Things start to fall apart the next day, and even though they should have seen it coming, none of them are prepared for it. They get to the Astoria early because they’re doing some interview, backstage pass whatever with MTV. Bren doesn’t mind. The MTV shit’s the best because they don’t ask the annoying questions about family and what it’s like to have a girl in the band, to have a girl fronting the band, to have a girl singing Ryan Ross’ misogynistic lyrics. It’s just them and a microphone and a camera.
Brent doesn’t want anything to do with it, which he makes evident the night before.
“Come on,” he says, frowning, “I’ve got a cold and it’s not like you guys can’t handle it.”
“We’re a band,” Ryan says, and it sounds a little like he’s trying to remind someone of something important. “We do this stuff together. That’s the point.”
Brent’s always been stubborn, so it’s not like they aren’t all expecting it when he adamantly refuses to do it. The fact that he skips out of the soundcheck early to avoid it, though, leaves them floundering.
“Um,” Bren says, perched behind her keyboard, looking at the empty space Brent left when he disappeared to take a piss nearly fifteen minutes ago.
They’re running short on time, now, and nobody wants to say anything. They’re all just hoping Brent will come back and tell some story about how he was waylaid by groupies or abducted by aliens. He could say anything, but as long as he was sliding the strap of his bass over one shoulder and adding a “sorry, let’s finish up,” they would believe it.
“Guys,” the sound guy says, having come down to the stage to look at them with a tense glare, “any day now.”
“Yeah, okay,” Ryan says, looking over to Spencer who looks over to Bren who shrugs helplessly.
It’s the movement sidestage that catches their attention. Spencer leans over his drum kit and yells, “Jon!” Bren and Ryan both follow his gaze and see Jon looking at them, a quizzical smile on his face. He wanders a little closer, nodding at the three of them.
“What’s up?” he asks.
“Help us soundcheck?” Spencer asks. “We’re almost done.”
Jon says, “where’s Brent?”, but he walks forward and grabs the bass anyway.
“Not feeling well,” Ryan says, and the lie is too easy.
They finish up as quickly as they can and leave the stage sharing dark looks. Jon stops Bren on her way backstage with a hand to her elbow.
“Everything okay?” he asks.
His touch is warm and gentle and Bren wants to lean into it, let somebody hold her up for a few minutes. Instead she brushes her fingers over his and pulls away with a smile.
“Fine,” she says, “just have to get ready for MTV.”
She leaves before he can ask her any more questions because she’s a terrible liar as it is, but she hates it when she has to lie to Jon. She catches up to Spencer and Ryan and they stand in a tight huddle, silent and tense. At least the MTV thing goes off without anymore hitches. Cameramen show up, hand Bren a microphone and give the three of them some basic instructions.
“Show us around, tell us a little about life backstage, the usual,” some woman with a clipboard says.
“Can we have a grand entrance?” Bren asks.
The woman looks down her nose at her (and Bren wishes she were a few inches taller because she’s so tired of other chicks being able to do that). “I don’t know how you expect us to pull something like that off.”
Spencer says, “there was that door at the foot of the stairs.”
Even the woman’s cold eyes aren’t a match for Spencer’s even stare. He’s only eighteen and he’s more badass than anyone they’ve come across in the journalistic field. Bren beams at him and he smiles back, hiding it from everyone but the two of them.
By the time the cameras are rolling and Bren is bursting through a tiny door, all smiles with Ryan and Spencer at her heels, they’ve resolved to ignore the Brent thing. Ignoring the Brent thing also means ignoring Brent himself, who is sitting in the back of the dressing room like nothing is out of the ordinary, like he’s not even a member of the band. Ryan addresses Jack instead of Brent and Bren and Spencer keep their backs to the corner for the whole segment. It feels weird. Wrong. But it’s what Brent wants and they don’t have any other choice.
The cameramen and other assorted MTV people leave and they have to get ready for the show. It’s the last thing Bren wants to do because they’re on shaky ground. There are no cues coming from Brent about how this is going to go, none at all, and Bren doesn’t want to stop talking to him but she has no idea what the fuck to say, either. So she stays quiet and Spencer and Ryan and Brent stay quiet. Jack disappears, leaves the four of them alone, and they move silently around each other as they get ready, trying not to get too close or move too quickly in case it tips everything over the edge.
It’s so uncomfortable that Bren can’t stay in the dressing room. The atmosphere is thick and heavy and reminds her of the days before she left home, when she and her parents were barely speaking and everything was hanging by a thread. She mutters something to Spencer about going sidestage to watch The Academy, and he just nods at her. She catches Ryan’s eye on the way out and he looks upset, but she can’t think of anything to say to ease his mind.
She makes her way backstage and slumps against a wall, letting Bill’s voice and the guitars and bass and drums wash over her. She inhales deeply, reveling in the way the air thrums with sound in her lungs, and tries to get herself in an appropriate state of mind to perform. She should be finding a quiet corner for vocal warm-ups. She should be excited. She’s just a little drained and confused.
An arm slips around her shoulders and she looks up, fast, to see Jon staring down at her in concern.
“Hey,” he says, and she doesn’t feel any compulsion to shy away, so she leans in, instead.
“Hey,” she says back, trying out a smile.
“So, who pissed in your Cheerios?” he asks conversationally.
Bren can’t help the laugh that gusts out. “Um, nobody. Just general band stuff.”
Jon’s eyebrows go up and he pulls her closer to his side. Bren’s heart thumps hollow in her chest and she lifts a hand, hesitant, to curl into Jon’s t-shirt.
“That sounds pretty serious,” Jon says quietly, his words barely audible over the music.
“Yeah,” Bren says, “yeah, I think it is.”
She doesn’t say anything else, but Jon doesn’t move and she drinks it up, the heat of his body, the solid weight of him. She misses this, misses it so much, hugging and being hugged and having no anxiety attached to it. Jon’s the only one she can do this with, now, and she’s reluctant to let him go. They have to separate a moment later; someone is calling Jon away and Bren really does need to warm-up, but she doesn’t want him to go. His hand cups the back of her neck as he drifts away and Bren arches into the brief touch before steeling herself and leaving for the dressing rooms.
That night, the lights are as hot as ever, but everything feels like pulling teeth. Ryan’s mouth is set in an angry line as he plays, Spencer’s eyes are dark as he pounds away at his drums, and Brent is so distant it’s like he’s not even there. Bren sings, clutches desperately at Ryan’s hip and when she presses her forehead to his temple everyone thinks it’s the usual stage show, but it’s not. It’s the only thing keeping her grounded. Bren wants to collapse, crumble away just like everything else is because she can feel it now, the fissures in everything that they’ve been ignoring since getting on the plane to the UK. Ryan turns his head toward hers, mouths the words against the mic, meets her eye and encourages her to stay standing.
When Bren goes to her knees that night, she falls so hard the next note is a sharp, pained sound, and she looks up at Brent. She’s not sure what she’s looking for, what she’s asking him for. His eyes are closed, hair hanging in his face as he moves his head with the music, and he doesn’t look at her. He doesn’t look and she bends forward at the waist and sobs note after note into the microphone and beyond them, beyond this, the crowd cheers.
Spencer calls a band meeting in the morning. Bren feels fuzzy-headed because she couldn’t sleep and she’s not sure how many hours it’s been since she actually got any rest. Ryan doesn’t look much more alert than she does, but his eyes are glittering with some emotion she can’t put a name to and she bites her lip, nervous and unsure.
“What the fuck was that about yesterday?” Spencer asks, and he sounds pissed but he’s keep his voice tightly controlled.
Brent, who looks more awake than all of them, but decidedly less interested, raises his eyebrows. “What was what about?” he asks, a little defensive but mostly (and this is the part Bren doesn’t understand) truly confused.
“You skipped out on soundcheck and the MTV thing,” Ryan says, his hands unusually still on his thighs.
A soft flush climbs up Brent’s neck and he looks conflicted. “I told you I didn’t want to do it.”
“So that makes it okay to fuck us over?” Ryan demands, and he isn’t bothering to keep his voice restrained. All of his anger and frustration bleeds out over the words, breaking his monotone and making Bren want to cover her ears.
“It’s not like I missed a show!” Brent says, throwing his hands up. “We were almost finished anyway. It’s seriously not a big deal!”
And the thing is, Brent really believes it’s not a big deal. Bren looks at him, catches his eye, and he’s trying so hard to make her believe what he believes that she has to jerk her gaze away. This isn’t a big deal to him.
“Brent,” Bren says softly, and it hurts to have to push the words out, but she manages, “are you. I mean, you still want this, right?”
She looks at him again, but now his eyes are glued firmly to the floor between his knees. Spencer and Ryan are holding their breath, waiting for the answer, but Bren feels like she already knows it. She doesn’t know how, she can’t possibly be certain if he hasn’t told her, but she’s almost positive he’s going to say no.
“I’m sorry about yesterday,” is all he says, though.
And then he gets up and walks away, band meeting over, nothing resolved.
Ryan and Spencer start having these secret conversations that Bren isn’t invited to. She’s pretty sure that if she poked her head in and asked what they were talking about, they’d tell her. Then again, she’s not actually sure if they’re talking about band Brent business (which isn’t going so well) or personal Brent business (which Bren has no real right to be involved in, considering she’s only known them a year and Brent’s known them approximately forever). She sees them, heads bent together, expressions grave, and takes a detour.
She finds Jon and Tom getting ready to go into town. They’re grinning at each other, the special smile that best friends share, and she feels suddenly, inexplicably lonely.
“Hey!” Tom says loudly when she turns to walk away.
Bren looks up and he’s grinning at her from underneath his hood, hands tucked into the pockets of his hoodie. Jon’s grinning too, videocamera in hand. She figures she could get away with a wave, maybe go mope by herself, but she’s never been very good at being alone and anyway, she could definitely use a distraction.
“What’s up?” she asks as she gets closer, bouncing up onto the balls of her feet and looking at them expectantly.
“Pick-up basketball game,” Jon says. “And by pick-up I mean, bands only. And by basketball I mean, Mike running around double-dribbling while Bill sinks three-pointers every time he sneezes with the ball in his hands.”
Bren laughs and looks at the camera. “TAI TV?” she asks, nodding at it.
Jon shrugs. “Maybe. Maybe I just want blackmail material.”
They share a long look and a smile, and when Bren glances over at Tom, he waggles his eyebrows at her.
“You should come with. You can be a cheerleader and bounce around and look cute,” he says.
Bren rolls her eyes but says she’ll tag along, offering to film because she’s really not sure she’ll be able to stop bouncing around if she starts. Jon agrees and they walk to the court, which doesn’t look like it’s seen much action lately. Bren figures most people around here are probably playing soccer in their spare time at the park down the street. It’s chilly out and no one on tour is particularly athletic, so they’re all in hoodies and girl-jeans instead of, like, sweatshirts and sweatpants. Bill’s huddled up under the basket wearing one of his disgusting, holey sweaters, Mike and Sisky gathered closely around.
Andy comes jogging up in a jacket and a pair of obscenely tight and ugly pants, all smiles.
“We’re going to kick so much ass,” he says when he draws even with Jon and Tom. “It won’t be legal how much ass we’re going to kick.”
They all bump fists and Bren rolls her eyes but she has to admit, she sort of likes it when the guys get all pumped up on testosterone. It’s fun to watch and gives her a little thrill.
“Okay, ladies” Bill calls, strutting forward, “are we gonna do this shit, or what?”
“Prepare to be toasted, Billvy,” Andy says. “Toasted, buttered, and eaten alive.”
“Toast isn’t even alive,” Sisky points out, “what the fuck? You suck at trashtalk.”
“And you suck at comebacks,” Jon teases.
Bren clears her throat and says, “you all suck at life. Can we play now?”
Someone says “your mom sucks!” and Bren flips him off (she’s pretty sure it’s Mike, but it could also be Sisky, it’s hard to tell when those two get together). They laugh, but at least everyone’s getting into position. Andy and Tom are doing ridiculous stretches while Jon jogs over to the sideline and helps her stand on a fairly sturdy bench.
“Okay,” he says from somewhere near her waist, one hand cupping her hip, “you think you can handle this?”
She looks down and nods. “Totally,” she says, holding out her hands for the videocamera.
He hands it over and leans close to give brief instructions. Bren listens as well as she can, but she feels a tightness in her stomach that’s painfully, gloriously familiar, and she’s more occupied with Jon’s clean smell than she is with which buttons to push. He pulls away, reaching out to ruffle her hair.
“You’re totally cheering for us, right?” he says, walking backwards.
Bren shrugs lightly and says, “I dunno, I think I have to pull for the underdog.”
Jon laughs. “You’ve clearly never seen Tom play basketball,” he says.
“What?” Tom yells, looking up at the sound of his name. “Stop flirting, Walker, and get your ass over here.”
Jon rolls his eyes at Bren and says, “he’s just jealous of our love.”
Bren winks at him and then turns to make kissy faces at Tom, who makes kissy faces back, and Butcher pouts because he doesn’t get any kissy faces, and then Bill runs over, kisses his fingers and lays them suggestively over Bren’s lips while Sisky calls him a traitor and Mike threatens loudly to hit the next person who even thinks the word ‘kiss’.
“This is basketball, not spin the bottle,” he says, dribbling the ball with both hands.
Bren tips her head back and laughs and it feels good. She’s still smiling as she lifts the camera and hits record.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she says, picking up a commentary as Bill checks the ball to Tom, “what you are about to witness may be too frightening a spectacle for the faint-hearted. Viewer discretion is advised.”
They get back to the venue twenty minutes before soundcheck; Bill and his band rush to the stage while Bren stands back and watches Jon make a beeline for the guitars. She starts when a hand closes around her wrist. The fingers, thin and strong, are Spencer’s; she can tell without looking.
“What’s up?” she asks, carefully extracting herself from his hold.
He steps up next to her and says, “I just wanted to see how you’re doing.” They both watch the movement onstage quietly for a moment and then Spencer adds, “this whole situation’s pretty fucked up.”
Bren closes her eyes and nods sharply.
“You okay?” Spence asks.
She’s not sure if he’s expecting an honest answer. In the last few weeks, Bren’s done nothing but lie about her state of mind. It’s a habit she can’t seem to break, and she knows it frustrates Spencer and Ryan, but they ask anyway. They can’t seem to help themselves. Either that, or they’re just waiting until Bren’s ready to be honest and letting her know that they aren’t going anywhere in the meantime.
Bren opens her eyes and looks over at Spencer who looks back calmly and she thinks that’s it. That’s why they keep asking her how she’s doing, that’s why they never buy the lie. They’re just biding their time and waiting for Bren to be ready to give an honest answer. She’s not sure if that’s Ryan’s only motivation because there’s an edge to his questioning that’s softened but hasn’t been completely sanded away, but that’s definitely why Spencer’s standing in the dusty space backstage in no hurry to hear Bren’s reply.
She can see it in his eyes and it makes her stomach ache in a good way.
“Are you okay?” she asks and he shrugs.
“Not really,” he says, turning back to face the stage.
Bren sucks in a deep breath and says, “I’m scared.”
If Spencer’s surprised, he doesn’t show it. He just asks, “of what?”
Bren watches Jon as he hands guitars over to Mike and Tom and thinks about how he makes her feel. She remembers the look on Brent’s face when he practically begged Bren without words to believe him, not a big deal, not a big deal. She can hear Spencer and Ryan’s secret whispers, see their haunted eyes, and she’s scared of a lot of things. She’s scared of too much.
Her body goes rigid for a moment and then she relaxes, tentatively nudges her hip against Spencer’s and leaves it there.
“Everything but you,” she says with a crooked smile.
Spencer curves his arm loosely around her shoulders, and Bren leans into him, letting all the fight seep out of her body for just a minute. Or two. Or ten. Spencer doesn’t say anything, he just holds her up.