracking jokes, but when they reached the hospital he grew reserved, dropping back next to Ashton and falling silent. Ashton suspected his brooding was about the soulmate thing, and that Calum’s father didn’t know about the plurality. Or maybe it was that Ashton was a guy? But Calum and Luke had been soulmates for years, surely Mr. Hood had learned about that? Unless he’d assumed Calum and Luke were purely platonic--

“Oh, jesus,” Ashton muttered. Calum shot him a questioning look. “Nothing,” Ashton said. “Just me being me.”

“Ah.” Calum nodded and bumped their shoulders together, offering Ashton a smile; Ashton accepted it and gave one in return. They walked in companionable silence up the few hallways, until Joy halted in front of a door just like all the others and knocked. Then she opened the door. There was a call of greeting from inside, and Joy returned it, and then Ashton and Calum were following her into the room.

Whatever Aston had been expecting, this wasn’t it: Calum’s father sitting up in bed, utterly cheerful, with daylight pouring in the windows and F.R.I.E.N.D.S reruns on the TV. Joy sat down in the bedside seat and kissed her husband on the cheek and murmured a greeting; Calum lingered just inside the door, and Ashton lingered with him. That meant Mr. Hood had to look for them when he finished the pleasantries, and he treated both of them with a suspicious look.

“You’re not Luke,” he said.

Ashton shook his head. “No, sir. He’s way too pretty to be Luke. It can’t be him.”

Calum elbowed him. “Luke had work,” he said. “Dad, this is Ashton.”

Mr. Hood, Ashton decided, was one smart cookie. He looked once from Calum to Ashton and back again and said, “Son, are you cheating on Luke?”

Ashton burst out laughing. Calum paused like he had to reset the needle on his mental processing function. Then he shook his head. “No. God no. Ash is, um…” he glanced at Ashton, and Ashton nodded once. Calum said, “Ashton is my other soulmate.”

“Well, that does make a lot more sense,” Mr. Hood said. “Ashton, you said?”

“Ashton Irwin, sir,” Ashton said, and detached himself from the wall to offer Mr. Hood his hand. Mr. Hood took it and they shook hands, Mr. Hood looking Ashton up and down. Ashton did a mental checklist: clean skinny jeans, clean t-shirt, glasses, decent shoes, the one jacket he’d elected to bring. Mr. Hood, at least, seemed happy with what he saw.

“Nice to meet you, Ashton Irwin,” he said. “I’m David, but you probably already knew that.”

“It might have come up,” Ashton said. Kevin laughed and released Ashton, and Ashton rejoined Calum. Mr. Hood-- David-- looked back and forth between Calum and Ashton and said,

“There are meant to be four of you, aren’t there?”

“Four-- soulmates, yeah,” Calum said. “I met our fourth, actually-- his name’s Michael, he’s back in America. He’s Australian, though-- his family travels a lot for work.”

Ah, Ashton thought. David nodded like this made perfect sense and exchanged a look with Joy, and they both nodded. Ashton felt a sudden pressure in his esophagus, and realized he couldn’t be in the room anymore. Something was off, he needed to leave. He needed to leave. “I-- excuse me, I’ll be right back,” he managed to say, and he fumbled for the door, and got it open, and got into the hallway. He needed to breathe. Breathe. What was wrong. “Okay,” he said. “Okay.”

He’d seen a men’s room on the way in-- just down the hall. He started walking and found it, pushed the door open and let it swing closed behind him. Breathe. Breathe. What set him off?

“Ash?”

Ashton looked up into the mirror and saw Calum gingerly closing the door behind himself, and felt something else: embarrassment.  He looked away, back at his hands braced on the edge of the counter. “Hey.”

“Are you okay? You took off pretty fast,” Calum said, and then his hands braced on the edge of the counter next to Ashton’s. Ashton had to think, you found me awfully fast. All he said was,

“I’m fine.” He looked at Calum’s hands on the counter, rather than his eyes in the mirror. That way he could read Calum’s displeasure without having to feel the same degree of shame curdling in his stomach. Calum’s knuckles tensed, true to Ashton’s prediction. He said,

“You sure, Ash?”

Yes. Jesus, I just said I’m fine. “Yeah,” Ashton said. “Do your parents hate me now?”

There was a pause. Ashton braced himself for oh, Ash, everything’s fine, they loved you. Calum took a deep breath and said, “Nah. They probably think we just snuck off to make out, Luke and I have done it a few times.”

“Oh, god, no,” Ashton said. Calum chuckled. Ashton said, “Oh, god, I feel rude. You and Luke seriously did that?”

“To be fair, we only did it when the event in question got really boring,” Calum said. “So they might think they need to be more interesting.”

“No, forget the weird nervous breakdown, this is worse,” Ashton said, straightening up and covering his face with his hands. Calum laughed. Ashton inhaled, feeling his gut unclench and feeling incredibly grateful. “Alright,” he said. “Time to face the music. We’re still touring London after, right?”

“Yeah,” Calum said. “I have, like, a month’s worth of information to go on, I’ll be a great tour guide.” Ashton laughed.

“Hey, about earlier,” he said. “Before we met your dad. Were you nervous about something?”

“Yeah, but it’s over now,” Calum said. “It was ridiculous, anyway. Who wouldn’t like you?”

“You’re making me blush,” Ashton said, when he’d hidden behind his hands again. He looked through his fingers to see Calum smiling an incredibly smug smile. “Alright,” Ashton said. “Let’s go say goodbye to your parents. Who probably assume we were just making out. Everything is horrible and I think you’re trying to seduce me. Let’s go.” He dropped his hands and made for the door, and Calum followed, still looking smug. What was it with Calum and smugness.

They bade farewell to Joy and David, though not without a generous number of knowing looks, and made their way back outdoors. It had gotten warmer when they were indoors, warm enough that Calum shucked off his hoodie and slung it over his shoulder as he walked and Ashton kept fidgeting with his jacket, trying to loosen it over his shoulders.

After a moment’s walking the sun came out again, and Calum swore.

“We left the umbrella.”

“Time to hope,” Ashton said. “Where are we going?”

“It’s a surprise,” Calum replied. “But the underground first.” He turned to cross the road and grabbed Ashton’s wrist to lead him along, and Ashton’s pulse jumped into his throat. It wasn’t particularly horrible, Calum’s grip loose but firm, but Ashton really was freaking out a bit. Calum released his hand when they were across the street, glancing back for just a moment before plowing on; there was a long walking pause before Calum turned around and said, “I totally just mom’d you, didn’t I?”

“You did,” Ashton said. Then he said, “Was that Luke coming back to haunt you?”

“I wouldn’t say haunting,” Calum said. “Force of habit, though, yeah.” Ashton smiled at the thought of Calum habitually holding Luke’s hand when they crossed streets and boarded public transportation. It was an adorable thought, really.

(Thinking about Luke usually led to this conclusion: Luke was adorable and Ashton shouldn’t believe his luck. Ashton didn’t believe his luck. Didn’t deserve his luck.)

Calum led the way down several blocks and down to the underground, and from there they rode, although Ashton still had no idea where they were going. He settled for watching Calum interact with the other passengers; they’d chosen seats next to two girls with legs that went for miles, and Calum had taken the occasion to try some “moves”, apparently. Ashton was just trying his damndest not to be turned on. Aside from that, his real concern was breaking the news that Calum was taken (three times over, what was was more); the girls seemed nice, and Ashton disliked breaking bad news. Especially to nice people.

As it turned out, he needn’t have worried. The two got off first, and when Calum craned his neck to watch them leave he burst out laughing.

“They were playing me,” he managed to say. “Oh my god, they were playing me. They’re together. I saw them kissing after they got off…” He lapsed back into giggles, dropping his head onto Ashton’s shoulder. Ashton allowed himself a little laugh at Calum’s expense, because it was hilarious, but Calum’s head against his shoulder was not helping matters in Ashton’s headspace at all. Thankfully it didn’t last long: The intercom announced the next stop and Calum straightened up, tapping Ashton’s arm. “That’s us.”

“Where are we?” Ashton said, sitting up. Calum offered his smug smile again.

“It’s a surprise,” he said.

“You’re really dragging this out,” Ashton said dryly. Calum shrugged and stood up, offering Ashton a hand, and Ashton took it as the train ground to a halt. They followed the crowd out into the station, and Ashton followed Calum back out into the open air; it was grey again, and Ashton felt wary of impending rain as he looked up at the sky. It wasn’t paranoia, no. Just anticipation, and there was a difference. The sidewalks grew more crowded, and Ashton dropped back behind Calum to make room for other walkers; they all looked like tourists, Ashton realized, which gave him the impression that they were getting close. The road got wider; the traffic thinned; then Calum and Ashton arrived at an intersection and everything panned out, wide and airy and huge.

“Welcome to Piccadilly Circus,” Calum said, completely smug.

“I like it,” Ashton said. “I like it a lot.” Calum’s smile lost its smugness and ate up his whole face; he hesitated the barest moment, but before Ashton could ask why he’d grabbed his hand and taken off into the intersection. Ashton yelped, but he had no choice but to follow-- not that he really wanted to do anything else.

As it turned out, Calum didn’t just drag him into the intersection by the hand. He led Ashton through all the shitty attractions, and to look at all the fancy attractions, and he let Ashton take silly selfies at any of them that he wanted without complaint (and in fact with generous encouragement). Ashton managed to casually ignore the fact that they were holding hands about half the time, although he wagered in the moments he remembered that Calum was thinking about it a great deal. He had made the move, hadn’t he?

They could hold hands and be cool. That could totally happen. Ashton tightened his grip on Calum’s hand and ignored his pulse jumping in his chest, tugging Calum along to the next attraction. Rain began to fall in a mist, causing half the square to yelp and open their umbrellas and the other half to look up and laugh; Ashton and Calum, not having an umbrella, opted for the latter. Ashton tucked his phone into his jacket pocket to keep it safe; Calum’s phone rang, and he nearly dropped it trying to get it out of his pocket at top speed.

“It’s Luke,” he said. “Sorry. Do you mind?”

“No, no,” Ashton said. If Ashton’s handle on the time was right, Luke was calling from work or just after work and probably had something on his mind; Ashton was both impressed and not about to let the matter fall through the cracks. “Let’s get out of the rain, though.”

“Rain, what rain,” Calum said, as they ducked under the awning of a tearoom and dropped down at a table. “This is tangible fog.” He answered the phone.

==

Hey, babe,” The phone said. Luke felt a happy tug in his gut at the sound of Calum’s voice; It sounded like home. “Hey, babe,” he said. “It’s not too late there, is it?”

No, just before noon,” Calum said. “I’m showing Ash Piccadilly Circus. He’s in love. With me, not the tourist trap.” There was a pause and then he added, “Ash says that he resents that statement.”

“Well,” Luke said, “You’re pretty loveable, but so is Piccadilly Circus.” The bus ground to a halt; Luke got up and moved to the front, giving the driver a good-bye as he climbed out. Campus morning was gray and foggy and cool, and the buildings Loomed. Luke wondered if he’d be able to tell Michael’s building apart.

I resent that statement,” Calum said. “So, what’s up? Bit early for a phone call, and don’t tell me you desperately missed me.

“Well, I did,” Luke said, “But I actually wanted to talk to Ashton.”

There was another pause. “Gee, thanks, Lukey,” Calum said. “I feel so loved and wanted. Hang on.” The phone jostled. Ashton’s voice said, “Hey, Luke. You needed something?”

“Yeah,” Luke said. “I had a question, actually. About Ashley? Cause you two are friends, you know, I thought you’d know.”

Ah,” Ashton said, all somber. “Ask away.”

“We hung out yesterday,” Luke said, “And she wasn’t doing well, and she said it was head stuff? And I was wondering how I can help her best? If that’s possible? Apparently people themselves are a hassle for her some days, but I figure you knew that.”

Yeah,” Ashton said. “That’s… really sweet of you, Luke.” He said it like he meant it. Luke smiled to himself, abashed, and chewed on his lip as he read the building signs. Michael’s building was fourth; Luke went that way as Ashton went on.

I don’t know, Lukey. It may be that the best you can do is give her all the space she needs. Could you do that, if you needed to?”

“Of course,” Luke said.

I’m sure you’re getting very lonely over there,” Ashton said, a teasing tone creeping into his voice. “Are you sure you could handle it?”

“I’m not that helpless!” Luke laughed. “I’ve got Michael, and the whole rest of campus if absolutely necessary. I’ll be fine. Thanks for the advice, Ash.”

No prob, Lukey. See you soon.”

==

Ashton ended the call and handed the phone back to Calum with a sigh. “Thanks,” he said. He felt abruptly tired, like the jetlag was all crashing back on him. Calum took his phone back and treated Ashton with a concerned look in turn, his eyebrows pinching together.

“You alright, Ash?” He said.

“Tired,” Ashton replied. “Just a bit tired, is all. It’s fine.” Calum nodded, swiping the phone screen once before tucking it into his pocket.

“Let’s get back,” he said. “Catch a break. It’s fixing to rain even more anyway, and mum’s got the umbrella.”

“That’s a good reason to get back,” Ashton said.

“I am a very reasonable person,” Calum replied. Ashton snorted. Calum cracked a smile.

“I’d argue that statement,” Ashton said, “But for the moment you actually do have a good point, so I’ll wait on the argument.” Calum laughed.

“So, apartment?” He said.

“Yeah, apartment,” Ashton said. Calum got up, and Ashton followed; they made their way back across the square as the clouds burst. Properly burst, not the tangible-fog deal of five or ten minutes before. It was raining. Calum swore without any grace as they picked up their pace and dashed for the underground, dodging around other foot traffic. Ashton grabbed Calum’s hand to make sure they didn’t lose each other, and even as his own pulse spiked he felt Calum’s racing where their wrists pressed together. They arrived at the station entrance and bounded down the stairs, laughing and out of breath and thoroughly soaked. Ashton felt for his phone and found it safe and dry in his jacket pocket as Calum did the honors of getting them both on the train a second time; when they got through, Calum pulled off his soaking flannel and draped it over his shoulder. He was wearing a green t-shirt underneath it, which also was soaked through and clinging to his skin; Ashton looked deliberately away. It was better for his sanity.

The ride dragged on without anyone to flirt with; Ashton’s heart was still pounding, but he tilted his head back and closed his eyes, pretending he didn’t notice where his and Calum’s legs pressed together and how Calum tensed every time the train began to slow. His pulse was in his throat, and refused to calm down, even long minutes after the running was over.

Calum nudged him with one hand when their stop was announced, and when they got back to the surface the rain had paused. It was far from over, of that Ashton was sure; he could feel it in the air as they walked back to Mali-Koa’s, and it made him antsy.

“Mali-Koa did give you a key, right?” He said, as they rounded the corner of her building. Calum nodded and produced it from his pocket, shifting the flannel over his shoulders as he did. They climbed the stairs and Calum unlocked the first door, and they made their way up the few flights of stairs as Ashton got steadily more self-conscious about the fact that they were both soaked. (“His mum took the umbrella” sounded like a pretty shitty excuse.)

When they got to the apartment, it was (unsurprisingly) empty. Calum made straight for the bathroom; Ashton collected a change of clothes and broke into the spare bedroom to put them on. He kicked the door closed behind him and peeled his shirt off in the same motion, and another day came to his mind: the last time he’d gotten caught in the rain, the day he met Luke. It made sense on one level, to think about it, but he couldn’t put his finger on why it meant something.

“Hey, Ash, you wanna shower?” Calum called.

“No, thanks,” Ashton called back, shaking out a clean shirt. “I like the rainwater feel. Feels good.” He had another thought on the subject, but before he could say it he heard Calum gasp very close by. He spun around; the door was open, and Calum was standing in the opening. He looked like he’d been punched in the face with some very important information.

“The door was cracked, I thought it was okay,” he managed to say. “Then I saw--” he pointed at Ashton, in the general area of his torso. “Your marks,” he said. “I hadn’t realized.”

“Yeah,” Ashton said, little louder than a breath. “It’s… they’re good. An’ I-- I saw yours last night. This morning. It looks good.” He meant the tree. Some part of him wanted to trace the lines of that tree, all the way up and all the way down. His heart was galloping in his chest, He wasn’t wearing a shirt, and Calum was staring, and there was something hot in the pit of his stomach--

Then Calum strode across the room and took Ashton’s face in both hands, gently, and kissed him, fiercely. And Ashton didn’t panic, didn’t push away, but grabbed for Calum’s waist and dug his fingers into Calum’s soaking t-shirt and kissed back, needy. Half his mind was replaying Mali-Koa’s warning over and over again, sure and completely sure that this was the worst idea in the history of bad ideas. But the half of his mind that won, for one long, wonderful moment, said just this: Calum and Soulmate and yes yes yes

 

 

Chapter Text

When the kiss broke, Calum looked into Ashton’s eyes and found them wide, bright with tears before Ashton turned away and scrubbed them away with his shirtsleeve. “I’m okay,” he said. “I’m fine, it’s just-- god, I really didn’t plan for this, and I think I’m freaking out. I swear it’s not your fault, it’s just--”

“Ash, hey, it’s okay,” Calum said quickly. “It’s okay, I know it’s my fault. I went too fast, that’s on me. Can I help? Like, would you like a hug?” Ashton glanced at him, the corners of his mouth tight, and then he said, “A hug would be nice. If it’s okay.”

“It’s totally okay,” Calum said, and hugged him. Ashton, despite being less than an inch shorter, was curling so close in on himself that his head nestled against Calum’s throat. Calum tucked his chin over Ashton’s head and ran his fingers lightly through Ashton’s hair, wondering what to say that could reassure him, to let his muscles unclench and his breathing even out. They were soulmates, weren’t they? Weren’t soulmates supposed to know?

“If you want,” he finally said, “just. If you want. To like, take a walk, clear your head, whatever. You could do that.”

“I might,” Ashton said, after a pause. “You wouldn't be too upset, would you?”

“It’s not about me,” Calum replied. “It’s your call, okay? Whatever you need to do.” He quickly pulled his hand away as Ashton nodded against his chest. Then Ashton took a deep breath, and then he said,

“I think I'm gonna take a walk.”

“Okay,” Calum said. “Take your time. But make sure you know how to get back, yeah? It’s a big world out there.” Ashton, pulling out of the hug, gave a small chuckle.

“I’ll keep it in mind,” he said. Then he left the room, shoulders shrunk and head ducked like he was expecting a blow, and it went against every one of Calum’s instincts to not run after him and hug him until he felt better. He couldn’t be sure it would help at all, and he couldn’t risk guessing wrong.

god, what was he going to do.

==

The door slammed shut behind Ashton, and he winced at the sound. The rain beat against the hallway windows; the hall itself was quiet, and Ashton was grateful because he’d forgotten his jacket. There was no going out in the deluge, so he went upstairs instead. Mali-Koa’s building was the sort of refurbished old building Ashton had never been in before-- Ashley’s building in Queens had been old, but the not-refurbished kind-- and it was more than enough to keep his mind distracted, admiring the building, until he reached the stairs to the roof. He didn’t bother trying it, disinterested in the rain as he was. He plopped down on the bottom step and instinctively pulled out his phone. If anyone asked, he was waiting for a friend, and if they stuck around too long, he was going to look for them.

He had a text from Ashley, he learned when he opened his phone. It read, are you being an idiot? Because he probably was, he closed the window and put his phone away. He had a lot of thoughts, mostly about kissing Calum and how he’d probably never do it again, and they made him somewhat fatigued to entertain; he entertained them anyway. Calum’s worry, and the potential worry of Luke and Michael, were excellent fodder for self-hatred. Ashton could imagine their faces: raw with worry, disappointment. It wasn’t surprising for Michael, not after sharing the same elbow room for months as they had, but Luke and Calum-- he’d known them for mere days and yet their faces were clear, every timbre of their voices memorized, all the things they’d say as easy to guess as if he’d known them as long as Ashley or even his family. Which didn’ explain why he was thinking the worst, why he could and did imagine their hurt, but there he was. Just being an idiot.

He was spared any further introspection by the roof door slamming open and a body tumbling through it. Ashton twisted in his seat and got a faceful of water for his troubles as the stranger shook themself-- or himself-- like a dog to shed the rain. He shed his hood to reveal a shock of gray-blonde hair and skipped down the stairs, oddly spry for his apparent age, and halted when he got to Ashton. “Somethin’ go your goat, kid?” He said, distinctly American.

Ashton, improvising, managed a shrug. “Just… soulmate stuff,” he said. That usually worked; especially from the unmarked to the marked, people seemed to get an aww and a sympathetic nod more than any real help. The spry American, to his credit, proved an exception to the rule: he gave Ashton one brief, hard look and sa down on the step next to him with a squelch of wet raingear.

“Tell me about it,” he said. “I’ve been marked for a good while myself, maybe some experience could help.”

“Statistically unlikely,” Ashton commented, then corrected himself, “that’s statistically unlikely, I mean. Apparently my situation is… extremely rare. By the numbers.” When he was young, more sure of his place in the world, Ashton had checked: polyamory in soulmates was extremely low. Spry American didn’t know all this, though, and he cocked an eyebrow for an explanation: Ashton sighed. “My soulmate situation is unique. Even accounting for diversity of sexuality, of gender, and platonic soulmates and stuff, my soulmate situation is extremely rare. Hence, that. I guess.” He flapped a hand, nevermind. The American nodded, thought about it a moment.

“So what’s your trouble?” He said.

“Aah,” Ashton stammered. “I-it’s complicated. Just, yeah. Complicated.”

“Not what you expected?” The American pressed. Ashton shook his head.

“Nah, I had a good idea of what I was getting into,” he replied. “I guess… I just didn’t want to think about it? Soulmates haven’t really panned out for the better in my family.”

“Aah,” The American said, and nodded several times. Then, “Broken home?”

“I-- yeah,” Ashton replied. It wasn’t as if he could say no-- this clever American reminded Ashton too much of himself, incredibly astute in regards to the fellow human. He’d know if Ashton old a lie, which surprisingly didn’t terrify Ashton so much as he possibility of disappointing the man if he did.

The American sighed, stretched, and shook is head, less vigorously than before. “That’s a hard life,” he said. “It does things to you. Makes you afraid to feel things, doesn’t it? Afraid to feel it, afraid to lose it.”

“Yeah,” Ashton said. “Yeah, that’s what it is.”

“Then let me advise you,” he American said, clapping a hand on Ashton’s shoulder. “And I mean what I say with all sincerity, okay, I’m not bullshitting you.” Ashton glanced upward and caught his gaze, and read honesty: he nodded.

“What is it?” He said.

“Let yourself love,” the American said. “No one ever tells you that love is a choice, especially when it comes to soulmates, but it’s true. It’s your call to make. Do you think your soulmate wants this? Do you think they’d try to make it work?”

“I do,” Ashton replied. “I think they’d try.” The words stuck in his throat, but Ashton knew without a doubt that it was true. If this trip had taught him anything, if he’d learned anything from actually knowing his soulmates, it was that they were determined to work. Despite everything-- all he holdbacks, all the weird, despite Ashton himself-- they were determined to work through it. And hell if Ashton didn’t think they’d work until it worked.

“Then make the call. You can run forever and be afraid, or choose to have faith… and let the bond you already share do its job.” The American reached out and tapped Ashton in the chest with his free hand, over his heart, like putting a period a the end of the statement. “Choose to love.”

“And if it doesn’t work?” Ashton said softly.

“If it doesn’t work, you are welcome to track me down and kick me in the nuts for giving you false information,” The American replied, startling a laugh out of Ashton.

“Thanks,” he said. “For understanding. And having faith in… whatever the hell it is I’m doing. It means a lot.”

“No problem, buddy,” The American replied.

“Ashton,” Ashton said. “My name’s Ashton.”

“Nice to meet you, Ashton,” The American replied. “I’m Feldy.”

“Nice to meet you, Feldy,” Ashton said. “And, if you don’t mind… I think I need to talk to my soulmate.” He offered Feldy a smile, and the return spread across the man’s entire face.

“Glad to hear it,” he said. “Go on, lover boy, knock ‘em dead. But, you know, don’t kill anyone, I don’t think the Brits would appreciate it.” Ashton laughed, getting to his feet, and turned back to wave when he reached the corner. Feldy waved back.

After that, Ashton bounded down the stairs like he was trying to crack the sound barrier. At a few points it felt like he was flying, clearing obnoxious distance by simple merit of his excitement. He couldn’t hold it in. Two staircases, three; he landed on Mali-Koa’s floor and bounded to the door, questioning only at the last minute if he might be interrupting something.

Ah, fuck it. Ashton knocked. He knocked, twice, then three times, stupidly impatient. There was the sound of footsteps on the other side, and then the door flew open: Ashton flicked his eyes upwards just so and found himself swallowed in brown, brown, brown, but he pushed it aside. “Hi,” he said to Calum, breathless, and then he kissed him.

==

Calum’s brain exploded, but not really. He could process only so much at once: Ashton’s hands cupping his face, Ashton’s mouth smiling against Calum’s own, Calum’s hands around Ashton’s waist, and a sense of overwhelming happiness were all just too much to take in.

On top of everything, Ashton was still smiling when he pulled away.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi,” Calum replied. “You said that already.”

“I did, didn’t I,” Ashton said, sheepish. “Hi.”

Calum grinned. “Hi. Come in? My family’s here, but they won’t mind.” He laughed as Ashton’s expression turned horrified, and he glanced over Calum’s shoulder to where the rest of the Hoods were parked around the kitchen island-- including Calum’s dad, newly-discharged. Calum turned, too, to see all three of the other Hoods looking very amused. Mali waved.

“I am so sorry,” Ashton said. “I ran all the way down here and hammered on the door and I probably interrupted something important and I am so sorry.” He was going bright pink, from his shirt collar to the tops of his frankly quite attractive cheekbones, and someone was about to get very amused at his expense if someone didn’t do something.

“Hey, mum, dad,” Calum said. “Any chance you can celebrate without me for a second?” Mali-Koa rolled her eyes; his mother flapped her hand.

“Go on,” she said. “We’ll be just fine.” Mali-Koa was snickering. She was definitely snickering. Calum grabbed Ashton gently by the elbow, muttered, “just roll with it,” and started making for the back bedroom. Ashton didn’t need much encouragement; he in fact outstripped Calum and entered first, covering his face with his hands as soon as the door closed.

“Oh, my god,” he said. “First they think we’re sneaking off to make out, now this. I don’t remember the last time I felt so deviant. ” Calum laughed.

“And yet the appropriate times have little to no making out at all, for some reason,” he said dryly. Ashton dropped his hands to roll his eyes, hard.

“You’re ridiculous,” he said. “ But, ” he added, a smile creeping across the corner of his mouth, “I might have a solution to your problem.”

“I’m ridiculous and you’re a dork,” Calum shot back. Ashton’s dorky smile was doing something to his insides. “What’s your recommendation, doctor love?” Ashton’s smile spread into a full-out dorky grin. Then he stepped right into Calum’s personal space and said,

“Something like this.”

Calum wasn’t ready. With Luke it had been easy, once he’d gotten his head out of his ass, and with Michael it had been like breathing. With Ashton it was like he’d been holding his breath, and now he was getting a few lungfuls of air and it was everything. He could feel Ashton’s heart pounding where their chests pressed together, could feel Ashton’s hands digging into his hips, Ashton letting out a laugh every time they broke apart to breathe. That was really everything-- seeing, feeling, how happy Ashton was to be here and doing this.

After a minute, or maybe three minutes, when they broke apart Calum went for the hug instead of another round. Ashton took the hug, standing at his full height, actually embracing him instead of clinging like a lifeline. Calum was over the moon.

“Dad’s good,” he commented. “Whatever happened, he’s on the mend and discharged. And he and mum are going home in a couple of days. Whenever we need to, we can head back.”

“And face the music?” Ashton said, partially muffled by Calum’s shoulder.

“If you want to,” Calum replied firmly. “If you’re ready to.”

“I don’t know about ready ,” Ashton said. “But I want to try. Despite all that I want to prove Mali-Koa wrong.” Calum laughed.

“I think you failed that one about five minutes ago,” he said. “But, if you like, we can pretend to have a massive fight, and you can storm out and I can pretend to scour London for you.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Ashton replied, but he sounded like he was grinning. “I do appreciate the sport, though. Better idea-- let’s surprise Luke and Michael.”

“Ashton Irwin, you are a bad man,” Calum said. “I’ll take it.”

Ashton pulled out of the hug to offer Calum a high-five. Calum took that, too. Then he said, “You’re okay, right? You’ve got this under control?”

“I’m good,” Ashton said. “Swear I’m good.”

“Can I kiss you again before we go face my parents?” Calum said, and Ashton grinned.

“Go ahead.”

==

The next afternoon, Mali-Koa waved Ashton and Calum through the airport terminal. About eight hours after that (counting a layover in Shannon), Michael and Luke waved them back through the other way waving a sign that read SOULMATES PLURAL in large glittery letters. The two of them threw themselves on Ashton and Calum with a selection of high-pitched noises not usually heard from two grown men. (Mostly grown.) When Ashton finally broke free, he promptly confiscated the sign. Calum felt a swarm of butterflies take off in his chest at Ashton’s affectionate smile as he examined the sign, and a glance at Luke told him Luke was thinking about the same thing.

“Inside joke?” Ashton asked. Luke and Michael nodded, with matching sheepish expressions, and Ashton grinned. “I’m going to assume it’s a long story.”

Very long,” Michael agreed, and Calum wondered if either of them realized the ridiculous heart-eyes they were showing. They were adorable. And so far gone-- thought Calum, who was no better. Both of them might as well have hung the stars.

“We’ve got time,” he said. Luke made a noise, paired with a twitch of the eyebrows, that Calum recognized as here we fuckin go. Calum quickly added, “We should get our stuff first. Save the awkward story for the long-ass car ride back. Speaking of, how did you get here?”

“Borrowed Ashley’s car,” Luke replied, offering Calum a hung-the-stars smile. “Michael convinced her to let us while she was in class. But she made us promise to bring it back without a scratch, which totally threw off my plan to go parking as a welcome-home present.” Ashton snorted. Michael squawked.

“Think about the children !” He said. Luke smirked at him.

“You weren’t saying that last night.”

Michael swatted him. “Alright, fine, think about Ashton.”

“Yes, please, think about Ashton,” Ashton said, exchanging an amused glance with Calum. “Ashton just wants to go home and go to the sleep.”

Michael sniggered. “Go to the sleep.”

“Go to the sleep,” Luke repeated. “Right! Baggage claim!” He added, when Ashton arched an eyebrow at him. “Come on, Ash.” He looped his arm around Ashton’s and took off in the right direction; Michael and Calum followed at a more subdued pace, but not without Michael grabbing Calum’s hand and grinning at him. Calum grinned back.

I missed you, he mouthed. Michael ducked his head and squeezed Calum’s hand a bit tighter. “You seem to have gotten on pretty well with Luke while I was gone,” Calum added, and Michael’s grin turned impish.

“Oh, we got on great, ” he said, with maybe too much inflection. The eyebrow wiggle didn’t help. Calum shoved him. Up ahead, Ashton threw his head back and laughed; Michael beamed. Calum nudged him.

“Mikey, how long were you into Ashton before you found out you were soulmates?”

“Aesthetically? Right away,” Michael replied.”Guy walks into the room, first day, sweaty from carrying his shit up two flights of stairs… totally hot. Took a bit longer to fall for his demeanor, just cause he was a total grump.” He grinned.

“I heard that,” Ashton called back, and Michael’s eyes went wide for a half-second before he rolled them.

“Sure, babe,” he called forward.

“You wish,” Ashton shot back. Luke elbowed him.

They wandered around the baggage claim for a long moment, eyes peeled for the two most nondescript pieces of luggage Ashton and Calum could have chosen to haul around, before Luke’s sharp eyes caught them and he pulled them off the belt. He furthermore refused to let Ashton or Calum carry anything, although he did dump Calum’s bag off onto Michael. Michael thanked him with surprising composure for the level of sarcasm he was giving off, but when Ashton wasn’t looking he gave Luke a glare that made up for it. Calum wanted to tell them both to get a room, but instead he followed them all out into the New York afternoon sunshine and from there to Ashley’s tidy but decrepit car. Luke insisted on driving; Michael disagreed, which led to a round of rock-paper-scissors that Luke won. Michael swore all the way to the backseat and dragged Ashton with him as Luke and Calum put everything in the boot.

Before Calum claimed the shotgun seat, he followed Luke to the driver’s door and kissed him. Luke smiled against his mouth, and kept smiling when they broke apart. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Calum said. “Missed you.”

“You too,” Luke said. “Michael’s a great soulmate, but he’s a shit roommate.” Calum laughed and kissed him again, and then he opened the driver’s door for Luke. Luke climbed in and Calum crossed around to the shotgun seat; he closed the door as Luke started the car, and as they pulled out Calum offered his hand over the gearshift. Luke took it, and didn’t stop smiling the whole way home.

==

Luke dropped Ashton off first and Michael came with him, allegedly to “carry his shit.” He stayed after the initial hauling, however, and when Ashton crashed for a good hour (the flight had been no easier the second time around) he seemingly kept sticking around because he was still there when Ashton woke up: buried in homework and swearing every few seconds, but present all the same. He glanced over when Ashton sat up in bed, and smiled. “Hey. Sleep good?”

“I fucking hate planes,” Ashton grumbled, getting out of bed and bending down to press a quick kiss to Michael’s mouth before ambling off to the bathroom. When he got back, Michael was sitting in the same place and looking a little shell-shocked.

“Sorry, did I come on too strong?” Ashton said, amusing himself with the level of sarcasm he managed to infuse the sentence with. Michael rolled his eyes.

“Yeah, maybe a bit,” he shot back, but the corner of his mouth was drifting upward at a frankly alarming rate. He added, “So you’ve changed your mind?”

“Not changed it, no,” Ashton replied. “Just taken the next step. I think this whole soulmates thing has turned me into a kiss-at-the-first date kind of guy.” He was getting butterflies; it was a little uncomfortable. Michael’s smile spread into a full-sized grin. Ashton quickly added, “But you can’t tell anyone. It’s a surprise, and if you tell anyone--” he paused, looking for a suitable threat. “If you tell anyone, I’ll tell everyone you listen to Susan Boyle for recreational purposes.” Michael’s mischievous expression immediately switched to horrified.

“You wouldn’t ,” He said.

“Oh, I would,” Ashton said. “If you squeal…”

“I won’t, swear to god I won’t,” Michael said quickly. Ashton grinned.

“Now that that’s out of the way,” he said, brushing past Michael far too close and plopping down on Michael’s bed, “Tell me about your weekend.”

==

Calum and Luke dropped off Ashley’s car at her dorm and took the bus back to the apartment, exchanging a few soft worries about being able to take the bus after paying for a round trip to London and back. Luke suggested bicycles. “Ash takes a bike all the time, and it seems to be working.”

“Ash is a hippie who’s been riding a bike for years, for one,” Calum said dryly. “For another, you are not riding a bike home at 6 am after an eight-hour shift.”

“Okay, that’s fair.” Luke, both arms draped over Calum’s luggage and Michael-and-Luke’s sign, leaned his head against the window. Calum promptly felt jealous of the window. Luke added, “Ashton’s pretty badass, though.”

“Yeah, Ashton’s pretty badass,” Calum replied. A lot of things occurred to him as he said it: Ashton’s expression when Calum opened Mali-Koa’s door, right before Ashton kissed him. Ashton holding his hand when they hit a spot of turbulence on the way back and Calum temporarily lost the ability to breathe. Calum’s promise not to tell, not yet.

Make it a surprise.

Instead of telling, Calum reached out and grabbed Luke’s hand, lacing their fingers together. Luke’s expression was pleased enough to make up the difference. Calum carried his own luggage back upstairs when they got back to the apartment, and Alex’s grudging presence kept the reunion from getting at all freaky.

(“I knew we should have gone parking,” Luke told Calum, just loud enough that Alex could overhear it and choke on his beer.)

About thirty seconds later, Alex summoned them both to the sofa and asked Calum if anything had happened in London that he needed to know about.

“Why would there be,” Calum said. Before Alex could reply he added, “First of all, it’s none of your business. And second of all, see first of all.”

“It’s my goddamned business if it comes in my apartment,” Alex replied. “Jack, if he were here, would agree with me.”

“Please don’t be hypocritical about this,” Calum said. “Luke and I don’t complain every time you and Jack get freaky at 2 am.”

“Okay, in all fairness, we’re not actively telling you nothing’s happening and it’s not your business,” Alex shot back. Before Calum could say anything more, Luke’s hand closed over his shoulder. Calum didn’t need words to know that Luke meant leave it.

“Good point,” Calum said. “No, Alex, nothing’s happened that you need to know about. Yet.”

“I feel so reassured,” Alex said, and grabbed his beer off the table and took a long drink. Luke removed his hand from Calum’s shoulder; Calum twisted around to get a look at his face and caught him in the middle of relaxing. Calum got up and gestured to Luke to follow; waving a quick farewell to Alex they left the room, and Calum halted them at the stairwell.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I walked myself into that and I’m sorry you had to be there. I know you hate it when Alex and I piss each other off.” Luke nodded, and Calum recognized tension in his jaw and neck.

“Yeah,” Luke said. “It’s okay, I just. I really hate it when you guys fight.”

“In my defense, he has it coming,” Calum replied.

“So do you.”

Calum recognized the appropriate time to be ashamed. “Yeah, you’ve go me here.” Luke snorted and opened his arms; Calum mirrored the gesture and leaned in, and they hugged. It was a nice hug, especially considering the context and the fact that Calum hadn’t hugged Luke for the better part of a week. (Five days. Close enough.) then they went back and found Alex, who’d unsurprisingly turned on the xbox in their absence.

“You kiss and make up?” He said, not looking up from Assassin’s Creed. Calum hmm ed the affirmative.

“Shame it’s not that easy with you,” He added, and Luke and Alex both snorted. Alex paused the game and put it on multiplayer. Luke and Calum briefly grappled for the other controller, and Luke won because Calum was a sap. to make up for his loss he sat behind Luke with his arms and legs wrapped around him and muttered suggestions. A few of them earned him an elbow in the gut, which should have been more of a deterrent (Luke’s elbows were pointy).

After Alex had died for the fifth time and Luke for the seventh, Calum brought up the possibility of going out with Michael and Ashton, properly. He suggested it to Luke in a low voice as Alex swore in free-form verse, and Luke liked the idea so much he bounced up and down in his seat and almost dropped his controller. Alex told them both to get a handle on it and resumed the game, and as Luke died horrifically for the eighth time Calum texted Michael and Ashton with the idea.

==

“We just finished a round-trip to London, what makes him think we can afford a date ?” Ashton grumbled, finishing reading the text aloud to Michael. Michael just snorted and turned a page in his textbook.

“Tell him we’re in, but it’s my treat,” he said. “ I haven’t been on any airplanes recently.”

“I’m not your messenger boy,” Ashton replied. Before he could add anything else Michael interrupted in an exaggerated Scottish accent, “I’m a delivery boy,” and Ashton groaned.

“We are having a serious talk about logistics, this is not a time to be quoting Shrek!” He complained. Michael promptly cackled.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Please go on.”

“I was just gonna tell you to text him yourself,” Ashton said.

“Oh, yeah. Sure, fuck you, Ash,” Michael said absentmindedly, putting down his pen and picking up his phone. He shot off what looked like a text to Calum and put it back down, sticking his tongue out at Ashton like a closing statement before going back to his homework. He was making an impressive go on it, and Ashton wondered if he’d lost a bet or if he was about to fail a class for that level of productivity. Of course, Ashton didn’t have much room to talk after missing three days of classes.

He picked up his phone and added a reply to Calum’s dinner invitation. i have class later. meet after 6?

Then he went back to his homework. At 5:22 he checked to make sure his suggestion had been fielded and found affirmation from Luke and Calum both; Michael had texted back, nerd.

“I’m sitting right here,” Ashton called over. Michael cackled again. Ashton shook his head and went to find his shoes. “I’m meeting Ashley before class. See you at dinner?”

“Yeah,” Michael said. “We’re meeting at that burger place down on 4th, where Harry took you on your disastrous one and only date. Would that be uncool? I mean, the food’s amazing, but we can go somewhere else if it brings up bad memories.”

“Nah, I trust your judgement on the great food thing,” Ashton replied, pulling on his shoes. “6 or fashionably late?”

“Sounds good,” Michael said. “See you then.” He turned around in his chair to offer a farewell smile, and Ashton returned it. Then he crossed the room to kiss him goodbye properly, and left Michael grinning like an idiot.

He met Ashley on the quad, on the picnic table where she’d once told him he wasn’t a shitty human being-- and by once, he meant the better part of two weeks ago. She gave him an amazing hug and asked him how he was.

“I’m good,” he said. “So far I’ve kissed both Michael and Calum and both of them think they’re the only ones who know, which is kind of hilarious. And London was pretty, I think you’d have liked it. It’s like New York, but older and stuffier.” Ashley laughed.

“Sounds great,” she said. “And you sound like you’re enjoying yourself with this whole soulmate thing.”

“It’s going better than I’d hoped,” Ashton said. “What about you? Are you doing alright? Luke mentioned you’d seemed ill a few days ago.”

“S’just the lows again,” Ashley said, with a shrug. “I was due, anyway. Too many good weeks in a row.”

“That doesn’t justify anything,” Ashton said. “But are you feeling any better?”

“A little bit,” Ashley said, fiddling with her jacket sleeve. Ashton glanced down to her twitchy hands and back up to her face and said,

“Taylor. You were weird around Taylor last week. Taylor Swift’s your soulmate.”

Ashley’s smile broadened into a cheesy happy grin. “Yeah. I’m soulmates with the coolest girl on campus, kiss my ass.” Ashton laughed and punched her in the arm, lightly, wondering whether another hug was appropriate or not.

“Can I see?” He said. “Is it… appropriate?” Halsey laughed, nodded, and pulled up her jacket sleeve. A cluster of roses, complete with thorns and vivid red blooms, wound around her forearm just below the elbow.

“They look scary,” Ashton commented, when he’d admired them for what he thought was the appropriate span of time. Ashley smiled and shrugged, pulling her sleeve back down.

“I gave her a blue moon,” she said. “We fell into each other-- literally, thanks-- at one of her parties last week. She grabbed my arm, I almost punched her in the gut. It was awkward, to say the least.”

“And it won’t even make a good story to tell drunk,” Ashton mused. “Not that mine will, either.”

“You lived with your soulmate for three months before resolving, that’s gonna make a pretty great drunk story,” Ashley argued. “Anyway, I’m not horribly bummed out about the whole thing. I do feel bad for Ella, though. She and Taylor had been dating for a while before I came along.”

“Sucks for Ella,” Ashton said. “Of all the break-up stories to have, that one sucks. Not that it’s your fault, or anything.”

“Or anything,” Ashley agreed. “Anyway. Class?”

“Class is good,” Ashton said. “In the long run, anyway. We should go before we’re late to class or something.” He offered the crook of his elbow. Ashley shoved his arm, gathered up her things, and they set off.

==

Ashton arrived to dinner ten minutes after everyone else, with a dark damp circle around the collar of his shirt.

“I came as fast as I could,” he said. “Traffic’s not bad today.”

“You bicycled to a date ,” Michael deadpanned, scooting over to let Ashton into his booth. Ashton slid in and smiled at Luke, who offered a smile back. Then Ashton smiled at Calum, and Calum’s stomach kind of imploded.

“Good class?” He said, for want of anything intelligent to say. Ashton shrugged.

“Not awful,” he replied. “I share it with Ashley, which helps negate some boredom. Good afternoon?”

“Yeah, a real nailbiter,” Calum replied, ducking as Luke tried to flag down the waiter. “I got to watch Luke crash and burn at Assassin’s Creed for the better part of three hours. It was real exciting.” Luke kicked him. Calum rubbed his foot against Luke’s calf in retaliation. The waiter appeared and asked Ashton what he wanted to drink. Ashton ordered a soda. Michael ordered a round of burgers. The soda came first; Michael entertained them all with all the dumb things he and Luke did while they were gone as they waited for actual food. He wound up neck-deep in a narrative about their experiences cooking with Alex and Jack by the time any sign of dinner was made; he didn’t even stop to take a breath as Ashton and Luke accepted the several huge baskets of fries, even though Luke was almost laughing too hard to handle anything.

“...So then Jack says, ‘we’re gonna need more glitter’, and Alex comes up with some shit about us not needing to be any more flamboyant. Next thing you know, Luke and I are done up in glittery cowboy vests from god-knows-where and Alex looks like he needs a drink. And on top of all this, the pie’s burning and I don’t know why Tyler needed the campus kitchen sink to wash off all that body paint but I don’t think I want to. Oh, thanks, Luke.” Luke had finally interrupted Michael by shoving a french fry at his face. Michael snapped at it, caught it in his teeth, and snatched it from Luke, enjoying his success by eating the fry.

“Did you seriously eat the pie afterwards?” Calum said, grabbing the ketchup just as Luke reached for it. Luke snorted.

“Fat chance,” he said. “Alex gave it a viking funeral. Jack cried. It was amazing.”

“It’s true,” Michael said. “He cried on my shoulder as Alex did the deed. What a heartless bastard.” He said it with a mouthful of hamburger, so Calum didn't put too much stock in whatever bitterness was sticking around. “So what did you guys do? Five days all on your lonesome, must've been interesting?” He wiggled his eyebrows. Ashton, in the middle of taking a drink, choked and spat out half his mouthful onto his hamburger.

No, ” he said, as Calum and Luke laughed and Michael just looked smug. “We explored a bit. And talked. A bit.”

“What kind of talking?” Michael said, with another completely unsubtle eyebrow twitch. Ashton’s face started to turn incredibly pink. Calum kicked Michael under the table.

“Back off before he combusts,” he said. Michael immediately dragged his foot up Calum’s leg in retaliation, which at least was better than needling Ashton. Ashton shot him a grateful smile. Luke shot him a curious look out the corner of his eye as he took a bite of hamburger. Calum took a bite before anyone could ask him anything else (although he suspected the action wouldn’t deter Michael if Michael felt so inclined). Thankfully, most of them were eat-and-don’t talk types, and after burgers stole their attention they stopped talking for a good while. (“Burgers stole their attention. Calum could be talking about a dog-- Burgers was a good name for a dog. How against a dog named “Burgers” would Alex be, Calum wondered.)

Dinner was demolished and Michael ordered a round of milkshakes in the place of beer, which Ashton seemed grateful for. They talked and shouted and laughed and Michael made Ashton spit out a mouthful of milkshake, and something tense in Calum’s stomach that he hadn’t even known was there unraveled. Michael paid the bill and they packed up their party, half an hour before closing time; they walked back to the bus stop to see Michael and Ashton off back to campus, and Ashton kissed Calum and Luke goodbye in turn. When he got to Luke, Luke looked like he might faint with happiness.

“So maybe you did talk about something in London,” he said.

“Nah,” Ashton said, smiling fit to burst, and kissed him again for good measure.  Luke looked like he might float away on the breeze: a stupidly happy six-foot-four fairy man. Calum didn’t think he’d ever been happier to have such a pack of idiots for soulmates.

“Come on,” he told Luke after Michael and Ashton had left, snagging Luke’s hand with his and nuzzling into his neck. “Let’s go home.”

“I like the sound of that,” Luke said. “Home. Sleep. I don’t want to go to work.”

“Then don’t,” Calum said, pulling away and tugging Luke along as he started walking. Luke made a grumbly noise and followed, catching up just enough to drape himself over Calum’s shoulder.

“I have to,” he said. “It’s called being a responsible adult, or whatever.”

“Responsible adult, my ass,” Calum said. Luke made another grumbly noise and leaned more heavily on him.

“It’s more an aspiration than a reality,” he said. Calum laughed.

“One day, Luke,” he said. “One day.”

==

Things had a tendency to fall into place, Ashton learned, when he wasn’t running away from fate. When his heart and mind and soul were all in agreement. They were just… things were right. He could roll out of bed first thing in the morning and kiss Michael on the top of the head, knowing he’d be awake and happy to see Ashton when he returned from his run; he could run down to the radio station and see Luke home, and Luke would kiss him when they got there, and Calum would join him for a mile or two and they’d get coffee, and he’d kiss Ashton goodbye before they parted ways again. Ashton’s life molded itself around them, Michael and Luke and Calum, and got better as it did.

When the school year ended, Ashton flew home for a week to visit his family and found himself sharing a flight with Luke and Calum-- and Michael, who had decided he wasn’t going to be left behind and instead was going to stay with Calum the whole time.

“The whole time, ” he insisted. “He won’t be able to get away from me. He goes to take a piss, I’ll be there. Watching.” He wiggled his eyebrows, which Ashton didn’t really think was the appropriate expression, but it had Luke and Calum laughing.

“You know,” he said, “While you’re there, you don’t have to stay with Calum the whole time. You’ve got two whole other soulmates with families who I’m sure would love to meet you. I can’t bet on my mum, but--” he broke off and made a face, and all three of his soulmates burst out laughing. In the driver’s seat, Ashley snorted.

“I might take that offer,” Michael said, settling back into his seat. Luke took the opportunity to rest his head on Michael’s shoulder. Michael looked stupidly pleased. Ashton turned back to face the front before he got any more carsick.

On the plane, Calum slept. Luke slept on top of him, or partially, with his head on Calum’s shoulder and one leg draped over Calum’s lap. Michael on the other hand refused to let go of Ashton’s hand from the jostle of take-off ‘til halfway through the flight, when he used the bathroom. Then he came back in a hurry and didn’t let go of Ashton’s hand until they landed and the seatbelt sign shut off, when Luke and Calum woke up in unnerving sync and the stewardess told Ashton his boyfriend was adorable.

“Yeah, he is,” Ashton said, in unnerving sync with Luke and Calum. The stewardess congratulated all of them and showed them her marks, thick bands on the inside of both wrists. Michael asked her if she was an activist, with obvious interest.

“My mum has a mark like that,” he said. “Met dad at a political rally.” He said it with a sheepish look at Ashton and Calum (Luke was in the window seat, too far back to see). The stewardess admitted she wasn’t, not really, but only because it was tricky to get into it when she was on a plane every other day.

“I ought to give it a shot, though, considering,” she added, and everyone laughed. Then they all told her goodbye and good luck and they went home, and Ashton’s family was waiting.

His mother loved Michael, when she met him, and Luke and Calum, although she met them a few days late. And Luke dragged Ashton over to meet his family, which comprised of two obnoxious elder brothers and the sweetest parents (that weren't Ashton's) that he'd ever met, and the Hemmings family insisted that the families meet for Christmas because soulmates or something.

“We’ve been doing it with Cal’s family for years,” Luke explained later. “I figure at this point they don't want to give it up.”

“Does this mean I should call my parents in for Christmas?” Michael asked, and Luke shrugged.

“If you like,” he said.

Ashton met Michael's mind, opinionated, somewhat distant parents over Christmas and decided preemptively that he was going to give by far the best first impression. He was probably successful, considering that Luke spent most of the afternoon leading up to Christmas dinner helping his mother and Michael in the kitchen and Calum was busy play-arguing with Mali-Koa when the door opened. Loudly.

“Best. Christmas. Ever,” Lauren said, in the car on the way home. “Ash, if you don't, like, marry them and ensure that all our Christmases from now on are that cool, I will… I’ll marry them myself.”

“Hands off my soulmates,” Ashton retorted. “They’re mine. My destiny, or whatever.” Lauren laughed.

“Sounds like they're good for you,” she said. Ashton shrugged, caught between bashful and stupidly happy.

“Yeah, I think they are,” he said.

The next morning Ashley sent him pictures from Taylor Swift's posh Christmas dinner at her home in Nashville. I keep wondering if someone's going to kick me out on the assumption that im stealing silverware, she joked, and when Ashton asked after her wellbeing she said she was doing good. Really good.

also im blonde now, she added. tell michael to top that.

dont encorage him, hell lose all his hair, Ashton replied. hes already decided red is way more festive than purple.

is it hot?? Ashley asked.

way hot, Ashton replied.

geeeeet iiiiiiiiit

==

The new apartment was nice, when they got to it: A one-room shoebox with enough wall space for a shitload of instruments and enough floorspace for a kit and a sofa, a kitchen to entertain Michael's mad notions, and a street address less than a block from the bus stop and from Jalex’s. Ashton and Calum ran out together to see Luke home every morning; from his previous neighbors Ashton heard a mess of hilarity for moving in with a roommate he'd supposedly hated.

“First of all, I didn't hate him, and second of all he's my soulmate,” he told Lynn after the third joke. “So spread that rumor, will you. And lay off Michael, it's not as funny to him as you would assume.” Lynn raised her eyebrows and backed off. After the sixth or seventh crack, it was over. Michael breathed a loud sigh of relief and went back to Portal like the whole ordeal had never happened.

“Has anyone seen the fucking paprika?”

“No one touches your goddamn paprika, Mikey,” Calum called from his seat on the couch. Luke, sprawled gracelessly on top of him with his feet resting next to Ashton’s thigh, grunted agreement. Ashton looked up from his copy of Nietzsche, swallowed embarrassment, and called, “I cleaned out the cabinets this week, Mike, so it should be there but not exactly where you left it. Sorry.”

“Wow, Ash, for shame,” Michael shouted, and through the kitchen door Ashton could see him reach a little further into the cabinet, swear once, and retrieve the small red bottle Ashton recognized as paprika. “Thanks, babe!”

“No problem,” Ashton called back, and went back to his book. It wasn’t particularly easy to get through before, but embarrassment made it worse. “Sorry, again.”

“Hey, babe, no biggie,” Michael called back. “I was in a serious fucking hurry, I freaked out, all that shit. My bad.” Ashton glanced up and saw him stirring the saucepan probably a bit fast, but he was probably making up for lost time looking for spices. “Hey, warn me next time? Probably be better for both our dinners that way.”

“Can do,” Ashton replied, and closed his book. Luke glanced away from the ceiling, landed his eyes on Ashton, and flopped over from Calum’s lap to Ashton’s.

“S’all good, babe,” he said.

“I know it’s all good,” Ashton replied, shoving Luke’s shoulder with one hand as he dropped his book on the end table. Luke fixed him with an unimpressed look, complete with eyebrow twitch. Ashton shoved him again, but gently. Luke made a few air-kisses at him and looked up at the ceiling again.

“Something on your mind, Lukey?” Ashton asked. Luke, eyes fixed on the ceiling, made a funny hmm ing noise and shrugged. His shoulders dug into Ashton’s thighs.

“Just, you know, soulmate stuff,” he said. “The future. True love. Also I slept pretty shittily today, Burgers came in around nine and made some shit-ton of noise.”

“I already said I was sorry!” Calum said, apparently not as immersed in his phone as Ashton had thought. Luke kicked him and retorted,  “And I forgave you. Doesn’t mean Burgers doesn’t need to be trained to leave people the fuck alone when they’re sleeping.”

“Hey, be nice to Burgers!” Michael called. “He’s a sweetheart.”

“Has he woken you up lately, Michael?”

“Touché.” Michael fell silent. Luke went on, “Anyway, just deep introspective things. Fate. Destiny.”

“A horse?” Ashton said. Luke snorted. Calum snorted. Ashton grinned, triumphant in random Disney references.

Anyway, ” Luke said, “All that. It’ll probably make for great 3 am radio ramblings, but not great conversation.”

“I like hearing about your weird thoughts,” Ashton said. Luke smiled. Calum said, “Yeah, Ash, but you’re as weird as he is.”

“Wow, it’s like we were meant to be or something,” Luke said. Calum laughed, and Ashton was suddenly and overwhelmingly fond of both of them.

“Mikey, how’s it coming?” He called.

“FUCK OFF, YOU WILL GET FOOD WHEN YOU GET FOOD.”

“We were having a moment, I wanted to include you!” Ashton said around a giggle. Trying to talk and laugh at once, he started coughing. Calum reached over and patted him on the back, hard.

“Breathe! Breathe! ” He said. Luke started laughing. Ashton recovered long enough to push Calum’s hand away, and then started wheezing again. Michael appeared in the doorway shouting about ruining their dinner, still wearing his lurid polka-dotted oven mitts.

“How do you idiots even survive,” he deadpanned. Luke rolled off of Ashton's lap onto the floor, still laughing, and beamed at Michael. “Tru-- True love,” he managed to say.

“And they say life after marking isn't that magical,” Michael sighed. Calum snorted again and said,

“They didn't see us last night.” Ashton and Michael both groaned.

“I can't believe I abandoned the soup for this,” he said. “See you assholes in a minute, and if the soup takes any more harm by your obnoxious hands all of you are sleeping on the couch tonight.” He flounced out.

“You abandoned the soup for true love, Michael!” Calum called. Michael didn't even turn around; he flipped the bird over his shoulder on the way to the stove. Burgers bounded out of the bedroom, clearly just woken up from his nap and thrilled about it, and jumped onto Luke's back. Luke’s groan of shock and pain brought them all back to reality for about thirty seconds.

“Burgers!” Calum said. “Shame on you, you… you adorable little… dog. That wasn’t cool.”

“I feel so validated,” Luke groaned, rolling over onto his back and throwing Burgers in the process. The dog recovered quickly, rolling over once and bounding over to Calum. It figured: Calum was too much of a sucker to say no, and moments later there was a dog on the couch. Ashton wasn’t that against dogs (better than cats, unfortunately) but he joined Luke on the floor just to spite Burgers. Not that Burgers cared: he was too busy enjoying the wellspring of Calum’s affection.

“We’ve been betrayed,” Luke said to Ashton in a loud whisper. “For a dog.

“I heard that,” Calum protested. “Burgers, go bother Mikey.” He set the dog down on the floor and Burgers skittered off, ducking under the kitchen table and bouncing around Michael’s legs. Calum slid off the sofa and joined Luke and Ashton on the floor.

“Here I am,” he said. “Use me as you will.”

“As you wish,” Luke deadpanned, and lay down in his lap.

“That was not what I was expecting,” Calum commented, but buried one hand in Luke’s hair anyway. Ashton decided to reward his acquiescence by leaning over and kissing up the side of his neck. Calum promptly scrunched up his shoulders and the corners of his eyes, pleased with the turn of events as it was. Neither of them got far, however, as Michael called them all in for dinner.

“And don’t make me say it twice, or I’ll eat without you,” he added. All three of them got up off the floor and made for the kitchen with Luke in the lead, but Michael beat them all; he was sitting with his feet on Calum’s chair and Burgers in his lap when they arrived, prevailing over four bowls of soup and looking very smug.

“Told you I could do it,” he said.

“Oh my god, Mikey, it smells amazing,” Calum said, pushing Michael’s feet off his chair and sitting down. “Like, I may die from hunger in the next twelve seconds amazing.”

“Please don’t,” Ashton protested as he and Luke sat down. “I don’t think we’re meant to go through life with just three of us.” He grinned at Michael as he sat down and added, “It does smell great, Mikey.”

“Would’ve smelt better if I didn’t have to delay looking for the paprika,” Michael quipped, but there was no venom in it. “What, Luke, no sultry compliments?”

“I’m not entirely sure sultry and soup fit in a sentence together,” Luke replied, picking up his spoon. “I could be wrong, though.”

“I’m still surprised you’re talking about the soulmate stuff so freely, Ash,” Calum said. “What, is fate not looking so scary to you anymore?”

“Why would fate look scary to me?” Ashton asked, taking a bite (if one could call it a bite ) of soup. “You’re my fate. And I couldn’t be happier about it.”