The Groupie

 

The Groupie

Part 12


 

As Always, Reed, thank you for your patient help with my messes...

This was actually heading to be even longer than it is - which is considerable - but I did split it before it became too bloody ridiculous. Not my ideal ending point, alas, too windy per usual.

Comments and critiques always welcome; noelblue@gmail.com

I also have my stories on my website at www.noelblue.com, and they always end up on my yahoo group first, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/NBstories/ . Thank you so much for reading!




"Zane."

The singer looked up, startled by the quiet voice; he had just left the band's room and his head had been down, lost in thought. It was his manager, waiting next to the door. "Erica." He acknowledged, his face composed. "What's up?"

"I was just about to knock." She cleared her throat and pursed her lips, as if getting up the courage to say what she had to. "What the hell are you doing?"

He paused and looked away, obviously considering the question. She was glad, because if he had had the balls to ask 'what are you talking about?' he would have probably ended up smacked. She'd tried to stay pissed at Ethan also, angry at someone either weird enough or manipulative enough to except an offer to go to Europe with a group of complete strangers, but she couldn't do it.

Not with those huge blue eyes, that blinding smile, and the earnest excitement coming from him in the car on the way over. He was lovely and... without artifice. Completely unforced. Not weird or manipulative, INNOCENT. Oh, fuck.

And Zane was being a prick. She was not understanding him at all. Her father had managed many a rock band, and if there was one thing she understood it was hormones and groupies. But Zane was being very strange.

"It won't be for long. He'll sightsee and we'll send him home."

"Zane... he's not a puppy or a rent-a-boy. For whatever reason he agreed to your insane proposal, and he's here, and from what I can tell, he's sincere. He doesn't seem like an idiot, but my god, he's so young, and I don't mean his age." She moved forward and put a hand on his arm. "I've heard some of the things both Jarod and Rick have been saying, they're horrible. It'd fuck with anybody's head, even yours. This has nothing to do with Charice, or your mother, or your fans, or anyone outside you."

He narrowed his eyes, and she felt his muscles tense. "Aren't you the one worried about my fans?"

Uh oh. She knew him, and he was getting his back up, shutting down. And he'd scored a point there.

"Zane, look, you had a reason for inviting him, whatever the hell it was, hormones or whatever. Now he's here, and he doesn't deserve..."

With a shrug he shook off her arm and stepped away, his back to her. He spoke over his shoulder, and the razor cut of his hair covered most of his face. "He's a kid and a fan and it was a stupid offer, but I made it. But Charice will be here soon."

"Oh." She considered that, and the complications, as calmly as she could. Zane was really pissing her off. "You and Charice aren't in anything resembling a relationship, no matter how much you enjoy the rumors. We both know that. And she'll only be around here in England. So would she care? Or -" She narrowed her eyes shrewdly, suddenly seeing an aspect to his attitude. "You don't want her to know, do you?"

It was too close to the bone. His lips and cheeks drew inward and his eyes flashed, and she'd lost him. "You're the one who enjoys the indie-press courting rumors, not me, Erica. Don't be a hypocrite and damn me now for something you've always encouraged."

He started to walk down the hall. "Zane! Listen to me!" He stopped, but didn't turn. "At least have a heart, show him around when you can for about a week, and then get him a quick ticket home. Please. Even if you're not going to... do whatever it is you brought him here to do. If you don't, Rick and Jarod will eat him alive. He doesn't deserve that."

"I won't be a complete asshole," He said softly. "I promise." He then continued down the hall. "I'm going to get a drink downstairs."

Erica let out an extended sigh. It was a relief to see a touch of actual responsibility there, as she had been surprised, truth be told, downright shocked at his behavior, but he was still being very weird. Was it sexuality? It'd never been a discussion she'd had with him or seen him have, hell, she didn't even know which way he swung. That didn't seem quite right, somehow. Damn him and his mysteries.

She turned to go back to her own room; she was now the one lost in thought. Something odd was going on here, and fuck, that cynical bastard Rick might just have been right with all his bitching the last few days. If things continued like this, it was going to be a bloody disaster.

All she could do was her best to smooth out the situation. It was her job.


 

How I did it, I don't know, but I finally find sleep after taking a long shower. With how early I went to bed I should have been able to catch up. The quality of the sleep itself, however, was damn shoddy. Waking up the next morning I felt like I had the flu, my mind groggy and fuzzy.

Jet lag, maybe. Emotional hangover, definitely.

When Zane had said "Early" I figured he meant something resembling my version of early, that meant 7 at the latest. So I set the alarm for 6:30, thinking that would give me enough time to pull myself together. I was ready by 7, and pulled out my sketchbook and turned on the TV. My mind was too much of a fog to think at first. The window didn't look out at much more than the street, which, while in a different country, still looked like just a street.

So I leaned against the pillows and just began to doodle. Automatically a picture of Zane started to appear from my pencil, which made my mind start churning and my head start to wake up. The coffee I'd made in the small bathroom machine helped. It was difficult because there was a part of me that was trying very hard to keep upbeat, excited about where I was and who I was with.

And the other part was trapped in a comfortable but alien hotel room in a foreign country, not sure what to do with himself and feeling very unwanted. These two parts of my brain fought it out for a while; a couple of times I was so upset I had to put my pencil down and just lay back and close my eyes telling myself not to panic.

I was here. For whatever reason. No one seemed to find that a good thing, not even the man who invited me. Whether he was even still attracted to me was unknown. Had he moved on? It'd been three days, for god's sake. Just regret to have an idiot stranger on your band tour? It happens. Was he just incredibly moody? He was at the least hard to read. Or maybe he was just an asshole.

I refused to believe that one. The guy I had fooled around with twice had been anything but an asshole. But then again, would I really know?

It was a bit shameful to admit how upsetting the idea that I might not get to fool around with him again was. It depressed me to no end. I'd also hoped, of course, to get to know him better. But that was probably asking too much.

All I could do was deal, be pleasant and yet not annoying, and move on from there. That's what I'd do. Yup. What other choice did I have?

I could freak out. No, no, I sighed inwardly. It wasn't actually a functioning option.

I'd moved on to sketching items in the room in great detail, and doing quick scribbles of people and things on TV by the time the phone rang. It was Erica; summoning me downstairs.

9:30. That was early? Bloody rock stars. I had to smile, attempting to bring myself up with any little humor I could. And not wonder about what they did last night.

"Hey." Dustin greeted me in the lobby, and once again his unforced smile and actual kindness was like water to a man dying of thirst in the desert.

"Good morning!" I answered with too much enthusiasm. "How are you?"

I swear his look was sympathetic. "Not bad, actually got some sleep last night. Rick & Jarod spent much of the night out, which is usually a blessing."

He didn't mention Zane. Was that intentional, I wondered, or was that just how it was?

"Ah. Where's Erica?"

"She ran back to her room, forgot some things, probably got caught on the phone."

I'd been hoping she'd be here so I didn't have to face the band alone, but, ah, well. It wasn't starting out too horribly.

"Morning, Dustin." The voice was languid, slightly accented, and filled with contempt. Turning and trying not to wince at the same time, I saw Rick coming towards us.

The fact the guitarist was an attractive man was hard to deny; his features were so fine they were almost pretty - in a different era with different hair he'd look like a fair hued Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran. And with his perfectly layered clothing, black, white & red, with stressed grey-blue jeans over comfortably sexy shoes in a combo I swore I'd seen in Radar magazine it was as if he'd walked out of a photograph.

What wasn't pretty was the snarl on his face. I could hope that it was because of a hangover, but I knew in my hearts of hearts it was directed at me, even as his eyes refused to follow in a blatant show of contempt.

I wasn't even worth looking at.

"Rick." Dustin acknowledged. "When did you get in? I didn't wake up."

"3ish, or something like."

"Early."

"Yes, well, I knew Erica would skin us alive if we were completely useless for the interview today.."

Obviously, I thought, I'm going to have to get used to a more violent time-shift than just jetlag. That was if I did anything with them.


"Where are they?" Rick looked around in irritation. "I need a cigarette, and I want to get going. It's stupid enough we're up and about before 11."

And at that point his eyes fell on me. Oh, so THAT'S what the phrase 'piercing gaze' means. Huh. I was happier not knowing.

That gaze then slipped downwards and up again, a slow crawl of a once-over that had me desiring nothing more than the ability to shrink into myself.

"Nice outfit," He noted dryly. "Felt like dressing down today?"

"Uh." I couldn't help it, I looked down at myself. They were one of my favorite pair of jeans. I'd had them forever, they'd been a gift from my father that I hadn't had the heart to throw away, per usual, due to how much I needed Jeans at the time.

They'd once been really nice... I guess they were simply beat up now, frayed at the cuffs over my equally beat-up Converses. My shirt was polo, bought from Old Navy and a couple of seasons out of date. Also a bit beat. My messenger bag was from high school, and, well... it fit the whole package.

"It's alright, Ethan." Rick practically purred. "I'm sure Zane won't even notice what you're wearing."

The way he said it made it sound like it wasn't so much that my clothes were acceptable, it was that Zane wouldn't give a shit what I looked like anyways.

Ow.

At that moment, I hated Rick. I hated him with deep, passionate loathing. That put him right on the loathing list under me. The purple glow behind the registration desk was currently placed just above his head, and I found it fitting; it seemed somewhat like a demonic halo.

I met Dustin's eyes and he shrugged apologetically.

Jarod and Zane exited the elevator together, and I tried to keep my heart from skipping a beat and keep my cool. No expectations, nope, that way I couldn't be disappointed.

But I really couldn't deny that Rick - that asshole - had a point calling me out on my clothing.

Zane was fresh out of a magazine even more than Rick did, wearing a short sleeved shirt made of a strange synthetic fabric that molded to his lean body perfectly. It had a high collar, various zippers, and a small finely striped tie. The fact that a piece of clothing with so much going on looked so good was a testament both to how expensive it must have been and to how good looking he was.

His pants were black slacks with a faint pinstripe that hung just right underneath a simple industrial silver belt buckle. It was finished with a large pair of sunglasses and black leather sneakers.

It worked perfectly because he worked it.

"Morning," I said, trying not to smile too widely. Thank god he smiled back or I very well might have started crying. I couldn't see his eyes behind those sunglasses, though, which somehow made it very hard to tell how real a smile it was.

Jarod rolled his eyes at me. I ignored that. Fine, Rick & Jarod hated me for whatever reason. I'd hate them back. It was as simple as that.

Look at me, all tough.

"Did you get enough sleep?" Zane asked casually.

"I think so, yeah." I tried to look awake and alert.

Rick snorted. Hated him. Oh so very much.

"Wow, you're all on time." Erica said sardonically as she joined us, "isn't that a complete shocker."

"Just for you, darling," Rick's voice was actually surprisingly mild. "I know you consider this important today."

"It is. It's not as big as the BBC session coming up, but you guys charm the pants off this Virgin radio host and they might invite us back to play next time. Also, you actually show up on time for the magazine interviews and they'll be shocked at your good behavior." She looked at her cell phone. "We better go, though, to actually pull that one off."

Interviews. Gig sessions. And... me. Well, I could sit and draw, no problem, it's always been... .

"So what are you going to do with yourself, Ethan?" Erica said brightly.

I blinked at her.

"Yeah, Ethan, what ARE you going to do with yourself?" Rick gave me a wide eyed smile full malice. "We're going to be awfully busy today."

"Huh, yeah. Really busy." Jarod chortled, and I think I deducted a definite lack of intelligence there.

Zane turned his face towards Rick and his lips tightened. "Hey, Ethan, can we talk for a moment?"

"Of course." My tone was cheerful; my mood was dropping through the floor.

He looked at the others. "I'll meet you guys outside."

"Bye, Ethan." Dustin gave a little wave, and Erica smiled kindly. Rick smirked, and I narrowed my eyes at him, which made the smirk even wider.

Zane walked a bit around the corner, towards the empty restaurant, and I wondered why. Didn't want to be seen openly talking to me, I guess.

Obviously, I wasn't going with them. Obviously, I was going to be in charge of myself. Was this going to be the rest of the trip?

He turned and stopped, and, much to my relief, took off his sunglasses. Talking to him with them on was far too much of a barrier for me to be comfortable with; it reminded me what a stranger he was, a glamorous creature miles above me.

He looked a bit tired, but gorgeous. His eyes met mine, and I smiled, and he looked away, and I stopped smiling.

"So, it didn't seem like you'd have much fun coming with us," He started, apology in his voice. "And I know you've never been to England before, so I figured you'd have more fun going around on your own, you know, doing your own thing."

"Oh, that's cool." So when would I see you again? Never? He just gave a small nod with a somehow distant smile.

At that moment it felt like he was thousands of miles away despite being only right in front of me. I didn't want him to go yet. He looked so handsome, so damn sexy. I remembered him in Chicago, half-naked, accessible, laughing at me and watching me so intently.

Now he wouldn't even look at me for two seconds. Boredom.

That was it, I saw it now. He was already bored with me, and it happened sometime before I arrived and after he invited me. My heart broke a little, and I didn't want him to go.

"So, mmm, interviews today?" I asked quickly.

Zane nodded. "Yeah, we've got several people to meet, interview with a newspaper, a radio show, three magazines... should be crazy." There was a note in his voice.

I tilted my head. "Sounds like you're not looking forward to it."

One side of his mouth quirked up. "No, not really. I'm not overly talkative, and it takes a lot of effort to be the effervescent lead singer they'd like me to be." He ran a hand through his hair. "They expect me to do most of the talking for some reason, like it's my job, so...."

"I've never considered it before," I said thoughtfully, "But, yeah, I guess as the singer you're seen as the de facto leader. But aren't you?" Even in the short time I'd seen them together I could sense they all, including Erica, looked to him for guidance.

His eyes narrowed as he considered me. "I suppose I am. But do I have to be the press secretary also?"

I laughed. "Can the band afford another one?"

"No, it'd be pretty ridiculous at this point. Huh." His smile suddenly dropped. "Sorry you can't come with us."

I could if you wanted me to, I thought, the truth of the fact he was the leader smacking me around. You could make it happen.

I stared at his face, and he started to look away, opening his mouth to say something else, probably a goodbye of sorts.

So I kissed him.

For possibly the first time in my young life I made a calculated, bold decision to kiss someone who didn't see me coming.

Without the aid of alcohol, other motivations like shutting them up, or overt signs it was expected from me, I kissed someone else, and damn near violently.

Maybe he'd push me away any moment, just like he had last night, but that was part of why I was doing this.

`If you don't want me here,' I thought fiercely as I attacked his lips, `then just make it clear. Just fucking DO it, tell me you're bored with me!'

He was startled for a moment, his lips unmoving, but then he responded, making something that might have been a groan into my lips.

Arms wrapped around my back and I responded in kind, and just like last night I felt almost devoured. Pushing into him as much as I could I ran my tongue into his mouth and loved the clean taste, the wetness.

His body. That strange heat that came off of him, the feeling of where his back curved into his ass. Almost as if he was reading my thoughts his hands went down into the back of my jeans.

I pushed forward even more, letting him feel my cock and how incredibly hard it was.

"Ethan..." He breathed into my mouth, a fraction of an inch away, and I cut him off.

"I want to go down on you," I said quietly, moving my lips to the perfect, sharp line below his ear. I hoped to god he didn't hear in my voice the tremble I was feeling all over. "I really want you to fuck my mouth, please, I want to taste you. Just give me five minutes. Please, Zane."

It was amazing how things I thought I could never say came so naturally when I was so high off of him. It was true, at that moment I'd give anything to feel his silky smoothness...

I used a trick I had learned from him subconsciously, suddenly staring so intently into his eyes he couldn't look away. His pupils were huge, and his features had that incredible intensity, the drawing inwards that brought out the planes.

His fingers had moved down to my ass and I flexed it under his fingers, causing them to dig deeper, pulling me into his own now very obvious erection.

"Zane," I repeated quietly, not breaking my stare, and he winced, and growled, looking away as if he felt he had to.

"GodDAMNit, Ethan..." He kissed me again, angrily, and then pulling away, a hand leaving my ass to pull out a cell phone from his pocket and bring it up to his ear, obviously using speed dial.

"Erica," He said quietly, his voice tightly controlled. One of my hands reached to the front of his pants and ran up his length; I lingered where I could tell his head flared, catching it between two fingers and rubbing blatantly, not wanting to distract him and yet not able to resist. His eyes rolled slightly. "Go ahead, get things set up, I'll be there in a little bit." His hand moved up and clutched the back of my head, squeezing.

I could hear her voice, obviously angry.

"Sorry." I squeezed gently, his hand clutched. "Be there soon..." He then hung up, and pulled my head forward to practically engulf me. "Upstairs?" he asked shortly when he let go, eyes intense; I knew I had him then.

I nodded. We went around the corner, attempting to be nonchalant but glad to note there was no one behind the desk at the immediate moment. The elevator was a short trip but felt like forever. He pulled me to him for a quick kiss, and I ground myself against Zane appreciatively; his arm didn't leave my waist, it was a wonderful feeling.

"Where'd you learn to be so forward?" He breathed into my ear, and I had to smile.

"From you, I think."

He laughed, and nipped at my earlobe lightly.

It was wonderful and sexy to see him so very relaxed again.           

We practically stumbled in the bedroom, and my hands went to the top of his shirt, where I figured the complicated piece of clothing art that was his shirt most likely had an escape valve somewhere in that vicinity. But his hands stopped me.

"We don't have time." I was disappointed, but the words were said with regret, not cold rebuke, and I knew he was right; I was lucky enough to get what I was

"Do you want to keep all your clothes on?" I asked, sounding bolder than I felt, putting my hands on the top of his jeans and running a finger over the buttons. "Or can I open these?"

"Please do." His eyes danced, and I complied, sitting on the bed and pulling him towards me. Taking advantage of the time I had now I opened them slowly, carefully, touching his erection just enough for his hips to thrust automatically forward and a hand to bury itself into my hair, squeezing playfully. "Tease."

I looked up at him to make sure he was joking, and his pupils dilated. "Fucking sexy tease; you do know your eyes are so blue it's ridiculous, right?" He growled.

"Isn't that why you brought me here?" I returned playfully. Just having him talk to me like that was making me want him even more. Screw the interview, I would make him want to stay a lot longer than he should, I wanted to be with him for hours, I wanted him to fuck me. "My seductive stalling and my blue eyes, right?" It was meant to be a light joke, but it didn't fly that way, his cheekbones tightening minutely.

I was going to apologize - for what, I didn't know, but I knew I had hit a button - but Zane was pushing me down, kissing me in a way I could almost call angry, hands holding me down at the wrists.

It was kind of scary. It was completely damn hot. I bucked against him and tried to match the violence, using my legs to wrap around him. Zane made a sound not unlike a growl, but it wasn't playful, it was almost hungry.

He released my hands and pulled me to him and we rolled, kissing and tussling. I think I might have bit him on the arm at one point, because he winced and pulled my hair so my mouth was on his again, but it could have been a dream. His soft, hungry mouth, saying my name.

My fingers dug into his back, his reached for my pants, and I made a muffled sound of protest. That was my role, I wanted to say, it was my turn, but his long fingers wrapped around my cock and all I could do was groan, burying my face in his shoulder.

"Ethan," He said again. Liquid-heat sound waves, that's how I pictured Zane's voice when he said my name like that; sound waves that grabbed me and spun around my head.

His body moved back and when his lips hit the head of my cock my hips lifted up of their own accord, reaching to get deeper within his mouth. He clutched at my hips with one hand and felt my stomach with the other; I had to fight squirming under his touch, not wanting to disrupt his rhythm in its perfection.

Zane was steady, his head moving up and down smoothly, and I could feel the unbearable sensation rising, the discomfort. "Zane..." I breathed.

His hand left my hip and wrapped around the shaft of my cock, tightening and causing me to swear, matching the now shorter motion of his lips. I was clutching at and probably totally ruining his perfect hair. That pleased me, somehow, undoing his steady calm, his perfect facade. I made a sound, somewhere between a laugh and a gasp, and he went even faster....

"Zane, oh, god, Zane..." I came, bucking into his mouth, moving so violently I couldn't believe he managed to keep his mouth on me. But he did, steadying me by my ass and using that unexpected strength of his keep me in place.

His lips didn't leave me until I had stopped twitching, breathing rasped. Finally he let me go, briefly kissing the side of my thigh before lifting his head.

It was a tender move, and it gave me hope yet.

"Can I please do you?" I asked, face flush. "That was my actual intent in getting you up here."

He smiled, and shook his head, standing. "No... it's the least I could do, what with dragging you across the world for such a boring trip."

What did that mean? Was I just given a consolation and then a back-handed warning? I blinked at him. "What...." I didn't want to piss him off, or be confrontational, so I snapped my mouth shut. "Thanks." I didn't ask his meaning, or the other question running around my mind, if he hadn't brought me to be around him, and if he hadn't brought me to fuck around WITH him, then why.... Whim followed by loss of interest?

I kept coming back to that.

Zane heard something in my voice, and turned away, finding the mirror. He began to adjust his hair, and put it back into place. I watched, transfixed.

It was as if he was the only one in the room. I memorized the image, placing it in my mind in order to draw him later.

I pulled up my pants and buttoned my fly. "Can I see you tonight?" I said neutrally, trying very hard not to sound pitiful. "I do..." I have to do at least something to justify my presence. "Want to see you. It's the least I could do." I smiled wryly, hoping some humor came through.

He looked at himself in the mirror, face conflicted, and then up at me again. "Tonight, we're going to Egg, a club. The owner is connected to the record label people, and it's sort of the place you go to be seen. I...... figured you'd join us. DO you like dancing?"

Why was he so uncomfortable, was I that embarrassing? But he was beautiful, and I yearned to have him near me again. How sad, I thought with an internal sigh.

I wondered what I needed to do to get him to kiss me again.

"I love dancing," I answered truthfully. "I don't want to be a bother..."

"You're not-" I cut him off.

"Rick and Jarod don't like me here."

He finally turned to me. "Does what they think matter?"

"No." I looked out the window thoughtfully, before turning back to him. "Only what you think matters."

There was silence, and we stared at each other. I'm not sure what we were trying to transmit, but Zane broke first and looked away, making me the de facto winner. And yet somehow a total loser.

"We'll be back tonight." He said quietly. I nodded. "You'll be okay keeping yourself busy?" I nodded again.

"I'm in London." My smile wasn't completely false. Just mostly. "I think I can find something to keep me occupied. At the very least I won't lack for things to draw."

Zane let out a small laugh. "You won't at that. Can I see your..." He cut himself off. I wondered what he was going to ask. It sounded like he was going to ask to see my art, but I suppose he didn't really want to and regretted trying to be polite.

"Oh..." He reached into his pocket, and pulled out an envelope. "I did have a reason to talk to you besides tonight. Here." He stretched out to hand something to me, and I took it automatically. '

"What's this?" I asked, puzzled, but two seconds later I figured it out; only one thing had that sort of feel and heft in an envelope. My head snapped up. "Zane..." I was afraid to open it.

"I know you don't have much money... I didn't want you to worry about that. I'm the one who dragged you here. IF you want to get some clothes, maybe, for tonight... or, just for everyday."

Rick's taunting came back to me, and I felt numb. I did look just as bad as he said I did. Fuck. Maybe THAT was why Zane couldn't stay interested in me for more than one blow job.

And it wasn't unlike I was being paid for services I wasn't rendering. "Sure." I smiled gamely. "Sounds good."

"Erica's going to kill me..." He looked at his phone wryly, and then over his shoulder at me. "See you tonight, probably around 9."

"Yeah." I quirked a smile. I looked at him, this handsome man with the deep voice that somehow gave him a strange, deep wisdom, and saw that he was very uncomfortable. He looked young, then, not much older than me.

He was uncomfortable with me.

This time, before he turned away, I looked down at my feet. I had no interest in watching him walk out the door again.

****

I had no idea how much was in that envelope. I didn't want to know; I couldn't look at it. Even just the consideration I was being paid for my time hit a wall in my brain I refused to break through. I threw it in a drawer.

That wall in my brain became very useful. I pushed down somewhere deep in my stomach what had just happened. The only conclusion I had was that he was bored with me, I was a mistake.

The obvious answer was, of course, I should go home. I should go home instantly. And yet something kept me from that, the part of Ethan that still hoped against hope that there was something about this trip, about the near-nothing Zane and I were, to be saved. I had come because I was more into him than I should have been, and now I was paying for it.

But I wasn't quite ready to give up.

"Excuse me...." I approached the front deskman nervously, and he lifted his eyebrows at me. "Um, I was wondering if you could help me find a salon? Some place where I could get my haircut? And, um, where would you recommend to go shopping that's not too expensive, but, um, fashionable?"

He smiled warmly. "Of course, sir. Let me write a few places down." Thank god, he didn't treat me I was a cockroach. I think I had visions of something from the movies, the downtrodden snotty abuse of the obviously impoverished customer.

I was a little uptight.

"You have very nice hair, love," the cheerful young stylist, Angela, told me as she gave me a once over. I'd ended up not far from the hotel, at a very cutting edge seeming place named 'Ambrio'; I was instantly intimidated by the overwhelmingly stylish clothing and hair of everyone there. "But been a couple of months since you've been in, hasn't it? It's a right mess."

I couldn't help but blush a little bit, and she smiled. "Don't worry, we'll fix it up to match that handsome face of yours; it's criminal to not give it the respect it deserves." She tilted her head. "I have an idea in mind, a new style I quite like, but judging by your last cut you go a bit straight. Up for a risk?"

The reason my last cut was boring was because of work and money, honestly. But if I was going to hang with Snowborne I figured I needed to go all out, and I nodded.

We chatted, her scissors flew, and she advised me on what to do for the day. "First day ever in England? Go all out, do the touristy shite, you only live once. It's great weather. Places for clothes are all right around here, you can get the right stuff quickly; you're young and fit."

I finally laughed, letting go of some of my tension. "I don't think I deserve all this flattery," I told her. "But thanks anyways."

"Well if that's what you think, Ethan," she gave me an impish smile in the mirror, briefly burying her chin in my hair and a squeeze of my shoulders, "You are truly quite the idiot. I've been doing this style quite a bit lately," her scissors returned to their snipping, "but you're one of a few I can say it'll look truly tops on." Angela was doing wonders for my ego.

I loved what I ended up with, the type of style I'd never had before, crazy yet controlled layers that come down into my face just a bit in razored edges and prominent yet perfectly groomed sideburns. And it was damn expensive, the reality of the exchange rate hitting me hard. This final amount included, of course, the requisite hair product to make it look half as good tomorrow as it did today. I was reminded of more of the practical reasons for more boring hairstyles, but it was too late now.

Clothing shopping was also oddly enjoyable, once I just stopped worrying about the price. Whatever, I figured, life, it was short. I half believed it, too. The selection was awe inspiring. T-shirts and designs and pants and things I knew I wouldn't have seen in my Midwestern city for at least several months. I winced, but what was equal to a thousand dollars flew out of my hands.

I couldn't embarrass Zane no matter what. Maybe, I pitifully hoped, if I looked good I'd get more attention from him. Like a freshly groomed puppy, that was me.

"So what are you doing tonight?" The speaker was my salesperson at a small men's boutique I was in. It was almost noon, I was getting antsy and sick of shopping, and I wanted to start seeing the city. I was looking at the few things I had tried on and figuring out what to take, and the young man, maybe a couple of years older than me, had been very helpful. Lean and with flaming red hair, he was undeniably attractive, flirtatious but not pushy. I had briefly wondered if he was gay but pushed it out of my mind, deciding most likely he was simply a good salesman.

He sounded casual, but when I looked at him he was watching me intently. I turned away. "Um, nothing, going to a club with ... the people I came to England with. Egg."

"Yeah?" He smiled. "That's a good place. Haven't been there in a while."

"Uh, cool," I said lamely.

He smiled again and rang me up, and lightly touched my hand as I took my receipt. "Feel free to stop in again any time."

"Okay, thanks. Bye." And I fled, fast as the wind.

The fact I couldn't flirt worth a damn verified. Another reason I was boring.

I dropped off my purchases at the hotel, changing into a new pair of stone washed jeans with a split cuff and an awesome T-shirt I had to buy with a blue-green dragon pattern and headed out with my sketchbook.

The rest of the day passed really pleasantly. I ran around town, got lost on the underground several times and bought myself a map and a poster of it, walked in front of and drew Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and the Tower of London. The people watching, and thus sketching, was fantastic.

I loved big cities, and it gave me the excitement I first felt when in New York. And yet different. I had cheap Indian food in a divey place that was unbelievably good. People kept handing me fliers. A girl mistook me for a local art student and started to chat with me. She was startled I was an American tourist, and I joked shyly I was too poor to afford a camera so I drew everything. Then I fled when she tried to give me her cell number.

I ran into an internet cafe to write an email to my mom, Mira and Scott but nothing came out. So I told them I was good, but tired. That I would write soon. I sort of started in on what was going on to Scott, but then I pulled back at the last minute. I didn't want to sound as pitiful as I felt, nor was I quite ready to let it out; still hiding behind my wall.

My final stop was Madame Tussauds, and I loved the ridiculous kitsch of it all, from the early, rough figures to the modern celebrity likenesses that didn't differ much from the waxy images one saw in magazines. I wished I wasn't there seeing it alone. The problem I was finding with touristy places was that tourists had very little desire to interact with other tourists.

I was invisible.

I got some edible-enough fish and chips from a storefront joint and trudged on back to the hotel; grease on my fingers and rather exhausted. I had also snagged two Red Bulls that I hoped would keep me alive.

Would they keep me sane? I didn't know. Now that I was approaching seeing Zane again there was still that nervous, happy excitement. But the giddiness had a new friend, a paradoxical brother of something not unlike dread. Dread of more signs he didn't want me there. Dread of Rick and his wicked tongue. Even a strange dread for the polite but definitely distant politeness I had gotten from Dustin and Erica.

I took a shower and got dressed in a pair of grey pants with what was almost simulated suspenders hanging from the sides; the salesperson said I had the perfect build for them. (In hindsight it took me an embarrassingly long time to recognize he was flirting with me, didn't it?) And then an open collar, neutral-colored striped shirt that was tighter than I was used to and a thin scarf wrapped loosely around my neck.

After a not-bad re-creation of my fresh-from-the-salon style, I figured this was as good as it was going to get. A red bull and a half and a little more than an hour later the phone rang. I had sketched and twitched and figured they were going to leave me behind.

I looked at the clock. 10 pm. I needed to stop paying attention to time with this group.

"Ready to go?" Zane's voice asked neutrally.

"Yes." There was a pause. "Hey, how did your interviews go today?" I said with as much cheerfulness as I could muster.

"They went fine." His tone signaled an instant end to that chatty direction of the conversation. "Come downstairs, there's a car waiting out front."

"See you soon," I answered, my perkiness wavering.

The lobby and the restaurant were jumping, and I suddenly felt very self-conscious; people were looking at me. I swear those two women were whispering while looking in my direction, and I was getting stares. Shit.

Too late now.

As I came out the band was standing around in front of three small black taxies. My eyes went to one person. Zane had changed into a suit that only enhanced his hipster fashion magazine look - dark grey with a white shirt and a striped tie, very close fitting. The collar was sharp and a bit extreme. He was talking to an attractive, small brunette woman wearing a fashionably off-kilter blue dress.

The rest of the band was loitering nearby, smoking. Rick was wearing a black T-shirt and white pants, and pulling it off. Dustin and Jarod were both casually dressed; actually, I don't think they had changed. No one looked up as I approached.

"Hey," I said weakly, and they finally turned to me. I braced for sarcasm from Rick, but all he did was look at me up and down, narrow his eyes, and look away with a curled lip. Jarod was talking to Rick and didn't actually stop, pointedly ignoring me once again.

"I like your hair, Ethan," Dustin greeted me. "Looks good on you."

"Really?" I smiled in relief. `Dustin,' I thought wryly, `if you keep this up, I'm going to start offering you the sexual favors Zane doesn't seem to want from me, despite the fact you don't seem particularly interested in them.' I ran my hand through my hair self-consciously. "I really needed one."

"Yeah, you look really good." His smile was impish. "You look more like you should be in a rock band than I do."

"Really?" I joked. "I was going more for the `art-geek hipster' vibe."

"Mmmm." He tilted his head thoughtfully. "Too glamorous, I think. Need some paint splatters on the pants."

"I'll work on it." I grinned, and he returned it. Really nice guy.

I turned to Zane, who was starring at me, but before I could catch his eyes he looked away to the woman next to him. "Charice," He said, indicating me, "this is Ethan, that cousin of Rick's that's traveling with us."

His voice had raised just a fraction of a decibel on "Rick's Cousin", but the emphasis was clear.

Rick's. Cousin. My thought process was swimming very slowly, as if through a pool of gum. How I managed to not blurt out "Rick's fucking WHAT?" is still a mystery to me.

She turned to me and smiled widely. She had very extreme features - sharp nose, large eyes, bow-lipped face that pulled together in a unique but undeniably attractive way. "Hello, Ethan, I'm Charice, an old friend of Zane's." Her voice was deep and throaty, her grin crooked. She looked me up and down. "I can see the resemblance to Rick, but you dress a hell of a lot better." She winked at the guitarist, who had stubbed out his cigarette and had come over to join us. Resemblance? I tried not to wince.

"Yeah, cuz, you're a real fashion plate."

I didn't look at my new 'cousin.' I refused to see his expression or acknowledge him until I regained my bearings. I met Zane's eyes; he was looking at me, steadily, face mostly blank. There was apology there, but I could also see I had no choice.

I gave her a tight smile. "Did you just come to London?"

She shook her head. "Nah, I have an apartment here. Summer's the season to be in England, weather isn't shite and we play in the festivals." She linked her arm with Zane's and squeezed. He seemed very comfortable with that.

Warning bells went off.

"You're also a musician?" I asked politely.

Her smile became wicked. "Maybe. I'm more of a musician than any of these bastards." Rick snorted. "I'm in the Tears; we're out of New York. The press fuckers tend to call us "Art rock," the real idiots call us goth."

"Cool," was all I could get out.

She laughed. "You're just fucking adorable, aren't you?" And then she pinched my cheek. Her nails were incredibly sharp, and it hurt. "I'd just love to eat you alive." Her smile was predatory, and she didn't look so pretty anymore. Actually, she looked scary.

Charice obviously didn't expect a response, because she suddenly turned to Zane. "Can we go? If I don't have another cigarette soon I'm going to puke."

"A woman after my own heart," Rick smirked, and she smiled saucily at him.

"Sure." Zane opened the door of the cab closest to him so she could slip in. I tried one last time to get any sort of acknowledgement from him, staring him at him so hard I thought I would burn holes through his head, but failed miserably.

"I'll ride with you, Dustin." Jarod brushed past me with a shove, and climbed in. Dustin followed with a shrug.

"That leaves you with me, cousin Ethan." Rick made a sweeping motion with his arm. I just nodded and got in.

I instantly turned my face to the window, ready to tune him out to the best of my abilities. As we took off he started talking.

"You look pretty damn sexy, brat. I'm guessing that's Zane's money, huh? He's always been too fucking generous for his own good. I figure that's why you're here." I could feel his eyes on me. "Funny, I wouldn't have figured he went for the pretty ones. Or, maybe he doesn't," he let out something like a chuckle. "since he's obviously not that into you, is he?"

My fists clenched despite themselves. I saw the cabbie briefly glance in the rearview mirror and look away.

"Not going to say anything? Zane's such a fucking idiot, bringing you along on a trip he knew he'd be seeing his girlfriend on."

Not being able to control it and hating myself for it, I whipped my head around to stare at him. "Girl...friend?"

"What, you thought he was gay?" Rick was both pleased he had gotten to me and honestly surprised. "Shit, he might be bi-, but who the hell knows with him. Yeah, they've known each other forever, since high school. Where one goes, the other follows eventually." He shook his head in disbelief, one side of his lip up in a snarl. "You know, I figured you were either completely a dumb little shit or a manipulative gigolo twink. You might still be a user, but, you are really fucking stupid, aren't you? You actually believe he wants you here?"

I started to turn away, but suddenly his hand was on my chin and his face was inches from mine, the joker gone and only an icy cold contempt remaining. I stared at him, too numb to do anything. "I don't know what your game is, Ethan," Rick made my name the ugliest five letters in the English language, somehow, his sharp-featured face almost demonic, "but you're playing it worth shit. You're nothing, and soon you're going to be gone. But if you do anything to fuck up this trip - probably the most important of Snowborne's career - I will do things to your stupid ass you couldn't even imagine in your worst nightmares."

It was a strange moment. I'd never been on the receiving end of such contempt, such spite from a near stranger before. 24 hours ago, 12 hours ago, it probably would have destroyed me, had me cowering in the corner, fighting tears.

But after what he had just told me, after what I had just learned.... my mind was blank. There was a swirling, black pit of disappointment that had opened up inside me, an old friend that had been approaching since I first arrived here, and I let it switch me off.

My silence enraged Rick further. "Do you understand me?" He snarled angrily. "Did a single word get through that thick, empty little skull of yours, you pretty twat?"

I finally jerked my chin away, but not my eyes. "I understand. You don't need to threaten me, I won't do anything." There was nothing I could do.

I turned to look out the window, watching the other cars, the people, this alien city. "And you're absolutely right, Rick. I'm really. Fucking. Stupid."

After that I had nothing more to say. Silence had always served me best throughout life. Through the early fights, through divorce, through mom's drinking, through any letdown. Silence was a wall.

I think he spat out something else, maybe several something elses, but I didn't hear them. At some point he fell silent, and I was grateful.

Zane had a... did that matter? Zane didn't want me. That mattered. Zane hadn't told me. That shouldn't but did matter, especially as he could have, SHOULD have told me that morning before he threw money at me like a whore and walked out the door. Let me get in a cab with someone he must have known despised me, and would tell me exactly that.

Rick had confirmed I wasn't wanted, and it made sense. Zane thought I'd have said yes, and I did, and he resented me. But he wouldn't tell me that. 'Too generous for his own good.' Yeah. Well, Rick expressed it very well enough himself.

There was nothing else for it: I'd go home tomorrow. I'd tell Zane something, anything, something smooth enough to avoid even the shadow of a conversation neither of us wanted, and we'd both be relieved. All I had to do is get through this night. Just this night. How hard could it be? I didn't care about any of these people and none of these people cared about me. Emotional survival.

We arrived, and I didn't even really pay attention as we got out of the cab and walked to the front; there was a line. I kept my eyes straight ahead, face blank. I saw Rick glance at me, and look away again. "They're already inside," he said shortly, and led the way in.

After a brief hallway we entered the club, a big, brick place full of disco balls and people. It was loud. The music thumped. I kept my eyes on the back of Rick's head. We saw the booth at around the same time, I think. It was on the side, had a great view of the dance floor, there was a 'reserved' sign on it. Zane, Dustin, Jarod, and Charice were already there.

Zane was smiling slightly at something Charice was saying to him, and my heart stopped. What had seemed really simple, really doable a moment ago didn't seem so at all. Why was he so damn beautiful? His profile was to me, and his perfect, almost noble face caught the lights perfectly. Surrounded by his band, with her and her Gwen Stefani gone edgy look, there was a sense of completeness. I felt so horrible and so lonely right then.

"You know, pretty, nothing can be quite that bad." I started, and turned. A towering drag queen with a massive platinum wig, pig tails, and stunning blue makeup was standing next to me, looking down kindly. "At your age, with those looks, there's always more fish in the sea. You look like you're going to start with the waterworks and is that a way to start a night?"

I wish I could have said something witty in return, but that was never my skill. But I'm glad she broke my revere. "Thanks," I answered honestly, and smiled wryly. "I just wish this fish wasn't so confusing. Or attractive." I stared at the table from where I had stopped dead. They were looking at me. Lovely.

She gave my shoulder a squeeze. "All the tasty ones are, love." She winked. "If you get bored, you can always swim my way, keep it in mind."

"I will," I promised, and she sashayed away. I went up to the table, and Dustin moved over so I could get in. I smiled gratefully.

"What are you drinking, Ethan?" Charice asked, her voice loud. I focused on her. Her expression was languid, a drink in one hand. I saw where Zane's shoulder touched hers, and I refused to look any further in his direction.

"I don't know," I answered shortly. "I'll get myself one."

"There's a waitress," Dustin said helpfully. "She'll be back."

"Oh."

Charice saved me from an actual answer; she started to talk loudly about their last gig, and it segued into something about sound equipment and some other band I'd never heard, and soon they were all talking. Zane's voice didn't weigh in very often, his deep, smooth tones making an occasional comment.

I watched the patrons; a surprisingly diverse mix of people and styles. I liked it, it had a good vibe, an eclectic one. Stylish but not ridiculous; hipsters, but not only. There was something respectful, something unlike what clubbing seemed to be around where I grew up. Huge age range, was that normal for Europe, I wondered? I knew it was a much more mature clubbing culture. The music was smooth and modern and just the right touch of house.

"So you'll see me on stage at Glastonbury, Ethan," Charice's voice saying my name startled me. I blinked, snapping my eyes back to her. What was Glastonbury? I have no idea where Snowborne was going to be. No one had told me.

She was smiling, and her eyes were a little off. Was she on something? That would explain why she was so loud and also talking a mile a minute. "You'll see how much better we are than this bunch of pop pansies."

"We're only pop to you because you're so far out there," Zane retorted dryly. She cackled. I smiled wanly.

My eyes had drifted to him inadvertently. I found myself staring at his lips, and, without warning, I knew I just wanted to keep staring. I wanted him to talk to me. I wanted that intensity I'd seen in Chicago, or the first time I'd seen him. I wanted him. I wanted him to at least look at me.

Without knowing I was doing it, I stood up. Someone bumped into me from behind, and I ignored it. Conversation stopped dead at the table, and they were all staring at me. My eyes flicked past Zane's. I wanted a response so desperately from him I was deathly afraid of what I'd do if I saw none. Getting away from him, and his loud, dominant girlfriend was a priority.

"Where're you going, Ethan?" Charice asked gaily.

"Yeah, Ethan, where you going?" Rick parroted in a voice of pure venom.

"Rick." Zane's voice said warningly. My heart constricted that he was defending me, and in response anger flared; he was speaking up for me now? What the hell did it matter? What was I, someone to pity?

"Yeah, Rick," Charice parroted, "How can you treat your little cousin like that? Jealous of his youth and good looks?"

"How'd you know?" Rick sounded less playful, and after Zane's short reproach, pissed. Great, I couldn't even stand up without sowing conflict. It was like high school. I knew with certainty that Rick would make me pay for this later, just like any cruel bully.

"I'm going to just look around." I was already heading into the crowd. "Get a drink."

"Ethan..." Zane started, but stopped himself. I kept moving.

"Don't leave me alone with these boring assholes, Ethan!" Charice's voice trilled, but I didn't even turn around. `Sorry, Charice,' I thought, `they're all yours.'

If I didn't get a drink, I was going to start crying. There was a dawning, horrified realization of how many expectations I had tucked away in the back of my head for this trip, for Zane, and I wasn't at all ready to handle it.

I sidled up to the bar and had a shot of vodka. The bartender gave me a look out of the corner of his eye at the speed with which it went down.


 

To be continued....