“And then you want to add the melted butter, just a little bit at a time,” a woman is saying on the TV, as Tom shucks off his coat and dumps his bag next to the bar.
“Hi, Mitchell,” he says.
A fingerless-gloved hand waves vaguely at him over the back of the sofa, and Tom kicks off his trainers, comes to sit with him.
“What’re you watching?” he asks.
Mitchell is sprawled out on the sofa, cup of tea resting on his stomach. He looks tired, dark circles under his eyes.
“I dunno,” he mumbles. “She’s making risotto, it looks fuckin’ horrible.”
Tom laughs, slouching into the other sofa. Mitchell’s latest obsession is cooking shows; he says it makes him feel connected, whatever that really means. It’s driving the rest of them a little bit mad, but no one says anything, of course.
“You want a cuppa?” Mitchell asks, making to get up.
“Nah, you’re alright,” Tom replies. “Anyone else in?”
“Nina’s working tonight so she’s showering,” Mitchell replies, “but apart from her it’s just you and me, kid.”
Six months, and Tom is still getting used to it. Living in an ex-hotel with a group of people, being accountable to them, having friends, going to school. Something like an ordinary life. He thinks he likes it, but he keeps thirty quid and a pen knife on him at all times anyway. A safety net, an escape route.
They watch TV in companionable silence for a while; Tom likes Mitchell, though he’s always a little wary around him because he knows his dad would be. He’s more difficult to get a handle on than George, Nina or Annie, but in a lot of ways he’s the easiest to just hang out with.
“How was college?” Mitchell asks after a while, like he’s just remembered. “Did you… learn stuff? Should you be doing homework? Are the other kids being mean to you?” Tom frowns at him, and Mitchell laughs. “Oh, I don’t know, when George and Nina aren’t about I feel like I should do something parent-y.”
That’s still something that stings, though Tom tells it not to. George and Nina have always made it clear that they’re not trying to replace his dad, and he knows that, but the word parent is a tricky one.
“You don’t have to do owt,” Tom tells him, trying to smile and not sound defensive. He’s used to looking after himself, and the switch to having other people worry about him isn’t all bad, but it does grate a bit sometimes.
Mitchell shrugs. “Well, I tried.”
A lot of this is new for Mitchell too, Tom knows; he probably wasn’t expecting to have a random teenager chucked into the mix of his recovery process, but he’s coping pretty well, and Tom’s glad about that. There’s something in this hotel, something a bit like how he imagined family would feel, lying awake at night and half-dreaming.
After a while, Mitchell drifts into a half-sleep and Tom heads upstairs, leaving him in front of Nigella. Nina pokes her head around the door of her and George’s room; her hair is wet and he can hear her hairdryer going.
“Good day?” she asks.
Tom shrugs. “It was alright. Normal an’ that. Went over Alex’s afterwards.”
Nina nods, lips curling just a little. “Have you eaten?” Tom shakes his head. “We’ve got a bunch of leftover pasta in the fridge that needs eating, tell Mitchell he’s got to have some too, he’s been watching bloody Man vs Food all day but has he eaten anything? Has he hell.”
“I’ll make sure,” Tom promises. “Don’t worry about us.”
Nina groans theatrically, pushing wet hair out of her eyes. “I thought Annie was going to end up being the motherly one,” she murmurs. “Now I’m the one making sure people eat, and setting curfews, and doing bloody bathtime.”
Tom takes a half-step back before he even realises it. “I wash!” he protests.
“I wasn’t talking about you,” Nina tells him. “Believe me, fostering you is a piece of cake compared to Mitchell.” She’s half-laughing, half-sighing. “Anyway, I need to get sorted, so I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Have a good shift,” Tom says, and she smiles at him before she closes the door.
Tom’s room is bigger than the van he grew up in and then lived in for the first sixteen years of his life. He gets to decorate it how he likes, though Annie makes him tidy it every couple of weeks, and it’s warm and clean and has a big double bed that is still a brilliant novelty. It’s his space, just his, and being able to close the door and breathe and not have to worry about anything is still a little too new to be completely comforting.
He jumps when his mobile phone rings – that’s new to him and all – and glances at the screen before he answers. “Hi, Alex.”
“Tom!” she shouts, sounding breathless, overexcited. “Tom! Tom! Tom! Tom!”
“What?” he asks when he can get a word in edgeways. “What’s happened?”
“You know I was entering that radio competition to get those Red Shield tickets for next week?” she says.
It’s all Alex has talked about for the last three days, so Tom really does know.
“Did you get them?” he hazards.
“I fucking did!” she agrees, and he can hear thumping like she’s jumping up and down.
“Alex, language!” That’s Alex’s dad in the background, sounding tired and fond like he always does. He’s nice, is Alex’s dad.
“Tom, we have tickets!” she carries on. “You and me and Natasha and Allison and Adam! It’s going to be fu- I mean, it’s going to be amazing, you have to come, George and Nina will let you come, right, they’re cool and stuff?”
Tom’s never asked to go to a concert in Cardiff before, and says as much.
“They’ll be fine, you’re seventeen, you’re with your mates, it’ll be great,” Alex says breezily. “Hang on, you do know who Red Shield are, right?”
“I do!” Tom protests. He doesn’t always know about the films and music and especially books that his new friends talk about, but he had a radio in the van, and Red Shield are famous enough that he used to hear their songs pretty often. He likes them, he thinks; the lyrics don’t make sense to him most of the time, but the tunes are good and the lead singer has a voice that claws under your skin, just a bit. Tom knows their music from long drives between cities trying to avoid authorities who might ask why a teenager wasn’t in school, didn’t seem to have a home or parents, and from long nights awake listening to the radio so he wouldn’t feel like the only person left in the world. “It’ll be good.”
“Great, that’s settled then,” Alex says with cheerful finality. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning- oh! Wait, who’s making breakfast?”
There’s a rota on the kitchen wall to make sure everyone pitches in with the cooking; Mitchell’s barely on there because even though he watches all those food shows he’s still a crap cook, and anyway he’s often asleep or at a meeting with his sponsor or something when he’s supposed to cooking, and Tom’s only in a few places because he’s still learning how to cook properly, but he likes it anyway; that sense of belonging, of being part of something.
“Annie,” he replies, a little wary.
“Ooh, fantastic, I’ll come over early then,” Alex says.
“…why?” he asks.
“You know Annie’s always on about breakfast being the most important meal and stuff, and if I come over to your place I’ll get loads of toast and proper coffee and maybe even bacon, much better than the soggy Cheerios we have here,” Alex explains in that voice that means she thinks it should be obvious. “Plus there’s less chance of a food fight over at yours, I am not spending another morning picking bloody cornflakes out of my hair.”
Alex’s brothers aren’t coping very well with their mum leaving a few months ago and their dad moving them to Barry Island in response; Tom’s not sure Alex is coping well either, but he’s only known her after all that happened, not before, so he’s not sure how he’d be able to tell. It’s part of the reason he and Alex became friends; they were both new at college, both adjusting, and it’s nice not to be the only one who sometimes feels a bit lost.
Tom can hear keys jingling downstairs. “I think that’s George getting home,” he says, “I’d better go and see if we should get dinner started.”
“Don’t forget to ask about Red Shield!” Alex reminds him. “And see you tomorrow for brekkie, yeah?”
She hangs up before he can reply, possibly to call the others with the good news. Tom’s nervous for a moment, before he reminds himself that normal teenagers do this kind of thing all the time; it’s nice but weird, learning how to be ordinary.
There’s a notebook on the desk in front of Hal and three pens: a biro, a rollerball, and a fountain pen. They’re laid neatly beside it, exactly a centimetre apart, lids parallel.
On the first blank page of the notebook is written:
Too many nights awake counting freckles on your skin
But you won’t let me out and I can’t let you in.
It isn’t the first time Hal’s written this; the first four times he crossed it out, or threw the paper away; last week he even bought a whole new notebook to try and get away from the song his heart wanted him to write and his brain knew was a bloody stupid idea. Or maybe it was the other way around.
He sighs, flexes his shaking fingers, and dumps the little box of hairgrips he stole from Pearl’s room earlier out onto the desk in front of him, starts sorting them by type and then lining them up until his mind stops racing, until he can breathe a little more easily.
This is all too intimate and too public to be anything other than disastrous.
Hal’s sorting out the hairgrips for the third time when there’s a knock at the door.
“It’s not locked,” he calls, takes in a breath through his nose and tries to assemble a face human enough for company.
Leo stands in the doorway for a moment, takes in the scene in the hotel room – the bed remade with hospital corners neater than any minimum-wage chambermaid would ever bother with, coat hangers arranged in size order, the tea service rearranged in neat rows – and sighs heavily, letting the door close behind him with a bang that makes Hal flinch.
“Are you off your meds again?” he asks softly, gently.
“I don’t know,” Hal replies, fumbling hair grips between his hands, attention back on getting them exactly perpendicular to one another. He can hear Leo coming up behind him, tenses himself for the hands that drop to his shoulders. “I can’t… I can’t remember.”
“Hal,” Leo says quietly, squeezing and then letting go of him, moving to sit on the edge of the bed. Hal sees the covers creasing, tries to hide his wince. He obediently swivels to face Leo. “Hal, you know Nick doesn’t want this for you.”
“Nick doesn’t care if I live or die,” Hal replies tonelessly.
“Well, we both know that’s not true,” Leo corrects him, a smile flitting across his face. He’s Hal’s oldest friend, and Hal thought for a time that he was in love with him, but it’s more than that, deeper than that, and he doesn’t know how he would ever have survived the last few years without the man who knocked him over on the tube once during rush hour and then insisted on buying him a pint to apologise. “Nick very definitely wants you dead.”
Hal finds himself smiling at that, even though it hurts. “Is he writing too?”
“Faster than you are,” Leo tells him, nodding towards the notebook with its two incriminating lines. “And the word ‘fuck’ appears a lot more.”
Hal’s mouth twists; rueful. “Well, it would.”
His fingers are curling into his palms hard enough for his nails to be cutting into the skin; Leo wouldn’t be Leo if he didn’t notice. “Can you finish this tour?” he asks, blunt, straight to the point. “Because, if you can’t, nobody will blame you.”
It’s sweet, that Leo still lies to him about things like this. It might not have mattered when they first got going, living out of a van, Hal frantically trying to wash himself all over with hand sanitizer in motorway service station bathrooms, but they’ve got fans now, obligations.
“It’s fine,” he says, aware he’s shivering all over, just a little. “It’s fine, I’ll manage. Anyway, you know the only time I don’t want to tear my skin off these days is when I’m onstage.”
Hal isn’t sure just when they discovered that; that when he’s up there in a spotlight with a handful of words and a guitar and a crowd before him the doubts and worries and fears and fuck-ups that dog his every minute vanish, and he’s confident, shining, charismatic. All the things he has no idea how to be when it’s just him in a hotel room with his best friend and the knowledge that breaking up with their lead guitarist might just have doomed his music career too.
To their credit, Leo and Pearl have never once tried to blame him for any of this. It’s nice of them, even though it often makes Hal feel worse.
“It’s just two weeks,” Leo tells him, “and then we can get you home, you can go back to your routines, everyone can calm down a little.” His mouth lilts. “A lot.”
With hindsight, mid-tour wasn’t the time to finally kill the relationship that Hal and Nick had been dragging on for nearly two years; it often didn’t work and made them both angry and miserable – though the sex was fantastic as a result – but it was theirs and they’re a writing partnership that, well… it’s hard to be modest when they’re as good as they are, if Hal is being frank.
He doesn’t know if Nick is still in love with him, but whatever he feels, the last month of this tour has been hell on earth, the two of them playing out their personal drama onstage for everyone to watch. Hal has always been determinedly private and he hates this, hates being so public about something he’s fought for so long to keep to himself, hates the show reviews pondering if this will be the last Red Shield tour before the Yorke/Cutler partnership implodes entirely and takes everything with it.
Hal’s pondering that too, but this is all he has, and he’ll fight to keep it. He has to.
“I fucked up, didn’t I.” His voice is flat, soft.
“You fucked up a lot,” Leo agrees, “but Pearl and I have been waiting for this to happen for months, so you can’t say we weren’t all warned.”
He pushes himself to his feet, gathering the hair grips briskly into neat piles and putting them all back in the box. Hal lets him, fingers twitching to stop him, ask if he can at least make sure they’re all straight in the box. Leo flips the notebook shut, gently places the pens on top in the same order Hal had them in before.
“Get some sleep,” he says. “And don’t look at me like that, I know you’re not sleeping, you look like hell and the teenage girls won’t write odes to your face on tumblr anymore.”
“You are a terrible person,” Hal tells him, but he takes the hand Leo offers him to his feet and sways a little; he can’t remember how long he’s been sitting there, but it’s obviously been a while.
“The most terrible,” Leo agrees, folding back the covers. “I’ll come get you for dinner in a few hours; Pearl and I are going to try that Chinese restaurant we passed on the way here, you’re coming too.”
“It’ll be horrible,” Hal says resignedly, slipping out of his trousers; he’s known Leo too long to be modest around him, after all.
“Probably,” Leo agrees, waits for Hal to strip to his undershirt and get into the bed, fussing with the sheets until he just sighs and pulls the covers over him. “There, I tucked you in, do you want a lullaby too?”
“You can’t sing,” Hal reminds him, “that’s why we stuck you on bass.”
Leo laughs, and Hal takes comfort in that sound. He pulls the curtains, making the room half-dark, and heads for the door, where he hesitates.
“Do I need to get the domino box back out?” he asks quietly.
Hal surrounds himself with contingency plans, safety nets; sometimes he wakes up in the middle of the night, shaking, convinced that he’ll one day lose even the shreds of functionality that he has now. Leo and Pearl always tell him that they won’t let him, but he doesn’t always believe them.
Anyway, the dominos are… the dominos are the last resort, and Hal always tries not to need them.
“Not yet,” he says quietly. “Ask me again after the next show.”
“I will.” Leo opens the door; light from the hallway haloes him. “I’d better not come back here to find you’ve barricaded yourself in with all the furniture again.”
“That was once!” Hal protests hotly, sitting up, but Leo just laughs and lets the door close behind him.
He falls back into the pillow, lies and looks up at the grey half-dark ceiling for a while.
“Two weeks,” he reminds himself softly. “Two weeks, and maybe if you’re very lucky, Nick might not stab you in the face during them.”
Hal’s never been particularly lucky, and that seems to be pushing it; he smiles anyway, curls fingers in the crisp sheets, closes his eyes.