Pete is contemplating his sacred duty. This requires a lot of concentration. He’s psyching himself up. He’s getting in the zone.
He’s nearly jumping out of his skin when someone barrels through the back door.
“Brian, you still here?” It’s Frank. He flicks the light on and spots Pete on the couch. “Pete,” he says, wrinkling his nose in confusion. “What are you doing here?”
Pete takes a deep breath. “My life has reached its pinnacle,” he says. Frank just looks at him, clearly not appreciating the the gravity of the situation. “Brian’s letting me close the store tonight,” he clarifies.
Frank’s eyebrows nearly hit his hairline. “Big responsibility, Pete.”
Pete nods, feeling the weight of managerial tasks settle around his shoulders. “But Brian’s rules are extremely simple,” he says, as much to reassure himself as Frank. “Count money twice. Don’t fucking touch his shit.”
Frank nods, but he looks skeptical. Pete isn’t worried, though. Pete’s been preparing for this moment for years. He has totally got this.
“Don’t screw it up,” Frank sing-songs, sketching a salute in Pete’s direction. Then he’s gone, leaving Pete alone, once again, with the mantle of responsibility. Pete sighs and moves towards the desk. If he’s going to count money twice, he’d better get started with counting it once.
He’s just totalled $9,104 when he hears the insistent tap tap tapping on the front door. He waits, frozen in his chair for a moment, hoping that whoever it is will take a hint from the fact that the lights are out and the doors are locked. They don’t.
“Fuck,” Pete mutters, and makes his way to the door. His eyes widen when he sees who’s on the other side, and he fumbles to unlock the door. He pulls Mikey inside, glancing both ways down the street outside, but the sidewalk seems deserted. “Jesus, Mikeyway. What are you doing out past curfew?”
Mikey just raises his eyebrows and, okay, fair point.
“Did you want something, though? Cause I already closed out the registers.”
Mikey shakes his head, one corner of his mouth lifting slightly. “I just couldn’t watch another episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Gerard is, like, obsessed.”
Pete nods, smiling. Something about Mikey just makes him smile. Mikey wanders down the center aisle, flipping aimlessly through the rows of CDs. Pete trails after him. Mikey pulls out an album seemingly at random. “This is awesome,” he declares.
Pete sees that it’s Ziggy Stardust. “Oh, yeah,” he says. “Totally epic. Have you heard it on vinyl, though?”
Mikey shakes his head.
“Oh, man,” Pete says. “You have to. It’s, like, a whole different experience. I know it’s passe or whatever to still be hung up on analog, but I swear it’s how these albums were meant to be heard.”
Mikey’s just listening, his eyes tracking Pete’s hands as he waves them around for emphasis. The weight of his attention is kind of intoxicating.
“We have it,” Pete says, a little quieter. “If you want to—” He breaks off, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the vinyl section. Suddenly, Mikey’s answer seems strangely important.
“Yeah,” Mikey says, nodding and breaking out that almost smile of his again.
Pete grins wide. “Awesome,” he says and scurries off to retrieve the record. He pulls it out of its sleeve and sets it on the turntable very carefully. If he fucked up a record and Ray ever found out, Pete knows his death would be slow and painful. He drops the needle and can’t help smiling in anticipation at the scratchy hiss that comes over the speakers for a couple of seconds before the opening notes of Five Years hit the air.
Mikey hops up to sit on the counter. He closes his eyes, nodding slightly to the beat. He looks serene in the way that Mikey is always serene, but somehow more. Pete is suddenly struck by his very Mikey-ness, and it’s like he’s frozen. He can’t do anything but stare, taking in the scene kid haircut that’s about as ridiculous as Pete’s own, the adorable glasses, Mikey’s lanky body, clothed in skinny jeans and an Anthrax t-shirt that looks about one laundry cycle away from disintegrating completely.
Then Mikey opens his eyes and totally catches Pete staring. Pete feels heat in his cheeks. Mikey shoots him an amused look and gestures with his head towards the spot on the counter next to him like are you coming or what?
Just like that, Pete’s unfrozen. He jumps up on the counter and settles in next to Mikey. Mikey scoots in close and leans against Pete like it’s no big thing, like that’s just what Mikeys and Petes do. And maybe it is, because Pete relaxes into Mikey’s side before he can even think about it. He leans his head against Mikey’s shoulder, and they just listen for a while.
The moment feels perfect, like destiny. Pete has never been one to just let destiny take its course, though. He’s more a man of action. He can feel the need to do something, to take the potential of this moment and turn it into reality, buzzing under his skin.
As Starman starts up, he lifts his head off of Mikey’s shoulder. “Do you think the story’s already written?” he asks.
Mikey turns to look at him. Pete’s throat goes dry. He clears it and licks his lips. Mikey’s eyes definitely track the movement. It’s not much, but Pete never did need much encouragement. He forges ahead.
“Or do you think a bold and courageous act can change the course of history?”
Before Mikey can answer, Pete leans forward and presses their lips together. He pulls back quickly, searching Mikey’s face, hoping he hasn’t just royally fucked up.
Mikey breaks into a grin. A real one, not the quirk of lips that normally passes for a smile from Mikey Way. “Finally,” he says.
Pete laughs in sheer relief and happiness. “Finally?”
“Been waiting for you to catch up,” Mikey says, rolling his eyes.
Pete doesn’t even know what to say to that, so he leans in to kiss Mikey again. They’re both still grinning, so at first it’s awkward. Then Mikey nips at Pete’s lower lip. Pete lets out a little moan, and they’re making out for real.
Mikey kisses like there’s no such thing as consequences, exploring Pete’s mouth with enthusiastic abandon. It’s the easiest thing in the world to open up and let him in.
Pete’s just thinking about dragging Mikey back to the break room when the music stops, side one spinning into silence. Mikey pulls back, and Pete can’t help making a little whine of protest.
“I should probably go,” Mikey says, biting his lip and not pulling any farther away from Pete.
“Or you could stay,” Pete says.
Mikey sighs a little and shakes his head. He takes his hands back from where they’ve found their way around Pete’s waist. “Gee’s probably—” He makes a non-expression that tells Pete absolutely nothing about what Gerard is probably, but he’s got some ideas.
“Okay,” he says. He hops down from the counter and offers his hand to Mikey. “Walk you out?” And if he drags his feet a little as they walk back down the center aisle hand in hand, well, he’s only human. When they get to the door, Pete tries to be cool, but that’s never been his forte. He can hear the note of worry in his voice as he asks, “See you tomorrow?”
Mikey rolls his eyes, but it’s somehow fond. He leans in and kisses Pete again, briefly, but like he means it. “Duh,” he says. And then he’s gone.
Pete locks the door behind him and leans back against the glass. He’s pretty sure he’s got little cartoon hearts in his eyes. Then he remembers. Sacred duty. Brian is trusting him. He books it back to the office with a spring in his step.
Pete tries to recapture his earlier gravitas, but he can’t help grinning like Brian’s office is the greatest thing he’s ever seen. He cracks open a celebratory beer—that probably counts as touching Brian’s shit, but it’s just one little beer, right?—and sits back down at the desk. The cash is still stacked neatly where he left it. He can’t resist spinning around in the desk chair a couple of times, but then he really gets down to business. If he happens to be counting to the beat of David Bowie running through his head, well, great music never hurt anybody.
The second count comes out the same as the first, and Pete raises his arms above his head in triumph. He’s fishing around in the desk drawer for an extra rubber band when he finds the contract.
“Music Town franchise agreement?” he reads out loud. The empty office does not offer an explanation for this fuckery. Brian hates Music Town. Brian thinks Music Town is responsible for everything from the dumbing down and corporatization of rock and roll to starving children in developing nations. This shit has Mitch’s grubby, music-hating fingerprints all over it.
Someone has to stop this. Clearly, Pete is that someone. Destiny hasn’t steered him wrong yet tonight. Tonight is special. Tonight is a night when wrongs can be righted. Pete nods decisively. He puts the cash, all $9,104 of it, in an envelope and stuffs it into his pocket.
He feels the hand of destiny guiding him as he gets on his bike and drives to Atlantic City. He feels it as he chooses a casino, as he walks through the rows of slot machines, as he chooses a game. He definitely feels it when he rolls a seven at craps. Destiny is totally with him. He’s going to save the store and make Brian so proud. He knows this for a fact. Right up until he rolls a two.
He watches nine thousand dollars vanish before his eyes with the calm that accompanies total horror. “I wonder if I’ll be held responsible for this,” he muses. But his fellow gamblers are no longer listening.
Pete is a dead man. Brian is going to murder him, and no jury in the world will convict. Pete accepts this fact, and he’s just thankful he got to kiss Mikey Way before his number came up.
The store is quiet in the morning. The neon signs on the roof and the storefront are all dark. There’s no music through the P.A. Not until Patrick or Brian shows up with the key anyway. The store, the store, the store. Even hanging around outside alone with the dark windows reflecting back the nine a.m. sun, it’s better than Brendon’s grody, lonely apartment.
Brendon loves the store. He loves turning the sound system on, putting the drawers in the registers, and the paycheck he stretches to cover rent, Ramen and guitar strings. He could take or leave the job itself. Helping people find their totally boring Lite FM CDs and stocking the shelves is whatever. But the store has old-school listening booths with turntables in them for the vinyl. The floors are neon carpeting and painted cement, and the shelves and walls are full of art and music packed up so you can take it home with you if you want.
He doesn’t like all the people he works with, either. He doesn’t dislike any of them, exactly, but he doesn’t think Lindsey has ever said two words to him, and Gabe’s kind of creepy sometimes. But most of them are cool, and one of his favorites is walking down the sidewalk toward him, swinging the store keys in one hand.
“Patrick!” he says, holding out one of the two cups of Starbucks in his hands. “Brought you a present, Mister Five Years!” It’s a pretty major luxury in his life, but Patrick deserves it.
The opening manager stops and waves Brendon over. He hops up from his seat on the curb, still juggling both coffees. He joins Patrick at the mouth of the alley by the side of the store and bumps his shoulder into Patrick’s.
“Look,” Patrick says on a sigh as he takes his coffee. There’s a motorcycle in the alley where Pete always parks it, a ratty Honda with a collapsing pillion seat and a purple and white spray paint job that Gerard did after Pete begged him for a week. It’s not that unusual for the bike to be there. Sometimes Pete leaves it there overnight and catches a ride with Brian or Frank. Usually he doesn’t sleep on it, though.
Patrick and Brendon approach cautiously. Patrick murmurs, “Pete?” as he reaches out to shake the shoulder that’s hunched over the handlebars. Pete shifts and mumbles a little, but doesn’t wake up.
“Pete!” Brendon tries, rapping hard on the top of Pete’s white helmet. That gets him. Pete sits up, scrunches his face and yawns, cradling one of those plastic cups casinos give you for the slots between his thighs.
“Patrick,” Pete says, blinking and shaking his arms out. “Little Brendon, hi.”
“Rough night?” Brendon asks, bouncing forward on his toes. He can’t help it, he likes Pete’s stories.
“Something happened to me,” Pete says, straightening his helmet and then hefting the front end of the bike. He knocks the kickstand up and looks up at Brendon. “In Atlantic City.”
“You went to Atlantic City?” Patrick adjusts his hat, crosses his arms over his chest, and grimaces. Brendon bounces some more and takes a sip of his coffee.
“Did you win?” he asks. Pete shakes his head.
“No,” he says emphatically. “No, I did not win. So, I want you guys to know, right now, before Brian finds out, that you, you two right here, you’re my favorites.”
“That’s a lie,” Brendon says immediately. “You love Gabe more than me.”
“No,” Pete says, as he kicks the bike to life. “I love you all the very best.” He toes off, pushing the bike a few feet before he hits the throttle, and then they’re left stumbling after him.
“How much?” Patrick calls after him. “Pete! How much did you lose?”
But Pete’s gone. Brendon looks over at Patrick, who’s clutching his hat to his head with one hand and sucking his coffee down with the other, like it’s the elixir of life. Or like he’s Gerard or something.
“Shit,” Patrick says succinctly. “Shit, shit, shit.”
“Shit?” Brendon asks as Patrick shoots towards the door with the keys. “What do you mean, shit, Patrick?”
“Brian had Pete close the store last night.” Patrick fumbles the lock and sighs heavily. “Pete closed the store, and he went to Atlantic City, and now he has no money.”
“Ooooh,” Brendon says, drawing it out into a good six or seven syllables, and giggles nervously. “He’s fucked.”
“He’s totally fucked,” Patrick agrees and tries another key. “Fucked, completely.”
“Hey, hey, hey, shh,” Brendon says. He gives his bouncing muscles another workout and plasters his mile-wide “boss” grin on his face as the busted-out old Mustang rattles up to the curb. “Brian.”
The two of them turn and smile.
“That’s creepy,” Brian says as he shoves past them to unlock the door.
“You’re wearing a tie,” Brendon says, frowning slightly to convey his disapproval. “That’s creepy.”
“Fuckin’ Rex Manning day,” Brian mutters, and Brendon is forced to forgive him for his uncustomary professional attire. Ugh, Rex, Rex, Rex. It’s been nothing but Rex for a week. They file inside, and there are cardboard cutouts, posters, and CD’s plastered with his plasticky face piled up at the register, waiting to be hung and stocked. Dozens of Rexes stare blankly at Brendon, all wearing the same too-wide smile that had graced the singer’s “Why yes, I am queer as a three dollar bill!” People cover less than a month before. Not that anyone was shocked, Brendon thinks. More people were probably surprised about Clay Aiken. Brendon can’t help it, he starts singing that fucking song that he hates but can’t get out of his head.
“Say no more, mon amour, lips are for kissin’ baby, je t’adore!” he sings over the ringing phone as Patrick retreats to the back, presumably to have his Pete-induced stroke in peace.
“Brendon,” Brian snaps. “Phone.”
“Kay, kay, kay.” Brendon grabs for it and chirps, “Empire Records, open ‘til midnight, this is Brendon.”
“Pete? No, haven’t seen him. Who, Pete? Naw, Brian, come on.” Patrick’s running it over and over in his head, wishing to god he wasn’t such an awful liar.
“Practicing?” Brendon flings himself onto the couch and flicks idly through an issue of Kerrang that Mikey must’ve left lying around—is that Blur on the cover?
“Don’t fuck with Mikey’s magazines.” Patrick says, swallowing the last of the coffee. He can’t even remember now what it was. Maybe a latte? “That issue’s probably older than you.”
“Is not,” Brendon says, sticking his bottom lip out and completely destroying any notion that he might be grown-up. “I remember Blur.”
“You remember Oasis,” Patrick says, and then he looks up. “Wait, who was on the phone?”
“Bank,” Brendon says. “Then Mitch. You think Frank’ll bring donuts today?”
“Shit,” Patrick hisses as Brian slams through the double doors from the store to the break room with both hands and beelines it to the count out room. “Probably. Or Gerard will. It’s Rex Manning day after all.” He tries to sound natural, and Brendon just nods as they both watch the door raptly.
Patrick can practically hear Brian’s blood pressure rising in the vehement “God fucking dammit, Pete!” that rings out from the count out room. He’s pretty sure the guys at The Academy heard that. Across town.
Brian stands in the door frame, both arms crossed and stares them down. Brendon breaks first, and it’s either sheer brass balls or complete idiocy that makes him say “What’s wrong, Brian?” Patrick’s not saying a word.
Frank pulls up to the Way house and hits the horn a couple of times. Gerard comes bounding out the front door with an uncharacteristic amount of energy for this time of morning—too much energy for Gerard for any time that might be labeled “morning” actually.
“Happy Rex Manning Day!” he announces, aiming a manic grin in Frank’s direction. He tosses his bag on the floorboard and unrolls a banner that reads Welcome Rex Manning!. Frank’s not sure how Rex Manning will feel about the dancing vampires dressed like extras from his first music video since coming out, but Frank loves them.
“That’s awesome, Gee!” he says. “When did you have time to do that?”
Gerard shrugs. “Couldn’t really sleep last night.”
Frank frowns as Gerard carefully rerolls the banner. Having trouble sleeping is not exactly a new thing for Gerard. With the banner out of the way, Frank finally gets a good look at Gerard. He blinks. Gerard’s Rise Against t-shirt looks clean, relatively new, and, most impressively, untouched by paint splatters. His jeans, which Frank is pretty sure actually belong to Mikey, are shrink wrapped to his thighs. His hair is shiny and clean, and he’s wearing eyeliner that makes his eyes look bright and startled.
Frank clears his throat and shifts in his seat while Gerard gets in, tucking the rolled banner carefully down beside his feet. He pulls away from the curb as soon as Gerard clicks his seatbelt into place.
Gerard reaches into his bag and pulls out a CD. Out of the corner of his eye, Frank sees that it’s Simply Marvelous, Rex Manning’s new album. Personally, Frank thinks the music is shit—not that he’d ever say so to Gerard—but he can’t help but admire the sheer brass balls it had to take to put a shout out to his Disney Channel days in the title of his new album.
Gerard heaves out a huge breath. “This is it,” he says. “Today is the day I offer myself to Rex Manning.”
Frank’s hands tighten on the steering wheel. “Offer yourself?” he says, raising his eyebrows. “What is this, a Victorian novel?” He pitches his voice high and girly. “Oh, Mr. Manning! Won’t you accompany me to the ball?”
Gerard swats at him. “Shut up!”
“Hey, don’t hit the driver, asshole!” Frank says, but he stops teasing.
“Seriously, though, Frankie. Do you think Rex is the right person for my first time?” He looks at Frank through his lashes.
Frank doesn’t think so even a little bit, but he’s too chicken shit to say so. He makes himself smile. “Sure, Gee. I mean, Rex Manning.”
Gerard grins brightly at him. “Right. Rex Manning.” He looks at the CD cover for a second before kissing Rex’s stupid face.
Frank grabs the CD from him. “No, Gee. Like this!” he says, and licks the cover.
“Get your tongue off my album!” Gerard protests.
“Bitch, bitch, bitch,” Frank answers, but he tosses the CD back at Gerard.
They pull up to the store a few minutes later. As they’re about to open the back door, Patrick comes out, cutting them off. “You can’t go in there right now,” he says. “I have to tell you—” He cuts himself off and gestures vaguely towards the side of the building. Frank shrugs, and they follow.
“Hey, Congratulations, Mr. Five Years!” Gerard says. He pulls a hand-drawn card out of his bag and hands it to Patrick. Then he wraps an arm around Patrick’s shoulder and leans down to kiss him on the cheek.
“Five years!” Frank says. And fuck, he totally forgot. Now he feels like an asshole. It kind of seems like Patrick has something else on his mind, though. Maybe he won’t notice that Frank wasn’t all thoughtful and awesome like Gerard.
They’re passing by the plywood “door” of the shack Gabe calls the Den of the Cobra, and Frank calls out, “Gabe! Hey, Gabe!” Gabe never wakes up in time for his shift if someone doesn’t yell at him.
Gerard joins in. “Wake up, Gabe! It’s Rex Manning Day!”
“Hey!” Patrick barks, bringing their attention back to him. “A little bit of focus would make me very happy.”
Frank mimes zipping his lips and looks at Patrick expectantly.
“So, Pete closed the store last night,” Patrick says. Frank would say that he knows that, because he saw Pete last night, but he’s a little worried about Patrick’s sanity if he doesn’t get to talk right now, so he just waits for the punch line. “And, um, he maybe, uh. Gambled away all the store’s money in Atlantic City.”
“He what?” Frank can’t help talking now. He’d given Pete shit about screwing it up, but he didn’t really think anything bad would happen. And this is worse than bad. This is—Frank doesn’t even have words for what this is.
Patrick shakes his head. “Ours is not to question why, ours is just to keep Pete’s stupid head attached to his body.” He starts walking back around the corner of the building. Frank shoots a look at Gerard, whose eyes are wide and scared. They follow Patrick inside.
“Does Brian know?” Gerard asks in a really loud stage whisper as they file into the breakroom. Frank winces.
“Nope,” Patrick says. “So act. normal.”
Gerard puts his bag and banner in his locker and follows Patrick out into the main store quickly, but Frank stalls for a minute. He glances up when he hears the office door open. Brian comes out and starts looking under the couch cushions, muttering under his breath.
“Hey, Brian!” Frank says, going for cheerful and natural. Brian looks up, like he hadn’t even realized Frank was there.
“Oh. Hey, Frank,” he says distractedly.
“Can I, uh. I need to talk to you about something.”
“Uh huh,” Brian says, not sounding very much like he’s listening.
“So you, um. You know about love and stuff, right?”
That gets Brian’s attention. “Yeah, sure. My wife told me I was gay, and my last boyfriend forced me to leave at gunpoint. I’m a fucking expert.”
“Yeah, exactly,” Frank says. “So anyway, I decided that today I’m going to tell Gerard how I feel about him.” Brian shoots him a skeptical look. “Yeah, fuck you. For real this time.”
“Okay,” Brian says, not sounding convinced. Which might be fair. Frank has tried this once or twice before.
“But here’s the thing. How do you—how do you tell someone that you—that you—”
“Love them?” Brian prompts.
“You say, ‘I love you,’ Frank. What do you want, a diagram?”
“Maybe,” Frank grumbles.
Brian just stares at him unhelpfully.
Frank shakes his head. “Okay, fine. I’m gonna tell him. By noon.” Frank thinks for a minute. Noon is awfully close. “By one,” he amends. “By noon or one.” He realizes that’s not very specific. Frank knows he’s likely to punk out if he doesn’t set a real deadline. “By 1:37 exactly,” he says, nodding decisively.
“Well, good luck,” Brian says.
Frank grins. “Thanks, Brian!” he says. He grabs a couple of boxes of magazines that need to be put out and goes to help everybody else open. There’s a lot of extra shit to do, because it’s fucking Rex Manning Day. Frank scowls a little at that, but it’s okay. He’s going to tell Gerard how he feels and then Gerard won’t fuck stupid Rex Manning. 1:37, he reminds himself. This is totally happening.
"Where's Frank?" Brendon asks, diving for the M&M's by the register. "It's his turn to pull colors."
"Talking to Brian, I think," Gerard says, closing his eyes and picking out a single M&M carefully.
"But it's his turn!" Brendon says.
"We don't have to do M&M lottery, Bren," Patrick says. "Besides, he's just going to cheat and put on hardcore."
"You like hardcore," Gerard reminds him.
Patrick grimaces. "Not first thing in the morning, Gerard."
"Well, fine," Brendon says, getting back to the topic at hand. "If Frank's going to break tradition, I want first pick."
Gerard and Patrick look at each other and shrug.
"I'm gonna go make coffee," Gerard says.
"Yay!" Brendon bops over to the dais with the stereo system on it and pops the Spice Girls' Spice into the changer. If he's going to sweep the store for stupid Rex Manning, he's going to dance with the broom while he does it. He bops over to the supply closet as “Wannabe” starts up over the speakers.
"You know," Gerard says over the music. "The Spice Girls were a seminal artist of the nineties. I mean, there are a lot of problems in the Girl Power idea of feminism, but it was pretty cool back in the day, these female artists taking control of their own image. The Spice World movie isn't just funny, it's one of the first modern female-led comedies. I mean, without Spice World there would be no Mean Girls."
"Uh-huh," Brendon says absently, trying to untangle the big push broom from the mop bucket.
"It holds true for their music too. I mean, you can see a lot of influences from classic girl groups in their music, but also, like, you know that line in Spice World? You know, um, ‘Pop, funk? Where have you been, Brian? These days, you just do whatever you want?’ That's pretty revolutionary, as far as pop music goes."
"I don't know why you're talking, Gerard," Brendon says, grinning. "The Spice Girls aren't for talking about. They're for dancing to." He does a little hip shimmy as he pushes the broom away from Gerard, and he can hear Gerard's stupid, high-pitched giggle behind him.
He makes it through two aisles, bouncing along with the music and dipping the broom a few times, before the siren sounds and he sees Patrick standing by the stereo.
"What are you doing, man?" he asks, sliding across the tile.
"Exercising my veto, man." Patrick says, extracting Spice from the player.
"You sure you want to do that, Patrick?" Brendon asks, concerned. "I mean it's only nine o'clock."
"Bren, listening to this crap is guaranteed to make you sterile,” Patrick says.
Brendon gasps. The Spice Girls are the perfect groove for opening! They're boppy and fun and encourage productivity! Plus, Brendon likes them. "Gerard said that the Spice Girls are a seminal artist of the nineties!"
"You know who is a seminal artist of the whole damn twentieth century, Brendon? Michael Jackson." Patrick pulls his arm back and pitches Spice directly into the "Pop" section like a Frisbee.
“Let me guess,” Brendon says. “Dangerous? Again?”
“Yes, Brendon. Again.”
“Maybe I want to be sterile,” Brendon grumbles, recovering the broom from where it’s fallen onto the tile.
Frank comes out of the back halfway through “Jam”, lugging a box of new music magazines up to the racks. He sighs heavily as he lets them fall to the floor.
“I fucking hate Rolling Stone,” he says, wielding a box-cutter with savage precision.
“Right?” Brendon agrees, mostly just because he’s cranky, and Patrick’s worried about Pete, which makes him cranky too, and Frank’s basically a misanthrope who will be cranky with them for no apparent reason.
“I mean, they’re so goddamn smug,” Frank says. Brendon’s not sure he noticed that Brendon agreed with him. “Every single article is like, oh, you’re so lucky to be in our magazine.”
“People who get to be in Rolling Stone are pretty lucky,” Patrick says.
“Yeah, okay, but like, don’t they think any bands are cool enough for them?”
“I like Kerrang,” Gerard says, stepping over a stack of Spins carrying three paper cups without apparent trouble. “They have, like, enthusiasm and shit.”
“You just like reading about UK tours you’ll never get to go to and UK bands you’ve never heard of,” Patrick says, taking his coffee. “Bren doesn’t get anymore caffeine until lunch. He already had one.” Brendon scowls at him, but Gerard clutches the remaining cup like a lifeline. Brendon didn’t notice before, but his hair looks clean, and his eyeliner looks far more “artfully smudged” than his usual “I fell asleep without washing my face” look. Weird.
“Well, yeah. That’s what ‘anglophile’ means,” Frank says scornfully, shoving some Vibe Magazines in place. “Duh.”
Which is when “Black and White” comes on the stereo, and Brendon just can’t hold on to his bad mood anymore.
He grins, drops the broom again, and grabs Patrick by the elbow.
"Bren, what—" Patrick starts, but he trails off laughing when Brendon goes up on his toes and whoos along with MJ at the top of his lungs.
"Dance with me, Rick," Brendon says, beckoning Patrick into the aisle with both hands.
"Oh my god," Patrick says, shaking his head and smiling a little.
Gerard gives Patrick a good hard shove towards Brendon and plops his ass on the floor next to Frank's box of magazines with a smile.
"Go on, Patrick," he says. "You don't want him to pout."
Patrick is a Michael Jackson fan. Patrick is one of those kids that learned to do the Thriller dance when he was six. He watched old Jackson Five appearances on Soul Train. When he was eleven, his dad took him to Michael’s 30th Anniversary concert at Madison Square Gardens. On June 26, 2009, he played the entire discography over the PA all day, and not one person protested.
Patrick, in other words, can moonwalk. This is an accomplishment of Herculean proportions, and Brendon wants to do it in synch. He made Patrick teach him how one slow Tuesday afternoon just so that this moment would come along at some point in his life. When they reach the rap interlude in the song, Frank is scowling at them over the magazine racks and Gerard is lying flat on his back, laughing his stupid high-pitched giggle, and Patrick and Brendon moonwalk.
Frank takes a few minutes to straighten the register area before opening. It’s going to be fucking insane, and he doesn’t want to be fumbling for the credit card receipt folder while a thousand rabid Rex Manning fans stare him down.
Frank looks up, startled, when he hears the front door chime. If Brendon opened the door early—but he doesn’t have to finish that thought because Brendon is just relocking the door behind Mikey.
Mikey ambles over to the register. “Hey, Frank,” he says, lifting his chin in greeting.
“Hey, Mikes. You’re here awfully early for somebody who doesn’t work here.”
“Yeah. This letter came for Gerard. Elena said to bring it by right away, so.”
Frank looks at the envelope Mikey is holding up. It says School of the Visual Arts in the top left corner. Frank swallows hard and grabs the intercom. “Gerard Way, please meet your dorky brother in the rotunda,” he says, his voice echoing a bit over the ancient PA system.
“So did you and Gee do anything cool last night?” Frank asks while they wait, hoping he sounds casual.
Mikey rolls his eyes. “Yeah,” he says. “Bon Jovi was in town. He came by and picked us up. We were out til dawn partying with him and his entourage.”
Frank flips him off. “Dick. I was just asking.”
“What do you think we did, Frank? Gee got drunk and watched like twelve episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and I nearly shot myself in the head rather than listen to one more minute of Twilight Sparkle and Pinkie Pie.”
Frank is about to give Mikey so much shit for knowing their names when Gerard emerges from the back room.
“You’ve got mail,” Mikey says, handing the envelope over.
Gerard just stares at it. “It’s SVA,” he says.
“So open it!” Frank says. “What? Do you think they sent you anthrax? The suspense is killing me here!”
“Yeah, because this is all about you, Frank,” Gerard snaps, but Frank can hear there’s no real anger behind it. He tears the seal open carefully and pulls out the letter.
“So?” Frank says. “Did they recognize your obvious genius?”
Gerard looks up. “I—yeah. I mean. I got in.” A stunned smile breaks across his face.
There’s a voice in Frank’s head that pipes up at that moment and says, Gerard’s leaving. He’s going to go away to the city and forget all about Empire and all about you. Frank tamps down on that voice viciously. He banishes it to the furthest corner of his mind and vaults over the counter to wrap Gerard up in an enthusiastic hug. “That’s awesome, man! I mean, of course you got in. They’d have to be crazy not to see how amazing you are.”
Mikey bumps shoulders with Gerard when Frank moves away to grab the intercom. “Gerard Way,” he says into the microphone. “You just got into SVA. What are you going to do next?”
Gerard grins, his cheeks getting a little pink. “I’m gonna—I’m gonna—” His face falls. “I’m gonna throw up,” he finishes, running for the bathroom.
Frank looks at Mikey, who just shrugs.
At ten a.m. precisely, Patrick flips the “Closed” sign to “Open.” There’s a mildly terrifying line mostly made up of middle-aged women forming outside, and he slips out to ask them to clear the door.
“People, Rex isn’t even here yet,” he assures them. “Just please form up against the wall there. Thanks.”
He sighs and goes back inside. Frank seems okay on register, and Brendon's found something to clean, fairly quietly for once. Patrick squares his shoulders and goes looking for Pete. He might've left in a hurry, but Pete always comes back to the store. Everything comes back to the store eventually with Pete.
The search is not long. When Patrick gets up to the first landing on the stairs leading up to the listening booths, Pete drops almost literally on top of him, still clutching his plastic cup of quarters.
"Holy shit," Patrick says. "Where did you come from?"
"Roof," Pete says, unconcerned. "I remembered, Trick. Five years today. We need to talk about that."
"Talk about—" Patrick blinks and grabs Pete's arm. "We need to talk about what we're going to tell Brian, Pete. You lost nine grand of the store's money in Atlantic City last night! This is a fuck-up of epic proportions. This is a brand new dimension of fucking up, and I don't think—"
"No, listen, stop," Pete says. "You've worked here for five years, Patrick. Five years! Since you were a junior in high school."
"And I've been pulling your ass out of the fire that long, too," Patrick says.
"Yes, and I'm very grateful, but Patrick, there is so much more you could be doing!" Pete's eyes are wide and earnest. "You think we don't hear you when you sing Boyz II Men in the count out room, but we do."
"What?" Patrick reels a little. "What does that have to do with anything?" That's fucking embarrassing is what it is. Additionally, it has no bearing on the current conversation. Jesus Christ.
"And I know you play Brian's kit on the sly. There is greatness inside of you, Patrick Stump."
"I'm really more concerned about the organs inside you and making sure they're still there at the end of the day today!"
"I don't matter," Pete says, almost like he really believes it and shit, that is totally a different conversation. "Not right at this very moment in time anyway. My life is a ride, and I'm a passenger. I'm concerned about your future, Patrick. Are you really happy here? Doing inventory and counting tills?"
"Jesus fucking Christ, Pete," Patrick hisses. "This is so not the time. It's goddamn Rex Manning Day, there's a line of women my mother's age outside waiting to drool over the gayest man in existence who isn't Adam Lambert, Brian's on the fucking warpath because of you, and you want to pull this guidance counselor shit out on me right now?"
"Patrick." Pete says firmly. "Today is today. It is the day. There is no better time."
Patrick sighs. "You're fucked."
Patrick turns at the shout from the main sales floor. He sighs again. Deep. Right from his soul. For fuck's sake.
William Beckett is not a problem that Patrick can deal with right now.
Bill owns The Academy, across town. Or, like, maybe he's the general manager. He's surrounded himself with a staff of incredibly competent people, so they're not doing too badly over there, as far as Patrick knows. He's nice, even if he does insist on dropping by to check out “the competition” every now and then. Patrick hasn't set foot inside The Academy since he was hired at Empire halfway through his junior year. He knows Brian has never been there, despite their selection.
"Hi, Bill," he says and starts down the stairs. Bill is nearly a foot taller than him, so when he sweeps Patrick into his long arms for something that might be termed a hug, there's not a whole lot Patrick can do about it.
"Patrick, Patrick, Patrick. Hello," Bill says against Patrick's hair. "Have you come to your senses yet?"
"I'm still not coming to work for you," Patrick says, a little muffled by the way his face is smashed uncomfortably into Bill's tweed vest.
"William," Pete calls reprovingly from the landing. "You can't have Trick. He's ours."
"Everyone knows my name," Bill says happily, unwrapping his extendo-arms from around Patrick's shoulders, thank god. Sometimes Patrick isn't entirely sure if Bill's always kidding about kidnapping him. Greta Salpeter appears at Bill's shoulder looking a little disheveled and a lot pissed off.
"This is not our record store," she says carefully. "This is a different record store, Bill. You can tell because the sign out front does not say, ‘The Academy.’ You said you were going to drive me to work, not dump me in the middle of a Rex Manning-induced mob scene. I had to elbow some woman in the throat to get to the door!"
"Are the natives getting rowdy?" Patrick asks, glancing towards the windows.
"Greta's car is making a very expensive noise," Bill explains unnecessarily.
"Yes," Greta says. "And in order to fix it, I have to go open the store. So that we make some money."
"And I have to check in with Mister Stump here and see if he's willing for me to whisk him away yet!" Bill reaches forward and ruffles Patrick's hair, which is a titty-twister offense amongst Empire employees, but Bill is technically a customer, so Patrick can't actually physically assault him. It never stops Pete, who comes flying down the stairs.
"No, no," he says, grabbing at Patrick's arm possessively. "You can't. Patrick is a non-renewable resource!"
"Brian gives me as many hours as I want, Bill."
"And I'm supposed to be on the clock, right now," Greta jumps in. "You were supposed to buy me coffee, Beckett. I need caffeine to deal with the public today. Chop, chop."
"Still no?" Bill confirms, leaning his head down to look deeply into Patrick's eyes, which is disconcerting in the extreme.
"Always no, Bill," Patrick says.
"See? Patrick is precious like a diamond, and you cannot have him, Bill," Pete says fiercely.
"I completely agree." Brian's voice is terrifyingly calm as he wraps a hand around the back of Pete's neck. Patrick flinches away. Pete may be his best friend, but this is Schecter. "Hi, Bill," he says pleasantly. "You cannot have my manager. Pete and I are totally on the same page."
"Awesome," Pete says without apparent concern. At least until Brian fists one hand in the front of Pete’s purple polo and starts pulling. His friendly little smile is starting to fray at the edges.
"And now that we're on the same page, we need to have a very serious conversation."
"Greta, my flower, I feel we may have overstayed our welcome." Patrick hears as he turns to follow Brian.
Just as they reach the doors, he hears Greta reply, "What's this 'we,’ Chicken Legs? I'm only along for the free coffee. Dunkin', now."
"Brian," Pete tries as he's dragged bodily through the double doors. Mikey is installed on the leopard-print sofa, flipping through his Kerrang. He barely glances up over his glasses when the three of them burst through the door.
"Where is the money, Pete?" Brian asks, dropping his fists to his sides and staring.
"Atlantic City," Pete answers promptly. Oh, god. There's a short pause as Brian pulls at the knot of his tie.
"Is it coming back from Atlantic City?" He asks, advancing on Pete. Pete shuffles back a few steps and Patrick steps forward.
"No, no, I don't think so, Brian," Pete says.
"What's it doing in Atlantic City?"
Pete shrugs, and says, with every appearance of calm, "Recirculating? It could be in other cities by now—"
Brian slaps the plastic cup of quarters out of Pete's hands, and the sound of the coins hitting the concrete floor finally brings Mikey's head up. He stares. Patrick shrugs, and Brian shoves Pete towards the couch where he collapses next to Mikey. Mikey raises one eyebrow, completely disaffected. Pete grins at him.
"Don't smile," Brian hisses. "You have absolutely nothing to be smiling about, Wentz. Don't even think about leaving that couch today. Not unless it's to get me nine thousand dollars. I told Mitch that you forgot to deposit the money."
"I wouldn't do that," Pete says, and Patrick groans. Out loud. No, Pete would never forget to deposit the store's money. He would, apparently, take it to Atlantic City on an ill-advised field trip. What Patrick can't figure out is why.
Brian throws up his hands—for real, he does, and Patrick's not sure he's ever seen anyone do that in real life—and stalks off to the sales floor, muttering under his breath.
"Hi," Pete says softly to Mikey.
"Hi, back." Mikey says. "You're an idiot."
Lindsey comes in around eleven. She looks pissed.
“Hey, Linds!” Gerard chirps out as she passes the registers, grinning big so all his tiny, weird teeth are on display. Lindsey just flips them off and keeps walking. That’s weird. Lindsey can be kind of a bitch sometimes, but usually not to Gerard. Gerard’s shoulders slump. “She hates me,” he says.
Frank reaches out and squeezes his shoulder. “No way, Gee,” he says. “She’s probably just in a bad mood. I mean, why would she hate you?”
Gerard bites his lip and looks away. “No reason,” he says, not at all convincingly. Frank is about to call bullshit, but then there are customers to help, so it’ll have to wait.
Pete calls out a greeting as Lindsey walks through the break room, but she ignores him. She doesn’t stop moving until she slams the bathroom door shut behind her and clicks the lock.
She takes a deep breath and holds it for a moment, feeling the burn in her lungs before she lets it out. She drops her bag on the floor and stares at herself in the mirror. She looks the same. Same pale legs under her favorite pleated miniskirt. Same not-that-impressive tits—not that that stops the creeps from ogling—in the same white tank top. Same long black hair with brown roots starting to show.
She looks exactly the same, but she’s not. There’s something skittering and itching under her skin so it doesn’t fit right anymore. It should show. She stares at herself for another minute before she realizes that she can make it show. She rummages under the sink for the clippers she knows Brian keeps there. She smiles a little as she takes the first hank of hair in her hand, pulls it taut, and starts cutting.
It’s Frank’s turn to pick music. It’s Frank’s turn, but he’s ignoring that fact in favor of scowling indiscriminately at everyone—except Gerard—and Brendon can’t actually take the silence over the P.A. system anymore. It’s a music store. There should be more music in it.
He saunters nonchalantly over to the stereo, his iPod cupped in his hand. No one will touch his iPod once it’s plugged in. He saved for nearly a year to buy it, and once he had it, Brian let him use the store’s ancient Mac to load it with every single cd he could stand to wait around long enough to import. Brendon’s iPod is sacred, just like Patrick’s hats.
"Whatchya doin' Bren?" Gerard asks, propping his chin on his hands, elbows on the railing that surrounds the stereo.
"Gerard!" Brendon says. "I have the perfect playlist for you. A very special Rex Manning Day Gerard playlist."
"Aww, thanks, bro!"
"Don't say bro," Frank says, looking suspiciously over the aisles at them and counting change at the same time. Brendon is impressed, and also grateful, because Frank dealing with customers means that he won't come closer and attempt to take his rightful turn on the stereo.
Brendon selects the playlist entitled “LOVE IS AWESOME!!!” and Matt Nathanson's cover of "Romeo and Juliet" by Dire Straits comes over the P.A.
"Love songs," he says happily, and Gerard beams at him. "Nothing but love songs for an hour!"
"Fuck," Frank says, and then he smiles winningly at the old lady buying Tony Bennett on vinyl. She probably wouldn't know Rex Manning from Peyton Manning, which is awesome, and she smiles back at Frank. Even with a stupid punk haircut and that illegal tattoo on his seventeen-year-old arm, little old ladies still smile when Frank does. It's adorable.
"What?" Brendon asks when Franks smile turns into a scowl and he flips Brendon a double bird as Tony Bennett lady braves the hordes of Rex Manning fans at the door to leave.
"An hour of love songs, Brendon?" He asks incredulously. "Are you fucking serious?"
"I don't know what's wrong with you, Iero," Brendon says. "You have no romance in your soul."
"I got romance," Frank says, dropping one middle finger, though not the other. "I just don't have sap and rainbows and sparkles running in my veins instead of blood like you do."
"Yes, you do," Patrick says as he comes out of the back. "Quit fronting, Frank. You're made of happiness and glitter."
"I am not!" Frank says, looking totally affronted.
"You kind of are," Gerard says over his shoulder. "I mean, I'm not saying you're not a hardass, Frankie, but come on." He’s still smiling, and Frank shakes his head.
"I'm just saying that there are other, way more important things to write songs about, other than how some girl's eyes are like diamonds. You know?" Frank says.
Brendon sighs and twists his hips along with “Rave On” on his way over to the register counter. "Sure, Frank," he says seriously. "But love, you know? That swooping feeling in your stomach when you talk to them, and the way your head feels kind of woozy when they smile at you? That's part of the human experience! And it's one of the most universal parts. That should be celebrated."
Frank's eyes flick over Brendon's shoulder and go wide. He smiles softly for a moment before he turns it into his usual wise-ass smirk and says, "That's not love, Bren. That's intoxication."
Brendon sighs. No one gets him.
"I think that's beautiful," Gerard says. Well, except Gerard. Frank frowns, and then groans and drops his head onto the counter when the next song starts.
"Ooh!" Brendon says. "’Lovebug’!"
"I curse the day we hired you," Frank says, seriously, forehead still pressed miserably to the counter. "I really do. The Jonas Brothers, for fuck's sake."
"Pete, where's the folding table?" Patrick asks, and Pete starts to stand. "No!" Patrick says, pointing. "Just tell me. Don't get off the couch."
"I can help you look," Mikey says. Patrick looks around. Mikey is sitting on the floor, very carefully picking up each of the spilled quarters, spreading something over one side and then pressing it back down where it was.
"No, Mikes, it's okay." Sometimes Patrick forgets that Mikey doesn't work at Empire. "It's a folding table. It can only be so many places."
"It's in the closet by the Bowie poster," Pete says just as the door to Brian's office opens suddenly.
"Pete," Brian says, clearly a little calmer. His shirt sleeves are rolled up, showing off his tattoos, and his tie is looser. He looks a little more like Brian Schecter. "Are you in some kind of trouble? You know if you are, you can talk to me. Did you need the money?" He sits next to Pete on the couch, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, face composed, completely ignoring both Patrick and Mikey.
"Brian, we're all in some kind of trouble, and I'm the only one who sees it," Pete says, resigned. "Lindsey's in trouble. Patrick's in trouble, Mikey's in trouble—"
"Mikey’s not in trouble," Mikey interrupts, not looking up from the floor.
"Mikey had the FBI at his door last week for pirating Disney movies," Patrick reminds him. Mikey looks up at him, considering, makes a face and shrugs.
"Okay, maybe Mikey's in a little trouble,” Mikey says.
"Gerard is in trouble," Pete continues.
"Gerard is not in trouble," Patrick says.
"He's going to SVA," Mikey agrees.
"I'm the one in trouble, here, kids!" Brian exclaims. "The longer I don't call the police, the more I look like a giant dickhead!"
"Brian," Pete says, leaning forward to put a hand on Brian's shoulder. "You are not a giant dickhead!"
"If you're fucking with me, I will kill you." Brian says and then pushes himself up and looks at Patrick. "Dude."
Because he has worked for Brian for five years, Patrick knows what’s coming. "Come on, Brian," he says. "I opened!"
"I need another closer, man, I'm sorry. You know I wouldn't ask if—"
"I can close," Pete says. Brian and Patrick look at him, then back at each other. Patrick shrugs.
"Sure, okay. I can close. They just raised my rent, so I could use the money."
"Damn the man!" Pete says.
Brian raises his eyebrows at Patrick before popping his neck, turning on his heel and heading back into his office. "I am in hell," he says.
Frank and Gerard are straightening the show tunes section. Well, Frank is straightening the show tunes section. Gerard is trailing along beside him, picking up CDs randomly, sighing, and putting them back. Frank pulls a copy of Wicked out of the Ds, shaking his head. He’s caught by surprise when Gerard grabs it from his hand.
“I love Wicked!” he says.
“Yeah, Gee. I know,” Frank says fondly, rolling his eyes. Gerard has told him once or twice or a million times about his grandmother taking him into the city to see Wicked when he was twelve, and how it “completely changed my life, Frankie. For real.” Some assholes in his class were giving Gerard shit because he got cast as Peter Pan in the school musical. That was a while before Frank met Gerard, but he’s willing to bet Gerard was the best damn Peter Pan ever. So Elena made him get all dressed up, and they went to Times Square so Gerard could see that it’s okay to be different. It’s like a fucking after school special, and Frank kind of never gets tired of hearing about it. Not that he’d let Gerard know that.
Instead of launching into the story, though, today Gerard says, “Do you think Rex likes Wicked, Frankie?”
Frank hides his scowl by turning to put back a misfiled copy of A Chorus Line. “I have no idea,” he says.
But Gerard won’t fucking drop it. “Frank, how am I supposed to sleep with someone if I don’t know the most important facts about them?”
Maybe you shouldn’t fuck him then, Frank doesn’t say. Instead he pulls out his phone and googles “Rex Manning interview.” He scrolls through the first one he finds. “Well, it doesn’t say anything about his favorite Broadway shows, but apparently he doesn’t kill bugs because he thinks they have souls,” he announces. “He hates the color orange, and he likes to drive ‘real fast.’ Does that help?”
Gerard frowns, thinking. “I’m not sure,” he says. “Maybe.” But he doesn’t look satisfied.
Frank clicks on another interview and skims through it. “Got his ‘big break’ as a first-wave Disney kid. Played the big brother in the Partridge Family meets Incredibles TV movie, Marvelous Morrisons. Parlayed his one solo number into a music career. Recently came out.” He closes the window and shoves his phone back into his pocket. “So, nothing we didn’t already know.”
Gerard’s shoulders slump, and he sighs a little. “Okay. Thanks for trying, Frankie.”
“Look, Gee,” Frank says, before he’s really had a chance to think it through. “Most guys are just not that hard to crack. You can probably just walk up to him and ask him if he wants to go fuck in the back room.”
Gerard is staring at him, mouth slightly parted in a way that should look stupid, but mostly looks hot. Yeah, Rex Manning would have to be a fucking moron to turn him down. Frank is so fucked. Or not fucked as the case may be.
“Here,” he says, and digs into his pocket. “If you’re really that worried about it, take some of my lucky lube.” He holds out the packet of Wet Platinum. It’s kind of a big sacrifice, because that stuff is fucking expensive, and he had to con Pete into getting it for him from the sex shop down the street. He knows he could have ordered it online, but even if their packaging is “discreet,” somehow his mother would know. Knowing when he’s done something that Frank doesn’t want her to know about is like her super power.
“Are you sure, Frankie?” Gerard asks, looking awed.
No, Frank is not sure. Frank is not even a little bit sure that he wants to help the love of his life get laid by some douchebag rock star, but it’s starting to look like he doesn’t have much of a choice. So he just says, “Yes, Gerard, I’m sure. Take the fucking lube. And also a rubber. Who knows where the great Rex Manning has been.” He reaches into his pocket again and pulls out a condom. Frank likes to be prepared, okay?
Gerard just stands there looking at the lube and condom in Frank’s outstretched hand. Frank rolls his eyes. Just great. He’s trying to help and Gerard won’t even let him. “Seriously, Gee,” he says. “Don’t be a fool, wrap your tool. No glove, no love, and all that.”
Gerard takes the proffered items, blushing, which Frank absolutely refuses to find adorable under the circumstances. “Okay, okay!” he says, stuffing them into his own pocket quickly. Then he meets Frank’s eyes with that fucking earnest stare of his. “Thanks, Frankie,” he says. “I mean it. I couldn’t have done this without you.” And then he scampers off to help Brendon with the line forming at the registers. Frank is left standing there, feeling like a tool. How is this his life?
Frank needs a minute to contemplate how utterly fucked he is without helping someone find terrible smooth jazz, so he heads for the break room. It’s kind of more crowded than usual. Pete is on the couch, Mikey is gluing quarters to the floor, and Patrick is doing something that is probably actual work.
Frank collapses on the couch next to Pete. “Do you think it’s possible for someone to be in love with someone else and not even know it?” he says to the room at large.
“In this life,” Pete says, “There are nothing but possibilities.”
Frank says, “Well, that’s good. Because I have to tell Gerard I love him by 1:37.”
“That’s an excellent time!” Pete says, clapping Frank on the shoulder.
“Well, then, or before he fucks fucking Rex Manning.”
Mikey looks up and rolls his eyes. “He’s not going to fuck Rex Manning, Frank. That’s stupid.”
Frank looks down at his lap and shrugs. “I dunno, Mikes. He seems pretty determined.”
He’s saved from having to explain any more about why he’s totally fucked when the bathroom door bangs open, and Lindsey walks out. Only she seems to have lost all her hair somewhere since she came in.
“You did have hair when you went in there, right?” Mikey says, confirming that Frank is not going crazy.
“Yeah,” Lindsey answers. “It’s still in the sink if you want to glue it.”
Mikey half-smiles at her the way he does when he’s not really sure what to make of something.
“Hey, Pete,” she continues. “Is it true you committed the perfect crime?”
“Not entirely perfect,” Pete says.
She goes into the count out room to get her till.
“Did you guys see that?” Patrick asks.
Frank doesn’t have a chance to ask what Patrick is talking about, because Patrick is marching over to block Lindsey’s way.
“Hey, what the hell is going on with you?” Patrick says.
Lindsey smirks. “Bad hair day, Trick.”
“No,” Patrick says. “I mean this.” He grabs her arm and pushes her sleeve back to reveal a bandage around her wrist.
Lindsey’s eyes flick over to Frank, Pete, and Mikey, then back to Patrick. Her expression goes hard. “I went to Rock and Roll Heaven, and I wasn’t on the guest list. Now would you please get out of my way so I can get to work?”
She tries to step around him, but Patrick cuts her off. “No, I won’t. Not until you tell me what’s going on.”
“I decided I’d rather kill myself than meet Rex Manning,” she says. “Now seriously, get out of my way.”
Patrick blocks her way again, and Frank is starting to be seriously concerned for Patrick’s sense of self-preservation. Because he’s pretty sure Lindsey is about to fuck Patrick’s shit up.
“I’m not joking, Lindsey!” Patrick says. “You’re not going anywhere until you tell me what the fuck is wrong with you.”
Frank is relieved when Pete jumps up off the couch. He slings an arm around Lindsey’s shoulders. “She’s fine, Trick,” he says. “She’s amazing.”
Patrick’s shoulders slump, and Lindsey shoots Pete a grateful look. “Thank you,” she says and pushes past Patrick.
Pete puts his hands on Patrick’s shoulders and stares into his eyes. “She’ll be all right,” he says. “She’s in the store.”
Frank is starting to think Pete’s gone bonkers. Well. More bonkers. Patrick must agree, because he shakes off Pete’s hands. “What is even with you today?” he says. “Yesterday you’re fine, and today you sound like fucking Mr. Miyagi or something.”
Pete shrugs. “What’s with today, today?” he asks. Frank hopes that’s a rhetorical question, because he doesn’t even know where he’d start. Anyway, he’s left Gerard and Brendon alone with the customers for too long, so he pushes himself up off the couch, and leaves Pete and his crazy for Patrick and Mikey to deal with.
Frank’s only a few steps behind Lindsey as she makes her way to the registers, so he sees the moment Gerard turns in their direction and stares. "Holy shit," he says. He's sitting on the counter next to the register, but he slides down, still gaping at Lindsey’s brand-new Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta look.
"What?" Lindsey says with a scowl. "Don't you like it?"
"Why'd you do that?" Gerard asks, reaching out one hand like he's about to touch the bare skin, but he pulls it back at the last second.
"Oh, you know," Lindsey says, an edge under her lilting tone. "I'm just a crazy, messed-up juvenile delinquent!" It's certainly not the meanest thing Linds has ever said, by a long way, but Gerard runs off. Frank stares after him, confused. Gerard has never had a problem with Lindsey’s prickliness before.
"Something I said?" Lindsey asks.
"Don't think so." Frank's still a little bit freaked the fuck out over the whole thing, up to and including the bandages. So he makes a stupid fucking joke, duh. "How very Britney of you, Linds."
"Fuckin' thanks, asshole. Damn." She reaches forward and pinches the skin on Frank's side, hard. "That's a very clever little reference, Frank, I swear, you just get funnier every time you get an illegal underage tattoo!"
"Ow! Jesus. Apparently you get meaner the shorter your hair gets," Frank shoots back, "I'm not so sure it's a good look for you."
"I'm serious, kid, you're going to get Hep-C."
"My dad signed off on the last one, bitch." Frank says, showing off the barbed wire around his wrist happily. "Ah, the perks of a broken fuckin' home. This time he got to have the fight with my mom."
“‘Part of Your World’ is not an acceptable choice for the music at a record store, Brendon!”
“That guy was singing with me!”
“That guy works at The Academy. He’s probably in here spying for Bill!”
“Uh,” Singing Guy, who has a pretty good Ariel voice all things considered, amazing stubble, and beautiful eyes, cuts in. “He has a point. Bill asked me to pick up any unattended managerial types I saw lying around. Like, in addition to my Killers vinyl.”
Brian blinks, and then shakes his head. “You absolutely cannot have Patrick. If you’d like to take Pete off my hands—”
“No thanks,” Singing Guy says. “I’ll just take the record. Bill has some kind of personal hate-on for Brandon Flowers, so, you know. No employee discount on this one for me.”
“I’ll give you mine,” Brendon says, grinning wide when Singing Guy smiles.
“Thanks, man,” he says and then sticks his hand out. “I’m Jon.”
“No more Disney sing-alongs on the sales floor!” Brian calls after him as he leads Jon up to the register. “I don’t care if you did make a sale out of it!”
"Brendon, don't call me that. Come on." Ray enters the store, his hair bobbing and an easy smile on his face. The usual alert chime from the door is completely drowned out by the crowd outside. Brendon’s just glad that Patrick is the one who has to deal with them. He never wants to be a manager. Ever.
"Sorry, sorry," Brendon says, grinning at him as he trails after Ray to the vinyl counter in the corner. "You couldn't wear something nicer for Rex Manning?" he asks, making a face and hopping up to sit on the counter as Ray stashes his backpack. Ray is wearing a disintegrating Metallica tee and jeans with no knees. With his hair, he totally looks like a roadie or something. Ray is so cool.
"You know, that's exactly what my mom said," Ray says, standing. "I notice you're not dressed up either."
"Gerard is," Brendon says, nodding towards the register. "His hair's even clean."
"Weird," Ray says. "Oh, hey, I made you something."
"Presents?" Brendon says eagerly. "I love Ray presents. I've had Iggy Pop on repeat for a week."
"Yeah, well, here." Ray hands him a blank jewel case that he dug out of his backpack. "To further your musical education. We've got a little Slayer on there, some Zep—"
"Ooh," Brendon says, appropriately impressed.
"Threw in some Kinks, too, just for fun." Ray grins wide and says seriously, "This music is the glue of the world, Brendon. It holds everything together. I burned this for you. You know how that makes me feel."
"Is it your vinyl rips?"
"Of course," Ray says, smiling when Brendon gasps a little. He can't help it. Toro's got one of those USB turntables he uses to put all of his vinyl onto his iMac, so he can have two copies. He’ll swear up and down that it's better than any “digitally remastered” track you can buy from iTunes. “The true marriage of analog and digital,” he calls it. And he kind of hates CDs. Patrick calls it “bugfuck bonkers” and says you can't skip an entire generation of music format just because you want to, but Patrick still owns cassette tapes for fuck's sake. He's secretly totally a grumpy old man.
"I love you, Toro."
"Of course you do," Ray agrees easily.
"Hey, hey," Brendon says, pulling his feet up and sitting cross-legged on the counter. "Did you hear about Pete?"
“I got a text from Patrick. He sounded—” Ray pauses, pursing his lips. “Concerned.”
“In text?” Brendon asks, swinging his legs and hopping down from the counter as Ray heads for the back room.
“It’s Patrick. He could sound concerned in smoke signals. Now, you tell me what you know while I clock in.”
“Hey!” Ray says a minute later, laughing as he and Brendon tumble through the doors to the back room. “Hey, Pete, I hear you went to like, Vegas and married a mobster’s wife, and now there’s a hit out on you. That true?”
“That’s not what I said!” Brendon protests. God.
“Not entirely true,” Pete says consideringly. He’s sitting cross-legged on the couch, his chin cupped in one hand.
They’re interrupted by Frank’s confused voice coming over the PA system. “We don’t normally do requests here at Empire Records, but this one’s for our distinguished night manager, Pete, from Mikey.” Lady Gaga’s “Money Honey” starts to play, but apparently Frank forgot to turn off the mic, because the entire store hears, “Mikes, is there something you want to tell—shit!” before Frank’s voice cuts out.
“Oh, hey, a tribute!” Ray says, with every appearance of enthusiasm. Patrick blinks at them from across the room, clutching a photograph that he’s just pulled from a box at his feet. Brendon isn’t surprised to see Rex Manning’s creepy plastic face crumpling slowly in Patrick’s hand as Gaga sings and Patrick’s face goes purple. At the exact moment that Brendon thinks Patrick might actually explode, the door to Brian’s office bangs open and he emerges, carrying a box.
“Here,” he says, shoving a piece of paper into Brendon’s hands. Brendon looks down at it and sees a very familiar logo at the top. The same logo is printed on the bright orange half-apron that Brian tosses over Pete’s head.
“Music Town employee rules and codes of conduct?” Patrick reads aloud.
“Isn’t Music Town a chain?” Brendon says uncomprehending. “This isn’t a Music Town.”
“No, this isn’t a Music Town,” Brian says, the veins on his neck beginning to bulge.
“No gum-chewing on the sales floor?” Brendon reads and then looks up. “What the fuck?”
“Mitch is turning this into a Music Town?” Ray asks.
“I was going to try to stop it,” Brian says. “And then fuckhead over here,” he slaps the back of Pete’s head, knocking the apron off. “Put me down nine grand. Patrick, will you put these in the lockers, please?”
“Brian?” Patrick says, taking the stack of papers.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Patrick asks as he turns away to do as he’s told.
“Because I was trying to buy Mitch out.” Brian says, one hand over his face.
“You’re going to buy Empire?” Brendon asks. That would be so much better than selling out to a bunch of corporate normals with ties. “That’ll be fantastic!”
“You think that’ll happen now?” Brian asks, and then he drops his hand back to his side and looks at Brendon, who can feel his smile fading. “Sorry, Bren. But I have to pay Mitch back for Pete’s stupid fucking mistake, so--”
“Mitch is the man,” Pete says, utter loathing on his face. Brian sighs.
“The man calls all the shots, kid.”
“Well, damn the man!” Pete says. Brian drops the box of aprons to the floor, puts one knee on the couch cushions and gets right up in Pete’s face.
“Let me explain this to you, Pete. Mitchell’s the man, I’m the idiot, you’re the fuck-up, and we’re all losers.” He sighs again and collapses back onto the sofa, pulling Pete into his side for either a hug or a headlock. “Welcome to Music Town.”
Frank stares at the sheet in his hand. There’s a lull, no line by the register, so he and Lindsey are taking it upon themselves to see just how screwed they are.
It is pink. It’s printed on cheerful fucking pink paper, like this isn’t the biggest crock of shit he’s ever heard of in his whole goddamned life.
“The approved Music Town playlists must be adhered to,” Lindsey reads out ominously. “Guess that means no Misfits.”
“No Black Flag.”
“No visible tattoos,” she points out. It’s number eight on the list.
“No revealing clothing,” he quotes, pointing to her plaid skirt that’s so “mini” it might as well be a belt.
“We’re both fucked,” she sighs, running a hand over her bare head.
“Right up the ass,” Frank agrees.
“At least you’re used to it,” she says. And okay, he walked into that one.
“C’mon, Linds, don’t be bitter,” he says with a smile. “With that new skinhead-chic look, I’m sure you’ll bring all the boys to the yard!”
“I fucking hate you,” Lindsey chirps happily. “But let’s not fight. Let’s just rip.”
He nods and the two of them pull their copies of the Music Town Employee Rules to shreds with gusto.
Frank doesn’t feel any better when they’re done.
It's time. Patrick's pretty shocked, walking around like the world is coming to an end. Ray's got a worried little furrow between his brows and the registers are practically radiating hate, with Lindsey and Frank scowling at all and sundry. Brendon wouldn't get near them to purchase anything, even if it was a bucket of water and his hair was on fire. Gerard's the only one who seems marginally normal, putting the finishing touches on his "Welcome Rex Manning" banner. Which it is time to hang. Because it's Rex Manning Day.
"We mustn’t dwell, Patrick," Brendon says, poking his manager in the side and smiling hopefully. "Not today. Not on Rex Manning Day!"
"You're an idiot," Patrick says, but he has a fond smile lurking around the corners of his mouth as he flips the legs of the folding table into place. "Why don't you go put on the Get Shit Done playlist? We still have to put all this shit out."
Brendon helps Patrick right the folding table and then he slips off to the stereo to do as he's told. The Get Shit Done playlist is awesome. It annoys the shit out of Frank. There's Skrillex on it. It'll get everyone's minds off the Music Town thing, just for half an hour.
"Bren, Jesus," Frank yells over the floor. "It's my turn!"
"Executive decision, Iero!" Brendon calls back. "Take it up with the illustrious manager!" Patrick waves a hand and goes to retrieve the box of headshots for Rex to sign for the idiots who showed up to a signing empty-handed.
The first track on the Get Shit Done playlist today—it’s on perpetual shuffle—is "Baby”. The Bieber song. Frank's face goes purple and Lindsey looks like she might explode.
"Brendon Boyd Urie, did you edit the Get Shit Done playlist since last week?" Patrick wrestles the box of photographs out of the back, and he sounds mad, but he's kind of chuckling. Sort of. Ruefully.
"No?" Brendon says, looking up from the stereo and putting on his very best innocent face.
"Sure." Patrick says. "Because who else in this store would add Bieber to the playlist."
"No one," Brendon admits. Then he huffs, "Because no one else in this store has a sense of fun. Or whimsy!"
"Whimsy?" Patrick asks as Ray passes by with one of the full-size cardboard cutouts of Rex. Which are terrifying. "You know how I feel about these kids who get famous playing shitty covers on the YouTube!"
"Patrick," Brendon says, sighing and hanging his head. "You're secretly eighty-four. Don't say 'the YouTube.'"
"That's what it's called!"
"It's just 'YouTube!'"
"The internet is a series of tubes," Gerard says. He's pulling a small stepladder over to hang the banner from the bottom of the upstairs landing. "And one of them is the You tube."
"Another one is the Redtube," Frank says as he sidles by with a box of Rex's new album. Gerard stares at him uncomprehendingly for a second, and then they both crack up, but Brendon's still stuck on this YouTube thing.
"Also, you stay off my YouTube channel, then, Patrick Stump!" he exclaims, which is a real sacrifice, because Patrick leaves the best comments ever in the history of YouTube. Not once has one of his comments included the sentence “ur gay,” which, while half true, is incredibly depressing to see sitting there underneath his Elvis Costello cover. "If you don't like it, you can just fuck right off!"
"Come on, Bren," Patrick says soothingly. “You know I didn't mean you. Your covers are awesome, and it's not like anybody's handing you a recording contract." Like that is supposed to make Brendon feel better.
"I know," Brendon says despairingly. "Goddammit."
"You would deserve it way more than that Friday girl," Gerard says.
"No shit," Frank says. "At least Brendon can actually sing."
"Aww, thanks, Frank!" Brendon grins up at Frank, who shoots him a distracted smile back as he pins one corner of the banner in place.
"It's crooked," Patrick says.
"It's artistic," Gerard says, climbing down from his stepladder. "I'm going to find the tablecloth."
"Do we have a tablecloth?" Ray asks as he hefts two more boxes of CDs easily, biceps bulging. Holy shit. He is so cool.
"Yeah, it's in the closet by the Bowie poster, Gee." Patrick says, rolling his eyes. "Frank, fix it." Frank looks around to make sure Gerard's gone before pulling his ladder over to the other side of the banner.
"It's artistic, though, Rick!" he says pleadingly, which is adorable.
"He won't even notice, Frank. Just, please." Patrick says. "For me?" Frank sighs and steps up to fix the left side of the banner, and by then the playlist has switched to a Stooges song, which should make Frank happy.
"I bet you really hate One Direction, huh? And The Wanted?" Lindsey calls across, and her back is to Brendon, but he can just imagine the shit-eating grin that must be on her face. Brendon stifles a laugh and turns away to shove a full box of Sharpies under the table. Just in case.
"Oh my god," Patrick says. "Don't even get me started on the grown-in-a-test-tube boy bands, Linds. It's like Simon Cowell took all the most annoying parts of the Backstreet Boys and mated them with the empty, soulless doll-eyed guys from 98 Degrees."
"I like 98 Degrees," Brendon says, but Patrick's on a roll now.
"And as far as I can tell, they don't even have the decent hooks and production those guys did to go along with their totally inauthentic music. At least the Jonas Brothers play instruments!"
This is a rant they've all heard eight billion times, but it never gets any less funny. And at least Patrick doesn't look like he's about to toss his cookies in one of the listening booths over Pete and the nine grand and Music Town anymore. So Brendon picks another good one out of that last sentence.
"I don't know what your obsession is with 'real instruments,’" he says as Gerard comes back with a black tablecloth. He grabs one end of it from him and together they shake it out. "Music made on computers or with turntables isn't any less 'real,’ you cranky old fart."
"Purist," Patrick says with dignity. He stands back and takes a look at their work. The store is neater and shinier than it's ever been. The banner is a work of art with dancing vampires and swirls of color that echo the lights in the club featured in Rex's new video. The table's not wobbling, and the stacks of albums and photographs are square and neat thanks to Ray. "Not too shabby for a bunch of fuck-up losers, right, guys?"
"Right, Rick," Frank laughs. "Not too shabby." Then he takes his life in his hands, reaches over and runs his hand through Patrick's hair, digging his knuckles in for a noogie before he takes off running.
"You are dead, Iero!"
Brendon is putting the last finishing touches on the Rex Manning Autograph Station (TM) when Pete sort of appears beside him, a couch cushion clutched to his chest.
“Guess you didn’t leave the couch,” Brendon says.
“Not the whole couch,” Pete replies, patting the cushion absently.
Then there’s this moment that’s threatening to become an awkward silence. Brendon really hates awkward silence. He always starts babbling to fill it up, but all that’s coming to mind as he looks at Pete not exactly following the letter or the spirit of Brian’s instructions is the missing nine thousand dollars and Atlantic City and Music Town. If that’s not a minefield waiting to blow up in Brendon’s face, he doesn’t know what is.
“Oh!” he says, grasping at the first unrelated thought that occurs to him. “I think I’m gonna start a band.”
Pete doesn’t laugh or make fun of him like Lindsey or Frank would. “Cool,” he says. “So who’s going to be in it with you?”
Brendon shrugs. “I don’t know. I asked Patrick ‘cause he plays, like, everything. He turned me down though.”
Pete nods philosophically. He sits down and starts putting his shoes on. “You know I couldn’t let you steal Patrick away anyway,” he says.
“Yeah,” Brendon says. “But man, I had to ask.”
Pete stands up again and claps Brendon on the back. “That’s because you are a gentleman and a scholar,” he says. Then he walks away down the center aisle to talk to some guy in the metal section. The guy is really weird looking. He’s wearing a suit jacket that’s way too big for him, and it looks like he has birds painted on his face. Brendon isn’t sure why Pete’s talking to him, but then he sees the shifty, uncomfortable looks the guy is giving Pete, and it clicks. Brendon starts to grin despite himself. This is going to be good.
The second the guy crosses the threshold, Pete is running after him. Brendon takes the stairs up to the balcony two at a time. When he gets to the top, he leans far out over the railing and yells, “SHOPLIFTER!”
Frank blinks a couple of times when he sees the recently departed shoplifter with—are those birds painted on his face?—crash through the break room door and back onto the sales floor. He turns and raises his eyebrows at Lindsey. “Isn’t it customary to, you know, leave the scene of the crime?” he says.
Lindsey rolls her eyes as they watch the kid sprint past them, Pete close behind him. “Total noob,” she says.
“Seriously? Noob?” he says.
She manages to hold onto her straight face for a couple more seconds before cracking up. Frank can’t help but laugh too. Then he grabs the mic and jumps up on the counter.
“Attention, Rex Manning fans!” he announces. “To your right you will notice a shoplifter being chased by night manager, Pete. This delinquent will be caught, deep fried, and served to our first hundred customers. Just another tasty treat from your friendly Empire Records staff!”
He’s about to jump back down off the counter when he sees Pete take a pretty impressive flying leap and tackle the kid right in front of the door. Like two seconds later, Brian appears from the back, moving through the store like a storm cloud to help Pete detain the suspect or whatever. The kid cusses them both out in a creepy monotone all the way back down the aisle until the sound of his voice is cut off by Brian kicking the door shut behind them.
“‘Trick!” Pete calls out happily. “I brought you a present!”
"That's a skinny boy with birds painted on his face," Patrick says conversationally and crosses his arms. Pete has a hand clamped on the boy's shoulder which is sort of hilarious, considering he's nearly a foot shorter. But Pete's got years of pit experience and soccer training, plus he bites, and it looks like this kid would blow over in a stiff breeze.
"He's got half of Nelly's oeuvre in his pockets."
"Well, that's different then," Patrick concedes. Brian takes hold of the shoplifter's arm and shoves him towards the couch, waving at Pete meaningfully.
"You too, Wentz," he says. "The couch is for delinquents. Sit your ass down."
"Wait," Patrick says, and he reaches for the chain hanging from one of the kid's pockets. It isn't the usual “could double as a blunt instrument” wallet chain all the little faux tough boys sport. It looks more like a watch fob.
"Careful with the goods," the kids says, completely monotone, and scowls as Patrick retrieves his wallet.
"Oh, please," Patrick says, flipping the wallet open and pulling out the I.D. "George Ross," he reads. "Sixteen and way less stupid looking in your picture. Nice."
"Hi, George," Pete says, nodding companionably as Patrick shoves George down onto the couch next to him.
"Hey, George," Mikey pipes up from the corner behind the couch.
"Mikey, are you still here?" Brian says, looking around. “I don’t pay you, you know. What the fuck are you doing back there?”
"Sitting," Mikey says, and Pete grins.
"Right," Brian says.
"My name's not George," George says, the slightest tinge of scorn in his voice. His face almost doesn't move when he speaks, which is creepy.
"That's what it says here, kid," Patrick insists. "George Ryan Ross the third. It's what we'll tell the fuzz when they show up."
"Don't say 'fuzz,’ Patrick," Pete says, wincing.
"We say 'po-po' now," Mikey adds, still behind the couch.
"I honestly do not know why the fuck I hired any of you," Brian says, examining the stolen goods he's digging out of George's giant sport coat pockets.
"I bet I know the inventory numbers of those albums off the top of my head," Patrick says, which is a point.
"I took a shoplifter out with a flying tackle," Pete says, which is a better point.
"I don't work here," Mikey's voice replies.
"I'm seriously in hell."
“So,” Frank’s voice comes from behind him, and Patrick lets his eyes slip closed. This is going to be terrible. The devilish delight in Frank’s voice means absolutely nothing good. “I think Music Town is torn on this revealing garment issue. I really do.”
It is not good. Frank streaks past him, and leaps onto the couch next to Pete, wearing not much other than one of the hideous bright orange Music Town half-aprons, his mostly-illegally tattooed jailbait torso gyrating along to the music that suddenly comes out of nowhere. Patrick turns to see Gerard leaning in to the breakroom, his finger still on the old boombox by the door, giggling madly and hips twitching.
“Oh, god,” Patrick says and he turns back to tug Frank down, but he jerks away and turns to shake his ass. Which, beneath the hastily-tied apron strings, is bare. “For fuck’s sake Frank!”
“Patrick!” Pete gasps.
“Frank!” Brian says, a hand over his face.
“Shake it!” Gerard calls from the door.
“Not bad,” George says evenly. “Anybody got a dollar?”
Bob has been in a car with Rex Manning for over three hours. He restrained himself from jumping out while they were doing seventy on the highway, but he’s got the door open before the driver even has the car in park outside the back entrance of—he glances at the schedule on his phone—Empire Records. Unfortunately for Bob, Rex is right behind him.
“It looks ridiculous,” Rex whines for the eightieth time, peering at his reflection in the tinted window of the car and running a hand through his hair. “I look like Starsky. Or—” he pauses. “Hutch?” He turns away from the window and looks at Bob questioningly.
Bob does not roll his eyes, because Bob is a fucking professional. “I don’t know,” he says. “Both? Either?”
Rex’s face falls. “Oh, fuck. Are you serious? I look like fucking Starsky and Hutch?”
“Well,” Bob says, going for a diplomatic tone. “Maybe you should have asked the stylist what it was when he said he wanted to feather your hair.”
Rex makes a disgusted noise. “He said it was the hot new trend,” he mutters, having the good grace to look a little embarrassed.
“Rex, I promise, we’ll find you a new stylist when we get to New York, but there is nothing you can do about it now. Your public awaits.” Bob gestures towards the building.
Rex looks dubious. “My public in—where the fuck are we again?”
“Belleville, New Jersey.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Nope. These are the people who buy your music, Rex. Sorry to be the one to break it to you.”
Rex’s shoulders slump for a moment, then he straightens. “Fine, fine. Lead on, Bob.”
Bob knocks at the back entrance, but he can hear loud music playing inside, so when he doesn’t get an answer after a minute, he tries the door. It opens easily, and they step inside. “Hello?” he calls. Then he gets a good look at the room. There are a lot of people, but he kind of can’t peel his eyes away from the tiny, tattooed guy wearing nothing but an orange apron dancing on the couch.
The guy stops when he sees them and jumps down. He gives Rex a blatant once-over and says, “Welcome to Music Town. May I service you?” Then he promptly dissolves into giggles.
“For fuck’s sake, Frankie!” another tiny, tattooed guy, this one older and fully dressed, bursts out. “Put some clothes on. Now!”
A guy with seriously epic hair shoves the first guy—Frankie?—into an adjoining room and slams the door behind him.
Bob blinks a couple of times and reminds himself that he has a job to do. Tiny, tattooed guy number two is wearing a tie, so Bob takes a guess. “You must be Brian, right?” he says.
“Yeah, and you’re Bob?” Brian answers, sticking out his hand.
As Bob shakes, someone says in a bored monotone, “With alliteration like that, you guys should go get married across the river.” He turns his head to see a kid with birds painted on his face, wearing a vest with giant silk roses down the front staring at him. Weird. Not that anything normal has happened since they walked in.
Brian lets go of his hand, and introduces his staff. The room is pretty full, and Bob kind of wonders who’s running the store with this many people in the back. The first tattooed guy is, indeed, Frank. He re-emerges wearing ripped jeans and a faded Bouncing Souls tee. Bob’s betting he isn’t a fan. Epic Hair is Ray, and the rest are Gerard, Patrick, Mikey, and Pete. Rose Vest is, apparently, George.
Bob smiles and nods at each of them in turn. “And this is Rex,” he says, gesturing at his boss. He’s pretty sure they know that, but it’s still polite.
“I have all your albums,” the one with the eyeliner&emdash;Gerard?—pipes up, going all starry eyed. Oh, god. A fanboy on staff. Just what Bob needs today.
“What happened to your hair, Rex?” Pete asks, eyes wide with faux innocence.
Bob’s ready to duck and cover, but Rex just scowls a little bit and says, “Rogue stylist.”
“It looks good,” Pete says.
“I like it!” Gerard chimes in, sounding a lot more sincere. That seems to appease Rex, and thank god Bob is not going to have to deal with a hair related crisis of confidence. Again.
“All right, then. Let’s get to work!” Rex says.
Everybody goes back to their various tasks. Although Bob notices it takes Gerard a minute to snap out of his adoring stare at Rex, and seriously, he hopes this isn’t going to be a problem.
Patrick, the one with the hat, steers George over to a wall painted with a day glo colored zombie apocalypse mural—which is awesome—and pushes a stack of CDs at him.
“Smile for the camera, George,” Patrick says cheerfully, brandishing his phone. “You’re going on the delinquent wall!”
George, Bob realizes, is a common, garden variety shoplifter. Well, maybe not common, he revises, taking in the makeup and rose vest one more time. Rex, though, does not seem to have grasped the subtleties of the situation, an all-too-common occurrence in the presence of a camera. He jumps into the frame with George, mugging like this is a photo shoot. Patrick looks bewildered at this turn of events, but shrugs and keeps taking pictures.
“Rex,” Bob says, making sure he’s using his patient voice. “That dude is a shoplifter. Maybe save the photo ops for the fans, okay?”
Rex just smiles and lays a hand on Patrick’s shoulder. “Get me a copy of these, would you?” he says. Bob does not smack himself in the forehead, but it’s a near thing. Seriously, why is this his life?
“The camera loves you, George,” Patrick says, and gives him a little shove back in the direction of the couch. Then he looks at Bob. Bob sighs and fishes out a pen and a notepad. He scribbles down his email address and hands the page to Patrick. “You can send them to me,” he says. At least they’ll make great blackmail material if he ever needs it.
Brian reappears from somewhere, and Bob realizes it’s time to start the signing. He nods at Rex, and they follow Brian out into the store. The fans are all lined up, and a cheer goes up when they emerge. Show time.
"Oh my god," Brendon says, hustling through to the back room. "So. Many. Ladies." Gerard is sketching at the worktable at the back of the room, clearly hiding from the hordes while Rex's PA works on an iPad. Pete is staring at George, leaning closer and closer as George very determinately does not look at him. Brendon blinks, remembering his mission. "I gotta get Rex some water," he says. "Because Rex is very, very thirsty and kind of scary."
"Make sure it's bottled," Bob says without looking up.
"Yup, yeah, because if it isn't I'm pretty sure he'll disembowel me in front of the ladies."
"Unlikely," Bob says. "But possible."
"Brendon?" Pete says, pulling his feet up onto the couch to rest his chin on his knees. "Who's your favorite singer?" Easy.
"Freddie," Brendon says. "You know that."
"Well," Pete says consideringly. "Brendon, if Freddie Mercury saw Rex Manning stranded on the side of the road, do you think Freddie would help him?"
"Is this like Gerard's Batman versus Superman question?"
"That's a question for the ages, Brendon, and it reveals what kind of comic book fan you are," Gerard says tonelessly. "We've had this argument before."
"But they wouldn't fight, Gerard, they're friends!" At that, Gerard looks up from his drawing, which, upside down, looks mostly like a Wookiee but might actually be Rex's new haircut. He smiles broadly at Brendon, showing all his tiny teeth.
"That's the first time you've ever answered," he says. "And that's the perfect answer from you."
"Yes but if they did—" Mikey pipes up, from behind the couch.
"Back to Freddie and Rex," Pete says. "Because while I agree that Batman versus Superman is a question for the ages on par with ninjas versus pirates, I really want to hear what Brendon thinks."
"Uh," Brendon says and considers. "Well, does Freddie have a jack?"
"God," George sighs. "No, Freddie Mercury would drive right by that sad excuse for a gay pop star, not giving a single fuck, because he's Freddie Mercury."
“Hi,” Brendon says, grinning wide. “I’m Brendon.”
“Bren, no, no.” Pete says. “Stop. This is George. He’s a delinquent. A shoplifter, and a thief. You don’t want to make friends with him. His company would not be beneficial for your impressionable young self.”
“Ha,” Brendon says. “One time, you tried to scalp Offspring tickets to get money for a pair of shoes. Also, nine grand.” George is obviously not listening, kicking one booted foot at the floor and frowning.
“Hey, who glued these quarters down?” he asks, mildly interested.
“I did,” Mikey’s voice replies from behind the couch, before he pulls himself up and over. He folds himself into the space between Pete and George, who stares at him. Mikey stares right back. Neither face twitches even a tiny bit.
“What the hell for, man?” George asks with an air of idle curiosity. Brendon watches them stare at each other unblinking until Mikey shrugs, completely unconcerned.
“Mikey doesn’t have to explain his art to you, George,” Gerard cuts in.
“George,” Pete interrupts. “Mikey’s admittedly inexplicable art project aside,” he pats Mikey’s knee absently, and Brendon is not stupid, okay? He raises his eyebrows at Mikey, grinning widely. Mikey just stares back, the slightest twitch at the corner of his mouth giving him away. “Look at what you took.”
Brendon grabs the stack of pilfered CDs and rifles through them, smirking at Mikey who shrugs back.
“Industrial,” Pete says.
“German Industrial,” Brendon clarifies, holding up Rammstein’s Reise, Reise, and grimacing. “You don’t even know what they’re singing!”
“I could speak German,” George says.
“Do you?” Gerard asks, leaning over the worktable.
“German Industrial,” Pete says, “Rap, metal, Manson, and Taylor Swift.”
“It’s for my girlfriend, okay?”
“The one that lives in Canada?” Brendon asks, and Gerard laughs. George shows no sign of recognition and Gerard leans forward and beans him in the head with a crumpled-up sheet of paper.
“Really?” he says disbelievingly. “Avenue Q? No? Nothing?”
“Listen, George,” Pete says. “I think someone like you needs to try to reduce your criminal impulses. Maybe some classical music. Or Gerard can lend you Wicked. That would be good.”
“I am not lending my favorite album to the shoplifter we just met today!” Gerard protests.
“Ahem,” Bob says. Shit. Brendon forgot he was there, even. He forgot about the water, fuck! He shoots over to the mini-fridge, stopping long enough to flick Mikey in the back of the head, because ha. “So, do any of you like Rex’s new album?” Under the combined incredulous stares of the room, Bob chuckles and shrugs. “I was just wondering.”
“It’s like, dance stuff, right?” Brendon asks politely. “I haven’t heard it.”
“I like it,” Gerard says, and everyone looks at him.
“I know,” Mikey says without inflection.
“It’s completely derivative. Just in under the wire after MDNA, riding the crest of the wave just before house manages to go completely mainstream, post-dubstep rip off shit.” George says, still scuffing at the quarter with his boot. “Not enough edge to mean anything, but just enough to set himself apart from his Disney Channel days.” There’s a loaded silence before Brendon remembers the water bottle in his hand and heads for the door.
“You’re exactly right,” Bob says.
“Word to the wise, George,” Gerard says as he stands. “Don’t say ‘dubstep’ in the store unless you want to start a four-day feud.” He follows Brendon to the door, dragging Mikey along.
“You know it’s not really an art project, right, Gee?” Mikey asks quietly.
“I know, Mikes.” Gerard says, sighing. “But if it’s not art, why did you have to use my good glue?”
Bob sighs and pushes himself up from his chair. He likes to think of himself as a pretty patient guy. He’s managed to work for Rex Manning for over a year and not kill him after all. But frankly, he’s kind of tired of hanging out with the delinquents on the couch.
He knocks on Brian’s office door and pushes it open. Brian looks up from what he’s doing looking mildly surprised. Bob’s brain chooses that moment to realize that, hey, Brian is kind of gorgeous with his earnest eyes and the tattoos peeking out over the collar of his dress shirt and spilling down his arms under the rolled up sleeves. Bob shrugs, suddenly feeling shy and awkward. “Needed a change of scenery,” he says.
Brian nods towards the couch, and that’s all the invitation Bob needs. He pulls the door shut and settles himself against the brown vinyl.
“Had enough of the island of misfit toys?” Brian asks.
Bob shrugs. “They’re all right. Rex on the other hand,” he trails off. “You know, I don’t even like his music.”
Brian looks at him, a smile twitching at the corner of his mouth. “That’s nothing to be ashamed of,” he says.
“I used to be a way more interesting person,” Bob says. “I used to run sound for some pretty awesome bands.” He’s not sure why he’s suddenly pouring out his life story to a stranger, but it’s like his mouth has stopped taking orders from his brain. “I wanted to be a drummer, though. Thought I found a band I could work with, so I stopped working sound. Then when it fell through I was pretty much broke, and a friend of a friend knew Rex was looking for an assistant, and here I am.” Bob spreads his hands.
Brian looks at him for a long moment. Bob is about to go look for a hole to crawl into and die of embarrassment when Brian says, “I used to be a tour manager.”
“Yeah?” Bob says.
“Yeah.” Brian gets up from his desk and comes over to sit beside Bob on the couch. “And now I manage a record store. Not quite as thrilling.”
Brian shrugs. “I really wanted to get into artist management, but I never found a band I felt like I could put my heart and soul into, you know?” Bob nods. “And touring’s a hard life. I thought I’d be happier with something more stable. And here I am,” he says, echoing Bob.
“So, are you happier?”
Brian shrugs. “Some days. Today maybe not so much. All I know is nobody ever got too far sitting around waiting for things to change.”
It’s nothing Bob hasn’t heard before, on TV and motivational posters, but for some reason today, in this slightly shabby record store office, it feels like an epiphany. He nods. “You’re absolutely right,” he says, grabbing his bag and standing.
Brian looks startled. “Where are you going?”
Bob shrugs. “I’ve never been to Tahiti.”
“Oh, no,” Brian says, and now he looks really alarmed. “You can’t quit. Not today. Can’t you wait and quit tomorrow?”
Bob smiles and shakes his head. “No, I don’t think I can. But seriously, Brian. Thanks for everything.” Bob turns and walks away, and he feels a little bad for ignoring Brian calling his name, but mostly he just feels free.
“I like your hair.”
Lindsey doesn’t stop checking inventory, and she doesn’t turn around to look at Gabe. It takes pretty much everything she’s got to keep flipping through CDs and checking boxes on the list on her clipboard. If she just pretends like he’s not there, he’ll go away.
“Are you okay?”
Or not. “Who told you?” she asks, not turning around and putting as much ice into her voice as she can manage. It’s a lot.
“Everybody,” Gabe says. “Patrick.”
“It wasn’t about you,” Lindsey says. It’s not that she’s feeling super generous. She just thinks this is probably the quickest way to get rid of him. She is not going to be able to keep it together if Gabe keeps talking to her in that soft, contrite voice.
“But last night,” he says. “I should have known something was wrong.”
“No,” she says. “You shouldn’t. I’m fucked up, and when you’re as fucked up as me, you get good at faking it.”
“I’m sorry,” Gabe says.
Gabe just lays a hand on her shoulder. “Let me know if you want to talk,” he says. Then he walks away, and Lindsey is so, so grateful because she really couldn’t handle another second. She slips her headphones back in and cranks up the volume on her iPod. As long as she can just keep everyone at bay and get some fucking work done, everything is going to be just fine.
“Guess who’s here!” Frank chirps over the intercom, which is the first clue that everything might just be going very wrong. Again. Patrick looks up from blocking the soul section, which is right in the path of bored, waiting Rex Manning fans, who can’t seem to grasp putting things back where they came from and spins quickly to intercept Mitch.
“Mr. Beck!” he says, smiling, over-helpful and friendly, which is his default method for dealing with Mitch.
“Patrick,” Mitch says, walking right past him and up to the signing table. Patrick tries to hang back, but Mitch is in the store. Mitch is in the store, probably looking for last night’s deposit. Which Pete took to Atlantic City. While he’s distracted telling Rex the story of Beck’s Bathroom Fixtures Emporium, which he tells anyone who stands still long enough, Patrick grabs Brendon by his collar and whispers, “Go warn Brian and Pete. Hide him if you have to.” Brendon stares back, wide-eyed for a second before scrambling off so fast he nearly strangles himself before Patrick lets go.
“Pete, hide! Hide, Pete!” Brendon bursts through the double doors, and Pete barely has time to even look up before Mitch is sliding past him and giving him an exaggerated side-eye.
“Brian,” Mitch says in greeting. “I’m going by the bank anyway, so why don’t you give me last night’s deposit. I’ll make sure it actually gets there this time.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Brian says, barely even looking up from shoving Music Town aprons into open lockers.
“Oh, good, you told them,” Mitch says, completely unconcerned. Brendon gasps and furrows his brow. Who the fuck does he even think he is?
“Mitch!” Pete interrupts, smiling easily. “This is George.”
“And who are you?”
“I’m Pete,” Pete says. “I work here.”
As Pete goes on about the “demonstration” George had put on for the staff, Brendon watches in astonishment while Brian grabs an empty deposit bag and stuffs it with time-off request forms. When he locks it, the bag looks reassuringly full of a cash-like substance and Mitch smiles when Brian shoves it into his hands.
“There now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?”
"Okay, everybody out," Patrick says.
The room looks up. Gerard is still huddled behind the table, and Mikey's perched on top of it. Patrick sees Brendon by the mini-fridge—again? Rex is going to have to rock a serious whiz later—and Pete is, of course, on the couch. Gabe has apparently shown up at some point, and he stands up with guilty eyes and his hands covered in black spray paint. Patrick doesn't even want to know. He just cocks his head towards the two extremely capable-looking police officers who've followed him through the store.
"Everybody out, I said," Patrick says, using his Extremely Annoyed face in conjunction with the I Mean It, Now, I'm a Damn Manager voice. Officer Simmons smirks. "Where's Brian?"
"Hi," Brian says as he emerges from his office. "Not you, Pete." Pete drops back onto the couch and crosses his legs while everyone else files out.
"Yeah," George says, letting the worlds smallest smirk slip out around the corners of his mouth. "The couch is for delinquents, after all."
"This is George Ross," Patrick says, and he hands over a small sheet of paper. "This is the estimated value of what we found in his pockets."
"Petty larceny," George says. "What I do best."
“Clearly,” Brian says.
"Thanks," Officer Simmons says. "Well, he's a minor, so we're going to have to call his parents—"
"Joy of joys," George says in the flattest voice Patrick's heard from him yet and frowns. For real, he actually frowns.
"Okay, do you need a statement from me or anything?" Brian asks.
"I don't think so," the officer says. She smiles just a little and it makes her look slightly less terrifying. "We've got what Mr. Stump told us and—"
"Mister Stump is covering for that guy," George says, jerking his head towards Pete, who looks innocently affronted. "Talk about theft. He stole nine grand."
"Okay, seriously, I've had enough of you," Patrick says. He steps forward, but Officer Simmons stops him with a hand on his arm. She looks at him sternly, and Patrick quails. "Right," he says. "All yours."
"We'll take him off you hands now," she says, and her partner steps up with a pair of cuffs. "Book him, Cash."
"Cash?" George says as he stands, sighing as if this is the world's greatest injustice. "Officer Cash?"
"Officer Colligan to you, punk-ass," Cash says. "She just wishes my name was 'Danno.’"
"The long arm of the law has embraced our good friend George," Pete says, smiling beatifically. "Take care of yourself!"
"Bye, George," Patrick says, waving his fingers with glee as Officer Simmons lands a hand on George's bony shoulder.
“Listen,” George says, fixing his eyes on each of them in turn. It’s sort of unsettling. “I’ll be back. I’ll be back, and you will rue the day you put these wrists in handcuffs.”
Patrick stares back. Brian blinks and then scoffs as the officers tug George out the doors.
"Don't drop the soap," Brian mutters. "And good riddance."
"Brian," Pete says, looking aggrieved. "1973 called. They want their joke back."
“I’m doing the quarterly income tax returns,” Lindsey says without looking up. “I’m almost done.” She’s sitting on the carpet in one of the vinyl listening booths, her laptop plugged in under the turntable. She looks away from the screen as Brian pulls the door open a little further and crouches down. Her boots nearly touch his knees as she stretches her legs out in front of her.
“Uh,” Brian says and clears his throat. “You wanna talk or anything, Linds?”
“Gonna fix me, Brian?” Lindsey asks, smiling a little. “I’ll listen. I’ll try.”
“Never goes well for me,” he mutters. “But I just mean, you know. I could call your mom for you or something?”
“Huh.” She shakes her head as Brian tugs on his collar, rubbing his hand over his neck tattoo. “Yeah, sure. You could give me her number if you find her.”
“Jesus,” Brian says, covering his eyes with a hand. “Yeah. Okay.” He sighs and looks at her. Lindsey looks back, knowing he had to walk past Gabe out on the balcony with his button-maker to get here. Brian shrugs and gives her a grim little smile. “You do a good job here, you know?”
Lindsey blinks as he gets up, turns away. She smiles a little to herself, proud. It makes her feel good. Not a lot, though, and not for long.
Brendon isn’t sure how he ended up being Rex Manning’s personal gofer, but he’s been sent back for bottled water four times this morning, and he finds himself ushering Mister Manning into the count out room for his lunch. Brendon does an exaggerated “after you” flourish, and then trips backwards as someone tugs on the back of his shirt.
“I’m bringing Rex his lunch,” Gerard whispers emphatically before he slides through the door behind Rex.
Brendon shrugs, and then raises an eyebrow when he hears the click of the lock.
According to the big clock on the wall, it is 1:22, and Frank is getting a little stressed out. He’s supposed to tell Gerard how he feels in the next fifteen minutes, and he has no idea how. Like, he practically gave Gerard his fucking blessing or whatever to go fuck Rex Manning. What’s he supposed to say? “Oh, hey, I know I gave you lube and a condom to fuck the pop star, but actually would you fuck me instead?” Yeah, brilliant.
Frank spots Brendon a couple of aisles over, just finishing up with a customer. “Hey, Bren!” he calls. “I’m gonna take my fifteen. Can you watch the register?”
Brendon gives him a cheesy double thumbs up, and Frank books it for the back. He seriously cannot put on a fake smile and helpful attitude for another second. He swings by his locker and grabs his cigarettes and lighter from his jacket pocket, then heads out the back door.
Frank is feeling calmer after a couple of drags, but he still doesn’t know what to do about his whole fucked up, pining, hopeless love situation. Just as he’s about to give up and go back inside, the door slams open. Frank’s stomach drops when he sees that it’s Gerard. He thinks maybe it’s providence or some shit, but then he gets a good look at Gerard’s face.
“Oh, hey, Frankie,” Gerard says, and he tries to smile, but it drops immediately. 1:37 will just have to wait.
“What’s wrong, Gee?” Frank asks.
Gerard’s face crumples. “Nothing,” he says. “Just got totally shut down by Rex Manning, that’s all. Should have known he’d never want a stupid k-kid.” He’s crying now. And not like the end of Tangled crying. Real crying. Frank pulls him into a hug, hanging on tight while Gerard gets tears and probably snot all over the collar of his t-shirt. After a minute or two, Gerard calms down a bit and pulls away, eyes red.
“Come on, Gee,” Frank says. “Let’s go get some lunch. You can decompress or something.”
Gerard nods, sniffling pitifully. “Okay, Frankie.”
They walk the couple blocks to the pizza place where Ray sometimes picks up shifts and grab a table outside, a little way away from any other customers. Gerard slumps in his chair, staring dejectedly at the table.
Frank casts about for something to say. What he comes up with is, “Fuck Rex Manning anyway. Who does he even think he is? You don’t need him. We’ll find you another guy, Gee. Don’t you worry.”
Gerard glances up. “I don’t want another guy,” he says. “I’m not like you, you know?”
Frank frowns. “What do you mean like me?”
Gerard sighs and digs in his pocket. He pulls out the unused lube and condom and pushes them across the table towards Frank. “I guess I won’t be needing these anytime soon, is what I mean.”
Frank looks back and forth between the items on the table and Gerard’s face a couple of times. He can’t believe Gerard would—that he thinks—but clearly he does. Frank narrows his eyes. “Oh,” he says, the words coming out hard and angry. “Not a turbo slut like me, you mean.”
Gerard’s eyes widen. “No, I didn’t—I just mean—you kind of sleep with a lot of people is all.”
Frank is practically vibrating with the anger and hurt coursing through him. He knew Gerard was too good for him, with his talent and all going off to art school and everything. He just never thought Gerard thought that.
He stands up, the metal patio chair scraping loudly across the concrete. “Yeah, well fuck you too,” he says, loud enough that people start turning their heads at other tables, but Frank does not even care. “So what if I like sex? There’s nothing fucking wrong with that, and fuck you if you think there is.” And then he has to go. Frank can’t stand there looking at Gerard’s face anymore when he feels like all this anger could just collapse, and he might do something stupid like cry because his best friend who he’s in love with thinks he’s a slut.
On his angry walk back to work, Frank has a moment of clarity. This is all Rex Manning’s fault. None of this would have happened if he hadn’t shown up. Obviously, Rex Manning has to pay.
Frank finds Rex sitting at the signing table looking bored and a little pissy. There’s still another hour left in the signing, but the line is gone. Rex kind of looks like a tool. Well, he looks like a tool all the time as far as Frank’s concerned, but like, more. Frank slides into the chair next to him.
“Hey, Rex,” he says, forcing himself to smile sweetly. “I’m Frank.”
Rex looks over at him, giving him a totally smarmy once over. Oh, Frank has got this. “I remember,” Rex says. “You were, ah, dancing when we got here.”
Frank nods and smirks. “I like to show off,” he says, letting his voice drop lower and a little breathy.
“Is that so?”
“Yep. You wanna see what else I’ve got to show?”
“Not much left to see,” Rex remarks.
“Nothing but the grand finale,” Frank counters. “Why don’t we go somewhere a little more, uh, private, and you can tell me what you think of it?”
He stands, and Rex is following, adjusting himself as he stands. Subtle, Frank thinks, working hard not to snicker out loud. When they get back to the break room, it’s unoccupied for the first time all day. All the better for Frank’s plan.
“Is there somewhere a little more private we can go?” he asks, looking around at the closed doors.
Fuck. Frank thinks fast. “But there’s a perfectly good couch right here,” he says, keeping his voice low and sexy. Rex’s eyes go dark, and he licks his lips. He hooks two fingers in Frank’s waistband and pulls him forward until their hips are pressed together. It takes everything he’s got to keep looking up at Rex adoringly. He reaches around and grabs Rex’s ass, pulling him in closer. And seriously, the break room is never empty this long. Frank’s counting down the seconds in his head until the final phase of his plan. He doesn’t give a fuck about that “best served cold” shit. He’ll take his revenge right the fuck now, thanks.
The signing isn't over. It's only three, but the line's gone. The last few stragglers are sticking around to inspect the shelves, their records or photos clutched close to their chests. Brendon looks around, watching Lindsey and Gerard carefully not speak to each other at the registers, Gabe huddled on the balcony with his button-maker, Patrick shoving CDs into their proper places and he frowns.
Brendon heads for the stereo, his personal mastery of the sound system almost entirely unchallenged all day, except for Mikey's request. His luck can't hold out much longer, and he's going to go out with a bang.
"Hey, B," Lindsey says, joining him. "Gabe made you a button." Brendon takes it and grins.
"Ha," he says. "Bden Rox!" He gasps and grabs both of Lindsey's hands in his. "Linds, you're just in time."
Brendon slides a violently purple CD into the changer, and a synth line blares over the speakers.
"Oh, Rexy, you're so sexy!" He moans along with the breathy starlet listed as a "featured artist" on the track, and Lindsey immediately slams her hands over her ears.
"Oh, no, no, no, veto, veto!" She says as Brendon hops over the railing. "We are not listening to Rex Manning!"
"No," Brendon agrees. "We're dancing to it!" He grabs her arm, pulling a hand away from her ear and grinning at her. "C'mon Linds," he says quietly. "Dance with me, pretty lady."
"You're the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen," Lindsey says and Brendon shakes and shimmies, and then she laughs. "But your hips don't lie."
By the time the chorus comes around, only Gerard isn't dancing. Patrick's waltzing decorously with a woman old enough to be his mother, and Pete, Mikey, and Gabe have started a tiny mosh pit in the R&B section, pogoing around with abandon, Pete holding a cushion from the break room couch to his chest and bouncing straight up and down. Gerard is still at the register, one hand propped under his chin, but he stands up straight as Brian's voice calls out,
"You guys having fun?"
Brendon rights Lindsey out of her dip, which was immaculate, if he says so himself, and hops over the railing again to stop the CD. Brian stomps down the stairs from the balcony, and tosses Gabe's spray paint back at him. It nearly hits Mikey in the face, but Gabe grabs it.
"No, don't let me stop you, children," Brian says, spreading his arms wide. "Keep dancing. But you better do it now, because by next week, this is going to be a Music Town, and I don't think they allow dancing at Music Town!"
Pete steps up, still clutching his couch cushion to his chest. He shrugs and asks,
"What are we supposed to do instead, Brian?"
Brian chuckles and comes down the last few steps. He stands in front of Pete, and Brendon's never noticed that they're about the same height before, but as Brian turns to the room at large, Pete stands up straight, and they are.
"What am I supposed to do with this guy, huh? Turn him into the cops?" Patrick takes a breath, like he's going to speak, but he closes his mouth with a snap when Brian looks at him. "Put in my own nine grand? Then I'm fucked, my employees are fucked, and all you wonderful people who still buy vinyl and CDs and the art on the walls, you're all fucked too, because Music Town doesn't care what you want. They don't even carry anything with a Parental Advisory sticker on it!" This last is so vehement, so hateful, that Brendon takes a step back. "So what am I supposed to do?" Brian asks, quietly, turning back to Pete.
"Don't worry, Brian," Pete says sincerely. "You're a superb manager."
"Superb?" Brian says, disbelievingly.
"Superb," Pete confirms. "You'll figure it out," he says with absolute confidence.
Brian's shoulders drop and he deflates entirely. "I can't fix everything," he says. "I'm not the god of record store managers, Pete."
"You're pretty close." Pete says, and Brendon can't even help nodding along. It's true.
"Fuck, Pete," Brian says, gesturing him forward. "Go back to the goddamn couch and let me figure this shit out."
“Come on,” Pete says, stepping up, and Brian wraps a hand around the back of his neck.
Brendon and Patrick follow as Pete and Brian make their way back to the break room double doors, Patrick shooting concerned glances at the pair. Brendon glances up at the registers, but Lindsey’s back up there, talking quietly to Gerard, who’s staring at his hands as he counts change.
“Patrick, why are we going with them?” Brendon whispers.
“I’m just going to make sure Pete stays intact. Why are you coming?”
“Um,” Brendon shrugs. “I’m nosy?”
At that, Brian turns his head and smiles at Brendon, and Pete laughs, stupid and loud, and Patrick punches Brendon in shoulder. It stings, and he makes an exaggerated “ow” face, but he feels like things might actually work out.
Right up until they all push through the doors, because there’s Rex Manning with Frank backed up into the bare back of the couch, holding on to his shoulder with one hand, and the other on Frank’s crotch.
“Rex Manning!” Frank gasps, and he immediately jumps to his feet, a completely put-on look of scandalized hurt on his face. “Why would you—oh my god!” Rex jumps back like he’s been burned, and Frank flees towards the group at the door. “Brian,” he calls out, loud enough to be heard in the next county. “Brian, I need an adult!”
“Oh my god,” Brendon says. “What the fuck, Manning!”
“Oh my god, Frank,” Patrick groans, covering his face, and Frank slaps at him with the one hand that isn’t clutched around Brian’s shoulders.
“Shut the fuck up, dude,” Frank hisses.
“Seriously?” Brian says, and Brendon can practically see his blood pressure rising, and he curls an arm around Frank to protect him from Brian’s wrath. But Brian turns on Rex, who’s holding his head high, like he hasn’t done anything wrong. “My seventeen-year-old employee, Manning? Jesus fucking Christ. I am so goddamn done with you and your five-hundred-dollar sneakers, and your stupid fucking haircut—”
“The album,” Frank whispers into Brendon’s ear and it sounds like he’s grinning. Brendon pushes his head down so his face is hidden in Brendon’s neck. Somebody could maybe mistake the way Frank’s shoulders are shaking for tears. Maybe.
“And we all hate the album,” Brendon says, because Frank’s right. George was right. It’s shit.
“You look like a complete tool in the video,” Ray’s voice comes from behind him, and Brendon turns his head to see most of the staff standing behind Patrick in the doorway.
“You really can’t fucking dance, dude,” Gabe says sadly. “You need the Cobra in your life.”
“You’re just a washed-up, first-wave Disney plastic kid.” Patrick says. “At least the younger ones can sing.”
“Where’s Bob?” Rex finally asks, like he thinks his tough-guy PA can protect him.
“He quit, pal,” Brian says with glee, and he grabs up Rex’s orange leather messenger bag that probably cost more than Brian’s car—new—and throws it at him. “So take your purse and get the fuck out of my store.”
Rex Manning runs a hand through his feathered hair, squares his shoulders and huffs, “Washed-up, first-wave Disney kid?” Patrick nods seriously, and Frank giggles against Brendon’s neck.
“Shut up,” Brendon whispers.
“Well,” Rex says. “You might be right.” And he goes, sliding out the back door and letting it bang shut behind him.
“Fuck you too,” Frank laughs as he extricates himself from Brendon and throws his arms up. “Victory!”
“What did the man do to deserve that?” Brian asks.
“Besides be a total tool?” Frank asks sarcastically.
“Exist?” Gabe says.
“He, uh, made Gerard upset.” Frank says.
“Fear Frank’s wrath,” Ray says. “Especially when you fucking deserve it.” Toro’s frowning, and he still looks like a cool roadie, but like, one faced with really scary fans, or maybe a broken down van or something. It’s scary.
“You know the age of consent in Jersey is sixteen?” Brian says, shoving Frank’s shoulder.
“Duh,” Frank says, and then he grins. “But Rex Manning didn’t know that.”
Frank’s still hanging around, inexplicably. He clocked out ten minutes ago, but he’s huddled behind Ray’s counter, flipping through the punk vinyl with Lindsey, his shoulders up around his ears. Patrick can’t make sense of it, at least not until he catches Gerard sitting hunched against the stereo railing, half-hidden behind the magazine racks. He’s not even pretending to work, and he’s supposed to be on register still, with Brendon.
These kids are fucking stupid.
“Frank,” he says, and leans over the vinyl counter. Frank doesn’t look up, but Lindsey comes out, and Patrick can see the cords of Frank’s earbuds protruding from the hood he’s got tugged up over his ears.
“He’s fucking stupid,” Lindsey says. “I’m gonna go back Bden up.”
“You sure?” Patrick says, looking up to catch her eyes. “You should’ve had a break already.”
“Yeah,” she says. “It’s fine.” Patrick nods and watches her walk away, her shoulders back and her head up.
“Frank,” he says again, louder. “Iero!”
“Jesus, ‘Trick,” Frank says, and he tugs his earbuds out. “What?”
“Walk with me.” Patrick holds one arm out, gesturing for Frank to come out from behind the counter. “I want to talk to you.”
“I didn’t do it,” Frank says automatically, and Patrick has to laugh.
“No, you didn’t. Come on, we’ll go make sure Pete’s still on the couch.” Usually, when Patrick wants to talk to an employee, he uses the break room. He might have to go for the count out room or Brian’s office if Gabe’s still back there with his tee-shirts, because he and Pete will be thick as thieves.
But when they get back there, Gabe’s the only one there, fiddling with the silk-screen out by the back door. He pokes his head in, but Patrick waves him away and tries the count out room door, just in case. It’s locked, which is weird, so Patrick knocks at the office door.
“What?” Brian answers looking completely deflated. “I just got off the phone with my lawyer. He refused to loan me nine thousand dollars, because he’s not fucking stupid. What is it, Patrick?”
“Uh, can I use your office?” Patrick asks tentatively, glancing back at Frank, who’s wearing his “surly punk” face.
“Patrick?” Gerard’s voice interrupts. “Brian, can I count out now? I’m not feeling so goo—oh.” Gerard looks at Frank, who just stares at his Chucks like they hold the secrets of the universe.
“Okay, Gee,” Brian says quietly and Gerard nods his thanks and heads for the count out room with his till.
“Oh, it’s locked,” Patrick says, but Gerard tries the door anyway.
“Why’s the door locked?” he asks. “I wanted to go home. Where’s Mikey?”
Patrick steps forward, fumbling for his keys, but then Gabe says, “Better question. Where’s Pete?”
As if summoned by his name, Pete tumbles out of the count out room, laughing. His collar’s crooked, popped only on one side, and he nearly runs into Gerard. Mikey slinks out behind him, the top button of his jeans undone and red marks blooming on his throat.
“What—” Gerard says, and then he sighs and leans back against the wall. “Jesus fucking Christ.”
“Oh, god, Pete.” Patrick says.
“Can I get just the tiniest bit of help out on the floor?” Lindsey asks as she bursts through the double doors. “This is not a rhetorical question, motherfuckers—oh.” She grins, taking in the scene. “Brotherfuckers, I mean.”
“Holy fucking Christ,” Gerard groans, and he throws his till to the ground, scattering change all over the floor with a crash. “My baby brother, Pete!”
“Hey,” Mikey says, but that’s it. Just “hey.”
“Look, I’m sorry,” Gerard says. “I love you, Pete, I do. We’ve been friends a long time. But we’ve been friends a long goddamned time, and that is my baby brother, who is sixteen. And I don’t want to say you’re fucked up, but—no, you know what? You’re totally fucked up. You’re better than you were, but Mikey is nowhere near as messed up as you or me, and Pete, it’s not fair!” Gerard seems to be building up steam here, and Patrick steps forward, but he doesn’t know what to do. He’s never seen Gerard like this. “It’s not fucking fair of you to mess around with his head when you are this—”
“Fuck you!” It’s not Pete who speaks. It’s Frank. “Jesus Christ, Gerard. Fuck you!” he shouts, looking at Gerard for the first time since he came in. “You’re such a fucking hypocrite! Pete’s fucked up? I don’t know if you noticed, Gerard, but—” he laughs and raises his arms, taking in the room. “We’re all fucked up. Lindsey’s fucked up, Mikey’s fucked up, Patrick, me, Gabe, you! You think I don’t know what you do? I see what you do! I see you, with vodka bottles stashed between your mattress and the wall, and the rum behind R2D2 in your closet, and the comic books you escape into so you don’t have to leave the house. I could be as fucking celibate as you if I was afraid to leave the goddamned basement!”
Mikey makes an aborted movement, like he’s going to say something. Frank keeps yelling, but now Patrick’s watching Mikey. You wouldn’t know it if you hadn’t known the kid since he was thirteen, but he looks fucking betrayed.
“You’re just as fucked up as any of us!” Frank screams. He starts forward, fists balled, but Patrick knows what to do, finally. He steps forward and catches Franks’ left arm as Brian grabs his right.
The fight goes right out of him, immediately, and Brian says, “Frank, you better go home.”
“Am I fired?” Frank asks indignantly. Brian pats his shoulder and lets go of him.
“Have I fired anyone today? No. Why would I start with you?”
“Fine,” Frank says. He grabs his backpack and shoves past Gabe and out the door.
Patrick sees movement out of the corner of his eye and steps toward it without thinking, his arms coming out to catch Gerard as he falls.
Pete’s on Gerard’s other side, whispering, “I’m sorry, Gee. I’m sorry. I can’t help it. I’m sorry,” over and over into Gerard’s hair as Gerard shakes, his hands over his face.
Gerard’s crumpled, not even able to catch himself on his knees, and Patrick’s taking most of his weight, Gerard’s back to his front as Gee sobs uncontrollably into his hands, his breathing coming in gasps as Patrick wraps his arms around him. Lindsey drops to her knees in front of them, pushing Gee’s hair back and coaxing his hands down from his face.
“I can take care of him,” she says. “I can—” She looks up at Brian, who looks devastated, helpless, his hands open. “Let me take care of him, Brian.”
“Okay,” Brian says hoarsely.
Lindsey sits Gerard down on the closed toilet. He’s not really sobbing anymore, but there are still tears rolling down his cheeks every few seconds, and he’s breathing fast and shallow, kind of squeaking on the inhales. She crouches down in front of him and takes his hands. “Gerard, I need you to take some slow, deep breaths for me,” she says, trying to keep her voice level, soothing. There’s a bitter laugh that tries to claw its way out of her chest at that, but she shoves it back down. She’s helping Gerard. That’s what’s important. She can do this.
Gerard’s breathing doesn’t change. She’s not even sure he’s listening, so she tries again, a little sterner. “Look at me.” Gerard looks up, eyes wide and eyeliner streaked down his cheeks. “Slow, deep breaths,” she repeats, demonstrating. Gerard copies her, and after a minute or two it seems like he’s mostly calmed down.
“Feel better?” Lindsey asks.
Gerard nods. “Yeah,” he says. “Except how I’m still a complete fuck up.”
Lindsey rolls her eyes. “Oh, please. You don’t even want to get into the fuck up olympics with me.” She waves her bandaged wrist at him.
He winces. “Well, I couldn’t even seduce Rex Manning.”
She has to laugh a little at that. “Is that really how you wanted your first time to be? With some washed up pop star you just met in the count out room?”
“It wouldn’t be my—” Lindsey knows where he’s going with this, and she cuts him off.
“Your first time that counted, Gerard.”
Gerard looks stricken. “It counted!”
Lindsey shakes her head. The next words cost her, but she looks into Gerard’s pretty, puffy eyes, and she knows she can’t keep this. “Look, honey, we had a lovely time together, but you are gay. Like really, for sure. Your real first time should be with somebody you’re actually attracted to.”
“I wanted to be,” he says, looking lost. From anybody else it would be a bullshit line, but Gerard’s practically got a monopoly in earnest sincerity.
“I know you did,” she says.
“So are we okay?”
Lindsey sighs. “I’m pretty sure we’re still colossal fuck ups, but yeah. We’re okay.”
“You’re an amazing person, Lindsey Ballato,” Gerard says. “I hope you find someone who can be everything you need.”
He wraps her up in a hug before she can deflect it , and actually it’s pretty nice. She lets herself sink into it for a few seconds before gently pushing Gerard away. She stands, tugging him up with her. “Come on, lover boy. We’ve still got CDs to sell to people who haven’t joined the twenty-first century.”
“Is Gerard okay?” Brendon asks as Patrick sits. He and Gabe are huddled on one of the couches by the vinyl counter, and it’s sort of hilarious how tiny Brendon looks next to Gabe. Except that it’s totally not.
“I think so,” Patrick sighs.
“He’ll be okay,” Gabe says.
“I wish there was some way we could help Brian,” Brendon says, propping his chin in one hand. “But I really, really don’t have nine thousand bucks. Gabe?”
“I’ve never seen that much money in my life, baby,” Gabe says and he kicks his feet out, sprawling his legs over the couch and about three feet of floor. The toe of his stupid mid-nineties skate shoe bumps against Patrick’s toes. “How ‘bout you, ‘Trick, you got nine thousand bucks?”
“You think I’d still be working here if I had nine thousand bucks, Gabe?”
Brendon and Gabe look at each other and giggle. It’s pretty much the most chummy Patrick’s ever seen the two of them. God help the Empire if those two ever make real friends, beyond a “Hey, how are you?” acquaintance. Property damage is assured.
“Yeah,” they say in unison.
“You would,” Brendon says with confidence.
Patrick blinks. It’s not like they don’t have a point.
Goddamn it. Patrick very carefully slides a Radiohead CD back into its rack, his hands steady despite himself. Pete’s still on the couch, and Patrick’s going to ask him. He’s been avoiding the question all day, but goddamn it, he’s going to ask. So he takes off his cap, runs a hand through his hair, pulls the brim back down over his forehead determinedly and slides through the double doors into the break room.
“Pete, why did you take that money?” he asks, hands open. He strides across to the couch and sits heavily next to Pete, elbows on his knees. “Did you have a plan?”
Pete squints at him for a moment, head cocked to one side. “No,” he says, crossing his arms and leaning back. “Not a comprehensive plan.”
“I think you did,” Gerard says from the doorway. He steps forward and Patrick and Pete both look up at him. He hands them each a half sheet of his really good sketch paper, turns on his heel and walk away.
Patrick looks down at the paper, which has a sketchy, spiky graveyard scene on it. He looks over, and Pete’s is slightly different, with a rusting motorcycle leaning against a tree instead of a shadowy figure smoking a cigarette, but both of them feature a crumbling headstone as the central image.
It says “R.I.P Lindsey.”
Gerard has a very Catholic, ritualistic idea of what a funeral’s supposed to look like. Lindsey gingerly arranges herself on his work table, which is covered with a sheet of fake white silk he’d found somewhere and surrounded by enough candles to set off the smoke alarm if the one in the back worked. She scoots her ass down and lays her head back into a pile of deep red and purple fake rose petals. They’re scratchy on the back of her bare scalp. She huffs out a laugh and tips her head back to stare up into his face, upside down above her with the dirty dropped-ceiling tiles behind it. She almost expects him to hand her some pennies to put on her eyelids.
“This is all very Baz Luhrman, baby.”
“You love his movies,” Gerard says, laying two fingers over her lips. “Now, shh, everybody’s coming.”
Lindsey closes her eyes as everyone files in. Well, everyone except Patrick, who she kind of wishes could be there, but someone has to man the sales floor, and who else would do it by himself? And Frank. Obviously. Brian’s shoes are squeaky, new, unbroken leather, and she can hear him take his place by her feet. Gabe’s long fingers tug the sheet under her and brush her arm, and Lindsey wants to pull away from them a little. But she doesn’t. Dead people don’t move.
Gerard clears his throat and begins, “We’re here today to pay our last respects to Lindsey.” His voice is somber, the hard Jersey vowels somehow fitting and sweet when they’re quiet like this. “She left us, and she never said why. It’s the first time I can remember that she wasn’t there for us. Lindsey was a person you could rely on. She always had your back, whether you needed a shift picked up or an honest opinion. Most of the time, you didn’t have to ask her for that, but she gave it to you anyway.” She can’t help smiling a little at that, but she schools her face back to placid nothingness. “Lindsey was an artist. Did you guys know that?” Gerard continues. “She never shouted about it, but she made the most amazing paper sculptures. She gave Mikey a zombie unicorn for his last birthday.”
“It was stupid,” Lindsey interjects, not even opening her eyes. “It’s just origami.”
“Shut up,” Brendon says, slapping the toe of her boot. “It was awesome, and besides, dead people don’t talk.”
“Gabe?” Gerard says, and Lindsey’s eyes flutter open, and then closed again. “Do you want to say something?”
“I—” Gabe sighs. Lindsey likes him because of his bluster, his take-no-prisoners attitude, his manic grin. When she looks up through slitted eyes, she finds that she likes his face like this too, lips parted and eyes wide. “I just want you to stay, Linds.” He shrugs. “That’s all.”
“Uh,” Pete says, and Lindsey opens her eyes fully and turns her head on the petal-strewn pillow to look at him. “I used to be a total fuckhead.” Everyone laughs a little, even Lindsey, because “used to?” “Yeah,” Pete says, shrugging. “I did. I was an idiot. I’d throw myself around on the soccer field and throw punches in pits, and when I was sixteen, my parents sent me to this military camp, like on Maury, you know? Scared straight or whatever. Not actually straight. They didn’t really care about that much.” He laughs self-deprecatingly and Mikey nudges him in the side with an elbow. “But for, yeah, for being a fuckhead. And after that, I tried really hard. I tried so hard. I got good grades and I came out here for school and I got a job so I didn’t have to rely on the Bank of Dad and I took my pills and I was so relentlessly normal.”
Lindsey can’t even imagine that Pete, one without his particular brand of maniacal genius, and she catches Brendon cocking his head to one side, staring intently. Gerard has one hand on either side of her head, and Lindsey tips her head back again to look up at him. He meets her eyes steadily.
“And then everything shattered,” Pete says, and she knows exactly what he means, the sharp-edged pieces that your life can become. Her eyes go back to him automatically. His hands are shoved into his pockets, his eyes fixed somewhere around her left shoulder. “All in the same day, I dropped out of school, I dumped the guy I was with, and I drove here in the car my father bought me. I sat in the parking lot at five in the morning, staring at my prescription bottle and thinking about all the things I could do to make the pills go away. I could throw them into the lake,” he says, shrugging. “With the rest of the dead things. Or I could come into the store and I could toss them down the toilet. Or I could do what I ended up doing. I could take them. All of them.”
Mikey reaches out and grasps Pete’s elbow with one hand. Pete looks at him and Lindsey has to look away, because that look is something private.
“I chased them with a week-old Dr. Pepper I had in the car. And then Brian found me when he came to open the store.” Lindsey tips her neck up to look at Brian, who has his arms crossed over his chest. “And he brought me inside. He didn’t open the store that day, and we went to the hospital. I sold my car to get an apartment.” Pete shrugs. “And I became the well-adjusted person I am today.”
And fuck everything, if Pete can say it, so can she. Lindsey moves, finally, ripping the bandages from first one wrist, then the other and holding them up for inspection. The inexpert scratches and the stinging cuts that crisscross the skin probably don’t look very impressive, but they’re the work of desperate hours, and suddenly she wants someone else, everyone else, to see them.
“Look,” she says. “I tried to kill myself with a Lady Bic.” It pours out of her mouth, and she can’t stop it. “A pink plastic razor with daisies on it and a moisturizing strip.” She shakes her head, feeling the scratch of the fake flower petals against her scalp again and closing her eyes. “I don’t have anything more dangerous than Advil in my apartment. I sat there staring at my Exacto knives for an hour, but I couldn’t do that.” She feels a tear slip out of the corner of her eye, hot and running towards her temple. Without her hair there to catch it, she bets that it makes a dark spot on the sheet. “I couldn’t take the tools I use to make my silly little paper animals, and turn them on my skin. So it took me forever just to make a mark. I sat there pressing a safety razor into my wrist for hours until I couldn’t even do that anymore, because I couldn’t do anything else.”
She takes a deep breath, good air in, bad air out, and opens her eyes. Gabe’s face is blurred above her, and Gerard is leaning over her again, pressing his soft lips to her scalp.
“We love you, Lindsey,” Brian says, wrapping one hand around her ankle, and she nods. It doesn’t actually solve anything, but it’s nice to hear. It’s nice, and it’s real, and she can trust it, for once in her life.
Frank eases the back door open slowly, trying to keep it from creaking, and slips inside. Brian told him to go home, but really he’s just been wandering around feeling generally shitty about life. He feels shitty because if there was ever a chance Gerard might love him back, he’s definitely blown it now. He feels shitty because he screamed stuff Mikey told him privately for everyone to hear. Like, Mikey never explicitly said not to tell anyone, but Frank’s pretty sure it was implied. And mostly he feels shitty because Gerard is his best friend, and that’s not how you treat your best friend, no matter what fucked up feelings you’re dealing with.
Frank is just about to step around the corner into the break room when he hears Gerard say, “I really miss Frank.” Frank’s breath catches in his throat. That’s definitely not what he expected Gerard to be saying about him right at this moment.
Lindsey says, “That’s awesome, sweetheart, but I thought this was my funeral.”
Funeral? Frank peeks around the corner. There are candles set up, and everyone is gathered around Lindsey, who’s lying on the sheet-covered work table.
Gerard shrugs. “I know,” he says. “But I can’t stop thinking about him. He’s not afraid of anything, and he’s not ashamed to be himself. He’s out in the world really living his life, and some days I can’t even leave the basement. I wish I could be brave like Frank.”
Frank doesn’t know what to think. He can’t believe that Gerard is saying these things about him after what he did and what he said. That just maybe he hasn’t fucked everything up after all. He steps into the room. “You are brave,” he says. Gerard turns to face him, eyes wide with surprise. “You’re getting the fuck out of here, man. You’re going to art school. You talk about how I do what I want, but I don’t. I can’t even—” Frank stops. He’s so afraid of what he’s going to say next, but he has to. Gerard thinks he’s brave, so Frank is going to try to be brave. “I was supposed to tell you something today,” he continues, softer. “By 1:37, even though I really should have said something months ago. But I was so afraid you wouldn’t—and then I didn’t know what I’d do.” Frank realizes he’s babbling. He squares his shoulders and looks Gerard in the eye. “I’m in love with you,” he says. He’s tempted to say more, but really, what else is there to say?
“Frankie,” Gerard breathes. “You—really?”
“Yeah?” Frank says. It’s a statement, but it sounds like a question. “Yeah,” he says again.
Gerard just stares for a minute until Lindsey sighs heavily. “Tell him you love him back, idiot,” she says. She tries to sit up, but several hands reach out to push her back down on the table. Gerard looks between Lindsey and Frank, then nods frantically.
“I do,” Gerard says. “Of course I love you, Frankie. I didn’t think you—it doesn’t matter.”
Frank abruptly feels like he’s floating an inch off the floor with the intense rush of relief and joy. He darts forward and presses his lips to Gerard’s. Gerard kisses back but pulls back way too quickly for Frank. Frank has been waiting a long fucking time to kiss Gerard. He doesn’t want to stop now that he’s finally started. He makes a noise of protest and tries to follow Gerard’s lips, but Gerard moves back another step.
“We can’t make out at a funeral, Frank,” he says, giving Frank the earnest eyes. He doesn’t give in even when Frank pulls out his very best pout, but he reaches out and laces their fingers together, drawing Frank in close against his side.
Frank thinks of something else. Speaking up has been going pretty well for him so far. He figures he might as well get everything off his chest. “Also I’m seriously not that brave. I want to play guitar in a band, but I’m too chicken shit to even audition.”
“But you’re totally amazing, Frank!” Gerard says.
Frank shrugs. “I’m okay.”
Gerard turns slightly to face him. “You are,” he says. His voice is emphatic, like he’s trying to push the words under Frank’s skin. “Anybody would be lucky to be in a band with you.”
“Yeah, like who?”
Gerard pauses to think, and then his whole face lights up. “Like me,” he declares.
“But you’re going to save the children through zombie comics,” Frank says.
Gerard waves a hand like his lifelong dream of drawing comics is inconsequential. “I can save the world with rock music,” he says. “Especially if it means we can save the world together.”
“Seriously?” Frank says.
“Yeah,” Gerard says. “I can sing all right. Mikey can play bass. Well, once he learns.”
“You cocksuckers,” Lindsey says fondly, shoving herself up on her elbows. “If this is going to turn into a band meeting, I’m getting the fuck off this table.”
Gabe helps her down, and there is something going on there that Frank is going to need some more information about. But later. Right now, he has a band to assemble. He looks over at Ray. “You wanna save the world with us?” he asks. Because somehow he has a feeling that whatever Gerard would call saving the world is probably going to need more than one guitarist.
Ray looks at them consideringly. After a minute, he nods. “No sex in communal band spaces,” he says.
Frank grins. If they’ve got Toro, there’s no way they’ll fail. “Who’s going to play drums?”
Brendon says, “Well, Patrick already turned me down.”
Someone clears their throat behind Frank. He turns to see that Bob dude standing in the doorway. “Um, are you serious? Because I’m kind of a drummer in search of a band right now.”
Frank is thrown because, hello, they just met this dude today. With Rex Manning. He shares a dubious look with Gerard. He’s about to tell Bob, thanks, but they don’t think he’s a good fit when Brian coughs a little and speaks up.
“Bob’s good people,” he says. Bob smiles at him and it looks like he might be blushing.
“Okay,” Gerard says. “Welcome aboard, Bob.”
Frank might have grilled him a little more first, but Gerard has faith in people. It’s one of the things Frank loves about him. And he’s usually right. He guesses they have a drummer.
He’s ready to settle in for a serious discussion of style and influences when Patrick’s voice comes over the PA, sounding extremely tense. “Brian, I need your help out front. Now. Nothing in my years of managerial experience has remotely prepared me for this situation. Please?”
The entire staff streams out of the store, most of the customers right behind them.
“Patrick!” Ray calls out, but Patrick is backing up off the sidewalk and into the road, his head tipped back and staring up at the marquee.
“George, what are you doing?” Brendon yells out, and the answer is that George is standing with the toes of his shoes hanging off the edge of the marquee, arms outstretched.
“What does it look like?” he says with every appearance of calm.
“It looks like you’re being a fucking idiot,” Brian says.
“You call this ‘ruing the day?’” Patrick calls up at George, who shrugs.
“You’ll be haunted by it, Patrick.” George says. “All of you.”
“Jesus Christ,” Lindsey says. “You interrupted my fucking funeral for this shit? Hey, George!”
“Goddammit,” George says as he drops his arms and looks down at her. “Will you people stop calling me George? My name isn’t fucking George!”
“Listen up, George,” Lindsey says. “You jump from there, you’re not gonna die, baby. You’re going to break some bones, maybe a nice clean leg if you’re lucky, but probably some ribs too. And then you’re going to sit in traction thinking about every fucking dumbass thing you did to put yourself there. It’s gonna hurt to breathe, George—”
“It already does!” George screams at her, his face twisted up, and Lindsey steps forward.
“I know, George.”
“Ryan,” he says, sniffing. “My name is Ryan. George is my father’s name. They called him, you know. He stumbled into that damn police station to pick me up, but I had to drive us home with him slugging Jack out of a flask in the passenger seat! Don’t fucking call me George!”
“Ryan,” Lindsey says. “I want you to come down from there.”
“I don’t give a shit what you want!” Ryan cries out. “Any of you! You all think you’re so fucking great! You’re so goddamn pretentious because you work in a record store! Brian, Pete steals nine thousand dollars from you and you don’t do shit to him? Are you going to give me a job?”
“Is that what you want, Ryan?” Lindsey asks, as quietly as she can. “To work in a record store?”
“No,” Ryan says, scrubbing a hand under his eye, which makes him look about twelve.
“I think you’re lying,” Pete says.
“What do you think, Brian?” Patrick says, starting to smile. “We could hire Ryan. He’s got the attitude down.”
Brian scoffs and laughs, and Gabe steps up to the edge of the marquee, which he can tap with his fingers, without even stretching. It’s really not that tall. He goes up on his toes and holds both of his hands out to Ryan.
“C’mon, dude,” he says. “Come on down from there.”
As Gabe brings Ryan down, hand over hand supporting his feet, then his skinny thighs, they hear the sirens start up a few streets away.
Patrick turns the cops away this time, which isn’t hard considering there’s not actually a criminal offense involved. But there’s no getting rid of the news crews, so he packs Geor—Ryan off to the break room to hide. Then he shoves Brendon over about six inches and wedges himself in between him and Gabe to sit on the curb and watch three different crews block off the street.
The three of them watch Lindsey stride purposefully across the street, and Brendon and Patrick both look at Gabe, eyebrows raised. Gabe just puts both hands in the air.
“Don’t ask me, dudes,” he says. “I just work here.”
“Ugh,” Brendon says disgustedly. “Dad joke. Cheeseball.”
"Hey," Gabe says, leaning back on his hands. "I wear the cheese. It does not wear me."
“Well,” Pete says behind them. “I think that’s it. Empire’s closing in a hour.” He comes around and parks his ass in the gutter between Patrick’s feet, pulling MIkey down with him. “Probably for the last time because of me.”
“No way,” Brendon says. “Can’t happen.”
“Here’s a start,” Lindsey says, jogging up to them with a wad of cash in her hand. “That’s nineteen hundred.” She slaps her flat palm to Pete’s chest, letting the money drip into his lap. She’s smiling. “I sold my Vespa.”
“No,” Pete says, but Gabe starts digging for his wallet and Bob steps out of the doorway and stands behind the little clutch huddled on the sidewalk.
“Here’s about eight hundred left over from the Rex Manning expense account,” he says, and Brian grins up at him as he drops onto the sidewalk next to Brendon.
“Here,” he says, handing his watch over. “I don’t know, maybe we can hock it.”
“Stop,” Pete says, but Gerard’s stepping forward holding his backpack now.
“I think I’ve got some money in here.”
“I got about eighty from the tee shirts and a couple of Gerard’s art cards,” Gabe says, throwing a pile of ones into Pete’s hands.
“Guys, stop,” Pete says, but then Patrick’s grabbing the entire pile up and counting it, bank facing them as he goes. He adds a twenty or two from his own wallet, but doesn’t let Pete see.
“I don’t have any money,” Brendon says, his chin propped on his knees.
“‘S’okay, B,” Pete says softly. “I wouldn’t want to take money from you.”
“It’s three thousand fifty,” Patrick says. “It’s not enough.”
“We need six more,” Ray says, sighing.
“Look,” Pete says, reaching over and grabbing Mikey’s hand. “The bold and courageous act did not change the course of history.” Mikey smiles, just a little tilt to his mouth that it seems he can’t even help when Pete looks at him. Patrick looks at his hands, and then Pete’s other hand comes into his line of sight and closes around his fingers. “I love you guys, but I hate money. Call Mitch.”
“Whoa,” Brendon says, his eyes fixed on the blocked-off street in front of them. “Wait.”
“Bren?” Patrick asks as Brendon shoots to his feet.
“Don’t call Mitch!” Brendon says. “Gimme just—just a second!” He takes off for the nearest news crew, and Brian stands, reaching after him futilely with one hand.
“What’s he doing?” Ray asks, and Lindsey hushes him, smacking him in the shoulder.
“Hey, hey, hi, I’m Brendon, I work here, and I saw the whole thing,” Brendon says to the guy with the microphone, who rolls with it like a pro.
“Here we have Brendon,” he says, smiling wide with all his teeth showing. “An employee of the store who—”
“Yeah, so there was this kid, and he was pretty messed up and some shit went down,” Brendon summarizes succinctly and Patrick has to laugh a little. “But that’s not the point!” Brendon says, bouncing on his toes. “See, we’re having a little get together here tonight at Empire Records! There’s gonna be booze and live music and art and shit for sale, and you’ve gotta come!”
The camera guy is looking around his eyepiece at the reporter, who shrugs, and they just keep rolling. Brendon is talking really fast, now.
“It’s gonna be banging, and it’s all to benefit local business.” That probably got one or two hippies, Patrick thinks. “Because if you guys don’t come, this town will lose another musical institution. So get your asses down to Main and Third tonight at midnight for an insanely epic party. Damn the man!” Brendon practically shouts. “The Empire strikes back!”
Brendon sprints back to the group to a smattering of applause, mostly from Gerard and Frank, but Patrick finds himself laughing right along with Brian. A little hysterically, to be honest.
“Come on, Brendon,” Brian says. “You gotta have a permit from the city to do something like this.”
“Oh, fuck the permit, Brian!” Frank says, jumping forward to accost Brendon with the most violent hug in the history of ever. “We can totally do this! Gabe, send up the Cobra Signal!”
“It’s a phone tree,” Gabe says absently, but he’s already texting madly.
“I know a guy who can get kegs for cheap,” Ray says.
“C’mon, Brian,” Bob interjects. “Fuck the permit.” Brian shakes his head at him and looks down at Patrick, who shrugs.
“Can’t hurt,” he says, starting to smile for real. “And hell, even if it doesn’t help, we can send her out in style.” Brian sighs, and they both look back at the marquee, flickering and beautiful in neon blue.
“Fuck the permit,” Brian sighs, and the little group erupts in cheers.
Ray’s guy shows up with five kegs, which gets them down to three thousand even, but ten bucks a keg really is cheap. Seriously, Ray is the coolest person ever. Brendon wishes he’d thought to steal him for his band before Frank did. He doesn’t ask what kind of “guy” this guy is. That can be a dangerous question in Jersey. He just stays out of the way while they set up to the left of the door.
“Brendon, come on,” Pete calls, pulling his laptop out of his bag. “We need some music until the Cobras show up!”
Brendon slips past Gerard and Frank, who are maneuvering one of the bigger canvases off the wall through the door with more enthusiasm than finesse. He has to stop when he sees what it is. That particular painting has had a “not for sale” sticker underneath it for the last year.
“Gee, you’re selling the Bowie painting?” he asks, incredulous.
“Anything for the Empire,” Gerard says, shrugging.
“Although usually you’re more of a Rebel Alliance kind of guy,” Frank says and Gerard laughs, nearly dropping his end.
“Yeah. Anyway, I figure we can get a couple hundred for it.”
“A couple grand. Come on, Gee!” Brendon leaves them arguing about the price point and goes to help Pete get his MacBook plugged into the stereo properly.
The first person who isn’t a member of staff to show up at midnight is Bill. Trailing him are an exasperated Greta, Jon-the-Little-Mermaid-Guy and a girl in bright green tights, no taller than Brendon himself. Bill steers them straight towards the stereo.
“Pete,” he calls, grinning wide and tugging the girl forward. “I brought you a present.”
“Hey,” she says. “I’m Bebe.”
“She stocks my shelves, and she sings like an angel,” Bill says.
“I never learn,” Greta sighs. “Why didn’t I ask Carden to drive me home?” she asks Jon, who shrugs.
“Hush, Greta. There is a party of epic proportions brewing,” Bill says. “Don’t tell me you’d be anywhere else.”
“I maybe could’ve changed clothes first,” Greta says with great dignity. “And don’t you hush me, or swear to god, I’ll strangle you with one of your slutty v-necks.”
“You look lovely, darling,” Bill says, smiling sweetly while she glares.
Pete’s still looking back and forth between Bill and Bebe, eyes narrowed suspiciously. He spins on his toe to Brendon.
“What do you think, Bren? Is she a mole?”
Brendon doesn’t get a chance to answer.
“Of course she’s a mole,” Bill says, waving a hand unconcernedly. “That doesn’t mean she’s not amazing.”
“What are you even doing, Bill?” Jon asks resignedly. “I thought you’d be happy to get rid of the competition.”
“Jon!” Bill says, eyes wide. “Of course not! Without the Empire, what would The Academy be? There must be balance. No sunshine without rain, no joy without despair, Dark Side, Light Side, you know? And I’d rather we didn’t go out like Anakin and Obi-Wan, Peter, dear.”
“I knew it,” Pete yells, grinning wide and flings himself at Bill. Brendon hops back a step to avoid taking a kick to the knee. “I knew you couldn’t function without us, you fucker!”
“I don’t understand you people,” Greta says. “I think Ray said something about a keg?” She grabs Jon by the arm and drags him back towards the entrance.
“You want to play?” Pete asks Bebe, disentangling himself from Bill’s embrace. “We can’t pay you.”
“Nobody wants to pay me,” she says, shrugging and tossing the long mess of her black hair over her shoulder. “I’ve got my backing tracks on here.” She hands an iPod over, and Pete smiles at her.
“Bren,” he says, shoving the ipod at Brendon. “Get this plugged in. Bebe’s opening for Cobra Starship tonight.”
A bright yellow Jeep Wrangler rolls up just ahead of a battered van, and Patrick has to grin when Vicky-T vaults herself out over the back tailgate. He stops re-pricing the clearance bin, which Gabe and Brian have wrestled out onto the sidewalk.
“Hey, gorgeous!” he calls. He hands the pricing gun over to Bob to go hug her. Bob shrugs and grabs a piece of cardboard and a Sharpie instead, slapping together a sign that says “All Clearance CDs $3 or 4 for $10,” which sounds good to Patrick.
“‘Trick!” Victoria yells back as Ryland backs the Jeep up to the front of the store. In the process, he blocks off one lane of traffic and Nate gets the van into the other, to horns blaring and more than one shouted curse. “Get somebody else to block off the other end. People can go around the block,” she says, hugging Patrick fiercely. “Fuck ‘em.”
“Yeah,” Patrick laughs. “Fuck ‘em all.”
Frank helps Patrick get the top of the marquee wired for sound, running cables and hooking up these giant speakers that Ray produces from somewhere. Maybe from the same guy who brought the kegs. Frank isn’t really sure. It’s possible that Ray is magic. He’s glad Ray agreed to join their crazy band project. Thing. Whatever.
When they’re all set up and the Cobras have climbed up the ladder they set up to one side of the sign, Frank goes to climb down. Gabe grabs him by the collar. “No way, man! Stay and jam with us!”
Frank gapes. It’s not like the Cobras are a huge band, although they’re pretty well known in the Jersey scene, but still, they’re a real band. “You serious?” he asks.
“Yeah, little buddy.”
Frank scowls, but it’s mostly reflex. “Don’t call me little,” he says.
Gabe just laughs. Then Ryland appears at Frank’s side, holding an extra guitar he’s produced from who knows where. Frank does the only sane thing and takes it, slinging the strap over his neck.
They do a quick soundcheck, which mostly consists of making sure noise is coming out of the speakers, and then they get started. Gabe launches into “Hot Mess”, which is a crowd favorite at Cobras shows. The changes are easy, and Frank mostly knows it anyway, so he keeps up easily.
As they come up on the instrumental break before the bridge, Ryland bumps shoulders with Frank and mouths, “It’s all you.” Frank’s eyes widen and he shakes his head, but Ryland just pulls his hands away from his guitar, and Frank has to do something. He steps forward and he can feel everybody’s eyes on him as he improvises a riff, letting the notes fly from his fingers without stopping to check with his brain.
It’s like nothing Frank has ever felt. He’s making music, and there are cheers from the crowd below. He feels like maybe he could fly or something, not that he’s going to jump off the marquee to check. All he knows is that he never wants to stop feeling like this, and that must mean this is what he’s meant to do.
When the song finishes, Gabe calls the rest of Frank’s newly formed band up to join them. They play “Guilty Pleasure”, and Gerard leans in to harmonize with Gabe on his mike. Frank is pretty sure it’s because he’s afraid Victoria might disembowel him with her keytar. It’s really too many people and too few instruments, but they make do, trading off periodically. And this—standing up here with the people he’s going to be playing with—this is even better.
“Brian! Patrick!” Mitch’s voice is nearly drowned out by the laughing, singing, dancing people crowding the aisles, but Patrick puts his red cup down immediately. Pete vaults himself over the stereo railing and strides towards him, carrying a cash box and grinning wide and stupid.
“Mitch!” he says joyfully. “So glad you could come!”
“Who are you?” Mitch asks.
“I’m Pete. I still work here,” Pete says, and Patrick grins as Brian joins them, the three of them standing shoulder to shoulder with Pete in the middle.
“I don’t care,” Mitch says, the vein in his forehead beginning to bulge. “I want to know what happened to my money.”
“No, listen, Mitch,” Pete continues, as if Mitch had never spoken. “I wanted to talk to you about this Music Town thing. Because, see, Music Town is everything that’s wrong with the music industry today. It’s homogenized, plain vanilla crap, but you like it because they jack up the prices so that you make more money, right?” He doesn’t even wait for an answer. “But see, when Music Town comes in, Brian’s out. Patrick’s out. Frank’s definitely out. And all the beautiful little tattooed freaks are out too, right? And I think it goes without saying that I’m out.”
“I think what Pete’s trying to say here, Mitch,” Brian interrupts, taking the cash box from Pete’s hands and shoving it at Mitch. “There’s your money. Count it. And I’m gonna go start my own store.”
“You can’t!” Mitch says. “You don’t have the start-up capital!”
“I might by the end of tonight,” Brian says, waving a hand to indicate the party still raging and the money still changing hands all around them.
“Or,” Patrick says. “Come on, Mitch. There’s another option here.”
“Patrick,” Mitch sighs. “I always liked you. You’re a smart kid. But sometimes I wonder if you were either a gangster or somebody’s mom in another life. You do guilt like nobody else.” Mitch looks down and the cash box and smiles. “He’s right, you know,” he says to Brian. “I hate this store. And you guys love it. I’m gonna sell it to you. Cheap.”
“Mitch,” Pete says, grinning. “You won’t regret this.”
Pete looks around him at the beautiful chaos. All these people partying in the street because someone told them there was fun to be had. Most of them have no idea what they’ve helped to save, and that’s just fine. The Empire always strikes back. It just needed a little push this time.
Pete looks up at the marquee where Mikey is rocking out with his brother and their new band. He looks so beautiful Pete doesn’t even know what to do with it. Mikey might be a little fucked up along with all the rest of them, but he’s going to be just fine.
Perfect, Pete thinks. Then he looks up a little further and sees a lone figure on the roof. Well, not entirely perfect.
The door to the roof squeaks as Pete pushes it open, and Patrick turns to look at him. “Hey, Pete,” he says. He turns back to the edge of the roof, and Pete moves to stand beside him, taking in the view. The party is still beautiful from up here, but a little distant.
As they watch, Frank drags Gerard away from the microphone and kisses him messily. Patrick laughs softly. “Guess everybody’s going to be all right after all,” he says.
Pete sighs the sigh of the very long suffering. Because that’s what he is. “And what about you, Trick?”
Patrick shrugs. “I’ll be all right too, since my job is still safe and all.” And Pete has had enough. He turns and shoves Patrick hard enough to make him stumble back a couple of steps. “Hey!” Patrick says.
“You’re so stupid!” Pete says, because why can’t Patrick see it? “You’re so stupid, and you’re so talented, and you don’t even realize it! Don’t you want more than this?”
Patrick looks a little hurt at that. He shrugs again. “What else would I do? This is what I’m good at.”
Pete throws his hands up. “You are good at everything you touch. Start a band with me. Those crazy kids aren’t the only ones who can save the world with rock music.”
Patrick just stares at him for a minute. Then he says, “Okay.”
“Don’t tell me—” Pete stops when he realizes what he’s heard. “Did you say okay?”
“Yeah,” Patrick says. “Okay.”
“Awesome!” Pete crows. “You’ll be the talent, and I’ll be your faithful cheerleader. And I can kind of play bass. Sort of. Not really. Whatever. With your voice it doesn’t matter. We’re gonna be so fucking famous!”
Patrick shrinks back a little. “My voice? Um. I thought I could maybe drum.”
Pete grips Patrick’s shoulders and looks him straight in the eye. “Patrick Stump, you have a voice. As the Empire is my witness, you are going to use it.”
Patrick stares at him with wide eyes, then, finally, smiles wide. “Fine,” he says. “I’ll sing. But who’s going to drum then? Or play all the other instruments?”
“Details!” Pete declares, throwing his hands wide. “The universe will provide, because this is our destiny.” He thinks for a minute. “Actually, as much as it pains me to say this, I think Bill knows a guy.”
“Bill Beckett? As in your sworn enemy?”
“Well, he can’t steal you away from me now, so all is forgiven! Also he brought us help for the party. Clearly he’s not as dedicated to our downfall as he pretends to be.”
Patrick laughs. Pete darts in and hugs him hard, pressing an enthusiastic kiss to the corner of his mouth.
“Ugh!” Patrick says, pushing him away but still laughing. “Save that for your underage boyfriend.”
Pete just grabs his hand. “There’s a party going on, Trick! And you need to come join in.”
Patrick follows him down the stairs. Pete thinks, Now it’s perfect. It’s as close as he’d ever want it to get.