But in the end, Clara still knew exactly what she was supposed to do. And the more time she spent with Freddie, with idle thoughts of what could be, the more her conscience reminded her of that.
Halloween was close now. She had checked the design with the band and finalized it, and it had been sent out for printing so the guys could hang it up in time. She hoped it would do something for them. Not just because she didn't want her hard work to be in vain, but because they genuinely deserved it.
And after that, back to normal. No excuses. This time for sure.
Or so she kept telling herself, over and over, throwing it at her own mind in the hopes that it would stick. So far, it wasn't sticking. She should've never taken on this job in the first place, never gotten herself to a point where she might get attached—and yet the entire time she hadn't listened to her common sense once, had tuned out the voice of reason that had become so prominent in her head. It wasn't even about time if she was entirely honest with herself. She could make some time for a friend or two if she really wanted to. That part was fine.
No, the problem with Freddie and his band was that they appealed to a part of her that she didn't want to bring back.
Because it wasn't like studying had ever been her whole life the way it was now. Once she had been in bands, dyed her hair fun colors, dreamed of making art and reaching people with it. Her inner circle hadn't been limited to her best friend and her family. She'd had more friends back then, friends who had shared that dream—friends who had ultimately turned out to be no good for her.
And that was the thing. People like that were no good for her. They were a bad influence, teaching her to be irresponsible when she had made a stubborn, deliberate effort to pull herself together for the sake of her family. Reality had caught up with her once before. She wouldn't fall for the illusion that she could outrun it again.
But damn it, she was going to miss this.
Sighing, she leaned back and tried to focus on her work again. Was it just her, or had it been piling up more than usual lately? She couldn't tell anymore. In any case, it seemed to take longer and longer.
And then Halloween arrived, and she knew she had to watch Kids After Dark play. She had promised, after all.
At least she'd been able to anticipate this one, she thought as she pulled the bedsheet ghost costume over her head, adjusting the eye holes. Time was easier to manage if she knew when she wouldn't have any. And silly last-minute Halloween costumes were funnier to wear when people were giving her odd looks.
"Boo," said a voice from behind her.
Clara turned around and found herself staring at the masterfully painted face of a skeleton. It took her several moments and an awkward amount of blinking to look past the makeup and recognize Theo, who grinned back at her with a wave of his hand.
"Boo," she said back, waving her ghost arms and channeling her best spooky voice. "Sick costume," she added in a normal tone.
Theo's grin widened. "I know, right," he said. "Kinda sticky, though."
She made a face, even if he couldn't see it under her bedsheet. "Ew," she replied. "Try not to touch me—wait a minute." She narrowed her eyes at him. "How'd you even know it was me?"
"This guy ratted you out," Theo answered, pointing over his shoulder. Clara followed it with her gaze and found Freddie standing a few feet away, trying to balance his guitar tuning with the billowing sleeves of his Grim Reaper robe.
"You guys really are all in costume," she remarked, her eyes roaming from the guitarists to the rest of the band. "Not many other people are, though. I'm feeling kind of let down."
"What, you want us to not stand out?" Dylan piped in, and she turned towards him and nearly did a double take. He had traded his usual baggy clothes for a well-tailored vampire costume, pale skin made even paler by makeup, sharp eyes underlined in black. If she hadn't known it was him, she would never have recognized him.
"I want people to have fun," she retorted without missing a beat. "Spooky costumes are fun. Where's the problem?"
She opened her mouth to answer, but at that moment TJ and Clem joined them, and the conversation quickly went off the rails from there. Clara was the only one to recognize TJ's costume as a Sandman reference; meanwhile Clem was wearing a regular outfit with only a pair of wolf ears attached to his head. From the look on his face, she doubted he'd been a willing participant in that.
Don't get stuck here, she reminded herself over and over. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.
And then it was showtime.
Clara knew she had seen Kids After Dark play together before. She had thought she was prepared for what she was about to see.
She hadn't been prepared for a thing.
Whatever she had seen of the band performing completely paled to the people they morphed into on stage. All the awkwardness, the clumsiness of their usual selves was gone the moment they stepped into the lights; and in the harsh lighting they felt larger than life, living and breathing only for the performance. Clem was a shadow behind the drums, fierce and burning with a sudden fire. Theo and TJ performed their hearts and souls out, feeling the performance with their whole bodies, locking eyes with the audience. Dylan really had transformed into a whole different person, and not just because of the costume; his natural confidence had turned into a sharp, powerful attitude, and his voice painted pictures in her mind of emotions she had long forgotten.
But even in the middle of all that, her gaze was still drawn to Freddie.
He had walked onto the stage looking gloomy, almost ominous in his cloak, his face half hidden in shadow. But that impression only lasted until his eyes fell on the audience; one glance was enough to make his whole face light up, and he spent the whole performance beaming, overflowing with joy. The others were skilled performers, Clara had to give them that. And Freddie barely seemed aware of what he was doing; he was making it all up as he went along, but somehow it worked, all because he looked so breathtakingly, overwhelmingly happy.
And the audience was picking up on it, Clara noted with pride. After the first song there were scattered cheers. After the second, people were starting to get into it. By the end of the short set they looked just as caught up in it as Clara herself felt, and she knew the band could feel it too.
Throwing back his hood, Freddie stepped forward, his flushed face flooded by the bright lights. Catching his breath, he formed a heart with his hands and laughed, messy strands of hair falling into his face and sticking to his forehead. "Thank you!" he shouted into the mic. "You guys have been the best live audience we've ever had. We're Kids After Dark and we will be back! I love you all so much!"
He really meant it, Clara thought as she watched him get dragged off the stage by Theo and Dylan. He might not know these people, and he might never see them again; but in that moment he really did love everyone in the audience with all his heart and entire being. A born performer, she mused, no—a born artist. Someone who didn't just enjoy performing but lived for it, lived for sharing his art with others and, however briefly, touching their hearts.
One day they'd be playing the big stages with that, she could sense it. One day their love for their audience would be returned, and people would be tripping over themselves, losing their minds over the chance to see them live. And she…she had the opportunity to witness it all from the start. From absolute zero.
Was she really going to miss out on that?
She knew she might regret this decision—no, she would regret it for sure. The past few weeks had already been stressful enough. She shouldn't prolong it. But…
But if she cut ties with this band, if she missed out on this, she knew for a fact she would regret it forever.
Her heart had finally won over her common sense. She didn't want to let go of this. If anything she wanted to help this band further, see it grow, help it reach the audience she knew it deserved.
And as for the consequences for herself…
She'd kick herself for this thought later, but for now she decided she could manage herself.
~ ~ ~
Freddie stumbled off the stage, his heart racing, unable to stop the smile on his face.
They had done it. They had really done it. They had played in front of an audience, one that was ten times bigger than the ones they were used to, and people had liked it. And sure, not everyone there had been there for them. But it was still the biggest live audience they'd ever had.
"We did it," he burst out, grabbing Theo by the shoulders and spinning him around, careful not to accidentally smudge his makeup. "See? Everything turned out great! You were scared for nothing!"
Smiling back, Theo reached up and ruffled Freddie's hair, his entire body relaxing like he was taking a breath again after holding it for the past twenty minutes. "Hey, I know I'm great," he replied. "That's not how stage fright works, though."
"Your stage fright can eat shit," Freddie shot back, but he couldn't keep the warmth out of his voice. "You can tell it that this is great! It's goddamn awesome! This has been the best day of my life!"
Snorting, TJ placed a hand on his shoulder as he sidestepped them both. "Even better than the day of your wedding?"
"Like I'll ever get married!" Freddie said at once. "I'll be the best man at your weddings and die as a lonely bachelor before I'm forty."
"You? C'mon, dude, you could marry anybody!" Loosening the collar of his shirt, Dylan reached for a bottle of diet coke in the cooler and downed half of it at once. "The rest of us have to look for brides, man. You got twice the options!"
"Am I…interrupting anything?"
Letting go of Theo, Freddie spun on the spot to find Clara standing in the doorframe to the rudimentary green room, out of costume now, the bedsheet draped over her shoulders like a cape. Briefly, his mind flooded with panic, wondering how much she had overheard. But if she had heard any of their conversation, she didn't show any reaction to it.
"Nope!" Theo declared before she could back out again. "Come in, we have drinks. Where's your costume?"
She cracked an apologetic half-smile. "I couldn't see a thing walking around in the dark," she admitted. "Still here, though. Just a cape now."
"You got bitten by a radioactive ghost," TJ piped in, "and now you're, hm…"
She cracked a grin. "Ghost-Girl? Spider-Ghost?"
"In any case she can walk through walls," said Dylan.
"And scare people," Clara added with a laugh. "You know what, I actually like that."
The others laughed. Freddie himself only looked at her. Their poster designer, their friendly ghost who had actually brought people to them. Sure, there had been other factors at this event too, other bands even. But those would all play later. Without her work, this many people would've never bothered to show up.
"But that's not actually why I'm here now," Clara continued, and everyone sobered up. "I just wanted to say, if you guys need more help…"
The words took a few seconds to sink in. "Like more posters?" Freddie asked.
"For example!" she replied. "Or better promotion online, or anything like that." She brushed her hair out of her face, hand resting against her head. "I'm, uh, happy to help you out more."
Freddie's heart skipped a beat.
They would need that, he knew, or else this band would never take off. One poster design had been good, but they needed to hold that audience now, expand on it, make sure people didn't forget about them. Clearly he hadn't been doing a very good job. But—
"But you're busy," he protested.
Just for the barest of moments, guilt flickered across her face. Or maybe he was imagining it; it moved too quickly, too smoothly for him to catch, barely a blink of an eye before she crossed her arms and smiled like an imp. "Nothing I can't handle," she said, and he had no choice but to believe her. "I just want to see you guys grow and I feel like I could help here, you know?"
She really meant it.
Freddie could almost believe it himself. Part of his mind was still trying to convince him, irrationally, that this was all a joke or she was doing this out of pity—but that would make no sense. No one had asked her to keep helping them. No one had asked her to pretend to care about the band after the job was done. If she chose to stay, there was no reason except that she truly did see something in the five of them—that she meant it.
They really, really, really needed someone like that in their lives. A believer. Someone who wanted to build this band up as much as they themselves did.
"But we can't pay you," Clem warned her, and his heart sank again. "We can't afford a full PR manager."
"Like I was ever going to ask for money!" she replied with honest indignation in her voice. "I'm not doing this for money. I'm doing it because I'd regret not doing it."
The others blinked at her.
"That's all," she added in a small voice.
Freddie couldn't help it; a laugh escaped him, half shaky, half bitter and more than a little helpless. "Look at us," he said, gesturing around them. "We're terrible news! And still, here you are." He dropped his hand. "Aren't you scared we'll drag you down into hell with us?"
But Clara only laughed. "You guys don't seem that bad to me," she said lightly. "And hey, if some demons show up, I can always handle myself."
She had done enough for them already. She had done more than Freddie could've ever asked for, ever hoped for. And still here she was.
Gratitude washed over him, crashing down on him like a tidal wave. Affection swelled up inside him, overwhelming, all-consuming, until all he could do was stride forward and pull her into a crushing hug.
Startled, she stumbled a little under his weight, but before he could let go again she caught herself. Surprisingly strong arms wrapped around his back. "Thank you," he said, tightening his hold, lost for anything else to say. "Thank you so much!"
Leaning forward, Clara balanced him out and reached up a hand to pat his back. "No big deal," she said, but he could hear the smile in her voice. "What about the rest of you guys though, you okay with that?"
Freddie lifted his head. Letting go, he stepped back and turned to face his bandmates.
The guys exchanged a glance.
"Of course you are," Dylan answered, striding forward and extending his hand. "You did a great job here."
Clara took it. "It's a deal then?"
"Deal." Dylan grinned like a Cheshire cat. "Clara Hightower…welcome to the hell train."