Neil’s new. He’s always new, but being new at college is something different entirely. There are more buildings than Neil can effectively map out fast enough to feel comfortable, and the weight of the knowledge that he will be here for at least four years still threatens to choke him. And he has a roommate now. Neil is fast learning that roommates are horrible.
He decided on his first day he’d try to look around all the buildings, but not more than one a day because he has classes and a bunch of registration crap he hadn’t realised he’d had to do. This stuff is a lot harder without his mother to tell him when he’s being stupid.
He’s not sure what building he ended up in today, it was just the first block he saw that he didn’t recognise; but everyone’s colourful and stressed. And there’s shouting. There’s so much shouting.
“-Minyard’s the only other one who knows how this works. And he’s on stage this semester.”
“He’s on stage? I didn’t know he could speak a single civil word.”
The other girl laughs, “He’s not. He doesn’t talk on stage. No one knows how he got the role.”
“No one except you, you mean.”
“He auditioned,” She says, innocently, then changes tone. “We need someone else here. We don’t have enough hands.”
The other person makes a noise Neil has never heard before. “I’ll see if I can grab someone. Literally anyone,” Then she’s appearing from a door right in front of Neil, tall and blonde and pointing. “You!”
Neil blinks. “Hi?”
“Do you know anything at all about running sound for a show?”
“Barely what those words mean,” Neil says, more honest than he’s probably ever been in his life.
“Great,” She says with a frazzled sigh. “You got free time?”
“Uh, some?” He replies, not sure what’s the right answer here.
“I… guess?” He has a free couple of hours before he has to go to his next class, he thinks he’s willing to spare it. It seems easier than saying no, anyway.
“You’re a lifesaver .” She runs a hand through hair and gestures back in the door she’s still holding open, “I’m Allison, by the way, and this is Renee. We pretty much run everything here.”
“Neil,” He responds.
Neil doesn’t really know what he’s doing, but he somehow ends up working with Allison and Renee on all the tech stuff for the play they’re running. He doesn’t know how they managed to convince him, but he never really sees any reason to say no, so when Renee asks gently if he can meet them in the same place at 11 tomorrow and he doesn’t have a class, he does.
And he does it again. And again.
And then, suddenly, people seem to think he knows what he’s doing.
Neil gets a list of cues with button numbers to press at certain points in the script. It’s pretty easy to start with, because the actors will literally read straight from the script so he knows when to press each light. Allison and Renee run around behind him making sure- actually, he doesn’t know what they’re doing, but it seems a lot more complicated and they have to actually pay attention and know what they’re doing. Neil just watches the play and remembers to change the lighting once in a while.
(If someone asks him a question, he points helplessly in the direction of one of the girls. For some reason, they like him. He thinks it’s because he’s quiet.)
He finds out who the Minyard they were talking about is quite quickly, because when his scenes are up he’ll walk on stage and then do very little else. It’s amusing for all of two rehearsals, then Neil is bored. He actually wants to see how the play gets on, and hearing Allison and Renee curse Minyard’s name isn’t nice, and the other actors seem like they’re about to cry.
One evening, he gets dinner with Renee and Allison and he asks them if they could show him how the lights actually work, they look stressed and he wonders if he could help out more. They give him twin delighted smiles and they head back to the theatre department to screw around with settings. They look like proud mothers. They don’t act like it when they decide to make a drinking game of every time Neil hits the wrong button. (Only Allison plays, but Renee cackles along. Neil decides he definitely likes them.)
At the end of the night, Allison is lying with her head dangling off the stage and warbling a song she’s made up that sounds almost like the plot of the play, Renee is hopped up on caffeine and just trying to get Allison to drink some water, and Neil knows how to move all the lights to give Renee a halo or put the perfect warm lighting that Allison likes for selfies and more besides. He smiles.
The next time Minyard is on stage they’re trying to rehearse a scene that should be emotional. Neil’s not entirely sure what should be emotional about it, but he thinks he could get the gist if Minyard would open his mouth to do more than a dramatic yawn.
(“He’ll be good on opening night,” Renee says, and she sounds assured if not convincing.
“He better. I have money riding on this,” Allison responds.)
There’s one small light Neil knows isn’t really used, and it’s definitely not used in this scene - there’s dramatic low lighting - and it’s small enough that no one can really track where it’s going unless they’re looking very closely. Fortunately, it’s located at the opposite side of the stage from Minyard, and it’s maneuverable.
Neil doesn’t do anything for a few minutes, until people start to look frustrated and Allison and Renee are off dealing with a wardrobe malfunction somewhere. Then he waits for Minyard’s next line, and shines the small light directly in his eye, for half a second then away again. It would almost look like he was just the new lighting guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing, but Minyard turns and makes eye contact with him within a second. His expression is verging on amused. Neil meets his eyes, and makes a gesture as if to say it’s your turn .
He says his line. Flat and unemotional, but he says it. The whole theatre seems to breathe a sigh of relief.
Minyard’s name is Andrew. He has a twin called Aaron who apparently helps out with costumes, and no one’s sure, but Aaron might actually be the bigger asshole of the two of them. Anyone who knows the two of them is divided in opinion. All people really know for sure about Andrew is that he doesn’t listen to people and he doesn’t like doing what he’s told. Renee’s the only one who’s got any kind of power over him. (“You just have to ask in the right way,” She says with a sweet smile. No one believes her.)
He’s told this over dinner with Renee, Allison and a couple of their friends, Matt and Dan, who invite him out after they figure out that he can antagonise Andrew into actually reading his part.
“No, you’re not allowed to say no,” Renee says kindly. “We owe you a dinner for this, at least.”
“You probably single-handedly saved the play,” Allison adds. “And our friends will love you.”
They’re not wrong. Dan insists on shaking his hand for getting Andrew to cooperate, even a little bit, and Matt follows up with a “dude, seriously, you’re my hero”.
Neil didn’t do it to gain approval, but he finds that it’s quite nice, anyway.
Neil and Andrew communicate in almost-blank looks and short flashes of light. Neil briefly considers learning morse code, because Andrew seems like the type of person who’d know that, somehow, but decides he’s got enough on his plate and Andrew seems to understand him just fine.
Andrew doesn’t always do what Neil or anyone else asks him to - in fact, Neil might argue he still doesn’t cooperate as often as he makes eye contact and shakes his head - but he’s a lot more likely to after Neil’s flashed a light in his eyes a few times.
It only lasts a few more weeks before someone more than Renee and Allison notices that Andrew will make eye contact or direct a gesture towards Neil before saying a line, if he chooses to. Then Neil finds himself looking up at the tattooed director, a man Neil thinks is called Wymack. (“David,” Renee assures him.)
“Who are you?” Wymack says gruffly, but in a tone that Neil doesn’t think is accusatory.
“This is Neil,” Allison says, appearing from somewhere else, managing, somehow, not to look ruffled in the least despite running around all morning. “He’s been running the lights, and he’s brilliant.”
“I didn’t give you the job.”
“No,” Neil responds, after a slight hesitation.
“We needed an extra set of hands, and Neil was outside.”
“He’s a stray?” Wymack asks, and Allison nods. “Of course he is. You the one who’s been making Minyard actually play his part occasionally?”
Neil shrugs, then nods. He doesn’t really think anyone can make Andrew Minyard do anything, but the statement is more true than not.
“Huh,” Wymack says. “Alright. You let me know if you need anything, and see if you can convince him to act rather than just speak.”
“Pretty tall order,” Neil mutters.
Wymack snorts out a laugh. “Don’t I know it.”
The panic comes when Neil realises they depend on him. Sure, the play could run without him; Allison and Renee are more than capable of doing the lights, and they could find and teach someone else, he’s sure. But now he’s not just there to press buttons at the right times, he’s the only thing getting someone to read his lines.
It’s more responsibility than he’s had for years. He’s gone from school to school to college, and he’d only barely worked up enough nerve to maybe commit to four years, and he’s found - friends? maybe? - a group of people with whom he feels he fits, somehow, and who would notice if he left.
He’s someone, here, and the pressure that comes with that unknown constricts his chest.
He breathes through it. There’s no one near enough to hear the hitch in his breath, but he only realises he misses a light cue when the familiar weight of Andrew’s gaze rests on him. He didn’t shine a light, he didn’t move any of the lights at all, and Andrew noticed him anyway.
He can’t breathe. He presses the right buttons on instinct and gestures for everyone to keep going. He’s fine, he’s fine, he doesn’t need to breathe right now and he can work through it.
He looks down at his script, trying to find comfort in the remembered words, but it’s just a reminder of all the pressure riding on him. There’s a roaring in his ears, so he doesn’t know if the play’s continuing or not, but he can’t do anything. He just hopes he’ll remember his cues.
“Neil,” The sound of the familiar voice tugs at him; his chosen name can still cut through the fog constricting him. Andrew hasn’t removed his eyes from Neil, but it’s the first time he’s spoken to him. Neil’s too surprised to do anything but look back. “How am I supposed to remember when to speak without you?” Andrew says it deadpan, which startles a laugh from a couple of the cast members, even if they seem confused about why Andrew is talking to a random tech guy when he rarely deigns to even say his own lines.
Neil knows Andrew doesn’t mean it. He knows that Andrew knows all of his lines, and he knows when to speak and exactly how he will deliver them; he knows this even if he doesn’t know why Andrew doesn’t speak his lines. The blankly sarcastic question from Andrew somehow brings Neil back to this moment, and he changes the light settings without so much as a word back to Andrew. He just needs to catch his breath, that’s all.
The costume department has started to provide costumes for some of the characters. It’s an interesting sight, to say the least, when the stage is comprised of some people in modern dress, some in Victorian, and some halfway between. Everyone looks distinctly uncomfortable, but they shrug and say it’s theatre . That seems to be the phrase to sum up anything weird or uncomfortable that happens near a stage.
Watching the show come together, though, seems almost magical. They’re able to run through the whole thing in just over five hours, if Wymack doesn’t stop to give commentary. Neil doesn’t know how it’ll get cut down to two hours, but he’s been assured it’ll happen if he’s patient. (“Of course I can be patient,” he responds, “the play takes five hours to run through.”)
He’s not sure when the actors learnt his name.
“Andrew didn’t turn up today,” A boy who looks astonishingly like Andrew says in a monotone to Renee.
She looks around at the papers that surround her, “I can’t- thanks, Aaron,” She remembers, and lets him go with a smile. “Neil, would you mind doing me a favour?” He nods. He’s learnt that Renee won’t ask him anything he couldn’t do. “Thank you. There are a few places Andrew might be if he knows he’s supposed to be here, but I can’t check. Would you?”
When Allison asks where he’s going, she snorts. “Yeah, you’re the only other person who he might not throw off of a roof.”
Neil isn’t sure what she means by that, but decides to take it as encouragement.
Neil actually does find Andrew on the roof, and he can’t quite think of what he’s supposed to say in order to get Andrew to go to rehearsal, so he doesn’t say anything at all. Instead, he just sits on the edge of the roof next to Andrew, and takes in the scent of smoke that reminds him of bad habits and the mother he sometimes wishes he could forget.
“You,” Andrew says, and he almost sounds resigned.
“No lights to flash in your eyes. Don’t worry.”
“No hidden torches?”
“That’s an idea.”
“I’m not a kitten. I won’t follow your trails of light.”
“I thought that was laser pointers,” Neil responds, before thinking that maybe he wasn’t supposed to be flippant. “I didn’t think you would. I only did it because you pissed me off and I wanted to return the favour.”
Andrew levels him a searching look. Neil doesn’t say anything, doesn’t turn, doesn’t outwardly acknowledge it at all. Andrew looks away without Neil figuring out what he was looking for. “Then I guess I owe you a favour.”
“Pissing me off isn’t a favour I’d want to return, actually, but thanks,” Neil isn’t sure why this conversation feels like a test, but he hopes he’s grading better than the scores on his homework assignments have been. (He’s got to switch majors. He can’t learn another language on top of the play. Unfortunately, he also can’t decide what major is better for him on top of the play.)
After a short silence, Andrew says, “Don’t you have somewhere you need to be?”
“Don’t you?” Neil returns. Andrew just shrugs. Neil grasps for the few things he knows about Andrew, thinks of what could make him respond, and the only thing he comes back with is return the favour . “What can I give you for you to go to rehearsal?”
Andrew regards Neil again. Neil lets the silence stretch, not taking back his question. The worst that can happen is a denial - or maybe you’ll get thrown off the roof. Finally, he says, “A question.”
Neil hesitates for half a second, “Fine.”
Andrew looks at his cigarette, and drops it over the side of the building as finished before getting up to head back inside. Neil follows.
“I have no idea how you managed to get that monster to turn up, but I’m grateful to whatever god allowed it to happen,” Wymack says, making another appearance in the small light booth.
“You just have to ask the right way,” Neil says, only looking away from the stage for a brief second.
He feels the weight of Wymack’s gaze on him for a second longer before he leaves, and can’t shake the suspicion that Wymack sees more than Neil can.
At the end of rehearsal, Neil is finishing up when he feels Andrew’s eyes on him from behind. He acknowledges Andrew with just a glance, and continues. It’s kind of unfair, he thinks, that it takes the actors less time to get out of full Victorian dress than it takes him to simply turn all the settings off to a safe area.
(“The light system’s old, but try getting anyone to pay to fix it,” Allison says, rolling her eyes.
“Wait, which one of us here is the rich one?” An actor, someone whose name Neil hasn’t learnt yet, returns.)
When he’s done, Andrew leads Neil to the roof. Neil figures he has maybe forty minutes before he’ll have to run to make his next class, but that’s fine. He’s been running to make them all anyway, and it’s freshman year. It barely counts. At least, he thinks it barely counts.
Andrew sits on the edge and smokes without offering Neil a cigarette. Neil notices how far he can see from here, and thinks it’s not a bad place to spend a while.
“My question,” Andrew says, finally, “is to ask what your story is.”
Neil is first hit with the wave of resignation that comes whenever he remembers how dramatic theatre kids are. Next is surprise, because he knows he’s going to tell Andrew the truth. He can’t shake the feeling that Andrew would see right through him if he didn’t, and that he’d believe Neil if he did tell the truth. And really, what has he got to lose? This isn’t friendship, they’re coworkers. The worst case scenario is he and Andrew don’t talk after this, and they don’t really talk as it is.
But still, it’s an uncomfortable story, and one that Neil has never told. The silence between them lasts just a touch too long before Neil starts. “My father was abusive. And not… I don’t know, not in small ways. The only small reprieve I was allowed was that he knew not to make it obvious, so he never did anything that would cross a certain line, but… it was enough. I think it was after he took an iron to my chest that my mom decided it was too dangerous for us and we left,” Neil notices, a few seconds too late, that his hand is resting over his burn mark as though protecting it. He rests his hands in his lap.
“We lived in 22 places in eight years, I think. We had different names, back stories, even language sometimes. I think maybe she went too far in thinking he’d find us. Even after I found an article, a small thing in a newspaper local to Baltimore, that he’d been killed in prison over a petty fight, we kept moving. We only stopped, in the end, because she said she couldn’t keep living like this. I said we could stay, and the next morning she didn’t wake up. So I guess that’s not what she meant.
“I left. It’s all I knew how to do, I guess, and she’d told me a million times we couldn’t trust child services or anyone else, so that stuck with me in the initial panic. I got the first bus out of Seattle and didn’t stop until I was in Arizona. I didn’t even look her up online for a few months. I wasn’t reported missing, but that’s because apparently my father had said I was dead years before.” Neil feels empty in the retelling, the blank space inside him making him feel as though perhaps the reporters weren’t wholly wrong. There’s a part of him that died with his mother in Seattle, and he just hopes that part was named Nathaniel.
Andrew doesn't respond, but he looks at Neil. There’s a look in his eyes that’s not quite compassion or empathy, but it’s close - at least, as close as he’s seen Andrew reach those emotions.
Neil clears his throat, “What’s your major?”
Andrew looks slightly surprised for half of a second before schooling his expression back to blank. “This isn’t an exchange. This was evening the balance.”
“I know. I just wondered,” Neil responds, knowing the implicit I don’t want to talk about my family anymore hangs between them.
There’s silence for ten seconds before Andrew says, “Criminal justice.”
Neil nods and wonders if it’s information offered freely or if he’s supposed to reciprocate. Talking to Andrew is still so new that he’s unsure of the rules and terms. He decides that if Andrew thinks Neil owes him something, he can ask.
And he does.
Andrew starts to meet Neil on the roof after most rehearsals. Neil isn’t sure why, if it’s a matter of reciprocity or the start of a strange friendship, but he sees no reason to say no.
One rehearsal runs right up to the start of a class, so he seeks Andrew out after asking Renee to take care of the lights booth because he doesn’t have the time. He thinks he feels the weight of every actor’s eyes on him as he approaches Andrew.
(“He has never participated in a play before. He never plays his part until there’s an audience. Are we sure we’ve not accidentally mixed him up with Aaron or something?”
“It’s something to do with that new tech guy, I swear. It’s got to be.”
“I’ve got class,” Neil says, and Andrew regards him with uninterested eyes. Neil knows somewhere in him that the lack of interest is completely feigned, and that part wants to mess with Andrew, just a little bit. “I’ll meet you after,” he says, then leaves.
Andrew’s there, on the roof, when Neil gets there after his class lets out. Sitting next to Andrew, Neil says, “Don’t you ever have class?”
“Shut up, Josten.”
There’s one sleepless night, which isn’t new. He doesn’t sleep well as a general rule, but he’s been better, recently - he thinks it’s sheer exhaustion, running between the play and class and trying to keep up with homework in between.
But it’s as he lies awake, listening to his roommate snore, that he remembers the first time Andrew used his name. Eye contact to cut through the panic trying to swallow Neil whole, and his name.
He hadn’t introduced himself to Andrew.
Neil’s mouth twists into something that could be a smile.
The dress rehearsals go horribly. Everyone’s annoyed, the costumes barely fit, the sets fall apart, and people are still forgetting their lines. “If it goes wrong in dress rehearsals, that’s a good sign,” Allison says, sounding unconvinced.
“This isn’t just ‘wrong’,” Neil returns. “This is the dystopian alternative to the play.”
Allison snorts. “Alright, Captain Killjoy.”
Even Neil gets lighting cues wrong, but he blames that on the actors accidentally looping the scene three times. His brain feels like it’s leaking out through his ears, so it’s no surprise he pressed the wrong button.
One actor gets frustrated enough to literally walk off stage mid-scene. Wymack asks another, in a gentle voice, if he is able to read, because otherwise he doesn’t understand why five months wasn’t enough to learn three lines. Someone in the costume department rips a dress in half with their bare hands.
The crowning moment, though, of their first dress rehearsal, is where Andrew gets so frustrated at both of the other actors in one of his scenes that he plays all three parts without letting anyone else get a word in edgeways, then walks off to a standing ovation. The other actors on stage are flushed an angry red, only partly helped by Neil’s lighting choices. It’s the only fun he has all day.
“Opening night,” Renee says, her smile confident, as Neil arrives in the theatre department.
“So it’s too late for me to quit?” Neil asks.
“Afraid so,” Renee says, then leads Neil into the lighting booth. “Mind if I check the lights with you?”
“Go ahead,” Neil says, knowing, for all intents and purposes, he’s still the new boy. Even if his name is in the program. Then he remembers something Andrew had mentioned about Renee. He’d meant to bring it up in a spare second, and hadn’t had any. “Renee, you and Andrew… spar?”
“Yes,” she says, with her soft smile. “I wondered when you’d ask.”
“You don’t look the fighting type.”
She laughs. “I suppose that’s why I was never caught when the other members of my gang ended up in prison,” Neil doesn’t even manage to draw the breath to question her before she continues, still fixing the light controls. “To give you the short version, as we’re short on time, I used to live in Detroit, and I was a runner for a gang. Yes, I fought, and I even killed. I’m trying to put that behind me as best as possible, though. I got adopted by a wonderful woman, changed my name from Natalie to Renee, and I found God. Renee means ‘reborn’. This life I’ve chosen is my second chance. But Andrew still recognised my past in me, and we became friends of a sort.”
Neil tries to picture soft Renee in combat with Andrew, who is all hard edges, and fails, until he remembers one time Renee dealt with an angry actor who had a complaint about his hat - she smiled her sweetest smile, and held him in place until he decided it wasn’t worth his time. At the time, Neil had thought the actor hadn’t been trying very hard to get past her, but maybe Renee was just trying very hard not to let him get past. Neil thinks he can see her having a soul made of steel.
“The light settings are right,” She says, “You only had this one off.”
“Okay, thank you.”
Renee checks a piece of paper on her clipboard. “Actually, could you get Andrew for me? He’s supposed to be in makeup soon, and I haven’t seen him.”
“Okay,” Neil says, because he has no other job to do.
Not finding Andrew on the roof isn’t really a surprise, but it does mean that Neil has to think about where Andrew might be. It’s opening night, so Andrew isn’t actually likely to skip out, which means he found something more important. That leaves only a couple of options, and since Aaron is likely to already be in the costume department, Neil seeks out Kevin instead.
(According to the theatre department gossip, Kevin is the reason Andrew auditioned this year rather than running tech. Andrew is in almost all of Kevin’s scenes, but apart from that, it’s hard to see them having any kind of friendship. Andrew goes out of his way to antagonise Kevin. Still, despite that and anything Andrew may say about Kevin, it’s clear to Neil that Andrew feels protective over Kevin. If something happened to Kevin, Andrew would drop almost anything to help.)
Sure enough, Neil rounds a corner to find Kevin sat on a table with Andrew’s hands around his neck. “Andrew,” Neil says, not actually sure how he’s going to stop the choking. “You’re supposed to be in costume.”
“Oh, you’re right,” Andrew says. “You can deal with this idiot for me.”
“Sure,” Neil says, because it gets Andrew to release Kevin’s neck. It’s only when Andrew leaves that Neil realises he’s never actually talked to Kevin before. “How’s your neck?”
“It’s been better,” Kevin says, and he only sounds a little choked. Neil doesn’t think Andrew would seriously hurt Kevin on opening night, which means he sounds choked from something else. Looking closer, he can recognise some symptoms of panic. At a guess, Neil thinks Kevin started panicking and tried to grab Andrew without warning. Touch without consent with Andrew is a serious offence.
Kevin sighs. “I forgot. I tried to- you don’t touch Andrew.”
Neil nods, “I meant why you’re panicking. It’s not stage fright.”
Kevin looks at Neil, surprised. “That’s why Andrew likes you, then,” Before Neil can express his confusion, Kevin carries on. “Some old family friends are going to be in the audience tonight. We, uh, didn’t part on good terms.” Kevin rubs at the hand that Neil knows was broken a year or so ago, a nervous tic, and Neil thinks he understands. He has to fight the urge to trace some of the scars on his chest, too.
“Breathe. Go through your lines. Show them you’re in a better place than where they left you.” Neil thinks spending time with theatre kids might have made him pretentious.
“And if I’m not in a better place?”
“You’re an actor,” Neil says, just tired. “If you can’t pretend you’re good, you don’t deserve to be on that stage.”
“You’re due in costume in ten minutes. If you’re not there, I’ll tell Andrew to play your part as well as his.”
Kevin snorts at that. “Why does he listen to you, anyway? He says ‘no’ before I even ask.”
Neil shrugs, “You’ve just got to ask the right way.”
Kevin rubs at his neck. “Okay. Tell Allison I’ll be in costume in a few.”
“I’ve never seen Kevin perform this well,” Allison mutters to Renee, just before intermission.
“Goosebumps,” Renee responds, holding out her arm to Allison.
“There’s the saviour of the play,” Andrew says, when Neil finds him on the rooftop later.
“I just do the lights,” Neil responds.
Andrew scoffs, blowing smoke with the action. Neil breathes one deep breath, and lets it out in time with Andrew’s smoke. He’s not sure when he became comfortable at Palmetto, but he thinks he can come to terms with it.