Acting Aloof

"So let me get this straight," I said as Dani was driving me home that day. "Your school had a 'Queen Bee' named Charlotte, who transferred to another high school in another State."

"Our school." She corrected as she swerved round a corner.

"Right, so she left and her place was usurped by this Heather girl, who tried to mooch in on Charlotte's Ex. Paul. And Paul was and is the reigning King in terms of popularity. He's captain of the basketball team etc. Except Paul was still crushed about Charlotte and turned Heather down?"

"Correct,"

"So Charlotte's other friend Brittany spread rumours about how Heather was a traitor to Charlotte's memory and Paul turning her down showed that she wasn't worthy of being the Yin to his Yang."

"That's probably a censored version of how it went down but I don't know all the details since I'm a sophomore."

"This is how Jake told it anyway." I didn't add some of the more outrageous theories Tyrone had interjected or the cynical comments from Simone. "And now it's a power struggle between Heather and Brittany, where everyone has to either stick to their own cliques or pick a side?"

"That's about the sum of it." She pulled into my driveway. After grabbing some snacks from the kitchen we slumped down on my bed.

"That is so unreal."

She laughed. "The social structure of our high school is not real?"

"Yes." I shot back stubbornly. Then, "No."

"Jeez bipolar much?"

"It's clichéd and stupid. What's stupid is the fact that we even know these details. That it's common knowledge. What's stupid is that these two girls are cat-fighting their way to the top of an antiquated social hierarchy where materialism and Machiavellianism prevail and the reigning 'King'-Paul what's-his-name is so rightfully complacent in the notion that no one will ever challenge his authority because our own misogynistic perspectives fail to comprehend that maybe we don't even need a male figurehead (no matter how much of a player he thinks he is) running what is morphing into an anachronistic patriarchal society."

She blinked. "Wow. That was…a very long sentence"

I sucked in a deep breath. "Sorry, didn't mean to spas out on you, it's just kind of jarring."

"Jahrr-ring?" She teased, doing her mock-British accent.

"Dodgy."

"Dohd-jee"

"Shut up. You know what I mean. It's weird. Bogus dude!" I made skate-boarding motions.

She laughed. "It is a bit. But chill cuz, it sounds like you've made friends with some of the few relatively neutral people left. Jake's an all-round nice guy. I've talked to him a bit. He's not a Greenpeace freak but he helps out when our school does charity drives and all that jazz. Tyrone's known to one and all as a really funny guy and I don't know much about Simone but I've seen her with the 'in-crowd' as often as not. Play your cards right and you'll never even come close to the drama."

"I hope so."

"And hey, don't let anyone hear you trashing Paul at school. If word gets back to Heather or Brittany you'll have them both on your back and…making your life hell. Getting Paul would be the deciding factor in the race they've got going- homecoming queen, popularity; the whole shebang. Even if he wasn't a hottie half the girls in our school would still want to jump him, he's that well connected, and for lack of a better word, rich."

"Hm…I heard his parents are into oil."

"Drinking it or burning it?"

"Living on it."

"That sounds uncomfortable."

"You're a riot."

"What's that taste like?"

I slapped her hand but couldn't help but grin.

Dani merely laughed. This was why I loved her. She was like Bubbles from The Powerpuff Girls; always happy and sweet. "Back to the topic at hand…" She prompted.

I rolled my eyes. "Forget it. Why is it always about bloody oil? I've heard enough."

She threw a cushion at me, "Don't judge a book by its cover."

"I've read the blurb. It wasn't riveting." I sighed. "I wish I was in your year. Maybe if I do something bad enough they'll allow me to be moved back a couple of years."

"Are you kidding? The bitching originates from the seniors but it reverberates all the way back to the sophomores. Our social dynamics kind of mirror yours."

I groaned. "Enough! Can we please watch a movie? No chick-flicks, something with either Bruce Willis or Jackie Chan." I took a bite out of the burger I'd appropriated from my mum. Okay, so I like my junk food and I'm not the athletic type at all, I'm more of a couch potato.

Dani eyed me incredulously. "How are you still single?" I couldn't tell if she was being sarcastic or not.

"It's a mystery," I slurred as ketchup drooled down my chin.

The next day's registration went pretty much the same way. I took my seat answered to my name and talked to Tyrone and Jake. As we were walking out to our respective classes Jake pulled me to the side. "Try and keep Tyrone away from the school paper today."

"Why?"

"I hear Ashley Gibson wrote a segment on 'the worst pick-up lines' she'd ever heard."

I laughed, "Ouch"

"Yeah," He grinned.

"Wait, so that whole thing yesterday was staged? She was planning on writing that article already so she flirted with Ty on purpose?"

He considered this. "I never thought of that. Man, that's some cold shit."

"Don't tell Ty but I think she's my hero."

I caught sight of the infamous Paul Banks, our lord and champion while I was on my way to Chemistry. Jake had pointed him out the day before but I hadn't really bothered taking a close look. I had to grudgingly admit that he was beyond gorgeous. Nearly as tall as Yassir and his casual t-shirt did nothing to hide the firm abdominals and muscled frame underneath. His dark blond hair was cropped short and he had a bit of stubble which only served to emphasise his sun-kissed skin and impossibly dark blue eyes. It was a more mature version of that all-American boy look, a little more dangerous.

Not really my type though, luckily enough. I would have been in trouble if he fell under the tall, dark-haired handsome category. As it was I skirted around him and his group without letting my eyes linger long. It was more conducive to my sanity if I developed a strategy to avoid him, Brittany, Heather and anyone else who thought social-climbing was a legitimate pastime.

Working with Yassir was a nice diversion. I came to appreciate his simplicity and quietness. He didn't waste words and it was a trait that not a lot of people have nowadays. He waited for me to break the silence.

"How are you?" We were thirty minutes into class and those were the first words spoken between us. Oddly enough, it wasn't an awkward silence; merely efficient.

He smiled down at me, "Very well. My sister-in-law just gave birth to twins last night."

"Wow, congratulations." I beamed genuinely.

"Thank you."

"So isn't it customary to distribute sweets on an occasion like this?" I teased, Aisha had always brought in baklava when there was a wedding or she had good news.

"It is. Unfortunately I have a big family so they must be fed before my classmates."

"Of course…but just so you know I love finger roll baklava. Not that I'm hinting anything."

He laughed, "I'll keep that in mind Felicia. How was your first day?"

I frowned, not really knowing how to answer the question. It wasn't amazing but it wasn't exactly a nightmare either. "Interesting." I said finally. "I think I'm still adjusting though. I'm not used to the…cliques."

He nodded in understanding. "Someone told you about the whole Heather-Brittany war."

"God" I sighed, "I can't believe what a big deal that is. I mean it's kind of pathetic isn't it?"

"They are pathetic. And so are the people that follow them around like puppy dogs. They have no concept of dignity."

I found myself laughing at his tone, he sounded somehow offended that such people existed. "Western infidels." I intoned, doing my best Aisha impression.

He raised an eyebrow at me but his eyes were glinting with repressed humour. "I'm not that bad. I'm talking to you aren't I?"

"If I'd chatted crap the whole of yesterday's lesson, would you be?"

"No." He said shortly. "Beyond common courtesy; what's the point in wasting your time with people you don't like? It's dishonest and demeans you and them."

He had a fair point. I had always been a people-pleaser. I'm no social butterfly but I prefer to be at least on cordial terms with everyone. If you have no enemies you have no drama. I was beginning to sense that this philosophy may not get me far in this school though. Rather than be sucked into the drama I'd take a leaf out of Yassir's book and just avoid the people prone to it.

I had no idea my new resolution would be tested so soon after I'd made it. Yassir walked me to the refectory again and the dark-haired girl from yesterday waved him over to a table. "If you tire of the 'infidels' come join us." Yassir offered as he left me.

I didn't understand what he meant until I saw who was sitting with Simone.

Oh hell no.

Paul Banks had chosen today to sit and catch up with Simone which meant that Heather, Brittany and their group of followers had also migrated to what I'd already come to think of as our table. The thought made me snort. Our table? Oh no, it had already started. I was not going to fit into one of their neat little categories. If they could sit wherever the hell they liked so could I.

Tyrone and Jake were coming out of the lunch line and stopped, "Where you going baby?" Tyrone asked cheerily. He obviously hadn't seen the paper yet.

"I uh, thought I'd sit with-" I scanned the room and saw Yassir, "Yassir. He's my lab partner in Chem and there are a few things I need to ask him about." I felt a twinge of guilt at the lie.

"Come sit down, guys, what's the hold up?" Simone called.

Crap, now the whole table was watching us, including the big three. "Nothing, I'll see you later Simone." Damnit, now all eyes were on me. Stupid accent. Attention drawing…Garr.

"You're not sitting with us Felicia? I saved you a seat." She moved over a little making a space that would put me right across from Paul and almost next to Heather.

I smiled, a part of me appreciating the humour in the situation. "I have to talk to Yassir about a Chem thing; I'll see you later though?" I hoped I didn't offend her. She was nice, I liked her sardonic humour.

Still not wanting to be rude, I smiled vaguely in the direction of the rest of the table and nodded, nearly making my escape before "You're like the new girl from London. Penelope right?" It was Heather. I swear this girl is a frickin' genius. Simone said my name less than twenty seconds ago. It had to be intentional.

It took me a moment to answer because I finally noticed Paul's dark blue gaze watching me too. He was kind of disconcerting. It was too direct.

"Felicia. And you're…" I pretended I was thinking hard, then had a 'eureka!' moment which made a few people jump "Brittany? That's such a pretty name!" I gushed. A couple of the more intelligent jocks and Jake choked on a laugh.

Heather stared at me, as if indecisive about whether I'd dared to insult her or not. "No, I'm Heather."

"I'm Brittany," Brittany said eruditely from her end of the table, she was looking me up and down like a breeder would a new horse, taking in my petite frame. "And thanks. You should sit down over here; I could introduce you to some people." It was almost a command. She seemed confident I wouldn't turn her down.

Well if that wasn't an invitation from one of the Queen wanna-bees herself. Apparently by snubbing Heather I made my way into Brittany's good books. This is exactly the kind of thing I was trying to avoid, so I evened things out a bit.

"No thanks, I already know some people." I smiled at Heather, "Sorry about the mix up. I should have known you were Heather. It was nice meeting you both." While I was at it I even nodded at Paul, meeting his unsmiling eyes for a moment just to show him I wasn't intimidated. Then I legged it over to Yassir's table, leaving the A-list crowd to ponder what I'd meant.

Truthfully I didn't even know what I'd been thinking. I'd planned on flying under the radar and mouthing off to those two was only going to get me noticed. I sighed and plopped down next to Yassir, he introduced me to the girl he sat with- a Lebanese girl called Nyssa. The rest of the people were Arabs, Pakistani or Indian but there were a few shy Caucasians and a kid from Zimbabwe who chose the quiet serenity of this table over the others around.

The conversation topic turned to politics and I felt a little better. Other than that little eyebrow raise Yassir did when I sat next to him no one asked me what I'd been doing talking to the popular crowd. In many ways this little clique was more isolated from the mainstream. I ate my lunch in peace.

Between my last two periods somehow Tyrone found me. He slung an arm around my shoulders and grinned down at me. "That was some tight shit at lunch today 'Lee."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Uh huh. You really confused them you know. They were asking about you."

I groaned and smacked my forehead. "That's exactly what I didn't want."

He looked surprised. "And why's that?"

"I'm allergic to drama. And from what I can tell it radiates from those people. I was just hoping to lay low this semester and keep things simple."

"Well I could help you with the laying par- Ow!" I had punched him in the ribs. "Damn girl!"

I smirked. "You were saying?"

"Yeah, before you went all Lara Croft on my ass. You know, most girls would kill for the chance that you got."

I shrugged, feeling slightly uncomfortable. "Not really my thing. I didn't really offend anyone did I?" It was nothing personal after all.

He laughed. "Are you kidding? Heather and Brittany didn't even understand that you were taking pot-shots at them. Especially with that sexy accent of yours," I glared at him, "Although I think you got the attention of Money-Banks,"

"Money-Banks?" It took me a moment. "Paul Banks? What makes you say that?"

"He was watching you the whole time. Probably wondering why you didn't wanna sit with his holiness or else why you went straight to the 9/11 table. That's like jumping ship and swimming half way across the world in Ballard High."

I threw his arm off me, getting annoyed. "Yassir is a friend and that was a really racist comment Ty."

He held up his hands, "OK maybe that one was too much, it just kind of slipped out." He smiled apologetically, his hazel eyes going wide and that impossibly innocent look replacing his previous jovial one. I can't believe this guy. "Besides, it was probably your husky voice that really got his att-Ow!" This time I'd kicked his shin. "I'm just saying! You sound like a librarian. Everything you say sounds classy. You could tell them to fuck off and they'd ask you to tea."

"I hate tea." I grated.

"Really? I thought that was like crack to you people." He scratched his head. "Or maybe it was coffee."

Once again I found myself seeing the humour through my irritation. Tyrone was nothing if not entertaining. Politically incorrect but entertaining. "Coffee's fine."

"Great! You're meeting me; Jake and Simone for a Starbucks run after school. Later." And with that he was gone, sprinting off to class and leaving me there, mouth agape.

The bell must have gone a few minutes ago but I hadn't noticed. How had he managed to slip that in so smoothly? This was the guy that spouted off cheesy lines more often than not and he'd hoodwinked me.

While I was late anyway I lingered in the hall to send a message to Dani telling her not to wait for me. I had no idea what Starbucks those three were taking me to so I figured one of them could give me a lift back later. After I'd sent the message something on the bulletin board caught my eye. There was an electric pink flyer advertising auditions for a summer production of John Webster's "The Duchess of Malfi". They were in two weeks.

Damn. I new the play too. I'd studied it briefly in English Lit back home.

OK so I missed acting a lot. I'd always had this pipe dream that I'd be doing plays in the West End someday. Realistically I knew that it probably wouldn't happen, I'm a pretty decent actress but I knew better. Despite that, every time I took the stage in productions I felt a sense of control and serenity that I didn't get anywhere else. It was a complete high. I could leave myself and my personality behind and become whoever I was meant to be that day.

Of course if I was to audition for the play it would be the exact antithesis of laying low. It was practically guaranteed that I'd get more attention than I wanted or deserved. I bit my lip, indecisive.

"What are you doing loitering out here?" I jumped ten feet in the air and whirled around to see a weedy little woman in a pencil-skirt walking towards me. A teacher I wasn't familiar with but instantly disliked, she had a mean look on her pinched face. "The bell went fifteen minutes ago young lady. We don't tolerate truancy in our school and I trust a trip to the principal's office will rectify your lapse in correct decorum."

"I-"

"Now!" She barked.

I gritted my teeth and headed to Koontz's office. She hadn't even given me a chance to explain! Or to think of an appropriate excuse, I thought ruefully. I knocked on his door and he waved me in with a smile.

"What can I do for you, Miss Gray?"

The weedy woman followed me in, "I just caught this girl truanting. She was out of class at this time!"

Koontz frowned, "Thank you, Tamora." The woman stormed out the same way she'd stormed in. I wondered who'd spat in her cereal that morning. "Miss Gray, this is your second day here and although I understand it can be easy to get lost in some of the corridors I don't think fifteen minutes constitutes-"

"I'm sorry," I cut in smoothly, deciding they'd made the decision for me. "I got distracted by a flyer for the school play. I changed my mind, and I told you I'd let you know so I was on my way here." My ability to lie must be better than I thought because Koontz's slight frown instantly smoothed out, replaced by a beaming smile. I felt a twinge of guilt but it was as close to the truth as I could manage without getting into trouble so I pushed the feeling down.

"That's wonderful news. I know for a fact that enthusiasm about our school productions has dropped recently and it would be excellent to see someone with your background on a stage here."

I grinned. "Thank you, sir. If you wouldn't mind then, where's the drama department? Who do I have to get in touch with?"

That slight frown was back, "Don't let this dissuade you, she's actually a very fair woman." He warned. "The faculty member you need to get in touch with is Mrs Pierce."

I shrugged. "I don't know her."

"She's the teacher that just brought you in here."

Well shit.

I didn't tell Jake, Simone or Tyrone about my intentions to audition when we went for coffee later that day. Mostly our time was spent consoling Tyrone about his pick-up lines. He'd seen Ashley's article right before leaving campus and although it did not expressly state that he was the source of the worst of them there was some heavy hinting which would leave people who knew him no doubt as to where her material originated from.

During a lull in the conversation Simone asked me why I'd run off at lunch. "I don't buy that story about needing to work on Chem, it's only your second day and you don't strike me as that academically conscientious."

"Thanks," I said dryly.

"Any time babe. So?"

I had to bite my lip to stop myself from saying something about the vapid conversation I was expecting if I had sat down to lunch with them. She was friends with people in that circle and I didn't want to offend her. But she seemed to read my expression anyway and grinned. "Ah I see. You were repelled by the thought of Heather and Brittany."

I winced. "That makes me sound like a bitch doesn't it?"

"Not at all." She sipped her mocha. "I can understand you not wanting to get caught up in their games. Especially with the way they were all looking at you."

"They were just interested because I'm new and foreign. A Mary-Sue in their eyes. Once I've been here for a while the limelight will move to someone else."

"Don't be too sure about that." Jake murmured. "They tried to make you one of their pawns but you didn't take the bait. That was smart. How you dealt with it wasn't though."

I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. "Meaning?"

"Meaning," Simone continued so effortlessly I wondered if they'd rehearsed this, "In Ballard High you're either an outsider or else you pick a side. You kept them guessing."

"That's ridiculous."

"So is that article!" Tyrone complained. We all ignored him.

"You guys seem pretty neutral." I pointed out.

Simone shook her head. "Paul's a friend of mine. It's like having diplomatic immunity. It's more like a sibling relationship so tweedle dum and tweedle dee cup aren't threatened by me, but they can't force me to pick a side either. Jake and Tyrone are Heather supporters."

I stared at them. "She's hotter," Tyrone explained. "And Brittany is just scary. She's a cheerleader with a little too much brain power."

"Brittany needs to be smarter." Simone put in. "She's trying to get a scholarship to go to UW but that means she needs to be in the top percentile. Which makes her a bit of a bitch around finals."

I frowned. "What's your excuse for being on 'team Heather'?" I asked Jake.

Jake shrugged. "Heather donated to one of the food drives I ran last year. They're not all bad, Felicia."

"I never thought they were." I inhaled my latte. "I just have no interest in being one of their or Paul's sycophants. I'd rather be an outsider than have my every move analysed like this."

"It's too late." Tyrone said in a sing-song voice. "He's noticed you. You're 'cool' now."

I sighed, knowing they were all waiting for me to ask and hating myself for even wondering. "What did Banks even say about me?"

Simone laughed gleefully. "He asked me whether you'd had a run-in with Heather or Brittany before. He thought that was why you didn't want to sit with us. I told him no so he asked about you, what you were like. Said you seemed cool."

I nodded, curiosity satisfied, and got up.

"Where are you going?" She asked immediately.

"I'm feeling a little hungry. Thought I'd get a chocolate croissant."

"Felicia!?"

"What? Did you want one?"

"Did you not just hear what I told you?" Simone demanded incredulously.

"I heard you."

"And you have nothing else to say?"

I sighed. "Simone, what do you expect me to say? I'm not going to turn into one of his gushing admirers and stare at his picture on facebook all day long because I caught his attention for a few minutes. I don't even know the guy and I'm sure my life won't be the worse for wear not ever knowing him. Paul Banks may be Ballard High's resident Adonis or whatever but he's certainly not mine."

"That's nice to know." A warm baritone deadpanned.

Crap. I had never heard his voice before but I knew immediately. I mean I should have seen it coming. My luck had been like this ever since I started at this High School.

I looked to Jake, jerking a thumb over my shoulder for confirmation. "Paul Banks is standing right behind me, isn't he?"

My three so-called 'friends' were fighting admirably against their laughter. Jake barely managed a choked. "Yep."

I knew I was cringing but I whirled round and pasted a friendly smile on my face, forcing myself to look up into those dark blues. Once again I was thankful that I wasn't attracted to him. "Hi, how's it goin'?"

His eyebrows rose fractionally and there was the slightest bit of humour glinting in his eyes but otherwise his expression remained passive. "Felicia, wasn't it? I don't know your last name."

"Gray."

He nodded, "Nice to meet you, Felicia Gray," He greeted Simone warmly (with a small genuine smile I'd never seen on him) and did that manly-handshake thing with Jake and Ty. By the time he turned back to me I had composed myself a little better.

"I should go, guys," I told Jake and Ty, I shot Simone a look. They had to have known he was coming. A little warning would have been nice. "It was nice meeting you Paul."

"Was it?"

I was only a few steps away from escape and he had to feel conversational. "Sorry?"

"Was it nice meeting me? I get the impression you don't like me very much."

Wow, that was a more astute and direct observation than I was expecting from him. Ah well, I guess you had to have some brains to be the ruling overlord of a whole high school. Still he was wrong.

"No, I don't not like you. I don't not not like you either." He blinked, ha! Let him chew on that. "I don't know you. Actually, it probably would have been better if you had taped that embarrassing monologue I made a minute ago because that about sums up my viewpoint on the issue."

He was quiet a moment, obviously surprised that I had stuck to my guns. I'll be damned if I apologise for something I meant to say. It's his own fault he was eavesdropping. He raised an eyebrow, eyes glinting with suppressed humour "Care to reiterate?"

He probably wanted to hear me say the part where he was Ballard High's 'Adonis' again. Bloody narcissistic arse. It wasn't like he didn't know it. Even here, in this random Starbucks there was a waitress behind the till and a red head a few tables down trying to catch his eye, smiling flirtatiously.

I sighed, deciding to be honest. Once again, I didn't want to make any enemies here. "I just don't like being in the spotlight and unfortunately that's a place where you live. Speaking of which, I think I'll step off my proverbial podium now and go home. See you later guys."

I stepped outside of Starbucks, walked around until I found a nice bookstore to occupy my time in and called Dani to come and pick me up. And that was that.

Or at least it should have been anyway. The trouble was, for the next couple of days I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. As if this were some cheesy high school comedy and my indifference towards the most popular guy in school would irritate him enough to seek me out and try to change my opinion. Of course it never happened. It was just now that we had talked I was a little more aware of his presence and when he noticed me in the hallways he'd nod or wave but nothing more. It seemed we were both indifferent and that suited me fine.

I settled into a routine at school, getting more comfortable in my friendship with Jake, Ty and Simone. Yassir was a solid presence when I needed a break and Nyssa was really sweet too. Two weeks passed in a blur and soon I was begging off going to the cinema with my friends after school so that I could audition for the play. I still hadn't told them. I'm not quite sure why though.

When I entered the assembly hall that doubled as a theatre I took a seat near the back, going over the monologue I'd prepared again. I was early but slowly the front two rows began to fill, a few faculty members had come to watch and a few of the drama club regulars. Once everyone had settled down Mrs Pierce stepped onto the stage, that seemingly perpetual pinched look was painful under the harsh lights.

"We're going to be viewing auditions for Bosola first. Would everyone who is going to audition today move towards the front please." She barked. Me and a couple of girls who had settled in the middle moved to sit next to the drama club regulars. I continued going over my lines as a few guys tried out. Mrs Pierce called their names off a list she had. I noticed it was in reverse-alphabetical order. She also tapped the table in front of her twice before she called out each name. I wondered if she had OCD.

Two of the guys that went up were really good and didn't need any prompts and two were abysmal. Bosola was my favourite character in the play, if I'd only been a guy I would have killed for that role. Ferdinand tryouts were next and I realised she'd do the Duchess last.

I began to feel the familiar tingling of butterflies in my stomach. Why did I love doing this again? To exacerbate things Ashley Gibson took the seat next to me. It was probably a symptom of my anxiety that I forgot about my wariness of her and smiled nervously, "Hi."

She looked surprised. "Hey. Are you auditioning?"

"Yeah for the lead. I think. You?"

"Oh, I'm doing an article for the paper. Hey, once you've auditioned I could interview you."

I chuckled. "If I don't talk myself out of it anyway."

"You shouldn't be nervous. You must know it's all rigged anyways."

"What?" I asked, startled.

"Yeah, you know…this audition farce is just for Koontz's sake. Pierce has already got the leads she wants in mind. She's a very resolute woman."

My mouth worked silently for a moment, I was midway between astonished and appalled. "Who?"

"Hmm?"

"Who has she chosen?"

"Oh umm…I think Jade Williams for Cariola, Michelle Newnan is the Duchess, Paul Banks for Antonio, Kaden Dash is Bosola…"

I was half a second from jumping out of my chair and leaving when I considered what she'd just said. Something about Paul's oft expressionless face made me think that acting in a school play was not something he'd be a part of. Then I examined Ashley's glib face and recalled the first time I'd seen her. Flirting with Tyrone. Effortlessly stringing him along like a puppy.

I sat back in my chair and smiled companionably. "You're full of shit." That startled her. "You're going for the lead too, aren't you?"

She chortled, held up her hands, eyes sparkling and pretence gone. "Guilty as charged. I just couldn't resist feeling out the competition."

"You really do play dirty." I said bemused.

"If you can't handle the heat...besides with most people the thought of Paul Banks being here would keep them seated."

"But you knew that would scare me off?"

"I noticed your aversion to Paul Banks your second day here, that's a plus in my books but you're a friend of Simone's so I couldn't resist yanking your chain."

I frowned. "What do you have against Simone?"

"She's a bitch."

"That's what she said about you."

"Figures." She brushed a red strand out of her face. "So have you acted before?"

"A few times," I didn't want to go into depth. "I like this play but I'm actually not too fond of the Duchess."

"Why's that?"

My eyes probed the stage, still wondering if I would flop this audition. "She is meant to be this strong woman. But she just gave up; at the end she didn't even try to run away or fight. Cariola at least struggled and tried to live."

Ashley shook her head. "It wasn't like that. She was defiant 'til the end. Remember that line; 'I am the Duchess of Malfi still'? Her brothers never broke her. She would have struggled if there was anything left to struggle for."

"She honestly believed that her husband and children were dead. And she loved them. Her love for Antonio wasn't one of those nonsensical lust-filled ones like Romeo and Juliet. It was the forever kind. The kind where you marry the guy, bear his children and would give up everything to be with him but he makes you a better person just by knowing him.

"That's the only reason she wanted death, and she was religious so probably believed she'd meet them in the afterlife. Her death was her liberation from her brothers. In that sense her brothers didn't kill her; she died of her own accord, not even afraid to go."

"A Duchess to the end…" I murmured the sense in what she was saying dawning on me.

"Absolutely."

A short emo-looking girl called Amanda Hitch botched the Duchess's lines and I winced. "Don't worry," Ashley grinned, "I'm sure that won't happen to you. Not with all these people watching."

I laughed. "Are you trying to psych me out?"

"Just a little. Is it working?"

"Is your last name spelt with an I or a Y?

That threw her. "Uh…an I…?"

I grinned. "Thanks for the insight on the Duchesses' character. Now I understand her, I'll be able to do this more naturally. Aren't you going to tell me to break a leg?"

She stared at me.

"Gray, Felicia." Mrs Pierce called, true to her weird reverse-alphabetical order thing.

I stood and Ashley was narrowing her eyes at me but I saw amusement flicker in them so I just waved and walked onto the stage, swallowing thickly. There were a lot more people here than I thought. Probably around twenty. When Mrs Pierce saw it was me she scowled briefly, obviously remembering me from that whole 'truancy' thing. I knew I'd have to work pretty hard for her to get past her bias of me. She'd probably already written me off as a slacker and would be less willing to give me the part than Ashley.

This is it. I thought.

I had to close my eyes for a moment but only a moment. When I opened them, I wasn't Felicia Gray anymore. I was Ann. Ann was good at acting. She was confident; she was perky and didn't give two shits what people thought about her. She was my stage personality and she'd been with me for years, ever since I'd first landed the lead role in Tyke Tyler's Turbulent Term in primary school. With no effort Ann became the Duchess.

"Miss Gray, would you please start, you're wasting m-"

"Who would be afraid on't, knowing to meet such excellent company in th'other world?" I demanded defiantly, moving closer to the front of the stage as if to intimidate my adversary.

A man sitting next to Pierce took the hint and read from the play, "Yet methinks the matter of your death should much afflict you; this cord should terrify you?"

Tears stung my eyes but my back remained straight and my voice was firm. I would be with my beloved soon. "Not a whit." I rebuffed. "What would it pleasure me to have my throat cut with diamonds? Or to be smothered with cassia? Or to be shot to death with pearls?" I wasn't even aware of my audience or anything else as I finished the monologue, only the Duchess and her regal defiance. When I came back to myself I realised my cheeks were slightly damp and wiped them. I immediately felt embarrassed. I never cried in public.

Scanning my silent audience I wasn't able to tell how I'd done. Maybe I'd come off as too dramatic? The thought made me cringe.

After what felt like an age Mrs Pierce said tersely, "Thank you Miss Gray." I nodded and got off stage as they called Ashley up; unsurprisingly she was the last one to audition.

I didn't really want to see her performance; I already knew she was a terrific actress. She'd fooled me twice. Once when I thought she was seriously flirting with Tyrone and then when she'd told me this thing was rigged. Although I bore no grudge I didn't really need my ego stomped on right that minute so I exited the assembly hall quietly. Mrs Pierce had our numbers and would phone to tell us all if we got the parts we wanted.

I stepped into the empty hallway and then moved aside as someone else stepped out after me.

"You?" I blurted.

"Paul actually, but I also answer to 'Ballard high's resident Adonis'."

"Ha ha." Why did my verbal skills always seem to go haywire when this guy was around?

He leaned his back against the lockers facing me. "My sister Laura was trying out for the handmaid part." He said by way of explanation.

"Oh." Excellent. I was monosyllabic. "I didn't know you had a sister." I managed.

He shrugged my comment off and fixed me with a piercing gaze. "I thought you didn't like the spotlight."

Huh? What was he- oh right. "I don't. Ann does." I mentally kicked myself as he gave me a strange look. Shut up Felicia, He doesn't need to know about your near-multiple personality disorder! Then I sighed, I might as well tell him so his curiosity would be satisfied and he'd forget about me again.

"When I'm performing I'm not myself. Since I was little I never liked being the centre of attention so when I was eleven and cast for the lead in my first play I panicked. My mum told me the fun thing about theatre was that you could be anyone you liked for that short time you were on stage. We made up this game where I'd become this other girl that liked the attention- Ann. That's who I was when I was being the Duchess." I had no idea why I'd opened up so much, it wasn't something I normally did but at least he wasn't laughing.

"That's pretty weird." He admitted eventually. "But, I think I understand."

I frowned. "Really?" I didn't even really get it.

"Yeah. Sometimes when I'm playing basketball I become Nancy."

I laughed out loud; amazed he'd managed to say that with a straight face. Actually, for someone was supposed to be so popular, he was pretty stoic. That was the first joke I'd heard him crack. His eyes were laughing with me though. A moment later a short blonde girl burst through the same doors, I remembered her vaguely from her audition. She'd been sitting with the rest of the drama club, and looked to be about Dani's age.

"All done, Paul, let's go!" She noticed me. "Oh hey, you were great in there. Paul and I were just saying it was like you were possessed or something. You totally channelled the Duchess."

I smiled, she had the bubbly kind of enthusiasm you could only find in the young and eager to please, "Thank you, Laura." I glanced at Paul but he was looking away now. "Your brother was just telling me you tried out for Cariola?"

"Yeah, it was just for fun really. I probably won't get the part, I didn't have time to memorise the lines and I've never acted before."

"Everyone's got to start somewhere."

"That's true." She nodded.

Apparently auditions must have finished because people began filing out, some shooting us strange looks. I inwardly groaned. I didn't want people to think I was suddenly a member of Paul's fan club even if he did have a good sense of humour. Thankfully Dani called me at that moment. She was on the track team so she'd stayed late for practice that day and was able to give me a lift home. If I got the part I'd be staying late every Thursday and would need to find my own method of transportation. I should really get my license sorted out.

Anyway Dani had been looking a little peaky lately and I wondered if she was coming down with something and should be taking it easy. She was in the parking lot. I hung up the phone. "I better go; my cousin's waiting for me outside."

"Nice meeting you Felicia, you nailed the part. I'm sure you'll get it."

Aw, Laura was so sweet.

"Thanks. Take care Laura." I nodded to Paul, my lips quirking, "Nancy." And then left him to explain that comment to his sister. I'm sure an appropriate amount of teasing would ensue.