“Hey, um. Jory. Do you have a sec?” Hunter says one evening after a long afternoon of paining set pieces. The show is just a month out, and these set pieces were (apparently) supposed to be done last week, according to Kevin. They’ve been working overtime to get them ready.
Jory sets down his paintbrush and looks up from the fake storefront he’s been decorating. Hunter is shifting from foot to foot, his cheeks a little pink. There’s a little bit of green paint on his nose, which Jory can’t help but find adorable. Still, he should probably do something about that.
“Hold on,” Jory says. “You’ve got some paint on your face.”
“Oh, crap.” Hunter rubs at his cheek self-consciously. “Where is it?”
“Don’t worry—I’ll get it.” Jory grabs a paper towel from the paint table and dampens it a little with some of the water from his water bottle. He reaches up to blot away the paint from Hunter’s nose. Hunter’s blush deepens noticeably.
“There,” Jory says when the paint is gone. “Now, what did you want to talk about?”
“Oh.” Hunter blinks down at him. “Oh, um. Right. I was wondering... Are you free Friday night?”
“Friday?” Jory thinks for a moment. “Yeah, I’m free. Why”
Hunter grins in that wide, goofy way of his, and Jory’s heart melts just a little more. “Cool,” Hunter says. “I was thinking...date night?”
“Oh. Yeah, I’d— Yeah. Sure.” Jory smiles back, his own cheeks starting to feel a little warm. “Do you...have something in mind?”
“I do, actually,” Hunter says. “But it’s a surprise. Meet me in the club room after school?”
“Okay,” Jory agrees. “After school Friday. Sounds— Sounds like a plan.”
“Good!” Hunter leans down and plants a quick kiss on Jory’s cheek, and— Yeah. Jory is sure that he’s blushing now. “Looking forward to it!”
Hunter jogs back to the tower he was painting before, giving Jory a little wave. Jory sighs.
“Me too,” he says, rubbing his cheek.
Date night. Friday. With Hunter.
Friday really can’t soon enough.
On Friday afternoon, Jory races to the theater the moment his last class is over. He’s still wearing his uniform, which can’t really be helped. He checks his hair in his reflection in the windows as he runs. His hair looks okay, he thinks. He wouldn’t really have time to restyle it, anyway.
He reaches the theater in record time and quickly skirts around the stage to get to the backstage area. When he arrives at the club room, he pulls out his phone and switches the camera to selfie mode to make sure there’s nothing in his teeth, which there isn’t. Good. He puts his phone away, takes a deep breath, and pushes open the club room door.
Hunter is already there, sitting on the couch. He looks up when Jory walks in, his face splitting into a dazzling grin. “Jory!” he says. “You’re here!”
“Of course.” Jory smiles back. “It’s date night?”
“Yep!” Hunter says excitedly. “I found something pretty cool the last time I was, you know. Back there.” He gestures behind him at the door to the backstage realm. “It’s not far from our door, so I thought it might be fun to check it out?”
Jory eyes the door. The backstage realm isn’t really the kind of place to explore for fun. It’s dangerous. But— He trusts Hunter. After their first misadventure together, he knows Hunter wouldn’t bring him somewhere too dangerous without needing to. Probably.
“Okay,” Jory says finally. “Lead the way.”
“Yes!” Hunter pumps his fist into the air. He slings his backpack over his shoulder, unlocks the door, and then they’re off.
Jory will never get tired of the backstage. Sure, the hallways are pretty dark and creepy, but the way they twist and turn in unpredictable ways, the way sound seems to float through the air here like it’s suspended in water, the way multicolored lights leak through the cracks in the doors on either side to dance along the dark walls and floor... It’s magic, pure and simple. Some day, Jory wants to know what’s behind every single one of those doors.
But not today. Today, they’re not here to explore dangerous new realms—they’re here to go on a date. A nice, relaxing date that doesn’t involve mortal peril. Or at least Jory hopes not.
After a minute or so of walking, Hunter comes to a stop outside an unmarked door on the right. The light coming from the other side is soft and yellow, and the doorknob is polished brass.
“We’re here,” Hunter says, shifting from foot to foot. “I was kind of thinking I could surprise you, so...close your eyes?”
Jory laughs a little, but he nods and closes his eyes all the same.
He hears the sound of the doorknob turning and the hinges squeaking, and then Hunter’s hand is in his, leading him forward. He follows blindly, noting what feels like soft carpet underneath his shoes and the smell of lemon in the air. He feels a bit of a draft as they walk, and wonders just how big this room is. It must be huge, judging by the way even the muted sounds of their footsteps on the carpet seem to echo around them.
“All right,” Hunter says at last. He puts his hands on Jory’s shoulders, gently turning him until he’s facing the direction Hunter wants. “You can open your eyes now.”
Before them is a warehouse entirely full of box sets. They’re stacked on top of each other in aisles like some kind of giant multi-level Ikea showroom. Most of the sets are small—just about fifteen feet by fifteen feet. Inside each three-walled frame are rooms, complete to the last detail and prop. He sees rooms of all kinds: kitchens, bedrooms, prison cells, libraries, coffee shops, hospital rooms, even an arcade. The navy blue carpet they’re standing on leads down an aisle for what has to be at least a hundred yards until it curves out of sight, the towering stacks of box sets making it difficult to judge the true size of the space. Not for the first time, Jory wonders how big the backstage realm really is. This room alone is enormous.
“I thought we could look around for a bit?” Hunter says, rubbing his neck sheepishly. “Um. And then maybe if we find a box set we like, we could hang out there for a bit? I brought some food if we get hungry.”
“Hunter,” Jory says earnestly, taking both Hunters hands in his. “I love it. This is the best date ever.”
Hunter is wearing that goofy grin of his again. “Really?”
“Best date ever,” Jory repeats. And then, because Hunter is also the best boyfriend ever, Jory throws his arms around him and leans up for a kiss.
They spend an hour or so wandering around the warehouse, peering into rooms and messing around with props. They spend some time taking turns in the captain’s chair of a spaceship set, playing with the various dials and colored lights. Hunter finds a prop sword in an old royal bedroom and decides that he absolutely has to take it with him, which, despite his misgivings, Jory understands, because it does look pretty cool. They also find an ocean set where the floor is painted in deep blues and bright turquoise and the walls are covered in glass fish tanks full of strange fish Jory’s never seen before. There’s a soft light emanating from the water that fills the room with an ethereal blue glow. Jory thinks this might be the most magical thing he’s seen yet.
“We should eat here,” he says. “If you’re ready for a break?”
Hunter pulls a couple cans of soda and two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches out of his bag and hands one of each to Jory. “Bon appetit.”
They finish the sandwiches sitting side by side, watching the fish float through the tanks. Jory leans into Hunter’s side, and Hunter takes Jory’s left hand in his right. They talk and laugh about the new set they’re working on, about their math homework, about Kevin and Blake’s latest drama. When they’re finished, they clean up and begin the long wander back to the door of the warehouse. Hunter keeps holding his hand the whole way.
“This was really, really fun,” Jory says as Hunter holds the warehouse door open for him. “You’re really good at this date thing.”
“Am I?” Hunter actually looks surprised, which is completely ridiculous for a hopeless romantic as thoughtful as he is. Jory sighs.
“Yes,” he says. “How many times do I have to tell you you’re the best boyfriend ever before you actually start to believe me?”
Hunter shrugs. “I dunno. I guess you’ll just have to keep telling me until it sticks?”
“I guess so,” Jory says. They leave the warehouse, making their way back to the club room with relative ease.
The backstage is a magical place full of wonders beyond even the wildest imagination. It’s scary and beautiful and impossible all at once, and only a handful of people even know it’s there. Jory is lucky to have the chance to explore it, but he’s even luckier that he has someone to explore it with.
“We should do this again sometime,” Hunter says. “If you want to.”
“I do,” Jory says immediately. “I really, really do.”
“Okay.” Hunter grins at him. “Maybe next week?”
“Okay.” Jory smiles back. “Maybe I’ll find a fun room to show you this time.”
There are so many adventures ahead of them, so many places to find. The backstage is Jory’s favorite mystery, and Hunter is the person he wants to share it with most. They’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s out there. There’s so much more to explore.