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Masks

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Hollis Mason was a good man. He was kind to children, animals and strangers, and always did his best to help the helpless and defend the meek. Which is why he did not laugh when Walter Kovacs showed up to audition for the part of the Phantom. As a drama teacher with a soul and some intrinsic goodness, he could only mentally commend the child to God and hope that the poor, hoarse little thing could squeak and rasp his way through "Music of the Night" without actually hearing himself.

As Walter ascended the steps to the stage, Hollis glared sidelong at his T.A., his eyes as fierce as a bird of a prey's. Adrian was the best aide he'd ever had, but he was smug and had a tendency to mock sincerity that set Hollis's teeth on edge sometimes. For now, the kid dutifully shelved his smirk and sat up to pay attention. Despite the fact that Hollis could practically hear him thinking, he had to call it good enough and tell Walter to begin. He was heart-breakingly small, alone at center stage, and the crinkling as he arranged his music on the stand was deafening in the silence.

Hollis had leaned forward without realizing it, already pulling for him. He would admit to anyone who asked that he had a soft spot for Walter Kovacs, and it hurt him to think how bad this was probably going to be. Then the kid cleared his throat and began. Husky on the opening line, pitched far too low, his voice cracked and Hollis's heart sank, only to rise into his throat when Walter hit his stride on the second. Suddenly the huskiness was transmuted into something that sent chills up Hollis's spine, and the cracks were gone. Walter gave the song an almost cabaret-like flavor, and Hollis could suddenly imagine how the Serpent might have sounded when it spoke to Eve. The crescendos presented no problem, and on the phrase "touch me, trust me" he could feel Adrian twitch. He was grinning by the time Walter smouldered his way to a soft, whispery finish that would make an audience hold their breath to listen, because he knew he had found his Phantom.

Daniel Dreiberg was not an actor. He was a loyal and trustworthy light tech, creating some avant-garde and ethereally luminous effects of surprising beauty. He and Adrian had a strangely formal relationship that Hollis liked to watch, since they both took every production very seriously, but didn't quite trust each other, Adrian too beautiful and athletic to be regarded with anything but quiet awe by a kid like Dan, and Dan too much of a pushover for Adrian to really respect him. He captained the chess team and wore some of the worst glasses Hollis had ever seen. And his mother dressed him funny and he was too quiet and good to do anything about it. He lived in books and dreams, and ordinarily Hollis wouldn't have dreamed of forcing him out of the wings and into the spotlight.

That was before auditions had ended without a single decent prospect for Raoul. For the first time in his life, Hollis bitterly cursed Amnesty International. Adrian was president of the school's chapter, and was almost too immersed in a rush of benefit events to stage manage; he certainly couldn't play Raoul, despite having apparently been grown in a vat in some secret government lab for the express purpose of doing so.

He only found out about Dan by accident. Dan was that rare student that could be trusted after hours, so Hollis had gotten into the habit of letting him work as late as he wanted, provided his grades didn't suffer. They never did, so it was only because he had forgotten his keys that he went back in after leaving, to hear a soulful, achingly sweet rendition of "All I Ask of You" drifting down from the catwalks like manna from heaven. He listened to the end, and then quietly climbed up.

"Dan, you're playing Raoul."

"Mr. Mason, I can't! I'm not that good, and I can't act!"

"You're all we've got, son." He sat down beside him, and put an arm around his shoulders, disquieted to find him shivering. "It's you, or Eddie Blake." He pauses to let that sink in, and he can feel Dan's indignation rising at the thought of how horrible it would be to have someone that irresponsible and vicious at the center of any production.

"...I'll do it. It's gonna kill me, but I'll do it." He looks up over at Hollis, suddenly looking much younger than his years. "Try to find someone else, though. Please."

The problem with Christine was the exact converse of the Raoul dilemma. Everyone had jumped up at once, and Hollis was faced with a pile of girls that would all do a creditable job. The only qualifier that had narrowed the field even a little was to not take anyone over 5'7" unless she was really gifted, since Walter was 5'4" and the elevator shoes that he had accepted without complaint only gave him three inches. That still left him feeling glazed and abused, lurking in his office with his feet propped on the desk.

It was a relief when Sally came in, her heels clicking on the linoleum. She was his favorite P.T.A. mom and the girl of his dreams when both of them were twenty years too old for dreams.

"Hey, Sal. What can I do for you?"

"You can cast Laurie, you philistine." She perches on the edge of his desk and delicately prods his feet out of her way, smiling.

"Too tall, and she doesn't really want it."

"I know that, Hollis. But she's too good to let it go to waste. You know she's going to Julliard if we get half a chance, and a lead now can only help."

"Sally, she doesn't like the part. She's not gonna put her heart into it."

"Shirley Temple hated show biz."

He sighed, and gave up since he could never say no to Sally. Besides, he had seen the way Dan watched Laurie, and anything that would give him some verisimilitude was welcome.

In the end, Eddie did get cast, but in drag and using his class clown obnoxiousness to create the funniest Carlotta Hollis had ever seen. Jon Osterman unexpectedly volunteered to run the lights in Dan's place, and Hollis got the whole show cast within the allotted time by the skin of his teeth.

Naturally, the first few rehearsals were awkward and clunky. Dan couldn't look Laurie in the eye, and Walter, while perfectly friendly in his reserved way was obviously afraid to touch her, undercutting his vocal performance. This went on for an exasperatingly long time, and Hollis felt cruel for casting her opposite Dan. Until she asked Dan if she was really so bad to work with. Thrown into the role of reassuring her, Dan forgot about himself and started to sing almost as well as he did alone, the two of them building real chemistry. Hollis laughed to see so much of Sally in her as she deftly manipulated Dan into something like a romantic lead.

Walter was another matter. It was bad enough that the mask wasn't made yet and that they had to pantomime the scene where Christine tries to pull it off, but he was no help at all. He politely brushed Laurie off in a way that reminded Hollis of the patient, gentle way Dan deflected his mother's attempts to adjust his hair.

"Walter, you're angry. She's trying to expose your darkest secret. This is the reason you can't be together, and she's going to ruin everything by seeing it. You can't be so calm."

He really seemed to mean it each time he agreed and promised to work on it, but it wasn't until Laurie took him aside one night and told him that she wasn't breakable and that he could throw her a little if he wanted to that they made any progress. As usual with Walter, it was a massive dramatic epiphany. Hollis had always known he was angry kid, but their third run-through of the scene was still a shock.

"All right, Walter. Try to put some feeling into it, okay?"

"Yes, Mr. Mason."

Hollis sighed inwardly. "All right, go."

Laurie crept up behind him as softly as she always did, looking more like a panther than an ingenue, and stood behind him at the piano, letting her hands lightly rest on his shoulders. He tensed, which was a problem, but not their biggest one at present.

Adrian yawned, and murmured sotto voce, "And now, another episode of The Waltons."

"YOU LITTLE PRYING PANDORA!" Walter's psychotic roar made Hollis jump, and he stared as Walter grabbed Laurie's wrist and forced her onto her knees, looming remarkably well for someone so short. Laurie stared up at him, eyes wide in real fright, and Hollis called a halt. For a moment no one dared to breathe, and then Walter carefully helped Laurie up, perfectly calm.

"Sorry, was that too good?"

Laurie laughed breathlessly and impulsively hugged him, making him go slightly pink. "Man, I never want to get on your bad side, Walter!"