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Nearing Perfection (Shun Your Reflection)

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“Letter for you, Mr Stein. Should I leave it on your desk?”

“Yes, thank you, Miss Milton,” said Henry absently, his eyes not leaving the flickering images projected onto the screen before him. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his secretary leave something on his desk and silently exit his office. He scrubbed back the reel to review the footage again, scrutinising every detail of the animation on the screen. Volumes wobbled, anatomy shifted and snapped painfully, every principle of the craft shrugged and slunk ashamedly off-camera under his disappointed gaze. He sighed and crossed out the relevant name in his notebook, the next declined name in a long list of scratched-out applicants, then loaded the next demo reel into the projector.

More pencil tests slid timidly across the screen, so weightless and insubstantial he switched the reel off within moments. Joey's voice echoed in his head. Why so critical, Henry? Look at that smoothness, that lightness of touch! Wonderful! We can train him up and teach him proper weight mechanics, put him on cleanup with you for a few months and let him learn from a master, hey? Anyone can learn technical skills, it's imagination that you can't teach! Don't you see the heart there? The love for the craft?

That's all very well, Joey, but I don't have the time or money to train the bright young things of next year. I need professionals.

He crossed off the next name on his list. His back ached and his leg was jiggling with concentrated nerves. Maybe he was being too harsh after a long morning of hard selling to potential investors and a bad afternoon reviewing animation applications in his tiny office. Perhaps he should go for a walk, grab some lunch and get some fresh air, then come back and view the reels again. There had to be a couple of diamonds hidden in that tall stack of film. 

He yawned and stretched before rising from his chair, remembering to reset his posture and relax his shoulders the way Linda had advised. He recalled the brief interruption from his secretary - the letter, she had delivered a letter - and looked at his desk. He picked up the envelope he found there and blinked at the familiar silhouette and inscription on the back; From the desk of Joey Drew.

Curiosity overpowered his appetite and he reached for the envelope opener. Lunch could wait. “This better be good, Joey,' he sighed, settling into his chair again and tearing the envelope open. A single folded sheet of paper slipped out. 

 

Dear Henry, 

It’s hard to believe it's been five years since we last worked together. Time flies, doesn't it? Congratulations on the founding of Stein Productions! Why don't you come back to the studio some time soon? There's something I need to show you.

Your best pal, Joey Drew

 

Henry read it three times through, massaging his aching eyes once he was done. He knew the man well enough to read the tone in written words alone, and Joey's handwriting was positively vibrating with excitement. Henry was a businessman now, with responsibilities and an entire studio that answered to him. His employees deserved better than a man who dropped everything in favour of whatever endeavour Joey was chasing this month. He'd rather quit the industry right now than put his employees through the stress he'd felt working with Joey.

He glanced at the pile of audition reels and instantly felt miserable. A spark of mischief licked through him. Perhaps spending an afternoon in the hustle and bustle of the old studio, some time in the company of Joey's infectious enthusiasm, was just what he needed. He could go and absorb whatever madcap scheme he had come up with and carry that inspiration back to his own business. It would be the best of both, wouldn’t it? To hell with it, the studio wouldn’t fall apart if he left for an afternoon.

With his mind made up Henry stood and switched off the projector. He shrugged on his coat, informed Miss Milton he was finished for the day, and stepped out into a bitingly cold December afternoon. He pulled his cap out of his pocket and donned it in the face of the thickly falling snow.

He remembered every stop on the bus line that he used to take on his old route to work, remembered the little stall a couple of blocks from the studio that sold soft wholesome pretzels and good coffee. He could feel the nostalgia softening him with each step. 

 His face was stinging in the snow and his breath crystallising in the late afternoon air by the time he turned onto the correct street. He paused, momentarily thrown. He’d heard that the studio had grown but he hadn't been prepared for its grand new appearance. It had risen to four, five stories above ground level, and seemed to loom darkly above the rest of the relatively unchanged street. It looked to have expanded into one of the neighbouring buildings too.

Nerves fluttered in his stomach for the first time as he approached. He chastised himself. You helped build this company from the ground up. This is as much yours as it is Joey's. He took a couple of deep breaths to steady his nerves and let himself in.

He blinked. The interior had changed too and his head spun in momentary disorientation. Gone was the narrow corridor leading to a series of small offices; instead the room he found himself in was wide and spacious and lined with framed Bendy posters. A young man sat at the reception desk in front of him. Henry approached hesitantly and the receptionist looked up. "Can I help you?"

"I'm Henry Stein, here to see Joey."

The young man pursed his lips. "Do you have an appointment, sir?"

"I'm… uh. He sent me a letter. He wants to see me."

"Do you have the letter?" Henry shook his head, feeling a bit lost. The receptionist sighed. "Look, sir. Mr Stein. We get two dozen people in here a day who want Mr Drew's ear, another dozen kids from here to Long Island begging to see the newest Bendy cartoon. You gotta get in line and make an appointment like everyone else."

"Please, he knows me. Can't you at least let him know Henry's here?"

The receptionist clicked the cap of his pen on and off, considering. "I'll put a call in to his secretary. If you really want to wait I guess you can take a seat over there. I can't guarantee anything, though."

"Thank you, I appreciate it." Henry sat on the low sofa offered to him and removed his hat, brushing off the last few snowflakes still clinging to it. The nerves were back and twisting slowly around his stomach. Had he really expected it to be that easy, to simply walk in and find Joey immediately ready to meet him? He'd seen the dramatic expansion to the outside of the studio; he hadn't taken the logical next step and applied that same growth to its workforce. Of course Joey was too busy to handle everything personally these days, of course there were going to be new employees who didn't know who Henry was. He had no ties to the place any more. It was how he'd wanted it. 

 The excitement of seeing Joey again had dazzled him and blinded him to reality momentarily. He rubbed his eyes. This always happened when he got too caught up in Joey's plans - some things never changed.

He inspected the Bendy posters on the walls to pass the time. He recognised a couple of episodes from his time working there and a few more from the advertising campaigns Joey seemed to have become so fond of. There looked to be a trio of new characters called the Butcher Gang. He liked the design of the pirate. He idly wondered who'd replaced him in his role as character designer, and whether Joey was any less critical of their work than he'd been of Henry's. Somehow he doubted it. 

He fidgeted with his cap and tried not to meet the receptionist's eye. He wished he'd brought something to read; if he'd thought to bring the letter this entire situation might have been avoided. He was nothing if not stubborn, though, so he sat and enjoyed the warmth and relative quiet and waited.