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shadow puppets on a string

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When Maxxie left for London with his boyfriend (James), best friend (Anwar) and his father's approval, he had thought that they were going to move on with their lives. Live the starving artist dream life. That everything would become semi-normal again.

Maxxie always was too optimistic.

Anwar lasts two months, before taking a bus back home. (Maxxie had never realized how much his friend complained. “The food isn't good.” “The chicks are ugly.” “I hate sleeping on the floor.” )

James lasts five months. (Maxxie isn't bitter. He's optimistic, but not stupid. He knew it wasn't forever.

Nothing last forever holds more meaning now than it ever did. Still, James was the first long term relationship Maxxie ever had. The break-up hurts, but Maxxie welcomes the normalcy of it all.)

At six months Maxxie applies to a university dance program and is accepted. He emails Tony, Jal, Michelle and Anwar with the news. Only Anwar responds.

---


University is hard. Balancing dancing with academics is a challenge Maxxie does not expected, but he takes it and makes it look easy. (He's good at that.) He smiles and laughs, quickly dancing and drawing his way into people's lives. He has always made friends quickly, it is part of his charm. But they aren't friends, his traitorous mind sometimes whispers, Not real friends like-- Maxxie always clamps down on the thought before it finishes. Remembering is useless.

Still, in his dormitory he keeps a small photograph of everyone above his desk.

---

They don't meet until Advanced Tap Dancing, second semester. Sitting in the back of the darkened theater watching Maxxie perform in front of the class, Jez stares critically at Maxxie moving on stage-- so energetic, so good, so....Maxxie. He should have gone to Britannia High, Jez thinks as Maxxie's piece comes to a close. When the professor states that the final for the class will be a paired choreographed performance piece, Jez chooses Maxxie for his partner. Besides Jez, Maxxie is the best performer in the class. And Jez wouldn't work with anything less.

Jez isn't much for keeping in touch. He is used to shedding skins. Even though his friends from Britannia High are were are the most important people in his life, he does not expect to stay in contact after graduation. Everyone has their own life to end, career and dream to pursue. They do not need each other anymore.

But, Lauren, as usual, had other ideas. She writes bi-weekly emails to everyone keeping them up to date on her “fun and exciting university life!” and leaves cheery messages on everyone's cellphone. One night, several weeks into the beginning of the first semester, she pops her head into Jez's room, demanding to know why he hadn't written an email. He stumbles his way through an explanation, before realizing that it was fruitless. She shares an apartment with him and he really does want to wake up alive in the morning, so he finally composes and sends off a message. Lauren stands behind him the whole time, hands on her hips, watching.

Jez won't admit that he's a little surprised when he gets emails back from every single person. Even Claudine. Even Danny. Somehow they all stay in touch. (It means more than he cares to admit.)

---

It starts out simply enough. Jez and Maxxie sit next to each other in class. Sometimes they take notes, sometimes they write notes to each other. Then they start meeting after school to plan their final piece. Then, they meet for coffee and then lunch, and somehow it works. They are friends, but they aren't. They could be something more, it lurks beneath the surface, but for the first time, neither want to make the first move. (It would be so easy for them to break each other, to crack themselves.)

The first time Maxxie learns that Jez and Lauren attended Britannia High—The Britannia High--he is shocked into silence and wonders what the fuck they are doing here. Lauren going to university makes sense. The girl is a star, but still too grounded in the real world. But Jez...Jez.

“Why?” Maxxie asks one day as they lie on their backs, breathless after practice. It's a simple question, but there is a tinge of accusation to it and Jez turns his face away.

Jez is good. Jez is fucking good. He should not be at university, taking this class and getting degrees. He received the highest level of dance education possible at Britannia and should now be out in the world, following his dreams. But sometimes dreams need to be put on hold, or at least that is what he had told Danny and B.B.

Turning his head to look at Maxxie, Jez answers, “I went to Britannia High to dance like I wanted to, and now I'm coming here for business like my father wants. Besides, Lauren needed someone to look after her,” he adds with a smile, trying to make things hurt less.

At least his father talks to him now.

---

Jez is not sure when the tradition started, but every Friday night him and Lauren curl up on the couch in their—his-- apartment and watch musicals on the large screen television. (Jez hadn't wanted the apartment because it was another sign of his father's wealth. But Lauren had persuaded him to accept the gift, so he had, on the condition that she would be his roommate. It works well for everyone. Lauren has a comfortable place to stay, and Jez doesn't have to give everything up.)

When Lauren suggests Maxxie join them, Jez doesn't question her motives until she gives him that smug knowing look in the middle of watching “Mamma Mia” --did Lauren really used to sing this?-- and he realizes that he has managed to curl up into Maxxie's side, and the other boy's arm is resting over his shoulder. He really shouldn't give her the pleasure, nothing is going on, but he is too comfortable to move.

---

One rainy day in the beginning of March they meet to work on choreographing in the theater. Maxxie oversleeps that morning and it isn't until that afternoon when he meets with Jez in the theater, that Maxxie realizes he has forgotten his tap shoes. He apologizes profusely, but Jez just laughs and together they walk back to Maxxie's dorm, sloshing in puddles and acting out scenes from 'Singing in the Rain'. (It is normal as long as they ignore the way their voices sometimes catch).

His roommate is not around when Maxxie and Jez enter the dorm, Jez looking around inquisitively, his knowledge of dorm rooms was restricted to those he saw on the prospective campus tour. Maxxie bends down, rummaging through a pile of clothing and papers for his shoes. Straightening he turns to find Jez peering at the photograph above his desk.

“Are these your friends?” Jez asks, and for a minute Maxxie is lost in memories as he looks at the smiling faces of his friends lying on the grass. Chris in the center with a doped up smile, Michelle lying across a smirking Tony with his hands snaking up and underneath her front. Sid watches entranced, while Jal rolls her eyes. Maxxie and Anwar gives each other bunny ears, and off to the side is Cassie with vacant eyes even as she smiles wide.

“Yeah, from before,” Maxxie manages to say, when he realizes he has to respond. Before. Before Chis died. Before Cassie ran away twice. Before Tony's accident. Before Russia. Before. He'd shake his head to clear it of thoughts, but that would only draw attention, instead he takes Jez's hand and tugs. “Come on, “ he says pulling Jez away from that photo and those memories. When they practice Maxxie taps with ferocity, physically trying to stomp out the memories.

But later, back in his room, his fingers tap out a different rhythm as he types an email to Anwar's father asking why. He'll never send it, but its nice to know that someone out there has faith and trust in the world— and in him.

---

Jez hates university. Well, maybe hate is a strong word because it does, after all, have Lauren, dance and cute guys. But the business and economics classes he takes to please his father, bore him to tears—when he understands the material, that is. As much as he enjoys-- craves, even-- the updates from B.B., Danny, Claudine, Lola and Ronnie, sometimes it hurts too much to read them. They are living the dream. His dream.

He tells himself that he is not selling out. That what he hears in B.B.'s voice when he talks to him on the phone is not a mixture of disgust and pity. That he is not wasting away as he calculates numbers and averages instead of music notes.

Sometimes he believes himself. (Most times he does not).

He just wants to make his father proud.

---

They are in the theater after class, working on their piece and it is utter crap. They aren't being divas, or difficult artists. It is actually crap. “It needs emotion, it needs meaning, it needs the gift of life,” the professor keeps directing them. But dancing it is the only thing keeping Jez whole, and dancing it is the only thing keeping Maxxie standing. It is desperation when they pound at the floor. They don't need emotion. (They want less of it)

Late afternoon and they are practicing, sweaty and desperate because they aren't sure what else they have to give, when the double doors in back burst open and a small group of students with larger personalities storm in. Jez breaks off mid-shuffle, a large grin stealing over his face as he jumps off the stage to greet them. These are his friends with Britannia High, Maxxie realizes, recognizing the group from photographs and the vivid descriptions Lauren had told. Seeing the group of friends—a whole group, cohesive even as Lauren and Claudine glared at each other already in some sort of a tiff.

It hurts more than he thought it should and Maxxie is just so tired of of trying to move forward. He's sick of being fucking optimistic all the time. He can't watch anymore, can't act like it doesn't hurt, so he walks off into the wings. He never looks back, and nobody notices.


---

It is two weeks before final exams, when everything finaly reaches a crescendo. Maxxie has stopped sleeping all together, living on a steady diet of caffeine pills. He doesn't want to sleep, doesn't want his mind to stop, doesn't want to recognize that it has been a year. Jez has reached his breaking point too. No matter how much studying he does, how much tutoring he gets, the numbers just won't compute and he's in danger of failing his business courses.

Their tap dance routine is still on the cutting room floor. “It needs emotion. It's wooden. It needs to come alive, like Pinocchio” the professor exclaims. Jez catches Maxxie's eye and they share a small strained grin. Aloud, Jez promises improvement. “I am the puppet master,” he jokes, but inside he is tired of making promises he can't keep and telling lies he can't hide.

Jez knows that he is a good dancer. A good musician. A good singer-songwriter. But if he fails this dance class (and when he fails business) he'll have nothing left to turn to.

The library is where is happens, not the stage, which would make more sense. Jez is spending his nights holed away at a deserted desk in a corner of the library. Economic books and notes are spread around him. He is trying to pass. Trying to understand. Trying to make his father proud. But the paper tears a little, and the pencil tip breaks, and suddenly Jez has had it.

I'm fucked, he thinks resting his head against the desk, a smothered sob escaping from him. The desk shudders a little as somebody sit on it, and Jez raises his head just a little and meets the red-eyed gaze of Maxxie. Maxxie, who hasn't slept in days and has taken to wondering the library because it is the only place besides the clubs that are open this late. (Maxxie avoids the clubs, they just remind him of Chris and Tony and everything he is trying to forget.) They don't speak. Jez moves his head so that it is resting on Maxxie's thigh. If they were stronger people right now, Jez would crack a joke about Maxxie's bloodshot eyes, and Maxxie would a smart remark about Jez's studies. But they aren't that strong, so they don't say a word.

They stay like until closing, when they get kicked out into the rain. In the outside world, teetering between the world of nightmares and dreams, and the world of this is real, Maxxie reaches out, yanking at Jez's tie to bring him closer and kisses him. It is a desperate kiss, filled with things neither will allow themselves to say. It is smothering and uplifting, simple and complex. When Jez invites Maxxie back to the apartment, the other boy accepts.

The next morning, Jez will call his father, while Maxxie sleeps in the king size bed with down pillows and silk sheets. There will be yelling. There will be crying. There will be ultimatums. Jez will hang-up the phone uncertain of his future, but feeling freer than he has since starting university.

Later, Maxxie will return to his dorm room and find an email from Anwar's father, who instinctively writes words that Maxxie's needs to hear,“It's a fucking stupid, messed up world. I've got my God; he speaks to me every day. Some things I just can't work out, so I leave them be. Okay? Even if I think they're wrong. Because I know, one day he'll make me understand. I've got that trust; it's called belief. I'm a lucky man.”* When he looks at the photograph above his desk, he remembers the laughter and the happy moments. It stays in his mind as he sends out invitations for his performance.

---

They have taken the dance and made it alive. They have gone from wooden Pinocchio puppets on string, to real live boys. They aren't desperate, now. They feel, they move, they reach out and grasp what is theirs and own it. When the lights finally shine and they take their final bows, they are not anyone but themselves. No ghosts of the past. No ghosts of the future. Just Jez. Just Maxxie.

Jez will grip Maxxie's hand a little tighter as he looks out into the crowd, past his friends new and old, and spots his father in the back of the theater, standing in the shadows, clapping. Maxxie will squeeze Jez's hand a little when he sees Tony, Michelle and Jal sitting in a row next to Anwar and his family.

Then underneath the bright stage lights with all eyes watching them, Jez will attempt the Moonwalk and Maxxie will smirk, clicking his heels like Fred Astaire. It is desperate, but it's not. It is freeing. It is acceptance. It has been a long time coming.