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Generated: Jul 15, 2022 11:05 AM
Post last updated: Jul 15, 2022 11:05 AM
the gods of the stage are i and thee
esther and ivy meet the Stage
Permalink Mark Unread

He spends four years learning his craft. Getting to the top of his class, his prefecture. He will have his stage, he knows it.

The application goes out to Seisho Music Academy, her family confused - isn't that a girl's school? - but supportive.

Four weeks later, a letter comes back.

She's not going to Seisho. She can't believe it, she did everything right it isn't fair she deserves this. She writes back, begging them for some other way, a path for hope. She lingers with her razors a little when she shaves her legs, she waits in silence alone in her room among the blinking lights and notification badges and letters and the soft knock at her door that marks her mom leaving yet another meal outside.

Another letter.

She's not class A material, but they're impressed with her application - would she be interested in a spot in class B, perhaps? It's still prestigious, and while she might not be good enough to rule the stage, maybe she can bring coffee to the ones who do. On that one condition, she can join the stage of the 99th graduating class.

Of course, she says yes.

Permalink Mark Unread

The top theatre school in the country is a girl's school, of course. 

He still sends his application. He has fought for the stage and he will have it, even at the cost of this. He can pretend for 4 years.

He finds the letter back shoved into the kitchen trashcan, already torn open by his father's hands. He picks up the envelope and smooths it out, reads the line Dear Ivy, the Seisho Music Academy is delighted to inform you...

He doesn't stay to read the rest. He is Class B now. Ivy Rogers of the 99th class. He can deal with that.

He doesn't tell his parents where he's going. They'll be pissed but he's already set up their payments.

It's everything he's ever wanted.

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It's only for a little while, she tells herself. She can be an actor if she just holds on and shows them how good she is, that she belongs in class A, in the spotlight. For now, she'll sit in this orientation as a teacher holds up a lighting can like it's their first time ever seeing one. Her uniform blouse itches and she's tired from a late train in and she still hasn't met her roommate yet. Hopefully they won't be too hard to get along with.

She yawns and looks around the classroom, hoping her sunglasses will keep the snooping discreet.

Permalink Mark Unread

He is very obviously enraptured and is furiously taking notes on the 101-level information the teacher is presenting. It is not his first time seeing a lighting can, but he will handle it with reverence when it's passed around the class. He doesn't spare too many glances for the other students, past the brief sizing up he did when he walked into the room. If he's noticed the boredom of the students around him and the strange glances he's getting, he's not letting on.

Reviewing basic information is incredibly important to the continued good practice of any skill, and he will treat any information on the technical aspects of theatre with the respect it deserves.

Permalink Mark Unread

Dork. It's almost like she actually cares about this class. And what's with the hair? It's like she's an anime protagonist. On the other hand, Esther knows everything in this class - maybe she can trade being a study resource for a friend.

Permalink Mark Unread

Study resources are good! He wants friends as devoted to this as he is. At a break in the orientation lecture, he can say hi to her. He has also been sneaking some looks at her since the lecture started because wow, she looks cool.

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Well, she is cool. She earned these looks. When the bell rings, she goes for a coffee at the vending machine because it's too early to pay attention to a boring class, and brings one back for her new minion friend as well.

"Hi there. I'm Esther, call me S. What's your name?"

Permalink Mark Unread

A friend!! He is doing a not great job at concealing his excitement that this cool person is talking to him.

”Hi S! I’m Zero or Ivy but I prefer Zero.”

He is looking at the coffee set down on his desk with delighted surprise.

”Thanks for the coffee. You have cool hair.”

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"You too. Cool name, choose it yourself? How'd you end up in class B?"

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"Yeah, actually I did. I've gone through a lot of names but Zero's been my favorite so far. I ended up here because technical theatre is like, my one love. I mean, you get to put on this entire show and you don't have to be in it but you get to make it happen, and there's all this knowledge that you can apply to other areas, and I don't get to do tech nearly as much as I like so getting into a school where I could do it constantly was the dream, and I haven't decided what I'm gonna specialize in yet but I want to take every single class and..."

He will continue on like that until he realizes S hasn't gotten a chance to speak in a solid 5 minutes.

"So how'd you get here?"

Permalink Mark Unread

Ah, so this one's a chatterbox. She can use that.

The usual, apply to the school, try to be a stage girl, get rejected, wallow in shame and regret until they take pity on you and make you a techie.

Maybe not that.

"Oh, you know, always been my dream to support the girls on stage! I've done everything from front of house to lighting op to stage ninja, I'm just excited to have the opportunity to learn from people like you! Tell me about your first show?"

Permalink Mark Unread

Someone is willing to listen to him jabber about theatre! This is great.

"My first show was an outdoor production of Romeo and Juliet! I knew so little that I wasn't even a stagehand, just front of house, but all support jobs are important in theatre. It went off pretty well except for the part where my parents needed me home before the show ended, so I had to awkwardly curry some favor among the stagehands to get someone to cover me at the end, but it all worked out, and I was pretty much in love with theatre right then. All the people working together, like a giant machine. Nothing like you get as an actor. How about you?"

Something about this girl sets him just a little on edge. Not in a dangerous way, just a feeling that she has something to hide. He won't let it show-- if she wants to keep hiding whatever it is, fine by him, but he bets he can get it out of her eventually.

Permalink Mark Unread

The kid is cute like a puppy. "We did Oklahoma; I ran sound. It's amazing what you learn when your crew has about three mics to their name and ten times as many cast members. Gave me a taste for what could be done on a shoestring budget, now I pick up the odd sound board position for the cash and to remember where I came from. Can't get too prideful, lest you get caught in the rigging and dangled by the ankle above the stage until someone comes with a ladder to get you down." She looks faintly embarrassed for a moment before shaking her head to dismiss the thought. "Anyway, the lecture's starting again. Want to explore the grounds this evening? I know some class As that we can hang out with."

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He giggles at the mental image of someone dangled above the stage by their ankle. A weirdly specific anecdote, but with the embarrassed expression he probably won't ask about it.

"I'd love to explore the grounds, but-- you know class As here? I don't know anyone, much less people in an entirely separate area of theatre from me. I guess I could've maybe met some people online, but there were... barriers to that. "

He looks pensive for a second, then brightens.

"But yeah, you should totally introduce me to them! I want to meet everyone I possibly can. And the grounds looked really nice on our way in, too."

Permalink Mark Unread

The lecture passes a lot quicker with something to look forward to, even a little bit. She's curious about this girl's "barriers", but she can keep her secrets. For now.

Afterwards, she grabs the girl's bag and starts walking towards the canteen. Seems as good a way as any to establish the hierarchy here.

Permalink Mark Unread

Um. What.

There is no polite way to say "hey what the fuck you just took my bag??" without causing a scene, and this girl seems like she knows a lot of ways she could kick Zero down a social notch. He stands there for a second before deciding to hurry after her. 

"Uh, nice of you to take my bag," he says, making a grab for it. Maybe this will be enough of a signal for S to take a hint?

Permalink Mark Unread

Good, she's following. She nearly lets Zero take the bag, then thinks better of it. "Don't mention it. Fancy some dinner? I hear they've got dumplings."

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He is going to be annoyed but is then distracted by DUMPLINGS.

"Yeah, I'd like that a lot actually."

Possibly he should just try as hard as he can to like S. He is pretty good at liking people when he sets his mind to it. Already he can list some good traits about her: She has cool hair, got him coffee, probably the bag thing can just be passed off as her trying to be nice...

Permalink Mark Unread

Kid's a pushover. She almost feels sorry for her. Earnest though, and she knows how to put a smile on Esther's face. Turns out that they did have dumplings at the dining hall (lucky guess on her part), and Zero is happy to keep the conversation going all through dinner. S slips her the bag back and nibbles at some toast. When they're done, she turns to Zero once more.

"Want to see the Stage?"

Permalink Mark Unread

There’s dumplings! And conversation! Also, he gets his bag back!

“The stage? I mean sure, I already saw some pictures of it online but yeah!”

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"They only put the public parts online. Want to see how the stage really works? Finish your dumplings, and let's go explore the backstage."

She doesn't know if they can get into the backstage, but if she can't figure out some way inside, her name isn't Esther Lark.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Are... you sure we won't get in trouble for this?" He looks a little nervous.

Then he smiles. "I still totally wanna do it though."

He makes sure to grab his bag first this time.

Permalink Mark Unread

Quick learner.

"Not if we don't get caught! Now let's see what sort of lights and sound Seisho's donors can buy."

She starts walking briskly off down the hall, passing a set of elevator doors marked as out of order and several classrooms filled with instruments, and a closed door with a "Recording" sign lit.

Permalink Mark Unread

Good to have someone around to troublemake with. He's a rule-follower on his own, but S being here means they can go look at some actually interesting stuff.

He tries to catch a glance of whatever's happening in the recording room. He just manages to see a girl putting on a winning-TV-smile before he has to jog to keep up with S's quick pace.

"Glad you know your way around here, I'd be wandering around like a headless chicken alone. Despite the hours of orientation, they didn't actually spend much time going over the map."

Permalink Mark Unread

S hopes that Zero's having a good time, and that she'll be chill if they meet anyone.

"It's a knack." Also she looked up the map beforehand, can't be too careful.

"Here we are!" They're standing before a door marked "Backstage", with the sign of... a giraffe? Odd, that hadn't been on the plans. "Let's hope it's unlocked."

Permalink Mark Unread

He is having a good time! He is also excited about this mysterious door. 

The giraffe is kinda eerie though. It has eyes that seem to follow you. He stares at it for an uncomfortably long time before realizing that S is looking over at him.

”Right. Yeah. Let’s go in,” and he pushes on the door.

Permalink Mark Unread

There is a great crash and the whirring of machinery, and then the floor drops out from under them.

They fall for a long time.

Permalink Mark Unread

Oh.

He screams.

The ground is not very kind to him when he lands.

Permalink Mark Unread

She's on her knees in a darkness pierced by beams of blinding brilliance, though they don't highlight as much as they blind. Surrounded by the smell of burning dust on halogen lights somewhere in the distance, she coughs once and attempts to stand, only succeeding in clocking her head on some unseen piece of equipment.

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He sits up from where he was lying flat on the floor, squinting into the beams. 

“S?” he calls.

The space they’ve fallen into is vast, and his voice echoes off the walls. His hands feel familiar marley under them. He tries to stand up and succeeds, testing his limbs for injuries. He seems to be injury-free.

Permalink Mark Unread

The lances of light shift suddenly and the enormous stagepiece begins to move. A voice squawks in her earpiece, telling her to stabilize the enormous masonry that is trundling across the stage towards a set of chalk marks and she startles, her body moving without her brain's intervention at the Stage Manager's command.

Permalink Mark Unread

He snaps to attention at the crackle in his own earpiece (he doesn’t remember putting that on, how bizarre...) but then he’s moving without thinking about it to the other side of the stagepiece, lining it up with its corresponding strike marks. The Stage Manager’s voice croons in his ear, accent unplaceable, and this is the strangest thing that’s ever happened to him but he’s also a stagehand at heart- there is a job to be done here, and one doesn’t disobey the Stage Manager.

Permalink Mark Unread

What... is happening here. She finds herself climbing up into the lights, clipping a safety line to her belt and crouching among the wavering heat, desperately swiveling cans to follow some kind of battle below in accordance with orders over the ClearCom system. One actor appears to fall into the scene unexpectedly, a gaggle of costumers and makeup artists frantically remaking her image as she bounds towards the center position.

On a stage overflowing with stardust, I am reborn...

She clenches her teeth, envy overwhelming her momentarily before regaining control to rush down and quickly clip a lav to her fanciful outfit.

That could have been me, if I had just tried harder. Or had the guts to take what's mine.

Amazing how noone notices you when you're wearing stagehand black.

Permalink Mark Unread

He's now perched on the catwalk, looking down onto the stage - he wants to take a moment to admire the lights they have up here but then he's climbing down again, listening to the cues come through his headset one after the other. He moves a giant staircase across the expanse of the stage, watching the battle move smoothly around him. He can't catch what show it is they're performing. Whatever it is, there's a lot of fighting.

He melts into the shadows backstage to find his next set piece waiting for him, though he hasn't seen any other stagehands around. It's a broken column, solid, wheels almost invisible and locking when turned. The props department must get a lot of money around here.

He takes a breath. His next cue is 2 minutes away, he doesn't know how he knows but he knows, so he can think for a moment. He's breathing hard, the adrenaline of a show coursing through him, but he's enjoying himself. He wonders if he can talk to S through the headset but he doesn't want to upset the Stage Manager. Wherever S is, she's doing a good job. This show is running like a well-oiled machine. He peeks back around the curtain for just a second, to see who's in the audience. All he sees are rows and rows of empty seats.

Permalink Mark Unread

She breathes a sigh of relief as Karen prances onto the stage, swinging a sword that looks altogether too real. At least the acting's not her problem, she's just a tech. She leans on a column, feeling the pulse of some kind of reaction wheel inside it responding to her touch.

There's a hiss, and she glances over to see a cloud of glycerin faux-smoke rolling out onto the stage. Probably some more gaudy light effects that needed just a bit more emphasis. Now that her eyes have adjusted to the backstage's peculiar blend of light and shade, she can see other machines too - ones that churn and wheeze and drop golden buttons stamped with stars into crates, ones that stitch with golden thread that seems to shimmer with some internal light - and she wonders if she should be tending them.

Immediately, her comms squawks an order, and she bolts upright and dashes over to a hopper to begin shoveling coal into the furnace that seems to be running one of these behemoths. An odd thing to have backstage, but not the oddest thing tonight. She better concentrate on her tasks, though she wonders where Zero got off to. She feels very alone back here.

Permalink Mark Unread

Zero is farther down the line, refilling the spools of golden thread. Collected like that, it does seem to emit a strange glow. 

He looks up, and his eyes meet S's. He presses the button on the comms pack strapped around his waist, tilting his head to be heard over the whirring of the machines and the never-ending clink of buttons falling. 

"Hi there S! I was starting to worry I'd lost you."

He seems almost transformed by being here. More himself. He melts in and out of shadows with unsettling ease. As soon as he's done respooling the thread he climbs a ladder- that didn't seem to be there a moment ago- and grabs the curtain rope, gears of some far-up machinery creaking above him. Down on the stage, some sort of quick-change seems to be taking place. 

"You have any idea what's going on here?"

 

Permalink Mark Unread

Why is she doing this. What is going on.

She hears a muffled voice as from far away, at the edge of hearing and quite beyond recognition. Don't the other stagehands know better than to talk backstage? The audience might hear them.

She takes a moment's rest now that the blazing hearth is stoked and looks out at the audience only to find that there's not a soul out there. To the side on the stage she notices that the show is coming to some kind of climax, the girls clashing with sounds that are more like foley than the slap of blade on arrow.

Then she makes eye contact with a tall, yellow, spotted, did she mention tall? figure in the crowd. A giraffe? In Japan? In a secret underground theatre? She doesn't think she's on any drugs but she does a double take nonetheless. It seems like it's looking right at her.

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"I understand." Its voice can be heard by everyone.

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A jolt goes down his spine at the words. The voice sounded- strange, not like anything a human could make.

And it looks like it wasn’t a human that made it. He looks at the giraffe in the audience, struck again with the eerie sense that it is looking directly at him.

It understands- what? What is this place?

Permalink Mark Unread

"Day one of the auditions, the Revue of Passion. This is the stage of Starlight. For those upon it, an opportunity to claim their destiny. For those around it, an opportunity to clad themselves in reflected glory."

Permalink Mark Unread

This is the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to him, but something about the giraffe and its words makes it impossible to spare much thought for that.

to claim their destiny...

Auditions. That’s what this is. Auditions for what? The show isn’t supposed to happen for months now.

to clad themselves in reflected glory...

The words feel the right amount of important, but “reflected” stings. The glory is his own. The glory of the Stage is reflected off of him, not the other way around. The Stage is his, and the actors upon it will never know it like he does. 

The giraffe still seems to be looking directly at him. He glares back.

Permalink Mark Unread

How is this happening, how does it know, what does it all mean.

to claim their destiny...

Oh. A chance. She can feel hope rising up despite her better knowledge of what happened, her failure, the unlikeliness of success. But she has a chance! She could be reborn as a stage girl once again, not merely a stagehand.

to clad themselves in reflected glory...

No. It may have started redirected, but she will take it to her breast and push it against her skin until it infuses into the core of her, radiating out with her pulse and racing through her. She will make it hers, and noone, even a concerning insightful giraffe, is going to stop her. She will pluck the Starlight and claim her Stage.

Permalink Mark Unread

A girl steps to the center stage and a spot op - wait, there are other people back here? - drops a light on her. Esther scrambles to cut the rest except for twinkle on the enormous tower draped in red fabric, less illumination than an ominous glow.

"Position Zero! I am Aijou Karen, of the 99th class! I will make us ALL Starlight!"

Yeah right. Esther snarls to herself as she drops the curtain to no applause from the creepy empty theatre, merely an "I understand." From that giraffe. How dare she? How could she possibly share the light? It's not hers to share, merely loaned to her by the Stage, and even if she wanted to she couldn't make there be more of it, enough for the hungry eyes of A class, let alone B class's dull hopeless ones. She's just performing empathy, that sociopath.

As Karen leaves the Stage, and vanishes into one of the dressing rooms, S finally recognizes the figure standing at the follow spot: it's Zero, from before. How did she not recognize her earlier? She's got that same shine of excitement in her eyes as before, like she wants to fill the world with light and sound.

Permalink Mark Unread

He jumps down from his position by the spotlight, walking over to her. He’s almost glowing, hands jittering by his sides in excitement.

”S! What. was. THAT? I mean, oh my gosh that show, but also, what? There was a giraffe in the audience and I didn’t see the Stage Manager anywhere even though I heard cues, and I’ve never seen set pieces anything like those, something bizarre is going on- do you know anything about all of this?”

He’s gesturing wildly as he speaks, and smiling somewhat reflexively, but he slows down when he actually looks at her face.

“Are you okay? You don’t look too happy.”

 

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's fine. Let's get this all taken down and get back to the dorms before lights out, we don't want to get in trouble with the RA."

She starts removing drapes from the tower set piece and stacking and folding them in their crates.

"This isn't the stage that I thought we were going to, though."

Permalink Mark Unread

Now that the show is over, the theater seems... less. He helps move the set pieces back to their respective places, and places the crates S is packing into a neat stack.

A ghost light now sits in the center of the stage. The giraffe is no longer anywhere to be seen. He turns the ghost light on, incandescent bulb flickering and illuminating the dust specks wafting around the room.

“What stage did you think we were going to? The normal one without a giraffe?”

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well, yes. I didn't know there was a secret underground theatre at this school, did you?"

The drapes are neatly stacked and all that's left is sweeping and whatever needs to happen to shut down those self-remake machines. She grabs a push broom and starts cleaning up the frankly absurd amount of glitter left on the stage by the performers, and two battered gold buttons.

Permalink Mark Unread

He looks at the machines. They’re- complicated looking, not like any machinery he’s seen backstage anywhere. They’re also humming with energy and warm to the touch if he puts a hand on them. He must be imagining it, but he feels a little electric shock go through him.

”Weird machines,” he says, and his hands find a button that seems to bring the machine slowly to a halt. He glances over at where S is sweeping the floor.

”Glitter is terrible in theaters.”

Permalink Mark Unread

"This glitter is important. You heard the giraffe, stage girls have Starlight."

She slips the buttons and the glitter into a ziploc bag (you never know when you might need a ziploc) and surreptitiously drops it in her messenger bag.

"Come on, we have to be back in the dorm by RA rounds at 6." She turns and begins walking towards the stage exit, absently twirling a sharpie. "Try to keep up."

Permalink Mark Unread

He looks around at the stage one last time before following. He's somewhat upset by the amount of following he's been doing recently, but being behind someone means they're not constantly looking at you, which is nice. He doesn't quite know how to confront S about the subtle... insulting? she's been doing. She's good at what she does though- she proved that on the Stage. It'll be useful to team up with her if he can find a way to get her to be more tolerable. He also has the whole coming out thing to get around to if they're going to stick together, but she seems like she'll take that okay despite her demeanor. He's seen mean girls like her before. They almost always just need an actual friend.

Permalink Mark Unread

It's a kind of awkward walk back to the dorms. Zero doesn't seem as chatty as before, and the slight clinking of the golden buttons in her bag sends her mind back to that Stage below. As they round the corner towards B class's side of the floor, the atmosphere becomes lIvely around them with students chatting in the halls, working on props, lights and sound. The lounge is full of bits and pieces of past shows - mementos from B classes since graduated.

"Zero, what room are you headed for? I'm in six."

Permalink Mark Unread

Oh. Well. This is going to be slightly uncomfortable.

"I'm uh, also in room 6," slightly fake smile to show that he is also not overjoyed about this situation, uncomfortable looking at the mementos around them in order to not have to look at S's glare.

He is maybe also a tiny bit glad about this. He likes to observe people, and S is not his usual type of people.

The whole coming out thing might also have to happen sooner rather than later. Sigh. He can at least wait until they're inside their room.

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Well. That was unexpected. Her face splits in a broad grin of dubious provenance, and she opens the door for Zero to strip inside before her.

"In that case, welcome home!"

Fuck. She would have done this whole thing differently if she'd known that Zero was her roommate.

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He really does not know what to do with this reaction. He settles for an awkward smile back before stepping into the room.

It’s nicely furnished, with two beds on either side of the room and two desks pushed together in the middle. He sets his bag down on one, waits for Esther to come in, and decides that he needs to get the coming out over with now.

”So I should probably tell you that i’mnotagirl,” oh god he’s already given away the fact that he’s nervous but now he’s started so he has to keep going, “I know that’s kind of weird, I hope you’re still okay with me as your roommate, uh, it’s fine if you’re not, sorry.”

He will now look pointedly at his feet and wish that the window above the desks opened more than 5 inches out. He could use an escape here.

 

Permalink Mark Unread

She pretends not to hear.

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Oh. Okay. 

His face is burning and there’s a roaring in his ears and there’s only so long before he’s going to tear up.

He stands dumbly for a moment, knowing that nothing he could say here is going to sound the way he wants it to but he wishes he could say something, maybe how dare you or you’re the first person I’ve ever come out to or I thought you were maybe like me but that was stupid, I guess.

He says none of these things and instead turns back to where his bag sits on his bed, messing with the straps so he can do something other than stare at the floor.

Stupid. Of course that wasn’t going to go well. What was he thinking.

The next 4 years might be harder than he thought.

Permalink Mark Unread

Is he really not going to assert himself at all? It takes guts to come out to someone you've only just met, but that doesn't mean much if there's no followthrough. This won't do, her roommate reflects on her.

"Did you say something? You'll have to speak up, I wasn't paying attention."

Permalink Mark Unread

He turns. His eyes flash with anger, just a little. How dare she try and ignore him baring his soul and then force him to repeat it. He tenses and steels himself and the nervous expression he was wearing drops off his face. He’s found his courage somewhere.

”I’m trans. Deal with it.”

And he turns back to his bed before he can see anything of her reaction.

Permalink Mark Unread

Aww, he's mad now. Better, and also cute. She smiles internally, and keeps the same cool expression. No use in giving him a reaction, it'll just undercut the lesson.

"I knew that already. Any other revelations for me? I want to take a shower."

She picks up a towel and turns to head back out the door.

Permalink Mark Unread

He clenches his fists. He could hit her. He could.

He’s not going to though. He digs his fingernails into his palms and then, checking that she’s well out of the room, flings his bag across it. It lands with an unsatisfying thump near the door.

She’s so fucking smug about having just embarrassed him, and she already knew. She already knew and she forced him to say it.

He is trying very hard not to cry and only sort of succeeding. This fact is NOT helping him calm down. He wipes his face with a sleeve and grabs his towel from his bag and heads for the showers himself.

 

Permalink Mark Unread

She eyes him without turning her head. She should probably tread carefully, getting into a fight the first day only works to establish your place when you picked the fight yourself with the biggest person in the room. And when you're in prison. No sense in them both going to class with black eyes tomorrow.

Anyway, she didn't know, but it was too good of an opportunity to pass up. Speaking of which...

"So, planning on peeking in the showers?"

Permalink Mark Unread

He stops dead in his tracks and sets down his towel on the bench next to him. He digs his nails into the flesh of his palms again, hard enough to leave marks. Good. He's already gotten angry and embarrassed himself once today, why not make it twice.

He turns, and doesn't speak for a moment. When he does, it's through clenched teeth.

"No, and fuck you for asking."

He's not going to throw the first punch in a fight. He will not hesitate to retaliate if one gets thrown his way right now though, when he feels utterly humiliated.

Permalink Mark Unread

He needs to learn to keep himself under control, or he'll never get anywhere at all. She decides that's a lesson for later though and steps into a shower booth, careful not to let anyone see her body before the stall door closes.

"So, when did you know?"

Permalink Mark Unread

What.

He’s still shaking a little, a combination of adrenaline and anger and the utter panic that he still feels when anyone says anything about his gender.

”Bit personal, don’t you think?” fake smile, step into shower stall, water on. He is so utterly done with today.

Permalink Mark Unread

She has to raise her voice a little over the sound of running water. "You started out with Romeo and Juliet, I think, but when did you know that you wanted this life? To be part of the Stage?"

Permalink Mark Unread

Can he disappear into the ground. Please. 

He rests his head against the tile. He still can't resist the urge to talk about the thing he loves.

"Must've been... 6 months after that? Don't remember timeline specifics but it was the first time I operated a spotlight for a show. I'd had only 2 hours to practice and I was horrible at it and I didn't know how to work my comms but- it was the best and most important thing I'd ever done. The house lights went down and I knew that I was never going to stop doing it. I couldn't if I tried. I stayed for hours after that first show, playing target practice with whatever I could find. It was something that was mine. The show was in my hands for once. "

His eyes have brightened, and they shutter a little once he finishes. He sighs. She's not being mean, at least.

"What about you?"

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Good to see that she didn't break him, it's far too early in the year for her roommate to have a breakdown and have to leave.

"I" used to be an actor "feel like I always knew i wanted to be" on "a part of plays. I was the" lead "soundboard operator in a production of A Christmas Carol. I felt way my heart thrilled as the whole thing came together, creating a story together, and I fell in love." At least that part's not a lie.

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He twists the water off and it slows to a trickle.

"It's wonderful, isn't it."

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She turns hers off and wraps up in a towel.

"Yeah."

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He fights the bizarre urge to apologize. He wants to do something but he's not sure what might break the tentative peace they're keeping right now. 

He settles for waiting for S while she finishes up instead of leaving to walk back without her. It's not much, but it's not like she's done all that much for him in the day that they've known each other.

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She pulls on a dressing gown and gathers her toiletries in a bag before stepping out of the cubicle, hair drying in a towel turban. She notices Zero waiting for her outside.

"You know, you don't have to drip on the floor on my account. You'll catch your death out here, let's get back to the room."

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That's not not nice. He walks with S back to the room. He's not exactly following this time, and the fact heartens him more than he thought it would.

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She dreams of gold buttons falling and green eyes staring. It's not a very restful night.

She wakes up early, stretching out in this unfamiliar bed before realizing where she is. She dons athletic shorts and a sports bra, moving quietly so as not to wake her roommate. As she steps out of the dorm and begins to jog along the sidewalk, she can see the city rousing around her. She stops for coffee at a cafe a few dozen blocks from the school, and admires the sunrise. Right now, she's not thinking about how resentful she feels about her rejection. She's just glad she's here at all, at this place she dreamed of for so long. She settles up, and then decides to take an buttery almond pastry in the shape of a frog with her. A little gift for her protégé.

By the time she's back, others are starting to stumble out of their rooms, milling about and readying themselves to meet the oncoming day. She makes some inane chatter with them (it always pays to know the local gossip), and slips back into room six.

"Zero. It's time to get up."

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He dreams he’s back at home. His father yells at him, brandishing a torn up letter- his mother sits in a corner, looking disappointed, she starts crying- S stands next to her, looking at him with contempt- his father backs him into a corner- 

He wakes up with a start. S is standing over him, holding some amazing-smelling pastry. He takes deep breaths until his heart beats at a normal pace again. 

The pastry looks like it might be for him. He risks a glance at her, and seeing as she doesn’t snatch her hand away, he assumes he can take it.

He gets out of bed before he peeks, so as to not drop crumbs, but he gasps a little when he does.

”It’s a frog and it’s for me,” he’s grinning now, “thank you so much.” If he was a little more uninhibited he might even hug her. It’s a frog-shaped pastry. 

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Probably for the best that he didn't try. They're not that close yet, she just wants some sugar in him so he can spend breakfast cozying up to his classmates. Zero needs some friends.

"It is," she allows, "try not to choke on it, you can always get another. It's 7:30, and we're wanted in first period by 8. Try and find someone interesting in the class to talk to, I'll do the same and we can catch each other up on break. Sound like a plan?"

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“...Yeah that sounds good. I’m not sure who I’ll find but, sure.”

He has not eaten his frog pastry yet. He is going to hold it carefully forever.

He should be able to find someone interesting. He found S and she’s ... interesting enough. 

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She ducks into a nook in the room and leaves it dressed in stage black - not the sort that light sinks into like some abyssal well, the sort that one's eyes slide off of. Emerging from the darkness of the room, she falls in step with a girl in blue carrying far too many pots of brightly colored paint.

"Hey. Where's that paint headed? I didn't know there was a show build in progress."

The girl responds with a smile. "There's always time to refresh the backdrops, there's never enough time to add detail when it's build season. I'm Natasha by the way, and you?"

"Esther, call me S."

"S it is. Help me carry these pots?"

S shrugs. "We're headed the same direction, don't mind if I do." Never one to turn down an opportunity to make herself seem useful.

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He's already dressed in black for exactly this occasion. He looks around the room until his eyes fall on someone with a similarly eye-searing hair color as his own. She's leaning over a flat, drilling it for rigging.

"Hey! I like your hair," he squats down next to her, picking up the extra drill. "I'm Zero, mind if I help you with this? You seem cool."

"Thank you! I like yours too! And yeah, you can totally help, I'm Juniper, I've already drilled the guide holes so you can do the screws?"

He gets to work. His new friend is talkative and friendly, if not the sharpest tack, and she has good technique. They make quick work of setting the flat up for rigging.

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As they reach one of the many backstage storage rooms, S sees a plethora of setpieces propped against the cinderblock back wall, lit only by a bare bulb overhead. Dust swirls in the air as the door opens, and S leans back so as not to breathe in too much of it. Natasha strolls right in with apparently no care for the lurking dust clouds and pulls down the dust cloth covering the pile of props. The contents of this room seem star-themed - there are star drapes, a starry night sky, red stars that look like they might hang from chains and with a shock, she recognizes a star-windowed tower.

"Hey, is this from last year? I could have sworn I saw it on the stage last night when I was poking around."

Natasha gives Esther an odd look. "Yes, but you see the dust in here - as far as I know, noone's touched these since last spring."

Huh. Better derail. "Must have been a dream, ignore me! So, touching up the night sky? I wouldn't expect to need so many brighter colors for that"

Natasha is only too happy to explain her craft. "See, you'd think that, but actually we need these to color the edges of the stars so they each stand out against the background..."

As she chatters on, S feels a shiver pass down her spine, and a light clicks on beside an elevator in the distance.

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Juniper insists that they take their flat into the theater to test its weight against the fly bars and to estimate where to set it down for rigging. Zero picks up one (very heavy) side, and Juniper picks up the other. He's preoccupied with thoughts of the night before, and anticipation to see what the Stage will look like today. They enter through a side door, turning the flat sideways in order to fit and coming out into what seems like one of the wings.

Zero sets down his side of the flat for a moment, calling a break, and pushes aside the black velvet of the wing, expecting to see- if not the same stage, then one similar- and stops.

The stage is fine. Great, even. It's clearly been recently repainted, the lights above it are gorgeous and the latest models and he itches to get his hands on them, but- it's not the Stage. There's none of the set pieces he saw last night, and the seating is directly in front of the stage instead of all around it. The balcony is too far for anyone to have fallen off it and successfully landed on the stage. He searches for the red drapery that was so ubiquitous last night and finds nothing but deep purple curtains.

"Had enough of a break yet?" 

Oh. Right. Juniper. He turns back and picks his side of the flat up again. If not this stage, where was he last night? There's no way it could have been transformed to this so quickly, but how could he and S possibly have gotten somewhere that wasn't here? He doesn't remember two stages being listed on the website, but there wasn't a creepy giraffe mentioned either...

Somewhere deep down below, machinery begins to whir.

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They complete their work in companionable silence after Natasha finishes up her spiel on the importance of bright colors in astronomical iridescence. S finds the work strangely engrossing and in the flow state, she almost doesn't remember that she has actual classes to go to. She makes a hasty exit (doesn't Natasha have classes to go to?) and slides into a seat in the middle of homeroom. The teacher walks in just after her and they all stand for roll call. She looks around for her new roommate - is Zero here?

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He is! He looks slightly out of breath (he also lost track of time) but very happy to have spent some time helping with the rigging.

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She smiles at him, then proceeds to doodle on her notebook for the entirety of the first half of class. If she needs help with color theory, she's sure that Natasha will be willing to help. She starts by drawing lights and mics but quickly meanders into less related territory. By the break, several pages are covered in costume design for someone who looks suspiciously like her.

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He smiles back! His mood is highly improved by small displays of friendly affection. He can just see S's notebook from over here.

"Nice drawings! You into costume design?"

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"You could say that. Coffee?" She closes the notebook firmly.

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"Yeah, I'm down for that!" He registers the notebook close. Best not to push it, though they were quite pretty drawings.

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Ritual is important in making people comfortable. Esther walks over to the vending machine, passing a peppy girl with oddly styled yellow twintails. She keys in the coffee code for Zero, then offers him the can.

"So, how did your socializing go? I found out that no one dusts prop storage."

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"It went well! I helped with rigging and-" he leans in closer, "that stage is not the stage we were on yesterday."

He stands back at a normal distance away, and notices that the coffee is for him. He smiles and takes the can.

"Thank you!" This is his very grateful face.

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Personal space, Zero. At least she's getting some information out of this.

"Yeah, didn't think so. The equipment was beyond professional stages, let alone what I've seen of school auditoriums. Any clue where that Stage actually is?"

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"I didn't get the chance to look around today, unfortunately. Seemed like it was maybe underground, but I'm not sure."

 

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"Could also be magic."

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"You think? I guess I don't have any better explanations."

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She shrugs. "Best I can think of right now."

She glances from side to side, though none of the other students are paying her any mind at all. "Did you feel something this morning? Like a call to be somewhere else?"

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“Yes, actually, funny you should mention. I’m... a little scared to go back to the Stage, if we can figure out how to get there, but something in me... wants”.

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"Same. I'll be going hunting after class." Before she can say anything more, a bell rings. As they return to the classroom, she passes the peppy girl who seems to be staring at them. She ignores her for now, and resolves to solve that mystery another time.

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Zero shifts uncomfortably under the stare. He stares back as long as he possibly can until he realizes Esther is already halfway down the hall. 

“I’ll come with you on the hunting!” 

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Not so loud! She winces, thinking of the questions people might ask and breathing a sigh of relief when none come. The second half of class is more engaging with some practical tips on how to layer colors in a multiinstrument cue and managing backdrop bleed, but she still has trouble concentrating. That girl keeps staring at her from across the classroom, but she never manages to quite call her on it, and there's a twitching feeling in the back of her mind that feels like a live wire every time that her thoughts eager to that Stage below.

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He has, as usual, become dead to the world in favor of learning more about his favorite thing. He has a harder time concentrating than normal though- his mind wanders and he ends up scribbling his cues from the day before in the margins, turning them over and over in his mind as if he’s rehearsing. He can almost remember the feeling of all of it, being inside the show, on the Stage brimming with stardust-

He’s called on to answer a question and he realizes he’s been zoned out for the last 10 minutes. He stammers out that he doesn’t know among quiet whispers or stifled giggles throughout the class. This isn’t the type of school where you don’t know the answers.

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"Oh! I know! You'll want to use glass filters with conventionals because of the higher temperature, but with LEDs you can use plastic and have less distortion for the same chromatic transformation!"

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Enthusiastic.

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It might be unreasonable to dislike someone just for giving a correct answer when he couldn’t, but he is struggling to be reasonable at the moment, and also trying to find ways to disappear into the floor. He knew that, no one should know more about this than him!

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She sits up. She wonders who this girl is - she sure does seem to know a lot, maybe she'll have to talk to her after class. In any case, she'd better pay attention if she wants to not get left behind, if this is the competition.

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The bell rings for the end of class and he gets up with his head down, casting a brief glance at S to see if she'll follow and then, seeing her walking towards the girl that embarrassed him earlier, stalks out of the classroom to wait for her in the hallway.

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S barely notices Zero leaving. "Esther, call me S. What's your name?"

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"Daiba Nana, but you can call me Banana! You're new here, right? Welcome to Seisho!" The girl gives a winning smile.

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How is that a real name. Also it is very early in the morning for her to have this much energy. An impressive exclamation mark to period ratio, this one. She recalls a brief mention of her from Natasha this morning - apparently she's sharing classes with the set designer of Starlight.

"I am, yeah. Feels like home already though. I hear you worked on set design for last year's play - very aesthetic backdrops, I gotta say. Did you draw inspiration from anything in particular for them?"

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She hems and haws a bit before finally replying.

"Oh, you know, the usual places, Starlight was a book before it was a play, you know - the illustrations are beautiful, you should check it out some time! Anyways, gotta get to my next class - see you around."

If she knows more, she's not saying.

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Those props were far too close to the Stage for her to have been being completely honest. She'll be on her guard. She lengthens her stride to catch up with Zero who's already well ahead of her on their way to creative writing.

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“So who was that, and why did you want to talk to them?”

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"She reminded me of someone I used to know," she lies smoothly. "Did you get the homework assignment down? I wasn't paying attention."

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“Yeah, it’s just a worksheet, I can make a photocopy for you later.”

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"I knew I could count on you." As they both settle into the next classroom, she notices that Banana (ugh) isn't there. She frowns - why was she in their homeroom then?

A teacher walks in and begins passing out packets of assignments, telling them that they'll be practicing writing stage directions today. She can still hear the siren call of the stage manager calling her to shovel coal into the fires, and decides that's probably not the sort of direction that her teacher is looking for.

Kizumi enters stage left at a jog, mains dim, follow spot on her and a cyan wash on backdrops.
Fog machine starts at 30 while pillar is lifted, raising to 50 as left lights fade up and strobes flash.
Thunder machine and strobes, apply echo layer to Cosette and Edgar.
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He’s someone to be counted on! He straightens just a little at the praise. S isn’t so bad.

House lights dim and music starts. Hard spot on Matilda as she enters stage left.

House lights off, red border lights to full strength and tower moved down, fly bar 3 up.

He likes this kind of work. It lets his mind wander to all the ways he wants to stage a scene while not being too technically hard. 

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As she writes, her handwriting gets fainter and fainter until she's not writing at all and her head is falling to the desk and

A flash of light and sound

The crooning voice of the stage manager

And she's standing in front of an all-too-familiar door.

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The teacher stops class to drone on about an insignificant detail that he long had figured out, and he’s zoned out and then he’s all of a sudden falling, air rushing around him and something loud — music? someone’s voice— resounding in his ears and the light from the classroom above him getting smaller and smaller, and the answer to the teacher’s question is still rolling around in his head you’d just pick a lighter wash you’d just pick a light- and then he’s hitting the ground next to someone — S? Why is she here? — but the impact’s knocked the wind out of him and he can’t say anything, he can only look up, head spinning, at the door he’s lying in front of. The door to the Stage.

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"Hey Zero." She's hesitating to touch the door handle, the drop was... not pleasant last time.

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He looks up at her and smiles the dazed sort of smile of someone who has just fallen quite far onto quite a hard floor in front of the entrance to a magical stage. "Hi!"

He can probably get up and open the door, very cautiously.

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"Wait! Don't you want to -" Zero's hand touches the handle and the floor drops out from under them.

Figure out where we are, she silently curses to herself. Aloud, it comes out as more of a yelp of surprise and terror, despite knowing what's coming.

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Oh. More falling. He is also screaming, and does very much regret not stopping to figure out where they were. His hands scrabble for a purchase on anything -- is S near enough to hold onto? He can't tell what's a person and what's his imagination and what's the walls of whatever horrible void they're falling into.

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Personal space! Do not touch! She wrenches her arm away from the grabby hands that seem to come out of the darkness and attempts to smooth down her wildly flapping clothes, only to find them disintegrating under her fingers, replacing the frills and chains with an eminently sensible black tank top and cargo pants. A ClearCom earpiece slithers up her side and she eeps in surprise, though the receiver doesn't seem to be wrapping around her leg - guess they have wireless down (?) here.

When she hits the ground, she's ready this time and she squeezes her eyes shut and bends her knees to absorb the shock of the fall. She rolls into a standing position and squints. The stage looks bare, save for that singular tape mark in the center, once again. There's no sign of the Giraffe, though she's sure it'll turn up soon enough.

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He was already wearing stage blacks but they disintegrate also, replaced with a somehow even darker set of black clothes of noticeably better quality. He squeals as the earpiece worms its way onto him, and when he sees the ground fast approaching he tries for a smoother landing. It succeeds somewhat, and he sits on the ground next to S, not yet ready to risk standing on his shaky legs. No sound comes through the earpiece but he can hear the soft static that means it's on.

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Alone except for the stage manager. Again. She strains her eyes for signs of her roommate and still sees nothing. She wonders briefly if she can pull a Karen and Self-Remake her way into an acting role, but a sharp remark from her earpiece sets her scurrying off to unroll and dress XLR. She pulls a roll of gaff from somewhere, and smooths the cable against the speaker stands, careful to leave a few loops at the base stacked neatly before crawling away down the aisle to the snake breakout box.

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He’s rushed off, a command from the stage manager sending him scurrying up to the catwalk to adjust the angles of some lights before the show truly begins. He takes out his wrench — since when did he have a wrench in his pocket? — and loosens the bolts enough for the fixtures to turn, adjusts them then tightens them again. From here he can see the entire theater. He’s always loved the catwalk, being so high above everything, heat rising from the lamps below. He could spend an entire show here.

The stage manager’s voice brings him out of his reverie. The show will start soon. He needs to get down.

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As she carefully tapes (lengthwise, then crosswise), she notices none of the usual debris one would expect on the floor of such a large theatre - neither playbills nor stray trinkets left by playgoers, no dirt or dust from having sat unused for a season. She wonders at this, foggily, as she straightens and calls out to... someone... to mark channel 8 for house left treble, and channel 9 for ambiance right. A voice in her ear croons two minutes to curtain, and she scurries back, holding a stick mic behind one of grand broken arches.

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Where's S  -- he wants to figure things out this time -- he can see her, down by the arches, but nothing he's doing gets her attention in the slightest --

A voice in his ear. Two minutes to curtain. His body moves without his permission until he waits, tensed, in the wings.

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"It begins. The Revue of Desire. I understand."

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Desire? She doesn't understand, creepy not-animal-thing. She's pretty sure the Giraffe is a metaphor for God or something. An actress with purple hair, glasses, and a beautifully crafted bow enters on her side of the stage steps out of a dressing room and pays her no mind besides flashing her a small smile as she picks up a mic pack and slips it under her cloak. She pins it to her uniform top and picks just the right flesh tone capsule mic, wrapping it around her ear almost lovingly. "Stage in 5," she whispers in her ear, rewarded by an almost imperceptible nod. The girl is shaking - whether from nerves or anger, it's impossible to say. Her face  is unreadable as she strings her bow and picks up a quiver full of wickedly sharp looking arrows.

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The giraffe .. understands? Understands what? He hears someone behind him and whirls around. It's one of the cast, a small girl with reddish-brown hair and a beautiful costume. She's holding a sword and running her hands over a set piece. "Please stop," Zero says, and she spins around with a smile, looking slightly sheepish. A voice in his ear startles him and he goes to grab a mic. He winds it around her ear, tucking the mic pack into her sash, hands fumbling just a little. She does not stand still very well. "Stage in 5," he says, and then he's retreating further back into the wing. She bounces on the balls of her feet, expression suddenly intense.

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There's a flicker of movement from the other side of the stage where the girl from before bounces in place, seemingly limbering up for the fight ahead. S turns to her actress, and whispers "she doesn't deserve to be here" into the girl's ear as the backstage buzzer sounds and she leaps into action.

"Every person in the world has their own fated star. Twinkling stars, dawn stars, shooting stars… Even if I cannot see my own star… I, Hoshimi Junna, of the 99th class, will grasp my own star!"

The lights flash bright, positioning to highlight the girl in dramatic fashion, and S catches herself admiring her grit for a moment before remembering that she has a job to do, slinking off into the shadows in search of a setpiece row that she must bring down.

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Zero stands nervously in the wing until his actress leaps on stage, performing her own elaborate starting move, which he doesn’t stick around long enough to watch. He turns and presses the button on his comm— he’s supposed to move a setpiece with S. Will she respond if he tries to reach her?

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She doesn't respond, but she's moving towards the same great arch he is.

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That is not good comms etiquette! They will need to have a discussion about this at some point. They reach the arch at the same time despite S’s lack of response and move it onto the stage as the girls’ duel goes on, flurries of arrows being shot and then blocked with a sword. The voice of the stage manager seems more pleased today.

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She can't take her eyes off of the flash of sword against arrowhead - each impossibly swift strike throwing off brilliant showers of sparks, each dodge and roll impeccably choreographed as if the two had practiced together for years. There's genuine passion, ripostes of sword and word alike as ideas battle for supremacy as much as the actresses themselves do. Her gaze is transfixed as she pulls the ripcord on a fog machine, wheels yet another piece of the shifting archways into place, and it's only when it's too late to stop it at all that she notices one of the arches beginning to topple towards the pair.

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He looks down and makes sure the arch he and S are wheeling is on its strike marks, hears S cued to start the fog machine, and his head snaps up at the sound of creaking wood as the arch falls. He can’t rush straight into the spotlight but he can’t endanger actors, do they look like they’re far enough away for the arch not to hit them? He wishes he built these, he’d know the measurements — what is S doing why isn’t she doing anything — the arch continues to fall and the girls notice, try to scramble out of the way, and he rushes over — there’s no way he can catch this by himself but he can try 

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The arch crashes to the ground with a deafening boom and a cloud of sparkling dust obscures the duelists from view. She can't see if they made it. There's no screaming, and the orchestra hasn't stopped, the music is building to a horrible crescendo, and a thought creeps into her mind that if Karen is hurt, she might be able to take her place and she can't tell if she believe what she's hearing or not and -

And in some miracle of stagecraft or situational awareness (or both), they're standing face to face. The arch continues to crumble around them, but they stand in an opening of shattered glass, panting and pointing their shining weapons at each other. Karen says something that S can't quite hear, and there's a flash of a blade.

And Junna's cloak falls soundlessly to the floor, something dying in the girl's tear-filled eyes. She meets S's shell-shocked gaze with her own and mouths "I’m not giving up." S nods wordlessly, though she knows that there's no place for Junna on the Stage anymore.

Karen steps to the fore and cries out to the audience as she plants her blade firmly into the cue mark.

"Position Zero!"

There's a triumphant smile on her face and she shares a touch of that joy with Zero himself.

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From the catwalk above the stage, Banana grins mirthlessly as yet another unplanned duel grinds to an unsatisfactory end. It seems like if she wants something done right, she's going to have to do it herself.

Her eyes rest on the two new stagehands, considering them for a moment. They'll have to do.

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Holy shit. Can he pretend that that save was on purpose? Probably not. The stage manager will know anyway. He starts running through safety techniques in his head — clearly some better ones need to be in place.

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She climbs down, skipping over with a concerned look on her face and the shears safely inside long pockets in her black cargo pants. "Zero! Are you alright?"

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“Hi! Yeah, I’m fine — uh, clearly some better safety measures need to be in place, we never want to endanger actors, I’m really sorry about that, it’ll be figured out by the time you’re performing — are you okay?”

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"Oh, I'm fine! I'm just glad that our cast are okay."

As she speaks, the curtain falls closed and the mains come up, the blinding light of the Stage in motion now just a memory.

"Help me sweep up? I have muffins." She's standing so she blocks out the dazed form of S, hoping that Zero will be eager to be useful and so she won't notice that her friend is having a little bit of a crisis.

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"Oh, sure! That's really great of you actually -- nobody bothers to bring food for us -- yeah I'll grab a broom, uh S are you good to help too? There's a lot to sweep!" He grabs a broom and begins the long process of sweeping up all the glass dust.

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She's lost in a trance of memories. How did that arch come down? She sits on the stage, holding Junna gently.

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"I think she's a little occupied."

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Um. What... is he supposed to do about this. He will just continue to sweep for now.

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"I'm sure your friend will be fine. She's probably just having a little bit of a time coming to terms with having almost killed a pair of actors!"

Nana is being very helpful striking cables.

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... He is not sure he likes this girl. 

“Yeah, it’s real scary to mess up, but thanks for coming over to help.”

He is slightly worried about S and the longer she goes without making a snarky comment the bigger that worry gets, but she probably is just coming to terms with things.

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After a little while, Junna pulls away, turning to wipe her glasses (and maybe her eyes). She thanks S for the comfort and walks off into the dressing rooms, scooping up her cloak and wrapping it around herself like she's suddenly cold.

S stoops to pick up her mic pack, and notices the golden button Junna left behind. It's marred by the sword's kiss, but the scar does not compromise its integrity as a star. She rolls it around her hand for a moment, admiring the glint before slipping it into her pocket. She finally spots a familiar stagehand with his shock of colorful hair. As she gets up and walks over to him, grabbing a broom along the way, her face slips back into its more customary snarky look.

"Zero, did you get Karen's mic pack? You know that we need to get those returned to the A/V room."

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“Oh! Yeah I have it, I’ll get it back there in a sec. You good?”

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"I'm sure she's fine, aren't you, Esther?"

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"Huh. Didn't expect to see you here. But yeah, I'm fine." She seems to retreat back into her shell of aloofness at the sight of the other girl.

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“Some show, huh.”

He’s exhausted. He wanted nothing more than to come here, than to be at this school, but — already something huge has gone wrong. Someone could have been killed and it would have been his fault. And he’s stuck here with someone who hates him as a roommate. 

He feels tears welling up in his eyes but no, he can save that for later. He will not cry in front of S and Nana. He will continue to sweep in awkward silence.

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"Could have been better. Hey, are you crying?"

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“No.”

He is not doing a very good job of looking convincing about this.

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"Are you sure? You can go home early if you need to."

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"I'm sure she's fine. Why don't you go refill the smoke machines?"

She twirls her finger and points in the direction of the spent machines, stepping between Zero and S once again.

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He takes the tiniest step back as Nana stands just a little too close to him, hands fidgeting with the broom handle for lack of anything else to do.

"So, what's up? I didn't see you in any of the acts, were you just here to watch?"

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"I was doing follow spot! I hear you're interested in learning more about lighting? It's very important on a Stage like this!"

She looks thrilled that Zero asked, and steps a little closer.

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He is backed up against the wall now, there is no way to step back any further without being rude. He will try his best to not let his discomfort show.

"Ah yeah, lighting is probably my favorite part of theater -- well, one of my favorite parts, there's other stuff -- follow spot is a really necessary job, strange that I didn't see you while I was up there though? Might have been lighting, it's pretty dark around here..." trail off into awkward laugh. He is very aware he's rambling and very aware that he has no way to stop. Nana has not stopped smiling for this entire interaction.

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"Oh, but I saw you! You did a wonderful job prepping Karen for her role, I do have a few pointers for you though."

She's actually a little shorter than Zero, but her presence seems to fill the room and there's a glint from inside her hoodie that he can't quite make out.

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"Knock it off, Daiba. Zero, I need your help over here, this column won't budge and I could use a hand moving it."

She's the only one who gets to push Zero around. Funny how she's almost feeling angry at Nana for pushing her roommate around, despite the fact he was nearly crying a moment before which would not do.

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She whirls around to face S. "I was just giving her mic tips! No need for the hostility, I was just going anyways." She looks back at Zero and mouths "6 o'clock, storeroom C."

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Sure she was. Well, at least she's off his back for now.

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Too many things are happening right now. He stores S's reaction to Nana away to be thought about later, focusing on what Nana mouthed to him. 6 o'clock, storeroom C. What could she possibly want from him? He's never even really talked to her before. Even as he worries, he knows he's going to go. He's too curious now to not.

He turns and helps S with the column, turning the strange interaction over and over. The glint in her hoodie... the meeting request... her strange presence at the one show something's gone wrong in... the fact that he never saw her, anywhere, and he keeps his eyes on all parts of the theater... it adds up to something very strange. Best not to tell S about it for now, she seems to dislike Nana enough as it is.

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As Nana walks away in a huff, S ponders how despite being a stagehand, the girl has presence. It's a wonder that she's not a stage girl herself. And not a mystery S has a clear answer for. Nana's clearly got more raw charisma than S, and she knows her way around the stage, a confidence that seems to come from world-weary experience.

"So, what did she say to you? It didn't seem like you were having a good time, Daiba doesn't seem to understand the concept of personal space."

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“Yeah, apparently not. She didn’t say much, just that she was a spot op — kind of weird, because I didn’t see her or hear her on comms anywhere.”

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"You sure? I heard her, though I was paying attention to sound more than lights."

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“... uh, yeah, I heard no one but the stage manager on comms? I even tried to say something to you but I don’t think you heard.”

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"...Huh. I didn't hear you. Are there two clearcom channels?"

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“I don’t think there are — my comm came set to 1 and I’ve kept it that way.”

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"Did you check if your mic was unplugged?"

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“Yes, obviously. It wasn’t.”

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"Well, I don't know what to tell you then. Maybe you just spaced out. Daiba and I could hear each other," she says, like a liar.

She feels so alone. Was her intercom even connected in the first place? Why couldn't she see the other stagehands? An image of the giraffe's implacable face flashes before her mind's eye.

"Look, let's just be sure to confirm contact before the next performance, OK?" She turns and starts walking for the exit without waiting for a response so Zero can't see the look on her face.

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"... Okay."

He stops for just a minute before following. Why would S be unable to hear him? It couldn't have been a problem with his comm, he checked and re-checked it a million times... At least she's not being mean to him about it.

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There's a feeling of disorientation, a fade to black as they ascend the stairs and suddenly they're back in their dorm room. Esther looks around, and when she realizes her location, she flops back on the bed, exasperated.

"I'm never going to figure out where that theatre is, am I."

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Zero is already flopped on his own bed, staring up at the ceiling.

“Guess not.”

He rolls over and buries his face into the bed, speech muffled by the covers, “So what’s your explanation for all this? Magic? I’ve never believed in magic but that was bizarre and I don’t know how else I’d explain it.”

 

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"Maybe they're pumping in hallucinogenic gas into the dorms while we're sleeping."

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"Why would our hallucinations match up so perfectly, then? And why would the hallucinations make so much sense ... except for the parts that don't, I guess."

"Also we weren't even asleep when it started or when it ended."

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"How sure are you that you weren't sleeping during class."

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"I dunno, 90 percent or something? I don't sleep during class, do you?"

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"That's a very personal question to ask." She rises, grabbing a towel from where it's hanging on the edge of an open cabinet door and a caddy of bath products. "Coming to the showers?"

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"Yeah!"

He grabs his stuff and as they walk, he realizes S hasn't said anything mean to him the entire conversation. That must be a new record.

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"So, why were you actually crying on the Stage? I didn't take you for the crying-in-front-of-other-people type, but I guess I was wrong."

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He stops dead in his tracks, and his face heats.

"Is it really any of your business?"

The words come out less sharp than he'd like them to.

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"Judging by your reaction, I'm going to go with yes." She has no intention of letting Zero get pushed around by some cryptic jackass.

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“Look, it was just stressful, okay? That arch fell over and it could have killed people and it was just luck that it didn’t, and then Nana was there and got all up in my space and I’m just frustrated, okay, and there’s the comms problem we’re having—“

He shoves his face back into his hands and makes an unintelligible noise.

”I don’t see what about any of that makes it your business.”

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"You understand that being frustrated doesn't help anything, right? You just look weak."

She snorts, and adds: "And that reflects on me, since I'm responsible for you."

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"... Do you just think I'm stupid? No, being frustrated doesn't help anything, I'm sorry I don't have perfect control of my emotions, also what's this about you being responsible for me? If you want to be responsible for me I'd prefer that you were nicer about it."

How does S know where every single one of his buttons are.

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"You're not being, you know,  particularly smart about this.  Apology accepted for your imperfect emotional regulation though, just, get better at it. I'm responsible for you because you're my roommate, duh." She's not waiting for him on the way to the showers.

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He has possibly never been more uselessly annoyed in his life. S's refusal to ever give, even slightly is -- it's not unfamiliar but nothing annoys him more. He follows, but slowly, hands twisting in his towel and teeth worrying his lip. He will get S acknowledge him as an equal.

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She's never going to see him as an equal unless he does something drastic.

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He’s thinking again about Nana’s words — 6 o’clock. Is it 6 o’clock yet? It can’t be. He can’t talk to S about this, but conveniently, he’s not in a talking-to-S mood at the moment.

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It is. She's waiting.

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Shit, it is. S isn’t looking at him. He can find Storeroom C and if S asks about where he’s gone he can say he forgot something in their room and got lost, or something.

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When Zero finds the storeroom, Nana is standing beneath the bare bulb illuminating a (much smaller) tower prop. She's looking up at the stars, her face in shadow, expression hidden. The bulb flickers and now she's facing the doorway, features still hidden.

"Close the door."

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He closes the door behind him, keeping his back to it so he can keep his eyes on Nana.

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"We should talk about the Stage. What, exactly, do you know? As much detail as possible, please!"

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“I know... not much? I’ve been there a couple times, through mysterious and unclear circumstances both times, and done a bunch of miscellaneous backstage work all the times. Why do you need to know? I can probably give more specifics if you know exactly what you want to know.”

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"It's very, very important to me that you don't mess up the performance. I've worked really hard to get everything and everybody lined up perfectly to make sure the Revue goes off without a hitch! There are a bunch of new people at the school this year, you among them, but I'm not that worried about you. You're trying your best, and I'm sure you'll figure things out with time and my help. I'm mostly concerned about your roommate. No offense, but she really seems like a piece of work! She seems tempted to try and pull a Karen, honestly!"

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“A ... Karen? I can see why you’re worried about S, she’s ... got some stuff to work on, but I think we’ll pull through okay. Why did you need to bring me here to tell me that?”

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There's a glint in her eye as she speaks. "I really don't want to deal with managing her delusions of grandeur, I need her to just play along and do her job backstage. I think you can help me. You want the show to go on, don't you?"

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“... I do. The show must go on, right. What kind of help were you thinking of?”

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"Nothing too onerous - I just need you to keep an eye on her and make sure she doesn't do something she might regret. You know how failed actors can get, always the drama queens!"

She steps closer to Zero, advancing in jerky strides toward him that make the room feel very small indeed.

"We can compare notes after shows, and I'll even give you a little tutoring! You replaced one of my favorite prop wranglers. You've got big shoes to fill, but I know you'll rise to the occasion."

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He once again finds himself backed up against the wall as Nana approaches. The room does feel very small, feeling enhanced by the boxes that line the walls.

"Tutoring? What do I need tutoring in?"

"And keep an eye on her? I couldn't tell S what to do if I tried."

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She laughs a little hysterically. "Oh Zero, you know that you have a part to play just as much as any actress! Your cues are sloppy and you're clearly not reading the script ahead judging by your dashing around. I can help! You're going to be perfect. I just know it."

She's very close now, and she pats him on the head in what she probably believes is a reassuring way. "I'm sure you'll figure out your own ways of keeping her under control. Every puppet has its strings, and you will be my little puppeteer."

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"I... okay? I can try but I don't really know why you want me for this, and separately I'm not sure that I should try and change S this way, and no, I can't read the script ahead of time, no one has given me a script."

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"Oh, how terrible! I'll make sure you get a copy before next time. I've got extras." She seems genuinely shocked, but recovers quickly.

"In any case, you may go now!"

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“Wait, am I supposed to meet you again sometime or something?”

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"We'll be in touch!"

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He nods once and then walks out the door, shutting it behind him before she can say anything more confusing to him. The image of the tiny storage closet and her unsettlingly cheery demeanor linger in his mind as he walks down the hall. She’ll be in touch? But how? And what was that line about him being a puppeteer? 

He sighs. He’s clearly gotten himself involved in something far too complicated.

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She's going to recover this loop, and hopefully with minimal murder required! She's so excited that she has a minion, now. Maybe she'll leave her thank-you banana muffins...

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He walks back to the showers -- God, was he just holding his towel that entire time? -- and prepares himself for whatever S is going to say to him.

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She's already drying off by the time that he gets to the showers. "Nice of you to join us. Where'd you go?"

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“Just thought I forgot something back in the dorms.”

He slips into the shower as quickly as he can to avoid any more questions.

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She shrugs. "Be less forgetful next time. I was wondering where you had gotten off to."

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He can ignore the snark for now. He’s still occupied in thoughts of the meeting. 

“Yeah, I’ll try!”

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As she reaches their room, she finds a yellow cardboard box with a sticky note on top bearing Zero's name in bubbly handwriting. There are hand-drawn flowers at the corners of the note.

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He pushes past her, grabbing the box before she can. Cute note. Could this be what Nana meant about staying in touch?

He hopes it isn’t anything dangerous. 

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Just dangerously delicious banana muffins!

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Oh, it’s just muffins. That’s … nice? They do smell really good. 

He turns to S, “Looks like Nana might have left us a gift?”

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Why would she leave Zero a gift. This is very suspicious.

"Gift seems to be for you, not us. Is it suspiciously in-character for her name? She's got a shtick."

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“Yeah, looks like banana muffins? And yeah, dunno why it’s only addressed to me. You can totally have some if you want.”

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She looks curiously at Zero, as if she's trying to strip his subterfuge with her gaze. "Are you sure you don't know the reason?"

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“Yeah!”

He will try his best to keep eye contact for the exact right amount of time.

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She's not satisfied with this explanation. There's something in his eyes that's struggling to get out, and she wants it. She'll give him some space but possibly she will withhold morning pastries.

For now, she relents and flops down onto her bed, towel-wrapped hair breaching containment, and stares at the ceiling. "This school is so weird."

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"It really is, huh. Not at all like I expected, really."

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"You don't say." Her voice is muffled by the very long nightdress she is pulling on.

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“I expected less giraffes and more normal theatre, I guess. But I don’t know, anything’s better than …” He trails off, “never mind.”

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She raises an eyebrow. "No, go on, you've piqued my interest."

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“… anything is better than what was happening before, where I couldn’t do this stuff much at all.” He’s leaving out some of it but it’s not exactly a lie.

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"How did you get in if you couldn't do this stuff before? I assume you practiced. This is the top stage school in the country, maybe the world."

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"I practiced some, just not as much as some people here."

He looks away.

"I would've though, if I had more chances."

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"Kind of a mood." She looks away too.

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That is... not the response he was expecting.

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She's already regretting saying it.

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... Well now he's ruined the mood. He will sit here and eat a muffin in awkward silence.

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She's going to curl up under the covers like a shrimp and hope that morning comes never.

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Sleep takes her quickly enough that when she wakes, she doesn't remember having slipped into it at all. She's feeling a lot better though, so it's off for a run and some coffee and pastries for her secretive roommate. She does not like that he's keeping secrets from her.

When she gets back in, she wakes him by loudly closing the door. "Morning Zero. Reconsidered your stance on keeping secrets from me?"

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He wakes up the second the door closes, out of breath and eyes wide. He is drenched in sweat. He manages to push down some of his panic when he sees her, taking in the sight of the coffee and the pastries.

"... Secrets?"

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If he's going to keep pretending, then she's going to take a bite out of the almond tart. It's very good and she makes a small noise of satisfaction about it.

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He reaches out towards her.

"Can I have one please?"

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She takes another bite. It's just as sweet and savory and flakey - delicious.

"No." She smiles at him.

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He is too tired for this.

"Why notttt?"

He will dramatically whine just a little, so he can pretend he was joking if he needs to.

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"Don't whine, it's unbecoming. If you want me to be nice to you, no secrets."

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Okay. Fine. He will have to make a very big decision here involving a lot of trust in S. That is probably really stupid but he is going to do it anyway. He wants pastries and he wants S to leave him alone.

"Nana asked me to meet up with her the other night and said a lot of weird stuff."

 

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She pauses, pastry hovering at her lips. "What sort of weird stuff?"

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"Something about... not trusting you? I don't remember the specifics."

He does, in fact, remember the specifics.

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"Typical." She drops the pastry on his nightstand.

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Pastry! He will take it and be immensely grateful that he is not being asked more questions.

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She starts changing out of her running clothes and into loose bright colors. If she's going to be forced into blacks anyways, she can at least enjoy a little panache in the daytime. "I'm going to go find some more backdrops to paint. Where are you headed?"

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"I ... think I'll try and head to the actual theater and see if they need any help with lights."

Maybe he'll run into Nana. He is horribly curious about what she wants him to do.

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She's standing on the catwalk above the main stage, holding a tablet and running lights through various patterns: a star, crossed swords, focus on various stage marks, a crown. She doesn't notice him come in.

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Oh good, she’s there.

“Hey Nana,” he calls up to her.

”Nice lights.”

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She startles so badly she nearly drops her tablet. "Oh hello! Didn't see you come in."

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“Sorry, must’ve been quieter than I thought.” He climbs up and walks over to her, trying to look over her shoulder at the tablet. 

“Can I see?”

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"Oh, sure! I've been setting light chords for our upcoming show! Every part has its own themes, you know - it's of the utmost importance that those themes are highlighted through light and shade!"

She leans in real close to Zero to show him the orchestration interface, and demonstrates with a fade that turns the spotlight on him.

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“I thought you were an actor? But cool!”

When the spotlight falls on him he cringes and steps away.

“Ha, I prefer to remain unseen.”

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"Spot on! But I'm actually helping the directors plan out the show as well." She giggles, as if at some private joke. "Anyway, I'm sure that you'd love being in the spotlight if you just gave it a shot! You have such a unique look for a stage girl!" She readjusts the lights with a flourish, a can turning to face Zero at a more oblique angle. Nana's in front of him though, and instead of shining upon him the light creates a halo around her while her shadow stretches out to swallow him.

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He is immensely uncomfortable. 
“I really don’t think I would, actually.”

Lights are supposed to be his thing. Who is this girl?

”These lights aren’t supposed to be aimed up here, do you mind fixing that? It’ll save us some work later.”

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"C'mon, give it a try," she whines, wheedling. "Just step to center stage, and strike a dramatic pose. Catchphrase if you've got one~"

She's not moving the lights.

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“Not my thing. I’ve got other things to work on. Please move those lights, I don’t like wasting time in the theater.”

He does not like this girl.

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"Fine. Don't say I didn't give you a chance later, though." She punches a button and the lights swivel, resetting to position zero, focused on a t-shaped tape mark at center stage.

She looks a little put out, but immediately brightens back up. "So, did you like my special Nana-muffins?"

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“Oh yes, they were quite good. Liked the little note too. Cute.”

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She claps her hands together in glee, nearly dropping the tablet in her excitement. "I'm so glad! Anyway, if you're sure you don't want the starlight, then I'm going to practice my routine - hold this, the show notes are on the left and most of the positions are already programmed for you." She thrusts the tablet at him and leaps down from the catwalk, the light catching her hair and a light dusting of sparkles in the air. There's a glint of swords at her sides and a touch of red at her back like a cloak unfurling. She lands lightly on her feet and dusts herself off, striding confidently towards the mark.

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… Okay, well, this he knows how to do. He scans through the show notes. They don’t make a lot of sense, but oh well.

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They are perfectly sensical. He's probably reading them wrong.

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… He is not but whatever, he can figure out enough to run through the lights.

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Nana executes a sword dance routine with practiced ease, dancing on the edge of shadows and making every cue, timing precise despite the lack of a backing track. She seems more alive than usual.

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These lights look gorgeous combined with her routine, and looking at Nana doing something she likes is fascinating (though he can only spare an eye for half of it, given his occupation with the lights). He compliments her on her routine when she's done.

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She's catching her breath, hands on her thighs and panting. "Thanks for your help. You sure you don't want me to run lights for you?"

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“Uh, no.”

It feels rude to give such a short answer but why would he want literally anyone else but him to run lights. 

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"Suit yourself. You should probably get to class anyways."

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“Oh shit, yeah. I’ll see you around I guess.”

Every single interaction with Nana leaves him feeling weirder.

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She aims to please.

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It's not like Zero to be late for class, not when he's So! Excited! About! Everything! She's about to get up and go searching for him when he arrives in the classroom, hitting his seat just as the last bell chimes.

She whispers to him "Where were you? I nearly had to go drag you back here myself!"

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“Doing lights. I lost track of time. Nana was there.”

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She frowns. "Well, wear a watch next time you go gallivanting off. And you've got a thing on your back here," she plucks a shard of something bright and insubstantial from his collar. It reminds her of the shine of the stage, and it dims and crumbles to dust in her grasp, slipping between her fingers.

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“Do I?”

He twists to look and then watches as the thing crumbles.

”… Well that is incredibly strange.”

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"Were you doing an actual Stage performance?"

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"It was a rehearsal, I think? It was in the actual theater but Nana was rehearsing a dance that didn't look it would be in the actual show."

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What is that girl up to? "I don't think that you should hang out with her. She's up to something."

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“Maybe, I don’t know. We’ll see.”

Only noncommittal answers here.

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She sighs and turns forward where the teacher is glaring at her. She gives a slight smile in return, and the teacher begins her lesson. Today they're talking about different kinds of mounts for lighting. It's engaging enough that even she finds herself paying attention to it, and she giggles as the teacher relates an anecdote about a production where she ended up using gaff tape to bind string lights onto a prop.

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He is, of course, taking notes, and smiles when he glances over at S to find her paying attention for once.

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It's a refreshing change of pace for her as well. She's almost disappointed when the bell rings and they're off to go learn their assignments for this week's show. Almost.

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He trails after her on the way.

“Lighting mounts your thing?”

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She smiles. "I mean, kind of. Rigging in general? It's nice being responsible for things."

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“Yeah, I get you!”

S? Finally taking an interest in theatre? Almost too good to be true.

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"You look surprised, is something the matter?"

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“Nothing’s the matter! I’m just happy to see you taking more of an interest in theatre, is all.”

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"I've always been interested in theatre! I'm more used to being on the stage than behind the curtains, but I can appreciate the artistry on both sides."

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“Oh, did you act a lot? I’m not sure I knew that about you.”

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She stumbles for a moment, realizing she's shared more than she intended to.

"Don't worry about it. Look, we're here." They stand before the door to backstage for the experimental theater (not the important one, but a stage nevertheless). She gestures to Zero, urging him forward. "After you."

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He enters into the small space, smiling a little at the familiar sight of the backstage space of a theater.

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It's dark other than glow-strips marking prop locations. Her fellow students seem to pretty engrossed in their own tasks, so she heads over to the teacher for instructions.

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Assignments! Exciting!

He stops for a second just to enjoy the fact that he's here, he made it, no one is making him leave.

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"You two are late, glad to see that this class is important. You're going to have to hang lights, go get three fills for each side and put them up. Oh, and get a copy of the script - I'm assuming neither of you read it."

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She winces a little at the implication, but just nods - not worth it to argue. "Yes, sensei." She turns for lights storage and grabs Zero by the hand before he can ask any embarrassing (or inconvenient) questions. Better for those to be in private.

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Well. Okay then. Glad S is so sure of her ability to manhandle him around that she just does it whenever. He follows, though. Making a fuss is not in line with his goal of staying at this school.

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"Run on up the ladder and pass me down a couple of LED 30 watts, there's a good girl."

She has no intention of letting Zero have enough slack to return to his previous line of questioning.

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He does so. He ignores the condescending phrase tacked onto the end of the command, as well as the little jolt of happiness at the fact that S thinks he's a good anything.

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She reaches up and takes each can in turn, before stuffing a handful of gobos into her pocket, clipping two cans to her harness, and scrambling up into the rigging, wrench held in her teeth.

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Well that's probably not best practice. One word and that wrench comes tumbling down. No need to argue about that now though. He really, really wants to know about the giraffe.

"So, about just now," he begins.

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Well, she needed her hands free to climb. She's clipped in up top now, though, so she takes the wrench from her mouth. "What? And bring those other cans up here, we don't have all day."

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He brings them.

"The giraffe. Why was that here? What is going on with this school?"

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She begins fastening one of them to the truss.

"No idea what you're talking about."

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"The literal giraffe who talked to us as we came in?"

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"That was a teacher, I'm pretty sure?"

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"THAT WAS A GIRAFFE!"

He did not hallucinate an entire giraffe. He knows this.

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"Are you safe to be up here? It's dangerous to be up high when you've been seeing things."

She does not need to talk about the giraffe with him.

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"The thing that isn't safe here is the giraffe!"

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Speaking slowly and enunciating carefully: "There. Is. No. Giraffe."

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"Okay, let me ask you something: who did you see talking to us when we came through the door?"

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"Our teacher."

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"Okay, well I saw a giraffe. How do you explain that?"

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"You drank too much coffee this morning."

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"Since when is coffee a hallucinogenic?"

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"You have no idea what I put in your coffee, do you?" She ruffles his hair and straightens, unclipping from the truss and climbing down to retrieve the last two cans.

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"I think my hallucinations wouldn't make so much sense if I were being drugged."

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She smiles patronizingly. "Why don't you focus on bolting down those lights you love so much? You forgot the washer with that one."

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... Fine. He will let it go for now. He puts a washer on the light without asking more questions.

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Maybe this one could be in the Revue. Better than Esther, that's for sure. He cranes his neck, staring directly at Zero.

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He whisper-hisses to S.

"S! He's looking at me right now!"

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"Yeah, you're stripping the screw."

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He looks down. He is stripping the screw.

"No, I meant the giraffe staring directly at us."

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"His neck isn't that long, dumbass."

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Everything about this is weird and annoying and he hates it. He will stop saying things now.

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Isn't it embarrassing enough that they were late? Why does he need to make such outlandish claims. Keep your head down, Zero. You haven't earned individuality.

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He is glaring at a screw.

 

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She softens. Whisper: "Did you really see a giraffe?"

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"Yes."

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"Like the dream giraffe?"

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He nods.

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"I think we need to talk about that, then. Not here though. Finish rigging those, and meet me outside."

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The rest of the rigging goes quickly, and he slips out of the theater to find her.

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She's leaning back against a wall and doesn't appear to have see him exit.

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"Psst. S."

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She's ignoring him again.

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He taps her on the shoulder.

"Hey. S."

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She gives him a look. "If you've got something to say, just say it."

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"Let's talk about the giraffe, like you asked."

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She was really hoping he had forgotten. "Long story short, people don't get ahead via their own talent. They get ahead by winning at the world's most fucked up reality show, The Revue. You know how sometimes you pass out and end up on a familiar stage? Yeah, that's its fault. The Giraffe runs the whole show, as best I can tell."

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"Hm. Interesting."

He thinks in silence for a moment.

"I better work on winning that, I guess."

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She blinks. "You don't get to win that."

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"Why not?"

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"You're B-class. You'll never be an actor."

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"You're saying you can't win if you aren't an actor? What reward do we get then?"

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She pauses for a moment, thinking. "Honestly, I don't think we get one. Just getting to persist."

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"Hmm. Interesting. Don't know what that giraffe wants with us, then."

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"Fuel, probably." She shrugs.

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"I don't want to just be fuel."

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"You gave up your right to be anything but when you chose class B. Noone remembers the names of the stagehands, they remember the names of the actresses." She seems frustrated that he doesn't already understand this.

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"I like being invisible but I also like not being disposable. If we're all fuel that implies we're all interchangeable, and I don't like that."

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"Take it up with Him." She seems about to say more when her attention is drawn by a stage door that wasn't there a moment earlier.

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"I guess...," and then he too notices the door.

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There's a strange yet familiar song coming from behind the door.

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"Guess it knows we're talking about him."

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"I suppose so."

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He pushes open the door.

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A flash of light, a swelling of music. The floor drops out from under them both and Zero lands alone in the darkness, yet again.

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"Oh fuck- ouch- S?"

He gropes around blindly and doesn't find her.

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A long neck stretches out towards him, nudging his shoulder.

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"Ahh! Who's there?"

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"We've met before."

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"Oh, it's you."

He turns and then realizes that the gesture is meaningless in the darkness. He also realizes how dark it is, and shrinks in on himself a little.

"Why am I here?"

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His expression is blank, though an ear twitches. "You are needed. The show must go on."

 

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"Which show?"

He gets up as he asks, almost on autopilot. There is a show. He is needed.

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"Starlight. But does it matter?"

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"I like to know what show I'm putting on. What do you need me to do?" 

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"You understand." As he says the words, the script of this act pops into Zero's head, fitting comfortably as if it had always been there.

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That's... something.

"Where's S?"

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There's no change in expression, but his face seems to contain frowns. "You got your instructions. Be off with you."

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... Okay then, he's off.

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Esther lands in a tangled pile of limbs on the ground. There wasn't much in terms of a clear landing site this time. She looks around, and finds herself curled up near the hulking machine that needed coal the first night of rehearsal. She reaches out to touch the dull brushed brass, and then she sees the Giraffe.

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It's looking over her with a note of distaste in its inscrutable, unemotive face.

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"The fuck you want."

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"You already know you cannot have what you want, Lark. Give up. Stop trying."

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The directions spring to mind fully formed. He feels -- strange, as if he's looking from above and following a predefined path.

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"You've brought her with you, down here. She has real potential, you know. To attain the Stage."

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"You don't have to call him that. It's rude, and not accurate. Besides, if anyone should be taking their place on the stage, it's me, I've worked so very hard for this."

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"You did not hear the call. You do not surprise me. You're not class A."

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Her face is as inscrutable as his own, but there's a tremble of emotion in her voice. "I'll prove myself. You'll see, that this is my rightful stage!" She turns and storms after Zero.

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"I understand."

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When she gets close enough to Zero, she taps his shoulder. "I don't usually see you here."

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"I see you here all the time, you just never hear me."

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"That seems unlikely."

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"I literally yell your name and you just don't even look up."

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"Just focus on your job, OK? You wouldn't want to get reassigned."

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"...Fine."

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As Esther walks away, Nana steps from the shadows, glittering from head to toe and fully costumed.

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"What do you want."

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"I thought you wanted a script."

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"I do."

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"I brought you one."

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"Oh. Okay."

He holds out a hand for it.

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"Aren't you going to thank me?"

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"... Thank you."

He pauses.

"Why are you doing this for me, anyway?"

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"We all have our parts to play on the grand Stage!" She giggles and skips away.

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... Will she even stay if he calls after her?

"Wait!"

He gives it a try.

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"I have a cue, make it quick."

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"Who are you?"

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"Seriously? I'm Nana!" She turns to walk away.

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"I don't mean your literal name, I mean like... your motivations or whatever."

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"My friends are so cute, passionate, and diligent. I feel like I need to protect them all!"

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"... I guess I can relate to that, but I've never done much for you. Why do this for me? We've never even seriously talked."

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"Oh, you'll play your part, don't you worry!" She gives him a condescending little pat on the head with the most sincere face that he's seen in a while (he has been hanging out with Esther).

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"Could you just let me in to anything about what your plan is?"

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"I'd rather not. Read the script!"

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He looks down at the script in his hands.

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It's a section of plain paper script containing the direction to a play called Starlight. This copy has been helpfully marked up in sparkly gold gel pen with his directions underlined and useful tips about the Stage.

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That's useful, he supposes, though he's a little annoyed at having his script annotated for him. Nana appears to mean well, but she also appears to be everywhere. He would like to work on one normal production at this school, free of bullies or strange girls who make muffins. 

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The script does indicate that he needs to be on spot. No time for dallying!

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Sigh. He hurries up to spot and settles himself behind the heavy spotlight, placing his hands just before the spot where the hot barrel of the light will burn him.

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Unfortunately, this light has been on a long time. The whole thing's pretty hot.

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He snatches his hands away. Shit, he needs gloves. He goes to get them from his back pocket.

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There aren't any gloves there. Move the light. Make your cue.

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He does. The light burns but he bites his lip and handles it.

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Good. She sprints onto the stage as the music swells around her. "Announcing! The Revue of Pride!"

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He leans forward, interested.

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Backstage, Esther drifts as if in a dream. She hears the music in the distance and Nana's voice, and then...

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She finds herself stepping out of the shadows as her pockets glow with stolen glory. The light swirls around her, walking forward as machines activate. They hiss and spit steam at her and she finds herself naked, clothed only in the glitter caught up in her gravity. Hands caress her all over, clothing her in costume, real costume for the first time in far too long, this is really happening she's going to be an actor again! Her makeup flatters her face, far to bold for the soft lights of everyday experience. But on this stage where the intensity of everything is amped high and the violins sing her song, Esther knows that it's just right.

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She steps out into a spotlight, held by one of the many class-Bers that she's already forgetting the names of. Her mask glitters gold, her sword cruel and curved. Every fiber of her being, every action she's taken, every lie that she's told: they've all led up to this moment.

"Esther Lark, Class B. I will claim my destiny!"

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Shit. That's S. He's frozen for a second, caught between the urge to bring her down and to do his duty. 

He chooses duty. She'll be put in her place without his intervention anyway.

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She feels like she's in a dream (well, even more than the usual for being so close to the Stage). Lights swivel in slow motion and Nana appears, backlit, standing between her and her adoring fans the audience.

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Nana stands silently for a moment, and then: "No, you should not see the view from the top of that tower."

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"I should be able to see the view from the top of that tower." She moves fluidly, her sword arm feeling light as if she holds a prop sword. She doesn't of course, she can hear the bloodthirsty whine as it splits the air. She's moving towards the opening with purpose, with drive, she has to get there first.

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She leaps far, far too high as the hidden fly crew works feverishly to maneuver her to stand at the top of the stairs, smiling down at - no, past her, somewhere out into the crowd.

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She grits her teeth. That bitch! I knew she was up to something.

She can't stop now, no way out but through her. A familiar pair of red stars glimmer from the top of the impossibly high tower, reflected in her blade. Her next lines are delivered clearly and with passion rarely expressed in the mundane world.

"I still can't reach that star, but
For the sake of that promise,
I'll keep on charging ahead!"

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Center to upstage center

"Come climb up here, if you have the resolve"

Brandish sword [Added loop 35 I.3.a]

"Try to tear me down, show me your fury"

Pitying sneer

"Do not be at the mercy of the beast that lies within you!"

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Something odd just happened. Suddenly, the glitter doesn't feel like enough, and she stumbles, tripping on the edge of a suddenly less-practical seeming cloak. She growls and charges up the stairs towards the stars Nana, the Stage's Rightful Champion. [editor's note: she will never reach the stars she claws for]

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"I have no need for those who lack willpower"

A playful shove down the stairs

"I want you to show you are fighting with your pride on the line!"

A sword scores a dark cut from shoulder to hip

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What the fuck is going on here. She gasps, stumbling in her charge as somehow, Nana slices a gash in her from twenty feet away. It stings, and leaks glittering fluid that rapidly spreads, suffusing her white costume with red and gold and silver and more red. She drops to one knee, staring upwards...

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- and the spotlight falls upon her, Zero behind it, eyes ablaze with power and purpose and control. The edges of the spot are cut sharp, a tight circle around her, light glancing off her bloodstained costume.

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And she meets the spotlight's single burning eye with avarice in her two, raising her talwar high. She drinks in the light, and feels her legs strengthen, becoming steady. She stands, and her costume begins knitting itself back together. And she begins to charge, angling away from Nana and instead towards the opening of the tower.

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It's hurtful to ignore a challenge! You might hurt your opponent's feelings!

She raises a hand, and the stage crew recognize their cue to

Raise the stairs, each block moving separately with those closest to the star moving fastest

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"Going higher, shining brighter"

She's leaping from block to block as she ascends. She has some friends on fly crew herself. And lighting.

"I will illuminate the horizon"

The stars glow red above her.

"A single step forward is a step closer to my dream"

Don't trip, don't trip...

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"That is pride!"

She's got the usurpser now, the story's on her side. She raises herMaya's sword, and cleaves downward [I.5.c], severing the cords raising each block below her, sending them plummeting downwards, away from her stars.

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It's a moment of weightlessness, and then the wind begins to rush past her, skirt and cloak flapping from the sickening fall.

"Going higher, shining brighter" she mutters, eyes upturned, hoping for another second wind that would bridge the gap.

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Didn't ask, don't care, plus that's not the script.

"Towards unreachable heights," she sneers.

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And the blocks hit the ground with a sickening thud, her legs buckling and cloth ripping as she plummets down, down, down

"That is my pride" she whispers, just before she hits the ground, and the lights go black.

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There's a smile in the darkness, and then a glittering hand gestures for the spot op.

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The spotlight is on her now, edges softer than when it was on S.

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Good enough. She'll get better with time.

"99th Class, Nana Daiba!"

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It leans forward. "I understand."

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And she reaches out to touch it, almost fondly.

"I will protect them. Forever."

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The curtains close, and the stage goes dark once more.

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And then there's a click, and a backstage light clicks on, pooling like poured milk on the darkened stage.

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He blinks, disoriented in the sudden light, and looks around.

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Nana's nowhere to be seen.

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And Esther's lying on the ground, very still and back in her stagehand clothes.

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Oh no.

He rushes over.

"S! Hey, S, are you okay, did Nana actually hurt you?"

 

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She's not making eye contact. "Kinda."

She doesn't seem to be bleeding, though.

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He stands still for a moment, fishing around in himself for the anger he felt earlier, the one that was briefly buried by following the script.

He finds it.

He grabs her by the chin, forcing her to look at him.

"What the hell was that? You think you can just ditch Class B like that? You think this is just something you can rewrite?"

He takes a breath.

"You will always be class B. You are never, ever going to belong on that stage."

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She doesn't have the energy to resist the movement, nor to give him the mocking, sneering glare that he deserves right now.

"You don't know me at all."

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"I don't need to, because all of your desires are so disgustingly obvious."

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"Like yours aren't."

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"At least I'm not trying for something I'll never get."

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"Man, do you have to kick me when I'm down? If you're gonna, at least have the decency to use your fists instead of your words."

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"It just seems to me like you made a stupid decision, refuse to realize it was a stupid decision, and even now are very resistant to the idea that it might be a stupid decision. But sure, if now you'd like to start actually being friends, we could try it."

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She groans and starts dragging herself toward the door.

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"Do you want any help with that?"

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She just growls and shakes her head, trying to crawl faster with little success.

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This is ridiculous. He grabs her.

"Come on, just take the help."

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"You were crystal clear about how much you wanted to 'help' me." She pulls weakly away.

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"Look, I just want to be friends. It's not my fault you've been mean to me, constantly."

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"I mean. It kind of is."

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"This is exactly what I mean. I haven't done anything, and you're somehow making it my fault that you're being an asshole."

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"You're intentionally choosing to be around me. I'm not saying anything to you that you haven't thought to yourself. And you're the one browbeating a girl who is lying helpless on the ground, bruised and bloodied. Take another look."

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"I offered you help and you refused it."

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"You're missing the point."

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"Fine. Explain it to me."

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"I just did, how are you so bad at listening to other people?"

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He turns a little red at that.

"I'm not."

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"No, you so completely are, that when you saw something happening out there that you didn't understand, you jumped directly to the only thing that made sense in your head. You're so self-centered that you refuse to even listen to me telling you that one, you're wrong, it's not that, and two, it'd be none of your business even if you were right. Turn that critical eye on yourself once in a while. Maybe I should let you get your own morning coffee."

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"Okay then, just be honest with me for a second about what actually happened, from the beginning."

He likes his morning coffee.

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"You were literally there." She's pouting. It's kind of cute.

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"Right, but clearly my interpretation isn't up to your standards. I want to hear it from you."

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"I used some of my glimmer and Nana tried to kill me."

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 "What are we going to do?"

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"I'm going to lick my wounds. Dunno about you."

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"Can we stick together? Please? You clearly aren't doing so great on your own."

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"I mean. You are my roommate."

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"So are we going to make any sort of plan? Are you going to let me in at all? Or are we just going to do," he waves his hands around, "This, forever."

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"It isn't easy to open up to people, especially after you just… let's just get going."

She's feeling a little better with the condescension flowing through her, and staggers to her feet.

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He grabs her by the elbow, supporting her just a little.

"Fine."

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When they get to the room, she flops into the shower. She's a mess, and even the water flowing through her clothes is an improvement.

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He considers annoying her more, but instead flops facedown into the bed. A view of how wonderfully the system worked today unrolls itself in his head as his focus widens from the singular point of the Theater. It makes him squirm.

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She strips down as the water heats up, bleeding into it, water and blood and potential flowing together in the dark.

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He feels... weird. Like he's sinking into the bed. Lattices flashing before his eyes. He hears the water running but it almost sounds like screaming, for a second.

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The next morning, she's not there. Slipped out without a word in the wee hours of greyness and shadow before sunrise.

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Damn it. He wanted breakfast. If he waits will she come back, or does he have to go to class to try and find her?

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She's not back by the time the first bell rings.

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He rushes to class, uncharacteristically late which gets a glare from the teacher, and then looks around the room. Is she there?

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She is. She looks a lot better than last night, but there's blood crusted around the opening of one ear.

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He checks to make sure the teacher isn't looking at them before leaning over.

"S. What happened to you?"

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She hisses "You're late" at him without making eye contact.

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"Don't change the subject!"

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The teacher is glaring at them. She is not responding to him right now, today is a day for grindstones.

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Fine. Who cares. He shoots an apologetic glance at the teacher.

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She cares, a little. Does he even care?

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When the bell rings, he immediately goes to the teacher's desk and apologizes for being late. When he comes back, he stands over S as she packs her things, blocking her way to the door.

"I'm serious. What happened?"

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He's shorter than her. This is ridiculous. "Look, I had to figure out some stuff. I don't think we get many more" - she looks around, uncharacteristically nervous - "Revues, you know?"

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"... Why wouldn't we?"

If that's the case... what will he do? He was only just getting close to something good, something special.

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"OK, maybe you do, but I blew a lot of glory on that last one. I can still feel the hollow inside."

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"I think that's because you're doing the wrong thing, S. You weren't meant to perform, obviously it'll take a lot out of you."

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She looks at him like she's just been slapped. "You have no idea what I'm capable of."

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"Clearly you're not that capable of it if it makes you feel hollow inside! I feel right! Fulfilled! If the Revues don't make you feel that way you're doing something wrong."

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"They do! I was so close to actually winning! Know your place, dickhead."

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"Are you sure? If you're so fulfilled, I'd love to see if you can even come out of the next one alive. You'll notice I didn't sustain any physical injury from mine."

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She scowls and looks like she's about to argue before stalking out of the room.

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Sigh. Apologetic glance to teacher. Follow her.

Well-practiced routine.

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She's not talking to him like this. He can apologize if he wants her to respond.

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"... I'm sorry. I could've phrased that better. I just — you're hurting yourself, and you're being unrealistic about how long you can keep hurting yourself without doing very permanent damage."

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"It doesn't matter. I just need to last until I can clutch that star."

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"You're NOT GOING TO!"

That was a little too loud for the hallway. People have turned to look. He forcibly quiets himself.

"You're not going to. You weren't meant to."

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"Why are you such an asshole. Meant to it's a concept invented by the unambitious to comfort themselves."