This time around, Clara didn't forget to text back.
Late at night she found herself checking her schedule, comparing it with the hours Freddie had sent her and texting him about the best time to meet the band. She didn't expect a reply at almost three in the morning; but her message was marked as read almost immediately, and moments later his reply popped up on her screen. It had clearly been typed in a hurry, containing an obvious typo; and another few seconds later he had followed it up with a correction. Clara had laughed it off and gone to sleep at last, and that had been the extent of their interactions so far. They hadn't texted any more after that, aside from a quick confirmation on the day of the meetup.
So when she headed out towards the place Kids After Dark used for band practice, she had no idea what to expect at all.
The place where they practiced looked like a regular apartment building from the outside, dull and gray and a little run down. Some of the windows still had life behind them, but others were broken or so dirty they couldn't have been cleaned in months upon months; the concrete walls had graffiti tags on them, some almost washed off, others clearly brand-new. Abruptly she found herself glad that she hadn't needed to come here after nightfall. Even if she trusted what she'd seen of Freddie so far, this was far from a place to be alone with five young men she didn't know.
Studying the row of doorbells, she glanced down at her phone, double-checking which one she had to ring. But before she could figure it out, hurried footsteps moved up behind her, and Freddie overtook her with a key in his hand.
"You really made it!" he exclaimed, lighting up as he unlocked the door and let her in. "Sorry about the ugly place. It's not that shady once you're inside, I promise!"
Clara let out a laugh. "No judgment," she replied, following him into the building and down a dimly-lit hallway. "I know how it is with finding a space to practice as a band."
"Absolutely! The first time we saw it, we thought someone had a torture chamber in here." He led her around a corner and down a short flight of stairs. "But it's not like you can be picky if you got it through connections after searching for months—"
"Hang on, wait a second." Clara raised an amused hand to cut him off. "You guys thought what about this building?"
"Long story, and in our defense, we were young and stupid." Freddie rubbed a hand over his nose, but he laughed. "This place is harmless, don't worry—here it is."
Taking a deep breath, he unlocked one of the doors and stepped aside to let her in.
Beyond the door lay a bare basement room, naked concrete walls lit by a pair of dusty windows and a single lightbulb on the ceiling. The only furniture were a handful of aging wooden chairs, the kind you also found in school classrooms; but the wall had enough power outlets to plug in a band's worth of equipment, with some trickery and a lot of improvising. Three people were already inside the room, all of them young men around the same age as Freddie, busying themselves with setting up their instruments.
"I brought our poster designer," Freddie announced to the room at large. "You better be on your best behavior or else—" He stopped in his tracks, registering the number of people in the room for the first time. "Where the hell is Dylan?"
"Not here yet," said the guitarist, looking up from his instrument. "Does that surprise you?"
Freddie threw out his hands and started pacing. "I told him to be on time today!" he said. "The one time we have to leave a good impression—where is he?"
"Don't mind him, he's gonna be freaking out for a sec," the guitarist said to Clara, setting down the guitar and crossing over to greet her. "Want me to guide you around in the meantime?"
Clara smiled, sizing him up. So far, every member of the band she had met had been a sight to behold, each in his own way. Freddie, she was starting to suspect, was the most normal-looking of them all. None of them seemed to look remotely like they were part of the same band.
Where Freddie and Dylan each looked awkward in their own way, this guy could very well have been a fashion influencer. He was slim and handsome, with youthful features and round eyes, a dark cloud of curly hair falling into his cheery face. His outfit was as simple as it was stylish, but he had dressed it up with every piece of jewelry he could get his hands on, and somehow it worked perfectly. At a glance Clara would've thought he was too cool for them if not for the odd awkwardness in his posture, the constant spark of mischief in his dark eyes.
"That would be nice," she said, taking a step forward. "Hi, I'm Clara."
"I'm Theo," he answered, taking her head and shaking it like he was making a business deal. "Welcome to our cave. You already know this guy," he continued, motioning to Freddie, who was frantically typing away on his phone. "Let me introduce you to the other two guys who are already here."
The bassist looked up from his instrument, lifting a hand and waving. He was a slight figure, no more than a few inches taller than Clara, with dark brown skin and a pretty face with almost startled-looking wide eyes. Countless braids fell down to his slim shoulders, and of course he, too, had a different style than all his bandmates. The sleeves of his black button shirt were rolled up, exposing a line of writing on his forearm.
"Hello," he said. If it was possible for people to speak in a tiny font, this was exactly what he was doing.
"This is TJ, our bassist," Theo continued, then shot Clara a warning glance. "Be nice to him or else."
"Or else you guys will ruin my life?" Clara guessed. She was too polite to say it, but at a glance it was easy to clock the bassist as the baby of the band.
"Wrong," Theo said with a grin. "He's pre-med, he knows all the ways to ruin you himself."
"But I won't," TJ said quietly, cracking a smile. "'Cause I'm nice."
She grinned back. "Good to know," she said. "What's that tattoo on your arm?"
TJ glanced down, then he held up his arm, excitedly pointing with his other hand. "It's the writing from the One Ring," he said. "One arm to rule them all."
Clara raised her eyebrows. "You're left-handed then?"
"Not really," he replied, his expression turning mischievous. "My left is just my lucky arm."
She turned to Theo. "Should I ask?"
Theo only laughed and steered her along, earning himself a middle finger from TJ. "And this guy is our drummer Clem," he continued, motioning towards the drum set. "Definitely don't mess with him."
"I'll mess you right back," said a deep voice from behind the drums.
Then the drummer rose to his feet, and Clara took an instinctive step back. Rationally she knew he couldn't be much taller than Freddie, but where Freddie was all long limbs and little else, this guy was huge in every sense of the word. Unlike his bandmates, his outfit was nondescript, clearly choosing comfort over style; but the hair falling over one side of his broad, expressionless face was dyed a bright pinkish-red, the only color he had allowed himself at all. Hooded black eyes met with hers, giving her a quick once-over before he shrugged and sat back down.
"Do your posters look like your outfits?" he asked after a pause.
Clara snorted, well aware of the bright colors and deliberately mismatched styles she was wearing. "What?"
"Freddie was pretty loud about your designs." Clem waved a large hand in his direction. "Just wondering if I should question his taste."
Theo looked ready to swoop in and defuse the situation with a joke, but Clara beat him to it by laughing. "You can see that for yourself when I'm done," she said. "But just so you know, I take input from you guys."
Clem nodded, looking satisfied, and turned back to setting up his drums. "And he's used up his words for the week," Theo remarked, turning to leave. "He's a good guy, but he doesn't talk much unless it's about his drums."
Clara blinked, then offered a smile. "Then we can chat sometime," she said casually. "I used to drum too, but I haven't played since high school."
Clem lifted his head, the mildest hint of intrigue sparking in his stoic face. "You used to play an instrument?" Freddie burst out, materializing behind her. "Next thing you'll tell us you used to be in a band too!"
She grinned awkwardly, looking caught. "Just a little bit here and there."
"Look at her," Freddie said to his bandmates. "She's like a whole bag of surprises!"
"You've seen nothing yet," she replied with a smirk. "I have layers like an onion, you know."
"And all of them will make us cry?"
"Only if you try to make me cry first."
He burst out laughing, even though Clara had no idea what she had said that was so funny. But at that moment the door opened, and a grand total of ten minutes late, Dylan finally came waltzing in.
"What up, clowns," he said, greeting them with a casual gesture Clara couldn't make sense of. "What did I miss?"
That was as far as he got before Freddie grabbed his shoulders and shook him, giving him a semi-incoherent speech about good impressions and the importance of being on time.
"Sorry, Ms. Designer," he told Clara at last, letting out a bright laugh. "You don't mind, right? We've already met anyway."
Clara snorted. "As long as you don't show up late to your own gigs, I can't say anything."
Dylan turned back towards Freddie. "Told you."
"You didn't tell me shit! You're lucky she's nice," Freddie retorted, ushering him across the room. "Now get to work! Go! Go!"
Smiling to herself, Clara sat on the floor and watched them finish setting themselves up. The whole time they continued to bicker, squabbling back and forth like a gang of siblings; but she didn't miss the way they were still perfectly attuned to each other, the way they worked together like clockwork. Even if Freddie hadn't told her that they'd been playing together for a long time, she would've been able to tell at a glance.
"You work well together," she said.
They turned. Freddie blinked at her like she had paid him a genuine and personal compliment.
"As in, it's obvious you've been playing together for years," she explained, suddenly feeling self-conscious in her turn. "You've done this a million times and it shows."
Freddie smiled. "It does," he said fondly. "That's what you get for being in a band with your best friends."
The others made good-natured faces. Theo blew him a kiss. Dylan laughed and patted his arm. "Love you too, brother."
Clara watched them with a smile, but deep down she couldn't shake the pang of…something. Weird. She'd always thought she was perfectly happy with Giselle and her siblings and her casual friends from class, but looking at these five, somehow she couldn't shake the sudden feeling that something was missing from her life.
Which was silly. She was happy. And she didn't have the time for a friend group like theirs in the first place.
"And we're ready," Freddie said at last, snapping her out of her thoughts.
Blinking a few times, Clara zoned back in, focusing on the band in front of her. "Awesome!" she said. "You gonna try to play something?"
Dylan cracked a smirk.
"Strap in, designer," he said, adjusting his mic. "You're about to witness Kids After Dark in action."