The Star and the Ocean: Chapter Seventeen

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Em opened her mouth to protest but Lenaia had already turned on her heel, sashaying toward the stage. Em tossed back an ample swig of her drink before hurrying to catch up.

“Are you performing tonight too?” Em asked, trying to friendly.

“Me?” Lenaia laughed. “Not a chance. My uncle runs the theatre company. I’m a server at a restaurant in town, so when he’s running a show I like to help him out on the floor. It’s really just an excuse to hang out with some friends from one of the bands backstage between acts but it makes him happy.”

Em raised an eyebrow. “You hang out with them when you’re working?”

“Hey, I earn my breaks,” she replied, feigning offense, but offsetting it with a wink.

Lenaia’s idea of a “better seat” turned out to be stage left. From the shadows of the velvet curtains, Em had a perfect view of the stage without the distraction of an audience.

Hovering at Em’s shoulder, Lenaia lingered. “So, you’re a friend of May’s?”

Em hadn’t given much thought to the nature of her relationship with May before now. They just… were.

“Sure,” she replied casually, keeping her gaze locked across the stage. She didn’t need to look at Lenaia to know she was staring intently.

“Good,” Lenaia broke at last, joining Em in gazing beyond the curtains. “She’s a nice girl. People still say awful things but I don’t think she deserves it.”

Em glanced at her quickly, a shadow blending in with the darkness backstage. “What do you mean?”

Lenaia hesitated before answering.

“You’ll probably hear some rumours if you stick around long enough. But they’re not true.”

As if on cue, May stepped out onto stage and struck a pose. The spotlight was lit. Em beheld her in a single breathless moment: all black lace and skin, glitter and red lips. Rose gold waves were pinned up and an ornate mask framed dark blue eyes. Moments before the music started, May turned a heavy-lidded gaze in Em’s direction and smiled.

It was May as Em had never seen her before. She was electric.

Em wasn’t blind; she had always known May was cute. But this – this was something else altogether. As May drew her eyes away, the memory of every fleeting touch and lingering gaze came rushing back to Em in an overwhelming instant.

Blind she was not, but oblivious?

Not anymore.

Lenaia, watched Em gape while she grinned knowingly. “Most of the rumors aren’t, anyway.”

***

After the show, Em loitered backstage near a large cork board plastered with layers of photos. The collection seemed to be a long-standing tradition; an instant film camera hung by its wrist strap from a tack on the board, ready to capture spontaneous memories of life behind the theater’s velvet curtain.

Em hunted until she found one of May. Between the faded colors and May’s long hair, Em figured the photo was fairly dated. In it, May beamed at the camera, grinning cheek-to-cheek with another equally happy girl with dark features and a brilliant smile. Both were dressed in similar sparkling dance costumes.

Em leaned in to take a better look and was startled by a tap on the shoulder. May smiled at her when she turned, almost as widely as she had in her photo.

“Well? What did you think?”

For a split second, Em found the disconnect between the alluring character May played on stage and the sweet, unassuming person standing before her to be jarring. Gone were the shimmering costumes and dark make-up; May was herself again, skin covered by leggings and long loose sleeves. Her smile was anxious as she waited to hear Em’s verdict.

She was the same and yet, all at once, somehow different. It hadn’t just been the form-fitting outfits or the seductive glance – Em had glimpsed another side of May through the passion she poured into her craft. Em was intrigued. She wondered if she had ever really seen May before this moment.

The unflinching confidence she had shown onstage was like a secret May kept hidden beneath layers of quiet and awkwardness. Now that Em had seen it, all she wanted to do was drag it out into the daylight. Even in the afterglow of her performance, May shone with infectious happiness and excitement. Em wanted to find a way to bask in that light a little longer – to see May smile like she had on that stage again. She wanted May to smile at her that way.

“You were wonderful!” Em exclaimed. Without thinking, she reached out as if to… What? Embrace her? She paused awkwardly before pulling her arms back to her sides and cramming her hands into her pockets.

May flushed and bobbed a tiny curtsey. “Thank you!”

“She was wonderful, wasn’t she?” Lenaia materialized unexpectedly beside them both, placing a firm hand on each of their shoulders. “Now hurry up or you’re going to miss the rest of the crew.”

Em and May exchanged a bewildered look.

“Where are we hurrying to?” Em asked.

“We’re going dancing, my pale friend.” Lenaia patted her on the cheek. She pointed to May, “You promised you’d come out next time. Well, welcome to next time. I don’t want to hear any excuses!”

Before either one could say a word, she whirled away to rally more party-goers,

“I vaguely remember making that promise,” May cringed apologetically.

Em lit up. “Then we’d better hurry!”

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Ko-Fi May

Banner art by @beverlylove

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