"Still working on that poster?" Giselle said as she peeked over Clara's shoulder.
For once it wasn't late at night yet, but Clara was in a flow. For days she had done nothing but play around with layouts and designs, spending much more time on this project than it was probably worth. Not that she cared. She was having fun, and forwarding her ideas to Freddie only made it even better. She knew she didn't have to for now, but every so often she liked to share her progress with him over text, bouncing ideas back and forth and frequently derailing the conversation. They always came up with something whenever they talked, even if most ideas were as useless as they were very, very funny.
"Still working," Clara replied, scooting aside to give Giselle a better view of her screen. "I mean, technically I've already got something ready, but why stop here, you know?"
Giselle let out a snort. The version Clara had revealed to her was the prank one with the Halloween motifs all over it, even if it looked almost too good to be a joke. She might only have made it to mess with Freddie's bandmates, but that didn't mean she could suddenly suspend her perfectionism.
"You like it?" she said.
Giselle glanced at the screen, then at Clara's barely-restrained grin. "You're already messing with them?" she said. "Damn, you got comfy fast!"
"We're messing with them," Clara corrected her. "Blame their singer, he's enabling me."
Striding over to the kitchen table, Giselle stole a fistful of jelly beans from the candy bowl and shoved it into her mouth. "The guy who approached me about the poster in the first place?"
Clara nodded. "He seems cool," she said. "If I was taking friend applications, I think I'd accept him."
Giselle helped herself to another handful of jelly beans. "I thought you already called him your friend."
"A casual friend," Clara admitted. "Not a friend-friend. I don't take those right now."
But even as she spoke, she wondered if it was truly as simple. Giselle was right; she had gotten comfortable. Comfortable enough to plot pranks with Freddie and bounce ideas off each other, maybe even comfortable enough to miss him a little once their collaboration was finished. She blamed the guy's personality. There was just something about him, his expressiveness and enthusiasm and clumsy kindness, that made it easy to get comfortable.
And once she did get comfortable, then what? More distractions from her studies? She couldn't afford that. Her courses weren't the kind she could half-bake, and she was on a scholarship—she needed good grades. Her family depended on her. Marie, her little half-brothers. The money they had set aside back when their parents had still had money to set aside was better used for their college instead of hers.
So even this was a gamble, really. One distraction could lead to the next, then the next after that. Too many distractions could lead to her grades slipping. Not a road she wanted to go down.
…Maybe she should stop messing around and just finish the stupid poster.
"Different question," she said, more to distract herself from that line of thought than Giselle, "but when's your theater thing happening again? Tomorrow, right?"
Giselle glanced at the calendar on the wall. "Tomorrow, yeah!" she said. "I hope you can still make time to come?"
Clara was on her feet in a heartbeat, almost offended that Giselle had questioned her at all. "Who do you think I am?" she said. "I'd never miss your big debut on stage!"
Giselle beamed at her, and Clara returned the smile, sinking back into her chair. Yeah, she thought. This was exactly why she didn't need more close friends. Friendships were yet another thing she couldn't half-ass, and being a true friend to someone was time-consuming.
So she'd stick to Giselle, she'd stick to her family, and everyone else could wait another couple years.
~ ~ ~
Just as expected, Giselle was amazing on stage.
From the day they had first crossed paths when they were still little girls, Clara had known that her friend was a brilliant actress, and now as a less biased adult she still thought the same. She had achieved her five minutes of fame with the lead role in a big-name teen series later, but from the very beginning her talents had been wasted on that show; and whenever she saw her like this, Clara was glad she had quit that life before it could kill her career completely. Giselle Rodrigues wasn't made for school romance storylines and trite jokes directed at a preteen audience. She was made for the stage, where people could feel her presence, feel the way she drew them in with every word and every movement. This was her true potential. If she ever starred in a movie or show again, the only thing Clara would accept for her was something that gave her that same power.
But in the end the show was over, the magic passed, and Clara tried to cheer louder than the crowd and failed. Everyone had loved it. Just the way they should.
Letting her gaze roam around to check out people's reactions, she turned from side to side—and paused when her eyes landed on a familiar figure.
Freddie turned, noticing her gaze, and she ducked back into the crowd. Normally she'd be happy to see him, but right now she wasn't in the headspace for anyone but Giselle—not to mention some small, irrational part of her whispered that he was already taking up too much of her time and attention. Giselle was right, she was already awfully comfortable around him given that he was only supposed to be a casual friend.
Peeking past the row of strangers again, she glanced back in his direction. He was still looking from side to side, searching for the sudden familiar face in the crowd, but from here he couldn't spot her. Suddenly she felt a little bad. This one was a minor offense towards him compared to what she'd already done, but she still couldn't shake the feeling that she had put him through enough.
Fine. One conversation. It wouldn't kill her.
Turning back around, she made eye contact with him, smiling and waving. Lighting up, she waved back, and when the crowd started to rise and scatter he lingered near the door to wait for her.
"You here too?" she greeted him as she escaped the crowd. "I didn't see that coming, what brings you here?"
Laughing, Freddie brushed his hair out of his face, slumping back against the wall. "I asked your friend about your posters for this," he said, "so the least I could do was show up and watch it. A favor for a favor, you know?"
Clara smirked. "That's pretty decent of you," she said. "So how'd you like it?"
He lit up, and pride blossomed in her chest in return. "It was good!" he said. "I don't know anything about theater, but your friend's a great performer. She just draws the eye!" He gestured into the direction of the stage. "How does she do it?"
Clara beamed with pride. "What can I say? She's a natural," she replied. "Maybe you should get an autograph, for the bragging rights when she becomes a movie star."
Glancing in Giselle's direction, Freddie studied her from a distance, suddenly focused. "Hasn't she been in movies already?" he said. "I feel like I've seen her somewhere before."
"Oh, uh…" Very briefly, she caught herself wondering if he meant that show, but quickly ruled it out. Freddie had hardly been part of the target demographic. "She's done a bunch of stuff, yeah, but probably nothing you'd recognize. But…who knows?"
Freddie gave a nod. His hands were back at his sides, fidgeting uneasily.
"You here on your own?" Clara asked. Abruptly she remembered that, aside from their unfortunate encounter in the candy aisle, she had never seen him outside the company of his bandmates.
Freddie blinked, then he nodded, running another hand through his hair. "The others are all busy," he said. "I wanted to bring Theo, but he had to last-minute cover someone's shift tonight and now it's just me. But at least I know you," he added with a smile. "How are your classes?"
Now it was Clara's turn to blink. She had expected him to ask about the posters again; but this was out of left field. "My classes?"
He gave another nod. "You have to be busy, with the posters and now supporting your friend," he said. "And you still have classes, so if they're too much and you need more time to get it done—"
Understanding dawned. "Oh!" she said. "No, it's fine. I'm on a tight schedule, but not too tight." She flexed her arm. "Nothing I can't handle."
He smiled, looking genuinely relieved even though none of this should have anything to do with him. "That's good," he said. "So your classes are going well?"
The usual answer jumped to the tip of her tongue, but she didn't spit it out. In front of Freddie, who wasn't her family or even her close friend, it felt too pointlessly rehearsed to say.
"My grades are good, if that's what you're asking," she said instead, shrugging. "It's not always easy, but it's doable, so I can't really complain."
His smile turned sympathetic, and at once she wondered if she had said something wrong. "Hang in there," he said. "I hit a slump at your age too, but it gets better after a while."
She froze. Dread closed in around her, creeping up her limbs and through her veins, a cold presence. She took in a breath that came out just a little sharper than she had meant it to sound, but she doubted he had heard it over the chatter around them. "What makes you think I'm in a slump?"
Faltering, he frowned, suddenly looking unsure of his own words. "Isn't that what you meant?" he replied. "You talked about it like it's a chore you have to do or something."
Damn it, damn it, damn it. This was exactly why she had her usual answers. "I—"
"What's going on?"
Clara breathed a sigh of relief. Out of nowhere Giselle had materialized next to them, still in costume, regarding them both with open curiosity. Just in time, too.
"Oh, hey," Clara greeted her, passing her relief and gratitude off as a proud smile. "The star is here, happy with the performance tonight?"
Giselle, thankfully, took the hint and beamed back at her. "It was incredible!" she said. "Everyone was amazing today, and we couldn't have asked for a better audience! Thank you so much," she added, pulling Clara into a hug. "We never would've pulled this many people without your help."
Glancing from one to the other, Freddie backed away slightly, like he was wordlessly asking if he should leave them alone. But before he could walk away, Giselle turned towards him and flashed him another one of her megawatt smiles. "And hey, I know you too!" she said. "Aren't you the guy who asked me about the poster?"
Freddie offered a small smile in return, his whole posture straightening, his ever-restless hands going deliberately still at his sides. "That's me," he said. "Great show today."
"Thank you! You shouldn't have," she said, patting him on the shoulder before registering his stiffness and backing away. Then she turned to Clara. "Did I interrupt anything?"
"Don't think so," she said at once. "What's the plan for now? Do we go home together or…?"
Giselle checked the clock on the wall. "If you feel like waiting," she replied. "I still have to get changed, and I have a meeting with my castmates after this, so…you go ahead?"
To be honest, Clara didn't really want to head home alone at this hour. At home, she knew, more work waited: assigned reading she had put off until after the show, reading she couldn't put off any further but still didn't want to do. With Giselle around it would've at least been somewhat fun. Alone, it would be miserable.
"I'll walk you home."
Pushing himself off the wall, Freddie took a step forward, staying just far enough to grant her her personal space. "Unless you drove here," he added. "But it didn't sound like it, and it's too late to walk home alone."
Clara raised an eyebrow, smirking to mask her surprise. "What, scared I'll get kidnapped?"
He turned slightly pink. "You never know what's out there," he said. "I've seen enough shit on my way home from late shifts. No one should be out alone at this time of the night!"
He almost sounded like he was afraid himself, Clara mused. Maybe that was why she didn't decline the offer on the spot. She didn't like walking home alone late either, but she trusted her ability to defend herself, and in any case she didn't want to accept help from someone she didn't know well. Not that she was worried about Freddie knowing where she lived. But him walking her home felt…too close, somehow, like something that would bring them closer than casual friends were supposed to be.
But it wasn't just about her, was it? It was about him too. Maybe he himself was scared of what might lurk in the dark, sleeping streets of the night. Or maybe he simply didn't want to be alone.
In any case, looking at his face, she didn't have the heart to say no.
"Okay," she said, feeling just a little like she was opening Pandora's box. "Should we head out then?"
No, she didn't need any more close friends. She didn't have the time or the energy. But this was one walk home—she was being dramatic for sure.
After all, how much could possibly happen on a single walk home?