The SBT gig had been a washout. Aubrey knew the girls were not performance ready but she had also hoped, in her heart of hearts, that the pressure and thrill of finally coming together in one performance would give them the kick they needed to pull it together. Some people thrived under pressure. She hardly expected them to be the rockfish (found up to one-thousand six-hundred feet beneath sea level and otherwise bone-crushing water pressures) of a cappella, but she had hoped, however futile a hope it had been, that lighting a fire underneath them would finally get them to work.
That plan had backfired, of course. (Most of Aubrey's plans did that. This was a rare instance where she had no contingencies and she was kicking herself for it.)
She didn't know how she was going to look Howie in the eye again at their next Poli Sci class. She'd pestered him for weeks to get him to book the gig. (She was aware she had reached the lowest of lows when she was asking frat boys for favors.) Maybe she could just avoid his table. No, that wasn't right. Posens did not run away from problems. Posen made problems disappear. She couldn't outright murder him but—
Who was she trying to kid? She'd just have to march up and face the music. Poli Sci class was, thankfully, not for another six days. Aubrey loathed procrastination almost as much as she loathed mediocrity but she was resigned to the fact there was no way to do anything to deal with that particular situation at the moment. It would have to wait.
Aubrey was not feeling particularly nice. Aubrey's mood, if anything, was decidedly dour. Dour was a misnomer, really. Dour did not capture the stinging humiliation of being practically laughed off a stage. Dour did not capture all the anger at being unprepared or the intense dislike bubbling away for the motley bunch of incompetent newcomers who did not take to her directions at all.
This was not a mood to talk to other people in. This was not a mood to interact with anybody in. Well-socialized people could read the atmosphere in a room and guess, from that, the tone they should take with its occupants. In a similar way now, they should have been able to read the absolute zero frost around Aubrey—a disposition so cold it burned almost as hot as the seething indignation and rage she could only just keep a handle on.
No. No, this just was not the time.
It wasn't as bad as projectile vomiting all over the third row in Lincoln Centre, but most things weren't. (If Aubrey was going to judge her life by such low hurdles, she might as well just not bother running the race.) Aubrey, stripped of respectability or credibility as she was, had standards. Under those standards, failing and humiliating herself in another performance was unacceptable.
Yet she'd still gone ahead and done it. To make matters work, she'd dragged along the new recruits with her. She couldn't decide if she hated them for not keeping up or herself for not training them properly. If the saying was true and there were really no bad students, just bad teachers, then Aubrey was a complete and utter failure.
Feeling sad was easy. The dissatisfaction and self-loathing were familiar enough to be almost comfortable, strange as it seemed. Aubrey couldn't afford to do easy anymore. Easy was comfortable, but inefficient. Easy didn't get you anywhere. This was a horrible feeling, marching away, remembering what it was to be laughed at until all the instances (today, Lincoln Center, high school, middle school, elementary, childhood) blurred together into an irrational ripple of memories pushing at each other like a chain of dominos until there was nothing but that awful, sinking misery left in her gut—a churning so physical it made bile rise up in the back of her throat.
Anger would be better. She could will her head to change as much as she liked, but she couldn't steer sadness into satisfaction or even apathy. Changing it into anger, though, was doable.
Anger would have to do now. Aubrey knew how to, at the very least, turn anger and shame into something motivating, and useful. It was, perhaps, not the most sustainable fuel to run on but it burned bright and strong and it seemed leagues more useful than sadness or embarrassment or grief.
She let the thoughts cloud over her head and boil over her heart. She couldn't look at any of them now, not any of the Bellas, until she wrangled this nascent rage into something useful.
Aubrey was not feeling particularly nice. Beca kept prodding at her, asking inane questions and ignoring the obvious dark cloud hanging over her head. Something was done about that—she didn't remember what exactly, but it had worked well enough and Aubrey got her peace, alone, to muddle through her head.
It was a long walk back to her dorm.
Five pages of angry writing and a new rehearsal schedule later, Aubrey felt marginally better. Certainly, not better enough to be deemed 'good' on any level, but certainly tolerable. Her hand would not stop shaking, though, and that was not generally the best of signs. She hoped it reflected all the writing she'd been doing (come to think of it, the penmanship was a little sloppy on those drafts…) rather than any lingering mood. Ignoring it was as good an action as any.
Her phone buzzed: Beca, asking after Chloe. It was a nice sentiment, if a little dramatic. Aubrey replied with strictly the facts, wondering how much time Beca spend fretting over Web MD. No skin off her back, though. As much as she'd like to, micromanaging Beca's internet habits seemed more than a tad creepy (especially if she was going to seriously pursue her chances of a relationship.)
Beca again, quickly after the reply was sent. Aubrey frowned as she looked over the phone screen. It was something inane: a poor attempt at small talk. Generally, Aubrey preferred it hen the other person in the conversation had the ability to carry it. Communication was not one of her strong suits. With Chloe, at least, she could count on awkwardness being whittled away by an unending series of questions or observations about her day. Beca was bad at filling spaces between words. They were, it seemed, going to be doubly incompetent about this facet of their relationship.
No matter, Aubrey would have to make do. She couldn't reply just off the bat, though, not when Beca's message showed such a flagrant lack of forethought and consideration.
It was very awkward to look at. The more Aubrey stared at the words on the screen, the more she felt anxious about what to say. It was ridiculous. They couldn't possibly be worse than what Beca wrote.
(But then again, Aubrey hadn't thought the Bellas were going to be that bad at the SBT mixer either. Aubrey's judgement didn't seem particularly reliable anymore.)
Then came the question of when it'd be appropriate to send the message. Aubrey's frown deepened. She opened up the app for the timer and set it to countdown. There was only so long she could put off answering Beca's message before she made herself seem rude.
A message… A message she had no idea how to begin.
The phone wasn't helping.
Aubrey shoved it in her drawer and turned to a fresh page in her legal pad. She scrawled out some ideas for replies to Beca despite the ache in her wrist and her fingers and the way her hand didn't seem inclined to listen to what her brain had to say. It must have gone on for a while (either due to the conflict in her hand-eye coordination or the frequency with which she crossed out words) before she drafted something resembling a satisfactory message.
Aubrey read it through one last time and set the paper down on her desk. Her timer hadn't gone off yet. No point in wasting time agonizing over it any longer. She could get some reading in before the text had to be sent.
She was anticipating noise, but instead of the familiar alarm tone, her phone screamed to life with blaring, obnoxious shrieks that made her wince.
She realized it was ringing. The weird noise was almost a ring tone. It was that obnoxious ball of noise her brother liked to pretend was music. For all his faults, he was persistent. Or perhaps stubborn was a better word. (Stubborn was a fault. There was no need to go around assigning him positive qualities.) Sighing, she answered. Before she could say her customary greeting, he spoke.
"'Sup, Bree? Where you at?"
He couldn't even be bothered to talk properly, could he? No. Not her brother.
"Don't call me," she said, "and don't talk like that."
"What? Like I have swagger?" She could practically hear the way he was waggling his eyebrows.
"I don't know what swagger is, exactly, but I can only assume it's not something that's easily granted to upper-middle class white boys."
"We're just middle-middle class. We don't have nearly enough money to be upper-middle class. I checked."
"Because that makes you so undeniably ghetto."
"Don't say 'ghetto'. It sounds weird when you say it."
"How do you think I feel when I hear you talk?"
"Ecstatic that your wonderful brother has bothered to drop a line, of course."
"You're a pest."
"I love you too," he replied airily. "Anyway, I'm bored and I decided I wanted to hear more about your new weather front."
She gave it a second, but she still couldn't figure it out. "My what?"
"The bow-chicka-bow-wow stirring your loins," he sang, terribly off-pitch. "Is that a better term for you?"
"I hate you."
"We already said our 'I love you's. Don't get mushy on me now. It's sickening."
"I'm hanging up."
"No! Stop!" There was a noise like something had been knocked off a table and smashed against the floor. All it did was make Aubrey feel anxious about the mess he made somewhere even if she technically wasn't obligated to clean up after him anymore.
"Wow," she said. "Someone sounds desperate. Do you need money?"
"I don't always need money." He sniffed. He mumbled, "Sometimes, maybe, I just want a little company…"
"Did you get yourself arrested?" It would explain his desperation to ensure she didn't hang up, but not the obnoxious ringing out of her phone.
"No, not this time, thanks," he grit out. Perhaps if she offended him enough he'd go away. It worked for him in his dealing with her. As loathe as she was to copy her brother at a time like this, she wouldn't say he was without his merits.
"Then what do you want?"
"To hear about the weather." He blew a raspberry. "Duh."
"It's slightly cloudy."
"Not that weather, jerk-off."
Weather? Weather? Oh, yes. There was that awfully contrived 'hot front' pun he'd used to describe Beca after the Facebook debacle. The only saving grace of the day as that Chloe had not mentioned any specific names. "I'm not telling you about my romantic life."
"Why not?" he whined. "It's so entertaining. Mom was so happy when you finally started doing things with boys that didn't, you know, revolve around making them cry."
(Actually, she still made boys cry, though she supposed the context of it was too different to count. He did not deserve to know these things, though.)
"I gave one speech to one boy."
"And you made him bawl like a baby. I mean, you've got to pity the guys you've dated," he said in a voice that was a little garbled by chewing and grinning. He sounded like he was eating something unhealthy and delicious. Definitely not in jail, then. Drat. "You're such a ball buster."
"Well it's a good thing this doesn't have balls, isn't it?" she snapped.
Oh godammit. When would she learn to get baited again? Aubrey held her breath. He hardly ever paid attention to when she was berating him. His selective hearing tended to benefit him but maybe it'd finally work in her favor. Or maybe he'd just ignore it and then she could say he had no excuse because she'd tried…
"Well no shit," he replied, swallowing whatever it was he was chewing. "You only ever get this uptight when girls are involved. It's hilarious."
"What." It was a statement, not question, too. Aubrey was that thrown.
"Yeah. It's super funny. Like that time in high school where you were mooning away about Lydia Goldberg and Michael Venetti at the same time?" He seemed so casual Aubrey wanted to shove her hands through the line and strangle him. "The best. I was laughing my ass off. You talk in your sleep too, just so you know. I mean, I only know because I thought it was funny to swap things around on your desk and see if you noticed and flipped a shit, which you always did, so…"
"You… You knew? You knew this whole time?"
"Huh? About what?"
"I… Me… Girls…"
"Are you still on that?" he said. "Yeah, ages ago."
"I—What—? You knew?"
"I'm your twin brother, dumbass," he said.
"It doesn't show," she spoke over him.
He ignored it. (Selective hearing.) "Of course I knew."
"Does everyone know?"
"Pretty much. It's about as well kept a secret as Israel's nuclear bombs. Okay, okay, I joke. That's not even a secret," he said jovially. When she didn't laugh, he cleared his throat and continued. "For real, though, well, Mom and Dad don't know. I don't think so. Anyway, I never told them."
She swallowed. "Dad knows."
"Huh," he said. There was a pause. "I didn't think he was that observant."
"He's not. I, uh— I accidentally told him."
"…You told Dad before you told Mom?" The way he said it carried uncharacteristic gravitas. It was uncomfortably thought provoking. Dad: the bringer of discipline. Dad: the unquestionable autocrat who forbade crying. Dad: who had thought it appropriate to teach them to swim by tossing them into a lake and checked their beds were made to standard every morning by bouncing quarters of the edges.
When put it that light, telling Dad before Mom did seems like a poor life choice. There was no taking it back now, though.
"Yes," she said.
"…Mom's going to kill you," he said without humor. "She hates it when you pick Dad." He chuckled. "Well, at least I can be someone's favorite. I'm totally calling dibs on Mom's affection."
"You're already Mom's favorite."
"Yeah, but now I'll be that much more the favorite than you," he said. "No need to complain." He snickered. "It just figures you'd tell him accidentally. I thought you only blurted out stupid stuff for me. I feel a little less special, now, actually… Don't worry, though. I'm sure you got extra brownie Dad Points by telling him first."
There was little actual reward in being Dad's favorite, of course, but before she could come up with a metaphor to appropriately articulate this, her phone buzzed.
"Ah," Aubrey said. She moved the phone away from her ear and tapped speakerphone, glancing over the screen. Ah, yes. The alarm she'd set. It had been precisely fifty-two minutes after Beca had sent her last text. It was just the appropriate amount of time to suggest she was busy, yet not too indifferent to answer, nor overeager to give reply. She couldn't allow her brother to mess up such impeccably calculated interval timing. (The times had also given her a window of opportunity to go through several drafts of the right message. "Give me a second. I need to reply to a text."
"Ooh, ooh," he called through the shoddy speakers. "Who's it from? Chloe?"
"No." Where was the paper with her draft on it?
"…Are you going to insist on calling her that?" Oh. Right there. Excellent.
"Are you going to tell me her name?"
Aubrey only paused for half a second. "Yes, I'm texting the Weather Front."
Aubrey began typing up the message. Her brother must have heard the click of the keys over the speakerphone.
"No!" he said. "No, do not text her back! That is a disaster waiting to happen! Real life is enough. You're seeing her in real life so cool it. Do you want to scare her off or something? Jesus, you still need to secure date number two. And here I thought all that stuff about lesbians moving super fast was just a stereotype."
"I will find a way to hit you though this phone line."
"Just joking. Sheesh. One would have thought the prospect of getting laid would have chilled you out."
"I swear to god I will grow up to be a hotshot investment banker just so I can earn enough money to commission a guy to follow you around and beat you up whenever I feel like it."
"Our sibling relationship is great, isn't it, Bree-bree? Really functional."
"Normal siblings threaten each other with death all the time."
"Normal siblings don't make highly detailed plans and write them down in a big book."
"I write everything down," Aubrey counted. "It's cathartic."
"It's grounds for arrest," he said. "And it's sloppy to leave evidence lying around."
"Are you pressing charges?"
"Not really, no, but it's great blackmail opportunity. Like, legitimate blackmail."
"I think we can both agree the murder plans I have for you are too ridiculous to be accepted into a court of law."
"Ridiculous but effective. It's like you achieved a perfect balance between practicality and plausible deniability."
"That's what makes a truly great murder."
He laughed wryly. "Once again pitying this kid you like."
"Are you jealous I might actually want to murder someone else?"
"Well, maybe a little bit. You should be touched." Some more garbled static and awkward thumping noises against the receiver. "This is me, touching you. With words of heartfelt affection."
"Duly appreciated." Maybe if she distracted him long enough with his whimsies, she could finish copying up this text.
"I told you not to text her!"
Of course he heard. Her brother filtered out any sounds he didn't like. He could identify the sound of packages of food being opened in the distance (and thus prime opportunities to mooch initialized) but was wholly immune to warning about her claim over the shower, kitchen, computer or car.
"Because it's a bad idea! You know what? I changed my mind," he stropped. "Maybe I don't like Weather Front at all."
"This is awful reverse psychology."
"Maybe I'm just being honest," he whined. "You know I'm the only one in this family who is. I mean, let's think about the situation. The last time something like this happened my bleeding-heart sister got her bleeding-heart ripped out."
"You're being dramatic again."
"No I'm not. I mean, yeah, watching you moon over Lydia Goldstein was funny until Lydia Goldstein bit back."
"I handled it."
"Sure you did. I'd just like to mind you you're ridiculously sentimental and a sucker for a pretty face."
Aubrey's face felt warm, but it must have been for an entirely unrelated reason. "Chloe vouches for her."
"So I thought you liked Chloe."
"Only when she's disagreeing with you," he drawled. "And why? Does Chloe have some sort of knowledge that you don't?"
Aubrey considered the topic on a purely factual level. "She's seen her naked."
"She's seen her naked?"
Context would be appropriate. "They met in the showers."
"They met in the showers." He coughed. "Aubrey, next time lead with important details like that! And— I can hear you typing don't you dare hit send."
He scoffed. "What does Chloe know about dating chicks? Your brother's got you covered. Don't listen to Chloe. Didn't you say she saw this girl in the shower naked? You've got to watch yourself. This is a dangerous game."
"I'm family. That's got to count for something, right?"
"Who's being sentimental now?"
He huffed on the other side of the line. "Fine, fine. I'll keep it short and to the point. Play it cool. You came on way too strong."
"I did not!"
"You totally did. You need to be more aloof. I bet you've sent her a dozen texts already."
"No!" she gloated. "No I haven't!" She ignored the dozens of drafts of text littered on sheet of paper around her. They didn't count.
"Why? Because you've been obsessing over the perfect message?"
"It's exactly what you've been doing. I'm so right." His voice was somewhere between amusement and exasperation. More the former. "This is great."
"I'll have you know I've settled on just the right message now."
"But is it really? Are you really satisfied with it? Is it anything you couldn't just tell her in real life? Texts are such a toneless medium, you know…"
"Don't try and play such obvious head games with me, you jerk."
"As your brother, I'd just like you to think this through."
That was surprisingly earnest.
Sometimes, she forgot he could get that way.
"I'm not going to—"
"I just think," he cut in, "I'm the one with practical, experience on the matter and any tangible return for my efforts."
And there he went. A total one-eighty back to his usual MO. It'd be disappointing if it wasn't so inevitable.
He went on. "Are you really going to take Chloe's advice over your darling, devilishly handsome brother's? I mean, niceness aside, it's not like you haven't told me about Chloe's track record with relationships."
Aubrey's voice dropped a below freezing. "There's nothing wrong with Chloe's choices."
"For her, yeah… But we're kind of— Uh, you're different, you know? And I think we can both agree Chloe's thing isn't exactly…Posen style. Not your Posen style, anyway." His smirk was audible. "I'm kind of a loose canon in that regard."
"I'm hanging up."
"Fine, fine," he sighed. "But take my advice or you'll regret it."
"Hanging up. This is a last courtesy message."
"Oh, yeah," he added. "Don't bother trying to change your ring tone for me. I've got fling tones. They're great. Whenever I call you they force your phone to make whatever song I'm paid for. I love it. You love it to, let's be real."
Maybe she missed him more than she thought.
She took his stupid advice.
Beca's message went without reply.