Soundcheck is done, and they’ve just over an hour and a half to showtime. Bob’s tucked in the corner of the dressing room, tuning his old acoustic. Darren went to get a snack fifteen minutes ago, saying he’d be back soon, but Greta heard the muted screech of fangirls from front of house a little while after he left so she doesn’t expect him to make it back alive, not in the next half hour anyway.
Emily’s lying on her stomach on one of the couches, face half-smooshed into a cushion, nodding at intervals with an ear to her phone. Greta thinks about crossing the room for a surprise attack, sprawling across her back for a cuddle. But then Emily’s face breaks into a smile, and the gaze in her eyes goes soft and far away, as if no one else is in the room. Greta turns away, a little jealous at the idea of a love waiting for you at home, on the other end of a line.
She sets herself before the vanity instead and checks her reflection critically. Her hair has been up in a ponytail all afternoon, and she pulls at the elastic roughly, sighing in relief as her hair falls loose around her face. She tips her head forwards and musses her hair with her fingertips. When she peeks out from behind the curtain of hair, Alex is beside her, his face level with hers in the mirror.
“Whoah, you scared me,” she says, pulling away, startled.
Alex laughs. “I was passing by, looked in and thought to myself, Who is this golden haired goddess? I must meet her!” He pauses, before continuing in a sad voice, “But it was only you.” He touches her lightly on the tip of her nose with one finger, smile on his face.
Greta wrinkles her nose and crosses her eyes, looking down at the spot where his finger had been.
“The golden goddess acknowledges your presence. What can she do you for?”
She lets her face relax into its normal expression, before smiling up at him.
“This mere mortal only wished to touch your magical tresses,” Alex says. “He wouldn’t dream of imposing more than that.”
Greta shakes her head, letting her hair fly up to brush his face. She giggles when she hears him take a deep breath.
“Seriously though, you guys are on in half an hour,” Greta starts to say, but she stops and shivers when he put his hands, strangely cold, on both sides of her neck, smoothing a path up along its sides until he’s pressing the soft pads of his fingers against her scalp. “Uh, shouldn’t you be doing vocal exercises and whatever rock god-like things you do before - ” She breaks off from admonishing him by groaning, and saying instead, “But don’t stop doing that, whatever you’re doing right now.”
His fingers are releasing the tension. It feels great. And Alex is pressed up against her back. Even better.
“I just wanted to spend some time with you,” he says simply. “Hey, bend forward a little - ”
Greta ducks, and Alex slides his hands back down her neck to knead the muscles of her shoulders. He bends down, mouth by her ear, and Greta hears that intake of breath heralding speech. She holds her own breath.
“Has anyone seen Alex? Sam’s – oh hey. Alex is in here molesting Greta, Sam.”
The dressing room door smacks open against the wall, and Alex stands up straight, and moves away from Greta. He keeps one hand on the back of Greta’s neck though.
Darren is standing in the doorway, sipping from a juice box, grinning.
“Sam’s been looking all over for you, Greenwald,” he says. “You’re on in twenty.”
“Gotta go, duty calls. My band needs me.” Alex is still rubbing small circles along the skin of her shoulder.
“I can’t compete against a whole band,” Greta says, half turning around on the stool. Alex takes a step back, and she hears herself saying, “But you should come by earlier next time. If you wanted to spend some time, I mean.”
She wishes straight away that she’d kept her mouth shut. It’s the occasional loneliness of tour speaking, her silly crush. But Alex just salutes her, before saying softly, “Your wish is my command, goddess.”
Greta smiles to herself as she watches his reflection in the mirror as he leaves. She grabs a hairbrush from the case and starts brushing out the kinks made by his clever fingers. She’s humming to herself, something light and sunny that Chris was playing from his laptop earlier, when she looks up and catches Bob’s gaze over one shoulder. He gives her a long measured look, and Greta stops humming and closes her eyes, squeezing them tight as the brush’s teeth catch on a knot, tugging at her scalp sharply.
Two hours down, eight to go. Streaks of light flash past, setting the beat of the road, but Greta doesn’t feel tired at all, doesn’t want to go to sleep. She’d been restless all day, feeling snappy and disconnected with everyone. And it’s somehow worse now, with everyone bar one asleep or on their own bus, and it’s too late to ring home.
“Bobby, did you hear me? I’m bored.”
Bob’s been systematically working his way through her pile of books, from bottom to top, so they’re never reading the same book at the same time. He’s been engrossed in his current choice for the last hour, sitting the book flat on his lap so she can’t see the cover.
“Well, do something then. Go take a picture of something.”
Greta rolls her eyes, and sticks her tongue out at him, even though he’s yet to look up at her. “I don’t want any more pictures of ‘the bus as bomb site’.”
“That’s never stopped you before,” Bob points out. He finally looks up from his book, one eyebrow raised.
“That’s a filthy lie,” Greta says absentmindedly, already reaching for her camera. “Pull a face for me, Bob. I could take a million pictures of you. You’re my muse.”
It’s Bob’s turn to roll his eyes, but then he gives her an open-mouthed, teeth clenched, a put-upon smile. Greta snaps one shot after another, fiddling with the setting after the first few to compensate for the low lighting. Bob indulges her by pulling a series of faces, each sillier than the last, each more enthusiastic.
“Ooh, you’re a tiger,” she growls with a sing-song lilt, when Bob closes his book with a snap and crawls towards her over the floor, a slow deliberate slink.
“Rrraw,” Bob says when he’s on his knees in front of her. He quirks the corner of his mouth into a smile, and raises one hand in a limp claw.
Greta throws her head back in laughter. Bob closes the distance between them, and kisses her cheek just to the right of her ear. She keeps her head raised, turning a little more to her left, and Bob buries his face in her shoulder and hugs her tight. Greta tightens her fingers around the sides of her camera, surprised by the sudden affection.
“What, I don’t get a hug in return?” Bob says, voice muffled by her shoulder. Greta puts the camera gently down on the ground beside her, and eases back against the back of the couch. Bob follows her cue and lies down beside her, one arm still around her waist. Greta blinks, her eyes burning hot for a moment, and she closes them and leans into Bob, squeezing him into a hug.
“There, a real Greta Salpeter hug. I have to ration them, otherwise they’ll lose their value.”
“I heard they go for two hundred Canadian on the black market,” he jokes. “Thanks for the freebie.”
“I love you,” Greta blurts out. She’s worried that Bob might think she’s still bantering with him, but she smiles when Bob raises his head from her shoulder and says seriously, “I know. Me too.”
Greta stands in the shadows at the side of the stage, watching as Phantom Planet stirs up the steadily growing crowd already on the floor. She folds her arms and taps her foot in time with Jeff’s drums, and waves to a girl on the very far left of the stage who grins at her all through ‘Do The Panic’, even though every other fan on the barrier is screaming and clutching at the stage for Alex and Ryan. But as the lights in the theatre brighten at the end of their set, there’s a definite movement for the exits. Greta turns to go back to the dressing room, and Bob is behind her, staring glumly out into the audience.
Greta waves to that one fan again, now comfortably centre of the barrier, during their own set. It’s still a good show.
Just before they pull away from the parking lot, ready to rattle off into the night, to the next city, Alex hops onto their bus.
“I brought hot chocolate,” he says, shaking the canister in his hand, eyes wide and biting his lips. Greta pauses for a long while, as if considering whether to turn down this paltry offer.
“Okay, and our last packet of mini marshmallows,” he says, bringing out his other hand from behind his back.
She grins at him then and steps aside for him to squeeze past in the narrow aisle, his denim-clad hips brushing past hers for a moment.
“You drive a hard bargain. I had to pry the marshmallows from Sam’s fingers personally,” Alex grumbles. “He was still crying when I left the bus.”
But there’s a smile on his face as he fills the kettle with water, grabbing mugs from the cabinet with practised ease. Greta sits on the banquette and watches him as he makes up their drinks, humming and shaking his head to some invisible music.
“Thank you,” she tells him when he hands her the steaming mug, and then she pats the space next to her. He slides beside her, closer than the seat requires, and she doesn’t say anything, only leans in to his side. She takes a small sip of the chocolate and looks at him over the rim of the mug.
“I smell hot chocolate,” Chris says, peering in around the sliding door. “Hey Alex. Wanna come play Mario Kart with me and Darren?”
“No, we’re fine,” Alex says, but he slides an anxious glance at Greta.
“You think I don’t play enough rounds with them already? I could use the break,” she says, and he grins wide.
“You just can’t bear to be away from me,” he teases. He grabs her hand in his, their fingers alternating, and says, “I won’t let you leave me either.”
Bob ducks through the low doorway into the kitchenette. “You have hot chocolate,” he says, and Alex says, “Are you kids really that deprived of chocolatey goodness on this bus?” He nods to the canister on the counter and says, “Help yourself, Morris.”
“Nah, I came in for a beer,” Bob says. He twists off the top and settles into the booth across from them. Alex leans sideways, resting his head on Greta’s shoulder. There’s a tense moment, before Bob says easily, “Are you and your band thinking of pranking Panic’s last show? Zack’s already warned us off, but Greta and I are not afraid of the consequences.”
Alex smirks, and replies, “Yeah, us too, definitely. What do your ideas involve?”
Bob leans forwards, voice low and conspiratorial as he details their ingenious plan. Alex nods in the right places, even makes a few suggestions. They do a complicated, ridiculous handshake at the end, sealing their secret complicity, and Bob says, “You're a good man, Alex Greenwald.”
He looks straight at Greta, then he rises to his feet, stretches obnoxiously in the small space, and says, “Time for me to kick Chris’ ass at Mario Kart, I think.”
After Bob slides the dividing door closed, Alex goes quiet, quiet enough that Greta can hear the furious clicking of buttons being pressed, the occasional bout of swearing as the boys battle each other in the lounge.
“What are you thinking?” Greta says. Alex’s breaths are huffing across the skin of her shoulder, warm cold warm cold.
“Just a few more days left on tour,” he says. “I – you - ”
Kiss me, Greta thinks. They’ve spent the whole tour dancing around each other. Kiss me now.
“Yeah,” she says. “End of summer camp blues.”
She turns to glance at him, and this time Alex pulls back a little to face her. They’re staring at each other now, Alex’s eyes serious and his mouth open a little, just across from hers.
Don’t kiss me, her treacherous mind suddenly thinks. Only a few more days, and it’ll be goodbye for goodness knows how long. She shouldn’t have gotten so attached to him. They've been touring for three years now, around the states over and over, ducking the crushes on and of cute boys over and over. Her last relationship was long-distance, and took its toll. Don’t kiss me.
Maybe Alex can read the indecision on her face, because all he says is, “I’ll miss you.” He settles back down, laying his head on her lap. Her hand moves to his head immediately, a routine that she’ll have to forget. “Are you gonna miss me, Greta?”
She cards the fine strands of his hair with her fingers, smiling at the rumble of satisfaction Alex makes. “You’re like a cat we can take on tour,” she teases him, buying time. He humours her with a few faint meows, more purring noises as she scratches lightly behind his ears with her nails.
“Yeah, I will,” she tells him finally.
He murmurs, “Good. We have to make friendship bracelets and promise to write each other every week, okay?” He’s sounding very far away now, drifting into sleep. Greta keeps one hand still on his hair, the other over his hand resting on his tummy, and falls asleep herself to the even sound of his breaths: a sharp inhalation, a deep gush out.
When Greta wakes up, the bus is dark. She’s lying on her side, resting against the leather backrest, spooning Alex. Someone’s draped a blanket over them, a scratchy blue and grey striped wool throw. It’s Bob’s, and it smells like popcorn from when they watched movies through the night, two nights ago; Greta’s legs stretched out over Bob’s, both of them covered from chin to toes.
Alex mumbles in his sleep and turns restlessly, until he has his arms crossed over the small of back, snuffling into the side of her neck. Greta closes her eyes and falls back into sleep to the hum of the road under them, the small comfort of these last hours.