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i.

The Reaper Theater is a motley crew of actors and designers arranged by one Sanae Hanekoma. It started as a pet project that he thought of on a bored whim, in addition to his multitude of hobbies that vary from street art to becoming a barista. Nobody in the crew knows how he is able to manage his time, or how he even shows up to every rehearsal and every show with coffee and bagels, all the while new CAT murals pop up every so often in the news. But he does what he does, and he takes care of WildKat Productions well enough, and his coffee is to die for, so nobody complains.

They’re still a small startup group, in Rhyme’s humble opinion, but the crew is talented and they’ve gained a steady enough following that didn’t just consist of parents and friends of the actors. Most of the shows they play vary from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Jean Paul Sartre’s three-man act No Exit, although Joshua still dreams of directing a full blown musical one of these days. “Preferably Phantom of the Opera,” he says. “Or Wicked, if we can afford it.”

During the general assembly, Hanekoma vetoes Joshua’s proposal to do a musical on account of them not having enough runway to hire a choreographer, a musical director, an actual orchestra, and engineers to upscale the studio to accommodate better props (this, he says specifically once Phantom was mentioned). Plus, their talent pool is trained for acting but the actors aren’t necessarily good singers themselves.

“There just ain’t enough for tech and props to work with,” Beat says.

“Eri and I would need a lot more budget for the costumes and makeup, too,” Shiki adds.

Neku shrugs and crosses his arms, staring Joshua down. “We don't have an orchestra just lying around. Lights might be doable. But I think it’s a stupid idea.”

And so Joshua’s musical dreams have been dashed and put on the backburner. Rhyme patiently tells him, on their weekly one-on-one meeting at Hanekoma’s coffee shop near the studio (simply named just WildKat), that the studio cannot afford to do musicals yet but that doesn’t mean they never will, and will Joshua please not pick a fight with Neku over this. Joshua acquiesces when she buys him his favorite coffee drink and promises to let him know when doing a musical would be feasible.

“I will personally advocate your dream to Hanekoma myself if we have the budget,” she tells him. “But right now we’re doing Romeo and Juliet, like we planned.”

Joshua sighs and puts his hands up in surrender. “I suppose the world is not ready to be charmed by our talents in a grandiose setting yet.”

“We’ll get our turn.” Rhyme pats him in the back and smiles. She’s still not sure why, but Joshua respects her opinion on things - although in this case, they’re dealing with the real life facts of financial and resource constrictions. But all the same, Joshua trusts Rhyme’s judgement.

“One day though,” Joshua says, in between sips of his ridiculously tailored caramel macchiato (iced, soy milk, with hazelnut syrup, and caramel drizzled before adding the coffee). “We’ll do something like Les Miserables. Or Hanekoma will finally accept that play you’ve been writing on the side.”

Rhyme shrugs, shuffling the papers in her hands. They’re supposed to be having their retrospective on how they should manage rehearsals better, director to stage manager. Not… bemoaning about their failed theater dreams (“Pre-successful dreams,” Joshua corrects her).

“I sent him a draft but there’s a lot I still need to improve on, I think,” she says carefully.

“Maybe if you changed the script to something more like a musical..."

No, Josh,” Rhyme admonishes between laughs. “Although managing a musical would be interesting.”

Joshua plays with a stray lock of hair. “It would be a nightmare,” he says, in that gleeful tone of voice that Neku seems personally offended by. “Neku would hate it.” Joshua’s eyes light up as if the resulting chaos excites him more than it should scare him. Knowing Joshua, that probably is the case.

Rhyme can already imagine the logistical hurdles a musical production would bring, and nods sagely. “You always did like a challenge. No wonder you’re trying to woo our lights guy, of all people.”

“Neku just needs to be coaxed out of his shell, that’s all.” Joshua shrugs, taking another sip of his too-sweet coffee. They have yet to tackle the topic of certain actors coming in late to rehearsals, which is the first item on their agenda. “I’ll let you know how the confession plays out.”

Rhyme raises her mocha frap to toast. “Best of luck, Romeo.”

 

 

ii.

The rehearsal for Romeo and Juliet is in full swing by the time Rhyme gets to the studio. Joshua is leading the actors with voice exercises, which means they’re probably done with their daily yoga stretches (Neku rolls his eyes at this every morning but Joshua insists on making this routine, and he’s the director so that’s the end of that).

They’ll be at it for a while, humming good energy to the universe, so Rhyme decides to visit her brother’s section of the studio. Bags of bagels and still-warm coffee are on display near the tech area, although Hanekoma doesn’t seem to be around anymore. Along the wall is where they put a banner with the title of their current production. Romeo and Juliet is written in big, cursive letters, embellished with some rose imagery.

“Hey Beat,” she says in greeting, swiping a bagel from the paper bags. “How’s the balcony?”

“Looking good,” Beat informs her, looking up from the cathedral props he’s been working on. His arms are smeared in various shades of grey and brown and he, like the rest of the tech area, smells distinctly of wood and paint. “The newbie is…. surprisingly good at building this stuff. He’s kinda making it his own so I’m just letting him have it, although Coco and I are helping him out so he doesn’t go overboard.”

The newbie he’s referring to is Sho Minamimoto, a new hire that’s a little standoffish and eccentric, but he came in at the personal recommendation of Hanekoma. Rhyme finds him off to the side, inspecting the half-finished balcony with an intense look. It seems better to leave him alone for now.

“Do you think you can get it done by next week? Joshua’s been complaining about the lack of props to work with and wants to practice with them ASAP.”

Beat frowns. Beside him, one of the techies also painting the props shakes her head vigorously. “Dude, no way. Okay, maybe we can do it by Tuesday, but I ain’t guaranteeing nothin' to that drama queen. And anyway, they’re still doing lines right? Ain’t it too soon to be doin’ tech rehearsals?”

Rhyme shakes her head and laughs. “No, you’re right, I’m just pressuring you guys. You know what they say. No pressure, no diamonds.” Rhyme calmly takes another bite of her bagel. It tastes good even without any spread. “But seriously, can we get something by next week at least? Joshua just needs to see it on the stage and you know he’s going to have comments and ask you guys to make changes later. I have to know if we’re going to be behind schedule.”

Beat gives her a quick salute and a cheeky grin. “Roger that, cap’n. Oh, and can we get in another order of paint? And we finally decided on the sword designs. Gonna need some screws too. Mina will send you a list later.”

Mina, the techie painting beside Beat, startles and draws a harsh green smear the bleeds from the outlines of the bushes she was supposed to color and covers the church windows beside her. “I… I am? I didn’t know I was supposed to prepare a list.” Her eyes widen even more in horror when she looks down at the mess she made. “Oh no. Oh I’m so sorry, I didn’t-”

“Hey hey yo, chill.” Beat inspects the now-green church windows and sighs. “It’s not a big deal, we can just paint over that again.”

“And I don’t need the list until tomorrow,” Rhyme says. “I still need Shiki’s orders too before I go on another run. I think they need more fabric or something. So don’t worry about it, we’re not in too much of a hurry. ”

Mina breathes a sigh of relief once Beat shows her that she can still redeem the window. It’s not that bad, Rhyme thinks. It’s only a short swath of green, certainly fixable, and Beat is good at fixing things. Mina is still new to props work but Beat talks her out of her anxiety.

“Okay. Okay, I’ll take care of it,” Mina says. “Thank you.”

On the other side of the studio, Rhyme can hear Joshua getting the actors ready for a scene. “Mick, can you try circling around Ai instead of passing in front?” he says, his voice carrying through even though he doesn’t sound like he’s shouting.

Rhyme takes this as her cue to leave. “I’ll see you guys later,” she says, waving her hand and grabbing her coffee before sliding back to where the the actors are working the stage.

 

 

iii.

Neku is hanging back against the wall, arms crossed, when Rhyme finds him. He’s listening to Joshua make blocking changes and typing notes on his phone every now and then. It looks like they’re doing the ballroom scene today.

“O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do,” Mick says, a little too timidly for the what the scene requires. Rhyme can hear Neku mumble about Joshua’s casting decisions.

“Romeo is a character that lacks emotional moderation,” Neku says. “He should have gotten Sota for the part.”

“True, Mick is no Sota,” Rhyme says as she sidles up beside Neku. She brought this up to Joshua before too, but they both agreed Ai is a better actress than Nao. “But he has more chemistry with Ai, and Mick is pretty good once he gets into it.”

“Well, he’s clearly not into it yet. Think they’ll end up together?” Neku asks, typing more notes into his phone. Rhyme takes out her notebook to do the same. She’s going to update the cue sheets later anyway. “I heard Eri and the others are taking bets if they’ll get together before the holidays.”

Rhyme chooses not to let Neku know that Eri is also taking bets on him and Joshua getting together before the last show, and that she already put in her own money in favor of it. “They do look good together,” she says instead. In front of them, Joshua is climbing up the stage to demonstrate the choreography for the dance. Kariya restarts the music from his perch on the sound system.

“Do you know that Joshua calls himself the Composer?” Neku snorts at the idea, watching Joshua take Ai’s hand, palm to palm, and explaining that the religious metaphors of ‘saint lips’ and ‘holy palmers’ can be lost on the audience so they have to make it visual in the dance. “Because as the director, he composes the play. And he calls me his Conductor because lights and sounds keep time and are basically the cues of his ‘music’ or whatever.” He brings his hand up to gesture air quotes on the word music.

“You don’t sound happy about it,” Rhyme notes. It sounds like the convoluted love confession did not go as planned.

“It sounds stupid.” Neku lets out a long, frustrated huff. Rhyme thinks this is about more than Joshua… being Joshua. “He’s trying to be all artistic and shit and he always talks in code. He never just says anything straight.”

“Looks like there’s a story behind this. You know, Joshua can be straightforward if you just ask him directly.”

“Not with me. Or maybe he’s just like that with you.” Neku shrugs. “Or maybe he’s just always going to be weird. I don’t know. I think he’s hung up on something though, if he’s pushing himself so hard these days.”

Rhyme breaks out in clear, pitched peals of laughter. “We’re theater kids. And Joshua is the geekiest theater kid out of everyone. What did you expect? Yeah it can get annoying, but I think that’s what make Josh great at what he does.”

Neku sighs, defeated, but he too lets out a small smile. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. He’s pretty dedicated, I’ll give him that. To be honest, he can probably do so much more if he wasn’t stuck in this small studio. I don’t know why he sticks around.”

Rhyme spies the near-endearing look of approval Neku makes as Joshua walks the length of the stage to give directions, and makes a mental note to cash in more on the betting pool.

 

 

iv.

That night, Rhyme receives an email from Hanekoma. Her heart beats loudly in her chest as she opens the email in anticipation.

 

Heya Rhyme,

I read your draft, and I think this looks promising. Love the concept, love the characters. Aiden is a compelling protagonist. But you’re writing more like a novelist than a playwright. Give it some pizzazz, make it stage-friendly, you know? Get everyone on board. When you’ve done that, get back to me and we’ll see about doing your play.

Sincerely,

Hanekoma

 

 

v.

Stage managers, Rhyme finds, are basically glorified project managers.

It doesn’t take long for Rhyme to fill out different roles in the production when needed. Sometimes she becomes Joshua’s assistant, taking rehearsal notes and updating cue sheets. Sometimes, she’s at the beck and call of the props team, running errands for them and making sure they have everything they need (with Konishi’s budget approval, of course). Sometimes, she works with Neku to make sure his team is in sync with Joshua’s direction, or she works with Shiki to make sure their designs fit Joshua’s vision and the actors’ individual notes for their characters. And sometimes she just has to reign Joshua in and make sure he doesn’t overwhelm everyone with his ambition. Everyone has an idea of what the play should be like these days, and sometimes Rhyme finds herself caught in between and mediating so everyone’s on the same page.

She’s not like Shiki or Neku or Joshua or Beat, who all have their own specialized roles playing a part in the production. Rhyme is a little bit of everything, knows a little bit of everything, makes sure everyone plays nice and that the production actually survives.

It strikes her, then, that for all the legwork she does for everyone, it doesn’t seem to pay off in her writing. She’s good at what she does, she really is, but like Joshua, she always dreamed of having her theater goals come true. She always wanted to write her own story and see it come to life on stage. For someone who knows how to run a play, why can’t she write one?

At the end of the week, Rhyme declares a Tech Saturday so the actors can take a break from rehearsals and work on other things. Some of them go through their lines individually, while the others take this opportunity to talk about character designs with Shiki and Eri, or help Beat work on props. Uzuki is running a Disney remix playlist that half the studio sings along to, while Neku ropes Mick into standing onstage and have different lighting designs experimented on him.

Rhyme takes this godsend respite to go around the studio and interview people on how she can improve her play.

“I’m trying to write a play,” she begins, just as an EDM mashup of A Whole New World finishes. “I think I have the story down, but I was wondering what you guys look for in a script when you read it for the first time? What’s the first thing you’re excited to work on?”

Sometimes she asks people in groups and everyone gives varied, excited answers too fast, all at once, until Rhyme is able to facilitate them into an actual discussion.

“Hm, the setting,” Shiki says. “The time period, the role the characters play. Sure the characters themselves are a huge factor, but Eri and I want to be accurate with the intended genre aesthetic first, you know? The history of fashion is actually interesting in that...”

“A bit of everything, I think. It's important to me to know what the mood of the story is,” Neku says, not looking up from his work on the light board. “I work more organically by taking cues from what Josh is thinking, that’s why I watch some of the rehearsals first to visualize the set. In light design, we basically tell the audience where to look, what time of day it is, the weather, what emotion they should feel, so on. It's another version of storytelling. Kariya works on the sound engineering so he can tell you more about that, but if you look up foley artists….”

Beat: “I love doing everything, man. But the ones I’m always excited about are the major landmarks. Like, uh, Les Mis had the barricade yeah? And with Romeo and Juliet, we’re building the balcony. ‘Course other props’re important too, but ya gotta nail the iconic ones, even if it’s just the chairs for Matilda, or else everything fails.”

“Well, do you have a vision?” Joshua asks, finally, sitting Rhyme down when he finds her circling the studio and flitting about from team to team. “As a director, I want to know the intent before trying to make the play my own.”

“Of course I have vision,” Rhyme asserts.

Joshua hums in thought. “It looks to me like you’re trying to please everybody and making your play as accommodating as possible for everyone. You’re good at that. That’s why you’re my stage manager. But if you think of what everyone thinks makes a good play, can you really produce a story only you can write?”

“I’m just trying to make it stage-friendly. Hanekoma said if I could get everyone on-” and then, Rhyme sits up, lightbulb flicking to life as an idea pops into her head. She turns to Joshua with a near-intense look, a rare sight even for her, and she holds Joshua’s hands, looks in his eyes, and says, “I know what I have to do.”

Joshua blinks at the sudden change of attitude. “You do?”

Rhyme nods, standing up, profusely thanking her director and one of her dearest friends, and sprints off to the nearest coffee shop where she can work in peace. She’s a writer at heart, but she’s also a stage manager. The Reaper Theater’s stage manager. There is a story only she can write.

She has work to do.

 

 

vi.

It takes Rhyme and the other heads of each department three days to go through the paper tech, but they finally get a working prompt sheet distributed. Tech week arrives (or “hell week,” as Coco calls it), much to the crew’s stress and excitement. Joshua once again inadvertently antagonizes everyone else, as he does on the tech week of every production. Rhyme is ready for this.

“Dude you shoulda said from the start that you wanted freakin’ rose art for your artistic shit in the finale. And we can’t just change the cathedral props, you signed off the designs already,” says Beat. Rhyme smooths this out by making a compromise on the cathedral changes, but the artistic rose piece seems doable. Mina scurries off to work on the roses as quick as she can.

“I guess we can make the masks more intricate,” says Shiki. “Eri and I can rework some of the designs, but not all of them. The Capulets and Montagues are opposing families, so we made their dress sense as different as possible to distinguish them.” Rhyme agrees with the sentiment, but reigns Joshua in when he asks for too drastic changes. They need enhanced costumes that will actually be done by the first show, not new redesigns that will drain the budget. And besides, they still have dress rehearsals to go through.

“The swords don’t feel right,” Mick says. Beat will work on putting more weight on them.

“The colors of the dress will clash with the lights,” Shiki says, and so Neku tones down the blue and adds another layer of lighting to make the actors pop out.

“The balcony is alright,” Ai admits, admiring the intricate woodwork. Minamimoto smirks from the background, clearly proud. “It’s very stable, and I have a little bit of room to work with too! Not to mention how pretty it is.”

The actors have their own qualms and difficulties, but they’re used to working with Joshua, and they’re able to make suggestions and improvements of their own. Joshua works on transitions and making sure all the technical aspects adhere with his artistic vision, while Rhyme practices the cues and makes note of any logistic mishap along the way.

In between Nao crying on stage for forgetting a line, Coco hijacking the sound booth to play My Chemical Romance during breaks and encouraging everyone in the studio to collectively break down at the sound of the G note because she thinks it’s funny, and Uzuki purposefully muting Eiji Oji’s mic every five minutes because he pissed her off the other day trying to make everyone adhere to wearing pink on Wednesdays, things are going splendidly all things considered.

The trouble happens when it’s Neku’s turn to argue with the director. Most of the time, their disagreements are rooted in differing artistic values. Too many cooks in the kitchen and all that. Unlike with Beat, where Rhyme can make compromises, or Shiki and Neku, where they are both professional enough to adjust to one another, Joshua and Neku are too stubborn for Rhyme to help them make peace.

“No,” Neku says simply, arms crossed. “We are not adding rose gobos.”

“I want more texture in the lights,” Joshua says. “Therefore, gobos.”

“Gobos will ruin the scene and distract the audience and you know it. We’re already using them everywhere else, but we don’t need it here. Stop trying to pick a fight with me.”

“Aren’t you the one picking fights here, dear? I’m telling you that the gobos fit the aesthetic we currently have and provides that added texture. It will be fine.”

“And I’m telling you that I’ve been watching rehearsals and adding rose gobos in this particular scene would be too much. I can change the configuration of the shutter cut if you want more texture, but we are not doing gobos. Plus, your rose shit is all over the place. Less is more.”

Joshua turns his head slowly and laughs. “Don’t you trust my aesthetics, dear?”

“No, I need you to take a breather and stop trying to control everything.”

“As director, do I not control everything?”

The theater hushes to silence, though Rhyme hears a couple of actors and techs whispering about witnessing a lover’s quarrel. She’s about to step in when Shiki barrels through the crowd and smacks the two boys in their heads.

“Both of you need to chill out,” Shiki says, dragging them both by the wrists until they’re in the far corner of the studio. “Work out your personal issues and try not to have them bleed through your work, please? Or I’ll have Eri kick both your asses.”

Rhyme thinks Shiki is a genius. Neku can never say no to Shiki, and Joshua can never manipulate his way out of Eri, the only other force on Earth Rhyme knows that can silence Joshua into submission other than Hanekoma. They shuffle away from the studio with another glare from Shiki, and that’s the end of that.

Shiki points to Rhyme and asks, “You’re in charge. What do we do now?”

Rhyme lets out a long sigh. This was bound to happen, and it always happens at least twice every tech week (which, now that she thinks about it, is a slight misnomer; tech week really lasts two or more weeks with them).

She feels a little overwhelmed to see everyone’s rapt attention, but she claps her hands together, squares her shoulders and works on her voice modulation so she can be heard. From the stage, she can see Beat nod to her encouragingly.

“Alright guys. Let’s take it from the top.”

 

vii.

It’s the final Tech Saturday, where everyone works on the set and a “No Acting” ban is in effect for twenty-four hours. Kariya is playing the soundtrack for Hamilton while the rest of the studio raps along the songs under their breath as they work, like a whispered chant echoing in the background. Rhyme finds Joshua messing around with the Costumes team, the team farthest away from the sound booth and light board.

“You guys kiss and make up yet?” Rhyme asks, perching herself on the workbench.

“I don’t kiss and tell, my dear,” Joshua says, but his ingratiating facade fades to a pout. “He keeps pointing the lights directly in my eyes yesterday.”

Shiki pipes in with threads and needles on hand. “Only because you keep micromanaging his work,” she says, sewing loose ends on a coat, not bothering to acknowledge Joshua’s presence and instead talking to him as if he’s air. “I saw what you were doing, Yoshiya Kiryu. Don’t even deny that you demanded new gobos again.”

“That’s because Joshua knows Neku will only pay attention to him if he gets on his nerves long enough,” Eri quips, popping up from one of the dressing rooms at the opportunity to gossip.

“What can I say?” Joshua says, shrugging. “Neku is the only one who can actually challenge me head to head.”

"You sure about that?" Eri challenges Joshua. She gives a wicked grin and sticks her thumb out to him. “Do you bite your thumb at me, sir?”

Joshua humors her with an amused look, grateful for the distraction. “I do, milady. I do bite my thumb at thee.”

Eri lets out a mock gasp and grabs one of the hangers. “Do you quarrel, sir? Draw, if you be a man! Lest a lady upstage you.”

Joshua draws out a baton lying around the worktable, a prototype from one of their earlier plays, and crouches into a fighting stance. “I shan’t disappoint, milady.”

They break out into a mock battle, baton versus hanger, and Eri does a complicated twirl to avoid Joshua’s baton strike. Shiki watches them from the worktable, cheering for Eri. “You’re disadvantaged, Josh. My girlfriend can run circles around you.”

Eri beams at this. She clutches her chest and sighs dramatically. “I am saved! I have the power of love on my side.”

“Ah, but will it save Rhyme?” And here, Joshua pulls Rhyme in his arms and aims the baton at her neck. Rhyme laughs, wriggling and giving half the effort to make it look like a struggle.

“You fiend!” Eri’s eyes go comically wide. She’s about to retaliate, but around them the energy is building up with the music of Hamilton, until Beat and a handful other theater kids stand up from their stations shouting the lyrics and culminating in a chorus of “I am not throwing away my shot!” with gusto. Sota even climbs up a table, fist pumped in the air, teary-eyed.

The studio erupts in laughter and the moment between Eri and Joshua is broken. Joshua releases Rhyme with a flourish and whispers, “Be free!”

“You two are as dramatic as ever,” Rhyme says. Eri and Joshua respond together with “Of course!” and “What can you do?”; to which Rhyme laughs and the two look at each other challengingly, running off to out-fabulous each other for the others’ remark. Shiki shakes her head at them and goes back to working on the gold lining of Romeo’s doublet. There can only be one prima donna in the studio, it seems.

Rhyme sits down next to Shiki. “Shiki, have you ever thought about making your own clothing line with Eri?”

“Sure! We actually have a few designs we made in our spare time. Want to see?” Shiki brings out a clearbook from under the desk and flips through a few pages of sketched out, everyday outfits. “It’s nothing big,” she says, almost blushing. “Just the usual urban chic look. Mostly what’s trending in Shibuya right now.”

“But there’s a distinct style here. Have you made some of these yet?”

“Just a few. We asked Neku to model for us, but you already know how that usually ends up. It’s not like in theater where you make a costume specifically for one character. Making clothes for everyday wear is surprisingly difficult! You’d think it’s easier than making over the top costumes but... anyway. It’s mostly just a hobby now, really.”

Rhyme nods and closes the clearbook and brings out stapled sheets of her script. On the first page reads the title, It's a Wonderful World. “Shiki, I’m going to ask you a huge favor...”

 

viii.

On the evening of the first show, two hours before they let people into the auditorium, Rhyme finds Neku at the back of the building inhaling smoke.

“We need you inside, Neku,” she says. She eyes the abhorrent stick of death in Neku’s hand and wrinkles her nose. “You said you’d stop.”

“I did. I will.” Neku sighs and takes one last inhale before dropping the cigarette on the cemented sidewalk and killing it with his shoe. “Sorry, I guess I was just… stressed out.”

“Still not talking to Josh?”

“We’ve been fighting. It’s nothing new.” Neku sighs. Behind them, the sounds of a harried tech crew and the strained voices of actors humming anxious energy to the universe create a stark contrast to the quiet of Neku’s dusty smoking sanctuary. “I know he’s into me. I’m not stupid. He’s just mad he can’t get everything he wants like the brat he is.”

Rhyme nods in understanding and closes the door behind her. For a moment, the world feels small and quiet. “I was under the impression you’re into him too.”

“I was... I am.”

“So what’s the deal then?”

Neku lets out a long, shaky breath, hands shoved deep in his pockets. Rhyme thinks it could be the stress, because it’s never this easy to get Neku to open up if Shiki’s not around. “Just because I like the guy doesn’t mean I think it’s a good idea we should be together.” Neku combs through his hair with a frustrated huff, but the wax makes it hard to mess up his spikes. “He’s never honest or straightforward with me, ever, and he’s secretly a control freak. Thinks he can get away with anything, and everyone just listens like he’s a… like he’s a freakin’ god. And I’m… well, me. You know how I am.”

“Mm, that’s fair. Joshua’s prickly like that.” Rhyme considers her next words. “And you’re kind of a scaredy cat.”

Neku bristles. “Am not.”

“Yes you are. Come on, Neku. The guy you like is into you. What’s the worst that could happen?”

“It’s Joshua. It’s gonna be disastrous. I mean, I know I should at least try but-”

“In the wise words of a Jedi Master. Do or do not. There is no try .” Rhyme clears her throat. “If you always have one foot out the door because you might get hurt, then you can’t blame anyone that things didn’t go your way.”

Neku snorts. “You should take your own advice. How’s that script coming along? You’re still trying to do two things at once, no wonder Mr. H won’t give the green light.”

Rhyme goes quiet. “At least I’m working on it.”

Inside, Rhyme thinks she can hear Ai breaking down to tears. Neku must have heard it too, because his hands clench for a moment. He must be itching to smoke another one. “Alright, fine," he says instead, head bowing in defeat. "You win. We should go back inside. Show’s gonna start.”

Neku ruffles her hair as Rhyme ushers him in. “Go forth, young padawan.”

An hour until curtains open and Hanekoma appears backstage, giving everyone a much needed pep talk. When they finally call the show, Rhyme hurries to the control room and settles down with her headset, flipping switches and listening for cues. She has no artistic merit in the production like Beat’s props or Shiki’s dresses or Neku’s lighting, and she doesn’t carry the overall vision like Joshua. But it is here, in the comfort of her lonesome, that Rhyme truly shines.

“Standby Lights 1, 2, and 3.” she says, sounding out the cues as clear as she can. She has every step and procedure of the production memorized to heart by now. “Sound 1, go. Lights 1, go. Spotlight on Sampson and Gregory. Lights 2 and 3, go. Sound 2… go.”

The show has finally begun.

 

ix.

Hanekoma throws the studio a mini celebration on the success of their first show. It’s a short morning party, because they still have shows in the afternoon and evening for the next few weeks - half of which are already booked because Kitaniji made partnerships with nearby schools to require students to watch.

Beat zeroes in on the doughnuts before anyone else. “Honey glazed doughnuts! You da man, Mr. H!”

Hanekoma chuckles. “Easy there, Beat. Save some for the others.”

Rhyme expects Kariya to take charge of the sound booth again, but she finds the sound engineer jamming Wonderwall on a guitar instead of playing music on the speakers. Uzuki joins in with a makeshift drum kit made of chopsticks and various surfaces she could find.

“I shouldn’t be surprised to see you guys actually using instruments,” Rhyme begins, as she makes her approach towards the two-man band. “But this might actually be the first time I hear you guys play.”

Kariya grins. “Eh, I actually prefer messing around on my laptop. I’m just playing Wonderwall to annoy Sho.”

A light bulb blesses Rhyme in that moment. “You guys do your own music?”

Uzuki smirks. “You should see us on a serious jam session. We don’t just do theater, you know.”

Rhyme thinks about it and does just that, dragging Joshua with her to the cafe Uzuki told her about a few days later. It’s a cozy place that caters to college students and young adults, and they serve alcohol at night. Rhyme passes on a drink but Joshua insists they both get mojitos at least. On Wednesdays, which happens to be their free day, the cafe has an open mic night where Kariya and his band regularly volunteer to play.

“And that’s the Melodious Nocturne everyone!" The host of the night gestures to the band, where some guy in a mullet winks at the crowd and gives a cheeky wave. "Next up we have our beloved favorites. They haven’t been around since their latest production, but now they’re back. Let’s give it up for the Reaper Creepers!”

Onstage, a girl in a red plaid skirt takes control of the mic. Uzuki is at the back sitting on the cajon and working a slow tempo with the maracas, while Kariya’s fingers ghost over his electronic keyboard, playing most of the synths. Neku seems to be working on a keyboard of his own as well, but as far as Rhyme can tell it’s just a digital piano.

“Is that Neku with them?” Joshua asks, peering over the crowd of unappreciative college students. Or maybe they actually do appreciate the entertainment. It’s a mixed crowd - Rhyme can’t tell if this is the hipster college students or just the ones who wanted to chill somewhere with alcohol without having to go to an exhausting rave. “Huh. Guess he isn’t just a lights guy.”

Rhyme takes a sip of her mojito. She’s a social drinker at best, but she thanks Joshua for ordering the tasty ones for her. “You’re totally crushing on him harder now, aren’t you?”

Joshua gestures towards the stage with his already half-empty collins glass. “That boy will eventually realize his folly and be charmed by my beguiling ways.”

The girl launches into the song. Lyrically, Rhyme finds that the song isn’t too complicated. In fact, the message is straightforward and simple. But she watches the group meld together from words to music and Rhyme feels herself swaying to the melody.

 

A lullaby for you

Don't you worry baby

I'll be here by your side

May tomorrow be wonderful too

 

“We should do that,” Rhyme says. “We should make our own soundtrack.”

“Our own musical. Now that would be something.” Joshua rests his head on his hand, lost in thought. His mojito is practically gone by this point, and it’s only the first chorus of the song.

“I don’t think we have the manpower to do a musical yet,” Rhyme says as she gingerly takes away the collins glass from his hand. “But we can make our own music. Put it in the play, somehow. I don’t know.”

At the end of the song, the singer gives a short bow as the cafe erupts in polite applause. Joshua chuckles and gives a small wave when Neku notices him from the crowd and visibly scowls.

“Thank you! We’re the Reaper Creepers and thanks for letting us play tonight.” The singer gives an exaggerated wave. Her enthusiasm is infectious. “This is one of our more upbeat songs. Hit it, Yashiro!” She makes a vicious twirl that sends her skirt flowing prettily around her as she dances to the techno beat from Kariya's synths.

 

Never exhume me, I don’t want you anymore

Colors are fading, you took all that I want

Memories are brimming and I hope you know

I am bleeding eternally for you

 

“You look like you’re hatching up a plan,” Joshua notes, ignoring the tsk that comes out of Rhyme’s mouth as he drinks the gin and tonic he procured seemingly out of nowhere. He must have ordered another drink while Rhyme wasn’t looking.

“And you look like you’re trying to get drunk. It’s not even ten minutes yet.” Rhyme looks at her own collins glass, where the ice has melted a bit so it looks like she barely even touched her mojito. “He rejected you that bad?”

“It’s not rejection if he hasn’t decided yet,” Joshua says cheerily. Another gulp of gin. “But I hate indecision. Indecision works evil upon others. Do you think we don’t work well together?”

Rhyme considers this. “I think you’re both very lonely people that are fortunate to have found each other.”

“You know me so well.” They toast on this, a near full mojito and half empty gin and tonic.

Reaper Creeper’s set ends after one more song and an enthused round of claps from the crowd. The singer seems popular among the younger crowd, and Rhyme can see a couple of college boys in hoodies shyly trying to catch her attention as she descends from the stage.

Neku finds them just as Joshua orders his third drink of choice - a margarita. “Uzuki told me you were coming,” he begins, addressing Rhyme, “But I didn’t think you’d bring him.”

Joshua smiles in that smarmy way of his that makes it hard for Neku to ignore him. “Missed you too, dear.”

Rhyme shakes her head and hands Neku her half glass of mojito, prompting him to sit down and take her seat. “You guys really need to work your issues out,” she tells them, before striding over to Kariya and his band. She extends her hand to the blonde singer and smiles. “I haven’t met you before. I’m Rhyme, one of Kariya’s coworkers in the theater. I work as the stage manager.”

The singer pauses from her visual sweep of the room and smiles back at Rhyme. “Oh, pleasure to meet you. I'm Tsugumi, but you can also call me Hype-chan!”

“You guys write your own songs?”

“Yeah, Yashiro and I wrote it. Koki and Neku are the ones who do the music.”

Rhyme glances back at her table and sees Neku begrudgingly humoring Joshua in conversation. She will have to tell Joshua to cut back on alcohol next time - at least until Neku is more comfortable with the director’s flirtier side. Joshua, as a rule, never gets drunk, but... she should have warned Neku about tipsy Joshua.

“Interesting. So I was wondering if you’d be up for a commission...”

 

x.

The Reaper Theater has a little over a month of Romeo and Juliet left, but Hanekoma is already setting up the polls on what their next production will be. The romantic, rosy pink Romeo and Juliet banner hangs limply from the wall, dusty from months of being ignored.

Even though they’ve been running the play for weeks, the crew still goes through a practice routine to get things right. Accidents are bound to happen: injured actors being replaced by understudies, lights and mics suddenly not working, missing props, dresses and doublets needing repairs now and then.

Sometimes, Rhyme spies Neku approaching Joshua in the control room between breaks. A first of hopefully many. The hunted becoming the hunter. Maybe they actually will get together before the last show.

In between running errands, mouthing cues from the control room, and generally making sure that the play would go smoothly, Rhyme takes a little bit of time out of her day to revise her draft and get Shiki and Tsugumi to work with her. Beat naturally helps his little sister out, no questions asked, and Neku joins the music-writing process when Kariya starts messing around in the sound booth on slow days.

The newbie, Sho Minamimoto, even makes comments on the designs Beat is drafting, noting that they can probably make the urban look more stylish and that the spinning Shibuya Crossing wouldn’t work without modifying the built-in turntables on the stage.

Eventually, her script gets around and even Sota and Ai ask Rhyme about whether or not they can read it, and if there’s anything they can help with the dialogue or the characters.

Rhyme glosses over her binder, stapled and scattered with post-it notes and colored markers. It’s exciting to be in the middle of a huge brainstorm. To be in the cusp of something that will become great, something that could be even be her legacy, if she plays her cards right. When before she was grasping for straws, now she has too many ideas, too many suggestions to consider, that it’s making her head spin.

“You need to trim it down to its essence. Keep it true to your vision,” Joshua tells her when she stays too long in the studio again. Beat stayed at home due to the flu and everyone else already left the studio except for a handful of workaholics and techies cramming through a deadline. Joshua is one of the last to leave, but these days even Neku seems to be staying behind to work on sudden lighting problems. “Maybe I could help? What’s the new story about, you think?”

Rhyme spins the pen between her fingers as she contemplates. “A coming-of-age story of a young boy learning to expand his world and put his faith in others.”

“Huh, I always thought that applies to the city god in the story too.”

“It does. He’s supposed to be the mirror, the deuteragonist, et cetera, et cetera. The story is still solely about the main character’s journey, though.”

Joshua hums, taking a seat beside Rhyme. “I think it should be more than just the characters. It’s about the city itself. Care to hear me out?”

Rhyme listens, letting Joshua arrange the scenes and correcting him when he gets things wrong. But slowly, things start to come together than fall apart, and Rhyme is once again reminded just why Hanekoma hired Joshua to be their lead director.

 

xi.

Hanekoma grins at the spread before him. A revised script, handwritten notes from the director, sketches and moodboards of an imagined Shibuya, and a CD of a demo soundtrack.

“Everyone pitched in,” Rhyme says, gesturing to the thick binder of post-it notes and scrap paper. “Joshua and I put it together to make it cohesive.”

Hanekoma lifts the script to read. “Welcome to Shibuya, a mishmash of attitudes and styles in the heart of Tokyo.”

Rhyme cringes. “The summary pitch could use a little work.”

“No, no, I see what you’re trying to do here.” Hanekome flips a couple more pages, speed reading through everything. He already read the previous draft so Rhyme made sure to note the changes and make them easier to find. He glances at the sketches and nods to himself.

“Well...?” Rhyme tries not to fidget with the sleeves of her sweater.

“Could use a bit more work,” Hanekoma admits. “But nothing we can’t fix, right?”

“Wait, you mean-?”

“Congratulations Rhyme. You're leading our next production." Hanekoma extends his hand for a handshake. "Although, I do have one suggestion about the title...”

 

 

xii.

It’s the end of the final show and everyone’s on their way to getting blackout drunk. Rhyme filters the crowd to find her best friend swaying merrily on his feet with a bottle of whisky in one hand, the other holding Neku’s. Joshua tries to lead his unwilling partner in a waltz over the sound of fast-paced techno music.

“Joshua,” Rhyme begins, patiently. “Please tell me you already hired Eri to take you home.”

Joshua shushes her with only a slightly clumsy finger to her lips. Interesting. Joshua never loses coordination with alcohol except when… huh. Rhyme fights to keep the amusement out of her smile.

“Hush,” Joshua stage whispers. “I’ll be fine. I’m staying at Neku’s later.”

Neku sputters beside him and elbows him in the stomach. Joshua only laughs in response. “Shut up, Josh.”

“Are you guys finally together?” Eri chimes in, pausing mid-bite of her doughnut. People are starting to looking in their direction. “Holy shit. Holy fucking - Coco!” She snaps her head around to find the pink-clad girl talking animatedly with Eiji. Eri skips through the crowd, blustering, “Coco, I won! I won! Now pay the fuck up, you little gremlin!”

Shiki snickers. “Welcome to the couples club,” she says before following after Eri.

Beat is unimpressed by this news though. He crosses his arms and levels them a look. “I ain’t believin’ ‘til I see it.”

Neku looks scandalized. “See what?” he bites, but Joshua seizes the opportunity to bring up their hands - the one that’s not holding the whisky bottle - to chest level. He lets go, releasing their intertwined fingers, and shifts to a kind of open-palmed prayer that Neku unconsciously follows.

“O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do,” Joshua murmurs before placing a light, sweet kiss on Neku’s lips. The people around them cheer until they have the whole studio’s attention. Neku breaks away, cheeks stained pink.

Rhyme raises her red cup. It’s orange juice, because Beat is still hovering over her shoulder, but she can tell Joshua it’s a screwdriver. “A toast to a successful run!” she beckons. “And to our very own Romeo and Juliet! Congratulations everyone!”

There is a collective cheer from the crew as everyone raises their donuts and red cups. Rhyme hears Neku asking, “Wait, am I Juliet?” before Joshua silences him with another kiss. She pretends not to see Joshua’s hand sliding down the inside of Neku’s back pocket, or the small, indulgent smile that Neku fails to hide as they meet lips.

Beat wraps an arm around her. “Proud of you, sis. You made all this possible.”

Rhyme takes in the crew, all of their hard work exploding in a raucous party. Plastered on the far side of the wall where everyone can see, a black and white banner hangs with the thin, futuristic letters of the title of their next production - or perhaps, more accurately, their first original production. The World Ends With You.

“It’s wonderful, isn’t it?” Hanekoma says, swirling the drink in his own cup. Some kind of coffee, Rhyme notices. Probably an americano. He seems like the type. “Seeing everyone let loose after a hard day’s work. The future looks bright.”

Rhyme nods.

It’s a wonderful world, indeed.

 

 


 

 

xiii. (extra)

“Show starts in an hour. Where are you guys?” Rhyme asks, phone caught between her ear and left shoulder. She walks around backstage in a flurry, remembering to give a thumbs up when one their new actresses, Kairi, notices her passing by and does a twirl to show off her new clothes.

Neku’s voice is strained when he replies, “We’re… ah, we’ll be there soon. In a minute. Josh wait stop Rhyme is, mmph-

Rhyme’s eyes widen but she catches the phone in her hands as it drops. “I’m hanging up. Please just be here in five minutes or I will have Beat find whatever booth you locked yourselves into and make you regret it.”

“Nngh… right.”

Rhyme sighs, running a hand through her face. She loves her friends, she really does, but now is definitely not the time. She will have to talk to Joshua about this later, although she can already see him explaining this away as a coping mechanism to calm him down. Rhyme is almost tempted to swear.

Backstage is a mess of sweat and energy. First show nerves are always bad, and it’s even worse now that the crew is so much bigger and they have so many new actors breaking the scene. Rhyme can feel the palpitations herself, tremors of excitement crawling up her skin.

She finds Romeo and Juliet back from wherever today’s Verona is, exactly five minutes later. Joshua’s button-up is slightly wrinkled, but looking decently presentable at least. He rounds up the actors into a huddle and gives them each a pep talk, trying to talk them down from the mounting anxiety one feels when the audience is near full capacity and you can hear them mutter in excitement for the coming show.

“Break a leg,” Joshua tells them, clapping them all on the shoulders.

Rhyme can tell he immediately regrets it when one of the new actors, Sora, clutches his stomach and excuses himself to hurl in the bathroom. “Do you think we’ll be okay?” she whispers to Joshua.

Joshua simply dismisses it with a wave of his hand. “We’ll be fine, don’t worry about it. Go call the show and do what you do best.”

Rhyme nods and scurries back to the control room once everyone’s set. It will be a good show, she tells herself. It has to be.

Lights fade, the curtains open, and Neku plays with the lighting in such a masterful way to show the suffocating crowd of Shibuya Crossing in muted colors. The atmospheric sound of a busy, bustling street filters through the auditorium. Kariya and his band managed to come up with more unique songs than this, but that will come into play later.

It’s not the big, bombastic musical Joshua wanted. But it’s new and different and wholly their own. One of a kind. Rhyme thinks it’s close enough.

Riku, the actor they chose to play the main character, enters the stage trying to avoid the crowd. “Lights 4, go,” Rhyme cues, and the light for the pedestrian green light activates. Riku crosses the scramble slowly and begins the opening lines.

“Outta my face. You're blocking my view.”

“Sound 5, go," Rhyme cues again, and this time the loud radio music from AMX plays faintly in the background.

“Shut up! Stop talking. Just go the hell away!” Riku spins around the stage in annoyance before stopping at the Udagawa mural. Rhyme’s breath hitches, waiting for the perfect delivery. “All the world needs is me. I got my values... so you can keep yours, all right?”

Rhyme flips a couple of switches and sounds out more cues. This is it. This is her story, on the stage, in front of a couple hundred people. Bare for the world to see.

Let the show begin.