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Chapter 8: A Series of Welcomes

I got used to flying when I was a kid. My big Greek family was always congregating at my grandparents’ house in southern California, and my mother was much happier to fly with two unruly children for a few hours than to try not to strangle us while driving the sixteen hours from Boring, OR to Chatsworth, CA. But even for me, two visits to the airport in less than a week is a lot.

Once again I find myself in another airport waiting for another airplane. It’s both familiar and not. I’ve never done this with Oakland being the home base. The last two weeks have been a hell of a ride.

So much happened in such a short time—and it was really kind of Maria to let me move all of my shifts to Monday through Wednesday when I told her I was going to have a second part-time commitment. I pulled two nine-hour shifts and worked a short morning shift of two hours for Ziv this week to make Terry’s meeting this afternoon, and I definitely cut it close with the whole “show up early for your flight” thing. Thankfully, security was devoid of a line and Terry said I wouldn’t have to pull any more crazy switches like this. I’m still not sure how he expects me to fit twenty hours into two work days, but he probably has a plan. I just hope it doesn’t call for ten hours shifts…

Still, short time or not, it’s essentially October, and that means Halloween. I wonder if Terry dresses up for Halloween. I know he and Titania used to do matching costumes thanks to that one episode of Serenity Peaks where Cassie and Clint’s matching costumes were used as a plot device. Ah, shoot, speaking of siblings, I promised Mom I would talk to Lizzy.

I’ve got a little bit of time before my flight. I pull out my phone and text her. Lizzy doesn’t like phone calls. There’s something about being on the phone that makes people sound unlike themselves, she says. I don’t mention Dad in my message, because when I talk to Lizzy about Dad, I never talk about Dad.

Instead I ask her how she is.

Instead of words, she sends me a picture. It’s from her sketchbook, but this one breaks from the usual theme of meticulously anatomically detailed mythical creatures and presents me with a young man, a cat resting over his shoulders. He also has a “main character scarf.” Every main character has a scarf these days. Just ask the newly anointed blue-scarfed Rinku of The Legend of Helga: Breath of the Wilderness.

Who’s this? I ask.

His name is Finean. His cat’s name is Nobu.

I’m about to inquire further about Finean and Nobu, but she beats me to it, spilling it forth unprompted. She must really be into these two characters!

Finean is one of the Soma-bearing humans from that Soma warring storyline I told you about last time you were home.

I remember something like that. Two gods, bit of a yin and yang effect since they’re personified as white and black herons, definitely different opinions on humanity. Soma are like super powers that come innate within an individual’s soul, if I’m not confusing that with the video game series Lizzy follows and undoubtedly stole the word from.

This is the universe where your yin-yang gods turn themselves into super powers and stash themselves in a couple of human souls to decide the fate of humanity, right?

Right. Finean’s one of the Soma users from the Amuria—the Eagle-crested nationand he was a test subject in the Half Moon Project. That’s why he’s got a scarf, to hide the brand.

Ohhh, so it’s not just a main character scarf!

Well, it’s a little bit a main character scarf. XD

Cuz he’s the main character?

Oh, he’s totally the main character. He’s the one that Mikael’s soul landed in, and since Mikael is the god that’s NOT trying to destroy humanity and therefore ISN’T possessing his host and controlling their every action, Finean’s still figuring out the extent of his abilities and how to work with Mikael so they can go kick Lucifan’s ass while he’s sitting pretty in his princely host’s body and oppressing the shit out of princeling and country.

What about Nobu?

Nobu? Oh. He’s just a cat. XD

I chuckle fondly at her and scroll back to look at Finean and Nobu again. Looks like her humans have started to hit the same level of skill as her animal drawings.

Guess you know what you can do for all your comics finals this quarter, huh? I ask her.

Nah. I’ll probably never actually write the whole thing.

I pause. What the heck are you talking about? You’re coming to San Francisco TO STUDY COMICS.

Sure. Studying them is one thing. But I can’t do something like making one when people are so focused on ruining my life.

“People” could be anyone. It could be art teachers, it could be friends or strangers, it could be me or even Mom, or the residual shadow of her rapist; but I know this time “people” means Dad.

I’m so sick of him ruining our lives. Wasn’t once enough? Why does he have to keep holding us back with feelings of inadequacy and blame? Lizzy already lived through hell and back on that one after the rape. It was like she was afraid of trying to do anything. That had been a hard battle to win. You can’t love someone’s survivor’s guilt away. I learned you couldn’t yell it away either. I thought if I could just provoke her, she’d get mad enough to do something again. Big surprise, therapists know more about helping someone get back on their feet than well-meaning older sisters. If Lizzy hadn’t asked me into her therapist’s office, I might still be fucking up trying to help.

I’m just glad she helped me understand what I could do. That was more than Mom ever gave me when she was scapegoating me during her grief. Just because I wasn’t crying like her…

I decide to take a stand on this. My father may have sealed the deal on how I expect men to view women, but I’ll be damned if he’s going to hold my little sister back anymore. I’m her big sister, and I’ve never been good at letting anyone mess with her.

Fine, I text her. You don’t have to write it. I will.

What???

I’m going to write this comic script as my NaNoWriMo project, and then you’re going to draw it, and we’re going to publish it.

As I send that one off, I question the validity of writing a comics script for National Novel Writing Month. Strictly speaking, it’s not a novel. Less words will be given over to things like description, and everything the audience gets to know will have to be spoken, shown, or thrown into a thought bubble. It’s not like anyone would care, but… Can I do it? I’m only just getting my teeth into comics scripts, and those are for comics someone else already made and we’re simply adapting.

Then I recall Terry’s episode script. Maybe that could help me find the middle ground between translator notes and content creation.

My phone vibrates in my hand, another message from Lizzy.

No. No way we can do that.

She seems so sure. Maybe I can’t…

But Terry sounded sure too, and he thinks I can.

Yes, YES we can. If I have to exploit all of my connections in the comics world and then some, this is what we’re going to DO because “PEOPLE” DON’T GET TO DECIDE WHAT WE DO!

I’m sick of other people telling me what I can and can’t do, tired of them defining what I get to do with my life. I went to Tokyo, for fuck’s sake. I didn’t need my father’s permission for that, and I’ll be damned if his lack of empathy is going to hold my shining little star of a sister back for another god damn second.

Okay, fine, how about this, I type. My sister and I have a lot of things in common. One of those things is an absolute inability to turn down a challenge—especially if we think we can win, and doubly so if we win even if we lose. Knowing this leads to a certain level of ability when it comes to manipulating each other, and I intend to abuse that ability now. If I don’t get the script done in November we call the whole thing off; but if I do, we do the thing and get it published. Deal?

She’s either really sure I’m going to lose, or really happy that I’ve made it easy for her to say yes to making this comic without really saying yes—Lizzy’s always been made up of noncommittal sideways answers—because she agrees.

I tell her I’m screenshotting the convo now as proof so she can’t back out when I win. She tells me she’s doing the same so I can’t badger her when I lose. Then I notice the time and jump a little. I’m going to need to run to catch my plane again. I stash my phone in my pocket and take off, hoping I’ll make it to the gate in time to do the same with my plane, but grinning again all the same.

I finally got Lizzy to agree to work on a comic with me.

I get on the plane feeling exhilarated and satisfied. The plane cruises smoothly after takeoff, but as we get closer and closer to Burbank airport, the contented feelings start to fade and I wibble into an anxious spiral about if I made the right choice getting on this plane. It’s a good thing I’m not flying this thing, because otherwise we’d just be going in circles with my indecision.

I got on a plane because Terry Walsh asked me to, which seemed like a completely legitimate reason at the time. He sent me an email with a plane ticket, and I took it, and here I am, and it was a good idea a few hours ago, but now that the plane is in its final descent?

He and I haven’t even discussed where I’m sleeping tonight! And after the way we left things, that is a legitimate question… He and I will be working together in a minute, and wouldn’t it be dumb to let his team think I’m just there because I’m the new groupie? I have to assert myself as a real writer, someone they’ll respect and see as more than some stray animal Terry took in off the street.

It’s nerve-wracking. What if I’m not good enough?

What if they take one look at me and go, “Um, Terry, there must be some mistake, where is our new intern?”

I feel my shoulders winding in closer to my body and my chest getting tight. I uncurl, forcing myself to physically let go of the tension, and breathe deeply.

We’ll worry about it when we get there, I promise myself. But then the plane lands, and that time comes, and waiting to worry about it hasn’t made it any better.

I chew my lip as I step off the plane and walk into the terminal, eyes focused on the floor, trying to see the obstacles I’m sure are in my way if only I could see them.

Someone yells my name, and you know how you just respond to that, especially when fucking stressed: you just snap your eyes up and hunt for where it came from.

I look around like a startled chipmunk, and then get tackle-hugged from the side. There’s a familiar scent and chuckle, and—oh jeez, of course it’s him. Why does Terry have to smell nice?

It’s hard to keep being so tense with him holding me, though. I bury my nose in his shoulder to breathe him in, and the nervousness fades with every breath.

“Hey,” I say.

“Hey yourself,” he says, stepping back and taking my suitcase, again, for the second time—is this gonna be a thing?

He gives it an experimental lift. “Lighter this time, huh?”

“I’m staying for a few days, not moving.”

He shrugs like that could be debatable, and I feel the hot, nervous prickle of uncertainty on the back of my neck. I hate not having a plan.

“Wanna drop your stuff off at the house, then grab a bite and head to the studio?” he asks. He starts walking and I trail baffled after him.

“House?” I echo. We break out of the airport and into the warm southern California sunshine. It distracts me for a moment, blindsiding me with nostalgia. The last time I was in Burbank, my grandmother had been dying. I pause for a moment and look around. Everything’s just the same as I remember it, but it all feels wrong somehow. I don’t know what I’m doing here without my family.

“Hey, everything okay?”

I blink and focus on Terry. He made it a little further ahead before he realized I’d stopped. He stands there in the middle of the sidewalk, looking back at me with something that looks like fondness and excitement.

I shake my head and trot over to him. “Sorry. Fine. You were saying?”

“House,” he says again.

“Yeah.”

I guess I don’t sound excited, because he shoots me a look of concern. “Well, we could leave your stuff in the car if you want, but this is still Southern California.”

Yes, yes it is.

“Besides I thought you might want to see my place first, maybe settle in, eat a sandwich, you know.” He goes into the parking garage and I follow him.

“Your…place?” Hang on, is he saying I’m staying with him? He said in his email that he would take care of housing arrangements, but I thought that meant Bizney was just rich enough to afford specific intern living spaces!

He stops next to a car—normal enough but still luxurious by my standards—and gives me a quizzical look. This is about the third time I’ve questioned something he seems to think is completely obvious.

“Are you sure you’re feeling okay?” he asks.

He takes out some keys, hits a button, and opens the trunk on the car. He lifts my suitcase into the back and then moves so can I put my laptop case in there as well, but I’m not moving.

“When you say ‘your place,’” I continue, “you mean like…your house?’

“…Alexis—”

“Like, the place where you live?”

“Yeah. What—”

Oh my gosh, when he said he’d take care of housing arrangements, he meant in his own house! “Are you crazy?!”

My comment has turned Terry Walsh into a fish; he’s standing there, opening and closing his mouth, as if he has something to say, but can’t decide on which bit needs to come out first. Finally, he just kind of cocks his head and says, “Yes? But I’m not sure that’s the point you’re trying to make here.”

“Don’t fuck with me, Terry, I’m here as your intern!” I’m starting to panic again. The words come out so fast they may as well be fused together. “What are people going to say?!”

“Whatever they damn well please, just like they always do.” He sounds frustrated and confused. He reaches down and takes my laptop bag from me then deposits it in the back of the car. He closes the trunk and then turns slightly away from me. After a small pause he says, “I thought you would want to stay with me.”

Well, color me surprised, I hadn’t thought about that.

“I do,” I say, and I still sound surprised.

His eyes shift to me, but it’s a sidelong glance, wary and untrusting—and that’s when I realize: I offended him. With the way we left things last time, we’re a bit more than just business contacts now. He’d said he’d take care of house, I just didn’t get it. And if I want to stay with him, why do I think it’s a crazy idea to be in his house?

I just really don’t want me being there to reflect badly on him. What will people say?

He’s right, whatever they damn well want like they always do.

Well, if that’s how he feels about it…

I move forward and wrap my arms around his waist. I squeeze him gently, trying to convey that I’m sorry and I didn’t mean to hurt him from this stupid side-angle hug.

I feel his hand pass over my hair, light and stuttering, like he’s afraid he’s not allowed to touch me.

I take a deep breath. “Hey,” I say again, as if it’s the first time I’ve seen him since getting off the plane and we’ve started the conversation over.

“Hey,” he murmurs back.

“I think I misunderstood your email. If you don’t care what people say about me staying with you, I’d really like to. Can I stay with you this weekend?”

His hand comes down mid-stroke to touch me for real, and his whole body shifts into something that rings of a smile.

“I’d like that,” he says.

“Okay.” I give him a quick squeeze and then draw back enough to peck him on the cheek. “Then you figure out what you’re telling your coworkers so they don’t think I’m just some stray groupie you brought home.”

Terry turns pale.

“Oh,” he says. “That’s why you were so nervous.” He groans and musses his hair. “I didn’t even consider…”

“We were thinking different things,” I say. I lift my hand and stroke his bottom lip. “Good thing we have ways to talk to each other, huh?”

He raises his eyebrows and tongues his bottom lip between his teeth, the sight of which sends heat racing straight to my core and makes me feel like quoting Irene Adler from the latest BBC adaptation at him: I would have you right here on this desk until you begged for mercy twice…

Instead—because we’re in a parking lot, because I’ve got a sense of decency, and because there’s no desk currently available—I say, “Home then food then studio?”

“Home then food then studio,” he replies.

“’Kay.” I pull away, and it’s like getting out of water, the way his fingers cling to me until they can’t anymore.

I don’t remember California being quite this hot in October.

Guess some things do change.

Where does the great Terry Walsh live? I find myself wondering this as we pull off of the freeway and start climbing through the secluded clifficious roads of the California hills. Burbank isn’t exactly big, but it’s not small either. Not like my hometown, where if you blink at the wrong time while driving you might miss it. Even so, this is pretty far from the city. The houses are spread out and the road looks like it’s seen better days. I was expecting to be surprised by Beverly Hills, not desert ones.

Eventually, he pulls into the driveway of an apologetically large house surrounded by some trees that are working really hard to suck water out of the ground and a sizable piece of land for California.

I whistle as I get out of the car. “So, um, how much did you say Bizney’s paying you?”

He scoffs. “Not that much. I got lucky with this.” He nods toward the house. “Wanna guess why?”

I snort. “What, did someone die here?”

“Bingo.”

Oh. “Oh!”

He hoists my bags out of the back and heads towards the house without skipping a beat. “Want me to show you where?”

I’m one parts yes and two parts “How the hell do you know that?” and it comes out as, “Ye-how do you…?”

He laughs and shakes his head, putting down my suitcase to unlock his front door. “I’m kidding. I don’t know where.” He frowns, re-pocketing his key. “Not exactly, anyway.”

Maybe I should be scared, but I’m not. This is so like him. “Very Clint, very Clint-like,” I mumble under my breath.

“Hmm?”

I start to tell him it was nothing, and then he says, “Wait, didn’t I say that in a panel?”

OH NO I’VE BEEN CAUGHT FANGIRLING.

He turns his head just a little to look at me and grins. The panic leaves me to be replaced with feelings of you-smug-bastard and you-just-like-that-I-look-at-you-on-the-internet-sometimes—the latter of which I may actually express out loud as we enter the house.

He cackles in the way that villains do that makes fans like me shiver. He sets my things down in the entryway, takes my face in both hands, and kisses me. When he pulls away, he says, “Yes, yes I do.”

I could probably just blush forever now. It should be a crime to look at people with stupid-happy eyes like his anyway. I try to shift the focus away from me. “So, what’s the story?” I gesture vaguely around the inside of the house.

It’s big with lots of light and windows. The warm colors of the wood flooring and vaulted ceiling give it an inviting air, while the open railings on the stairway to the second floor keep the levels of the house from feeling too separated. It suits him. It’s difficult to imagine anything bad possibly happening in a place like this.

“Well.” He takes my hand and leads me halfway up the staircase. There’s a larger pivotal step here with enough room for us to stand side by side. “The realtor said it was an accident, but there’s a lot of hearsay about how someone was murdered here. It’s unclear if they fell, or if it was something that happened on the stairwell, but all versions of the story—including my realtor’s—point to another party being involved somehow.”

“…So you live in a murder house.”

“Yeah.” Terry kind of smiles and sits down on the wide step. He runs his hand along the grain of the wood. “I like it. It helps keep things in perspective, um…” He tilts his head up, his expression changing to something a little more hesitant and worried, like he’s realizing that what he’s told me could be received poorly by the listener. “You’re not—”

“Scared?” I provide.

He nods.

I sit down next to him on the step and scootch over so our legs are touching. “Nah.” I put my hand out and touch the wood, as if hunting for what he was touching earlier. “I’d like to know what it means to you, though.” I pick my hand up and rub my thumb and forefinger together, coming up dry, then waggle my fingers at him. “Whatever it is, I don’t think I can find it without you.”

He folds his hands in his lap, as if he’s about to tell a long, old story.

“Sometimes I wonder what drives people to things like murder…”

“As most writers do,” I interject softly.

He shoots me a grateful smile, and then continues.

“In a lot of cases, I think it’s a sense of helplessness. There’s no one answer, but people who don’t know what else to do turn to the impossible, in both good and bad ways.”

Been there, done that, I think, thoughts turning back to the death and the divorce and the impossible amount of perseverance it’s taken just to keep my head above water through it all.

“And people don’t question it,” he concludes.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“I mean—let’s use Serenity Peaks as an example, shall we?—in the real world, no one wonders how the author got all the information that’s in the journal. They don’t wonder why it always feels like the trees are shifting in the forest, why they feel watched, why they have such tormented dreams… People are content not to look at these things, and—” Terry reaches his hand back out, hand lightly grazing the wood. “That’s why these things happen.”

He curls his fingers back in against his palm and withdraws his hand slowly. “Clint and Cassie react differently. They see it, realize they’re helpless when it comes to changing the weirdness of Serenity Peaks, and so decide to do something while working with it. That’s the response I want to keep provoking with the show. Serenity Peaks is a story about asking questions, and living here in particular keeps me rooted to that. Reminds me there are some really damn good reasons to ask questions, you know?”

I slip my arm through his and snuggle up to his side. I’ve always been a sucker for talent and dedication, and hearing him talk about his story with such love and devotion makes me want him closer. “Yes.”

He turns an easy smile down to me, one of relaxed ones that says, “You really do get it, don’t you?”

I look up at him with the reciprocal expression, whatever that may be. I may make faces in the mirror sometimes, but I’m not sure what this one looks like. I haven’t practiced whatever look correlates to the feeling of “Yes, yes I do.”

“So,” he says. “Food then studio?”

“Food then studio,” I agree.

“The kitchen is that way…” he says, pointing down the stairs and across the living room.

It’s all he needs to say.

Once lunch has been had, Terry shows me a room upstairs—it’s conspicuous and I won’t call it “mine” because my luggage may have gone in with me, but what he said was “You can change in here,” so I’m not entirely convinced it is mine. The room is attached to a bathroom that is attached to another room, and after I’ve showered really, really quickly, I peek into it because I’m nosy, and maybe it’s his (a conclusion asserted by the sheer amount of plaid visible in the open closet), and maybe that prompts me to forgo caution and creep inside and look around a little…

Of course I’m drawn to the bookshelves by the desk. I can’t help it. I like books. You can tell a lot about a person by the books they keep in their room. He’s no different. Art books. Lots of art books. Go figure, I think, running my fingers across the spines. I look down a little, and on a lower shelf—and do a double take. Yep, that’s definitely manga.

I seize one of the volumes because I need to know which series someone as magnificent as Terry cares about. I get to be surprised again. It’s Skip-a-Beat!, the shojo series I was comparing scripts in…

Did he have these before or after seeing me in San Francisco? And if it was after, why did he buy them?

I don’t have long to ponder this, though, because that’s when Terry comes in.

Guess who’s still in her towel like an idiot?

Caught red handed snooping in his books and completely unable to get away.

Quickly, this becomes of those “smile awkwardly, wave with the book in your hand, and say hi” sort of moments.

He seems to be stuck, still holding the doorknob and gaping.

Just looking at me.

Just looking.

Like he can’t believe what he’s seeing.

Then he slouches back against the door frame, covering his face with a hand and laughs.

“And here I thought it’d be forward if I suggested you come in here to change.”

“Um…”

“Figured out what you’re going to wear, I see. Stunning, really. The team will love it.”

Cue the brightest flush in all of blushing history. Seriously, he rolled something obscene on that skill check.

“I-I haven’t really decided…”

“No,” he says, drawing the word out sarcastically.

This is perfect, I think. Change the subject!

“Yeah, I mean, I packed a lot for such a short trip, and—”

“Nothing’s clicking, huh?”

“Yeah.” Sure, let’s go with that. Anything to keep us from discussing exactly how naked and in his room I am.

Terry’s arms cross over his chest and he grins. “And so you were looking for something of mine to slip into instead?”

Phrasing!

I shiver a little—totally because of my wet hair, I’m sure, not because he’s intentionally baiting me or anything—and with the motion, I press the book to my chest. The contact of it reminds me why I actually came in. “I was actually intrigued by your bookshelf.”

I hold the book out to him, and am pleased when his eyes widen minutely and his cheeks take on a pinkish hue.

“Uh, yeah. Those…”

“New?” I ask, completely unwilling to give back the upper hand in this conversation.

Terry makes a frustrated sound, something between a sigh and a growl, and marches forward. He takes the book from me, returns it to the shelf, and then takes me by the wrist. He marches me back to my room. He lets go of me by the door and then throws my suitcase open, muttering something about how I should know better than to judge an artist for research, and it was a really interesting story and didn’t have anything to do with wanting to read what I was reading.

I’m only catching bits, not enough to completely hear him as he rifles through my clothes, but enough to feel like I kind of won, even as he’s pointedly ignoring the underwear and bras in the corner of the suitcase.

A minute later, he’s pulled a green blouse, my blazer, a pair of jeans, and my favorite pair of forest flats from the mess. He lays them out and says, “There. Wear that. The colors complement each other and your eyes, and you won’t look too business or casual or over-eager or whatever other silly thing you’re worried about…”

He’s waving his hand in the air as if he can dismiss concerns about royally fucking up like flies. His eyes flick over to me and then politely away, and I decide he’d probably like me to flirt with him too if that’d keep me from worrying, so I say, “Right now?”

His eyes slide over to me in a way that looks involuntary, and then he says, “If you drop that towel, I’m not going to look away.”

Well.

That sounds like a win-win situation!

Before I can decide how to react, however, he turns away and says, “I’m going to walk away now.” He ducks behind the bathroom door, and closes it, and then shouts through it, “We need to leave in fifteen minutes!”

“Gotcha,” I call back, and reach for the clothes he picked with a renewed sense of purpose.

We’ve got a meeting to get to, after all.

* * *

Pulling up to Bizney studios is one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my entire life up to this point. It’s not like the Ziv Office, where it’s in a building that belongs to the city that doesn’t look any different from any of the other huge office buildings that also belong to the city; this has its own freaking campus.

Terry parks and opens his door, about to get out, when he seems to notice I’m not moving. I can’t help it. Have you ever looked at the place that manufactured your childhood?

I’m just made of wide eyes and paralyzed muscles.

I can’t go in there.

What was I thinking?

I wouldn’t even be here if not for Terry, and he’s not asking me here as an artist, he’s asking me here as, as…a fan? Ha! “Fan” is a title for people who haven’t kissed the genius behind their favorite piece of media. I’m a full-blown groupie now. My mind runs back to the towel incident and my arms snake across my stomach, holding myself. I’m so embarrassed. How could I turn into one of those fans, someone who—

And suddenly coherent thought is very, very difficult, because Terry has reached out and turned my head and kissed me.

“Please know,” he says softly against my lips, “that I would never have brought you here if I didn’t think you couldn’t have gotten here eventually on your own anyway.”

His hand gently sifts through the fingers I’m clawing my stomach with and softens them against his. He squeezes my hand, his lips still only a moment’s space away from mine, still looking at me, still breathing straight into me.

“I want to see what you can really do in there. Please come spar with me?”

“You mean verbally, right?” Can’t help it. Charm is a fucking difficult status ailment to function under, okay?

He darts in and nips my lower lip. “Unless you’d prefer otherwise.”

A heavy knock on the passenger’s side of the car disrupts any response my poor flustered mind may have been trying to cook up. Terry’s eyes shoot upwards, and then he smiles and waves. “Be in in just a second!” he says through the glass.

Not ten minutes on Bizney’s campus, and I’m already going to have rumors running around about how I’m making out with the boss in his car. I hold my breath until I hear whoever it was shuffle off. “Who was that?” I whisper, absolutely terrified.

“Don’t worry, that’s just Ron. He only saw you from the back, and no one on the team is that judgmental anyway. Now, whaddya say?” He reaches over and undoes my seat belt. “Wanna go in?”

Yes.

No.

Yes.

I take a deep breath and throw my car door open. “Okay, let’s do this.”

Terry says something before he lets go of my hand. It’s soft and I can barely hear it over the tide in my own head, but if I was going to use my imagination, it might have been something along the lines of “That’s my girl.”

His.

I could probably learn to live with that.

I try to keep my head down as we enter the offices. Can’t waste too much time oohing and ahhing, I’ve gotta stay focused so I’m not too starstruck to be of any use. I watch Terry’s feet and keep pace with him. After a small maze of corridors, he stops in front of a door. I look up to see a sign that says “Writers’ Room: Serenity Peaks” on the door. I swallow nervously. They have their own room. And here I thought “the writers’ room” was just whichever conference room was open at the time. Nope.

“You ready?” he asks.

“As ready as I’ll ever be.”

Terry opens the door. I step in after him. A few people are already there, so I guess we’re not late. But, as I look around, I realize all of them are dudes. Well, that’s a little confusing. Terry said something about Dana and Emmy boarding for this episode, and those had sounded like girls’ names, but…

“Just a minute, huh?” one of the group says.

Terry laughs. “Jealous, Ron?”

A chic Latino man smiles, singling himself out as the original speaker. He wears glasses, and he’s dealt with his premature balding by elegantly shaving his head. It shouldn’t make me feel more comfortable considering how common other glasses wearers are, but seeing his chic set of glasses gives me a sudden flash of solidarity. “You know I’m not playing for your team, Terry,” the Latino man says.

Terry shrugs. “It’s not a competitive sport anyway, from what I understand.”

“And how much would it be that you understand, exactly?” The way Ron is smirking at Terry is sardonic, familiar, and fond. Even if he is the one who caught us earlier, I think I like this guy. It’s nice to see people who make Terry feel real, that turn him into a flesh and blood human that makes jokes and has friends.

“The precise amount is difficult to describe,” Terry says. “And speaking of things which are difficult to describe, let me introduce our new intern.”

“Hello,” I say, stepping out from behind Terry and presenting myself. “I’m Alexis. It’s a pleasure to be working with all of you.” I do a stupid little bow thing, because those still haven’t worn off since my time in Japan.

There’s a smattering of welcoming words from everyone around the table, but when I look up, Ron’s eyes are piercing me. I freeze. His gaze goes to Terry and he says, “Is that the girl that you were just with in the parking lot?”

Ron’s tone makes the questions sound unimportant, but the way his eyes have narrowed makes my stomach plummet. Whelp, it’s all over now. Guess it was just a dream after all. Can I crash through the floor, fall to my death, and wake up now?

But Terry’s poker face is impeccable. “No,” he says with a small smile and a shake of his head, as if recalling the woman he was just with instead.

Ron’s eyes narrow. “Yeah? Then who was she?”

“She’s got a wonderful name,” Terry replies. “Truly beautiful. It’s gotta be exotic or something, because everyone keeps asking what it means.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“And it would be?”

Terry snickers and then says, slurring the words together as if this could truly be someone’s name, “None of your business.”

The room explodes, and the laughing settles my nerves.

Terry flows naturally to the head of the room, and I sit down. Everyone starts introducing themselves while Terry fiddles with the computer and projector.

It becomes quickly apparent that no one of the female persuasion is working on the show in any other sense than the drawing elements of it when Terry announces that it looks like everyone is here and we should get started.

“Wait,” I say, feeling comfortable and safe. “You mean that Serenity Peaks is written and produced entirely by men?”

A frown floats around the group, and Ron tilts his head. He smiles kindly at me, and says, “What are you trying to say, honey?”

“Oh, um, I…” Don’t look at Terry, don’t look at Terry, this is your problem. “I’m just impressed. I mean, the show handles its female characters with such consideration and taste. I don’t often see that from teams made up solely of—”

“I’ll ask you again, darling,” Ron says. “What are you trying to say?”

Now I don’t have a retort. I thought I was doing well. I didn’t mean to be offensive. I’m honestly impressed with the Serenity Peaks team after train wrecks written by other all-male teams for shows like those one-word-titled live action superhero shows where women are consistently apologizing for having independence, personality, and pasts that are always demoted to the role of plot devices in the stories of men.

“I think she’s trying to compliment us, Ron,” Terry says. His voice carries over the whole room, but his eyes never leave the computer. “Means we’re in touch with our feminine sides—like real people!” He looks up and smiles around the room, like he’s expecting a laugh, and he gets it. Ron backs off, and I breathe a sigh of relief. Maybe it’s time to keep my opinions to myself for a while and just observe until I understand how this world actually fucking works. When will I stop feeling like a fish out of water and like I actually belong in the places where people tell stories?

Terry finally pulls up the storyboards, and then flicks his eyes back up. “Still waiting on Rhonda?” he asks.

“Who’s Rhonda?” I breathe to the person next to me. “Executive producer,” he replies. “We usually have her here for the prelim boarding session and then again once we think we’re finished. She doesn’t often send us back to, well, the drawing board, if you take my meaning, but every now and again she catches something big…”

Just then, the door opens, and a large woman with beautiful mahogany skin in a periwinkle skirt suit walks in. “Alright then, gentlemen. Let’s get rolling, shall we?” She sits down at the foot of the table, spreads a file, notepad, and coffee cup in front of her, and then leans forward with her fingers laced, every inch of her the expectant audience.

I can only assume this is Rhonda. Steely gray curls and a mouth set in what I can only guess is stone from the determined and unyielding set of it, I admit to being a little dazzled. She must have the coolest job! Everything about her, from the tips of her toes to the string of pearls around her neck, speaks of a distinguished elegance and power that I’m starting to wonder if I can be her intern instead of Terry’s. But then Terry is off, bringing up the boards and talking us through the whole episode, and I’m sucked into the story.

This one’s just a filler episode, nothing big for plot, just a few little moments to increase tension in relationships that are thematically relevant to the overarching plot. The plot of the episode itself centers around a bet that Xander and Cassie make. Xander, projecting his issues with his brother onto the very Alex-like Cassie, makes a comment about Cassie’s brother Clint being a better research assistant than her. Cassie, not to be outdone or insulted by her grunkle, decides to put stakes on that claim and prove him wrong. Xander, genius-idiot that he is, goes in on it, and Clint, sibling-loving child that he is, lets his sister win because winning isn’t worth his sister thinking her grunkle doesn’t love her. He also comes to the realization that if Xander’s opinion of him is so based on stupid things like him being able to best Cassie, it’s probably not worth having. He doesn’t have to try very hard, though. In true Terry and Serenity Peaks-team style, Cassie isn’t losing because she’s worse at researching the mysteries of Serenity Peaks than Clint. Like it should have been with extra lady elf they added to the final Hairy-Footed-Shire-People movie, Cassie’s only a poor research assistant to Xander due to outside circumstances that aren’t her fault—like pixies having an allergy to glitter and a fondness for sitting on Clint’s hat. If anything, her attempts to research the mysteries of Serenity Peaks allow Clint to record more creatures and anomalies than he ever would have been able to on his own. In the end, Clint ends up putting his pixie-littered hat on Cassie’s head and declaring her the winner. Xander is forced to admit as much as well, and as per the agreement, Cassie gets to paint her Grunkle Xander’s fingernails.

“In the last scene between Xander and Cassie,” Terry narrates, “Xander says something tsundere, and we cut to his expression, which softens as he looks at Cassie.” He flips over to the board of Xander’s expression and I feel myself pausing over it.

Hmm. It’s cute and all, but it feels like there’s something missing. I frown at the projector screen, trying to figure it out. Peripherally, I hear Ron saying something about how this scene seems good and we move on.

Before I fully consider what I’m doing, I interrupt him. “Wait…”

The room goes quiet, and suddenly all eyes are on me. Most of them are curious and politely interested, but Ron’s are too friendly; and his smile looks like the kind a hyena gives its prey before eviscerating it. Fuck me and my stupid mouth, I wasn’t ready for all this attention.

This is that scene in a sitcom where I walked in when I wasn’t supposed to and maybe wasn’t even supposed to be in at all, like a drop of water that disturbs the flow of a river or something.

But this is important to me, as a viewer, especially because the B plot has been all tension between Alex and Xander about Xander’s interactions with the twins.

And then there’s the look of anticipation in Terry’s eyes. He asked me to show him what I could do.

I breathe and square my shoulders and say, “Did Alex see this?”

Terry blinks, like he hadn’t thought of that.

He buries his nose in the computer, flicking through the rest of the episode’s storyboards. We follow along on the projection screen. Clint tells Alex about how Xander reacted, which is boarded well but doesn’t necessarily capture anything new. The episode ends with Alex talking to Xander and saying no one can control the twins when they want something, but Xander better be careful not to let them get hurt—and then stalking off like he hasn’t just given Xander his permission to interact with the kids. Xander looks after him, then smiles, like he and his brother are starting to mend their bond a little.

“No,” he says thoughtfully.

“The way the episode is boarded does put you over your time limit as well, Mr. Walsh,” Rhonda says.

Ron looks at me, then at Rhonda, then at Terry. “Do we have a way for Alex to see this?”

“Hang on, I’m thinking,” Terry says. “Sean, do we have any mirrors in the kitchen?”

“No, no mirrors… But if we set up the shot so it goes kitty-corner out of the window, we could set Alex outside helping Jesús do some handiwork, and he could see Xander’s expression without Xander seeing him…”

“Yeah, but then he won’t know what’s happening in the room,” Ron says.

“Maybe—” Fuck, again with the whole room shifting their eyes to me. I clear my throat. “Maybe he could walk past the room, hide behind the wall, and then peak again when he hears Xander being ‘rude’ to Cassie?”

Terry’s eyes shift back to Sean.

Sean shrugs. “We’ve had more awkward blocking for a plot point before.”

“It wouldn’t be impossible,” Ron says.

“And it would let us cut Clint rehashing what’s happened,” another team member adds.

“Yeah, that was taking a little too long,” Terry says, running his hand through his hair and staring hard at one of the boards. “Can someone get Emmy on the phone? I think this scene is hers.”

Someone dials the phone that’s sitting off to the side and hands it to Terry. I guess they use company phones when they’re in meetings? That’s new to me. He takes it and presses it into the crook of his shoulder so he can talk while typing madly at the same time. Sweet tea, he’s glorious to watch when he’s working.

I realize that maybe I’m mooning a little too much when Ron’s sharp gaze cuts me back into reality.

I flick my eyes away from Terry and sit up straight again, like a child caught eyeing dessert when they should be focusing on eating their broccoli.

Terry looks up from his conversation. “Guys, what did we think of the rest?”

There’s a smattering of conversation, and then Terry ducks back down and says, “I think we need to take another pass at it, we didn’t get all the way through before we thought of this…”

He waits and then says, “Okay, good idea.” He stands back up and addresses the room. “Someone put Emmy on speaker?”

Someone reaches over and presses a button on the black conference phone in the middle of the table. A bubbly voice immediately starts spilling out of it. “Hey guys! How’s the session going?”

Mixed replies again, but I don’t say anything. I’ve had enough with eyes on me today, I think.

“I hear we’ve got our new intern in too, right? Hi Alexis!”

Ah, hell. So much for that.

“Hiii,” I sing-song. Cute can’t hurt when she’s already filled the whole room up with it.

“Oh, she just sounds adorable. You boys better be nice to her, you hear?”

Ron’s expression sours, and Rhonda clears her throat and says, “Ms. Cotugno.”

“Ah, Rhonda! Sorry! Sorry, sorry. You know me. So. The boards. We’re picking up from Xander’s expression in the nail painting scene, yeah?”

“Precisely,” Rhonda says.

“Gotcha. Let’s go from there!”

Terry sweeps all of us back up and into the story. Emmy forwards us some roughs of the new addition to the scene we had thought of, and we go back to plug them in and run it again all the way through. The team likes how the new boards cut the time it takes to communicate what they were trying to get across into a few seconds rather than half a minute. Terry has a glow in his eyes and Emmy is carrying on about how much cleaner the scene feels now.

“I love it when we manage to get the art to work for us like this,” Emmy says. “It makes me feel like I’m important.”

“Emmy, you are essential,” Terry says.

Everyone else murmurs in agreement, but I’m too busy smiling quietly to myself to join in.

I helped. I helped and I’m so proud of myself. I look up to find Ron eyeing me again. What the heck? I haven’t done anything this time! Did he not just see what happened? I helped! I sheepishly stare back, running over everything I’ve done in the last twenty minutes and examining it for fault.

He looks away and over at Rhonda. He jerks his head towards the door, at which she raises her eyebrows.

“Mr. Walsh, are you wrapping up for the day?” she says.

“Huh?” Terry looks up. He was definitely hashing out blocking details with Sean and Emmy. “Oh, yeah, yeah. We’re just talking details now. So long as it looks good to you?”

“It looks spectacular. I think that edit will get you back to your time limit.”

His smile is brilliant. “Thanks.”

That’s too small a word for what he means, he’s saying it wrong, I promise. That’s what I want to tell Rhonda, because I wonder if she knows how much this means to him.

Rhonda pushes back her chair. “Then I’ll be on my way. I have a small matter to discuss with you, Ron. If you would walk with me?”

“Of course,” Ron says, as if he hadn’t asked for the rendezvous to begin with.

My stomach does the bad sort of flip. I glance over at Terry to see if he’s noticed what’s going on, but he really isn’t paying attention. He’s in too deep with his work, and I don’t know how to warn him about what’s about to happen less than five feet away from him. I don’t even know what it is, but I’m ten hundred percent sure it’s got something to do with me and that it’s not good.

Rhonda and Ron leave together and a few minutes pass as I fidget. Finally, I decide Terry can live without me being here for a few minutes, and take off for the bathroom to breathe and get my head on straight again so I can focus on the details we’re covering now. I set off and, in true new-intern style, get completely turned around and lost. That’s how it works when you’re hunting for something in a building you don’t know. The walk is doing me some good, though, helping me to calm down and stop worrying. Then I hear Ron, and what he’s saying sends me right back into panic mode.

“Look, Rhonda, she’s just obviously a fan!”

“Aren’t we all fans of the show, Mr. Renzetti?”

“Well, yes, but not like her.”

There’s a pause, and I’m too terrified to peek around the corner to see what it means, but if Rhonda’s the kind of woman I think she is, she’s probably pursing her lips—which can be good or bad, if my mother’s lip pursing was anything to go by.

“You mean that she’s a—what are the young people calling it these days—‘fangirl’?”

“Well, that term means a lot of different things, which one are you—”

“In the sexual sense, interested in Mr. Walsh.”

“Oh. Yes. Yes, that would be the one.”

“Mr. Renzetti, if I fired every employee that had a crush on one of their superiors, I wouldn’t have a company to work in anymore.”

“But—!”

“I understand that you’re concerned about how it could affect the work, especially since Mr. Walsh himself is the one who arranged for her to be part of your team, but your concern is only well placed if she gets in the way.”

There’s another pause, and then Rhonda says, “Did she get in the way today?”

Another pause and then Ron groans, “No.”

“Did she, in fact, contribute well to today’s meeting instead?”

Ron sighs. “Yes. Yes she did. That was a really good call, especially for a rookie.”

Rhonda hums something like a laugh and says, “Don’t let her hear you call her that.” There’s a sound, something that sounds like a pat on the back or a tap on the shoulder. “But thank you for bringing it to my attention. You aren’t the only one who is protective of Mr. Walsh or of his project.”

Ron chuckles. “I’m not sure even he loves the show as much as you do, Rhonda.”

“Now don’t you go saying that. It’ll give us a bad name if people think our creators are less devoted than their staff.”

“You? Our staff?”

“Hush. I’m everyone’s staff with as much of your slack as I have to pick up.”

Ron chuckles again, and I smile. I dart back down the hallway I came through, my need to find a place to breathe suddenly relieved.

I make it back to the writers’ room, and Terry is the only one left there. He looks up when the door closes behind me and smiles. How can he not when he works here?

“So?” he asks, going back to packing up. “What did you think?”

“I think I’d like to stay, if your fine team will have me, Mr. Walsh,” I say, stealing Rhonda’s title for him.

He laughs. “Don’t ever call me that again.” He finishes packing up and comes around the table to stroke my hair. “I think after the show you put on today, my team will be more than happy to have you.”

I lean in, trying to decide if I want to pun “have” into a double meaning that might get us in trouble at work when the door clicks open. Terry and I jump apart. He spins back around the table, and I pretend to be busy with my bag.

Ron comes in and glances between us. Then he turns his back on me, goes to the front of the room, and starts talking in a low voice with Terry. This goes on for a little while, and reshuffling the things in my bag isn’t going to be a good enough excuse for my continued presence much longer. After what I heard in the hallway, for my own well-being, I better make some things clear to Ron anyway.

“Mr. Renzetti,” I interrupt.

His eyes slide over to me. I can still see the wary, analyzing set of them.

“Ron, please,” he says. It sounds almost painful for him.

“I feel like we got off on the wrong foot.” I level my gaze at him. “I love this show, and I am absolutely a fan of everyone who works on it. But I want you to know that above all, I put the wellbeing of the show first, just like you.”

He blinks at me, like that wasn’t what he expected to hear. Maybe he was expecting to hear some simpering or an inane question, but a declaration addressing all of the concerns he’d just been chatting about in the hallway? Not a chance. His face cracks into something like amusement.

He turns back to Terry and says, “Did you pick up this one because she’s precognizant?”

Terry’s mouth pops open and he rounds on me and says, “You’re precognizant?!”

Ron laughs, and I try to smother a nervous giggle of relief. Terry just keeps looking between the two of us with this look of disbelief because he’s apparently actually a four-year-old, which only makes the laughing worse.

“Listen, kid,” Ron says. “Just keep doing good work, and we won’t have any problems.”

He still sounds a little unwilling to trust me, but whatever. I’ll prove his doubt of me wrong.

“I never had any intention of doing anything other than good work, sir,” I reply. My voice is just as flippant as his remark to me, and I think the irony of having me go from wilting wallflower to hard-ass upstart is too much for his sense of humor because it makes him laugh again.

“Good,” he says. “I’ll hold you to that.”

“As will I,” Terry murmurs. The way he looks at me as he says it stirs up butterflies of anticipation in my stomach.

I’m so glad I work here.

Ron walks us out and waves us off. When we’re finally safe and alone back in Terry’s car, I lean over and peck him on the cheek. He puts his hand over the place where my lips touched him. “What was that for?”

“For setting me up with this awesome internship where I get to work in the Serenity Peaks writers’ room.”

“Heh. Honestly, you’re welcome. It was my pleasure.” He starts up the car and smiles as if what he just told me was a secret.

 

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