Cassie climbs up behind Jon and wraps her arms around him as he stares at the suitcase on the floor. It's one of their things, usually: cuddling before Jon goes on the road for a long stretch. But the last time he did it, it was on his own steam, his own terms.
His shoulders must get tense because Cassie rubs his back and says, "It's a big tour, babe."
Jon nods because it is. Panic was nothing to sneeze at, but working with U2, even as a secondary bass tech, is a whole different plane of existence. A lot of the guys he knows who had dreamed of touring life would give their left nut for a shot like this, which makes the gnawing feeling of failure in Jon's gut even worse.
Then, of course, the baby starts crying. Jon smiles at Cassie as she climbs off the bed to go for the crib and doesn't think about how Bill made the whole solo-with-family thing work. About Tom's band doing it for a while by themselves and getting signed when things went stagnant. About Pete striking gold again.
No one on this tour will know Jon's name. He's holding onto that.
"Jon Walker, right?"
It's not the tour manager's voice. Jon frowns and looks up from the bass he's tuning. He's done three shows, and no one from the crew's bothered to learn more than his first name, which is probably not good for future networking, but it's the way he likes it.
Which is why all the blood leaves his head when he sees who's standing above him in the back hallway of the stadium they're in for the day.
"Ray Toro," Jon says, dazed, as Ray shakes the hand Jon hasn't left clinging to his strings. "What are you doing here?"
Ray beams and holds up the pass around his neck. "Sound board! I knew a guy who was looking for a guy, and Christa was about ready to throw me out if I didn't leave her and the kid alone for a couple months, so I figured, why not?"
Why not. My Chemical Romance probably still raked in all kinds of royalties - Jon still sees them trend on Twitter now and then, and they hadn't been a band for over a year - but hey, nothing like random grunt work on a huge tour for fun, right?
"What are the odds," Jon says roughly. "I've got to get back to this, so..."
"Right! Don't let me get in your way. I just saw you yesterday and knew I'd kick myself if I didn't see if you wanted to grab a beer after the show."
Jon nods, more to get Ray out of the way than anything, but Ray shakes his hand again and looks like his whole day's been made.
"Getting a beer" on a tour like this means coordinating so you're on the same crew bus and grabbing a cold one from the fridge, if there are any left. Jon usually grabs his right after he gets on the bus so he doesn't miss it, but it means, by the time he's done talking Facetiming back home, that it's warm. Ray pops up on Jon's bus just after Jon's climbed out of the back lounge, and the stab of seeing his family through the smeared glass of his iPhone is still fresh and painful.
Ray seems a little down, too. He slumps on the couch next to Jon - the couch opposite's occupied by a couple of guys who look like they were doing this when hair metal was big, and Jon likes to give veterans their space - and takes a long pull from the neck of his bottle before he says, "Does it make it easier for you?"
"Christa and I got married because she knew I needed this." Ray spreads a hand around. "She gets the itch to get her house back, I get the itch to hit the road...we're just better part-time."
Jon shrugs because, yeah, if money hadn't forced him out, he would have left for some other reason. He isn't the kind of a guy for a 9-to-5. But he didn't choose the reason or pick the date.
Ray leans back on the couch. "I might spring for hotels the last couple nights so Christa can see the show."
That must be a nice option to have. Jon drinks in silence, and the smell of beer lingers around his head. One of the veterans gives his beer the stink-eye, and for a second, Jon flashes on the pictures he'd seen of Spencer online before he'd left his tour the year before. Jon winces.
"I think I'm gonna..." Jon jerks his head toward his bunk. "Talk later?"
"Sure." Ray smiles. He doesn't seem to be feeling the worst of the grind yet, even though this is probably more intense work than whatever he probably had with his band. Some guys are meant for the tour life no matter the circumstances.
Jon slumps to his bunk and wishes he was one of them.
The crew stops for breakfast, and Jon's too busy sleeping to catch it. The bus is going again long before he wakes up, and it sucks; that's the only way to get food with a vitamin in it a lot of the time.
But Ray's in the back lounge with a couple bowls, and he holds them out to Jon when he stumbles, bleary-eyed, in that direction. "I didn't know if you had any dietary things, so top bowl's vegan, and the bottom's gluten-free."
Jon doesn't bother thanking him; he just digs in. But it's probably the first morning on the tour he hasn't wanted to kill anyone.
The main bass tech's handling soundcheck, so Ray waves Jon over to the board when he's passing by. "You probably don't get this view from under the stage, right?"
All the stadiums are different, apparently, so they're doing full light tests as well as working out sound, which Ray totally has under control. It's really dramatic, and normally, Jon would be engrossed, but he can't stop watching Ray. Ray was a lead guitarist, and it doesn't seem like it would lend to this skill set, but he's pushing levers like he was born doing it.
And Ray's right. Sitting in the middle of a mostly-empty stadium, watching Bono play with his in-ears and the Edge hunched over his guitar, is the kind of thing he'll want to tell his grandchildren later. It won't be too hard to pretend he really enjoyed it at the time, instead of standing against the sound booth and feeling like he isn't really there.
Jon doesn't open his beer that night. Ray doesn't hesitate to drink his, but when he eases back at around the same time he did in their convo the night before, he asks, "I heard about Spencer. You guys still in touch?"
"Not really." Not unless the occasional supportive tweet counts.
Ray nods. His eyes are on Jon's thumb, which is catching condensation on the side of his bottle. "Gerard usually had his biggest problems right where I could see. Mikey, too. Frank...Frank slipped under the radar. Maybe because it was never as bad."
Jon stops his thumb.
"It's...hard." Ray puts his own beer on the tiny table space next to the couch. "This life. The best thing someone can do is step back if they need to."
Red floods Jon's vision for a second. Not literally. It's that heart-pumping, fist-clenching thing he used to not be familiar with, back when he could get away with being high as a kite when things got rough. He's smelled weed on a lot of the guys around the tour, but Jon stopped smoking up when Cassie got pregnant, and he just...hasn't gone back.
"Must be nice to have a choice," Jon says quietly. His voice isn't tense or pissed; he spent too many days in a band where he heard that shit. He's not going to yell on a bus ever again if he can help it.
His brain's stuck on Spencer. Spencer, when Jon left with Ryan. He definitely wasn't the guy who had screwed over Jon the most, and everything he's thinking about Spencer happened long after he was gone. He had no part in it whatsoever.
Jon opens his beer. He doesn't finish it, and the little he has, he doesn't taste.
Ray pulls Jon over to the board during a show a couple nights later. Jon has his walkie talkie on, but the truth is, he's mostly useless during shows. He just prefers to be around if he's actually needed.
It's a completely different experience wandering the stadium when it's packed with fans: the screams and how they sometimes form into words, the visible surges of people. The air stings a little with the smell of cheap beer and sweat and trampled turf, and Jon's throat is tight with the music forced out of his ears by his plugs. It's been a while before Jon's played anything bigger than club crowds, and it's different up in a box away from the rest, but it's still breathtaking to see it again.
He misses it.
He can't remember the last time he thought that without it hurting. But, somehow, it doesn't.
Toward the end of the tour, when Jon stops grabbing beers and starts going to his bunk early, Ray's tucked away while the others sleep. Jon gets up to pee, and he knows what Ray's empty bunk means even before he catches the scratch of music on headphones, but a peek in the back lounge confirms it. Ray's gotten a guitar from somewhere - it's not one of the show guitars, obviously, but it can't belong to Ray - and he has it hooked into an iPad. If he wanted to record on the road...why would he take this job if he would need to record on the road? Everyone on the crew works harder than the main acts, and Jon barely has enough energy to brush his teeth after a show.
Jon watches for a moment. The back lounge is no catwalk bathed in yellow light, no round stage with huge screens for everyone to see, but Ray has energy like he's playing for the back of Madison Square Garden. It's obvious he's holding back a little to keep from falling on his ass if the speed of the bus changes, but he's still standing with his legs wide, hitting power chords smooth as silk. It's hard to breathe, watching him.
Ray doesn't notice him, and Jon goes back to bed.
There's a big tour party after the last show. Jon's got an early flight, so he goes back to the hotel - which the band paid for, so Jon shared a room, but at least it's stationary - to pack up. A lot of the crew is heading to Europe for that leg of the tour, but Jon isn't one of them, and he wouldn't want to be. He can understand why the guys who are would want a chance to blow off steam; transatlantic flights suck balls. Jon's just flying from LA to Chicago, and that's bad enough.
He passes Ray and a woman, probably his wife, in the hallway. Ray grins big, just like he does every time he sees Jon. "Hey! I was hoping to catch you before you left. You're not going to the party?"
Jon shakes his head.
"I'll go ahead," Ray's wife says, smiling a little as she passes Jon for the elevator.
When she's disappeared, Ray holds out a card. "I had her bring these out for me because I thought you might be interested."
Jon takes it. It looks like a pretty standard business card with Ray's info on it. "In what?"
"I'm working on my album. I'll need a session bassist to get things going faster. Or, if you need a little while, I'll need one for the road, too."
Ray holds up a hand like Jon kept talking. "I also have some contacts out in Chicago who are looking for some recording help. I don't have their info now, but if you email me—"
"Why are you doing this?" Jon blinks at the card. He can't quite look at Ray. "You think I need your help?"
"Dude, you just worked this tour. I think you're doing fine."
Jon makes himself look at Ray. He doesn't have that oblivious-to-the-world grin on his face anymore. There's a little bit of the road weariness that he had never shown before, but the smile hasn't left completely. It's just smaller, a little more genuine. Like this is the real face he doesn't take on tour with him.
"So why bother?" Jon asks.
"It's nice to have options, right?" Ray pats his shoulder. "Have a safe flight."
Ray rounds him. Jon turns, and after Ray steps in the elevator and presses a button, Jon smiles. Ray's beaming grin returns for a second before the doors slide shut in front of him.
He's completely fine without Jon. He has to know a million people in the music industry, or, at least, know people who know a million people. He'll be okay if his solo album goes somewhere, but he'll also be completely okay if it doesn't. He's that kind of guy. Jon could throw away the card and never speak to him again.
"Options," Jon says quietly.
He runs his thumb on the card for a moment, and then he tucks the it carefully into the front of his cell phone so he won't lose it and continues to his room.