Giselle had chided her, but the next morning, Clara really wasn't that tired.
It really was all about measuring herself, she thought as she got ready, downed a cup of coffee, and headed off to college. She knew exactly how far she could go, how long and often she could stay awake, without suffering the consequences; she knew how much coffee she could drink without making herself dizzy, plain black, because she didn't like how it tasted with milk or sugar enough to waste time on them. The cool October air felt fresh on her skin and clear on her tongue, and she breathed it deeply, twirling her umbrella as she made her way through the streets. Most people would call it tacky; it was a large, brightly-colored thing in the shape of a sunflower that was horribly mismatched with the rest of her wardrobe, but she kind of liked the contrast. Besides, it made her stand out in a crowd, and it wasn't as likely to get stolen.
Giselle had left earlier, heading for her audition, laser-focused despite her obvious lack of sleep. And that was the much more impressive feat here, Clara thought. She herself could be sleepy and inattentive during her lectures and no one would bat an eye; but Giselle needed to have her wits together, or she'd never get the role. Clara hoped she'd land it. She wanted it so badly, and it might be just what she needed to finally get out of her typecasting box.
A car passed her by, an upbeat pop song blasting from the speakers. Clara found herself matching her footsteps to the beat, humming it under her breath as she kept walking. By the time she reached the classroom, it was still stuck in her head; but honestly, who cared about her humming? She was well ahead of time, and the room was mostly empty anyway.
Little by little the others came in. Clara mingled with her classmates, chatted with them between classes, took her notes and participated as much as she needed. She didn't have any close friends here, but that didn't mean she was alone. It only meant she could socialize with whoever she liked, whenever she liked, without any real pressure to fit in. And honestly, that was just the way she liked it.
A quick lunch, then another afternoon course, then she was done for the day. No messages from Giselle yet, she thought, checking her phone. Was that a good thing or a bad one? She hoped it was just because the auditions were still ongoing. It wouldn't be the first time that Giselle spent the better part of a day there.
The rain had stopped now, but the sidewalk was covered in puddles. Clara jumped into the first one she saw, just long enough to keep her shoes from soaking through, then walked on normally. From somewhere in the distance, music was playing again. Not a pop song this time. Something darker, something heavier, the kind of thing she would've eaten up during her teenage emo music phase. But she didn't recognize the song.
For some time she found herself standing there, listening, trying to make out the melody and snippets of lyrics. But she couldn't even tell where it was coming from, let alone what it was; the sound was too far away, half distorted by the wind and the sounds of the voices and footsteps and cars all around. And yet, without knowing why, she found herself standing there and listening until the music stopped.
It wasn't until she looked down at her feet that she realized that she'd been standing in a puddle, and her shoes were soaked through.
~ ~ ~
"You sure you should be playing like that?" Terrence asked Freddie the moment he walked through the door.
Freddie and Theo paused in the doorframe. The whole band had turned around as soon as they had entered—the whole band except for Dylan, because their lead vocalist was never earlier than five minutes late. "What do you mean?" Freddie replied, rubbing a self-conscious hand over his injured face and instantly regretting it. "I've had worse."
"Theo told me you hurt your rib." Terrence's eyes were wide, almost comically wide in his worried face. "Is it fine if you sing? If laughing hurts—"
Spinning in place, Freddie shot a glare at Theo, who had the audacity to smile like an angel. "You traitor!" he burst out. "You told him?"
Instead of trying to defend himself, Theo only patted a hand against Freddie's side—right over his bruised rib. "This is why," he said as Freddie flinched and hissed in pain. "Better let the med guy have a look at it, right?"
"Pre-med," Freddie gritted out. "It's just a bruise, everyone, calm your tits! Look what you did, now you've gone and freaked out TJ!"
"Can I at least have a look?" Terrence remarked. "If it's too bad, you can't play tonight. Sorry, but it's true."
Still clutching his ribcage, Freddie cracked a wry smile. "I won't hear that from the guy who played a show with a hundred-degree fever and got himself in the hospital."
"That was one time!"
"One time is enough to make an old man die from a heart attack!" Freddie gestured furiously to himself. "If I let anyone tell me this, it's gotta be Clem. At least he has some self-preservation instincts."
Behind his drums, Clem studied him up and down, then rose to his feet and very calmly prodded him in the side. The injured one.
Letting out a string of curses, Freddie doubled over, then burst out laughing and gave chase. Clem indulged him for a moment, then ducked behind his drum set and threatened him with a drum stick, and Freddie skidded to a stumbling, sliding halt. He had just enough faith in their drummer to believe he wouldn't hit his bruised rib with a drum stick on purpose, but it was a narrow thing.
"I hate you," he said, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes. "Just so you know, my side still hurts like a bitch."
Setting down his drum sticks, Clem got back up, giving Freddie a pat on the chest that sent him stumbling backwards. "He'll be fine," he called over to the rest of the band. "He's still annoying, it can't be that bad."
"Thank you! That's what I'm saying," Freddie replied with feeling. "You can all stop mothering me now, that's my job!"
"You're a shit mother, bro," came Dylan's voice from the door. "You can't even cook pasta."
"Says the guy who eats cold pizza for breakfast!"
"At least I eat breakfast!" Dylan retorted and laughed. "Just give up, my dude," he added, dropping his bag on the nearest chair and shrugging out of his jacket. "You can't win this one."
Freddie flipped him off. "Anyway, sorry I'm late, boys," Dylan went on, his smooth, cheery tenor easily drowning out all the other chatter in the run-down basement room they called their studio. "Wordsmith in the house! What did I miss?"
"Someone got beat up the night before the show," Theo replied at once, motioning to Freddie.
Dylan's eyes landed on Freddie's face for a moment, registering the injuries for the first time. "Nice dedication to the aesthetic," he said, "but you gotta stop doing that. We've got fake blood if you really wanna look like you got your ass kicked."
"Great! I'll make sure to use that the next time I have to rescue some kid from his bullies, I'm sure it'll help somehow." Freddie reached for his guitar. "Anyway, get to work! We have a show to play tonight, we can't slack off now!"
"Hell yeah!" Grabbing his own guitar, Theo jumped up on a chair, holding it high above his head. "I'm ready for showtime, baby!"
Freddie regarded him with a fond smile. A few strides away, Terrence was still eyeing him in obvious concern. "I still think you should take it easy tonight," he said. "We won't get more than five people in the audience anyway."
"Exactly!" Freddie burst out, momentarily lowering his instrument to make a grand gesture. "If we can't impress those five people, we'll never get a bigger crowd!"
Leaping back off his chair, Theo gave him a high five as he strode past, already tuning his guitar. The others exchanged a meaningful glance. Freddie knew they were calling them both crazy in their heads, but these guys weren't their bandmates for nothing. Dylan, Terrence and Clem might act like they were being ridiculous now, but once they hit the stage, they would get just as into the performance as Freddie and Theo themselves.
There was a chance this would never go anywhere, he knew. Maybe they were all idiots, pouring this much energy into a silly music project that might never take off, risking their futures for an uncertain dream. But they couldn't stop now, wouldn't stop until they physically couldn't do it anymore. And for Freddie himself, there had never been another option.
So they simply needed to keep fighting. On and on, until their little something grew into something greater and more meaningful.
And until then, keep their heads up and not lose hope.
~ ~ ~
Keeping your head up was hard, though.
The show had gone well. Freddie had pushed through despite his injury, barely feeling it at all, tuned out all feelings except for the fierce, overwhelming joy of playing and singing. He had thrown himself into the performance like he knew no tomorrow, and so had the others. Dylan had belted out his best vocals in weeks, talking animatedly to the audience between songs, cracking jokes and bothering his bandmates. Theo had absolutely nailed his solo, and Clem and Terrence had carried the performance from start to finish, breathless and with matching smiles on their faces. Their band had been amazing tonight. But…
But it was just so damn hard not to get discouraged when no one else seemed to care.
Three people. That was all they'd had tonight. Three goddamn people who had bothered to show up, and one of them was Dylan's mom.
"Hey, don't let it get to you," Theo told him on the way back, lifting one hand off the steering wheel to pat his arm. "We're gonna get more again next time. What's important is that we kicked ass tonight."
Freddie averted his gaze, but he didn't pull away from the touch. "Oh, sure," he said. "That's what you always say. Next time, next time. Next time when?" He threw up his hands. "We've had the same five listeners for ages!"
"Hey, I'm frustrated too." Theo turned back to the steering wheel. "But hey—that's showbiz, baby. You gotta kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince, and you gotta play a lot of shitty venues to find fame, right?"
Despite himself, Freddie snorted. "That makes no sense."
"That makes total sense," Theo retorted, grinning. "Just think about it, the next frog you kiss might just be our ticket to fame. So you can stop being so gloomy now."
"Easy for you to say! You have other options!"
Theo stopped at a traffic light, the red glow painting strange patterns on his brown skin. "None I want," he said. "C'mon, man, stop sulking. Wanna stop by the store and grab some candy? I heard sugar makes you happy, or something."
Freddie curled in on himself. "Not interested."
"Okay," Theo chimed. "More marshmallows for me."
Freddie snorted. "You think I'm that easy to trick?"
"And chocolate chip cookies."
He straightened up.
"Hell yeah." Theo flashed him his most devious smile. "All mine, even the delicious soft ones with the melty core—"
Freddie was glad he had fastened his seatbelt earlier, because otherwise he would've tried to jump to his feet at once and hit his head on the car roof. "Fine," he said. "You win. Happy now?"
Theo's smile widened. "Extremely."
"Good." Finally, finally, Freddie smiled back, some of the frustration falling from his shoulders. "Then I don't need to share my cookies."
Theo punched him in the arm, but he also laughed and pulled the car into the street that led towards the store.
~ ~ ~
Giselle came back late, and the moment she walked through the door, Clara could tell that something was wrong.
"So I'm guessing the audition didn't go well," she said as Giselle stumbled into the apartment, her hair a mess and her makeup smudged all over her face. Her footsteps were heavy, unsteady, and her eyes were red with fresh tears, no matter how much she tried to pretend she hadn't been crying. Giselle might be an actress, but Clara was still her friend.
"I didn't get the role," Giselle rasped out, sinking down on the kitchen chair and raking both hands through her hair. "I tried so hard, and it was all…it was all for nothing…"
Pressing her lips together, she rubbed her hands over her face the way she always did when she wanted to wipe her tears without anyone noticing. "I thought I did well," she said. "They even told me I did well! That's the worst part…if they'd just told me they found someone better, I wouldn't have minded! But you know what they told me?"
Clara frowned where she sat on the table. To be honest, she had a vague idea, and she desperately hoped her suspicion was wrong. "What?"
"They said I'd be perfect for the role." Giselle sniffled and wiped a hand across her nose. "The only problem is that no one would take me seriously, because everyone would only see Giselle Rodrigues the teen star…that's why they rejected me!"
Slipping off the table, Clara pulled her into a hug, not even bothering to tone down her anger. "If that's their attitude, they don't deserve your talent anyway," she said firmly. "Good riddance!"
Giselle sniffled. "I know," she said, burrowing into her sweater. "It's just…this just keeps on happening! Maybe I should just stop trying…maybe I should just…quit acting and—"
"Shh." Pulling away, Clara pressed a hand over her mouth. "You'll find the right role soon, I'm sure. And you've already got your theater thing, right?"
Sniffling again, Giselle nodded and wiped her eyes. "I know, I know. I should be patient, this is how showbiz works." She let out a soft laugh, then rose to her feet, reaching for the freezer. "Can I still have my heartbreak ice cream though?"
Clara's face fell. "I think we're all out," she said. "Someone has to go to the store again."
Groaning, Giselle hit her head against the fridge door. "Just my luck."
"But hey," Clara added, leaning against the fridge beside her, "if we have to go, might as well go together again." She offered a smile. "It's been a while since our last round of 'how many free samples can we grab without getting kicked out,' right?"
Lifting her head off the fridge, Giselle smiled.
"At least ten," she said. "Wanna bet?"
Clara smiled back as she headed for the door.