Story:Special Guest

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Special Guest
Written by TriangleDelta

Lauren took her seat in the cockpit, and a shiver of excitement ran all up and down her spine. Her tail had slid through the hole in the back with ease, and the padded leather seat was just tall enough to support her. She had to bend her legs the slightest bit for them to fit against the pedals, but she shrugged that off. The skink was sure that they could adjust that - it wouldn't do to have any of the controls feel awkward in the giant war machine.

She slid her hands over to the joysticks, and she couldn't hold back the grin as she felt the triggers nestled under her index fingers and the buttons against her thumbs. A gentle push slid the sticks smoothly back and forward along their rails. The skink cast her gaze around the cockpit - it was more spacious than most mech models, with the displays and screens set further back to give her a more natural panoramic view. She could easily reach the various other control panels - coms frequencies, coolant subsystems, triggers for her artillery, manual overrides. She tried flicking a few switches, each one lighting up and sending orange light glistening off of her dark scales.

The skink let her hand wander back over to the joystick, then leaned back in the chair. The leather was cool against her bare shoulders. Sure, if she were launching for a combat operation in space, she would be required to wear a full flight suit within the machine. For normal ground combat, though, she would be fine in just her tank and pants. Besides, as soon as the enormous machine started moving, the interior would heat up. She leaned back forward, grinning and imagining the displays in front of her lighting up with the panoramic view surrounding her mech. The flashes and explosions, the constantly updating readouts giving her a stream of information. All she would have to do was let years of training and gut instincts take over, and turn her into an unstoppable machine of precision and firepower.

She could imagine jamming the pedals down, turning the lumbering machine on a precarious dime. The sharp movement would probably be too much for most pilots to handle, but Lauren's physical training would help her handle it. Her tail lashed behind the seat, instinctively moving as though to counterbalance the movement. As she came around, her fingers squeezed on the triggers of her joysticks, firing off a barrage from her machine guns. It would just be to set her opponents back on their heels - the machine guns mounted in her mech's shoulders were meant more for suppression than damage. The real point of her turn, her true lethality, was the long rail gun built into the machine's arm. Targeting reticules would show up on the screen, but Lauren didn't need them. She'd spent hours practicing with the machine, sharpening her reaction times, making her aim perfect. As soon as she had her shot, her right thumb would flick up, and hit the button on the side of her joystick. The force of the shot would rock her entire powerful machine, sending out an enormous slug of—

There was a flash, and Lauren blinked. For a moment, her mind raced, and she felt her breathing growing heavy. Fuck, had she missed somebody? An enemy mech on her peripherals? A misinterpreted look from one of the big wolf jocks that hung out by the- wait, no that, didn't—

A voice spoke through the speakers. "Whoops, sorry if that surprised you. That was a good one, though! Now come on out so the next person can have their turn."

Lauren hesitated for one long moment, still blinking the spots from the flash out of her eyes. Then she let out a very long sigh, and stood up. She took a moment to let her pulse calm down, forcing some of those thoughts away. Fuck, she couldn't believe she'd let somebody see her like that.

She stepped around the chair, then pushed open the door in the back of the cockpit. The light of the convention centre rushed in at her, and it was momentarily blinding. She made her way out, letting the general rumble of conversation in the hall wash over her. She followed the roped off path, passing by the next fan waiting to get into the cockpit.

Once she was out of the way of the line, Lauren took a few moments to get her bearings. Her eyes were getting used to the light again, which made things easier. She looked back at the cockpit. From the outside, it just looked like a giant blob made of plastic or something, with a door on the back. Hanging overtop of it was a banner, saying in heavily stylized text, "SpE:AR Cockpit Experience." There was a lineup stretching from the end of the roped off section, and running off into the crowd of the convention. Lauren knew it well - she'd waited in that line for a good half an hour for her turn in the cockpit.

She walked the rest of the way through the roped off path, and reached the table at the end. There were a couple staffers there looking at a screen. One, a mink, glanced up at Lauren, and said, "Hey! This is a really good picture! Most people just kinda look at the camera and throw a peace sign, or sometimes a few people will get in and hug or kiss in the cockpit. You looked ready to go to war, though! Hell, you're basically dressed like a pilot already."

"Thanks." She didn't meet their eyes. It would minimize the chances of them recognizing her. Besides, the attendant didn't need to know that she'd been imagining exactly that.

"Want me to send this to you? It's free of charge with your admission!"

"Sure." The mink handed her a form, and Lauren filled it in with the alternate email address she used for public things. She thanked the mink, and then headed off into the convention centre.

It was hot and sticky in the space. The AC was doing its best to keep it cool, but Lauren could still see a lot of canines passing by with matted fur and tongues hanging out, and various other species doing their best to keep cool. Lauren was doing alright in her thin scales and her tank-top, but her heavily padded riding pants weren't helping the situation.

The skink was primarily there for the massive SpE:AR promotional pavilion. The first episodes of the show were already coming out in Japan, and the English dubs were only a few weeks away. The merchandise hadn't even hit North America yet - Lauren's shirt was from SpE:CtYR, one of the previous series. Aside from a couple quick tours around to look at the pavilions for various other mecha animes, the skink was sticking close to the Space Echelon displays.

The other reason for her visit to the convention, of course, was the anonymity. A six and a half foot skink didn't draw much attention when there were cosplayers walking by with six and a half foot papier-maché swords. It let her relax a bit, and have the comfort of assuming nobody would recognize her. The overlap between basketball fans and anime fans wasn't nonexistent, but it significantly cut back on the number of people that might recognize her.

The overlap between basketball fans, anime fans, and people with strong opinions about pred rights and a bone to pick was even smaller. That was what she told herself, at least.

She wandered through the pavilion with relative freedom. People brushed against or bumped into her without any concern. She could stand and watch clips from past series, or push through the crowd to watch the English trailer for SpE:AR that they'd unveiled earlier that day. Every now and again the audio from the English trailer would blare out of the pavilion's speakers. The skink had heard it enough times now that she could probably recite every word off by heart.

It was while Lauren was looking over the display cases of models for the various Space Echelon mechs, and debating if she could fit one of the kits into her bike's saddle bags, that a familiar voice spoke from behind her.

"Aren't you Lauren Fash?"

Lauren froze. She felt a terrible, familiar moment of paralysis. As soon as she recognized it, she forced herself to stand back up straight.

Don't let them see it get to you.

She turned. There was a thickset deer behind her, a good half a foot shorter than Lauren. The skink sized her up for a breath, and then she pushed on and kept her voice casual. "Uh, hey. Yeah, that's me. Just keep it down - I'm sort of trying to be in incognito mode right now." Just a basketball fan. It was just a basketball fan.

The deer held up a hand - a clear indication of 'I mean no harm.' She was standing back a few feet from Lauren, wearing mostly plain clothes. She did have what looked like a SpE:AR t-shirt - a diagram of the main mech design from the new show, with a highly stylized 'Active Reagent' splashed across the top. The deer reached up to rub at the side of her muzzle.

"That's fair. Sorry, didn't mean to catch you off guard. I promise not to out you."

"It's alright, it really is."

"I guess you don't normally get swamped by people into basketball at anime cons?"

"Yeah, you could say that." Lauren shrugged. She was still a bit off-balance - now that she'd forced back her fear, the voice was familiar. She couldn't place it, but it kept tugging at her. At last, she shook her head, then said, "I'm so sorry, have we met before?"

The deer's face broke into a small grin, and she said, "What, you don't recognize me? I'm hurt, and here I knew you by name."

Lauren kept her eyes fixed on the smaller woman, an eyeridge cocked. Fuck, she knew that voice. What the hell…

The deer went to open her mouth again, but stopped as the audio of the preview clip from SpE:AR's dub came up over the loudspeakers in the pavilion. After the initial musical sting and narration, the deer's unmistakable voice came through. "We're dropping in five. Lock into your jacks, this starts now."

Lauren blinked. The deer's open mouth morphed back into a grin.

"Oh."

The deer burst out laughing, a deep, full-belly sound. "Fuck, I wish I could tell you how many times this has happened at cons, but I've lost count." She straightened up and offered her hand. "Doreen."

"Lauren." Lauren took the deer's hand and shook it. She hesitated, then inclined her head. "I, uh, guess you already know that though, right?"

The deer shrugged. "I've got my pass-times. It's not like all I ever do is record and watch anime or whatever."

"So basketball?"

"So basketball. And based on the t-shirt, I'm guessing anime?"

"Yeah. Well no. Mostly mecha stuff."

The deer raised an eyebrow. "So you're that kind of nerd?"

That prompted a snort from the skink. "Sure, if that's how you want to put it. I'll be honest, I didn't expect to find a main member of the voice cast just wandering around the con floor. Particularly, you know, the main member of the cast."

Doreen shrugged. "There are benefits to only doing voice work. People don't always recognize you right away. Once we've done the script reading panel and the signings afterwards, I'll spend the rest of the convention hidden away somewhere that people can't find me."

"So you get, what, a day and a half to enjoy things before you have to escape?"

"That's about right. At least I don't need to deal with it all over the place, though. It's pretty much just at cons." There was a teasing lilt in her voice as she continued. "I'd assume you don't get off quite that easy?"

Lauren inclined her head. "You could say that. I do try to keep a low profile off of the court."

"Probably easier, given you didn't get that rookie of the year award. I still think you were robbed, by the way."

"That makes one of us." Lauren bit back the edge in her voice when she said that. Winning that award would have been a nightmare. "Arther earned it."

"Right, right. So I'm guessing it would be in poor taste to ask you for an autograph right now?"

"I'd be willing to trade one for one of the SpE:AR shirts. I haven't seen them on the floor anywhere."

"What, you don't want an autograph on one of the mecha models or something in return?"

"Depends on whether or not SpE:AR winds up being any good."

Doreen blinked, and for a moment Lauren was afraid she'd gone too far. Then the deer let out a startled, booming laugh that drew a few stares from other people gathered around them.

Once she'd caught her breath, Doreen gave her head a shake. "Fuck. You don't pull punches, do you?"

Lauren let that one slide, and shrugged. "I mean, not every Space Echelon series is a masterpiece."

The deer nodded down at Lauren's shirt. "You say that while wearing SpE:CtYR merch?"

"Hey, Chronicle the Yellow Revolution was fun! It had charm."

"Also some pretty questionable messages about labour. And gender dynamics. Oh and, like, space magic apparently?"

Lauren was laughing now. "Well if you have that big of an issue with my shirt, I guess you'll just have to get me one of the SpE:AR ones."

"Well…" Doreen's voice trailed off, and she eyed the skink. "They aren't exactly for sale yet. But if you're coming to the script reading, we're giving away a few there. You interested?"

"Sure. I'm withholding that autograph until you get me a shirt, though."

The deer laughed. "I'll see what I can do."


The air conditioning wasn't doing much to cool the heat at the script reading. The hall was packed, and every seat was taken. Lauren was sandwiched between a vixen who had styled her hair up like the main character from Re - SpE:CT, and a bull who was speaking very loudly with a couple of his friends about what they expected from the new series.

Lauren found herself wishing, not for the first time that day, that she'd brought a pair of shorts with her to get changed into at the convention. Her padded pants, while lighter than her normal gear, were oppressive in the heat of the hall. Any satisfaction she'd gotten from them looking a bit like the pants of a mech pilot's combat suit had long since faded.

The general buzz of conversation rose in energy, and Lauren returned her gaze to the stage at the front of the hall. Several people were making their way out, and taking seats at the long table set out on the stage. Lauren immediately picked out Doreen, sitting on the far left of the table, just next to the panel's facilitator.

Lauren blinked in surprise as she got a better view of the setup. There was a giant banner behind the table, showing the main characters of the series. With the way the table was set up, Doreen was seated right beneath her character, an adolescent lion in a ragged leather jacket with twin streaks of blue and gold running through his mane. Lauren let her gaze wander down the rest of the table, and assumed that all of the other voice actors had been arranged to sit directly beneath their own characters, as well.

She did notice that there were a few empty seats up top, on the far right of the table. She was just wondering about that when the facilitator, a crow, leaned towards his mic.

"Alright, we're just about ready to get started. First things first, everybody put your hands together for the main cast of Space Echelon: Active Reagent!"

The hall erupted with roaring and cheering. A few people stood up from their seats. Lauren watched the various cast members' reactions. Some looked comfortable up there, waving down at assembled fans. Others were visibly nervous. Doreen was sitting back, a small smile on her face as she scanned the crowd. When her eyes picked out Lauren, that smile widened noticeably. The skink grew confused as the deer leaned over, said something to the crow, and then nodded over at Lauren.

The skink tensed. What was going on? Why were they singling her out?

As the applause began to die down, the crow leaned towards his mic again. "Today we're going to be performing a reading of the full script from the first episode. Unfortunately, we're short a few people - we've got a couple of lines in here for extra characters. While I would love to fill in all the lines for side characters and random ill-fated soldiers myself, I'm going to be a bit busy reading off all of the scene setting and action. That's where all of you will come in…" Lauren felt her guts tying into knots. Oh god, Doreen hadn't told him to… "We're going to choose a few lucky people from the audience to help us with the reading. As thanks for their help, each of our lucky guest VAs will be walking away with a SpE:AR shirt, not yet released in North America." Oh. Oh fuck, they were going to do it, they were going to do it. "In addition to that, we do have a special guest who's going to be helping us fill one of those roles." Fuck. "In the audience today we have a Ms Lauren Fash of FBA fame. Ms Fash, would you join us up here?"

Lauren's legs locked up. She was staring up at the stage, unable to bring herself to move. In her periphery she could see people in the audience looking around, trying to identify this 'special guest.' There was some applause - most of it polite, but a bit actually sounding enthusiastic, like people actually knew what they were clapping for.

Up on stage, Doreen's eyes were locked on her. From there, the deer probably couldn't see how tense Lauren was, how wide her eyes were. Lauren kept staring at her, and Doreen gave the smallest, encouraging nod.

Lauren took a deep breath. It would only draw more attention in the long run if she didn't go along with it.

She stood up, pulled her tail around and held it to her front so it wouldn't bump against anybody, and excused herself as she slid in front of the bull and his friends. She could feel eyes turning to look at her. Deep breaths. Barely anybody here even knew who she was. The sudden attention wasn't exactly pleasant, but she could do this.

Once she'd made her way out of the seats and to the aisle on the side, she released her tail and walked forward. The applause increased in volume a bit, but it died down before she reached the stage. She kept her back straight, her head high as she made her way up the steps, and then took her seat near the end of the table. Doreen was down at the far end of the table, and Lauren couldn't possibly see her from where she was seated.

Somebody in a con staff t-shirt walked up and handed her a script. Lauren looked down, and flipped through the pages until she found a name highlighted. Rebel Pilot 1. She kept paging through, and only noticed a couple lines for her - responding to orders, providing small updates, and finally being killed off during the opening moments of the episode's fight scene.

Lauren scanned the script while the crow called up another four random audience members to take up the other parts. The skink tried to make it look like she was still studying her script, but in reality she was looking at the crowd from the edges of her vision.

After the initial bit of applause, it was like they'd forgotten her. She didn't notice any murmuring, nobody staring. At length, she allowed herself to look up and directly at them. It was just a sea of people in their seats, some of them talking to themselves, and most of the rest watching the actual cast members.

Nobody was going to pay attention. Nobody cared.

She took in a deep breath.

The script reading started soon after. The low buzz of conversation cut out into perfect silence as the crow began reading off a block of scene setting and description. Then the voice actors started in, their voices honed with practice. Doreen didn't speak until the second scene, but her first line carried a brash timbre to it that made Lauren blink. If she hadn't met the deer earlier, she would have guessed that she was an angry teenaged boy.

It took a few minutes for Lauren to start to pick things out about the performances, though. These weren't the line deliveries she would have expected from the show - the Space Echelon series often relied on level, cold delivery of lines, combined with swelling music and incredible animation to deliver its drama. Up here on the stage, though, the actors were leaning harder into their performances. They were adding extra edges, more rises, more melodrama. They were working the crowd, trying to force out peals of laughter, cheers, and dramatic gasps.

The skink let her gaze wander over to the other four volunteers that were sitting next to her. A few of them were shaking, and all looked nervous, but at the same time, there was an excited energy running through them. This was a dream come true for them.

Just like that, she realized it had the chance to be a dream come true for her, too.

She stared down at the script, following it along as they drew ever closer to her first scene. Fuck. She'd watched this show since she was a kid. Earlier that day, she'd sat in a replica cockpit and fantasized about piloting one of the behemoths.

The skink slowed her breathing, and thought back to how she'd felt in the cockpit.

Doreen's voice rang out. "We're dropping in five. Lock into your jacks, this starts now."

Lauren's eyes narrowed, and she leaned towards her mic. "Locked in, commander. Let's drop hell on them."

A few of the other volunteers next to Lauren also read off their confirmations - most of them sounded nervous, or like they were holding back laughter at the situation. Lauren was still glaring straight ahead into middle distance, imagining the scene. Imagining the tonnes of steel waiting for her to pilot it.

Imagining the cold, measured calm of preparing to throw a ball at the net.

She noticed a few people in the audience nudging their neighbours and pointing up at her. She ignored them as the scene continued on. She was in it, now.

The rest of the script reading played out. Lauren gave her responses to Doreen's orders in a clipped, aggressive voice. As the crow described the fight scene intensifying, she let the strain start showing in her voice. When the episode's villain began landing hits on her mech, she growled and yelped, her hand clenching at the edge of the table until the muscles in her forearm bulged.

The crow read off the description as she was finally cornered by the enemy's mech. Her voice was desperate, angry as she traded a couple last bits of info with Doreen's character. When the crow described a laser-tipped partizan ripping through her mech's armour and into the cockpit, she read off her death line in an agonized cry.

She didn't realize she'd done it until there was a roar of applause. Lauren blinked, then looked up, and was startled to see the audience all looking at her, applauding. A few were laughing, and her face flushed hot. The voice actor sitting next to her, who had been playing the rebel group's harried engineer, gave her clap on the shoulder, and said in a laughing voice, "Fucking 'eh, dude."

Lauren slumped a bit lower in her seat as the script reading went on. A few of her other 'guest' voice actors were killed off as well. With the attention taken off of her, Lauren could just sit and bask in the warm glow of embarrassment and, well, fun.

The episode eventually ended on a cliffhanger. The audience all let out a disappointed and mock-outraged gasp. The crow announced that there would be a Q and A with the cast in a few minutes, and asked for a round of applause for the guests. Lauren ducked her head at the applause and whistles for them. She and the other four got up, were handed their t-shirts, and headed off the stage.

The others all headed back to their seats, but Lauren made a beeline for the exit. A few people sitting on the edges of the crowd gave her smiling nods or waves as she walked past, and she returned them sheepishly. She didn't stop until she'd stepped out of the doors and into the main convention hall.

There, she leaned back against the door, and took a few very deep breaths. Her heart was still hammering. She couldn't believe she'd done that. Fuck. She would probably have to leave before anybody else stepped out of the hall - she didn't want to risk running into anybody that might want to talk to an FBA player.

Before she started walking, she glanced down at the shirt in her arms. It was just like the one that Doreen had been wearing earlier. She unfolded it to get a better look, and a piece of paper fluttered out and down towards the floor. Lauren picked it up, and was surprised to find a note with an address and a time on it, signed by Doreen. She turned it over, and blinked as she saw written on the other side, Date? You owe me an autograph.

Lauren stared down at the note for a very long few moments, stunned. There was no way that she was going to go and meet up with the deer after she'd revealed her identity in front of that crowd, was there? Sure, Lauren had promised her an autograph, but that didn't mean a thing.

She kept staring at the note for a while, unsure what to do. At length, she muttered to herself, "Fuck it." She clenched the note in her hand, and then started making her way towards the doors.


"Fuck, you ride a motorcycle?"

Lauren finished tugging her helmet off, and glanced over her shoulder. Doreen was standing a few feet back from her, her hands shoved into the pockets of her shorts. The deer was already sweating heavily, and her fur was matted down.

The skink put her helmet on the back of her bike, and began pulling off her padded mesh jacket. "You've discovered my dark secret."

"I can't decide if that makes you much cooler or much more of a nerd."

"Says the anime voice actor?"

"Point taken."

Lauren tossed her jacket onto the back of her bike. She didn't bother bringing it or her helmet with her - she would be able to see them from where they were eating. They started walking across the parking lot, towards the barbecue restaurant. They passed by a number of picnic tables with wide umbrellas shading them from the sun. Everywhere that there wasn't shade, Lauren could see the wavering of heat rising off of the black pavement. A number of people were already seated, and all of them had drinks that were dripping with condensation. Trays of hot, smoky barbecue were laid out in front of them.

Lauren got a spot in the long line while Doreen ran up to the front. She returned a few moments later with a laminated menu. She was already speaking as she walked up.

"So. You can order off the menu. Or you could always trust the person who's been coming here since she was, like, six. Your call."

"I'm getting the impression you want me to go with the latter."

"Hey, your call. In my not so humble opinion, this is the best barbecue in Atlanta. You can't go wrong."

"Right."

Lauren took the menu, and started reading it over. Next to her, Doreen was shifting her wait from foot to foot. Her hands were constantly flicking up to rub at her nose, or run under her muzzle, or just generally touch her face. The deer lasted maybe half a minute before she spoke again.

"So. You drive a motorbike. You only watch mecha anime."

"Hey, despite what you may think, pro basketball players don't exactly get a lot of time to binge shows. I'll stick to what I know I'll like in my precious free time."

"Uh-huh. Why do I get the impression that you imagine little targeting reticules and punching commands into a firing computer every time you take a shot?"

Lauren actually laughed at that, shaking her head. She pointed at the deer with the menu. "I'm not that far gone, alright?"

"Really? After that script reading earlier today?"

Lauren tried to not let the awkwardness show. She cleared her throat, and shrugged. "I just got into it."

"Mmhmm." The deer leaned forward, her hoof-tipped fingers tapping against her chin. "How about imagining explosions when you land said shot?"

The skink inclined her head. "Please. I'm pretty sure half the fucking league does that one."

Doreen laughed, that deep belly sound again. A few other people in line turned to stare. Once she'd recovered, she asked, "Would I be right in guessing that you sometimes imagine what mech your bike is, or what battle you're heading into whenever you get onto it?"

Lauren rolled her eyes, and glanced up from the menu again. "Alright, you win. I doubt I'll get the chance to read the entire menu before we reach the front at this rate."

The deer pumped a fist into the air. "Success! How about you grab us a table. Beer?"

"Yes, please god, beer."

Lauren left the menu with Doreen, then scouted out an empty table. There was a very light breeze, but it was doing little to dispel the heat. The skink let her gaze wander around the barbecue's parking lot. It was on a relatively busy street, and there were cars rushing by constantly. The dull roar helped muffle the conversations of the other diners.

She was appreciative for that. As she sat, she thought back to the panel that afternoon. She still had no idea how she was going to approach Doreen about that. Or about the fucking note. There were too many conflicting thoughts in her head. Sure, it had been fun, but she also couldn't remember the long moments of horror as she'd realized what was happening, and the feeling of her identity being very public knowledge.

Doreen returned with their food - all of it came in cardboard containers on bright red plastic trays. There was also a pair of brown bottles of beer. She plopped the laden down trays onto the table, then took a heavy seat.

Both of them set into their meals. Lauren had to admit - it was delicious, hearty food. She'd been worried about eating something so hot when it was already sweltering out, but somehow it made her feel better. The two occasionally traded words as they ate - Lauren asking how the Q and A had gone, Doreen's eyes widening when she learned which hotel Lauren was staying at. Normal little nothings. Throughout it all, Lauren couldn't help noticing how often the deer's hands strayed to her face. She was building up a small pile of used napkins as she wiped her fingers clean before each touch.

A plan formed in Lauren's mind. She didn't want to do it, but she knew she had to. So, after one particularly long lull in the conversation, the skink put down her food, and spoke.

"That was a dick move, you know."

The deer blinked, and glanced up at her. There was barbecue sauce smeared across her lips and her fingers, and her mouth was full. She chewed and swallowed a bit, then said around her mouthful, "You timed that on purpose."

"Yup. Swallow your meal."

The deer rolled her eyes, but kept chewing. Lauren continued speaking.

"You put me on stage and revealed to everybody there who I was."

"I did." Doreen had swallowed enough by that point to speak clearly. She glanced around for napkins to clean her fingers off, and her eyes narrowed as she saw them all clutched in Lauren's hand, out of her reach. "Oh you are fucking evil."

"Yup. So let's talk. Why did you do it?"

The deer shrugged. She went to rub under her muzzle, but stopped as she glanced down at her dirty fingers. She sighed, and then very deliberately placed her fingers together, so as to not get the sauce anywhere. "I don't know. I thought it would be a fun treat for a super fan. You seemed kind of tightly wound, too, and I was hoping it would help you chill."

"After I told you that I was trying to keep a low profile?"

Doreen didn't respond to that. She looked like she was trying to come up with a response, and even went to speak a couple times, but always stopped herself. When Lauren finally raised an eyeridge at her, the deer sighed. "Okay, that's true. I assumed that was just a… I don't know. A formality?"

"Not exactly, no."

"Okay." The deer reached up to rub at her forehead, and caught herself just before she rubbed sauce into her fur. She forced her hand back down, flexing her fingers. She returned her gaze to Lauren, and considered the skink for a few long moments. "There's something fair to that. But you had fun, right?"

"I don't know if that's the point."

"Please, you looked and sounded like you were having the time of your life. Hell, some of the other voice actors afterwards said they were impressed. You were tense as hell when I ran into you on the convention floor. Sure, nobody knew who you were, then, but you still looked like you were expecting somebody to jump you at any—"

Lauren flinched. The deer stopped and blinked. There was a very long moment of quiet between the two women.

"Oh."

"Yeah."

They both fell quiet again. Lauren broke eye contact and glanced down at her food. She could feel Doreen's eyes on her, but she tried to ignore that. The sound of other diners talking and eating, glass bottles clinking against metal tables, cars rushing by all helped fill the silence. Lauren forced herself to take a deep breath. She pushed the small pile of napkins back across the table towards Doreen. They were crumpled from her clenching them too hard.

The skink went back to her food, grabbing up a slice of cornbread. She kept her voice even as she spoke, never looking up. "You didn't know. It's alright."

"It kind of isn't. God, I'm sorry."

"Whatever." Her voice didn't have much force as she said it. She took a bite, and chewed slowly. She heard Doreen take a napkin and start wiping off her hands. Lauren forced herself to take a deep breath, and then continued. "You're right. It was fun."

"Yeah, small comfort."

"It was, though. Fuck, I can't remember the last time I felt so silly and good about something." Lauren reached down to mop up some sauce with the crust of her bread. "You mentioned the rookie of the year award. Look, I was in a damn good draft year. Arther earned it and deserved it without question, but there were like six? seven? of us that probably could have taken it, if things had gone a bit differently. Leading up to that award, though? Jesus, I was terrified that they would say my name. Push me into the spotlight again."

She heard Doreen take a drink. Her eyes were still focused down on her tray. The deer's voice was hesitant but questioning. "But the script reading was fun?"

"God yes."

"Good. Because of reading the script, or…?"

"I don't know. I just know that I miss feeling like that when I'm out on the court, or when there are awards being given, or whatever it is. I miss having teeth." Lauren finally looked up at Doreen. The deer was holding her bottle, and she was drumming the fingers of her other hand along her forearm. The skink sighed, and then pulled Doreen's note from earlier out of her pocket. She put it on the table. "So. I want to know. Is this a date?"

The deer blinked. For a moment Lauren wanted to make a comment about headlights, but she figured that it might be inappropriate. Then, the deer tilted her head to the side.

"If this is a date, it didn't exactly go how I was expecting."

"Call it revenge for the script reading. Let's try this: you've got an idea of some of my damage. It has been a rough couple of years. Do you want this to be a date?"

The deer drummed her fingers along her arm a bit harder. "Fuck it. Sure. I feel awkward as hell saying that after, you know, potentially traumatizing you, but yeah. You seem fun. Do you want this to be a date?"

"I would. I think I need somebody pushing me to do this stuff more often. Just less surprises."

"Good." Doreen nodded, as though it were the end of a business negotiation or something. She grabbed up a potato wedge, then paused and pointed at Lauren with it. "That'll make this way less awkward. Hey, do you want a guest role on an episode of SpE:AR?"

Lauren blinked. "Excuse me?"

"It wouldn't be much. I was talking to the director earlier, and he said they still have a spot open for, like, 'Rebel Pilot 5 Who Explodes' in episode 8. He liked your gusto, so asked me to make the offer. You down?"

Lauren kept staring for a bit. Then she stammered out, "Uh. I would need to talk to my agent, and it would have to be over the summer, but uh… yeah, almost definitely?"

"Sweet. I'll let him know, and he'll talk to your agent. We can probably record it at my place with my setup, but they might ask you to head in to a studio. If they do, try to not get too into character, though. Can't have you embarrassing me."

"Aw shut up."

They both fell quiet after that, but it was a much more comfortable quiet as they both finished their meals. The sun was setting and the heat dropping by the time they both sat back, their trays empty. Lauren was just considering what her ride back to Huntsville the next evening was going to look like when Doreen spoke.

"Okay, I just want to clear up one thing."

"Yeah?"

"So this is a date."

"Pretty sure we established that."

"Implying that there will be subsequent dates."

"Assuming all goes well, yes."

"But you know… I live in Atlanta. You live in Huntsville."

"It's a three hour drive and I have a lot of wiggle room with my money. I'm sure we can work around it."

"Yes." Doreen hesitated. "But like. You know. Are you cool with us being open?"

Lauren blinked once. Then she laughed. "Oh Jesus yes."

"Oh thank god. I have a few people that would probably be disappointed if I had to suddenly cut things off."

"Yeah, don't worry. I have somebody in Anchorage."

The deer raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"

"You didn't hear that."


Featured Characters

Lauren Fash

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