Notes: I suppose this because there isn't that much fiction out there with these two, especially not this kind of fiction. And I'm really just a sucker for slow, random romance. Apologies if I messed up anywhere.
I may have also screwed with some timelines a little...
We'll call this a V-induced hallucination, yeah?
Jo didn't remember exactly when her first opinion of him had changed, but she could still recall that her first thoughts upon meeting Ash were 'what a tool'. She was only fourteen at the time, still in her first year of high school and coasting pretty on the reputation that came with being a Harvelle an growing up in a saloon a few miles from the outskirts of the wrong side of town.
Jo knew how to throw a punch, how to shoot straight through the bullseye at sixty paces, how to throw knives, and how to pull a perfect beer every time. Ash knew none of those things; except maybe the punching, and she had no evidence to suggest he was any good at taking a hit, let alone doling one out. He spent more time passed out or drunk than anyone she'd ever known. It was completely beyond her as to why her mother let him take up residence in one of the guest rooms. She had no idea how he'd manage to pay rent when all he ever seemed to do was hang out at the bar drinking scotch and cola or disappear into a locked room for days on end.
He'd been there six months before she found his PhD. A crumpled, stained document that was sticking out of a small stack of ill-kept manila folders underneath a partially unfolded newspaper. The doctorate was in applied mathematics, and made no sense when compared with the scruffy young man in ripped jeans and grungy shirts. He looked hardly any older than twenty - people that age didn't even have degrees, let alone doctorates.
Absolutely certain that it was a fake, Jo had shown the piece of paper to her mother. Ellen sighed and shook her head, smoothing out the stained certificate on the kitchen counter. "I swear," Ellen had said, "it's like that man wants his credentials thrown out with the trash. I'll just keep it in the safe for him where it can't get hurt."
Jo had stared skeptically at the impossible bit of paper. "So it's real? It's like, actually a PhD?"
"The man's a genius, honey," Ellen explained. She walked with the certificate over to the safe where she kept all of their important documents along with the cash box and slid the piece of paper neatly into place where it wouldn't be crumpled. "Who do you think has been coming up with all of those case files by the bar?"
"I thought you did," Jo admitted, sheepish and not too keen on the idea that she had been that unobservant of late. "Or the hunters who come through all the time. I thought it was just normal."
After that she tried to keep a closer watch on things and pay attention to things other than homework and boys and why the girls are school didn't like her. It took her a while but eventually Jo came to notice the glow that emanated from under Ash's door at night - electronic in origin, the light coming from computer screens and blinking modem lights. She tried to time it one weekend when she noticed the lights at six just before dinner. She made it to two in the morning before crashing on the living room couch and when she woke up five hours later with a sore back and a crick in her neck she had been alarmed to note that she could still hear the faint clicking of a keyboard.
By the time she was fifteen having Ash around was normal. Jo didn't jump if she heard him shuffle into the kitchen while she was doing chores, didn't shake her head if she saw him passed out in the bar with a mostly-empty tumbler in front of him, and didn't roll her eyes at his terrible taste in music.
She did want to hit him that time when she came home long after curfew, her face streaked with tears, mascara smudged under her eyes, and her first brush with heartbreak fresh and tender in her chest. Ash opened the back door while Jo was still fumbling with her keys. He looked her up and down, taking in her grass-stained jacket, bruised knuckles and tear-stained face.
"Your mom's asleep," he told her as he stepped aside to let her in. "Or she'd be all over you right now about breaking curfew. If you just don't get up in the morning I'll tell her I heard you throwing up, you wont have to go to school."
Jo remembered it was only Thursday and nodded. She swiped a hand over her face, fingers coming away smudged with more black than the bruises from punching Jackson Curlew in the face. "Thanks," she said quietly.
"Don't mention it," Ash replied, shutting the door quietly so the sound wouldn't carry back to Ellen. He slouched behind her as she walked to the bathroom to wash her face. "Rough night?"
Jo looked at him, about to say something sarcastic and cruel. Ash just stood there, three days worth of stubble on his face, bags under his eyes, probably only upright thanks to unhealthy doses of caffeine and booze. She choked on the harsh words before they formed. "You have no idea," she said instead, and turned away to wash the tears and makeup from her face.
"Just keep your chin up, Jo-jo," he said. Cracked a smile at her and turned to go back to the glow of his computer. In the light from the bathroom she could see nicotine stains on his fingers and wondered how she hadn't noticed that he smoked. "There's plenty of fish in the sea. You'll break more hearts than break yours, just wait and see."
"Wait," Jo said, stopping him before he could close his door. She bit her bottom lip. "You wont tell mom?"
"Wont breath a word," Ash nodded to her.
Jo woke up the next morning long after the sun had risen. When she looked at her alarm it was already noon. When she shuffled into the kitchen, still feeling sad and stupid from the night before, she was greeted with a hug from her mother.
"We'll talk about you taking that twenty dollars from the register when you're feeling better, honey," Ellen told her.
Jo was sent back to her room with the home remedy of dry toast and honey-sweetened lemonade, the guaranteed cure for a stomach flu. She took the reprieve with a sigh of relief, eating toast in bed while she read books with too many big words and silently thanked Ash for covering for her. By the time Monday rolled around she was already over Jackson and his grabby hands, and ready to punch him square in the mouth again if he tried spreading rumours about her.
Sixteen was when she actually started working at the Roadhouse bar, half-shifts three times a week. That was about the same time she started fielding come-ons from hunters and tourists alike. Jo looked older than she was, she knew that. With a pair of tight jeans and a bit of makeup she could pass for eighteen easily. She'd already been sneaking into R-rated movies for quite some time.
But it was different when she was behind the bar or bussing tables. She had to fend of friendly pats that went a little low on her back, and put up with terrible pick up lines that she couldn't believe would work on anyone who still had eyes in their head and full use of their hearing. Sometimes the tourists were cute, or the younger hunters.
Mostly they were rednecks with too much facial hair who didn't seem to care that she had school the next day.
In that, Ash was a breath of fresh air. In reality he was a breath of stale cigarette smoke, scotch, and a hint of either cologne or body odor, depending on how long it had been since he'd last remembered that being human required physical maintenance.
"Another beer?" Jo asked, looking at the empty tumbler sitting on the bar in front of him.
"Ha ha." Ash pushed the glass towards her. He offered no shitty come-ons or leering stares, just a five dollar tip and another file for the 'unsolved cases' rack by the police scanner. Jo still had no idea how he made his money. "Scotch and cola, Jo-jo. I don't mess with the classics."
"Scotch and cola isn't a classic," Jo replied, squirting cola from the soda gun into his glass. "It's disgusting. I don't even know how you can drink that."
"Call it one of my many talents. I've got a lot, you know. I'm really talented."
By now she knew him well enough to recognise the boasting as something part way between truth and self-deprecation, not an ego trip or a bad line. "Oh, I know," Jo told him, sliding the glass back to him, "it takes a lot of talent to pass out on a pool table."
"Principles of physics," Ash saluted her with his drink. "Quantum."
"Are you even capable of talking like a real person?"
He quoted some lines from a band that Jo had never heard of and wandered off out the back with his glass. When Jo was finishing up her shift she found the glass already waiting by the dish washer with a tray of other dirty glasses that she'd carried in from the bar earlier. She pressed the button to start the machine and realised that Ash had become so much of a staple in her life that she could hardly remember what it was like to come out the back and not see some small, inconsequential chore already half done.
It was just like him to stack the glasses properly and put them in the machine but forget to press the button.
Seventeen and Jo started to wonder why Ash had never even flirted a little. It wasn't that he didn't like girls - she'd seen the bookmarks on his laptop by then, and knew he preferred rockabilly pinup sites and the suicide girls to hardcore porn - and she doubted it was the age gap. Hunters old enough to be her father tried to get into her pants on a regular basis.
She pulled him aside one afternoon when he emerged from the Lair, smelling of smoke and energy drinks. Cornered in the kitchen, Ash had ignored her in favour of leftover beans until she'd poked him hard right over his breastbone and stuck her face right in his.
"Jo-jo, what? Can't a man eat his dinner in peace?"
"You're eating leftover baked beans cold with parmesan," Jo pointed out, crossing her arms over her chest. "That's gross, not 'dinner'."
"Don't knock it til you tried it." He backed up a step when she glared at him, crumbling under the force of the Harvelle glare.
"I just want to know," Jo told him, arms still crossed, "why you never flirt with me."
Ash stared at her for a moment, blinking dumbly at her as if sure he hadn't heard her right. "Uh, what?"
"Everyone else does," Jo added, uncrossing her arms to point towards the currently empty bar. "Any man with a pair of eyes who walks through that door sees I have boobs and wants to get in my pants. You don't even pretend to look at me."
It was about then that Ash caught on. He shook his head. "Jo, you're seventeen and your mom has a gun collection."
"None of them care about that."
"Well I respect you," Ash spoke to his fork.
It was such an odd admission that Jo had to stop and think about it. She didn't know what answer she'd been expecting, but it wasn't that. Maybe she'd been thinking more along the lines that he saw her as just some kid. The thought that she'd been uncharitable crept in. To get rid of the feeling that she'd misjudged him, Jo blurted out; "And my mom's rifle, right?"
"Yeah," Ash agreed readily, "I really don't want to get shot. That seems like it would be really unpleasant."
When Jo was eighteen she discovered that she could get Ash to cover for her when she sneaked out of the house to visit boys that she liked. All it took was a little bit of prodding while she played absently with her father's knife and Ash told her that if she had a credit card, even one that she never used, he could make it look like she'd been places that she hadn't actually gone to.
He could fake charges for restaurants, movie theatres, gas stations. Anywhere that accepted credit, he could give her an alibi for.
Jo finally figured out what he did for a living when he wasn't working on things for hunters and the files by the bar.
She made him give her such alibis three times before she went off to college, studying courses that she'd picked mainly to keep her mother happy. Jo was there for a month before the dazzle of living away from home wore off enough for her to realise how much college sucked. Her roommate was a party girl who kept tequila in the fridge, stole Jo's food, and left her laundry all over the floor.
The second Jo got around to unpacking her knife collection she was an instant social pariah. The classes were boring. The boys who hit on her were either total dweebs or hot jocks with no brains to speak of.
She found herself calling home more than once a week, and at least half of the time it wasn't Ellen who answered the phone. Ash would sound groggy and distracted when he first said hello, but his voice would soon perk up into a more alert kind of drawl when he recognised her voice.
"Sorry, your mom's out getting groceries," he'd say. Or; "Ellen's out front at the bar, I'll go get her."
"How are you, Ash?" Jo would always ask, and she'd always get the same response too.
"I could be better, Jo-jo."
"Me too," she said one day, staring distastefully at the stack of textbooks and the amount of work she had to be before the week's end. "I don't think I'm cut out for college, Ash."
"What's wrong? You can tell me."
Jo sighed. She took the phone and sat down on the too-hard single bed on her side of the room. "My classes suck," she complained, "even worse than high school. My roomie is a bitch who hates me, the girls who live on campus all think I'm a freak and even the boys are losers. It's boring. It's lonely. Half the time I'm sitting in a lecture hall and I just keep thinking 'why am I here?'"
"Yeah," Ash agrees, and she can picture him nodding absently, leaning against the wall like its the only thing holding him upright. "That's why I bummed out of MIT."
"I thought they kicked you out." The story seemed to change a little every time it was brought up. Jo crossed her legs on the bed, she could do with the distraction of hearing a new facet to the story.
"They did. But in a round about way it was because MIT was boring. I'd listen to the eggheads and already know what they were saying. I caught six mistakes in just one textbook. It was embarrassing, Jo-jo."
Jo frowned down at her toes. From this angle she could see her knives, wrapped up in their case, sitting innocent and incongruous next to her pencilcase. "That's not being a freak," she said eventually; "That's being too smart."
"You'd be surprised how often that's the same thing," he told her.
"So what can you do about it?"
"You've only got two options. You can stay and stick it out, or you can leave." She could practically hear the shrug. "The rest is semantics."
Jo managed until the end of the semester before she quit and came home. The resulting argument with her mother was loud enough to be heard all the way to the road, but even after facing Ellen's disappointment Jo felt better being back home.
She started working at the bar again full time.
She toyed with the regulars and the people who came and went, beating them in poker games and flirting for tips. She played around with a couple of boys from in town, and toyed with the idea of turning her hand to hunting. More often than not she found herself being talked out of it one way or another. Jo left the hunting to the hunters and went through boys like cheap candy, never staying with any one for longer than a few weeks. She rarely let them do more than kiss her.
None of it was serious until she met Andrew Sawyer. He was more than just good looking. He was fun, and came from a background that meant he had a nice car and could afford to take her places. They were pushing four months and getting close to Jo's birthday when he dumped her for a bottle-blonde with big boobs.
"I just want something different than what I can get with you," Andrew said. Jo knew what he meant before he'd even finished talking. He wanted a girl with big tits and no brains. He'd just been in it for the sex, while she had thought they had something good going.
She cried on her mother's shoulder even though Ellen hadn't approved of the boy. "There's plenty better out there, sweetie," Ellen said as she rubbed her daughter's back. "He doesn't deserve your tears."
"He deserves a kick in the balls," Ash contributed to the discussion, much belated and only twenty minutes before Jo was due to finish her shift at the bar. For a moment Jo didn't know what he was talking about, mopey and distracted while she cleaned the sticky bar counter. "For dumping a girl like you," he added.
"I should have hit him," Jo complained, scrubbing at a spot on the varnished wood with more fervour than it really required.
"You could kick him in the head but the lack of brain would cause his skull to collapse."
Jo laughed despite herself.
She turned nineteen on a Saturday and took the day off to celebrate. There was cake already waiting for her when she woke up, chocolate with strawberry icing, and a card from her mother. Further inspection of the kitchen table also revealed a small, badly wrapped, vaguely cylindrical present. The past couple of years Jo had gotten only money and sweets from her mother, so the present was something of a surprise.
Jo opened it then and there, thrilled to discover that the surprise in the middle of the wrapping paper was actually a rather elegant pen knife.
"I didn't get you that, honey," Ellen replied to her thanks. "That was from Ash."
"Ash never buys me presents," Jo protested, twirling the knife between her fingers.
"He got you a box of candies every year since he came here," Ellen said, crossing her arms. As if the thought of their very own eccentric genius not celebrating her daughter's birthday was ludicrous.
Jo crumpled up the cheap wrapping paper and tucked the pen knife into the front pocket of her jeans. "Well they never came with cards and he never gave them to me himself," she pouted, upset that she'd never noticed before, "so how was I supposed to know?"
He was dead to the world when she went to thank him, door closed but not locked, and noise from some terrible grunge band playing softly from an indeterminate source. She couldn't see a stereo, and so suspected a computer was the culprit.
Jo poked him. He cracked open his eyes, saw it was her, and smiled muzzily. "Like the knife?"
"Love it," Jo replied. "I didn't have one like that yet."
"I know," Ash nodded. He sat up, the movement slow and sleepy. There was a crease on his cheek from where a fold of fabric had been pressed against his face. "I checked so I wouldn't pick something you already had."
"When did you check?" She asked, unable to imagine a time that he would have been able to get past her and into her room without her knowing about it.
"You work at the bar most days, Jo-jo. It wasn't hard. Ellen showed me where you kept your collection."
The idea that her mother was in on it made Jo wonder just what else she was missing or didn't notice. But at least that made sense. Ellen could keep secrets like a steel trap, and Jo would never have thought to outright ask Ash what he was getting her because she never suspected he would. It was a lie by omission, not on purpose. She could live with missing that.
Even so, Jo once again resolved to not get so distracted by life outside the Roadhouse that she didn't notice what was going on under its roof.
For a little while she forgot her ambitions, forgot to flirt as keenly as she might normally have with the customers, and concentrated on looking at things she hadn't thought much about before. How certain things just happened when she was busy behind the bar, little chores that her mother expected Jo to do got done when neither of the Harvelle women were near that part of the house. Though there was only one bathroom to the house there was never any sign that it was used by a man - the toilet lid always down, and only feminine brands and products in the medicine cabinet.
She noticed that Ash was more likely to venture out during the daytime on week days, and that he was twice as likely to wind up passed out in unusual areas around the house or bar on tuesdays than any other day.
She catalogued the hours that she could hear keys clicking against the hours of plain research or leisure, where the only sound was the click of a mouse or the soft swell of classic metal.
She figured it out. Years too late after everyone else who had gotten to know him, Jo finally cottoned on. Peeling back the onion layers of what was on the outside left nothing but a nervous, too-intelligent young man who knew he wasn't cut out for the front lines. The rest, as he had put so eloquently, was just semantics.
Jo was a little confused with herself when she found herself standing outside his door one night after her shift was over and her mother had gone to bed. She pushed open the door, never locked and only ever closed, and intruded on the dark, messy space that had been christened with two different names. The first, and most uncharitable, was the 'Geek's Lair'. The second, self-appointed and mocking, was the 'Doctor's Office'.
Ash was still awake, sitting in front of a cluttered desk with a heavily butchered laptop open in front of him. His eyebrows shot up when she locked the door behind her. "What did I do?" He asked nervously, his eyes flicking to her hands to see if she had anything particularly threatening or incriminating with her.
The box of condoms she was holding just didn't quite register.
She sat down on his lap, one leg on either side of his thighs. "Do you still respect me?" Jo asked, digging her fingers into the worn fabric of his grungy shirt.
"I've always respected you," Ash replied, still looking at her as if he was sure this was just the precursor to a demand for silence or information.
"And my mom's rifle?" Jo purposefully wiggled on his lap, sliding both of her hands up to rest on his shoulders.
The result was a clear hesitation, and fingers that twitched towards her as if wanting to grab at her hips. "I don't get what this is about," he told her. "Are you going to hurt me? Did I do something wrong?" His eyes widened again. "Am I going to get shot?"
Jo shook her head. "I'm going to kiss you," she told him plainly, keeping it simple because in her experience boys were often a bit dense. "Then you either have to tell me you don't like me, or we're going to have sex."
She pressed her lips against his and sealed their mouths together. He tasted like nicotine and liquor, and kissed softly. Slow, intimate, and timid - very different from the wet, open-mouthed and fumbling kisses from the kind of boy she was used to.
Ash told her that he liked her without needing any words to say it, uncalloused hands settling on her waist and smoothing down to her hips. Reverent touches that gave her goosebumps under her clothes. He was not the kind of guy she would usually go for, not handsome, not athletic, not possessed of an easy charm.
Jo kind of liked that.
She lay naked and sweaty in a tangle of limbs and sheets, tendrils of blonde hair sticking to her forehead and cheeks.
"You're the weirdest girl I've ever met," Ash said, groggy and muffled against the back of her neck.
"You're the weirdest boy I ever met," Jo replied, only a little surprised by how comfortable she was with his arm around her waist and her head cushioned against a pillow that smelled just a little bit like rum. "I'm sleeping here tonight, is that ok?"
"Finer than dandy, Jo-jo."
Jo closed her eyes against the faint glow of blinking lights and the computer screen in sleep mode. Maybe awkward and unusual was the way to go, she thought to herself. She had felt more comfortable with Ash than any of her previous conquests. Anyway, it was only the outside that was dorky and twenty years out of fashion. Semantics, right?
Nineteen and she finally figured out just what she wanted in a boy. She just hoped her mother wouldn't kill him.