"Ow!" A hiss of air passed between his teeth as her heel dug into his foot. She was already fuming mid-whirl and paid him no mind. He didn't try to get in her way.
"What is it this time?" Jasmine demanded as the smoke machine sputtered to a halt in the background. The gray fog smelled oddly of clown makeup, no doubt aggravating her pissy mood past the Scourge threshold. Mozenrath was usually a patient man, but even he was starting to gravitate toward his TV persona.
"Don't get smart with me," the new director snapped. "We've been over this a dozen times! You have to look terrified. You're getting kidnapped by your worst nightmare and you're totally defenseless!"
Jasmine made a derisive noise, stepping toward the edge of the set. "Okay, look Mary, I know you have your newly minted Masters in Directing and all, but have you read a single page of the base material? Or watched even fifteen minutes of the show? I am not terrified of this guy. I'm more likely to kick his ass than run away screaming!"
The director stood her ground, almost leaning forward in anticipation for a fight with the female lead. Mozenrath glanced back at Aladdin who was just climbing down from the flying carpet platform and moving toward them. Hopefully they wouldn't have to step in to break up anything. He kind of wanted to see Jasmine shove a megaphone over the woman's head. Ever since Cantare had taken a vacation, they'd been suffering through retakes with a rookie stand-in director who redefined the meaning of anal-retentive.
"I guess you might still be suffering from memory loss, Princess," Mary sneered, "because you seem to have forgotten that he threatened to rape you in one of the episodes!"
Mozenrath winced as the argument abruptly careened off a cliff. It was less than pleasant to remember that particular scene; his character had almost been canned after a concerned parents' coalition had protested against "the overt sexuality" in his choice line. Apparently eight year-olds these days were worldly enough to know that "everything" meant something other than a palace.
"Here we go," Aladdin muttered beside him. They traded a rare sympathetic glance before Aladdin stepped forward to try to restrain his girlfriend.
Jasmine clenched her fists and brushed him off when he touched her shoulder.
"Apprehensive is different from terrified," she gritted out. "Didn't they teach you anything about emotional expression or maybe basic vocabulary in whatever starving community theater took you in? The script said apprehensive and that's what I did."
"By running to Aladdin for protection? You were terrified!"
"I was not terrified!"
"Jasmine?" Aladdin tried again.
"Someone bring me the reel of that episode. We'll watch it right now!"
"Fine!" Jasmine shouted.
"I wouldn't sound so eager if I were you!"
"Let it go," Mozenrath said nonchalantly as Aladdin backed off, dismayed. "This is kind of a fun break."
"I'm the last person who would ever say this," Aladdin said reluctantly, "but I miss Cantare."
Mozenrath laughed, trailing off in a villainous sigh. "For once we agree on something, street rat."
The director's assistant, a tall pasty man with amber eyes and serious social issues, came back empty-handed. "Sorry Mary, the reel's on loan. A slew of fanfic writers have got it reserved til next January."
She narrowed her eyes, not breaking her death stare against Jasmine. "Well then. We have other ways to settle this."
"Nothing that won't leave us needing a new temp director."
"Whoa," Mozenrath said under his breath. That was the closest cue he'd get to stage an intervention before blood was spilled. He stepped into the narrow strip of no-man's land between the two women, almost expecting to feel static crackle across his skin. "How about we all take a break? Calm down a little and go over the script on our own"
He froze at the two venomous glares pinpointed on him, fighting the urge to tiptoe backward into obscurity.
"I can do this scene in my sleep," Jasmine said adamantly. "I'm doing it exactly the way Cantare wrote it and we'd be moving on to an entire new series by now if she didn't insist on making it a teenage vampire movie."
"How dare you"
Aladdin went a step further than Mozenrath and put a hand on both their shoulders before they could jump at each other. "Break. We need a break. No rehearsing, no reading, just an hour to breathe. Jas, we'll go out for coffee down the block."
Though there was little goodwill between them, Mozenrath had to admire the man for his forceful diplomacy. Something about his stance, maybe, or the no-bullshit stare. The women slowly backed off, resentment simmering in their gazes.
"Okay," Aladdin said, a hint of relief in his voice, and turned to his girlfriend. "So how about"
"You're not leaving the set," Mary said succinctly. "If she goes, then we work on your scenes. We're way behind schedule and"
"And whose fault is that?" Jasmine sniped.
"Don't start," Aladdin warned. "Fine, I'll stay. Just get out of the building and get some fresh air. We'll talk later."
The selfless gesture seemed to placate the antagonists somewhat. In a strangely synchronized moment, both women pivoted on their heels and marched away from each other.
"Get back to the platform," Mary ordered as she picked up her megaphone from beside the director's chair. She looked around at the various members of the crew as if remembering their puny existences were still necessary for her work. "What are you all looking at? Stations!"
The only sign of frustration on Aladdin's face was a slight twitch of the eyebrow as he nodded in Mozenrath's direction. "Enjoy your break," he said flatly.
Mozenrath couldn't help but grin. "Jumping off the balcony looks like a good option now, doesn't it?"
He found her tearing the petals off a bouquet of flowers in her room. She'd opened the door and let him in without even looking at him, intent on ripping each chrysanthemum petal five ways before scattering the bits to the floor.
" He would have stuffed his hands in his pockets if they weren't already there. He played with the lint in the lining instead. "Care for some coffee?"
"No." She collapsed gracelessly on her divan, one foot up on the cushion.
"How about Wii boxing?"
She was silent for a while, ripping three more petals before tossing the flower in the garbage. Grabbing a tissue off the cluttered makeup counter, she rubbed the stains off her hands and stood up.
"I have my Wii here. I thought you knew."
She continued to give little more than monosyllabic answers as they reached his room and he set up the system. She took a controller from him and tightened the strap around her wrist with more force than necessary. The opening screen chimed with exaggerated cheeriness that neither of them felt. She leaned forward in a real boxing stance at the sound of the starting bell, and he felt an odd stroke of pity for his Mii.
"I don't think I've ever died that fast," he commented as his character went down for the third time a minute later. "Good job."
"Don't patronize me," was the terse response. Three words, at least.
He'd come in thinking he'd go easy on her and play the role of a weakly defended potato sack to alleviate some of her rage. But as always, he didn't like losing. His half-hearted attempts to block and counter felt unnatural and cowardly instead of chivalrous.
"You suck at this," she said after a while. Four words this time. It should have been encouraging, but he felt annoyed instead.
"I'm letting you win."
"Because you're angry and need to let off some steam," he insisted.
"Uh-huh," she said airily.
"You want me to play for real?"
"When does Lord Mozenrath ever not play for real?" she countered.
He felt a tug at the corner of his mouth. "So we're in-character for the next round."
"Canon characters. Not this rose-colored Mary Sue garbage."
He found they had to put more physical distance between them after she elbowed him several times with her right hooks. The first "real" match was a close one, both of them falling twice and recovering strong before pummeling the crap out of each other. He was already sweating by the second round and rolled his shoulders a few times to lessen the tension in his muscles. Not that he was afraid of losing he'd had plenty of practice since he'd bought this game partly to get into shape, though he would die rather than admit that to anyone.
"That's right, shit just got real," he said smugly as her avatar sprawled unconscious in the ring. "Wanna go back to ripping up flowers?"
She caught him off guard as she shoved him with more strength than he thought she had. Stumbling sideways, he knocked into the floor lamp and made a futile grab at thin air before tripping over the arm of his couch.
"Sorry," she said, actually sounding concerned. She righted the lamp before it tilted too far and sat down beside him, controller dangling forgotten from her wrist. "Didn't bruise anything, did you?"
"I'm fine," he brushed it off, again damned to admit the truth. But the twitching of her lips already told of her amusement. Pushed over by a girl. Sometimes he wondered if he'd ever shed his high school reputation as the class punching bag.
"You said we should be in-character. Just acting my part."
"Now was that Dagger Rock or Amnesiac Princess?" he returned, disappointment fading at the sight of her smile.
She laughed at his favored nickname for her favorite episode. "Dagger Rock, duh. You weren't in the other one."
Strands of hair were matted to her forehead, her cheeks flushed a healthy red from the exercise. Now she looked like she'd just come back energized from a pilates class instead of seething from a near-catfight with a director. She was beautiful regardless of her mood, but somehow knowing he'd been the one to bring the radiance back to her face threw him into awkward mode.
"I wish I had been," he said. In a second of hindsight, it sounded strangely like a confession, harmless as it was.
She raised an eyebrow. "Really. I thought you liked seeing Aladdin humiliated in that episode."
"I was thinking more along the lines of 'Lord of the Black Sand teams up with Scourge of the Desert.'"
Her smile widened into a full-fledged grin. "The set wouldn't have been able to handle us. Hell, Cantare's mind would explode."
"So would the legions of fangirls."
She scoffed. "Legions, huh. Getting a bit cocky there."
He realized his slip and laughed at himself. "Oh no. You're the only reason I even have fangirls."
She shoved him again playfully. "Bullshit, I was just kidding. You need to hire a bodyguard with all the tweens following you around. And they'd all prefer it if I was out of the picture."
"Jasmine, please. You do realize that the letters M and J have taken on new significance because of us, right? They don't just mean the King of Pop anymore."
Her smile thinned, though there was no protest in her eyes. He cursed himself for injecting more awkwardness between them when things had been going so well.
"So, uh, we have about twenty minutes left," he said, steering them back to safe ground.
"Wanna go over the scene again?"
He waited for the storm clouds to return, but she merely looked thoughtful. "Yeah, let's do it." She disentangled the controller from her wrist and jumped up lightly from the couch. "And we're going to do it right. I don't care what that crazyass director says."
" he said, trailing off pensively. She paused on her way to his desk and looked back in question. "Maybe we can mix things up a little."
"Is that the in-character voice I hear?"
He grinned slowly, adjusting for the dark tone of the Lord of the Black Sand. "I have an idea."
Arriving ten minutes late to the set didn't put them in the director's good graces. But time had been tight enough as it was, refining his plan and rushing to find what they needed. They hadn't had time to rehearse, but improv came naturally enough to both of them that it wouldn't matter that much. He wasn't nervous. Not at all.
"Feeling better?" Aladdin said with more than a hint of exhaustion as he drew his girlfriend in for a kiss.
"Better enough," she said vaguely, glancing at Mozenrath with a half-smile. "Nothing blows off steam like a good workout."
Aladdin raised an eyebrow at the poor wording, but before Mozenrath could deflect any ill-earned suspicion, the director's shrill voice snapped them back to the task at hand.
"Alright, enough dawdling! Get in your places people! Aladdin, back on the platform! And Princess, that extra time you spent off in lala-land had better translate into proper acting this time!"
The venomous tint to Jasmine's gaze disappeared as quickly as it had come when Mozenrath drew the small plastic jar out of his pocket and discreetly twisted it open, backing off with a conspiring nod.
The set turned dark and Jasmine stood still with her eyes closed, arms loose at her sides as if sleepwalking. Mist billowed from the floor on both sides of the set to curl around her feet, slowly wafting upward to surround her slight frame.
That was his cue.
"Good evening, Princess."
She opened her eyes, blinking in surprise as she cast around blindly.
"Who's there?" she said timorously, hands trembling.
The director blinked in real surprise at Jasmine's sudden and complete cooperation. Mozenrath fought a smile. Perfect start.
"I'm a little hurt that you don't recognize my voice. Don't they say the third date's the charm?"
Jasmine's eyes widened as she took a step back and swallowed nervously. The camera on the left zoomed in on her throat at that exact moment. Mary looked on in enraptured silence, already sold.
Mozenrath?" His name came out a whisper, an elusive, flawless mix of fear and several symptoms of fangirl rabies. He was seriously impressed and vicariously flattered.
"Ah, your memory hasn't failed you after all," he said smugly, squashing the momentary distraction.
A dim light turned on overhead and the smoke machine went into overdrive. Stepping in front of it for his grand entrance, he surreptitiously turned over the jar in his hand and dumped its contents directly into the path of the air currents from the machine.
He could hear the director suppress a squeal as the air around him became a concentrated maelstrom of silver glitter, and a poor unsuspecting assistant sneezed somewhere nearby. The main cameraman looked at the director questioningly, expecting a bitchy reprimand and a salvo of orders for a retake. But Mary was too far gone for that, hands clasped religiously in front of her mouth as Mozenrath executed the scripted cape swirl twice as slow and wide as necessary, sparkles fanning out in all directions.
He almost cracked when he saw Jasmine's lip quiver the slightest bit in furiously suppressed laughter. But the show had to go on; the ruthless perfectionist in them both would see this through to the end, as ridiculous and potentially ruinous to their reputations as it might be.
"What do you want with me?" Jasmine's voice slipped seamlessly into a lower octave, ending in a soft breathless gasp as he stepped right in front of her.
Something prickled at his skin and he knew without looking that it was the intensity of Aladdin's death glare. The man was still a fair distance away on the flying carpet platform, but that would certainly change if Mozenrath didn't finish the scene soon.
"More than you could dream of," he said with all the darkness and sensuality of a romanticized serial killer. Under normal circumstances he would have been freaked out by the caliber of his Ted Bundy impersonation. Under normal circumstances any woman, let alone Jasmine, would have kicked him in the balls and run away.
"You won't get away with this
" she breathed as he encircled her waist dramatically with one arm. "Aladdin will save me
He shoved down the growing knot of laughter lodged in his throat. At this point her lines had lost all connection with the tone of her voice. She was all but pleading for him to whisk her away to the Citadel and turn this kid's show into something that barely made an R rating.
He'd do that in the next scene. For now all he had to do was sweep his cape around them both and end it with a mock teleportation
She leaned up and kissed him.
The jolt to his system was like a final knockout punch in Wii boxing, but he thanked whatever comedic muses were watching over him right then that he managed to keep his focus and not fall off the set like the comic relief in a high school bishounen anime.
He could feel the smile around the edge of her lips as she opened his mouth with her tongue and took the kiss into PG-13 territory. In a far-off corner of his mind he wondered if Mary's utter silence meant they had inadvertently killed her with a brain aneurysm. In the immediate forefront of his mind he wondered if he'd suffer the same fate in the next few seconds if Jasmine didn't pull away soon.
It was the sparkles that saved him.
Jasmine abruptly sneezed in his face, considerably reducing the romantic sentiment in the scene, both manufactured and real.
He fastidiously wiped her spit from his face, they both stepped back from each other, and his spider senses gave him a split-second of warning before his left cheek took the full brunt of a hammer blow and he fell to the floor, losing all remaining dignity on the way.
"HEY!" The director and Jasmine shouted at the same time.
Mozenrath sat back with strange detached serenity despite the throbbing in his face and leg where he'd fallen wrong. Jasmine was restraining Aladdin as Mary blocked his path directly, shouting that this scene was absotively posilutely perfect and ten times better than what Cantare had originally written, and no street rat's vendetta was going to change a thing about it. It was going into the episode if she had to sacrifice her firstborn child for it, because this scene like no other had the power to change the fates of millions of teenage girls across the world.
Stunned, Mozenrath stood up and brushed himself off, staring over Mary's shoulder at Jasmine's equally astonished expression.
What have we done was written in half-horror, half-disbelieving hilarity in her wide eyes.
He was grinning like an idiot now and for all his acting prowess, he could do nothing to wipe the incriminating sign of a full-blown crush off his face. Even the glare of murder and torture in seven hells from her well-muscled boyfriend couldn't quell the teenage euphoria in his veins.
On second thought, as Jasmine lost her grip on Aladdin's arm and he charged straight past Mary with a fist aimed at his face
he probably should have practiced a bit more self-defense during that Wii break.