Actions

Work Header

All I See

Chapter Text

After the accident, the doctors had told Nathan Smith that the mind coped with trauma in mysterious ways. Nightmares, they said, were a remnant of his PTSD—fragments of horrific memories jumbled together to interpret what he had since forgotten. But if they could have somehow known what he had been through, perhaps they, too, would understand that things were never so simple.

For hours on end, the same thoughts ran through Nate’s head as he leaned forward in his train seat, staring at the ground with a vacant, unblinking face. If he remained in that position for the entire ride, then perhaps no one’s eyes would wander to him, lingering on the silent, broken man they vaguely recognized from the morning newspaper. The faint vibrations of the tracks below pulsed through his legs as steady as a heartbeat.

It seemed like everyone in the train still noticed him, though, and through their stares he could feel them documenting every breath that left his body. Nate was hardly surprised. Living in Los Angeles meant that every stranger, was, in their own way, a reporter, and every action was on display. But the last thing he wanted now was to answer any more questions as to what had happened that night, not when he didn’t know a single detail more than what they did. They already knew it all.

“Attention. We are five minutes from our destination. Please be prepared to unboard in a timely manner. Thank you for choosing MetroLink as your transportation.”

Nate blinked away the fuzziness that had gathered in his vision. It had been almost two hours since he had seen anything but the dirty wood tiles and the lint from the seat in front of him. Slowly, he lifted his head and straightened his posture, every movement calculated to draw the least amount of attention from any potential onlookers. The scenery of the train bloomed into life as Nate’s senses sharpened, and he looked around, hungrily taking it all in. It all rushed into him at once. The gentle murmurs of conversation and the constant hum of the train tracks chased away the numbness that had settled under his skin, and for a moment, he almost felt at peace.

As Nate glanced around the train car, he felt a heated stare from the row across him press into his skull. With a small pinch of dread, he looked back and met the gaze of Andrew Stein, who seemed to have had his eyes fixed upon him for at least a while. The other man’s expression hardened into a scowl as he looked away, his right hand fidgeting with the wedding band around his finger.

A knot of pain constricted around Nate’s heart, and he forced himself to turn his focus to the window beside him. The city’s center seemed all the more grand when one was just outside its grasp. It was the same view he had longingly gazed upon hundreds of times before—skyscrapers dotted the landscape, and the Phoenix Records executive building towered proudly above them all, hovering so close to him that he could have reached through the glass and touched it. He should have felt happy—proud, even, of what he was about to accomplish. But instead, a numb emptiness pressed into his skin and made him feel colder than the Los Angeles mornings. 

As though done by cue, a congress of ravens emerged from behind a building and took flight, their glossy black feathers shining from the rising sun. Nate watched them travel through the sky with the faintest amount of intrigue. Within seconds, the flock grew larger in size and approached closer to the train until their bodies dotted the horizon like stars. Perhaps it was simply his imagination, but they seemed to be watching him, too.

He became almost certain of it when one of the ravens landed on the ledge outside his window. The action made him freeze in place. The raven’s beady eyes observed him as he gingerly reached for his phone. With a shaking hand, he aimed the phone at the window and opened the camera, waiting for just the right moment before he pressed the button.

Click.

Like a lightning strike, the flash from the camera blinked across the small space. Nate jumped in his seat at the sudden noise and lost his grip on his phone, sending it skittering across the floor. Every single eye in close proximity seemed fixed on him as he kneeled down and picked it up, trembling so hard he nearly dropped it again. Two hours of his life he’d wasted not making a sound, only for it to be rendered worthless by a stupid picture of a bird.

Beside him, Shawn Christmas momentarily took his focus off his laptop. “Like the scenery or something?” he asked wryly, his passive expression barely concealing a smirk.

Nate flinched. There was no doubting Shawn’s talent as a musician, but in conversation, he was surprisingly tone deaf. His high-pitched voice seemed to carry throughout the small space in the train.

Once more, Nate’s focus slowly drifted to the train window. Roads and buildings crept past and out of sight, the motion slowing as the train prepared to stop. “It’s fine.” He carefully studied each landmark, examining the flashing neon lights and counting every billboard-bearing advertisement he saw. “The same as it’s always been.”

Shawn didn’t respond. The clacking of keys filled the room as Nate leaned his head against the glass. It vibrated against his skull as he closed his eyes, steadying his breathing in hopes of envisioning anything else. Anything was better than the purgatory that laid on the other side of the window.

“This city’s a fucking mess.” Shawn ran a hand through his jet-black hair and flipped it over his shoulder. “Twelve hours I’ve been here and I’ve already witnessed two potential murders, gotten stuck in four traffic jams, passed three gay bars, and was stopped for ‘suspicious behavior’ more times than I can count. And I thought Orlando was whack.”

Nate simply shrugged. “Welcome to Los Angeles.”

Awkward silence stretched between them once more. Nate wondered if they were both thinking the same thing. There was a part of him that begged him not to say another word, not when there were so many people there and even more opportunities to lose. It was the same voice within him that played upon his insecurities, gleefully mocking him for the disloyalty and contempt he showed towards his home city. He wished that he could agree. There had been a time, back when he had first arrived, that things had been different, and he had been hopeful of what he could accomplish and what the future would bring. Those days seemed so foolishly impossible now. Each year wore down upon that brightness until nothing but cynicism and bitterness remained. And frankly, he was hardly ashamed of his judgmental attitude. It was Los Angeles, and everybody judged one another.

As a ray of sunlight shone through the window, the raven from before settled at the front of Nate’s mind. He fished his phone from his pocket and opened Twitter to make a new post. For a moment, the raven’s menacing stare pierced him through the screen as though the picture had come to life.

Nathan Smith ✓ @NateWantsToBtl * 10s 

Look at the cool birb I found

Nate quickly shut off his phone and went to stash it back in his jacket, but the screen lit up just before he could do so. Usually he would ignore notifications until later, but now, he inexplicably felt the urge to look. What he saw made him wish he hadn’t.

Andy Stein @AndySteinMusic * 30s

Replying to @NateWantsToBtl

That bird looks like it’s going to kill you

A chill crept down Nate’s spine at once. Whipping his head to the side, he once again found himself almost face-to-face with Andy. The other man’s gaze wavered the slightest amount as they locked eyes, the corners of his mouth twitching before he abruptly broke away.

Nate rolled his eyes at the interaction, almost more annoyed than disheartened. His “friend”—if he could even call him that—was quite willing to put up a pleasant face on social media, but once the tabs were closed, he wouldn’t so much as acknowledge that Nate existed.

And that damn wedding ring... again.

After taking one last glance out the window, it became clear that the train was going to stop any minute. Shawn closed his laptop and stood up, nudging Nate on the shoulder. “Come on.”

Nate stared at him blankly.

“Might as well gather everything up now so we can go before everyone else loads off,” Shawn told him. “It’ll be faster that way.”

Nate understood what he meant at once. “Of course.”

Gripping the arm of his seat, Nate attempted to ignore the flush of embarrassment in his cheeks. Shawn extended a hand to help him, but Nate simply shook his head and hoisted himself up. He was simply thankful his friend didn’t say anything more. While neither of his legs had been broken in the accident, walking was still particularly difficult, and it wasn’t exactly helping that Nate refused to use the walking aid the hospital had provided him with. Between potentially spending the rest of his life with a minor limp and swallowing his pride to travel through the streets with a cane, Nate would choose the former in a heartbeat.

The train came to a halt several street lengths from the Phoenix Records building. Shawn grabbed his guitar case and swiftly moved down the aisle, leaving Nate and Andy standing awkwardly mere feet from each other. Andy made a quick gesture for Nate to go first.

Nate took a deep breath. It was ludicrous how something as simple as walking down a train aisle could be so nerve-wracking for him, but it was just one of many new challenges he had gotten used to. Before anyone else could go before him, he moved away from the seats and began to shuffle down the aisle. 

People’s eyes seemed to fall upon him at once. This time, however, Nate head his held high, keeping his focus straight ahead on the exit. He stumbled over a piece of baggage sticking out from one of the rows of seats, and a small wave of panic ran through Nate as he fought to contain his footing. It was hard to believe that only seconds had passed since he began walking. Every small step made him feel like a prisoner on death row.

“Wait.” 

There were only several feet between him and the exit before a hand grasped his arm from behind. Nate stifled a scream as he whirled around and found Andrew Stein standing directly before him, his deep brown eyes glimmering with a vulnerability Nate had never seen before. “Wait.” 

Nate’s senses immediately kicked into overdrive. He thrashed, attempting to pull himself out of Andy’s grip, but Andy only held on tighter. Time seemed to freeze, and the entire train was silent. Nate didn’t dare speak a word.

Andy’s voice was little more than a whisper. “Don’t ever think that you need to sacrifice who you are for someone else. You’re enough.”

Nate stared back at him with awe. The ghost of Andy’s fingertips still pressed into his skin after he had let go, igniting his veins with warmth. Behind them, Shawn cleared his throat.

“You’re holding the line, you two.” Shawn gestured to the exit and passed both of them an irritated glare. There seemed to be something else hidden within the look, but if Nate were to guess what it was, he would not be able to put a finger on it.

One by one, the three men stepped off the train into the city.

Chapter Text

The city itself seemed to be holding its breath as Nate, Andy, and Shawn walked through the streets. Crowds nearby, once bustling and tangled together, stepped aside as the three walked past and huddled amongst themselves, speaking in low, fervent whispers. People in Los Angeles always had something to talk about, something so treasured that gossip never ran dry. Their topics of interest were so omnipotent that they existed not only in words, but in the magazines scrunched in their hands and the billboards bolted to the ground.

Even though Nate had gathered enough confidence to leave his home for the first time in weeks, he still instinctively ducked his head when passing by a small group of strangers gathered around an alleyway’s opening. It hardly made a difference. He could still feel their heads turn in his direction and whisper his name; their flashy, glamorously-colored outfits and makeup were barely visible in his peripheral vision.

“Well, then,” Shawn said as they made their way through a crosswalk, “I suppose that’s another thing I can add to my list. ‘Group of weirdos in clown costumes’, check.”

Nate kept his mouth shut and put on his earbuds. He didn’t know how to tell Shawn that as a resident of the city, he wasn’t exactly familiar with seeing such things, either.

“Let me set the record straight,” Shawn continued. “See, the whole thing about this situation is that I don’t particularly mind living in a shithole state infamously known as the breeding ground of stupidity. I can put up with a lot. But have me pack my bags and fly halfway across the country to potentially live in this madhouse, you’re giving my patience a real run for its money.”

Nate and Andy exchanged a knowing look. The train ride may have prevented Shawn from openly voicing his contempt for all things Californian, but there was no escaping it now. Nate gritted his teeth and turned up the volume on his earbuds.

“Oh my god, don’t even get me started on Will and his stupid Masked Records.” Shawn paused, seemingly gauging Nate’s reaction. “They’re like T-Series. Came out of fucking nowhere, rapidly took over, and are now shoving their success in everyone’s faces despite nobody asking for them to begin with.”

“Speak of the devil,” Andy muttered.

Nate stopped dead in his tracks and followed Andy’s gaze across the street. He’d been so deadset upon the Phoenix Records building that he’d failed to notice an electronic billboard several that stood stories high. His heartbeat quickened upon catching the sight of bright, piercing blue irises that glowed from the billboard they were scanned upon.

Will Ryan.

Tingles crept down Nate’s spine the moment he thought of the name. Before him stood the man himself, posing so confidently against the bold background with the guitar that had been with him every step of his journey to stardom. While most advertisements in Los Angeles were saturated with fakeness, Will’s white and easygoing smile made him look genuinely happy. It was a stark contrast to the large red text screaming the word “MISSING” directly below.

Shawn scoffed beside him. “Well, would you look at that. There’s the guy who singlehandedly ruined our careers.”

Over the blood pounding in his skull, Nate hardly heard him. Neither Shawn nor Andy held so much as a shred of admiration towards the young celebrity, but to Nate, Will was everything. Like Nate, Will himself had once been a YouTube musician, struggling to overcome the adversities the platform had thrown before him. But where Nate had failed, Will had succeeded. Together, Will and several other channels—many of which were Nate’s distant friends—ventured to Los Angeles and formed the Masked Records to showcase their work, leaving a storm of success and popularity in their wake. Compared to Will, Nate was nothing but a grain of sand in the sea of Los Angeles—a failure. Such a fact made him awestruck whenever he saw the outline of Will's features, studying his face for minutes on end as if the ink would come to life and help Nate achieve the same status.

Aside from sleep and drugs, Will stood as his only anchor in life, the sole salvation keeping him tethered to shore. There was something about the celebrity that enveloped him like a snare and pulled him under his spell, and quite frankly, Nate didn’t understand it himself. For one reason or another, Nate felt as though he and Will shared a powerful and intimate bond, one so deeply rooted in mystery neither of them could begin to imagine.

Nate’s daydreaming was interrupted when a bright mass of color gathered around the billboard. Instantly, he recognized the velvet draperies from the strange group of people he’d encountered just before. He caught a glimpse of their faces for their first time. White foundation plastered their skin like a veil, and thick black eyeliner surrounded their eyes. They huddled in a semicircle around the screen, joining hands as though they were deep in prayer.

The man in the center spun around at once. A second later, so did the others, and Nate took an involuntary step back. To Nate’s surprise, they didn’t seem at all bothered that a stranger had been spying on their strange little ritual. Instead, they... smiled.

“Nate!” A distant call behind him made Nate turn his head. Across the block, Andy and Shawn struggled to push through the morning commute. Nate rolled his eyes as they caught up and turned back to the group of men to apologize, but the words got caught in his throat. They were nowhere to be found.

Andy approached him and ran a hand through his neatly combed hair. “You’re doing it again,” he hissed. “The staring.”

“Uh-huh.” Nate scowled as Andy's gaze burned into his soul, a painful reminder of the man's presence hovering over him like a raincloud. But now was not the time to risk losing his temper.

 Distractedly, Nate scoured the landscape in search of the peculiar man, only giving in once he began receiving strange looks from people passing by. He held back a sigh. Nothing the doctors had warned him of suggested he would be seeing things that weren’t really there, but he supposed that was what he got for neglecting sleep.

At long last, Shawn broke through the tension, his voice rising above Nate's scattered thoughts. "You know, I still don't really get what you see in him, Nate." He sounded disappointed—which, at that point, was a much more welcomed alternative to Nate than Andy's bitterness. "A few months ago, I swear to God, you hated the guy with a passion. Now you're trying to follow the exact same path he did, record label and all. What the hell happened?"

Nate forcefully bit back his exasperation. “We don’t have to do this at all,” he replied coolly, hoping to shut Shawn’s objections down. “We could spend the rest of our lives under Give Heart Records and everything would be totally fine. But wouldn’t that be kind of boring?”

Shawn's lips pressed into a thin line, speaking his next words slowly. “That doesn’t even make any sense. Sure, it’s small, and it’s not like we’re going to break any records, but at least we have complete control over what we want to do with our careers. Why are you so willing to gamble that away?”

Right away, Nate could see past the frustrated act he put on, which was hiding a layer of hurt. It had been Shawn's idea to create Give Heart Records , and to make Nate his equal partner in the label. Shawn had been there when Nate had vented about never being able to be taken seriously as an artist, and it had been Shawn who had put countless hours into mixing each of Nate's songs all by himself. To throw all of that away for something bigger, which Nate had sworn he would never do, was an act of betrayal.

Then again, such an action was to be expected if Nate wanted to get anywhere with his career.

“Just forget it.” Finally tearing his gaze away from the billboard, Nate made his way down the remainder of the street, always remaining a step or two behind Andy and Shawn. The conscious effort he was making to avoid them made him realize just how far the three of them had grown apart from one another. He really wasn’t surprised. It seemed as though no one understood the way he felt. 

Only a few seconds passed before Nate found his line of sight trailing the ground, allowing the pedestrians ahead of him to guide him as they walked across a road. It was for that reason he failed to notice the raven swooping towards him until it glided within inches of his face, gracefully ascending into the sky again. He barely held back a scream.

“What in the absolute—!” Shawn exclaimed as the raven flew directly between him and Andy. “Jesus, now your birds are psycho too?”

By then, Nate was no longer paying attention. He watched as the raven soared through the skies, weaving between buildings before perching atop a streetlight in the distance. Standing directly below it was the same peculiar group from earlier, looking back at him from across the street with cold, dead eyes.

Nate’s breath hitched in his throat. It wasn’t a mistake—they were watching him. His legs slowed by their own volition until he came to a stop in the middle of the road. Around him, he was vaguely aware of the people shouldering past him to cross, but they soon faded away into the background.

A shrill scream snapped him out of his daze. The crosswalk was totally empty, and the pedestrians that had passed by him seconds before now stood safely on the sidewalk with their mouths wide open. All the blood drained from his body as he realized what was about to happen. He turned just in time to catch a glimpse of the taxi hurtling towards him, little more than a streak of yellow in his peripheral vision as every limb in his body became completely paralyzed.

A hand grabbed him from behind and yanked him back onto the pavement. The side of the car brushed past him as he was pulled back. Nate bit back a cry as fingers dug deep into his shoulders and spun him around, hard, so hard he could barely breathe. A combination of blinding pain and terror gripped him as Andy loomed over him with a look of pure, unbridled rage on his face.

“Holy shit, Nate! What in the hell were you thinking?” Andy’s voice cracked the slightest amount on the last word. He shook Nate like he wanted to emphasize his point, and Nate didn’t dare try to stop him. Out of all the time they’d spent together—even in the past few weeks since the accident, where Andy had inexplicably burned every bridge that once stood between them—Nate had never seen Andy look so mad before.

It was beyond horrifying.

Andy finally lowered his voice. “You listen close, because I’m not going to say this again.” He shook his head slightly as though to clear his thoughts before leaning forward, closing the distance between them until he hovered inches from Nate’s face. “I...I can’t keep saving you. Do you fucking hear me?”

At those words, Nate became speechless, rigid with shock. Every tendon in his body was lit on fire once more, although this time, the feeling was far different. He choked down a response before it could leave him, and he wasn’t sure if he was about to laugh or cry or both. You were never there for me.

But instead of saying so, Nate simply gave him a nod.

The answer seemed to satisfy Andy; he released his grip on Nate’s shoulders and walked away. Nate had no doubt the man had already buried his memories of the event, pushing them so deep down that they would never be able to resurface.

Shawn gawked at Nate. “What is it with you and cars, man?”

When the worst of the tension had subsided, Nate followed the path Andy had taken to the Phoenix Records building. He was relieved to find that most of the onlookers nearby had already lost interest, one by one turning their heads and shrugging him off as a mild inconvenience. And that pleased him. Being labelled as such meant that he would be quickly forgotten about, and in Los Angeles, that was an act of mercy.

Just then, it occurred to him that in all that commotion, he had forgotten entirely about the strange group that had been watching him before. He quickly scanned the streets, hoping to find a trace of their bright linen clothing, but there was none to be found. Whoever they were, they had already disappeared.

Chapter Text

There was something inexplicably wrong with the Phoenix Records. It was the first of many things Nate noticed upon entering the building—along with the odd formality of the staff and the heavy tension that hung in the air—and it carried with him through the corridors until he stood right outside the executive office doorway. He put his back against the wall and waited, listening to the muffled shouts that passed through the closed door.

He’d only just discovered that he would be facing this alone. Shawn had been directed to a separate room, and Andy had vanished to God knows where before either of them could reach the entrance. Not like it bothered Nate in the slightest what those two did—no, it was simply unfortunate that out of all the applicants that day, he had been the one chosen to be interviewed by the owners of the company themselves.

How lucky of me.

“You may come in now, Mr. Smith.”

Taking one last breath, Nate picked up his guitar case and stepped into the room. He’d barely made a move before a beam of sunlight struck his face, and he forced himself to not look down. It hurt like hell. Sunlight poured into the interior from the windows stretching the floor to the ceiling, making the white walls glow blindingly bright.

Whatever he had been expecting when he had first applied to the Phoenix Records, it was far from what stood in front of him. Chills raced down his spine as the three executives looked at him. They seemed more like living corpses than actual beings—their skin, sagged and lined with wrinkles, clung to their bones, and their hair had thinned and turned gray with age. A musty smell wafted in the air, and Nate wasn’t sure if it was from something inside the office or from the woman executive’s perfume.

Somehow, Nate managed to guide himself to the empty seat opposite the executive’s desk. His focus wandered around the room before falling upon the vinyls and posters lining the walls. They seemed to glare down at him from above, pressing him further into his seat with judgmental superiority.

A small grunt pulled his attention back to the executives. The old woman was bent over in her chair, the muscles in her shoulders straining as her fingers dangled inches from the ground. Nate followed her sight near the desk to a pair of glasses. He hesitated, waiting for one of the other executives to retrieve them, before biting back a sigh of frustration and pushing his seat aside.

“Here. I’ve got it.” Nate reached beneath him and picked up the glasses, holding them out in one hand over the desk. To his confusion, the woman made no move to take them. A sickening feeling pinched his gut as her dull, colorless eyes raked up and down his arm, and so he placed the glasses directly before her.

The woman came to life immediately. Before Nate could pull away, she lashed out her arm and pinned his wrist to the table. A sound like a gunshot rang out from the impact. Nate recoiled, blind panic racing through his body as he tried to wrench free, but the executive didn’t let go. Instead, her lips curled into a disgusted snarl, and she traced a grimy finger over the tattoos running down the length of his arm. 

At last, the woman released her grip. Nate stumbled backwards and practically shrank into his chair, and with his hands still violently shaking from her touch, he tugged at his sleeves until they concealed the entirety of his arms.

“Welcome, and what a pleasure to be working with you today,” said the woman in a crisp, robotic tone. “My name is Cecilia Brady. I own the Phoenix Records along with my husband, Monroe Stahr. The two of us, along with our assistant Wylie White, will be interviewing you.”

Nate nodded numbly. He couldn’t believe how quickly Mrs. Brady and her colleagues disregarded what just happened, but frankly, he was too tired to care.

Mrs. Brady gave him a condescending smile. “And I assume you are…”

Mrs. Brady’s speech came to an abrupt stop. Her eyes squinted as she looked over the documents, momentarily glancing at Nate before adjusting her square-shaped glasses. Behind them, the clock ticked repeatedly as Nate continued to hold his breath.

After what seemed like hours, Mrs. Brady croaked out a word. “...Nick?”

Nate blinked in disbelief. “My name’s Nate.”

“Ah. Yes. Nate.” There was yet another long period of awkward silence before Mrs. Brady cleared her throat. “Now that we are introduced to each other, we are looking forward to hearing about your career. Tell me about yourself. What got you into music?”

Nate glanced down at his guitar case for reassurance. "I grew up as an only child," he started. "My parents tried to get me into a lot of things - you know, sports and stuff—but I was always more interested in the arts. It was just...quieter, I guess. Eventually my parents caught on that piano was one of the few things I was not only good at, but actually enjoyed. So they actually encouraged me a lot to continue that passion, and I finally stepped out of my comfort zone by playing at concerts. Then I saw Green Day live at—"

“—We don’t need a life story, Mr. Smith.” Mrs. Brady interrupted him by holding up a hand. “Speed this up a little.”

Nate flinched at her response. “I suppose there isn’t much to say. I’ve been involved in music for a majority of my life. It’s what I went to school for, it connected me to most of the people I know, and it’s shaped who I am as a person. It defines me.”

For a moment, there wasn’t any response. Mrs. Brady simply examined him with a pondering expression, her eyes empty as she sighed and pulled out a pen. “Very well.”

The room fell quiet after that. An unnerving thought came to Nate as he watched the three executives browse through his resume, intermittently breaking focus from the papers to stare at him through the corners of their eyes.

“I must admit, Mr. Smith, your resume, in some conditions, is particularly top-notch,” said Mrs. Brady over the stack of documents in her hand. “It should go without saying that we expect the highest from our applicants, but many of them in this day and age treat music as a phase rather than a lifetime commitment. Your numerous years of studying and training under various music programs clearly display your competence in the industry.”

Nate’s heart skipped a beat. The tension that had built up in his muscles slackened, and he leaned forward in his chair the slightest amount.

Mrs. Brady looked up at him through her square-shaped glasses. “That being said, it unfortunately appears that any concrete data regarding your audience and public work is rather...lacking.”

Something within Nate deflated at once. “Oh, yes, about that.” He coughed into his arm, trying to regain his composure. “I noticed on the application there was no area to list social media information or accomplishments. I assume you’ll be asking for those during the interview, right?”

The executives stared at him blankly. 

“You know…the internet,” Nate explained, dumbfounded. “YouTube, Twitter—”

“—Oh, I see,” Mrs. Brady said, cutting him off once more. She smiled. “That won’t be necessary, Mr. Smith. Things are run slightly different here at the Phoenix Records, and it’s simply not a credential we take into account.”

Nate raised an eyebrow. “I’m sorry?”

“You’re forgiven,” said Mrs. Brady.

“No, I don’t—I don’t understand.” Nate sputtered out the words, struggling to comprehend what had just been so plainly laid out for him. “Surely I misunderstood. What do you mean, it’s not taken into account?”

None of the three executives acknowledged his question. In the few seconds Nate had taken to respond, they had already turned their backs to him. Annoyance flared inside Nate as Mr. White left the room and returned with a pot of coffee, rather generously filling cups for his colleagues. He must have seen Nate eyeing the pot, because he gave Nate an icy glare and slid it out of reach.

“Well, that’s quite simple enough,” Mrs. Brady said after a long sip of coffee. The Phoenix Records runs on a policy of judging all of its potential clients through only the most rigorous, fair, and valid standards. This policy has not changed in all of the years we’ve been operating, and it has served us and our artists well far before the formation of the internet.” She smirked. “Surprisingly, my dear, your parents and their parents found dozens of ways to prove their capabilities to our company, none of which involved the inclusion of a pretentious data system that purports illegitimate talent.”

“Millennials,” grumbled Mr. Stahr.

To that, Nate was speechless. Their answer pressed into him like dead weight, crushing him as he sank further into the back of his seat. His voice was flat as he slowly spoke the words he’d been dreading to hear. “So my online profile doesn’t matter at all.”

“Unfortunately not,” said Mrs. Brady, her lips twisting into a smug smile. “But I’m sure that, with someone of your aptitude and expertise, this minor setback will be of little inconvenience for you.”

Nate nodded grimly. “Of course.”

Once more, the three executives turned their backs. Still, Nate could hear their whispers, hushed at a level that made it quite clear they cared not if he overheard. He knew then that coming to the Phoenix Records had been a mistake, and perhaps it would have been better if he had tried to argue for his channel. 

Mrs. Brady frowned as she turned her swivel chair to face him, flipping to a different section in her stack of papers. “As you are likely already aware, this is one of the largest and most prestigious record labels in all of Los Angeles. Many artists are interested in licensing with our brand, but very few have proved themselves capable. It is rare to see a musician without previously established connections or abilities make it far enough to be legitimately considered.”

Nate chuckled nervously. “Oh, well, I assure you, I certainly have credentials—”

Mrs. Brady held up a hand to stop him. “—Perhaps. We have yet to see your abilities, or any indication you’re a fit for us beyond simple passion.”

She made a pointed look at his sleeves.

“So, tell me, what makes you think you’re capable? What makes you, more than anyone else we may consider, more cut out for a path that few achieve or deserve? Why should we care?”

Nate froze. “Well, alright.” Panic raced through his body as he tried to string together an answer that didn’t involve his work on social media. “I’ve gone on my first tour, collaborated on multiple projects, and formed my own record label.”

“You said you own a record label?” Mr. White’s face sparked with apparent interest and he sat up straighter in his chair. “Huh. You don’t seem like the type.”

“Well, I did,” Nate corrected him. He paused, flushing. “It was an independent one. But it was one of the most important experiences of my life.”

Mr. White narrowed his eyes. “I see.”

There was another long and awkward pause. Nate squirmed uncomfortably as the executives scribbled in their documents. He could tell they were rather disappointed.

After a minute or two, Mr. White cleared his throat. “So you mean to tell me no major organization would give a deal to a young, intuitive entrepreneur in the pop industry?”

Nate stared blankly at him. “Excuse me, what?”

“Well, supposedly, sir, you’re ambitious, possess the skills of a trained professional in the field, and have many years ahead of you to contribute to any organization you desire,” Mr. White explained with a deep frown on his face, emphasizing words as though what he was saying should have been obvious. “That is precisely what mainstream entertainment is looking for, and yet you ignored that in favor of working alone?”

“Oh.” A horrible feeling crept under Nate’s skin. “I don’t make pop-oriented music.”

All three of the executives went completely silent. This time, however, it was a different, more dangerous kind of silence—one where tension crackled in the air like static electricity. It was only broken by Mr. White’s gruff voice, growling at him through his false teeth. “What?”

Mr. Stahr scoffed at him. “Oh, so you’re one of those people.”

“Excuse me?” Nate asked, but the question came out weak and shaky.

“Come now, darling, don’t be so rash.” Mrs. Brady laid a hand on Mr. Stahr’s shoulder and looked at Nate. “My husband is simply concerned for your well-being. It surely can’t be easy diverging from a tried-and-true formula to cater to an audience with your...what genre do you do, then?”

Nate ducked his head. “Uh...punk...alternative rock,” he mumbled.

Mrs. Brady snapped her fingers. “There it is.”

“You’re not actually surprised, are you?” asked Mr. Stahr to the other two executives. He gestured at Nate. “Look at the kid. He has more tattoos than a drug dealer on the south side of Chicago.”

A rush of embarrassment and shame burned through Nate as he instinctively ran a thumb under his sleeves. He could still feel Mrs. Brady’s claw-like nails trail down his arm and pierce his skin. To him, tattoos were a treasure, a form of expression that belonged to him just as much as any other part of his body. But in that moment, they were a mark of shame—a scar.

A strange realization occurred to Nate as he lifted his head and looked at the posters tacked to the walls. For the first time, he noticed that each of the artists depicted on them were all pop stars. Not rock, not country, hardly even rap or hip-hop—but pop, a genre so restrictive and exploitable that most of its songs had become indistinguishable from one another. It was then that Nate finally understood. Not a single one of his accomplishments meant so much of a damn to them, not when he actively rebelled against every standard they expected of him. Unintentionally, he, Nathan Smith— NateWantstoBattle —posed a threat to their profitable, orderly business.

What a fucking fool he’d been.

“You seem...distracted, Mr. Smith. Is something bothering you?” Mrs. Brady’s fake-cheery voice pulled Nate out of his thoughts. Her clouded, glossy eyes tracked him around the room and pinned him into a corner.

Nate laughed and shook his head, trying to regain his composure. “I thought—”

“—No need to continue your sentence, Mr. Smith,” said Mrs. Brady. “Your ideas aren’t needed around here.”

“But it’s my life.” Nate stared at her in disbelief. “I’ve built my entire career around the music I’ve come to enjoy, with a YouTube channel and an audience that supports my work sometimes more than I do. And yet you look at what I’ve built, only to laugh in my face and tell me that it’s nothing. Where’s the honesty in that?”

“YouTube channel,” repeated Mrs. Brady as she adjusted her glasses. “You’re one of those YouTube musicians.”

Nate hesitated before answering. “Yes. Yes, I am.”

For a few seconds, everything was quiet as the three interviewers just looked at him, and then looked at each other. Mrs. Brady was the first to start laughing. Mr. Stahr and Mr. White followed her. It wasn't just small chuckles, either—Nate was genuinely concerned that Mrs. Brady was in hysterics as she used a tissue to wipe tears from her eyes.

“You must be NateWantstoBattle,” Mrs. Brady choked out as she set down her tissue. “How did I not realize? It all makes sense now. You’re the one that everyone’s been on about.”

They knew. Shock tingled through Nate’s body, spreading until it settled like a poison under his skin. All of the confidence he had summoned over the past month evaporated like the morning dew in that single moment. Ever since the accident, every detail pertaining to his life and career had been laid bare, pieced together by the reporters that swarmed him every time he showed so much as a fraction of his face in public. It had taken every shred of bravery and desperation he could gather to face it—to risk his sense of security in the city and have a second chance at establishing his reputation—but it haunted him wherever he went. It was for this very reason he hadn’t left his home in over a month.

“I’m not that famous.” The words were barely more than a whisper. If things had been different, Nate might have screamed at them—screamed until they finally gave a damn about what he had to say. But now, after everything that had happened, protesting would be the action of a far superior man to himself.

Mr. Stahr shook his head, clearly still in delightful shock. “Mr. Smith, the only reason you’re not ‘famous’ is because all your YouTube friends have left you behind.”

Nate’s mouth went dry as Mr. White spoke. “Do you know why we don’t like YouTube, Mr. Smith?” He sighed. “It’s because they turn nobodies into somebodies. You have these immature, talentless adolescents—all the people from the Masked Records, especially—sitting in front of a camera they got for Christmas and making a career out of being foolish. Kids eat that stuff up. Meanwhile, those same web stars get bored with their millions of subscribers worth of fame and decide to invade on our business, making record labels and turning the mainstream into a joke. Do you see the problem here?”

“I don’t think I understand.” Nate's voice sounded far away, uncertain and powerless compared to this group of individuals who held the power to determine his worth. You're failing, you're failing, you're failing. The muffled sounds in his head had turned to ringing, piercing his ears and sounding more like an alarm warning him of danger with each passing moment. You're nothing to them.

“Christ, this kid’s obnoxious.” Mr. Stahr turned to face his wife. “Come on. This is wasting our time. What more could you possibly say?”

But Mrs. Brady didn’t give him a response. To Nate’s surprise, she appeared genuinely pitying as she looked at him, searching through him with curious eyes. “An honest question, Mr. Smith. If you don’t have your YouTube channel, then what’s left of you?”

It was only one question, one short, pathetically simple question, but Nate would never be able to answer it. For the older generation, YouTube was a social media platform, destined to forever be seen as a waste of time. One look behind the scenes immediately proved otherwise. There was an entire community of YouTubers who had held together a standard of talent and ingenuity, but slowly, over the years, it had fallen apart at the seams. With the site’s demonetization and short attention span for channels that didn’t upload daily, content creators had been forced to abandon their values to maintain an audience and a reliable source of income. Some prevailed and became more popular than ever, but others never were able to fully recover.

And then there was a third group, the ones who left the site completely and banded together to form the Masked Records. There was only one reason Nate was not among them. Too scared to take a risk, too set in his own ways, he’d hid within the safety of his YouTube channel. Now it was too late for him to join them, and he was left to drown until he was forced to pull himself out of the water. Without the Phoenix Records, he would be nothing.  

So he said the one thing he could think of to say, his voice so quiet that it was little more than a breath that left his lungs. “I don’t know.”

His response seemed to stir something in Mrs. Brady. She frowned, leaning forward in her seat and folding her hands on the desk. “Look, Ned—”

“—It’s Nate,” he said with a sigh, rolling his eyes in exasperation. 

“Oh, whatever.” Mrs. Brady waved a hand dismissively. “As I was saying, Nate, the point I was trying to make is that you’re simply not ready.”

The force of her words hit Nate like a slap in the face. He opened his mouth before closing it again, too much at a loss for words to be able to defend himself. The executives continued to smile at him, their faces so frozen in the expression that they seemed like cardboard cutouts.

“Mr. Smith, if there is one thing you would learn from working under me, it is that you are expected to uphold a high level of obedience and proficiency, nothing more, nothing less.” Mrs. Brady’s voice was low as she leaned across the desk. “There is no room for mindless experimentation. Either you will follow that, and you will allow it to guide your every step through this city, or the music industry will not be kind to you. This is not the internet anymore.”

Nate’s mind went numb as Mrs. Brady continued to speak. “If I were you, I'd abandon the whole YouTube schtick, meet with some professionals in the business, and get yourself some connections before attempting to apply to a record label like this one. Take a look inside yourself, son. See why people are not willing to work with you.”

“So that’s it? You’re not even going to let me audition?” Nate stared at them, wide-eyed. “You’re just going to let me go?”

Mrs. Brady gave him a tight-lipped smile. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Smith.”

Just like that, it was over. Nate struggled to speak, wanting to plead with Mrs. Brady to let him stay, but she had already shrugged and resumed work on her documents. Behind him, he could vaguely sense Mr. Stahr and Mr. White waiting to escort him to the door, as if he couldn’t be trusted to walk the measly five feet on his own. Slowly, Nate stood up, gathering his things and taking one last look around the pathetic, pitiful excuse of an office whose white walls would be forever seared into his brain.

“Oh, and Mr. Smith?”

Mrs. Brady’s shrill call made Nate stop dead in his tracks. Ever so slowly, he turned around, fixing a dark, empty glare on the elderly woman sat before him. Every feature on her face was relaxed as she stirred her coffee. She finally glanced up and curled her lips upwards the smallest amount. “Do try to leave the area before nightfall. The strangest things tend to happen after dark.”

With one final glance, Nate turned his back on her and walked away.

Chapter Text

The streets of Los Angeles gradually grew colder under the setting sun. As darkness spread over the horizon, people left in large numbers until the surroundings were mostly barren, save for a few stragglers that hung closely to one another, conducting business that Nate could never be sure of. Even then, they were still far, far too much.

Nate wandered aimlessly around the city over the course of several hours. Slowly, he breathed in the cool evening air, basking in the feeling of walking without a constant shadow. He had needed to be alone since that morning to think over everything that had happened. So much had changed for him in just a few hours.

A group of strangers briefly stopped talking as Nate made his way past, and Nate had to push back a wave of terror as they momentarily scanned his body. His mind now moved in a chaotic state of unrest, his thoughts scattering to instability the moment someone so much as laid their eyes on him. He subconsciously pulled at his sleeves, wondering if they had the same words in mind as he did—if they too had read what had been reported and now viewed him with the same scorn and discontent that had been branded upon him.

Pitiful.

Embarrassment.

Disgrace.

When Nate had first left the house, he had desperately tried to quell his anxiety, hoping that enough time had passed to where the public would no longer care about him like they first had. There had been no sign of him for a month, after all, and Will’s disappearance being announced so shortly after his accident should have pulled all of their investment in him away. But it didn’t. What Nate didn’t know was that people still very much cared, enough so that his repeated incidents in the morning had renewed discussion of him all over again. 

Word spread remarkably fast. After the interview, the Phoenix Records executives had been all too pleased to supply them with details of his interview. And of course they had spun the story out of proportion, painting him as a fool—a talentless, insignificant fool who was an imbecile for even thinking he could come in the way of their perfect, prissy little company (their words). But weren’t they right? Was there any other way that the situation could have possibly ended? Oh, they’d sure showed him— if there was anything that he’d learned in the past twelve hours, it was that there was no hope.

Something snapped within Nate at once. He broke into a near-run down the remainder of the street, ducking into an empty alleyway concealed almost entirely in shadow. In the small sliver of light that shone between the buildings, he leaned against the wall and put his head into his hands, trying to fight back the tears gathering in his eyes. 

In all the days that had passed since his release from the hospital, he’d never once cried; everything within him had felt numb and empty, detached from what was going on around him. In a way, it had protected him from the pain, akin to a blade in the skin preventing a person from bleeding to death. But now, it felt like the wound was being ripped open all over again.

With his head bent down, Nate didn’t see the raven flying towards him until it landed at his feet. He stared at it for a moment, watching as it stood stiller than a statue, and Nate did a double take. Surely it couldn’t have possibly been the same raven he took a picture of before, but his gut told him otherwise—that knowing stare was unmistakably familiar. This time, however, he felt no fear—only rapidly increasing curiosity.

“Hey, little guy,” Nate whispered.

The raven tilted its head.

“Guess you’re lonely too, huh?” Nate’s heart sped up slightly as he waited to see what the raven would do. It seemed to give him a suspicious look, as though it was attempting to figure out Nate’s intentions. After a few seconds, it hopped closer.

Nate cracked a small smile and held out his finger. “Yeah, I get you. People are shit sometimes. I don’t know why I bother.”

The raven seemed to let its guard down entirely. Nate gently stroked its back as it perched on his finger. “But that’s alright. It can just be the two of us.” He paused. “Nate and Pluck.”

At the announcement of his new name, Pluck cooed happily. Nate inspected him down to his wingtips. Every part of him seemed light and fragile, reminding him of the origami crane he had found sitting beside his hospital bed after the accident. It was a symbol of healing, he’d learned—although he’d never found out who gave it to him, he saw something within Pluck that touched him the same way.

Nate shook his head. “Jesus Christ, I’m talking to a fucking bird.”

The reaction was almost immediate. Out of the corner of his eye, Nate saw a black dot fly from the sky and land on the ground. Then another. And another. It kept on going until there was an entire flock of ravens swarmed at his feet, feathers bristled in aggression and their black bodies rippling like a sea of death.

Pluck turned around and flew away.

“Hey! Wait!” Nate pushed off the wall and began chasing after Pluck. The rest of the ravens scattered as he ran through them. He mentally cursed himself for caring so much about a goddamn bird—something with no emotional capacity to truly reciprocate human feelings—but there was something peculiar about him that Nate had to try and understand.

All at once, the ravens took to the sky and formed a trail behind Pluck. Nate slowly came to a stop, watching as they flew further and further into the distance until they came to rest at a place that made his heart stop—the shores of the Los Angeles River.

No. Nate’s throat tightened as he looked at the river, and for a moment he almost forgot how to breathe. It seemed like a dark omen that he was unwillingly within walking distance of the very place that had destroyed him just two months ago. He closed his eyes and felt himself be carried into the past, back to when he’d been dragged by the waves and pulled under the current, the blaring of police sirens being the only sound that cut through the murky waters.

A distant clamor interrupted his darkened thoughts. He turned and saw people emerge from the dark, piling over each other and staring at him with wide, joyful eyes. For a moment, Nate’s heart soared as he mistook them for the odd strangers he’d seen clamoring in front of Will’s billboard, before a second look made it plummet straight back into the ground. They’d found him.

The forefront member of the reporters grinned from ear to ear. “It’s Nathan Smith.”

Chapter Text

Oh, shit.

Nate stood in shock as reality came crashing back to him. The paparazzi sprang into action, circling around him and pulling out the equipment he knew they must have been dying to use. Instinctively, he took a small step back in the direction of the alleyway.

“Alright, everyone, you know the drill.” The forefront reporter went around the group. “Matthew, you set up over there, Shane, be sure you get a good angle—wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, Mr. Smith?”

The paparazzi immediately stopped what they were doing and watched as Nate tried desperately to slip away.

“Shit, I don’t think he knows.” One of the other members glanced up from her camera. She was the first of the group to chase after him, and the others soon followed, blocking off the entrance to the alleyway just before Nate could duck inside.

“Excuse me, sir, excuse me.” The lead reporter pushed through the crowd until he was right by Nate’s side. “I’m so sorry to interrupt you, but my colleagues and I were wondering—you’re Nathan Smith, right? The musician known as NateWantstoBattle who tried to sign with the Phoenix Records today?”

Nate didn’t respond. 

“Unbelievable,” the leader whispered with awe in his voice, before picking up his pace to keep himself within earshot. “Uh, Mr. Smith, if you don’t mind, we have a few questions to ask you.”

Another reporter walked alongside him with a notepad in his hand. “Mr. Smith, would you be so kind to explain what drove you to put on an act at the Phoenix Records? Was Cecilia Brady correct when she claimed that you were resentful towards her business?”

Nate inhaled sharply, not daring to allow himself be baited by the sensationalists surrounding him. Their culture wanted nothing more than to make a mockery of his name—a mockery as they had with their previous encounters—and this time, he wasn’t going to give them that satisfaction. He’d already learned his lesson.

The reporters continued to follow him like a flock of geese. “Mr. Smith,” another one called, “What about the comments you made during the interview? Why did you imply that you were better than most of the artists already signed to the label?”

Nate finally stopped walking. He searched for a weakness in the wall they’d built around him, and upon finding it, he pushed his way through the crowd. “Excuse me.”

“Oh, no, no, don’t worry! This will only take a minute.” The lead reporter dashed up beside him once more, positioning his lens with a suddenly frustrated look on his face. He lowered his voice. “Just smile for the camera, man. It’ll get this over faster for both you and for me.”

The white flash of the camera caused Nate to flinch. By the time his vision recovered, the leader had adjusted his expression, beaming the fakest grin Nate had ever seen. “Some life you have, huh?”

Nate stared at him, dumbfounded. “Huh?”

“Well, I mean, you’re a video blogger,” replied the lead reporter nonchalantly. He laughed at Nate’s silence. “Oh, don’t give me that look. We know all about that stuff. Let me tell you something, Nate, we’ve seen the views your stuff gets, and believe me, it’s nothing to be impressed over. Getting this much attention must be a dream come true for you.”

At those words, Nate felt a sudden ache in his heart, and he turned away before the reporters could leech off his pain. The lead reporter continued taunting behind him. “No need to worry, Mr. Smith. We never forgot about you. Sure, after a month, we slowly lost the will to station outside your house—well, at least, we thought it was your house until a few days ago—but there was always that lingering hope that someday you’d return. And here we are.”

“Please leave me alone,” Nate mumbled.

To his surprise, the reporters seemed to obey his request. They paused, observing him as he slowly made his way down the street. Nate breathed a sigh of relief.

“Oh my god. Look at him.” One of the reporters stared at him, stunned. “Look at the way he walks.”

Nate froze, terror washing over him as he followed their gazes down to his legs. Through all of the stress and anxiety running through his head, he’d entirely forgotten about the limp he’d formed from the accident. Now the reporters were looking at him hungrily, cameras poised for the moment he would begin walking again.

“Jesus, that’s perfect,” the lead reporter murmured to his colleagues. “Hey, Nate? Can you keep doing that? Keep moving. Go wherever you’d like; we’ve got about fifteen people recording you. Thanks.”

Rather obviously, Nate didn’t move a muscle. 

“God damn it.” The lead reporter gritted his teeth. “Oh come on, man, you could at least show us some bruises.”

“You don’t have to be so shy,” added another.

Nate still didn’t move. They were closing in on him now, edging closer like a pack of wolves about to devour him whole. It was either that, or he was the animal himself, and they were coaxing him to a place where he would soon be caged.

Just then, movement stirred from the shadows. A dark shape whizzed past him, and Nate barely got a glimpse of their face before they were gone. He glanced at the street lamps lining the sidewalk and silently cursed them for not turning on earlier at night.

He was distracted when a reporter tapped him on the shoulder. “Mr. Smith, what do you believe led to your rejection from the Phoenix Records today? Do you agree that the company may have treated you unfairly?”

A spark of intrigue lit inside Nate. “Agree? Agree with whom?” While it was against his better judgment to engage, the question made it seem as if there was someone out there who was defending him, rightfully calling out the Phoenix Records for their glittering generalities. If that was the case, he wanted to know who.

“There have been some readers suggesting that your rejection may have been the result of discrimination towards your disability,” answered the reporter without missing a single beat.

Nate stiffened. “My disability?”

The reporter tilted his head, puzzled. “Well, of course. Anyone can see that you’re clearly struggling to live a functional life in your current state. So perhaps maybe it would be understandable if the Phoenix Records decided your mental deficiency would be a hindrance to their—”

“—I am not disabled,” Nate growled. He took a large step back, filled to the brim with an emotion he wasn’t quite sure was either despair or rage. He thought he’d seen a lot of despicable things that day—rumors, insults, and indifference from his own friends—but even then, he never imagined that anyone would be that low.  

This time, the anguish rooted deeper than any of the pain from before. The further away he tried to move, the more lightheaded he became, his brain feeling stuffed to the brim with cloudiness. He gripped the side of a building and nearly collapsed to the ground. He tried to relax, taking in long, deep breaths, but his throat had closed and turned his breathing rapid and shallow. A horrific realization occurred to him as the reporters blurred together in front of his eyes—he needed to leave, and he needed to leave now.

“Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, wait, wait!” The lead reporter shouted as Nate limped his way through, grabbing at Nate to keep him in place.

Nate instinctively jerked away. “Let me go.”

But they didn’t. They just grew even more insistent. There had to be at least ten blocking his way, if not more. Did they really all give that much of a shit about him? 

As he tried to walk away, the street lamps around him lit up one by one until they formed a ring of fire surrounding the street. He desperately searched for someone nearby that was witnessing what was happening to him, but the block remained entirely empty. “Help,” he called out weakly to anyone who could hear him. “Please, please, help me.”

But it wasn’t a voice that answered him. The sound of an electric guitar rang in the air and sent the paparazzi into a frenzy, scattering away from him and towards the source of the noise. The small street was soon filled to the brim as people poured in, first curious and then rushing forward with delight. They flanked behind the group of performers parading down the street. 

Curiosity naturally drew Nate closer. He couldn’t help but feel a faint sense of familiarity from the performers, even though they were so far away. Half-running, half-walking as fast as his limp would let him, he shoved his way through the crowd until he stood a few feet from the center. The performers discarded their robes and handed them off to the other members of the group, but the pasty makeup covering their faces still remained. It was then that he understood what had provoked such a shared sense of excitement as a familiar voice flooded his ears…

Standing in front of him were not only the peculiar strangers from earlier. It was them—the Masked Records, the very people who had collectively taken over the entire city. They had been the ones watching him.

Chapter Text

“I hardly think I’m qualified to come across all sanctified…”

The crowd went wild. As soon as the first of the two singers opened his mouth, they roared with excitement and formed a sort of ring-shaped stampede around the performance. Nate, however, remained silent. He simply watched with a blank, disbelieving look, even as the crowd’s energy pushed him forward.

“I just don't cut it with the cherubim…”

Even after the performance had started, Nate did a double take to make sure he hadn’t been mistaken. Now with their linen robes removed, the figures of Jonathan Young, Caleb Hyles, and Richard Bichler were easy to recognize. The Masked Records —his old friends. They all looked so different compared to their days on YouTube—somehow, they seemed taller, stronger, and more confident, with perhaps just a pinch of Hollywood magic and saturation attached to them. Nate couldn’t quite be certain if, after just a few short months, they really had changed, or if he was simply struggling to remember them like most things since the accident. 

It wouldn’t come as much of a surprise if it was the latter. The Masked Records was a strange, mysterious business, preferring to operate in places far away from the public eye. Not even the media knew what they were like. All anybody could say—as was said quite often—was that they roamed in the shadows, keeping to themselves and only ever coming out at night. Even then, they could disappear for weeks on end, and they were often gone by the time someone tried to approach them.

That was what Nate couldn’t begin to understand. It was clear from their elaborate setup that this had been planned, but there was no apparent reason for them to do so, not that he could think of. Out of the hundreds upon hundreds of miles in Los Angeles, and all the days in a year, they chose to do it then and there. It seemed like twisted fate had somehow brought them together, offering Nate a small reprieve through the suffering he’d endured.

Unless...it wasn’t.

“Caleb, what are you talking about?!” Jonathan shouted, and the crowd let up a cheer. “There again, they're on their knees. Being worshipped is a breeze! Which rather suits us in the interim…”

“The interim, the interim, that’s me and him! Oh my god!”

“It's tough to be a god. Tread where mortals have not trod…”

Nate watched the performance with silent wonder. It felt like the storm gathered inside him had lifted—if only for a moment—as the singers put him under their captivating spell. When Caleb then set his eyes on him, he could feel the power blessed to him from the fleeting, momentary look.

Caleb suddenly grimaced as he glanced away. “Be deified when really, you’re a sham.”

“Be an object of devotion! Be a subject of psalms!”

“It’s a rather touching notion, all those prayers and those salaams!”

“And who am I to bridle if I’m forced to be an idol?”

“IF THEY SAY THAT I’M A GOD, THAT’S WHAT I AM!”

“There you are.” A familiar voice snapped Nate out of his daze. He whirled around, and sure enough, there was Shawn, his dark skin barely visible against the night sky as he crossed his arms.

“Shawn? W-what are you doing here?” Nate asked, unable to contain the shock from his words. He glanced behind Shawn and felt a rush of relief—and strangely, disappointment—at Andy’s absence.

Shawn raised an eyebrow. “I could ask you the same thing.” He sighed in exasperation. “Imagine that. Forty-five minutes of searching, only to find you in the middle of a Masked Records performance. Of fucking course. And to think Andy nearly called the police.”

Nate blinked as he processed Shawn’s words. Behind him, he could almost feel Andy’s presence lurking in the dark, watching him with disapproval. “You were looking for me?”

“Are you high or something?” Shawn asked, staring at him with confusion etched on his face. “Our train home leaves in fifteen minutes. Maybe you would have known that if you hadn’t kept me and Andy on read.”

Before Nate could react, Shawn grabbed hold of Nate’s shoulder and began to steer him through the crowd. Nate stared desperately back at Jonathan and Caleb as he was dragged away, feeling his chance slip out of his fingertips.

Nate pulled back against Shawn’s grip. “I’m twenty-eight years old. I don’t need my hand held.”

There wasn’t an immediate response. Shawn stopped and turned around, narrowing his eyes in disapproval. “Well, excuse me, I wasn’t the one jaywalking during traffic hour in one of the busiest cities in America,” he retorted, still letting go regardless. He began pushing through the crowd. “Now come on. Any longer and my ears will most certainly begin bleeding.”

Nate didn’t follow him. Instead, his gaze wandered back to the Masked Records, where Jonathan and Caleb still stood. Everything else around him faded into a blur as he watched them, feeling drawn into their performance like a moth to a light. Sometimes, he could see them watching him too.

“So let’s be gods! The perks are great! Los Angeles on a plate!”

Shawn turned around to face Nate and spoke with clear irritation in his voice. “What the hell are you doing?”

Nate didn’t take his eyes off the performance. “I can’t go.”

“What?” Shawn asked in a stupefied tone.

“Five minutes. Please.” Nate held up his hand. “I need to see the rest of this.”

Shawn sighed. “Christ almighty.” He put his hands on his hips. “It’s a band, Nate. They’ll be around. Time is not going to sit on its ass just because you like them. Besides, their music is shit anyways.”

“No, you don’t understand.” Nate finally pulled his focus off the singers for just a moment, struggling to rationally explain himself. “You know how people say you can never approach the Masked Records unless they approach you first? They were watching me earlier today. I think they want something from me. And I’m going to find out what.”

There was a long, agonizing pause. Nate’s heart skipped a beat as he searched Shawn’s face for a drop of interest or understanding, but there was nothing of the sort. 

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Shawn finally told him, and Nate felt his prayers disintegrate. “They’re a B-A-N-D, Nate. They’re an elite group of rich white kids that, like most rich white kids, keep their circle tightly guarded from anyone who isn’t like them. That includes the both of us. What in the hell would they want from you?”

Nate froze. Around him, the beat of the music continued to swell, growing in strength until it threatened to tear apart the San Andreas fault. The crowd was joining in, swaying and dancing and shouting, and Nate was reminded of just how much he was missing out on.

“It’s tough to be a god, but if you get the people’s nod…

“Count your blessings; keep them sweet; that’s our advice.

“Be a symbol of perfection! Be a legend! Be a cult!

“Take their praise, take the collection, as the multitudes exalt…”

“I don’t know,” Nate responded, raising his voice slightly in order to be heard. “Maybe I just want to believe there’s something left for me to aspire for. I’m beginning to think it’s all I can do.”

Shawn took a step back. “Whoa, where did that come from?” he asked. “Just this morning, you were the happiest I’ve seen you in a month. Didn’t the interview go well?”

Nate stared at him in utter disbelief. Out of all the people in the city, he would have expected his close friend to know all about the Phoenix Records’ betrayal. An acidic taste trickled down Nate’s throat. “Oh, yes. It went just peachy.”

And with that, he turned away. The performance continued to thrive around him, and Nate let himself be whisked away in it, not allowing himself to be distracted by stagnant conversation. His hands shook like he was about to cry, but this time, he forced himself to hide it. The last thing he needed was for the media to report on that, too.

In the corner of his eye, he saw Shawn move closer and stand beside him. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” Nate’s voice was ice cold, and he didn’t miss Shawn flinching away. He felt a twinge of regret in his chest. It wasn’t anyone’s fault that they didn’t understand him—not really. Yet here he was driving away practically the only person who even tried.

What kind of friend am I?

“You know, I really would like to help you, Nate,” said Shawn, putting to spoken words exactly what he had been thinking. “I wish you’d let me.”

Nate laughed bitterly. He still didn’t turn to face Shawn. “Guess you’re the only one.”

“I’m not.” Shawn gestured to the crowd, his hand falling on the Masked Records. “These people can’t fix everything for you. Believe me. I’ve been in the music industry for five years, and I know that music means just as much to you as it does to me. But it’s not enough.”

Nate looked at him at last. Shawn continued to stand close—it was hard not to in the tightly-packed crowd—but he still felt so far away. “Is anything enough?”

For a brief moment, Shawn’s dark brown eyes seemed to glitter in the darkness. “Not on its own, it’s not,” he told Nate grimly. “And that’s what you don’t seem to understand. You surround yourself with your job and cast aside every other opportunity that’s presented to you. It’s kind of concerning, actually.”

At that point, Nate could hardly hear him. Another voice rose in place of Shawn’s and snaked into his ears, sending what felt like venomous fangs piercing his heart. Andy’s words from earlier echoed in Nate’s head.

Don’t ever think that you need to sacrifice who you are for someone else. You’re enough.

Nate took in a breath. “Am I enough?”

Beside him, Shawn made no strong reaction. “Sorry, what did you say?” He made a vague gesture towards his ear. “I can’t—”

“—Don’t dodge the fucking question! I need to know!” Nate whirled around to face him before covering his mouth in shock of how forcefully he’d spoken. He immediately regretted what he’d said. The music had grown so loud that it was almost impossible to hear his own thoughts.

If Shawn had heard his outburst, he made no indication of it. He took a step closer until it was almost too close for comfort. “This is so dumb,” he spat. “I don’t know why this has to be so difficult. Let’s just get the hell out of here and talk about this tomorrow. We have a train to catch.”

Nate leaned closer and cupped a hand over his ear. “What?”

Shawn rolled his eyes. “Oh, for God’s—” He raised his voice until he was practically shouting. “NATE. WE. HAVE. A. TRAIN. TO. CATCH.”

The molten fury that had been slowly building inside Nate finally exploded. He was sick of everything—he was sick of the music blaring and the audience screaming all around him; he was sick of Shawn’s obliviousness to everything he had gone through; most of all, he was so damn tired of people treating him like a joke for reasons outside of his control. Control —nothing in his life was ever under his control.

“Oh, yeah? And what comes after that?” The words tumbled out of Nate’s mouth, and he kept going, only acutely aware of people nearby slowly turning their attention to him. He couldn’t help it; he couldn’t stop. “So there’s always something that must be done. Trains to catch, meetings to attend, jobs to complete. That’s the whole damn reason I’m here, and yet I can’t even fucking succeed at that, can I? No, because failing is never enough. People here make sure that the whole damn world knows how much I’ve fucked up, because no matter what I do, I could never be what they want most. 

“And I finally fucking get it. There is no tomorrow for me. I’m going to go back home, lock myself in, close all the blinds, and stay there, never achieving my dreams, just like I did for a whole goddamn month before you came here. I’ll never dream, because I won’t sleep; I won’t sleep, because when I do, I’ll wake up in a world that’s too good for me, a world I don’t deserve. This is my reality, and it’s a fucking nightmare.”

When Nate finally stopped speaking, he noticed for the first time that Shawn was completely speechless, his eyes wide and mouth slightly parted in shock. And he wasn’t the only one. Caleb, Richard, and Jonathan had that look on their faces too, and one by one, people followed their gazes to him. It was then that Nate realized that the music had completely stopped. 

And almost everyone had heard him.

Chapter Text

There was one fairly basic standard to concert etiquette. When a person was part of the audience, they never wanted to be that one disruption that everyone complained about after, much less during the performance. Yet, somehow, Nate found himself in that very situation—where hundreds of strangers, the media, and the stars he idolized were there to witness it all. It seemed as though a perfect storm of humiliation had brewed just for him.

A strange sense of foreboding came over Nate as Jonathan and Caleb looked him up and down. While they had initially had the same reaction as most everyone else, their faces now tipped to a sort of guarded expression that Nate couldn’t begin to describe. All he could gather was that they did indeed recognize him. 

“My, my, look at what we have here.” A wide smile spread across Jonathan’s lips. “Nathan Sharp, we meet again.”

Nate stared at him in bewilderment. “‘Nathan Sharp’?” he repeated, the name sounding foreign on his tongue.

The earth went deathly still. That’s not my name. It can’t have been, couldn’t have been real—there was no possible chance two of the most famous Masked Records members were actually addressing him. The sentence rang in his head as he searched the circle, praying that he’d been mistaken, that the person they’d be speaking to was somewhere right behind him. That’s not my name.

“Yeah, I’m talking to you,” Jonathan said loudly into the microphone. Then, he lowered his voice, speaking with a venomous edge. “Funny. After all this time and all that’s happened to you, you’re still walking around and causing trouble.” 

Nate glanced around. The dizziness he had experienced earlier returned as he took in the sea of eyes turned towards him. Caleb shrunk back and fixed his attention on the microphone in his hand; Richard stood motionless; Shawn, in particular, looked especially mortified. A few faint mutters rose from the crowd.

“I’m so sorry,” Nate tried to say, but hysteria nearly swallowed the words whole. “I didn’t mean to disrupt anything. I swear, I’m just—”

“—Quiet.” Jonathan made a slashing motion across his throat, and the crowd immediately fell back into silence. They held their breaths as they waited for what would follow, but Jonathan did nothing; he simply stayed there, a deep frown contorting his features as he pinned Nate down from across the block. Then, something shifted in his face, and he moved. The crowd parted as he walked through, stopping directly before Nate and bending down so that they stood at the exact same height.

“Allow me to ask you something.” Jonathan’s voice was dangerously low, veiled with a soundless threat. “What do you believe the most important part of our label is? The fortune? The fame? The freedom?”

“The fakeness?” Shawn muttered from beside him. Jonathan stood up to his full height and gave Shawn a withering glare.

Nate was entirely speechless. As Jonathan loomed over him, he felt a forceful surge of hostility that bore not a semblance to the man he knew. “Uh...family,” he finally sputtered, hardly able to hear himself over the blood pounding in his ears.

At that, Jonathan was very visibly taken aback; he blinked and sucked in a large breath, causing his nostrils to flare. “A family,” he repeated slowly. “I like that, Sharp. I like that a lot.” He inched closer with another smile on his face, and Nate could feel his breath as he spoke. “But as a matter of fact, no. Here at the Masked Records, we value our fans.”

The audience—sans Nate and Shawn—burst into applause. “WE LOVE YOU, JONATHAN!” one of them roared, and Jonathan basked in the glow of their praise.

“Damn right you do!” Jonathan shouted back, laughing.

Shawn grimaced. “Is this an advertisement or a dictatorship campaign?”

Nate waited for the cheering to die down. "I've always been a fan," he mumbled, feeling his heartbeat quicken as he forced himself to look at Jonathan directly in the eyes.

All of the background noise immediately came to a halt. Jonathan stiffened and his jaw went taut, baring his teeth in an animalistic snarl. From the few inches between them, Nate could feel the rage simmering under his skin, sending waves of tremors down his body as though he was barely holding back a scream. Instead, however, Jonathan simply smirked. "Oh, Nathan. We know all about that.”

Nate didn’t dare respond. There was nothing he could say to rectify what he had done—he’d disrespected not only the artists and the audience, but Will Ryan’s honor —and Jonathan was not holding back at any level to degrade and humiliate him for it. And, quite frankly, he knew he deserved it. Nobody interrupted the Masked Records —and certainly not a lowly outcast of society like him.

Still in the center of the circle, Caleb cleared his throat. "I-I think y-you've scared him quite enough, Jonathan," he stammered, speaking so quietly that his microphone barely caught what he said. "No need to make him sh—uh, crap his pants before—"

Jonathan turned to face him and narrowed his electric green eyes. "Christ's sake, Caleb, you can say the full word. This isn't YouTube anymore." 

A laugh rose from the crowd.

"YouTube. What a joke, right?" Jonathan added with a laugh, fully addressing the audience. "There, I said it. Fuck that stupid website. I cannot believe it's taken this long for the world to move on from it, but I suppose I can forgive your collective naivety. Who needs YouTube when you have us?"

Once more, the audience responded with cries of support, and momentarily, Nate felt a pang of envy. This was all he had ever wanted to accomplish when he applied to the Phoenix Records. Countless days he’d spent locked in his room daydreaming for this moment, and here he was, somehow so much farther away from attaining it than when he’d originally started. 

Nate turned his back on the crowd and motioned for Shawn to follow him. "I think I ought to get going."

"Oh, Nathan! How silly of me. I almost forgot about you." Jonathan ran in front of him and blocked his path. "Stay right there, love. I want to make a point."

Shawn scoffed. "Another point?"

"Of course. There's always so much to say, but never quite enough time," said Jonathan, waving a hand dismissively before turning back to the rest of the audience. "I believe it's safe to say that we've established a few rules about our business. The first is that we don’t play by yours. The second is that we keep ourselves at a respectable distance. And the third...well, the second rule doesn’t mean that we aren’t always around you." 

Nate took a quick glance at the back of the crowd. In the outer edges of the ring, several of the other Masked Records members stood like guards in perfect symmetry, wordlessly observing the spectacle before them. Two of them closer to the center briefly caught his eye, and Nate swore he saw them nod at him.

"But there's one thing about us that none of you are aware of," Jonathan continued, his voice echoing across the block. "We are not—and never have been—limited by reality. When we started out, we were told that it was fundamentally impossible for a business with no sponsors, no old money, and no conventionality to grow into anything worth admiration or respect. And yet here we are. Everything we have was built because we had a vision, and we tended it until it spread throughout the city and became the life force of the very industry we reside in. For an artist, we are more than a business. We are your dream."

Dream. The word made Nate’s heart skip a beat. It was like they knew —as though they’d been right there with him, reading every last thought he’d had as his life spiralled out of control. He couldn’t help but wonder if in that moment, Jonathan and the other Masked Records members could taste his excitement radiating off of him in waves.

Jonathan smiled. "How would you like to perform with us, Nathan?"

Nobody made a sound. Nate blinked rapidly to make sure that he hadn’t been imagining things, but even then, he felt like he was floating in a fantasy. "You're joking."

"Not in the slightest." Jonathan gestured to Caleb and Richard. "Come next to us, Nathan. Feel what it's really like to be among the best."

Was this a test?  Nate stared blankly at Jonathan, unsure of how to react. He remained rooted to the ground until the two unknown Masked Records members fell behind him and practically forced him forward.

"N-no,” he protested as they ushered him along. "I can't do this. I'm sorry. There's no fucking way I can just—"

Nate stopped mid-sentence upon being placed directly between Jonathan and Caleb. He could feel Caleb flinch away, but he hardly gave it a second thought. Standing before him were at least a hundred people—if not more —and ninety-nine percent of them hardly even knew his name. The experience was so overwhelming that Nate thanked whatever sliver of luck he had left that he didn’t pass out.

Jonathan nodded at the pair of strangers. "Get set up for the song, you two," he commanded, and they went away. "Richard, hand over the guitar."

Richard tried giving Nate his guitar, but Nate was so frozen in his stupor that his fingers refused to cooperate. They struggled for a few seconds before Richard finally forced it into Nate’s hold, and he patted his hand before moving aside. “Good luck.”

Nate glanced desperately at Jonathan. "I don't understand what's going on."

"Then I suppose this will be quite interesting," said Jonathan, sounding not the slightest bit deterred. He frowned. "Come on, Nate, you're a talented man. It's about time someone starts noticing it."

Nate let out a harsh laugh. "Me? Talented?" When he didn’t get a response, he leaned in and lowered his voice. “Jonathan. I haven’t touched a guitar in over two months. I’m not special, I’m not talented, and most of all, I’m not even liked. I’m not worth your time.”

“Then allow me to make you feel otherwise.” Jonathan stepped away, fully exposing him to the expectant crowd and the rest of the Masked Records. “Come on. For an old friend. You might be surprised about what you don’t know about yourself.”

Nate could hardly miss the hidden depth in his words. It seemed like everything Jonathan said to him carried a world of meaning that only he could comprehend—a trove of mystery no one else held the key to. He thought back to the Masked Records’ so-called rules, and the numerous instances he’d caught them observing him earlier that day. We are always around you. 

Before, he’d had the feeling the entire event was planned; now he was certain. He was as certain about that as he was that they would have invited him to perform even if he hadn’t interrupted them. From the beginning, they’d sought him out, found him, and offered him an opportunity that few in the entire music industry possessed. Whatever it was, they saw something in him , and they wanted to see him demonstrate it.

Nate took a deep breath. “Alright.” 

“I knew you wouldn’t be able to say no,” said Jonathan. He gave Nate a nod, then held the microphone to his face one last time. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome our old and longtime friend Nathan Sharp to the stage.”

The audience didn’t applaud. They seemed more confused if anything, and Nate didn’t really blame them. He knew they were all likely thinking the same thing— who is this kid, and why in the fuck is the Masked Records paying him any attention? Truthfully, he didn’t have any idea how to answer that question, but in that moment, he didn’t care. He knew what he needed to sing. 

He sang into the microphone. “Stand straight, keep it right on track; gotta step on the outcast, your deck is stacked.

“Talk soft right behind their backs; before you know it, you’ll be one of them.

“Keep kind words up out your mouth; throw your name in the mud, now you’re heading south.

“Don’t let them see your face; a facade’s what you need for the fame, so blame the game.”

Nate strummed the first chord, and he was faintly surprised that he still could do it. A rush of confidence flooded through him that’d never felt before. He never realized before just how exhilarating it was to perform once an established group of professionals empowered him to do so. It felt so damn good.

As the performance went on, the last of his lingering doubts evaporated—if only for a little while—like the rain on a hot summer day. The audience appeared to slowly shed their suspicion of him, and Nate amusedly realized that they were hardly paying any focus on the lyrics at all. That was fine with him. He’d had this song shelved for weeks, ever since he first made the choice to leave Give Heart Records and pursue something larger in the music industry. This was his opportunity to sing it, to put into words all the thoughts and emotions that had been passing through him.

“I never meant to fit this mold.

“I’m simply doing what I’m told.

“I’m painted up and watered down to a shell that’s hollowed out…”

Just then, Nate felt it. He scanned through the rows of people as he sang, and his heart sank upon finding a familiar face in the back of the crowd. Andy. If looks could kill, then Andy definitely would have stabbed him, burned him at the stake, personally dragged his charred remains to Hell itself, then revived him just to do it all over again. It took everything within Nate to look the other way.

The Masked Records were ever so silent as they watched the performance. Whether or not they were attentive to the words he was singing, Nate didn’t know, but he could feel them listening. And that was what mattered to him.

“Before I knew, I became one of them.”

Chapter Text

It was long past midnight when Nate and the rest of the Masked Records arrived at the mansion, and the sky had grown pitch black. It was difficult to see more than the building’s outline in the darkness, but Nate still felt a spike of excitement within him. They’d walked a short distance to get there from the bus they’d taken—which Nate was thankful for—but with all the sudden turns and the clusters of trees they’d passed by, he had no way of telling exactly where outside the city they had ended up. Still, knowing how little forestry existed within a short bus ride from Los Angeles’ center made him impressed that it had never been discovered before.

Jonathan stopped beside him at the front doors. “Welcome back to the club, Nathan. I’m sure you were quite eager to step foot in here.“

Nate blinked. “I...I guess.“ He kept his eyes trained on the door handle, staring until it seemed to scream his name. The rest of the Masked Records watched him expectantly as they seemed to wait for him to open the door. It seemed odd that they were leaving the gesture to him—something about it didn’t feel right.

Jonathan nodded in the direction of the doorway. “Go on, then. Take a look around. We won’t mind.“ With a slight edge to his voice, he added, “So many of us have been looking forward to meeting you.“

At that, Nate took a deep breath and slowly pushed the door open. A million different senses overwhelmed him in an instant. Jonathan hadn’t been lying when he’d promised him a party—what had once been seemingly an elegant, regal ballroom had been turned into a contemporary-style dance floor. All of the curtains had been closed so there was no hint of the rainbow-colored strobe lights spinning inside. Dining tables had been filled to the brim with more food and drink he’d ever seen in a room at the same time. There had to have even been some sort of sophisticated smoke machine hidden out of view, because a thick, hazy green fog covered the entire floor.

For a few minutes, Nate kept to the outer edges of the crowd and simply watched the Masked Records converse among themselves. None of them seemed to notice his eyes following their every move. His position made him realize how sorely out of place he was among the others, an outsider compared to their tightly-woven group of business partners.

“Are you usually this dull, Sharp?” asked a voice behind him, and Nate turned around to find Jonathan with a drink in his hand.

“I-I don’t know,” Nate answered, stammering. He didn’t know why, but Jonathan’s presence made him feel significantly more uncomfortable than before, like the other man was trying to dig for a secret he was hiding.

Jonathan was silent for a moment before he turned and made a motion with his arm. “You two. Come here. Say hello to our guest.“

A second later, the two Masked Records members that brought Nate onstage earlier emerged from the crowd. Jonathan turned back to Nate. “Nathan, I believe you’re already acquainted with Joel and Igor.“ He gestured to them individually—first a short man whose ribs stuck out under his hoodie, and then to the man who towered above him with dark hair and broad shoulders.

Igor Gordienko—once known on YouTube as a musician called TryHardNinja —stepped forward. “Mr. Sharp. How nice of you to join us.“ He extended his hand. “We’ve been expecting you.“

Ignoring the anxiety sweltering in his chest, Nate tentatively shook Igor’s hand. He didn’t miss that Joel Berghult—formerly RoomieOfficial —still hung back, watching the interaction with his teeth bared in a snarl. “You have?“

To his surprise, Igor stayed silent, and it took Nate a moment to realize that Igor and Joel had been among the members watching him earlier that day. The words Mr. Sharp echoed in his head—that peculiar name had returned, and now all of them were using it. He opened his mouth to ask about it just as another person entered through the front doors.

“Excuse me, excuse me, I’m try—“ The blonde woman pushed past the group before she suddenly stopped in her tracks. She turned around and dropped her jaw. “—Nate?“

Everyone in the room stopped what they were doing at once. The music screeched to a halt and drenched the space with an agonizing silence, one so intense that Nate could hear his own heartbeat. Somehow, their meaningful, curious stares smoldered him so much worse than the hundreds of eyes that had laid upon him during the performance. 

The blonde woman—who Nate knew without a doubt in his mind was his old friend Amanda Lee—backed away, her eyes so wide they were larger than the moon.

“Oh my god!“ The shriek of a young woman broke through the silence as she bounded across the floor. Nate could hardly react before her arms wrapped around his body and held him tight, smothering him into a hug. “It’s you. You’re back. You’ve come back.“

Nate was so blindsided by the sudden contact that he struggled to respond. “...Hey.“

With the single word, the Masked Records sprang into action. They rushed across the ballroom and gathered around him until he was locked in a tight circle, one vaguely similar to the ring of fire their audience had formed at the performance earlier. Now that they stood mere feet from him, Nate could make out some slightly familiar faces in the crowd. The ones he recognized looked so much brighter, younger, and healthier than he’d ever seen them before, to the point that it was almost impossible to know who they were for certain.

“Holy crap. You’re so short.“ The woman hugging him giggled. “And you’ve lost so much weight, too.“

Another woman with long, wavy light brown hair approached them. “Wow, Sparrow, who’s your friend?“ She looked Nate up and down with wide blue eyes.

That’s Sparrow? Nate gaped as he looked down at her. He’d hardly caught a glimpse of her face through the silken mop of curls on her head. This was the same girl that he’d bonded with filming the Yandere Simulator Musical —it seemed like an eternity ago now.

“He’s our newest member, Malinda!“ Sparrow Rayne exclaimed, squeezing Nate even tighter with her arms practically snaked around his waist.

Caleb frowned “That’s...not set in stone.”

“He’s cute. Can I have him?“ asked Malinda Kathleen Reese, ignoring Caleb entirely.

Sparrow pouted. “I knew him longer.“

By then, Nate had recovered enough from his daze to fight back against Sparrow’s grip. Ever since he was young, he despised most physical contact, and it was an oddity that was only made worse that evening from the paparazzi incident. It didn’t help that Sparrow’s arms around his frame served as a painful reminder of his poor health. He’d hardly bothered to eat much since the accident, and it took a toll on his body until he barely weighed more than Joel did.

“Easy now, girls. That’s no way to treat our guest.“ A Masked Record s member with dirty blond bangs that covered the middle of his forehead—AJ Pinkerton—stood beside Sparrow and stared crossly at her. Sparrow stuck out her tongue and finally let Nate go.

“Nathan? Is that you?“ Peter Srinivasan, the last former Random Encounters member, joined the group and smiled. “I thought I recognized all that punk. We thought we’d never see you again.“

Nate simply shook his head in disbelief. “It’s good to see you.“

The Masked Records members continued to clamor around him, and Nate grew increasingly dizzy trying to keep up with the four or five conversations going on at once. Igor met his eyes across the floor and pushed through the crowd. “Alright, alright, everyone, that’s enough,” he demanded, holding out his arms to force people back. “Single file line. You’re making him anxious.“

Nate shot him a grateful look.

At last, the attention towards him waned a little and most of the members disappeared back to the dance floor. There was one member, however, who had yet to greet Nate. While the reception had mostly been warm so far, Amanda remained in the far back of the crowd, trembling and holding her arms to her chest. Nate managed to catch her gaze, but she immediately looked away.

Nate frowned and turned to face Peter. “What’s up with her?“ he asked, pointing at Amanda. The blond woman now had her back turned to him and her head angled to the ground.

“Hmm?“ Peter asked distractedly.

“Amanda.“ Nate leaned closer to Peter’s ear and lowered his voice. “She seems...off.“

Something shifted in Peter’s features before he shrugged and pulled away. “Looks fine to me,“ he said nonchalantly. “Probably just shy. She’ll come around.“

“Amanda isn’t shy,“ Nate protested, but nobody was listening to him. Peter stepped away and went back to his business, slinging an arm around AJ’s shoulders and laughing at Sparrow’s jokes. Frustration simmered in Nate at the unsatisfactory answer, and he looked at Amanda one last time before he put it behind him. A different Masked Records member pulled away from Malinda and stopped before him.

The man narrowed his eyes. “So you’re NateWantstoBattle.“ 

Nate’s breath hitched in his throat as he gave the man a second glance. Unless he was terribly mistaken—and couldn’t have possibly been—the celebrity he was talking to was Chase Holfelder. Along with Will, Jonathan, and Caleb, Chase was arguably one of the most prominent musicians in the label. His sandy blond hair and ice blue eyes seemed to glow like a halo under the colored lights.

“Chase,” Nate managed to squeak out, “I-it’s an honor.“

“As it is you.“ Chase dipped his head. “We members of the Masked Records wanted to extend our congratulations to your performance tonight. Considering how sudden it was, I was surprised that you were able to pull something like that off at such an impressive scale. Keep it up and you might find yourself in a very good position.“

At Chase’s praise, numb shock tingled under Nate’s skin. “You really think that?“ he whispered.

“Wait, what did he do?“ Sparrow turned her head in Nate’s direction and then looked at Jonathan. “You didn’t tell us he was going to perform too.”

“That’s because it wasn’t our plan.“ Jonathan smirked. “It was a...rather genius last-minute move on my part.“

The Masked Records lit up with excitement and gathered around Nate again.

“Oh, do tell.“ Malinda scooted her chair forward, causing Nate to cringe at the screeching of the inevitable marks that would be left in the hardwood floor. “Were there fireworks? Parades? An innocent bystander’s untimely and unfortunate death?“

Nate blinked. “Uh…“

Jonathan walked up beside Nate and laid a hand on his back, steering him across the room. The Masked Records, of course, followed. Before Nate could flinch away, Jonathan stopped him in the middle of the living room, which was openly connected with the kitchen. He gestured to the sofas and chairs. “Have a seat, everyone. Mr. Sharp has plenty to tell you.“

Chapter Text

The members of the Masked Records each sat down around the fireplace, and Nate had little choice but to do the same. He quickly found himself wedged between Chase and AJ, with the rest of the group arranged in a circle surrounding him. The green smoke, which had been relatively prevalent in the ballroom, had grown noticeably thicker; aside from the fireplace and the edges of a bar several meters away, it was all that he could see. 

Peter gave Nate a casual smile from his seat nearby. “So, Nathan, tell us how you’ve been. What have you been up to?”

Nate hesitated. “Oh, nothing much. Just...busy, I guess.” He didn’t have any interest in discussing the details of his accident, especially not with a group of people that were equally his idols and strangers. The media had already glorified all of the basic knowledge they’d managed to obtain of the event, anyways; they, along with most everyone else, already knew more than he’d been willing to share.

Jonathan snorted. “Busy, huh? Busy hiding away and essentially disappearing from society for two months?”

“Jonathan—” Caleb pleaded beside him, but one withering glare from the other man was enough to silence him.

The tension in the air almost grew as thick as the smoke itself, and Nate was at a momentary loss for words. “I...I didn’t want to hide.” He picked at a loose thread in his ripped jeans to avoid the imploring gazes focused on him. “Things were...obviously difficult for me to handle for a while, and I guess I just chose to deal with it in the only way I knew how to.”

At this, the Masked Records seemed to exchange a look. Nate couldn’t quite figure out how to describe it—amusement, perhaps? Peculiar.

Chase raised an eyebrow. “‘Obviously’?”

“Surely you’ve heard.” Nate stared at him, slightly taken aback. “It’s all anyone talks about.”

Chase shrugged. “Not really. In case you haven’t noticed, we aren’t exactly known for gossiping idly with other people. We hardly even pay attention to the news.” A small smile appeared on his face. “You should try that last one, by the way. Especially considering the last couple of years, it really does wonders for your mental health.”

“You...you don’t?” Nate could hardly believe what he was saying. So they didn’t know about his accident—he had no idea that was even possible. Relief washed over him at the realization that to them, he was a blank slate—for that night, he was no longer the sad, sorry man whose life had been ruined when his car drove into the Los Angeles River. He was unsuspected, unmarked, and entirely normal.

Who knew how nice it could feel to start over?

While in his thoughts, Nate didn’t notice that Joel had pushed himself off the edge of the counter and positioned himself behind the bar. He eyed the shelves of beverages thoughtfully. “Pick your poison, Nathan. Gin, scotch, wine, anything of the sort?”

Nate shook his head. “I really shouldn’t drink.”

Strangely, the Masked Records exchanged that look again. It looked slightly more smug this time, even, like they were beating him at some game he didn’t even know they were playing. Now Nate was very confused. 

AJ let out a short laugh. “Aw, come on, man. It’s a celebratory night. Enjoy yourself.”

“I’m fine, thanks,” Nate assured him, waving a hand dismissively to show the matter wasn’t much of a big deal. Drinking had never been a favorite pastime of his, and with all the questions spinning in his head, he wanted to stay alert. He thought for sure that the Masked Records would get the message and drop it after that, but their good-natured expressions rapidly wore away.

“But we insist.” Igor narrowed his stone-cold eyes. “You haven’t lived until you’ve tried Joel’s scotch. Customary per the Masked Records. One never hurt anybody.”

“I don’t drink,” Nate repeated firmly, beginning to sound more and more like a broken record. The Masked Records continued to talk over him, gently begging for him to please try their scotch as though it was the best damn scotch in the world. It was beginning to get on his nerves a little—maybe even make him slightly uncomfortable—but he didn’t dare say so.

“Well, that’s a shame. Why not?” Sparrow’s forehead creased in confusion. She was far from the only one who looked slightly upset at his refusal. Nate frowned. Does it really matter that much?

At last, Chase spoke up. “Let it be, guys. Just get him a water or something.” He leaned back in the sofa and made eye contact with Nate, giving him a smirk. “Maybe he’s just...basic.”

Nate flinched at Chase’s subtle belittlement. He took a full glance around the group, and the hurt in their faces stared back at him through the smoke. Memories of the performance played out in front of him, and he watched himself play onstage with dozens of men and women —a real audience—gathered around him. The Masked Records had been the ones to grant him that honor. Out of anyone else in the city they could have chosen, they chose him, and yet he wouldn’t so much as repay them with a single drink from their hospitality.

“Alright, fine. The scotch, then.” Nate looked desperately at Joel. The guilt that had been stabbing him instantly withdrew from his chest. 

Joel grinned. “That’s the spirit.”

The Masked Records let out a joyful cheer, and Nate watched as Joel went to work. Joel’s movements were relaxed and deliberate as he disappeared behind the clouds of smoke, leaving Nate to only imagine what exactly he was doing to mix the drink together. The process seemed to last a painfully long time before he finally emerged with a full glass in his hand.

With his hands suddenly shaking, Nate took the glass and hesitated. He could feel the Masked Records watching him intensely as he his eyes traced the pattern in the glass, examining every last aspect of the drink except for the liquid itself. Don’t you dare, a voice hissed in his head, repeating the warning over and over until it threatened to drive him insane. It sounded like Andy. He began to wonder exactly when Andy’s conscience had superseded his own.

At last, Nate brought the glass up to his mouth and took a swallow. Immediately, the world around him sharpened as his senses spiked into overdrive. His heartbeat quickened and endless thoughts spun in his head until they crashed into one another. It all lasted for a single moment. A dead weight draped over him as the seconds slowly passed, pressing down on his shoulders and slackening every muscle in his body. He felt... calmer, more relaxed and at ease with his surroundings. He was...comfortably numb.

“Feeling better?” Joel smirked, leaning against the bar with his arms crossed.

Nate nodded, the taste of the alcohol still a sharp tang on his tongue. “Much.”

Joel threw up his hands in victory. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve done it again. Never question the powers of my secret ingredient.”

“Oh, shut up,” said Sparrow.

Nate grinned. He briefly wondered what Joel did in order to make the drink so strong, but he pushed the question aside. Questions meant thinking, and with his mind now lulled into a numb state of sleep, thinking was a slow and difficult process.

AJ turned to Nate. “Admit it, you haven’t partied this hard since college.”

“I guess not.” Nate shrugged. “I mean, not like I did a lot of it then, either.”

“Sure you didn’t,” AJ teased.

Nate shook his head. “No, I’m serious. They just aren’t my thing. Too many people.” 

Chase chuckled. “Well, then this must be a nightmare for you.“

Nate gave Chase a grateful look, relieved to have someone in the room who understood how he felt. “This is so different from anything I’ve ever experienced before. I mean, you’re all so...special, and I’m—I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be doing here. I don’t really think I deserve this.“

“You don’t think you’re special?“ asked Jonathan. He seemed strangely intrigued by this, leaning forward slightly in his seat.

Nate blinked. “No, of course I’m not,“ he said simply. “Not compared to most anyone else here, anyway. I’m just the guy who can’t even get a record deal. My career’s pretty much been turned into a joke.“

It took him a moment to realize what he’d said, and he pinched himself for carelessly admitting to such a personal detail. The action made him feel slightly more sober, and he did it a few extra times until a small amount of the cloudiness cleared from his brain.

A tight-lipped grin appeared on Jonathan’s face. “Welcome to Hollywood, dear. You win some, you lose some, but in the end, everyone gets screwed over.“ He sank into the back of the sofa. “I wouldn’t take the Phoenix Records’ bullshit so seriously.“

“You knew about that?“ Nate asked, surprised, until he saw Jonathan’s mouth twist into a frown. “Oh. Of course you did. I, uh...forgot about that.“

Jonathan’s frown became even deeper, and a sharp edge suddenly introduced itself in his voice. “You seem to have forgotten a lot of things.“

“You were watching me earlier today.“ Nate ignored the strange feeling within him and looked Jonathan directly in the eye. “You set up that performance to distract the reporters, and you invited me onstage. I want to know why I’m here.“

“Yes, we did you quite the favor, didn’t we?“ Jonathan grinned, seemingly dodging the question. “I had no idea you were on such bad terms with your friends, Sharp. You and whatshisface were shouting up a storm just a few hours ago.“

Nate shook his head furiously. “Shawn? We didn’t mean anything by it. The two of us fight all the time—he’s rather opinionated and sometimes—“

“—Cut the shit, Nathan. We heard what you were saying,” Jonathan spat. He took a moment to collect himself, inhaling deeply. “And frankly, you have us...concerned.“

Nate ducked his head. “I’m sorry.“

“Good god, quit apologizing, love. That’s not why we fucking stopped the show for you.“ Jonathan turned to Caleb, who had his back pressed against the far end of the sofa and was currently looking at the floor. “Isn’t that right, Caleb? Natey here seemed rather down on himself and we wanted to make him feel better.“

Caleb didn’t respond.

“Caleb. I’m talking to you.“ Jonathan snapped his fingers in front of the other man’s face. The other Masked Records members giggled as Caleb jumped in his seat.

“Oh, uh, yeah, sure,“ Caleb sputtered.

“You didn’t need to do that,” Nate murmured. “I’m fine. Really, I am. I don’t think there’s anything you can do to help me.“

To Nate’s surprise, Jonathan didn’t at all seem to respect his answer; the other man’s eyes hardened into flint and he folded his hands in his lap. “Is that what you think? Are you going to tell us that you didn’t feel a sense of importance when you were up on that stage? Achievement that nobody has ever given you before? You weren’t happy at all?“ He curled his lip. “Because if you say that, Sharp, you’re not only lying to us, but yourself.“

“You’re right,” said Nate with hardly a moment’s hesitation. Everything Jonathan had said was true, without a shadow of a doubt in his head. He liked to think that he would have had a much longer monologue about the reasons why this was the case if he was more sober, but frankly, he was nowhere near any state to be able to string together a coherent narrative. Once again, thinking too hard was not an enjoyable pastime.

“See, we’ve noticed a few things about you, Nathan Sharp.“ Jonathan spoke more quietly now, but there was a certain roughness to his tone that he only seemed to wield against him. “Something’s changed since we last saw you. Whatever happened to you, it’s caused a ripple effect that’s spread to every last corner of your life. You’re upset. You’re always glancing behind your back. Your friends either ignore or belittle you, and some of the biggest media companies track you as though you’re a celebrity. What is going on?“

Before Jonathan could even finish speaking, Nate knew exactly how this would end up. The truth. It sat on the tip of his tongue and struggled to claw its way to the surface. But he couldn’t tell them—not when they were powerful and so far apart from him. It should have been his friends that knew first. There was no telling for certain that he could even handle revealing all the details for the first time. 

Maybe there was only one way to find out, though. The Masked Records looked at him expectantly, and they appeared to be far more invested in his story than anyone had for months. And even if they didn’t read the news, they were sure to find out eventually—if not from him, then from a half-baked source of information only reporting the event for profit. Maybe it would be nice to stop hiding for once.

Nate took a deep breath. 

“I was in an accident,“ he said softly.

The living room fell dead silent. At least, it seemed to - from the movements of their mouths, they must have gasped, but Nate was too deep underwater to hear them. Those five words were all it took to take him back. He was drowning again, drifting endlessly down a river mixed with tears and alcohol. And there was nothing anybody could do but watch.

“No.“ Sparrow’s bottom lip trembled. “Oh, god, Nate, no.”

“Holy shit, what happened?“ AJ sat up straighter in the sofa, running his hands through his hair. “Fuck, man. I had no idea you went through that. No wonder you—I’m so sorry.“

Nate kept his head angled to the floor. He couldn’t bear to look anyone in the eye, not when he would see the pain and sympathy so evidently written on their faces. “It was at night,” he whispered. “Two months ago. In the suburbs. On a Saturday.“ He swallowed back the lump forming in his throat from what was to come. “It was raining like hell. More than any other night I’d seen before. Of course it had to happen then—fog was so thick you could hardly see more than two feet in front of you. Most people waited it out, stayed indoors and watched it pour because it would have been suicide to do otherwise. But not me. The police found me lying on the bank near the Los Angeles River.“

One of the Masked Records members definitely gasped this time, but Nate didn’t see which one it was. He was too busy fighting back the tears forming behind his eyes, the ones that were threatening to spill another waterfall into his already flooded mess of a river.

“Nobody knows where I was driving or how I ended up there. They told me they’d looked everywhere for witnesses, possible suspects, but there was nothing. It was just me, sprawled out inches from the water. Unconscious. Barely breathing. Car completely submerged underwater. And with the tides so high and the force of the current threatening to pull anyone under, it was a fucking miracle I hadn’t drowned.“

Nate finally paused and allowed himself to breathe. Deep down, there was a fully sober part of him that knew he would never be sharing any of this if he wasn’t even a drop drunk, but it no longer seemed to matter. The words kept on tumbling out of his mouth; he couldn’t help it; he couldn’t stop. And he didn’t want to. It had been so goddamn long since he’d had so much as a chance of sharing his story, and he’d nearly forgotten how it felt to be cared about.

“I remember nothing, you know. Not from that night, and nothing from the several months preceding it. Except for one thing.“ Nate felt his eyes close involuntarily, and he allowed it to happen. “I’ll never forget what it felt like after. I woke up in darkness. There was darkness everywhere, as far as the eye could see. It was dark and empty like the river itself, and I spent what felt like years drowning in it. The void stifled my senses until I was completely alone, paralyzed with nothing but my thoughts floating around me. Sometimes voices would break through the surface and reminded me that it wasn’t a dream; it was real, but I hadn’t really woken up.

“I didn’t understand it at the time. How could I? I didn’t understand it at all until I woke up. I found myself with a black eye in a white room surrounded by doctors and machines strapped to me keeping me alive. I was alive. And fuck, I never knew how good it could feel under morphine. Everything was...numb. Even as they explained what had happened, that I’d been through a terrible accident and nearly died from head trauma and shock and drowning and being in a fucking coma. I didn’t feel anything at all.“

Opening his eyes, Nate let out a curt laugh. “Not then, anyway. It was a different story when I’d left the hospital. You know, I thought for a while that things wouldn’t be so different, that I’d slowly recover if I had my friends there to support me. That was before Hunter completely left, just ditched the entire friend group and never spoke to any of us ever again. No explanation. He just did. And Andy...he won’t talk to me either, won’t even look me in the eye even though he’s still here. Good god, does that hurt. Two of my closest friends abandoned me when I needed them most. I’ve spent the past month lying awake at night because falling asleep means facing nightmares, nightmares of something I don’t even remember. I’ve stayed indoors in fear of being spotted and harassed by paparazzi, wanting to know more about my story than I do. I can’t even drive or ride in a car without breaking down, so I don’t; I walk or use trains or just don’t go at all. I’m suffering, and they left me to face it by myself.“

“Nate—“ Caleb began, but Nate cut him off.

“—I’m supposed to be dead, don’t you see that? I’m supposed to be dead.“ Nate’s voice was louder now, and shaking like it was balancing on the edge of a cliff overlooking the rapids. “But I’m not, and nobody can understand that.“

Nate stopped. The tears were flowing freely now, and he dabbed at his eyes to catch them before anyone could notice. One dripped down his cheek and landed on the bare skin of his knee. He stared at it for a while, watching it shrink until it disappeared.

“Funny thing is, they say I’m quite lucky. I’ve been told that I must have had some sort of angel by my side to help me swim to the shoreline before I was dragged under. But I don’t feel that lucky at all. I feel miserable. I’m fucking losing my mind and nobody gives a shit, nobody is here to listen or care unless it gives them money. And that will always be the worst burden I carry from all of this—so clearly seeing for the first time just how much people can be cruel.

 “The media thinks a lot of things about my accident. Maybe I was just lost, they believed—amped too high on some bullshit drug and driving blindly like a maniac until I dropped my car into the river. Or maybe the answer was right in front of them and I just couldn’t see the road through the rain. Me, I only think about where I was going—maybe I was just getting away. Not going anywhere in particular, but needing to just go —drive until I found myself again. And maybe that’s why I ended up in that stupid river. Maybe that’s where fate believed I would become whole.“

And with that, he went quiet again. Everyone sat without saying much for a while, save for the few momentary glances as they went over all they had just learned. But this time, Nate didn’t mind it. It was a good kind of silence. 

“Fucking hell,” Joel finally muttered.

Amanda placed her hand over her heart. “Oh, you poor duckling.“

The rest of the Masked Records nodded in agreement, and they fell back into soundlessness once more. Nate paused. Something within him didn’t want to believe the group of artists could truly understand what he’d been through, like their sympathy for him was artificial and simply rehearsed. Even then, having somebody beside him to offer such kind words of encouragement—as opposed to the cold aloofness he had experienced from those he thought were his friends—made tears prick behind his eyes once more.

It was then that Nate noticed something for the first time. All of the artists made at least an attempt to look sorry for him, but Jonathan looked hardly the least bit disturbed. In fact, he looked rather pleased. No, not pleased—there was something sparking in his eyes. A realization. An idea.

Jonathan abruptly stood up and clapped his hands together. “Golly gee, this is becoming awfully depressing. I know just the thing to lift our spirits.“

Sparrow perked up. “Drinks?“

“Drinks,” Jonathan confirmed.

“Wait, what?“ asked Nate, but everyone ignored him. “I’m fine. I don’t need—“

“—Chill out, Nate. We all need a little something to brighten the mood.“ AJ laid a hand warningly on his wrist, and Nate immediately flinched away.

“He’s right. This is supposed to be a party, and yet even I’m pulling out the tissues,“ said Chase, who rather incidentally had not so much as shed even a tear yet. He gave Nate another look. “Something wrong, Nathan?“

Nate’s confidence wavered under the other man’s provoking gaze. “Nothing. Just make it strong,“ he muttered to Joel.

Jonathan gave him an approving, but seemingly smug smile. “I love the way you think.“ He waited as Joel again disappeared behind the bar and returned with a tray of drinks in hand. 

“It’s just as my father always said, dear—40% alcohol, 100% satisfaction.” Jonathan held out the glass to Nate. “Life is always better sharing drinks with friends. Live a little.“

“That explains a lot about your childhood,“ Joel cracked, and the Masked Records members laughed.

Jonathan gave Joel a dirty look before raising his drink. “Here’s to us. To fame, to fortune, to family, to friends. To prosperity and good times. But most importantly, to our future.“

“Cheers!“ Joel shouted, and the artists clinked their glasses together.

This time, Nate didn’t wait nearly as long before giving into the pressure and taking a sip. Right away, he was placed back into the fantastical trance he’d experienced before. This drink appeared to be even stronger than the first, and Nate wondered just how poor of a mixologist Joel had to be to keep getting the alcohol concentration that far off. He almost enjoyed it, though—the slight buzz the liquid gave him soon wore away to his now familiar, mindless stupor.

As he held the cup to his lips again, though, he noticed something particularly strange. The bright party lights beamed down on the glass surface from the ceiling, and he could barely see his reflection if he squinted hard enough. But it didn’t squint back. Instead, it stared at him with a face like stone. He knew by that point that perhaps the alcohol was getting to him...a little too much.

His reflection sneered.

“You know, Nathan, we do feel particularly bad for you,“ said Peter, taking Nate out of his daze. “You deserve far better friends than that.“

Nate stared at him, speechless. “I don’t need any more friends than the ones I already have. I just wish they’d come around.“

“Come around?“ Chase scoffed. “After all of that? You must be ridiculous.“

“Am I?“ Nate whispered.

AJ nodded while swirling his drink with a straw. “Yeah, I’m with Peter on that one. Andy and Hunter have always been cunts, in my opinion. Especially Andy. I have no idea why you’re giving either of them the time of day.“

“But...but they’re my friends.“ Nate looked around the room, hoping that at least one of the artists would come to their senses and agree with him, but none of them did. He tried again. “They’ve never acted like this before. Was it...was it something I did wrong?“

“See? Now you’re being ridiculous,“ said AJ. “Always blaming yourself when the truth of the matter is right under your nose.“

“What are you talking about?“ asked Nate, trying desperately to control the rising panic in his chest. Even through the muddled thoughts in his head, he could sense the loose threads of a mystery he had yet to unravel. He had a strong feeling that him and the Masked Records were on the verge of driving straight into an inescapable storm.

Joel sneered. “Nate, your pal Andy’s a controlling piece of shit.“

“Talking about me behind my back now, are we?”

A new voice caused all of the people in the room to whirl around. In the far edges of the room, Nate could just make out the outlines of two men standing at the doorway and his heart nearly stopped for good as he recognized who they were. He blinked rapidly, almost believing them to be a hallucination at first, but they were real, flesh and blood. Andrew Stein was leaning against the entrance to the room, his arms crossed with Shawn Christmas right behind him.

Chapter Text

AJ sneered. “Oh, look. Your boyfriend’s come to join the party.“

Despite the nonchalance of AJ’s tone, Nate could practically smell the fear that was reeking off of the Masked Records members as Andy’s hazel eyes searched around the room. In a way, he really couldn’t blame them. He ducked his head and stared intently at the floorboards, hoping that if he focused long and hard enough, he would soon sink into the ground. 

“Andrew.“ The lone word slipped out of Nate’s mouth without him meaning to, so quiet and weak that he doubted the other man even heard it. “Andrew, I—“

“—You,” Andy snarled so ferociously that Nate stopped talking at once. It took him a moment to realize that Andy’s eyes were not set on him; they had fallen upon Jonathan instead.

Jonathan met his aggression with a casual smile. “Hello, Andrew.“

“You.“ Andy stormed across the room and yanked Jonathan off the sofa by the collar of his shirt, slamming him against the wall. “You lay a fucking finger on him and I will make you regret it for the rest of your life.“

“Ooh, feisty. I like it.“ Jonathan chuckled in Andy’s grip, looking not the slightest bit fazed by Andy’s threat.

Igor balled his massive fists. “Get off our fucking boss,“ he demanded to Andy.

“Relax, honey. I can handle him,” said Jonathan, giving Igor a thumbs-up as though he wasn’t being physically assaulted by a random stranger. He grinned widely. “What’s wrong, Andy? Jealous we’re keeping Nate all to ourselves?“

Nate glanced around the room with dismay. “What is going on?“ he asked with a raised voice, and he pushed himself off the couch to position himself himself between the fighting men. He nearly tripped over himself from the effort it took to walk in his inebriated state.

“DON’T GO NEAR HIM!“ Before Nate could realize what was happening, Andy shouldered him aside and sent him tumbling to the ground. A splitting pain spread through his skull a few moments later, and only then did he finally register what had happened. Andy pushed me. The words throbbed in his mind, and he would’ve laughed if it didn’t hurt so much. It seemed as though he were watching the scene play out from a distance, like he was detached from his body and floating away.

Maybe that would be nice.

Shawn extended a hand and helped pull him up. “I tried to stop him,“ he whispered.

When Nate finally looked up, Andy had an expression so rabid that he didn’t even seem to recognize what he’d just done. He could hardly believe it himself. “Holy fucking Christ, you’re so fucking lucky I made it here in time. If anything had happened to you again, I’d—“ He paused and looked Nate over. “—Are you drunk?”

“Is that what this is?“ Nate asked, suddenly intrigued. “Damn. I was wondering why everything’s so weird. I should do this more often.“ Weird was an understatement—with each drink, his memories got a little fuzzier, the world around him swaying and dipping like a carnival ride. It was like watching his brain shut down and toss all his inhibitions into the river until they flowed far, far away. Maybe he’d had more than two drinks—he could have had fifty for all he knew; it sure would make a lot more sense as to why he was this tipsy.

Andy whirled to face Jonathan. “What did you do to him?!“ he shouted accusingly, and Nate briefly admired the small purple veins protruding from his forehead. Andy had always liked the color purple.

“You sound so pissed. Why’s that? Did I do something wrong?“ Nate tipped his head to one side. Much to his confusion, nobody seemed that much pleased to answer him.

Shawn groaned. “Good god.”

Jonathan took one look at Nate and sneered. “The way I see it, I did you a favor.“ His comment was met with laughter from the Masked Records, and Nate almost joined in despite having no idea what they found so funny. Andy, however, looked the least bit amused; he bunched up his fists like he was about to deck someone before Shawn pulled him aside.

“Let’s just fucking go,” muttered Shawn. “It’s late, and there’s no way you’re going to stand a chance against—“

“—I didn’t ask for your opinion,“ Andy growled.

“I wasn’t waiting for you to,” Shawn retorted.

Nate shook his head, stunned. “Whoa, alright, hold on.“ He stumbled over to Andy and Shawn—half-expecting to be hit again—and wagged a disapproving finger in their faces. “Why don’t w-we stop the, uh—stop the touchy, and th-the wordy, a-and all the things...and sit and drink more—have you had any yet? It’s some real good shit.“

“Yeah, Andrew. Stay a while. We have so much unsettled business to get through,“ AJ jeered.

For a few seconds, Andy didn’t respond; he simply stood in place, breathing heavily before he offered AJ the fakest smile. “We’re going to be leaving now, actually. Come on, Nate.“

“What?“ Nate asked, but he was already being dragged halfway out the room. He let out a whine of protest. “Hey! Where are we goin’?“

“Nathan Lucas Ji-hoon Smith. We are going home.” Andy tightened his grip on Nate’s wrist until it stung his entire arm. “Back where you belong, and where, at this point, you should probably fucking stay. Now let’s go.”

Home? He couldn’t go back there—he’d never find the courage to leave again. He’d go right back to square one. Nate ripped himself out of Andy’s grasp. “No.“

Andy sucked in a breath. “Excuse me?“

Nate momentarily faltered under Andy’s incredulous stare. Behind him, he could hear the Masked Records murmuring words of encouragement, and he straightened his posture so that he was at his proper height. “I said no, Andy,” he repeated, surer this time. “I’m not going anywhere with you.“

“Goddamn,” Joel muttered. “Motherfucker actually grew some balls.”

Andy looked momentarily caught off guard, but he recovered with a firm shake of his head. “Nathan,“ he said softly, his eyes wide with pity. ”You’re drunk. You don’t know what you’re saying.“

“Whaddyu mean?” Nate giggled, both from being taken aback by how foolish Andy’s suggestion was and the way his words slurred together when he spoke. “I’m not as think as you drunk I am. I know exactly what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.“

AJ clapped. “Yeah, you fucking go, Nate. Tell him who’s boss.“

At AJ’s encouragement, Nate beamed and tilted his chin slightly upwards. “I am.”

“You have got to be fucking kidding me.“ Andy sighed and put his head in his palm, breathing deeply before he looked back up. “Look, Nate, can we talk? Privately?”

Nate frowned. Judging by Andy’s insistence to make him leave just before, he wouldn’t be surprised if his request was simply a ruse to get him out of the mansion. “We’re talkin’ right now.“

Andy stiffened, and Nate braced himself for an outburst. His voice was ice cold. “Fine.“ He relaxed his shoulders, and the bitterness in his stance thawed until he was almost pleading. “Listen to me, Nathan. You don’t belong here. No matter what these people tell you, they’re not your friends, and they do not understand you. Nobody around here has a damn clue what they’re capable of, and I won’t...I won’t watch them take advantage of you. Please come home. Please.“

At this, the Masked Records burst into outraged cries.

“What a fucking lunatic,” AJ spat. He stuck out his bottom lip and curled his index fingers into quotation marks above him, putting on a whining, mocking voice. “‘Come home, Nathan. Please. Please. I can’t live without you by my side any longer.’ How helpless do you think he is?“

“Stay out of this!“ Andy shouted at AJ.

Chase let out a short, disbelieving laugh. “Oh, stay out of this, you say? That’s terribly ironic. You’re the one constantly shoving your face in everyone else’s business.“

Andy spat on the hardwood floor in anger.

“And yet you try to keep yours so under wraps,” Chase continued. “I bet you think nobody has a clue what you’ve been doing. Especially not Sabrina. God, you must feel so clever sneaking around at night chasing after some poor cripple kid as opposed to spending time with your own wife. Don’t you think that’s rather peculiar, gang?“

In response, the rest of the artists began chattering amongst themselves, and Nate watched all of the blood drain from Andy’s face until he was sickly pale. “Andy? What are they talking about?“ he asked, concern spiking in him at how everyone else seemed to know what was going on except him. Even Shawn looked less confused than he did. The alcohol running through his veins neutralized until he no longer felt intoxicated.

“Nothing, Nathan.“ Andy’s tone was quiet, but Nate could hear it guarding a note of panic.

AJ made a tsk sound. “Oh, don’t play that game. Why don’t you tell him your little secret?“ 

The room seemed to hold its breath in quivering anticipation for Andy’s answer. Next to AJ, Chase and Peter nodded in agreement, and even Richard narrowed his eyes in interest. Shawn cringed and turned away as though he did not want to hear. A small, smug smile appeared on Jonathan’s face, and he leaned back in the sofa with his arms folded behind his head.

Andy took a threatening step forward. “I am faithful to my wife,” he growled.

“Of course you are,” AJ taunted. “I’m sure she feels the exact same way. No wonder you two have had such a loving, passionate relationship recently.“

Nate gaped at the two men, paralyzed with shock. In the three years that Andy and Sabrina had been together, there had never been any indication that their marriage was deteriorating. How long had he been keeping this from me? He swallowed thickly and glanced at Andy’s ring to see if he was playing with it like he was on the train earlier, but he wasn’t.

Shawn loudly cleared his throat and tapped at his watch. “Oh, would you look at the time. Perhaps now we should skedaddle before this turns into even larger of a mess than it already is.“ 

Joel sneered. “Yeah, losers. Get going. Nobody wants you here.“

Andy shot Nate a desperate look. “You’re seriously going to let them talk to us like this?”

Nate froze.

“Andy—“ Shawn protested, but Andy held up a hand to cut him off.

“—Enough, please. I’m just trying to understand.“ Andy turned his focus back to Nate. “What could they possibly give to you?“ Something in his expression seemed to soften, and under the light, his eyes appeared more brown than hazel—large and round and doelike. It was the first time Nate had seen him look so gentle in almost two months.

The question, he reminded himself. Andy asked you a question. He shook his head to snap himself out of his distracted daze. The Masked Records were watching him expectantly, and Nate tried to think of an answer, but his mind was still so fuzzy—stuffed to the brim with cotton balls—that it was hard to form thoughts or even words.

He shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe it’s not what they give. Maybe it’s what they take.“

Andy furrowed his brow. “What?”

“I feel good, Andy. Better than I have in a long time,“ Nate told him honestly. “Whatever they’re doing to me, it’s working. It’s more than you’ve ever done.“

At this, Andy flinched as though he were genuinely stricken. “I’m just worried about you.“

The Masked Records let out a mutter of protest.

“You’re different, Nathan. This isn’t you. This isn’t the person that I grew to care about over the years—the friend I knew almost as well as myself.“ Andy smiled—painfully, as though he were holding out an olive branch. A truce. “So if you could tell me why—after everything we swore to become and all the moments we shared together— why you’ve become so... obsessed with this kind of lifestyle, it would really help me understand a lot.”

Nate lingered on his words. There was no missing that Andy sounded eerily similar to Jonathan just before. You changed. Had he? He wasn’t really sure. Did anyone? A multitude of thoughts raced through his head—ones with frustration, curiosity, and grief—that all culminated into one single question. “How can you possibly know me when I don’t even know myself?“

And just like that, the olive branch was snapped in half. It was simple, and they all understood—what both sides wanted was for Nate to agree with them, to either go back to who he once was, or abandon that life in search of something new. His response hadn’t been a clear decision of either, not near what any of them had desired. But it was uncertainty, and that was enough.

“Well, I think that just about settles it.” Jonathan curled his lips into a snarl. “Get outta here, Andrew. Turn around, pack up all of your stupid pony shit, and return to your pathetic excuse of a marriage. Don’t ever get in our way again.”

“Oh, no. This isn’t over.“ Andy strode over to Jonathan until the other man was practically backed into the wall. Some of the Masked Records members murmured with surprise, while Igor abruptly stood up before Joel forced him back down. Seeing them so close together made Nate think of how funny it was that Jonathan was the one being bossed around, considering how much more formidable he was in every aspect, but Andy didn’t seem to be intimidated by him at all. It was actually kind of cute.

Andy lightly shoved Jonathan backwards. “I know what you fucking are.” He gritted his teeth, and Nate was reminded of a snarling dog with saliva frothing at the mouth. “You’re manipulating him. You’re exploiting his insecurity and desperation and warping him into yet another one of your idealized, mindless soldiers. It started with Will, and now it’s ending with you.”

“You always were such a rebel, weren’t you?“ Jonathan grinned, but it seemed strained. “So you’re not a fan. How nice. It must be awfully fun being essentially separated from the rest of society. You think you know fucking everything just because you haven’t fallen into mainstream media’s ‘trap’, like there’s some deeper meaning of the world and pop culture is a conspiracy that only you can solve. Oh, you just love to pretend that you’re different from anyone else, but the farther you try to run away, the deeper you sink into what you’ve been trying to avoid becoming all along. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it, dear?“

A draft of cold air blew over Nate’s body as Jonathan gave him a pointed look.

“Well, you know what, Andrew?“ Jonathan leaned in until he was inches away from Andy’s face, his lips hovering just before Andy’s ear. “At least, unlike the two of you, I’m not a fucking f—“

“—ALRIGHT,” Andy ripped away from Jonathan’s hold and shouted so loudly that it caused half of the people in the room to jump, “I’ll GO.”

The Masked Records were so startled that they were momentarily stunned into silence. Andy, in contrast, looked strangely devoid of any emotion as he took one final glance around the room. His cold, empty eyes locked upon Nate’s, and he took a step forward. “Alright, then. Stay.“ His voice was dangerously low. “Stay with these... freaks and let them take advantage of you; I don’t care. I could stand beside you for hundreds of lifetimes and save you from dangers you didn’t even know existed—and god damn it, Nate, I would —but you would always one day return to your path of self-destruction. This is your destiny, and I see now that I have no part in it.“

Nate opened his mouth to say something, but no words came out.

“I wish you the best in your future, Nathan. I hope now you’ll achieve everything you’ve ever wanted.“ Without waiting for an answer, Andy turned his back and walked in the direction of the doorway. “Come on, Shawn.“

Shawn hesitated for a moment before reluctantly chasing after Andy, giving Nate an apologetic look as he left. Several of the Masked Records members jeered at Andy as he stormed out, throwing crumpled-up cocktail napkins at him. AJ even poured his half-empty wine glass over his head. Jonathan was one of the few who did not participate in the debacle; he simply watched Andy head out the door without making a sound, an unreadable expression on his face.

The click of the front door sounded down the hall, and Jonathan regained his usual demeanor. “Good riddance,” he said with a snort.

Chapter Text

For a few minutes after Andy and Shawn left, the Masked Records artists didn’t do much talking. It seemed as though they were still not quite over their sudden arrival; from the few mutters he could overhear, Nate gathered a sense of precisely how much they did not want Andy to be there. Weird, he thought briefly, wondering why things between them seemed so oddly personal upon a second glance.

With each passing second, though, the deeper the reality of the situation sunk in until it pierced through his skin like knives. He’s gone. Nate repeated it to himself again, still not quite able to grasp the truth. He’s gone. He left me. Pained laughter bubbled in his throat, and he allowed it to be released—it was better to laugh, after all, and spare himself the devastation that would come if he cried. He didn’t think he would ever be able to stop. Desperately, he tried to hold onto the last bit of drunkness left within him, but it had worn away and left his mind far, far too open for unwelcome thoughts.

Peter finally shrugged and turned back to face Nate, smiling brightly as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened at all. “So, Nathan. We heard you had quite the experience tonight. What brings you here?“

Here. The lone word echoed in the walls. Good question—why was he here? Nate glanced around the room and caught momentary glimpses of the mosaic architecture behind the wispy gusts of green smoke. “I’m not quite sure, actually. That’s what I wanted to ask about.“ He met Jonathan’s eyes. “You were watching me earlier today. Near the Phoenix Records. I saw you gathered around Will’s billboard.“

With an unblinking face, Jonathan stared back. “Ah. Yes. We were,“ he said with a slight edge to his tone. “I see that you’re quite into him, Sharp.“

“Well, most people are,“ said Nate simply, puzzled by Jonathan’s statement. It was true—Will had accumulated such a diverse fanbase that it was almost impossible to find a large number of people who weren’t a part of it. Of those Nate knew, Andy and Shawn were the only two obvious exceptions—a fact that, even though it made them social outcasts among most of their peers in the city, they seemed to bear without shame. Even Hunter had been supportive of the label back when they’d first been formed countless months ago, after he’d seen how happy they’d made Nate. What changed?

Jonathan’s face suddenly darkened. “Yes,” he said, his voice guarded behind clenched teeth. “I suppose you could say that.“

A heavyset silence drifted in the air. Even with Jonathan’s strange behavior whenever Will was mentioned, questions still hung temptingly on the tip of Nate’s tongue—questions about whether or not the celebrity was anything like the media had built him up to be, if he really was funny and charming and even more handsome than he appeared in pictures. Perhaps he’d even ask about his disappearance, too, if the outline of Andy’s features weren’t currently imprinted in the back of his mind.

“You seem awfully down on yourself, Nate. Would you like another drink?“ asked Joel from behind the bar, snapping Nate out of his thoughts. He clinked two glasses together as though it was an invitation.

“Oh, yes, please,“ said Nate, not sparing a moment for hesitation. His argument with Andy made him feel far too sober.

AJ watched intently as Joel filled Nate’s glass and brought it to the table. “Joel has a point. What’s going on?“ 

Nate shrugged. “Nothing that I wasn’t already dealing with.“ He took another sip of the scotch—almost pure alcohol at that point—and grimaced. “I just thought...I just thought that Andy was better than that. Better than Hunter.“

“Well, obviously he’s not,” said AJ unsympathetically. “Oh well. Honestly, you’re better off without both of them.“ At Nate’s glare, he quickly backtracked and added, “But I suppose, in all fairness, it does kind of suck. I mean, imagine that—losing both your best friend, and the first man you ever kissed.“

Nate spat out his drink. “Excuse me?“

“What, don’t you know about that?“ AJ frowned. “A few years ago, Hunter and you got drunk at a bar and started confessing to all sorts of random shit. Then you told Hunter that you’d never been kissed by a boy before, even though you always really wanted to know what it was like, and so he did. And neither of you ever mentioned it again.“

“How did you know that?“ Nate asked as the Masked Records began to laugh, feeling the tips of his ears turn red. Whether it was more from anger or embarrassment, he didn’t know.

AJ drew his eyebrows together and rested his chin atop his fist. “Oh, I guess that last part was a lie. Maybe you did mention it to one of us at some point or another. How else could we know?“

“Uh...yeah,” Nate muttered, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.

Chase bit his lip as though he were trying to force back a smile. “Damn, Nate, I didn’t know you were into that sort of stuff.”

“It was a dare. We were stupid. And I didn’t enjoy it,” Nate snapped, looking away.

AJ snorted. “Oh, please. You two were full-on mak—“

“—What AJ is trying to say is that it was horrible for them to treat you that way when you’d been friends for so long,” Caleb suddenly interjected. To Nate’s relief, he was one of the few who appeared to be just as uninterested in the topic as he himself was.

AJ gave Caleb a pointed look. “Yes, that’s exactly what I meant,” he stated after a long pause. “We’re all very shocked and disappointed about it. Even though it was really foolish of you to ever trust them in the first place—“

“—Shut up, AJ,“ said Sparrow.

“Well, I’m right.” AJ threw up his hands in defense. “Perhaps you can learn a lesson from all this, Nate. Choose your friends more wisely next time. There are plenty of people around that hold more belief in you than those two ever did.“

Am I even worth believing? The same question that had haunted Nate for years crept back into the forefront of his mind. It had been a question that had dictated a large portion of his life, reining his feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty. There were many more stories—hundreds of millions of them, stretching back to the beginning of time itself—that came before him.

I’m not so sure.

Nate forced himself back into the present. “You still haven’t told me why I’m here.“

There was a brief pause before Jonathan spoke. “Boys, line up so he can see you. I want us to show him something.“

One by one, the Masked Records members got off their seats and assembled into one large line that stretched across opposite ends of the room. Caleb and Amanda seemed to hesitate before joining them, while Malinda stayed where she was before Jonathan rolled his eyes and directed her to the others; perhaps she’d taken the instructions regarding ‘boys’ a bit too literally. 

“What’s going on? Why are they—“ Nate began, but Jonathan held up a hand to silence him.

“Do you see something, Nate? Take a close look.“ Jonathan gestured to the full line of artists. “Across every single one of us, what do we share?“

Nate took a quick double take before giving up. “You’re all white.“

“No. You’re looking too much on the surface.“ Jonathan sounded slightly irritated. “Think within.“

So Nate tried again. Laid out in front of him was a large variety of musicians—some his distant friends, some simply acquaintances; some little more than cover artists; others had made an attempt to make original content from the very beginning. But as he glanced back and forth between them, he began to understand—they all started out the same. They had been YouTubers, all of a similar caliber; what had started as a simple passion had turned into something far greater than they could have ever known to prepare for.

“Don’t you understand, Nathan? You’re just like us.” Jonathan took a step towards him. “Nearing 30 years old, and all you’ve done with your life is upload videos to a strange new concept called ‘social media’. Or at least, that’s how the older generation sees it. We were just reaching age where our parents and their parents were beginning to see that our talents were more than just a hobby, but a job; we were more than a fad, but a milestone in the twenty-first century. And then they just had to go and fuck it all up. Now everything is going back to what it once was—we’re losing our audience, and our only source of income—and there is nothing we can do about it.“ 

Nate blinked, stiff with shock. “I’m not like you. I can’t be.“

“Doubtful, are you? We used to feel the exact same way.“ Chase curled his lip. “Oh, believe me, we all miss the days where we were foolish enough to think this... experimental lifestyle was going to last. For years, none of us ever made any second plans—something to fall back on in case everything we knew would one day fail. Why would it, after all? Our channels were doing great. We were able to do what we loved, and aside from spending half the day vigorously editing two videos to put out per week, we hardly had to break a sweat. Can you imagine that, Nate? Being able to do what you loved without having to change in order to make people give a shit? Doesn’t that sound familiar?”

Nate sputtered. “I—”

“—Take a fucking look around you for once. That’s not the fucking way the world works,” Chase spat. “Not until we made it that way. Why do you think so many of them are moving on, huh? They’re getting older, and when you’re anything but a politician on social media, that’s practically a death sentence. All the big names are settling down, getting married and having kids, and holy hell, they’re only now realizing just how much they missed out on because they spent so much of the last decade in front of a screen. YouTube is a site that refreshes constantly. New blood comes all the time and replaces the veterans. Us...we last forever.”

Nate stared at him. “What do you want from me?“

“Listen to us, Sharp,” said Jonathan. “There are many things we could do for you if you signed onto our label. Some people here—their wishes are simple; they want the pay and recognition that YouTube could never give them. But for others, this is a chance to start over. To be reborn as somebody else entirely. For their reputation to be wiped clean entirely. If you joined us, we could do the same for you, too. We could give you all the exposure you ever wanted.“

“Join you. You want me to join you.“ Saying the words aloud like a dream, a fallible fantasy. Never before had Nate believed this day would come—if it were any other, he’d be overjoyed. Ecstatic, even. But now there was a small part of him—maybe it was Andy’s influence—that made him far less certain.

A small, crooked grin came over Jonathan’s face. “Of course we do, but only on one condition.” His brilliant green eyes were tinted red under the party lights. “There’s a small price to pay for every deal, and for you, it would be easy. All you’d have to do is become Nathan Sharp. That man is an empty husk—a new life for you to take and turn into your own. Nobody would ever again judge you for who you were, because you will be the only person that they see. You can change the world, Nathan. You can do it all.”

The beginning of the party came back into Nate’s focus. It had been nice, he’d thought—it had been such a breath of fresh air to be surrounded by friends and strangers who didn’t have a clue about the darkest, most intimate details of his life. It could be that way for him with everyone if he so wished—and he wanted it, desperately, more than he ever thought he could have. 

But for some reason, he stopped himself. For him, joining the Masked Records would mean a lot more than abandoning his failing YouTube channel. For him, joining the Masked Records would mean letting a tiny piece of his life go, casting aside his name in favor of a world of new and limitless possibilities. His voice echoed in his head, and although it sounded just like his own, he’d never heard himself sound so much more like another man.

Maybe it’s not what they give. Maybe it’s what they take.

A small price—that’s all it was. Then why did it feel like he would be leaving behind so much more?

“You’re hesitating.” Jonathan tipped his head to one side. “How strange. I thought this was all you ever wanted.”

Nate laughed lightly. “How can you have any idea what I want?“

“This isn’t just about what you want. It’s what you need.“ Jonathan crossed his arms. “You may put on this bumbling facade, but deep inside of you, there’s a thirst for glory that can’t be controlled. All you’ve ever wanted was that single golden opportunity to prove yourself, but it’s been taken away from you again and again. You’re ridiculed. You’re ignored. You’re told you could never amount to anything more than you already are. And you need us in order to prove them wrong.“

“I don’t need you,” said Nate. “I can take the stage name you gave me and continue my career as I always have. Nothing has to change.“

Jonathan deepened his frown. “The stage name wasn’t just a gift, Sharp. It was an ultimatum. See, the thing about performing with us is that we don’t exactly take no for an answer. And it is far from common that we ever invite anyone at all. So when we take an interest in someone, people notice.“

Before Nate could interrupt, Jonathan cut over him with a harsh, clear voice. “We gave you a rather generous opportunity, you know. As Nathan Sharp, you have the ability to actually make people care about you. Talent doesn’t go anywhere without a name behind it. Without us, you’d still be a YouTube musician falling from grace, known for nothing more than your Pokèmon parodies and being the laughingstock of the city. Don’t you dare throw away this chance when it’s being handed to you.“

“I can be more than what I am,” Nate told him, but his voice sounded small and far away. He didn’t believe that anymore—and everyone seated around him knew it.

Jonathan grinned. “No, Nathan. Without us, you are nothing. The music industry will make sure of that.”

Nate’s heart raced as the Masked Records gave him a silent, expectant look. Any of the awe and excitement he’d first felt when they’d looked upon him before vanished into the atmosphere. He’d been so sure that he’d understood what the group thought of him—they’d praised him, listened to him, and defended him—but now...it was different. They seemed almost disappointed with him, and that was a concept he couldn’t stand to think of.

Wasn’t I supposed to be special?

Nate pushed himself off the sofa, fighting back the flurry of emotions within him. “I think I’m going to leave now. Thanks for everything, Jonathan.“

“Oh, no you don’t.“ Jonathan stood up abruptly and blocked the doorway. “The party’s just getting started. It would be so rude of you to go when there are so many things left to talk about.“

“But—“ Nate began to protest, silencing himself as the rest of the Masked Records slowly advanced towards him. Under the harsh light, the artists’ large muscles protruded from their lean frames, and he subconsciously took several steps backward until he was inches from the wall. There was no chance—they overpowered him easily.

“Now let me make something quite clear to you, darling,” said Jonathan as the group flanked by his side. “Us Masked Records members care about people like you more than anything else in the world. That’s why we strive to deliver you the most flawless and creative content that our talent can offer, music of which the likes you’ve never seen before. But this one big happy family ...needs both sides to return the favor. For being such a massive fan of Will Ryan’s, you think that you would know better.“

At this, the rest of the Masked Records smiled in agreement—a twisted, menacing smile, one that glittered brightly under the bristling of their skin. Nate could feel the contempt dripping like poison from Jonathan’s words, but even then, he could hardly begin to understand where it was coming from.

Chase beckoned to the seating behind him. “We shouldn’t have to get so rough, Nate. Maybe what we all need is another round of Joel’s finest scotch. Would you care to join us?“

“Have another drink, Nathan,” said Igor, his request sounding more like a demand.

Nate pushed away from the wall. “I’m going home.” He recoiled as the sentence left his mouth, almost unable to recognize his own voice as it slurred and stumbled clumsily over itself. As he took a step forward on the vast ballroom floor, he felt himself sink—down, down, down, until the water rushed over his head and he was dragged to the bottom of the river. The events of the night spun around in circles in his head—a hint of sadness, a dash of pain—all masked out by the bitter taste of alcohol running down his throat. How many drinks did I have?

Jonathan shook his head. “Look at you, Nathan. What an irresponsible drinker. It’s not safe for you to leave when there’s no cab or bus for miles, no friends around to come pick you up—“

“—Shut up!“ Nate shouted, his head pounding as he held it in his hands. “Andy. Where’s Andy? He—“

“—Andy wants nothing to do with you anymore,” said AJ coldly. “You said it yourself, Nathan. He has abandoned you, just like everyone else. We are the only true friends you have left.“

“I want to go home,” Nate begged, his voice nearly breaking into a sob. Home, to him, meant going back—returning to the way things were before, back into the safety he’d enclosed within four walls. He could stop and rewind, mending all of the damage inflicted upon his life—his career, his reputation, his friendships—if he would just stop chasing after a dream that would never be his, a dream that never deserved to be his in the first place.

AJ scoffed. “Is that really what you want, Nathan? To go back to a life under someone else’s control? To live the rest of your days with someone constantly breathing down your neck? Is this what your future has come to? Where’s your fucking spine?”

The door. Nate searched frantically around the ballroom until his hand closed over the knob of the front door. He twisted it, expecting it to open, but it didn’t budge. The Masked Records laughed behind him.

“Thought you could leave so easily, did you?“ asked Jonathan. “There’s no running from us now, Sharp. We are your destiny.“

How could he—? Nate began to ask himself, before he pushed the thought aside and banged on the door. “ANDY!“ he yelled, hoping that by some measure of a miracle, the other man was still waiting on the other side. But his cries for help went unanswered. Each slam of his fist against the door was weaker than the last as his mind slipped under heavy blackness. The room was more than spinning now—the ground shook back and forth, and the bright multicolored lights blinded him as he fought to maintain a grip. 

At last, the sickness that had been building in his stomach spilled out. He vomited all over the wooden floor, uncontrollably dizzy and disoriented from the drinks he’d had, and he watched the dark puddle spread and stain the tiles as the laughter from the Masked Records came to a dead stop. A light went out in his head and he collapsed to the ground.

Chapter Text

When Nate woke up, the very first thing that he remembered hearing was the rain. Darkness blinded his vision so heavily that it almost seemed as though he had not opened his eyes at all, so he focused on the sounds of the raindrops pattering against the windows that echoed the pounding in his head.

All he could smell was the smoke.

A hand lightly brushed against his face, and he flinched away, screaming—or, at least, he tried to, but no sound escaped from the gag stuffed down his throat. Light poured out as the blindfold around his eyes was ripped away, and Nate frantically looked around—he was in the backseat of a car, bound, with the green smoke blanketing the entire interior and the streetlights rushing past faster than he could count. Curiosity overtaking him, he leaned forward against his restraints to catch a glimpse of the driver, and that’s when he saw him.

Himself.

Lightning tore across the sky and briefly lit the doppelgänger’s face. In that single moment, Nate could see everything—the Nate that sat behind the wheel wore clothing that blended him into the black depths of the car; his ebony, messy bangs hung in front of him like a curtain; his eyes were surrounded with dark, heavy circles. But it was his sadistic grin that disturbed Nate the most, sending a jolt of terror and familiarity down his spine as though he were looking into the eyes of his own psychotic brother.

Drowsiness washed over him and he succumbed, winding away into a slumber once more.

Chapter Text

A moment later, the darkness was chased away, and Nate jolted awake to find himself back in a car. A car. He breathed in a rush of cold air as his eyes adjusted to the glaring lights dashing by outside the windows, casting a brief glow upon the interior in front of him. It wasn’t the same as before—he was unbound, there was no rain in sight, and the car was painted blood red as opposed to the other car’s black. For some reason, however, the nightmare clung to him with a foreboding that he didn’t understand.

It took almost a full minute, through the grogginess of sleep and the splitting headache he had, for his surroundings to truly register in him. When it did, his entire composure broke. No, he thought as he whipped his head from one side to another, an invisible hand strangling his throat and bringing tears to his eyes. No, oh God, please, no! With an alarm now fully shrieking in his head, he covered his ears in a vain attempt to stop the noise and lightly rocked his body back and forth. No. No. No. No. No.

No. 

When he’d at last come partially back to his senses, he lifted his head off of the leather seat and peered to the front of the car, where two men sat in silence as the driver continued to flip through the radio station. For a brief second, a familiar verse from Hurricane by Panic! At the Disco filled Nate with a sense of calmness, until the driver scoffed and changed the station.

“And I believe that half the time, I am a wolf among the sheep, gnawing at the wool over my eyes…”

“Are you ever going to make up your mind, Jonathan?” joked what Nate recognized to be Caleb’s voice. Sure enough, the blinking street lights illuminated the beard on his face.

Even in the darkness, Nate could see Jonathan shrug his broad shoulders. “I’m just looking around,” he answered. “I can’t stand this stupid industry crap. But if you think you can do any better, then go ahead and browse through yourself.”

Caleb’s voice faltered. “Just...just turn it off.”

The car was drenched with silence. Briefly, Nate considered speaking up and asking what had happened—why on earth they’d placed him in a car, of all places—but something within him told him it wouldn’t be a good idea. With nothing else to do to quell the anxiety stillstirring within him, he rolled his head to the side and watched as Jonathan exited the highway and drove the car down a stretch of road that ran parallel to the Los Angeles River.

“Quite the interesting night we had. Don’t you agree?” Jonathan asked Caleb, articulating each word with calculated slowness. “It just goes to show that you can never underestimate the ability to attract an audience. Basic business fundamentals. You discover what a person wants, you offer it to them, and they come flocking to you like an awestruck, simple-minded sheep.”

Caleb shook his head and laughed hesitantly. “Yeah,” he whispered, barely audible in the small space. “I-I’m glad. Very glad.”

Jonathan’s bright green eyes glinted in the dim lighting. “Well, you should be. We’ve been waiting for this moment for weeks.”

There was no response, and the rumbling of the car rolling over the road filled the interior of the car. Caleb, who had remained silent throughout Jonathan’s tirade, slouched with such timidness that Nate thought the celebrity would shrink through the chair if he had the ability to. 

“He doesn’t remember a thing. Can you believe that?” Jonathan laughed, but it came out as a wheeze. “It’s just something that I can’t wrap my fucking head around. I mean, really, I thought for sure that he’d been faking it, using some made-up ‘trauma’ to avoid us like the coward he is, but now...he’s right there. Right within our grasp. Jessica was right after all.”

“Of course she was.” Caleb picked at his fingernails, avoiding Jonathan’s gaze. “She always is.”

Jonathan shrugged. “She’s our idol. How could she not be?”

Who the hell is Jessica? Nate narrowed his eyes. The only Jessica he was familiar with—well, as familiar with as he could be considering the situation—was Will’s daughter, a young girl left behind when her father moved away from England. But it couldn’t be...

“Are you...are you sure that this is what you want?” Caleb’s expression suddenly grew serious. “We can stop all this now, you know. He might not even remember all this after tonight. It’s not too late to go back and—”

All of a sudden, Jonathan stomped his foot on the brakes and brought the car to a screeching halt. Nate lurched forward in his seat, and it took all he could to not make a sound from the pain.

“Allow me to get something straight here,” said Jonathan as he slowly turned to look Caleb in the eye. “Over the past year since joining this label, I’ve gone through experiences that have forever changed my life and who I am. Most of them were...good—becoming rich, getting recognized, and making new friends. But I’ve learned things, too. I’ve been forced to see and do things that I’m not proud of, that months prior I would have never dreamed of, but I’ve grown to embrace them and let them become just as much of a part of me as everything else. And do you know why that is?”

Caleb remained silent, shaking his head. The smell of his fear ran rank in the car. 

Jonathan smirked. “Because they get me closer,” he answered. “And when I get closer, then I’ll soon be able to shape this world into the paradise I’ve always imagined it to be. I spent years believing I could never accomplish anything, and now that I’m here, I will not let anyone or anything bring me back to that dark place. My destiny’s been laid down for me, and I will follow Her every command to ensure that it will never be threatened again.”

For a brief moment, Nate could have sworn that Jonathan’s eyes flicked in his direction. If they did, they didn’t linger long enough to see that his own were open.

“All this time, ever since that man’s been in the hospital, our goal has been to bring him back to us at any and all possible costs. We watched over him until he returned to the outside world, and then we coaxed him, encouraged him, until we finally gave him the chance to get a taste of the life he believed to have been missing. And now, he will soon understand that there is no running away from his destiny.” Jonathan leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms. “So, yes, dear—I am certain that this is what I want, and it is far too late to go back to who I used to be.”

There was a short pause. Caleb gave Jonathan a weary, almost disappointed look, and Jonathan sighed.

“You know, I don’t get you, Caleb,” he said at last. “I always thought that I’d had you figured out. So maybe you never really desired the same things I did—the leadership, the feeling you get when you’re at center stage, perhaps even the record label itself initially—but when it came to this, surely you would look past our differences and see that this is something that will benefit all of us. This was our plan. You’re supposed to be there for me.”

Caleb opened his mouth to say something, but Jonathan cut him off.

“And yet you...always question me. Like I’m supposed to realize that I’m doing something wrong. It’s odd. So I simply must ask...you’re not siding with him, are you?”

“Never,” said Caleb almost immediately, but Nate could detect the faintest tremor in his voice.

Jonathan hesitated, seemingly thinking over Caleb’s answer before giving him a short nod. “I’d watch yourself, dear. I’m not a particularly patient person when it comes to this rather touchy subject, and I might not believe you much longer. We wouldn’t want there to be any more unfortunate happenings to any other members of the Masked Records. Not after...oh, it really is such a touchy subject.”

After this, Jonathan froze, and he seemed to take in the scene for the first time. He glanced around the front of the car—where it sat still, having been abruptly pulled to the side of the road during his outburst—and frowned.

“Oh, dearie me. I’m beginning to drive in the same way that he was,” Jonathan said solemnly. “Forgive me, Caleb. I wouldn’t want to cause an... accident.”

Accident. Nate blinked to try and shake away from its cruel grip. Accident —a powerful, horrible word that left invisible scars every time he heard it. Accident —it settled into his head like an injection, imagining Jonathan’s voice repeating it with laughter. It was strange how it seemed to be so much more morbid when Jonathan said it—perhaps it wasn’t meant to be an accident at all.

“Fuck, I’m hearing something.” Jonathan jerked his head to gesture behind him without taking his eyes off the road. “I think he might be waking up.”

Nate froze as Caleb turned around. As Caleb’s eyes stared directly into his, Nate opened his mouth in preparation to defend himself. However, Caleb simply pursed his lips into a tight, contemplative frown before giving him a curt nod and swinging his head back to face the front.

“You don’t need to worry about a thing. He’s completely out,” said Caleb.

He...covered for me? Nate sat motionless and stared at him, dumbfounded, with his lips slightly parted in shock. But...why?

Jonathan snorted. “And pigs can fly.”

“Wait—!” Caleb cried, but Jonathan had already stepped out of the vehicle. Nate screwed his eyes shut as the car door swung open, imagining the other man’s large, muscular body towering above him just inches away. 

Without warning, Nate felt Jonathan’s fingertips press lightly into his jaw, turning his head so that he was facing the opening of the door. Jonathan’s heavy breathing fanned his face as he leaned closer, but Nate forced himself not to flinch, not even as it tickled his ears. Not like it would matter—his body went tense under the fingertips roaming his skin. 

I’m dead , he thought as he felt his heart hammering like a drum in his chest. I’m so, so dead.

“Goddamn, I’m surprised.” Jonathan snickered and ran a thumb over Nate’s temple. “Imagine that. The poor, pathetic Mr. Sharp, so wallowed up in his miserable life that he drinks himself half to death. What a tragedy. It’s such a fucking shame that no one is out there to save him now. Lord knows there’s no saving him from himself.”

The fingers on his jaw dug deeper into his skin.

“But...but Andy,” Caleb piped up from the passenger’s seat. “You don’t really think—”

“—That he’ll try?” Jonathan asked, finishing Caleb’s sentence. “Oh, darling, let him. By this time next month, he’ll push aside all his anger and betrayal he feels towards Nate and place the blame back on us, just like he did after the accident and even countless times before then. It’s his vicious cycle of denial. To him, his sweet, innocent angel can do no wrong, and for as long as he believes that, we have to prepare ourselves to hold him back every second he tries to force his way through.”

For a few seconds, everything went quiet again, and Nate tried in vain to decipher the true meaning behind Jonathan’s words before his mind delved into panic again. It didn’t work; he was far, far too focused on the disgusting sensation burning into his skin. Something about Jonathan’s touch felt...horribly, horribly wrong.

“But let’s not focus on that,” Jonathan murmured, releasing the fingers cradling Nate’s head. “I’d rather...think about a certain somebody else right now.”

Just as Nate had begun to relax, Jonathan’s hands were on him again. They trailed lightly down his neck, his collarbone, before stopping at the collar of his shirt. Blind terror came over him as he felt Jonathan undo the first button.

“Oh, look at you,” Jonathan whispered. “You’ve gone through so, so much. And yet you’re still so pretty.”

“Alright, alright, he’s asleep. Can you please get back in the car?” Caleb urged suddenly, his voice sounding frantic and desperate. Bile rose in Nate’s throat, and it was a wonder he didn’t vomit again right then and there.

Surprisingly, Jonathan took his hands off Nate’s body. “What was that you said?” 

“I mean it, Jon. It’s not funny,” Caleb told him, slightly more stern this time.

Jonathan seemed to roll his eyes. “Oh, here we go again.” He sighed. “Christ’s sake, Caleb, I was just joking around. Do you seriously think I’d lay a hand on that crip after what he’s done?”

Caleb didn’t respond.

“Oh, for crying out loud, say something for once, you mute. Are you deaf?” Jonathan snarled, slamming the car door shut. “Fucking hell, you’re just like him. A moron. I don’t give a shit about what we have planned—I want to wipe that fucking smirk off his face and crush him like the termite he is. I’m so goddamn sick of having to wait.”

Taking a risk, Nate slowly opened up one eye and then the other. Now that Jonathan was away—away from him —he scrambled to the opposite side of the car and pressed his back to the window. Every inch of his body was trembling wildly, and he drew his knees up to his chest and clasped his arms around them to console himself. 

Jonathan was several meters away from the car, pacing furiously in circles with his head in his hands. 

“That son of a bitch thinks he can take everything from me,” Jonathan muttered as he pulled at his short brown hair. He laughed. “Everything I’ve worked for, gone—it’s silly. So fucking silly. Don’t you think it’s silly, Caleb?”

Caleb watched him with wide, glossy eyes. “Get back in the car.”

“No!” Jonathan shouted, whirling back around to face him. “I’m thinking.”

And with that, Jonathan continued to walk around. Nate forced himself to close his eyes. It’s just a dream, he told himself, hoping that he could soon convince himself of the lie. All that was happening was nothing more than a twisted nightmare, no different from the ones he experienced whenever he fell asleep at home. Soon he was bound to wake up, and only then would he be set free.

And then it got worse. So, so much worse.

“Let’s throw Nathan Smith in the river.”

Silence. Dead silence. Nothing. Nothing but the sound of Nate’s heart taking off and falling apart.

“Wh...what?” Caleb finally managed to choke out a sentence.

“I want us to throw him in the river. Right now.” Jonathan’s voice sounded cold and hollow, just like the wind on a snowy day. “Now’s our chance. This path runs alongside the river—we can dump him near the bridge a few miles away. We won’t get an opportunity like this again.”

“The bridge?” Caleb gasped. “No, Jonathan, no. You can’t. That’s where—”

“—Shut your fucking loud mouth.” Jonathan marched up to the passenger door and yanked Caleb outside by the shirt. “I will n ot let you ruin this for me, do you understand?”

“You can’t do this!” Caleb protested, pulling away from Jonathan’s tight grip. “Not after what happened to Will. Don’t you know what they’ll think?”

“Oh, come on, Caleb,” growled Jonathan in response. “Maybe I’m not the nicest person in your book anymore, but let’s be honest with ourselves here—this would make everything so much easier. At least Sharp’s death would be a benefit to humankind.”

Frozen —that was the only word that made its way through to Nate’s brain. The rest of his body screamed at him to run , but his muscles did not obey. In that moment, Nate understood just how much of a prisoner he was to his own mind—it shackled him to a world that he so willingly allowed to slowly destroy him from the inside out.

“Please stop,” begged Caleb. It was as if he had read Nate’s mind, his words stringing together into a slew of meaningless, empty space. Jonathan swaggered to the back of the vehicle and opened the trunk with one arm, whistling to himself like it was all part of his daily routine. Perhaps, thought Nate with sickening realization, it really was.

Thump. Nate listened as Jonathan shoved objects to the ground, digging around in the trunk for God knew what. Clang. “Help me, Caleb,” he commanded through gritted teeth.

“I thought we were going to drive to the bridge,” whimpered Caleb, his voice fragile and childlike.

“I want to finish him NOW!” Jonathan screamed, sending a flock of ravens flying off from the trees nearby. “THEN we drive to the bridge!”

Useless. Weak. Can’t fight. Half-finished thoughts piled into Nate’s head as mocking laughter filled his ears—not Jonathan’s, but his own, internally making fun of the miserable man who had long since accepted his own death. Perhaps he would have escaped if this had happened before the accident, but his limp, doubled with the effects of the alcohol still weighing down his body, rendered him almost immobile.

Caleb continued to babble incoherently as Jonathan practically dragged him to the trunk. “You’re ruining everything,” he cried, an onslaught of words such as no, stop, don’t, and please , running from his mouth like the tears on his face. “This isn’t the way things are supposed to be. When will it be enough for you?”

“Stop fighting me for once, Caleb.” Jonathan’s voice snaked into Nate’s ears. “Or else, I won’t hesitate to throw you in the river along with him.”

This can’t be fucking happening. Nate pinched his arm, foolishly hoping that he would wake up from the nightmare. When that didn’t work, he began to scratch at his skin, ignoring the searing pains that shot up his arm like knives. Foolish, foolish, foolish…

“Foolish,” echoed Jonathan from behind, causing Nate to snap out of his breakdown. “Maybe that shithead Sharp was right all along—everyone turns out to be a traitor eventually. Are you betraying me, Caleb? Answer me!”

The car shook as something slammed into it, emitting a cry from Caleb. In his peripheral vision, Nate could see him pressed up against his passenger’s side door, with Jonathan’s arms gripped onto his shoulders. He tried to distract himself, inhaling slowly to regulate his breathing, but his heart still spiked until it nearly leaped out of his chest.

“Think about this,” begged Caleb, ignoring Jonathan’s question. “This wasn’t the plan. We made a plan, remember? What will Jessica think?”

There was no response as sweat trickled down from Nate’s forehead, landing just above his eye. After what felt like an eternity, with Nate sinking against the back of the seat and containing the pained laughter scratching his throat, Jonathan finally spoke. “Fine.”

With that, Caleb and Jonathan seemed to settle down, but Nate’s mind continued to wreck itself with worry. It’s just a nightmare. All of this is just a fucking nightmare. Let it just be a nightmare, please! The more he repeated it, the more certain of it he felt. It was already working—Caleb’s tears...Jonathan’s twitching face...the echoes of their words in the trees around them...it was all fading away...

Maybe if he tried a little harder, he could block out the distant sight of the ravens watching them as well.

After a moment, it became clear that Jonathan and Caleb had noticed too. As the ravens gathered in a circle around the car, they took a step back, eyes wide with shock. Caleb wrapped a hand around the open passenger door as though he were about to dart inside at any moment.

The ravens didn’t stop coming.

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” muttered Jonathan, a trace of anxiety lacing his voice.

The two musicians jumped back into the car, barely even bothering to fasten their seatbeats or slam the doors shut behind them. The wheels spun in the dirt as Jonathan threw the car in a tight circle and back out the way they came, only visibly relaxing once the trees around them eventually disappeared and gave way to streetlights and passing cars. Even then, Nate could still feel the tension in the air driving his hands to shake and his stomach to turn somersaults in his body. 

Caleb spoke up from the passenger’s seat. “Something’s wrong.”

Beside him, Jonathan shook his head repeatedly, gripping so tightly to the steering wheel that his knuckles were turning white. “Everything’s fine. Quit complaining.”

“You were just—”

The car suddenly lurched forward as Jonathan pressed his foot to the gas pedal, jolting everyone inside against their seatbelts and causing Caleb to scream. Nate instinctively bit down on his lip to keep himself from doing the same. A moment later, a sharp pain spread across his lower lip and the pungent taste of blood tricked into his mouth. He’d bitten right through his lip.

“Jonathan, please calm down, please.” Through the chaos, Caleb’s voice remained soothingly smooth, as though he had dealt with this a million times before. “You’re going too far, you’re going to crash the—”

“—Crash? Me? I’m the one who crashes cars now?” Jonathan let out a harsh laugh. “You, Caleb Hyles, are out of your fucking mind.”

“Be quiet!” Caleb hissed, reaching across his seat and placing his hands on the wheel. The two men were full-on fighting for control of the vehicle now, and Nate could do nothing but watch.

“You know what? Fuck this. I’m pulling over. You drive.” Jonathan successfully wrestled Caleb’s hands away and gave him a fuming glare. 

Despite what he said, he was continuing to go as fast as ever, driving the car over the speed limit on a remote path near the woods. Trees whipped past the driver’s side windows, standing ominously in formation as small, beady eyes gazed back at them on their branches. The river shoreline peeked between them in the distance, and Nate had a brief, funny feeling that perhaps all this wasn’t much of a coincidence after all.

“No, Jon, you listen to me.” Caleb sat up straighter in his seat, barely blinking at the strange occurrences happening just outside. “I can’t stay quiet about this forever. Surely there’s a part of you that knows—”

“—SHIT!”

Nate jumped in his seat at Jonathan’s sudden shriek, following his gaze to the edge of the forest. He looked just in time to see a dark streak sprinting towards the car. Jonathan did a hard swerve in the direction of the woods, sending the car off the road and barrelling down the ditch.

What happened after that was a disconnected blur. Bright, patchy images flashed across Nate’s eyes—Jonathan spinning the wheel; the lash of twigs and branches striking the glass; ravens flapping their wings to escape their path. Time itself seemed to speed alongside them, and the scenery bounced and shook until the car came to a stop just before the Los Angeles River. 

Chapter Text

For a long while after the crash, Nate didn’t remember anything happening. There was white—white everywhere, blanketed across his vision like falling snow, accompanied by a shrill ringing sound in his ears before fading away. Things were strangely silent after that, and he welcomed how still the world had become. 

Am I dead?

Dead. What an odd, beautiful concept. In a way, it was better than what he deserved. He began to wonder about the state of it all—perhaps death was all a blissful illusion, and life continued to move around him in the same way it always had. Or maybe it was real. He didn’t know, and that was the funniest part. But if life was just a joke, then why wasn’t he laughing?

If life is just a joke, then why aren’t I dead?

Then it came back. Somewhere within the depths of Nate’s mind, a small voice whispered to him. Wake up. Wake up. Wake up. Not exactly urgent, but determined. Loud. Clear. It wanted him to return to reality and keep on living. No matter what he would find before him. Again.

So he did. Nate opened his eyes and took one look at what had become of the car. Laying eyes on the wreck felt like he was stepping straight into a horror movie—the inside, mostly untouched, compared nothing to the mangled mess that he caught a glimpse of in the broken driver’s side mirror.

Upon recovering from his shock, Jonathan sprang out of his seat and stormed outside, leaving the door swinging on its hinges. “Fucking animal!” he shouted as he approached the woods. “God damn it, this fucking deer season. Some stupid buck or a bear, dashing across the road in the middle of the night—for fuck’s sake, why don’t they just shoot them all dead already?”

Caleb, who was still in his seat, shook his head several times in disbelief before he got out too. Fresh tears shone on his face as he bent down to inspect the damage. “The front, Jonathan. Look at the front.”

Nate craned his head to see what Caleb was referring to. An icy chill seeped into his skin as he gazed at the hood, which had been crushed into an unrecognizable shape like an aluminum can. That could have been us.

Jonathan gritted his teeth and kicked a nearby rock. “Oh, just great. I just bought the goddamn thing. Twenty-two thousand dollars—” He paused as he saw Caleb walking back up the hill. “Where in the hell do you think you’re going?”

“We have to go find them!” Caleb cried, turning around. His lower lip trembled. “Oh god, Jon, I think we might have hit them. It was so close, I couldn’t—”

“—Oh, quit your whining,” spat Jonathan, but Nate could hear him fighting off panic. “It was a fucking animal. Free food for the buzzards tomorrow. Now let’s go.”

“Jonathan—”

“—IT WAS AN ANIMAL!” Jonathan’s desperate scream echoed through the clearing. Even then, Caleb kept going, climbing up the ditch until he disappeared out of Nate’s sight. For a moment, Jonathan stared up the slope with incredulity before he put his head in his hands. “Oh, fuck,” he muttered to himself as he chased after Caleb. “Oh, fuck, we’re so gonna be sued for this.”

Nate didn’t dare move for a long time after they’d both left. He stared silently out the window and watched a few ravens fly as a stormcloud formed overhead, and a chill crept through him as he remembered seeing them there earlier that day. They slowly landed on the riverbank one by one, falling like large black raindrops of an impending storm. Drip. Drip. Drip.

Nate narrowed his eyes as the ravens surrounded the car. “You came back?” he murmured at the sight, watching as his reflection did the same. Peculiar, it was, that they kept following him—as though there was something they wanted him to see.

Then, to his surprise, his reflection smiled, nodding slowly to answer. Yes.

At that, Nate’s mouth fell open and he jumped back in his seat. The stormclouds rumbled above him and brought a sheet of rain drizzling over the windows. It clouded his reflection until it disappeared, but the image remained vivid in his mind. He’d seen it before. That... smile.

Nate pressed a palm to his forehead, listening as his quick, heavy breathing filled the inside of the car. “I want to wake up,” he told himself. His hangover made his head ache like mad, but he kept saying it anyway, hoping that it would soon drown away the sights spinning around him. So many of his worst nightmares had clawed his way into his dreams—cars...the river...the ravens coming back to haunt him—all spiralling out of his control. If this was what normally happened to people when they got drunk, then no wonder Andy had been so upset.

What’s happening to me?

Finally, he grew tired of asking. The rain poured over his head as Nate pushed the car door open and stepped outside, ignoring the feeling of his heart nearly leaping out of his chest as he made his way towards the river. It can’t hurt me. It can’t hurt me. His steps faltered for a moment as he saw the ravens observing him with curiosity, but then he shook away his apprehension and walked closer. Something dark seemed to cling in the air and call out his name—something that nature itself wanted him to discover.

“I want to wake up now,” he called out to the woods, hardly caring if it made him look like a fool to whoever heard him. It was a dream. None of it mattered anyway.

The forest was silent, the whispering of the wind being the only response. It whipped through the branches as the storm grew, and the air buzzed with electricity as Nate breathed it in. Lightning was bound to strike at any moment, but that didn’t deter him at all. He wiped the raindrops off his forehead. Nothing here can hurt me. 

Nate soon reached the river, and he nearly convulsed as he stood on the edge. He’d never wanted to come back. The last time he had been there, it had ended with an ambulance ride and a two-week coma that had almost cost him his life. And yet, something had called him here—within the water laid an answer to the past he’d long forgotten about. It stood right in front of him.

Him.

In the river, Nate saw his reflection clearly for the first time. It was him, but this time, it was different—the man that stared back at him had messy hair, gashes across his clothing, and a deep purple bruise encircling his eye. And that smile. That smile—the one from his earlier nightmare, when he’d been trapped in the car with another version of himself as the driver. This was him. 

His reflection—his nightmare —was alive.

Thunder roared overhead as Nate gazed into the water, stunned into a loss for words. His reflection turned in the direction of the current and began to walk— walk —of his own volition down the river. “Wait!” Nate managed to choke out just before his reflection disappeared. Rain drenched upon him, pelting his face as he shook himself out of his stupor and chased after his twin. He held up a hand to shield the raindrops from his eyes, and he peered across the river through the clouds of fog quickly gathering at the ground. 

There he was. His twin stood on the other side of the bank, looking back at him. He was no longer a reflection, but a physical being that seemed to waver like mist in the air. Nate took a step forward, and so did he; in perfect synchronization, they walked towards the very edge of the shore before his twin suddenly stopped and broke out into a run.

“Wait!” Nate followed his reflection down the river—running through the undergrowth, past the traffic on the highway, and even under a bridge where the channel widened as the woods grew thicker and thicker alongside it. The ravens took flight and surrounded him. By the time that they’d finally stopped, crowding around the edge of the river with the bridge just within view, his twin was gone.

At last, Nate reached the place where the ravens had landed, and he collapsed against a nearby tree just before his lame leg gave out. He panted heavily and bit back a groan as shooting pains raced up his legs. A few meters away, the ravens had begun picking at something in the water, and he forced himself up so that he could go take a closer look. 

The current rushed faster at this part than it had been before; scraps of black metal drifted down the gentle slope before coming to rest in the middle of the channel, as though something in the water was blocking their path. Nate frowned. Logs? It was a fair guess—a few of them were floating on the surface. But then that feeling crawled over him again, and he knew that whatever it was, it was something far, far more important than just an expendable log.

The ravens took notice of him and stopped what they were doing at once. They cleared aside, and Nate bent over the edge, a chilling premonition coming over him as he peered into the river’s murky depths. His twin, a reflection once more, curled his lips into a smile and beckoned him to reach for what laid beneath. Ever so cautiously, Nate dipped his hand into the water, closing his hand around the first thing he felt and bringing it to the surface…

A horrid, horrid feeling afflicted Nate as he lifted part of the object above the river. The material under his hands was white and brittle like bone. For a moment, he tried to convince himself that it wasn’t what he thought it was, but he knew. He was grasping onto the arm of a body —a body that had been rotting, picked apart, and submerged underwater for what had to have been weeks.

Oh my god. A strangled gasp escaped from Nate’s throat, and he slapped his hand over his mouth to keep himself from screaming. Most of the skin on the corpse had fallen away from where he held it, and what little was left was sagged and yellowed. His hair was long and dark under Nate’s fingertips—save for a faded streak of green across the forehead—and maggots crawled down his scalp and down places that Nate wouldn’t dare put a name to. Deepest underwater, his eyes were wide open and glazed over in a dull expression of shock, as though it were the very same expression he had when he’d died.

It was Will Ryan. Through all of the days that the city had been collectively holding its breath, waiting for him to return, he’d been rotting away at the bottom of the Los Angeles River. Will Ryan was... dead.

Nate took a large step back, still holding onto Will’s arm. He glanced behind him, and he saw every single one of the ravens still watching him silently with interest. The ravens—the same birds that had torn Will’s body apart piece by piece. They looked at him as though he was the one that done something abhorrent. What a sick, sick game.

It’s then, for the very first time, that it hit him—the birds that he’d been following all this time weren’t ravens.

They were crows.

As the reality of the situation settled into him, Nate felt a horrible sensation climb up his throat. His stomach lurched, and he regained control of his limbs long enough to drop the body back into the river before vomiting all over the ground.

Everything spun as Nate tried to get his bearings. He was overwhelmed by so much terror that he nearly blacked out again, and only the shock was keeping him awake. It grabbed hold of his senses and kept him rooted to the ground, unable to run away no matter how desperately he wanted to. The rain was pouring more heavily than it ever was before.

Out of the storm came voices, whispering his name through the thick trees surrounding him. It grew in volume until it turned into a chant. Nate. Nate. Nate. Nate. Nate. In those moments, he heard everything. He could hear rustling in the woods and see the beams of flashlights nearby; he could hear cars rushing along the slick road and the siren of an ambulance coming his way as his vision blurred. So much red and blue. It was ear-splitting. He could even hear crying, and he wasn’t even sure if it was from him—there was too much going on around him. Too much.

Lights struck his face and forced him to look up.

Sir, can you hear us? 

Nate blinked. He could barely see the outline of a man—a group of them trailing him—before the flashlights blinded him. Too much light. Too much noise. As they came closer, he opened his mouth to ask something, anything, about what this was or what he was going through, but he couldn’t say anything at all. Even when he tried to scream.

Victim found unresponsive.

Something strong came to life within Nate and ripped him out of his paralysis. Without a second’s hesitation, he ran. The scene behind him followed in close pursuit, chasing him down as he raced under the bridge and down the path of the river. The voices that had been calling him grew louder. 

FACE YOUR DESTINY.

Just as they were inches away from grabbing him, and just as Nate thought his heart was going to burst, he made it. He threw himself into the car and slammed the door behind him. The invisible forces seemed to disappear, but he couldn’t possibly calm down; he could feel the presence of darkness seep in through the doors and windows. They were still reaching him, and they were going to linger even after Nate had woken up from the hell he had found himself in.

Nate was almost there—soon everything would fade away. He could feel it resonating in his bones.

Letting himself slip away one final time, Nate smiled to himself as the colors in front of his vision blurred into one giant watercolor mess, turning the world into a bleak shade of gray. A small abnormality caught his eye at the very last second, flashing before him like it was a message begging to be seen—a message for him. But just like that, it was gone, forever out of sight and out of mind.

The driver’s side mirror—shattered and dented into a trillion pieces, the remaining glass reflecting a million broken images of Nate’s demented twin sitting next to him, the red paint of the car looking so much like blood that Nate thought it might just kill him.