The clip reel music started. A hush fell over the crowd, and Valerie and Lyra obediently turned to watch their season's highlights play out on the jumbo flat-screen monitors. It was eerie. Valerie knew she was the girl with the red hair and the coquettish smile--she'd been living the part long enough to recognize her reflection--but it still felt like watching a stranger, someone who shared her footwork and her tendency to fling her left hand dramatically forward. She could see her flaws more easily when they were coming through a stranger. She could also see her merits. And she was good. Really, really good.
Please, she thought as the clip reel wound to an end and the audience erupted in cheers (which were only slightly orchestrated by the show's producers; this was reality television after all.) Please let me win, please let me keep being Valerie, please let this be my life from now on. Please let me be the first one in my generation to get out. Please.
"The time is here; we've kept you waiting long enough. Are you nervous, my darling girls?" The show's host, Brenna Kelly cast a sincere smile toward both Valerie and Lyra. "You've both been amazing. No matter what this envelope says, you're both winners to me."
Valerie forced a smile. She'd never felt so small, or so certain that everything was about to change. One way or the other, everything was about to change.
"All right. Here we go. The votes are in, and America's Dancer of Choice is..."
Please, thought Valerie, and closed her eyes.
Verity Price slouched on the couch, watching the recording of the finale of the second season of Dance or Die, America's number-one televised reality dance competition. In the four weeks since the finale had aired on live TV, she'd managed to watch it about once per week. Sometimes, she watched to criticize Valerie's footwork, looking for the the tiniest faults that had caused America to vote for Lyra. Sometimes, she watched for the pageantry--the vibrant colors, the blaring music, the intricate costumes, and the varied choreography. But mostly, she watched it for the dance. With her red wigs and sequinned costumes put away in storage, watching her alter-ego Valerie Pryor twirl across the stage was the closest to dancing that Verity had gotten since the camera's had stopped rolling. After that, she'd packed her clothing, rented a car, and to the small survivalist's compound that she and her family called home.
"Ha, knew you'd be in here. Moping." Her little sister, Antimony, rolled her eyes as she walked through the living room, adjusting her roller derby uniform as she headed for the door. "Mom and Dad are looking for you."
"Did they say why?"
"They've finally decided to put an end to your predations on the snack food in the house?" Antimony snarked. "I don't know. Mom just told me to send you into Dad's office when I found you in the living room. She said 'if' but we all know what she meant."
Verity stuck her tongue out. "You know, I think I liked you better when you were digging pit traps in the back yard," she muttered.
"Your tongue is Cheeto-orange," Antimony returned. "And if you miss it all that much, I'll totally play Hide-and-Seek with you sometime. Pit traps galore!" The games the Price children had grown up playing might have shared the same name as the ones their peers had, but the resemblance was superficial at best. The day each of them had come home, disappointed to learn that Duck, Duck, Goose wasn't normally played with ambushes, was practically a rite of passage.
After Antimony left, Verity pulled herself up off the couch, creating a snowfall of chip dust when she stood. She thought about leaving the mess for the mice, but then she remembered her dad had given them their own bag. They'd almost certainly disdain a the handful of crumbs she'd left behind. She grabbed the broom to clean up after herself and decided her parents could wait for her to take a shower, too. If this was going to turn into a lecture on personal responsibility, she didn't need to prove them right.
"You want me to what?"
"Not so loud, dear," her mother, Evelyn, reproved, from where she was counting large caliber rifle cartidges. From the size of the individual rounds, Verity was pretty sure they had been cast for something the size of an elephant gun. "You'll distract the mice."
Two of the mice looked up from their tidy rows of 9 millimeter rounds, offering Verity an exuberant, "Hail the Arboreal Priestess!" before turning back to their task.
"Or worse," her father mumbled, from where he was carefully unpacking grenades. A box from Uncle Mike had arrived, clearly. "Decide this is the basis of a new holiday observance."
From the plain cut of their robes, decorated only with a few feathers and bits of cloth, Verity knew the mice helping her parents with inventory were only initiates and were therefore unable to declare any such thing. She also knew, however, that there were almost certainly another few, higher-ranking mice around, even if she couldn't currently spot them and her father's concern was valid. It was also a point she found entirely irrelevant to the matter at hand.
"You want me to give up dancing?"
Her father sighed. "It's not that we're not proud of you, Very, and how far you got in the competition. You know we would have been there to support you if we could. Front and center for every performance. But we couldn't. Our life doesn't allow for it. Even if it were safe, it wasn't feasible."
"Your cousin Artie had tickets for the semi-finals," her mother added. "He was going to drive down. But there was a boogeyman territory dispute and he couldn't get away."
"That's our life, Very," her father said, gently. "We have a duty and an obligation. You have a duty and an obligation. You're a cryptozoologist, sweetheart. The time for dancing is over."
For a moment, Verity felt fourteen again, a rebellious Well, maybe I don't wanna BE a cryptozoologist! rising up her chest. But that was the problem--well, besides being twenty-two and not actually a sullen teenager. She did want to be a cryptozoologist. She just wanted to be a professional dancer more. The problem was, her father was right. There really wasn't room in a life for both. Dancing professionally required long hours of grueling physical labor, a zealous attention to detail, and passion. Unfortunately, so did cryptozoology. Sometimes, Verity thought the biggest difference between the two was that fewer cryptids were likely to grab her ass. "I...I love dancing," she said quietly. "I don't think I'm ready to give it up. I still think that I can do this."
"No one is doubting your commitment or your capability," her mother told her. "You were the judges' pick to win, everybody saw that. But you have responsibilities. And dancing is dangerous. Very, you know that."
Only too well. There was a reason Valerie Pryor had existed. It had been part of the agreement she'd struck with her parents when she'd decided to audition for Dance or Die. She'd never dance under her real name or with her real hair color. The Price genes were stamped all over her features and it took only one person with a love of reality TV to spot her and alert the Covenant. Forget boogeymen; the members of the Covenant of St. George were truly scary.
Actually, no. Don't forget boogeymen. They were downright terrifying when they wanted to be. But they were less fanatical than members of the Covenant, and that made all the difference. The boogeymen (and pretty much every other sapient cryptid) had a general mistrust of the Healy-Price clan because they were once members of the Covenant. The members of the Covenant, including the European branches of the same families, loathed them with an undying zeal for the same reason.
And all this was why Verity couldn't just remind her parents she was an adult and walk out of the study. With murderous extremists on one side and a large number of endangered species that her family had helped endanger on the other, her options were pretty slim.
Still. She loved dancing like she loved breathing and she couldn't just toss it aside like yesterday's chip bag. "A year," she said suddenly. "Give me a year. I know what you want me to do with my life, but...let me choose. Let me see if I can make it, doing what I love. Just let me try."
"Very..." Her dad began, but quieted when his wife held up her hand.
"And what would you be doing?" her mother asked. "In this year you're trying to make it as a dancer. You mentioned wanting to choose. What kind of choice will it be if you spend the whole year dancing and nothing else."
Verity swallowed. Her mom had a point. And she owed it to everyone to give both options a fair shake. She couldn't be a world-class ballroom dancer and a cryptozoologist at the same time for very long, but...she could do it for a time.
"You're right," she said. "It wouldn't be fair. So, let me take 2017 and see if Valerie Pryor can make a career out of ballroom dance, and while she does that, Verity Price will be acting as a cryptozoologist. I'll find a city to settle in and document and assist the city's cryptid community. Sound fair?"
"That sounds...eminently reasonable," her father said after a quick, silent conversation with his wife. "A year for you to decide. And you know what? I know just the place." He leaned back, reaching for a heavy book off one of the shelves above his desk. "Has a number of cryptids undocumented anywhere else, including a breed of teal deer and a species of squirrel that might have an ancestor in common with Aeslin mice."
"You do?" Verity asked. "Where?" She was already dreaming of Manhattan; sure, it was across the country, but it had Broadway and tourism and all sorts of things. It was practically designed for an aspiring ballroom dancer!
"Little place called Fandom Island," her father said with a grin. "I think it's currently around the coast of Baltimore, though it might have drifted a bit. Documenting that island alone should keep you busy for a year, even without your dancing."
Her mother was nodding enthusiastically. "That's an excellent idea, Kevin!" she said. "And a good compromise, Verity."
"Hail the compromise!" the mice intoned.
"Oh, that reminds me!" Her mother snapped her fingers. "You'll need to take a colony with you. I'll talk to the priests tonight and see which of their flock would be willing to accompany you out there."
And that was how Verity wound up at the Causeway along with her luggage, a colony of talking, sapient mice, and a giant Barbie Dream House that was almost as tall as she was.
The joys of cryptozoology.
[And enter Verity! The description of the show taken from the prologue of Seanan McGuire's Chaos Choreography. Establishy, NFI, NFB. I intend to put up a proper arrival post later this afternoon when I'm awake.]