Title: put a smile on your face
Pairings: Alex Greenwald/Greta Salpeter, Brendon/Ryan
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: 16,195
Summary: AU. Greta is fairly content with her life in Chicago, working in the park, meeting new people as often as possible and hanging out with her best friends, Bob and Max. But things start to change when she plays a part in Razia's Shadow: A Musical and discovers just how much she wants and loves to perform. Meanwhile, she's been receiving all these random letters and gifts from a complete stranger who leaves his name only as "A".
Disclaimer: I admit it! I made it up! Also: Don't google yourself.
Notes: Thanks so much to conquer_minds and hello_ilu for the beta work! This whole story is dedicated to the prompt community heavy_lights, because without that community, I never would've been inspired to write this.

"And she always asks me about my love life," Greta says, sipping on her soda absently. "She's worse than my mother! I'm seriously considering making up a boyfriend so that I can catch a break for a little while."

"You really think that would work?" Bob asks around a mouthful of vegetables. "She'd probably start asking about the gory details," he adds, waggling his eyebrows. "Hey, how's Aunt Sandy holding up these days, anyway? You know I'm not seeing anyone."

Greta scoffs and smacks him on the shoulder. "You'd be lucky to score someone as lovely as my aunt, even if she is a busybody." She glances at the clock on the wall and sighs. "I should really head back. Ryan gets pissy if he has to deal with kids for too long on his own."

"You know we could always make room for you at the shop," Bob says, for what is probably the millionth time since he's taken over co-ownership there.

"Dude, seriously. If I wanted to work for the music store, I would have taken the job when you first offered it to me two years ago. I like my job in the park, and the kids are just precious."

"You didn't say that last week when those twins dumped a bottle of orange paint all over your jacket."

Greta rolls her eyes. "I still haven't figure out how they got behind the counter," she admits, "but now we try our best to keep our nicer clothes at home and our jackets in a sealed Tupperware container."

Bob laughs and gives her a quick hug. "Don't be a stranger," he says.

"Never," Greta says, kissing him on the cheek, then walks back to her day job.


"Thank god you're here," Ryan says, obviously exasperated despite his monotone. "There was this one brat who demanded an entire dragon across his forehead, and he would not sit still."

She shakes her head at him. "I still don't understand why you chose to paint faces at the park for a living when you hate kids. You had to know that was your primary clientèle."

Ryan rolls his eyes. "I don't hate kids. I just wish there were less brats in the city."

Greta bites her lip and does not give him the usual lecture, as there is a family of four walking down the trail, obviously in their direction. "Just behave," she murmurs, then puts on her best smile for their new customers.


After work, she heads back to her apartment. She pops in a CD of calming music, contemplating how to spend her night. Tonight, she's thinking of a nice meal, then maybe heading down to the center to take a ballroom dancing class, and then she can come back and take a bubble bath. It's getting to that humid point of early summer in Chicago, where sitting in a tent with a fan running falls just short of being cool enough.

When she arrives at the center, she sees some familiar faces and heads over to say hello. "Jon! I'm surprised to see you here, did they talk you into this?" she asks, gesturing at Pete and Ashlee.

Jon laughs lightly. "Actually, I'm here to take pictures for the center," he explains, gesturing to a camera bag behind him. "But maybe I'll set aside some time near the end for a dance," he adds, winking at her. She curtsies to him before Ashlee pulls her away to share the latest gossip.

She enjoys this class for several reasons. The main one is that it's an excuse to dress up and dance with complete strangers. Most of the time, there are a shortage of guys, so she's often paired with girls for parts of the night, but she doesn't see that as a problem. She enjoys meeting new people, sharing a little bit in their lives for a few weeks before they inevitably get tired and quit coming to the class. She is familiar with all of the regulars, though she can't convince most of her closest friends to come with her, despite her best efforts.

She dances once with Pete, three times with strangers, and once, as promised, with Jon. In that time, she hears stories of all sorts from each of their lives, taking them in and remembering interesting details to put down in her journal later. When the music stops, Jon continues with his story enthusiastically.

"The best part is that people were downloading from, like, Indonesia! I don't even know where that is, Greta. And they're listening to Tom's band! How is that even possible?"

Greta smiles at him indulgently. She loves to hear Jon talk about Tom. His voice always takes on this soft quality and his lisp shows up just a little bit more than usual. "I still haven't downloaded the CD," she admits, "but I really enjoyed their last show. They're really going somewhere." Jon grins triumphantly, and she asks, "Did you get any good shots tonight?"

"Oh! Let me show you," he says, slipping away to grab his camera case. As he scrolls through the pictures, pausing here and there to explain why he likes this picture or that one, Greta thinks that maybe Jon would understand her tendency to collect other peoples' stories.


By the time she gets home, she's exhausted. She had worn her cutest shoes, but the price of cuteness is a steep one. She slips into the bubble bath with a contented sigh, stretching to relieve the worries of her day.

After her bath, she returns a call to Genevieve and picks out a good, paint-resistant outfit for tomorrow.

"Oh, meet anyone interesting?" Genevieve asks, voice sly.

Greta laughs. "Not everyone can find their soul mate across a crowded room, Gen. Hey, do you think my painting apron's big enough to cover that blue blouse of mine? I'm seriously lacking in warm weather clothes."

"We should go shopping this weekend! Invite Ashlee, we'll storm Wicker Park."

"I dunno," Greta says hesitantly. "I'm trying to save up some money."

"We'll shop the sales! I know this great place that will give you 10 percent off if you can Name That Tune in 10 seconds. And they'll give you a bigger discount if you can get more of them, or get them faster than 10 seconds."

"Ooh! That's so cool, how did you hear about that?"

"They asked to use a couple of our songs," she explains. "Hey, maybe I can get them to play Under the Umbrella and you can get a major discount!"

Greta smiles, shaking her head at her friend. "Isn't that cheating?"

"Hey, it's not your fault that one of your best friends is in a super awesome band."

"I know, Max is one lucky bastard."

Genevieve scoffs, pretending to be offended. "Okay, his band is awesome, too. But just because you work with him doesn't make him more your best friend than I am!"

"'Course not, Gen. And it's not like I could ever get him within a mile of a clothing shop, right?"

"Exactly. Not unless they had a Gibson in the window display."

She laughs, thinking of her best friend, who she barely had a chance to speak to all day. They'll have to catch up over lunch tomorrow. "Alright, let's say 5 o'clock on Saturday, and then dinner?"

"Oh right, you have to work. I always forget. I'll give Ashlee a call; we can meet up at my place."

"It's not work," she protests automatically. They've been through this. "I just like to do it, you know, for the shop." The extra cash is a nice upside, though.

"Sorry, I should've said 'you have to volunteer,'" Genevieve says, and Greta can picture her cheeky grin. "So we'll see you at 5?"

"Sounds good to me. I'll see you later, Gen."

"Goodbye Miss Greta!" she says before hanging up. The endearment sparks something in her memory, and even though she can't quite place it, it reminds her to write some thoughts and memories down in her journal before bed.


She brings Max an iced coffee the next morning, and he looks at her like she's an angel. "It's like you knew that freakin' Ryan kept me up 'til 2 AM messing with the drums."

She nods, knowing instantly from his tone that he's talking about Ryan J, the drummer for his band. "A little bird told me. Also, you're always cranky on Thursday mornings. I just do my best to keep the universe in balance. Gotta have you in your best mood to sell Dippin' Dots to the Spoiled Brats of Today."

"Hey, that's my phrase. You owe me a quarter."

Greta rolls her eyes, still smiling. "I'm pretty sure you can't claim payment for a phrase you thought up in the middle of the night during a rant about the sweet things and their indulgences that keep you in guitars and GarageBand from day to day."

"Well, I should," he grumbles, taking a generous sip of coffee.

They enjoy conversation for a little while, Max slowly but surely waking up, before 8 o'clock rolls around and Ryan signals for her to join him in the tent. "Good luck with the S-BOTs," she tells Max with a wink.

"Thanks, I'll need it," he says darkly.


Every Thursday night, Greta goes down to the coffee shop to write and enjoy the ambiance. Jon and Tom work there, but their shifts change a lot and she doesn't always have someone she knows behind the counter. Tonight, she's surprised to find Chris and Darren sitting at a table, but even though she waves hello, she doesn't join them. She sits in the corner and watches people come and go, and she writes everything that comes to mind. When words fail her, she doodles in the margins, wondering if she should add a few designs to their face painting repertoire.

She looks up in surprise when the barista sets down a fresh cup of coffee on her table. She looks up at him, questioning, and he just shrugs. "Someone gave me the cup, asked me to send you another of whatever you ordered before."

"Oh," she says, floored. "Are they still here?"

The guy shrugs, looking bored. "Rushed off. I didn't ask his name."

Greta raises her eyebrows, wondering if it was someone like Ryan Ross who knew not to disturb her. "Okay, well thank you," she peers at his name tag, "Mikey."

"Sure thing," he says, managing to look indifferent even as he trudges back behind the counter.

Greta pulls the drink closer, realizing there are drawings wrapped around it. Around the friendly Quote of the Day, this mystery man has drawn a wave crashing onto a beach, complete with umbrella and beach ball. She smiles, turning the cup around to find a stick figure with its hand drawn in the air. The jagged speech bubble next to him says, "Hi! Best of luck with whatever it is you're working on!"

She frowns a bit, trying to figure out who would have left this for her. She doesn't recognize the handwriting, but she finds it hard to believe that a complete stranger sent her a coffee. This wasn't a bar, after all. As she tips it up to take a sip, she notices an intricately-drawn 'A' on the lid. This is probably a clue, but she can't think of anyone to match it up to. Eventually, she gives up on the puzzle and goes back to writing. She's content just to accept the kindness of a stranger.


The next day at lunch, she pulls the now-washed paper cup out of her purse and shows it to Max.

"Wow, he really went all out, didn't he? Stick figure and everything."

"I think it's sweet," she says with a small pout.

"Sweet enough, I guess. Kind of pointless if he didn't introduce himself."

"I don't know, I think the small one-time meetings we have every week can be just as meaningful as meeting up with our best friends," she says, kicking his ankle during her last two words.

Max just rolls his eyes and hands back the cup with a small smile. "You think the world is just puppies and rainbows, don't you?"

"Even the rain can be beautiful," she says, and Max just shoots her a look. "Whatever, someone has to balance out your cynicism."

"I'm not cynical!" he protests, crossing his arms. "I just don't like to take people's bullshit."

Greta studies his frustrated look. "Something happen with the band?"

He grits his teeth, and she knows she hit the nail on the head. "We can't settle on which songs to play live. Sean keeps insisting on 'Hayley,' but--"

Greta nods and listens carefully as he rants and flails his arms, even though she doesn't know the songs by name. She knows that listening is enough. "Have you tried to compromise?" she asks when he pauses to calm down. "Maybe you can play one of the songs Sean likes in exchange for one of the ones you like."

"Yeah, that's the way it should work, except that there are 5 of us and we each have a different song that everyone else refuses to play."

"Well damn."

"Yeah," he says, laughing a little. Greta doesn't curse a lot.

Max goes on to explain about their practices, and Greta forgets about her mystery coffee-sender. She still puts the cup back in her purse to bring home.


On Saturday, she gets to Bob and Bob's music store around 10 AM. Bobby-B is at the front desk, and immediately asks her to please not call him that.

"Oh, but Bobby-B! How else will I ever tell you apart?"

"You could go back to calling me Red and him Blondie," Bob says, coming out from the back room and shooting his coworker a wink. "He loved that."

"We came up with a solution," he tells Greta, choosing to ignore Bob's statement. "I'll go by BC, or BC Bryar. But if you call me Blondie and try to give me your 'special' brownies one more time," he says with a glare in Bob's direction, "I will end you."

"Empty threat," Bob mumbles to Greta as they all wander back to get the piano ready. Every Saturday, they wheel the piano outside and she spends most of the day playing for people in the park. It's great publicity for the Bobs' music store, and she makes a nice sum of money from the tips.

Around noon, a hyperactive friend of a friend of Bob's fills in for her so that she can get lunch. "I'll take it from here!" he says brightly, passing her a bottle of water. "One hour, or more if you want it. I kind of get lost in the music, you know. I probably wouldn't even notice if you didn't come back."

Greta bites her lip, feeling bad because she can't remember his name. "Thanks," she says kindly. "I'm sorry, my memory is horrible. I don't remember your name."

"Oh, it's okay. I'm Brendon!" he says, offering his hand.

"Brendon," she repeats, shaking his hand. "Thanks for doing this, I'll be back soon as I can."

"No hurry, really," he says again, taking over at the piano bench.

She ducks back into the shop a few minutes later, after listening to Brendon play one song. She's grateful they found someone to take over for her. For the first several weeks, Bob brought her a sub and she ate it in two-bite increments between songs, but now Brendon gets to make a few dollars in tips and she gets a decent lunch break.

She doesn't plan to tell Bob about the coffee guy, but then a little boy walks in with his family, and he's carrying a beach ball twice the size of his head. She remembers the drawing and can't help but tell Bob about it.

Bob nods as she explains the drawing, then looks thoughtful. "And he didn't tell you his name?"

Greta shakes her head. "Just a letter 'A' on the lid."

"Hmm," he says, tearing his cookie into tiny pieces and eating them one at a time. "Yeah, I got nothin'."

"It was nice," she says, and he nods in agreement.

"Maybe if you go back to the coffee shop?"

Greta considers it for a moment. "Maybe," she says, "or maybe I should just appreciate it for what it is, a nice gesture from a complete stranger."

"Oh hey," Bob says, pointing out the window. "Look at that dude."

She indulges him for a moment, but mostly tunes him out as he bashes some guy's outfit. She swears that he's more addicted to What Not to Wear than anyone she's ever met.


"Hey!" Genevieve says when she spots Greta, who is hurriedly crossing the street to her apartment.

"Sorry I'm late," Greta says, trying to catch her breath. "I had, like, a crowd of people and playing for those extra 20 minutes earned me a buttload of tips."

"No worries," Ashlee says, putting her arm around her. "Gen and I were just talking. Shopping the sales, right?" Greta nods, and Ashlee goes on, "There's this shop a couple blocks from where Gen wants to go where I can get us a crazy discount. The owners there have a bit of a hard-on for my One and Only."

Greta laughs. She knows exactly the place, but still. "I'm still not sure it's fair for me to exploit my 'connections' just to get cute clothes."

"What good are connections if you can't use them to get stuff?" Ashlee says, mock offended.

"Don't worry your head about it, baby doll," Genevieve says, leading the way to the shop she recommended. "Let the experts deal with it."

Greta just smiles and follows.

At the first shop, she finds a ton of tank tops, but most of them are too nice to wear when surrounded by paint and small children.

"Just try them on!" Genevieve encourages. "You don't have to buy them all."

Greta sighs and relents, slipping into the dressing room. The problem is that despite the promised discount and the extra tips she earned today, she really wants to save up for a new keyboard. It's great to play the piano down by Bob and Bob's store on Saturdays, but she would love to be able to play on her own sometimes, when it's raining outside and she doesn't feel like going out.

Still, she finds two tops that she really doesn't want to live without, so she decides to get them anyway. She is lucky to get 20% off her entire purchase because the first song is an obvious one from the radio, and the second is one by Gen's band. The girl behind the register smiles mischievously, and Greta knows she's being cut a break. She thanks the girl profusely, and then they head off to Ashlee's store.

She has a little more luck at this one, as the prices are a bit lower, but she still has trouble justifying the purchase. She's just not sure it's a good idea to wear anything too pretty to work; it's like asking for trouble.

"Okay," she says as they head to the registers, "but after this we're going to Old Navy so I can get some reasonably-priced back-up clothes."

"Fair enough!" Ashlee chants, flashing a smile at the guy behind the counter who looks back at her reverently. "Hello," she says to him, batting her eyelashes a bit. Greta tries not to giggle at the act. "I remember you! You were so sweet to give us that discount last time."

"Yes, of course! It's no trouble at all, really, only the best for our favorite customers!"

Greta suspects the guys here have just as much of a crush on Ashlee as they do on Pete, but she keeps her mouth shut.

"Great, well if you don't mind extending that welcome to these friends of mine...?"

"No problem, Ashlee! We'll just ring them up together and give you the employee discount," he assures her, piling together all the clothes and beginning to ring them up.

"It's really quite sweet of you. Thanks so much," Greta says earnestly. The guy nods at her with a smile, but his eyes shoot almost immediately back to Ashlee.

After the trip to Old Navy, Greta is feeling slightly less guilty because at least those clothes saved her quite a lot of money, and now she has some nicer summer clothes to wear when she goes out. It all balances out, she supposes.

They decide to go for Thai food in this nice little hole-in-the-wall place on the corner. While they're standing in line, Ashlee chats away about some pet project of Pete's involving donuts. Greta can't quite follow it, despite her best efforts, but she is saved the trouble when someone nudges her in the shoulder. "I think you dropped something," an old man says, not unkindly, pointing to the floor.

"Oh, I don't think--" she begins, but leans down to grab the takeout menu anyway. Turning it over, she sees To: G scribbled on the top, and From: A along the bottom, with a few flourishes around the 'A'. She unfolds the menu, and along one edge, a sentence is scrawled, as if written in a hurry, with a small drawing below it. you put a smile on my face, it reads, and the stick figure has a regular smile and a miniature version of the same smiley face drawn on one side of its face.

"What is it?" Genevieve asks, seeing Greta's expression.

Greta hands over the paper, still processing everything. She turns to the man who told her to pick up the paper, asking, "Sir, do you know who left that piece of paper?"

He shrugs. "Some guy told me you dropped it, I was just passing the message," he explains.

Greta draws her eyebrows together. "And the guy's gone now, I assume," she says, looking around the small restaurant. If only she'd been paying more attention...

"Looks like," the man says, then goes to the counter to pick up his order.

"Thank you!" she calls after him, grateful despite her confusion.

"Ooh, who is 'A'?" Ashlee asks, now reading the take-out menu.

Greta shakes her head, feeling very confused. "I have no idea, unless it's you, Ash," she says, smiling and nudging her friend. "Come on, you can come clean. I won't judge you, promise."

Ashlee giggles, but unfortunately doesn't stop asking questions. "Seriously, is this one of your customers or something?" She points at the smiley face. "I mean, obviously they know you do face painting."

"Yeah," she says, wondering at that. "I really have no idea." She tells them about the cup from the coffee shop, which only sets Ashlee off even more. They sit down with their food, but Ashlee keeps making suggestions and asking questions. By the time they finish their meal, Greta has no more information, but Ashlee has made a solemn vow to ask around and try to find her now-dubbed "Secret Admirer."


"Sounds like a stalker to me," Max says over the phone the next morning.

"Max," she says, rolling her eyes affectionately.

"What? I'm serious! Just look at the facts. Sent you a coffee at the shop you go to every week, and he was either there long enough to draw a picture on a cup and you just never looked up, or he planned ahead and showed up just to send it while you were there. Knows your name, or at least the first letter. Tracked you down in a random restaurant in Wicker Park. Knows where you work. Do I need to keep going?"

"I dunno, it's not like he's doing anything bad."

"You're totally charmed, aren't you?"

"Don't judge me," she says, twisting the end of the blanket on her lap.

Max laughs softly at her, and she tries not to take it personally. "Just promise me you won't go running off with this guy as soon as he reveals himself, creepy stalker or not."

"Oh, Maxwell. I see what this is. Don't worry, I'll only ever have eyes for you."

"Uh huh, our beautiful white wedding, I've heard the spiel. I wasn't aware that marrying your sister was legal in Illinois."

"Oh you love me, don't deny it. And we're not blood-related, so that joke doesn't even make sense."

"Got the point across, didn't it?" he asks, but then goes back to the original topic. "Seriously though, promise me you won't just trust this guy if he reveals himself? Even if he doesn't seem creepy. Remember what happened with Luke?"

"Yes, I know, I promise. I'll take him to meet the parents, and by parents I mean you and Bob, and I'll ask for the blessing. Happy?"

"I guess," Max says, grumbling.

"It's probably just a coincidence, anyway. Probably somebody playing a joke on me. Ryan J, maybe."

"I'd kill him," Max says easily. "And he knows I'd kill him, so it's probably not him. And I'll check with Al, since he's the only A-guy I know, but this really doesn't sound like him."

"Yeah, and I know Al. I would've recognized him if he showed up anywhere." She sighs, feeling a little bit helpless about this whole thing. She looks at the menu, tacked up on her bulletin board. She can't help but find it sweet, even if Max is probably right to be cautious. She'll just have to wait and see what happens next.


What happens next has nothing to do with her, but it gives her something else to think about for a while. They're having a pretty slow Monday afternoon, as less families are in the park, and then Greta sees a friendly face.

"Hey, Brendon!" she says, smiling at him. "How are you on this fine Monday morning?"

"Oh, hey Greta!" he says, obviously surprised to see her. He shoots a sideways look at Ryan, who is busying himself with the paints. "How'd the rest of Saturday go?"

"Great! There was a pretty nice group of people when I was winding down. They left me a good tip. Maybe you could talk to the Bobs about playing a little longer, or maybe on a different day? I hate to steal all your potential tips."

Brendon waves her off, but before he can reply, Ryan cuts in.

"Wait, you play piano?"

"Yeah," Brendon says, suddenly uncharacteristically shy. "Just, I sub in for Greta on Saturdays so she can get lunch."

"He's brilliant!" Greta adds, looking between the two of them, considering. "I wasn't sure who they would call in, that would be willing to play for just an hour once a week, but Brendon totally puts me to shame. You should really think about playing longer," she says, addressing Brendon.

"I'm not that good," he mumbles, looking small.

Greta looks back at Ryan, who is staring at Brendon skeptically. "So did you want another animal?" he asks Brendon, holding up a brush, and Greta realizes that's how they know each other. Brendon must have stopped by over the weekend to get his face painted.

"Yeah, that'd be cool," Brendon says, sitting down in the chair beside Ryan. "Just whatever you want to try, I don't care."

Greta feels a bit like she's intruding, so she excuses herself to go talk to Max.

"Yep, past two Saturdays," Max explains. "I guess after you come back from lunch, Brendon comes to visit Ryan. I think he was here for like an hour last weekend, even though Ryan was crazy busy. And he had drawings all over his face when he left. I couldn't even tell what they were."

"You know, for being a self-proclaimed 'quiet person,'" she says, adding air quotes, "you're kind of a huge gossip."

"Hey, you asked," he says, defensive. "Anyway, since you're here... I mentioned your thing to Al, who laughed at me for like 5 minutes straight, by the way." She laughs at the dark look Max sends her, but he continues. "Safe to say, he's not your guy. But he agrees with me, it's all a pretty sketchy situation."

"Yeah, yeah. I won't jump into any unmarked vans, okay? It's not a big deal."

"Just be careful," Max emphasizes, and Greta smacks his arm.

"You are not my mother, and I don't need protecting," she tells him with a stern look. She appreciates his concern, but if he keeps this up, she's going to get annoyed quickly.

"Yeah, whatever. Just sayin'. Hey, are you coming over for the movie marathon tomorrow?"

Greta considers it. "What's the theme this week?"

"It's Ryan J's turn to choose, so probably... crappy comedies?"

Greta laughs. "Okay, I'll think about it." She notices a family nearby, and the boy is gesturing excitedly at their tent, so she says goodbye and heads back.

Ryan is still painting Brendon's face with something bright and intricate. "Hold still," Ryan admonishes with the exasperated tone that implies he's said it several times already.

"Sorry," Brendon breathes out, voice barely a whisper.

"Ooh!" the little boy exclaims as he nears the tent with his mother. "Can I get that?" he asks excitedly, pointing at Brendon.

His mother looks skeptical, so Greta interjects helpfully. "Maybe you should look through these and pick one out together!" she suggests, handing the book of simple designs to the boy. He ultimately decides on the football, after his mom vetoes the snake, so she paints it on carefully and counts her blessings that he's a calm child. She's having a pretty low-key day, and it's nice.

After the two of them walk away, she watches Ryan put the finishing touches on the elaborate bird he has painted across the side of Brendon's face.

"That looks great!" she says to both of them. It's not often that they get to paint anything harder than a smiling dog or cat on someone's face. She knows Ryan loves any opportunity to try something new.

"Oh, awesome," Brendon says, looking in the mirror.

"You like it?" Ryan asks. Even though he sounds carefully disinterested, Greta has worked with him long enough to know better.

"I love it, dude. How much do I owe you?"

Ryan waves him off. "Don't worry about it."

Brendon narrows his eyes. "What do you mean 'don't worry about it'? How much, Ryan?"

Ryan mumbles a number that Greta recognizes as the most basic rate.

"Don't bullshit me. That's how much that kid paid for the football."

"Whatever, you shouldn't have to pay extra for me to experiment on your face," Ryan says, making a face when he realizes how weird that sounds. "Besides, we get paid either way."

Brendon looks confused. "What do you mean?"

"We get paid by the Parks and Recreation Center," Greta explains. "Regularly, by the hour. We get bonuses if we exceed certain amounts over the month, but it's not a big deal, really."

The truth is, they have the easiest jobs in the world, and all because her dad knows a guy at the Parks and Recreation Center. Straight out of college, she took over park maintenance from a guy that was moving away, and over time, she was able to convince her boss to add some stands to bring in more people. Max was forced to stop complaining about her "cushy park job" when she was able to hire him ("reference," technically, but her boss really didn't care, as long as he did his job), and Ryan had just been a convenient coincidence.

Brendon argues with Ryan for a bit longer about the price, and eventually they compromise and Brendon pays about half the actual cost of something so intricate, but Greta doesn't tell him that.

A few minutes after Brendon leaves, Ryan sighs. "Go ahead, I know it's killing you."

"I don't know what you're talking about, Ryan Ross," she says with mock innocence. He shoots her an unamused look. "Oh, do you mean that boy? Yes, what was his name? Brendon, that's right. But you didn't show him special treatment or anything, no, you were very professional."

"I'll pay the difference," Ryan offers, but Greta waves her hand.

"I don't care about that, it's not like there was a rush while you were occupied. What I do want are the details. I didn't know you were seducing my fill-in piano player!"

"No one's seducing anyone," Ryan says with a grimace.

She tries and tries, but she can't get anything else out of him. Even though Brendon doesn't come back all week, Greta mentions him at least once a day and Ryan doesn't snap her head off, which is new, so she vows to keep an eye on the two of them.


On Saturday, while she's on her way back from her lunch break, she gets a text message from Max.

Ryan has abandoned ship i repeat ryan has left the tent.

Greta laughs, then sends a reply.

to see Brendon?

Not sure, he just told me to watch the tent. You should go check

She explains the situation to Bob, who is instantly interested and wants to go spy.

"Not so fast," Greta admonishes. "If we both show up, he'll think he's being evaluated or something. We have to be discreet."

Bob promises to be "like a ninja," whatever that means, and they head back in that direction. Apparently by "be like a ninja" he meant "hide in the bushes like a creepster," so Greta ignores him and walks down the sidewalk to come in at the back. Sure enough, Ryan is standing near the back, hiding behind a family of four. She hears Bob snap a few twigs and say "ow!" rather loudly, so she has to give Ryan points for at least hiding in plain sight.

"I see how it is," she says to Ryan, taking a small delight in the startled look he sends her way. "I play every weekend for over a month, and you can never spare five minutes, but now Brendon's playing..."

"Maybe I came to hear you play," Ryan says, looking chagrined.

"Oh, good! Then you're sticking around?" she asks, feigning innocence.

"Wh--I mean, I should probably get back to the tent, you know, don't want to miss out on customers--"

"No worries! I'll just go take over for Brendon now!" she suggests, hurrying over to the piano. She shoots an exasperated look at the bushes as she passes by, but Bob only blinks at her, as if she can't see his red hair sticking out.

Brendon nods at her when she enters his line of sight, then finishes off his song with a flourish. "Thanks!" he says to his audience, waving proudly. Greta notices the moment when he spots Ryan, his eyes lighting up and his grin doubling in size.

"I guilted Ryan into sticking around to hear me play," she confides. "You should go say hi."

Brendon gives her a big hug, then practically skips back to Ryan, who is now pretending to be very busy texting. Meanwhile, Bob is trying to disentangle himself from the bush. She rolls her eyes affectionately at her friends, then settles down to play for a few more hours. She takes her first break half an hour later, discovering a few text updates on her phone.

The first, from Max, simply says, the eagle has landed. and he's brought back his prey

And then, from Bob, veeery interesting, salpeter. your life is like a soap opera

And finally, from Max, good god, ryan put up the back in 5 mins sign but they're still in there. wheres a bucket of cold water when u need 1?

She sends a quick reply to Bob (you don't know the half of it), then one to Max (you have buckets of cold ice cream, macgyver, do whatever it takes), then goes back to work.


On Monday, Ryan asks if he can take his lunch break first. Greta says yes without hesitation, because it really doesn't matter, and she still owes him from that one time she came back almost an hour late. Max usually just waits for her at lunch, and they go somewhere down the road. She doesn't think much about it until Brendon shows up, and then Ryan disappears with nothing more than a wave. Greta leans out of her tent and raises her eyebrows at Max, who just shakes his head in response. There are no immediate customers in sight, so she slips out to talk to her friend.

"I told you," Max says, gesturing in the direction that Ryan and Brendon had walked off.

"Yeah, but I didn't think--I mean, Ryan was legit smiling."

They talk for a few more minutes, during which Greta gets to witness Max's scandalized face when he remembers the debauched state Ryan and Brendon were in when they left on Saturday, but Greta feels guilty staying away from her tent for too long. She goes back to man the fort until Ryan gets back. When he does, he and Brendon are trying to be sneaky about their hand-holding, and Greta beams at them. Ryan's answering smile is almost blinding.

"Greta," Ryan begins, looking sneaky, "Bob says to tell you that the piano knows something you don't know."

"Bob--what?" Greta asks, confused. "The piano?"

Brendon fails to stifle a giggle in Ryan's shoulder, but Ryan does a good job of maintaining a straight face.

"What's going on, Ross?" Greta asks, trying to sound stern. Mostly she's just curious.

"Just go see Bob," Ryan says.

"He's going to let me play on Tuesday nights!" Brendon tells her, bouncing up and down.

"That's great, Brendon!" she says, and means it, but she still wants to know what's up with the cryptic messages. She goes to get Max, and they detour to the music shop before lunch.

"Hey, Ryan told me that... 'the piano knows something I don't know'?"

Bob rolls his eyes. "That's not what I told them to say! I said--"

"Whatever, what are you talking about?" she cuts him off, crossing her arms.

Bob pouts. "You're no fun."

"Dude, just show her already," BC Bryar (who will always be Bobby-B to her) says, glaring in his direction.

Max is outside arguing on the phone with someone in his band, so she slips into the back with Bob.

"Since Ryan ruined the mystery," Bob begins with a glare at no one, "just open the piano."

She pulls open the top, confused but curious enough to look first, ask questions later. Inside are a few pages of sheet music. No title, and nothing she recognizes on sight, but the last page has writing on it.

Hi! I didn't want to freak you out with everything, so I asked Bobby M for advice. He gave me his blessing, so I guess you're stuck with me for a little while longer.

Underneath the now-familiar scrawl is a giant 'A' with trees drawn inside it, and then a small smiley face.

"You know who A is," she says to Bob, accusing.

"I must stay silent under penalty of death," Bob says, holding his hands up to his chest and backing away. He doesn't check behind him, though, and he backs right into Max in the doorway.

"Whoa," Max says, holding Bob off. He takes in Greta's serious look and Bob's gesture of innocence and asks, "What's going on back here?"

"Bob knows who the guy is," Greta explains, holding up the sheet music.

"What?" Max exclaims, taking the music from her. "That's totally not fair. Why would he go to Bob before me?"

"I already knew him," Bob admits, then his eyes widen and he covers his mouth. He glances between the two of them, probably guessing at the odds of his survival if this were to come to a fight.

Greta holds out her hand for the music, then studies the words. "I don't want to know," she decides.

Bob looks triumphant, but Max rolls his eyes. "Of course you don't. Greta--"

"No, I don't want to know who he is. He's revealing himself to me piece by piece, and obviously he's not a creep--"

Bob cuts in, "Well, I never said--"

"--so I'm just going to learn about him at his own pace. I don't know why he's chosen me, but even if it's an accident, he found the perfect girl to send random little trinkets. I think it's sweet." She looks up at Max, challenging him to argue with her.

"Whatever," he says, exasperated. Greta knows he's just mad he didn't get to find out who the guy is. "Let's just go get lunch."


Greta suspects that after that, all her surprises will go through Bob, but the next one shows up in her apartment mailbox. She calls Bob to ask about this, and he admits that he sent it on A's request, but promises he did not give out her address. He says, as if reciting, "he wants you to always be surprised when you find something from him," and she can hear the eye roll in Bob's voice.

She looks down at the umbrella keychain, A's latest gift, and wonders what she could give him in return. She asks Bob, but he insists that he is not playing go-between for the two of them like some kid in grade school. "If you want to do something for him, you'll have to figure out another way," he insists.

Greta is annoyed with Bob for a while after that, but she comes up with a solution. She goes into the shop every day after work and practices the song from the sheet music, and by Saturday, she's ready to play it. She has no idea if her admirer (which Ashlee insists she call the guy, because the letter 'A' is just too weird on its own) will show up, but she mentions her plans to Bob and hopes for the best. She plays it twice, right after her lunch break (when the crowd is fairly large) and again near the end of the day. She has to concentrate to get the notes just right, unsure if she's even close to what her admirer intended with the music, but she loves the sound of it and gets caught up in the melody. When the Bobs show up to take the piano back to the shop, they congratulate her on the piece. She gathers the basket where people leave her tips, discovering a piece of paper with a paperclip on it. Curious, she plucks the note out. The note simply says thank you with the usual letter A, but pinned to the paper are an assortment of temporary tattoos.

"He was here?" Greta asks Bob, suddenly annoyed. She realizes it's not Bob's fault that she missed him, but he could have said something.

"Yes," Bob admits, working to get the piano up the ramp into the shop. "You told me you didn't want to know."

She helps angle the piano into the entryway - seriously, they do this every week, they should have it figured out by now - and then turns to him, crossing her arms. "Having you tell me is one thing, but if he's standing right in front of me it would be nice to have a clue, or something."

"He was wearing a blue shirt," Bryar tells her, and she glares at him.

"Yeah, thanks." He just shrugs and heads back out to the front room.

She sighs and runs her hand along the side of the piano. "What are you gonna do if someone offers to buy this thing?"

"You kidding? This baby's not for sale! She's our pride and joy, and so are you," he emphasizes, pulling her into a hug.

The exasperated feeling doesn't quite leave her, but she does relax into the hug. "Maybe you should just tell me who he is."

Bob pulls away, studying her expression. "Why?"

She blinks at him. "Because it's killing me, that's why!"

"Yesterday you loved the air of mystery," Bob reminds her. "You thought it was 'romantic.'"

"Your air quotes do not impress me," she says, narrowing her eyes. "It's just--I don't even know this guy, and he doesn't know me. He probably just sends me things when he's bored because he saw me paint his nephew's face once, and he thought I was cute."

"What's so bad about that?" Bob asks gently.

"Nothing," she says, realizing her annoyance is with herself. "I just want somebody to like me for more than that."

Bob gives her another hug, and she tries to shake off this crazy bout of self-centered thinking.


On Monday, she greets Max with coffee and in return he gives her a shit-eating grin.

"What," she begins, cautiously, "are you smiling about?"

"Who, me? Nothing."

Greta waits, but it soon becomes clear that he's not going to offer any more information. "So you're just impersonating the Cheshire Cat for fun," she says, slowly.

Max nods, and she gives him a level look. "Okay fine, but I can't tell you until the end of the day."

"Why not?"

"Because you're a very impatient person and it'll be fun to see you squirm all day. Also I promised."

Greta tries very hard to forget about this in order to prove a point, but Max teases her about it all through lunch, and she breaks. "Just tell me what it is already!"

"I'm afraid I can't do that," Max says, grinning and then miming zipping his lip.

At the end of the day, he finally relents, as promised. "I know you, so you're not going to listen to me, but it has been requested that you wait until you get home to open this."

He hands her a box that has been carefully taped shut. She is immediately curious, damn him, but she looks back up at him defiantly. "Fine, I'll wait."

Mainly she doesn't have anything sharp enough to cut through the tape. She spends a few minutes on the El trying with her keys, but doesn't have any success, so she does, in fact, wait until she gets home.

The box has a yo-yo inside. She picks it up, curious, but sets it down to read the letter that was stuffed in underneath it. She is unsurprised to discover another drawing of an 'A' on the bottom, but the lengthy letter is certainly new.

Once upon a time (what's with that, anyway? "a time"? it could be any time! sounds like a cop-out for saying when it actually happened, if you ask me)

When I was 8, my dad gave me this huge speech about legacy that I tuned out 85% of, and then he passed on his old school yo-yo to me. By that time, there were all these new-fangled yo-yos with auto-return and sound effects and lights, and I thought it was a pretty crappy gift. But then he taught me how to use it, with all these crazy tricks, and before long I was wooing many a neighborhood girl with my mad yo-yo skillz. Yeah, believe it. One of my most awesome memories from childhood is of my dad teaching me how to walk the dog.

What were you crazy good at when you were a kid? I bet it was something insane, like brain surgery. Or you're a super hero. You're a super hero, aren't you? Passed on from generation to generation, but you have to pass your days as a humble face-painter.

Bob told me what you said about us being complete strangers. I hope you don't mind. Bob's kind of a gossip. I gave him permission to tell you who I am, if you really want to, but you have to read this whole letter first. I'm gonna go ahead and warn you that I'm not that cool in person. Seriously, if you knew, you'd probably choose my crappy handwriting any day.

I happened to be passing through the park one day while you were playing. Bob mentioned that his best friend played there on Saturdays, so I thought, why not? I'll check it out. I wasn't really expecting you. And even though I wanted to say hi, I got stuck overthinking it, and then you were clearing off the piano. I figured, you know, maybe next week, but then Bob had a big mouth and I knew that you had a weekly date with a cup of coffee. I couldn't help myself. The Thai place was just a coincidence (if you believe in coincidences (which I don't)).

If you want me to stop, just give Bob the word and I'm gone. I'm just trying to put a smile on your face, Miss Greta. Just trying to return the favor.

Your Yo-yo Wielding Pen-Pal,

"So you met him?" she asks Max over the phone a few minutes later.


"And you know who he is?"

"Yep, he practically recited his life story. I'm really surprised you didn't show up while he was still there."


"What? You and I both know you're loving every second of this. The mystery, the just-misses, the free stuff."

"Shut up! I don't care about free stuff. I'd give him something back if he'd just tell me who he is."

"That's what it is, isn't it?"


"You want him to tell you who he is."

"Is that so wrong of me?"

"Of course not," Max says, kindly.

She sighs. "So I take it you approve?"

"He seems like a good guy," Max admits. "He's kind of crazy about you, which earned him brownie points. And apparently all of his stalking was done through friends of yours, so I can't really complain."

"Friends? Plural, friends?"

"Uh oh, I've said too much."


"Gotta go, Greta! Bye!" he says, hanging up quickly.


Greta mentally runs through her list of friends, but she can't figure out who else might know who her admirer is. Ashlee is still "on the case," which means Pete doesn't know, and Genevieve probably wouldn't be able to keep quiet, either.

When Tuesday rolls around, Greta feels anxious. Someone she knows is keeping this from her, and she really wants to know. She grills Ryan, who claims he doesn't know who the guy is and in fact, this is the first he's hearing about it.

"That is such a lie, Ryan Ross. You're the one that told me the piano knew something I didn't know!"

"Bob just needed a play on words! I didn't know what it was for," Ryan explains defensively.

She sighs, letting it drop. "Fine. But if I find out you've been hiding something from me--"

"Yeah, yeah, pain of death, I know the routine. How much longer?" he asks for what is at least the fifth time.

"Four minutes, Ryan." He makes the most adorable impatient face that she can't help but give in. "Just go already."

"Really?" he asks, even as he's grabbing his scarf and moving out of the tent. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah, I don't think anyone else is showing up today. I'll clean up. Go shower your boy in praise."

Ryan rolls his eyes. "He's not my boy," he mumbles, but the blush on his face says otherwise.

After putting all the paints away, Max helps her carry the box back to storage. They decide to stop and hear Brendon play for a few minutes before heading back to Max's for this week's movie marathon. (All four Die Hard movies, apparently, on Al's pick.) Greta is surprised to hear Brendon singing along to his music, a song that she doesn't recognize. He has a really nice voice, very smooth, and she can understand the mesmerized look on Ryan's face. He transitions into some Beatles song after that, and Greta finds herself singing along during the chorus. Brendon shoots her a smile and keeps playing, but when the song ends, he tells the crowd he's taking five minutes, then comes over to say hello.

"I didn't know you sang!" Brendon says to her, and he's got that excited look again.

"Here and there, yeah," she admits. She's actually had lessons, but she doesn't like to brag.

"Awesome! Okay, I know this might be asking a lot, but I have some friends that are putting together this musical. They've been trying to find someone for one of the main girl's roles, but no one has been a good fit so far."

Greta bites her lip. She hasn't performed in a while, and even those times were just quick solo performances.

"You don't have to commit to anything! But I know they'd be super grateful if you just considered it. You'd be perfect for the part."

"You should do it," Max says to her, nudging her with his hip. "You love to sing, don't front."

"Will you think about it?" Brendon asks, looking hopeful.

"Yeah, okay. What could it hurt?"


She finds herself auditioning for the part sooner than she thought. There are a lot of enthusiastic people there to listen to her, and she's more nervous than she gave herself time to prepare for.

"No pressure," the main guy, Thomas, assures her. "Just, sing me whatever you want, first."

"Oh. Well, I learned the song," she says, holding up the music that Brendon gave her.

"Wait, really? The 'True Love' song?"


"Awesome! Well, then let's do that one," he says, stepping up onstage.

"Oh, are you...?"

"I'm playing Adakias," Thomas explains with a smile. "So, my part first. Are you ready?"

She glances around the room, but most of her audience seem to be going about their business. This calms her nerves a little, and she nods.

Thomas begins to sing, and she knows the song, so she falls easily into her lines, moving around the stage in time with the music.

Silence falls after their shared final note, and then there is applause. Lots of it. She was obviously wrong about those people going about their business, but it's invigorating to hear that kind of response for something she learned in just a couple days with her co-worker's boyfriend.

"I told you she'd be perfect!" Brendon shouts from somewhere in the back of the room.

Thomas smiles at her. "He's right! The part is yours, if you want it."

Greta thinks for a moment about turning it down. But what else is she doing with her free time? She hasn't had a set activity after work for weeks, maybe months. Max is right, she should stop hiding behind her people-watching excuse and start going after the things that really bring her joy. Music. Performance.

"I'll take it," she says, feeling a rush just in those words.

"Excellent!" Thomas says, rushing her off the stage to give her the full script, and outlining practice time possibilities and asking questions a mile a minute. Either his excitement is contagious or it's just her, but her blood feels like it's thrumming beneath her skin. She tells him she's ready to get started any day.


Her next six weeks are filled with lines and practices and learning the stage directions. There isn't much choreography, as it's a primarily music-based performance, but Thomas does want masks and costumes and some visual aids, and these must be practiced.

In that time, she receives three notes and a hula hoop from her Mystery Man. She's too busy with all her work to worry about the guy's identity, or even attempt to find out who else among her friends was keeping this from her. He's clearly sending things less often; maybe he's starting to lose interest. She doesn't let herself be bothered by it.

On the night of their dress rehearsal, everything seems to run perfectly. Greta doesn't like it, and she's pretty sure no one else does. It's a bad omen. But if they say so, they'll just make it worse, so everyone keeps their mouth shut.

She's in her dressing room, waiting for their first performance to start, when it happens. The girl playing Nidria -- Lizzie -- steps in looking flustered, and announces, "Thomas got food poisoning."

"No," Greta breathes, her hand flying up to her mouth. She removes it quickly, not wanting to mess up the makeup they worked so hard to perfect.

"They've found someone to play his part," Lizzie assures her, but she looks skeptical. "Apparently he's been working lights and sound and he knows all the lines, I dunno. Paul said it was going to be okay, but obviously we didn't want to throw you on stage with a stranger without letting you know."

"Of course," Greta mutters, still staring at the doorway after Lizzie disappears down the hall. She tries to shake off her nerves. Okay, so she has to perform with someone completely new, someone who has likely never done the choreography. That's okay, she just has to sing her lines. The choreography didn't rely on Thomas all that much, so maybe she can wing it if the guy draws a blank.

She watches from backstage as this guy -- the understudy, she guesses -- performs Thomas's part for the first act. He does surprisingly well, and Greta's not sure what to think.

Paul -- Thomas's brother -- pulls her aside near the end of the first act. "You gonna be okay with this?" he asks her, eyes pleading with her to say yes.

Greta nods, not quite trusting her voice. She needs to get it together and fast.

"We've had him practice as an understudy on the main cast's day off," Paul explains, glancing at the curtain as if checking on their fill-in through it. "With our female understudy. So he knows what he's doing. You'll just have to trust him."

"Okay," she says, sounding more confident than she feels. "Thanks, Paul."

During the intermission, the guy rushes past her to change costume. On his way out, he doubles back to speak to her.

"Adakias, at your service, madame," he says, bowing slightly. She suddenly realizes how much more he has to deal with. She should be grateful; nothing has really changed for her. The mask and costume of her partner are the same; the only real difference will be his voice. "You think you'll be able to play the part of my true love?"

He seems oddly familiar, but Greta can't place it. She shakes her head to clear it, trying to get into character. "Much obliged. Between you and me," she asks, voice dropping to a whisper, "do you ever feel like you're destined for something bigger than your skin?"

The guy laughs, eyes dancing behind his mask, but someone hisses for him to come on down the hall, and he has to rush off.

"Break a leg!" she whisper-shouts after him. She suddenly feels 10 times more at ease, and spends the next few minutes getting further into her role. When her cue comes, she steps out with confidence and sings.

As this guy, Adakias for now, sings to her, she tries to feel like the defiant princess, confident in her love and her need to escape, and she sings her lines with a strength she hadn't been able to muster during practice. He changes up his choreography more than she expected, adding more of a flourish and pulling her close for their final refrain. As the narrator takes over after their first song, she finds herself having to catch her breath. He tilts a smile in her direction, and they move across the stage for the next song.

The rest of their performance passes in a blur, as she surrenders herself completely to her character, but she has a poignant memory of this Adakias's shout when he delivers the line, Brother, no! She can't help but assume that he's had acting classes before. He's just too good.

After the curtain falls, he is at her side suddenly, sweeping her into a hug and knocking out her breath for a moment. "You were brilliant!" he shouts above the noise.

"Me?" she asks, disbelieving. "You did all that without ever practicing with the main cast! You deserve a medal!"

He beams at her quickly before he's pulled away by others for high fives and suddenly she's being bombarded with hugs and handshakes. She rushes out to give her bow, feeling the thrum of excitement as she spots her friends in the crowd. There is a roar of praise and applause when Adakias/Ahrima steps forward, and Greta cheers along with everyone else.

Bob and Max find her backstage, handing over flowers. Greta rolls her eyes, "Guys, seriously. Flowers? Be more cliché, go on. I dare ya."

"Don't pretend you're not secretly a girly-girl," Max says, unamused.

"Yeah, we know better," Bob adds with a wink.

"Where's our superstar?" she hears Pete shout from down the hall, quickly followed by Ashlee's giggle. Greta watches with wide eyes as nearly everyone she knows pours into her dressing room.

"You all came?" she asks in disbelief. Pete, Ashlee, Genevieve, Mark, Jon, Tom, Chris, Darren, and she even thinks she sees Al and Ryan J standing out in the hall.

"Sean and Spencer are waiting outside," Genevieve says, as if that's going to calm her down. "And I think Ryan's locked himself into Brendon's dressing room."

"You all came," she says again, still not sure she believes it.

"Don't freak out," Max says in a low voice.

"Freak out? You all came to see me perform. I can't believe you--" she stops, trying to keep herself from crying.

Bob takes a few steps forward and puts his arm around her. "Come on, we're going to get you Chicago's finest cheesecake. And then, the after party!"

Greta shakes her head as they all cheer. Her friends are crazy, and she feels like the Princess she's just portrayed as they walk her out proudly.


They show up to the party early enough that she gets to be a part of the voicemail they leave for Thomas. She vows to him that it all went down beautifully enough, but of course it wasn't the same for her personally not getting to perform next to him. She feels a twinge of guilt as she says it, as she hasn't been able to stop thinking about the masked understudy ever since the musical ended.

She asks a few other cast members, but none of them seem to know his name. Paul would know, but she's fairly sure he's drowning himself in celebratory champagne at the moment, so she saves it for later.

Greta dances with every single one of her friends, really feeling the excitement of the night. She makes a silent vow to herself -- one she will write down as soon as she gets home -- to keep performing in some way. She can't remember a happier feeling than the one she has right now, and she would be a fool not to keep pursuing that feeling.

By the time she gets home, it is crazy o'clock in the morning, and she falls on her pillow with her friends' insistences that they are proud of her still echoing in her head.


Greta wakes up suddenly the next morning, breathing heavily. She pulls out of the dream slowly, not quite ready to let it go but knowing that it's going anyway. She'd been dreaming of the guy, the one who played Adakias. But the things he'd whispered in her ear were indecipherable, and he definitely hadn't made any move last night to slip his fingers where they were in her dream. She rubs a hand across her face, trying to shake off the feeling. She doesn't even know this guy, and this was no time to get fixated on a stranger's charm.

She steps out of the shower a little while later, feeling much better. Of course, that's exactly when Aunt Sandy calls.

"Darling!" she says emphatically, as she always does. "I was just thinking about you. You had that lovely play last night, yes? Tell me all about it, dear. Meet anyone new?"

Greta swallows a sigh. Aunt Sandy, never change, she thinks. "All of my friends showed up, Aunt Sandy. They chipped in and all gave me flowers, and took me out for cheesecake before the party."

Aunt Sandy gives a delighted squeal and Greta wants to smack herself in the forehead. Why did she mention the party? "Ooh, a party! I'm sure you got to dance with some lovely new people!"

Trust her Aunt Sandy to make the word 'lovely' sound provocative. "Mostly just my friends, you know." The image of her mysterious co-star pops into her head in an instant, and she pushes it back down immediately.

"Oh, well that's too bad. You know, I bet there are plenty of guys just dying to take you out, Greta. Maybe if your friends weren't keeping you so occupied, you'd give him a chance to find you. You always were so picky."

Greta makes noises of agreement to keep her aunt happy, but she takes one aspect of that into consideration. Has she really given her mystery guy a chance to make an impression? She hasn't even sent a message back to 'A' since the story of her hula hoop record in grade school. She's just been too busy between practices and work, and now that she thinks of it, the letters really have stopped coming as often. Maybe she should do something about it.

After she gets her aunt off the phone, she takes a deep breath and calls her mom. Her voice is calming after her aunt's, and Greta confides in her a lot more easily than she ever could with Aunt Sandy. "So, there's this guy."

She finds it tough to explain the situation without making her mystery man sound like a complete stalker, so she mentions about 12 times that both Bob and Max have met him and given him the seal of approval.

"Well, Greta, dear. I think you already know what you want to do."

"I don't think so, mom."

"You just need to ask yourself, why haven't you asked your friends who this young man is?"

Greta pauses, considering. "I..."

The truth is, she doesn't know. She's had reasons here and there. Excuses. But when it comes down to it, she's just afraid to be let down when the guy doesn't measure up to her expectations. She says this to her mom, feeling guilty even as the words escape her, but her mom reassures her.

"Dear, you can't hide behind high standards forever. You turned down boys right and left in high school, and here you are on your own, and you haven't changed a bit. You don't even have any reason yet to turn this one down, but you're already expecting one."

She sighs, taking it all in. Her mom is right. It's the same reason she didn't try very hard to get Adakias's real name last night. She thrives on meeting strangers, on carrying their stories along and storing them in her books, but the truth is that she doesn't give herself enough time to develop her own story.

"Just give him a chance before you jump to conclusions," her mom suggests, voice soothing.

"Thanks, Mom. I'll try."


Greta doesn't go out at all on Sunday, even though several of her friends mention hanging out when they call to congratulate her again on her performance. She spends her afternoon with a cup of tea and a couple of her journals. She writes down the memory of her first performance in detail, adding in the exhilarating feeling of seeing all her friends after, of the hugs and the congratulations -- and okay, maybe the flowers, too -- that she received. The night is unforgettable, still vivid in her mind, and she hopes it never dims.

She moves then to another journal, the one that holds lyrics and drawings and ideas for the future. She writes down thoughts in a stream of consciousness, doodling things like music notes when she draws a blank before remembering the spotlight and the twirl that Adakias had led her through during their performance. She discovers that she's scribbled out the character's name in script below the music notes, but she makes no move to white it out. It seems fitting in the middle of today's inspired notes. She continues from where she left off, thinking of the thrill of singing and the thrill of playing piano for families in the park, and she finds herself humming as she writes down thoughts about the sky and freedom and how beautiful people are, all on their own.

She turns on her computer to finally download Max's band's CD shortly thereafter, and then finds herself looking for sheet music. If she gets that keyboard soon, she can possibly work on recording some stuff. She's sure that Max would help her with the recording process, and maybe she can develop vocals from some of the stuff in her journals.

After skimming through recent entries in her creative journal, unable to find anything she wants to work on, she decides to take a look at her day-to-day journal. She smiles at the pictures she had taped in, early on, wishing that she'd kept it up. A happy sort of nostalgia settles on her as she reads through old stories. The man on the street corner that recounted stories of his life for a quarter each, the little girl that had smiled like the sun when her mom had relented and bought her some Dippin' Dots at Max's stand, and... oh, she remembers this last encounter with fondness.

I was feeling restless this noon, so I went down to the carnival by the lake during my lunch break. They had this lovely fountain, with shoots of water that rose and fell like the walls of a room.

I'd have been content to stay there all day, moving in and out of the blocks of water, listening to the calming beat as gravity pulled the water back down. There was something so peaceful about the chill on the air and the rise and fall of the water. I took a deep breath and stepped out of the water room on the next drop.

I remember glancing at my watch, knowing that with the lunch rush, the train would get me back just in time. But I'm always on time, and Ryan would forgive my lateness just this one time. So I vowed to myself, one more time, as I stared at the column of water before me.

A voice carried over from across the sidewalk, muted by the sound of the water. "Fuck you guys, I'm gonna try it. Go ride the ferris wheel or something, I'll find you."

The wall of water dropped then, and I reveled in that moment where it was suspended in midair before crashing for good. I jumped over the line, then whirled around to reach out and touch that first blast of cold water.

"Whoa," I recognized the voice from a few seconds ago. "Sorry, I totally almost barreled into you," he said with a laugh in his voice. I turned to face him, and he was sporting a huge grin that I couldn't help but return. The sound of the water and the feeling on my skin reminded me of a song, but I never could place it. It's possible that it hasn't been written yet.

"It's alright," I told him, stepping forward to meet him in the middle. "My name's Greta. And I totally would have taken you down with me."

The guy's grin grew impossibly wider for a moment, and then he put a hand on his hip. "Well, Miss Greta, I guess I'll have to watch out for your ruthless spirit from now on, won't I?" There was something so surreal about the comfort he showed. When the wall of water collapsed, I didn't make a move to step out, but neither did he. "I'm Alex," he said, holding out his hand. I reached out to take it, but he turned his hand at the last second to guide mine up to his mouth. I know it's cheesy and I'll never admit this to anyone's face, but when he kissed my hand and looked up at me, I felt like a princess, just for a second.

"Alex, thank you for sharing this room with me."

The entry goes on as she describes their conversation and her ultimate 1 hour tardiness to work, but she can't read anymore, because. Alex. She knows now why Adakias had looked so familiar, and why her secret admirer had known to send her little trinkets and notes. It was all the same guy; it was Alex the Fountain Guy.

She trips over her chair in her haste to grab her phone. She sends a text message first to Max, then to Bob, both saying the same thing. I am such an idiot.

She receives a response from Max almost immediately. yes. Why this time?

Haha, very funny. You knew it was the fountain guy all this time, didn't you?

Her phone rings only seconds after hitting send, and she's still laughing at Max even as she holds the phone up to her ear. "Hello, Max, to what do I owe this pleasure?"

"So you finally found out. Did Bob tell you? I knew he couldn't keep a secret."

"Bob didn't tell me," she interjects before Max can start recounting tales of Bob's loose tongue. "I sent him the same message that I sent you, and either he's in too much shock over the proclamation to respond, or his phone's not on."

"Wait, really? So who told you?"

"I figured it out. I was reading through my journals--"

"Oh no."

"Don't 'oh no' me, Maxwell, you know my journals are my pride and joy."

"I just can't believe you didn't figure it out sooner. You talked about Fountain Guy for weeks, Greta--"

"Yeah, but he was always Fountain Guy! I forgot I even knew his name, and it's not like he mentioned ever actually meeting me in any of his surreptitious gifts."

"I can't believe you didn't figure it out when he was singing to you on stage."

"He had a mask on," she says with a slight pout. "And his hair is longer than it was back then."

Max laughs at her, which is no less than she expected. "So what's your next move, Salpeter?"

"I have no idea," she says honestly. Maybe she should figure that out.


6 months ago

"No, I know what you mean. Chance encounters are the best kind," Alex says, talking with his hands. "And my friends aren't even half as cool as you. They wouldn't even try out the fountain room."

Greta nods, then goes on to tell stories of some of her chance encounters. Somehow, she starts talking about relationships. "I just prefer to get to know people slowly, you know? That way, you get to know their great qualities at the same time as their faults, and you don't get too caught up on either one."

Alex nods. "The slow reveal. Yeah, I gotcha." His voice takes on that of a game show host, and he continues, "And behind curtain three, tell her what she's won, Alex! Thank you, Alex. Miss Greta has won... a brand new car! It only gets 15 miles to the gallon and pollutes our precious air, but think of all the cars she can run off the road! Congratulations, Greta! Aaand the crowd goes wild."

Greta lets out the laugh she's been trying to hold in, and Alex beams at her.

"Wow, you actually laughed at that. See, terrible sense of humor, now I know one of your faults."

She smacks him playfully on the arm. "And I know one of yours. Insulting strangers."

"But we're hardly strangers any more, are we? We shared a room, or have you already forgotten?"

Greta purses her lips, considering, then sighs deeply. "I'm afraid this is moving far too fast for me, kind sir. This sort of activity might lead to something scandalous, like hand holding."

"You're too right, fair lady. Hands where I can see them! I can't believe I was so trusting so soon."

Greta giggles behind her hand, standing from the park bench. "I'm afraid I really do have to go, though. I'm something like 45 minutes over my usual lunch break."

His mock-scandalized look melts into one of slight guilt. As he stands to face her, he says, "Oh, I didn't mean to keep you."

Greta waves off his apologetic look. "My co-worker will moan about it, but other than that I don't have much to worry about."

She gives him a smile which he returns, and then they say their goodbyes. She takes the El back to work, then repeats apologies to Ryan for her extended break, saying she owes him one. He forgives her, in the end. It's not as if he's always on time in the mornings.


Greta shows up very early for the Razia's Shadow rehearsal on Monday night. She checks in with Paul, then slips back to her dressing room. It's not a dress rehearsal, but she ties her mask on and waits. Bob had better be right about this.

Just a few minutes later, she hears footsteps coming down the hall. She straightens in her chair, suddenly feeling nervous.

Alex stops in the doorway, and they stare at each other for a few seconds. She has clearly surprised him, and his hands tighten around the piece of paper in his hand.

"The slow reveal, huh?" she asks with a slight smirk.

A tentative smile forms on Alex's face. "That was the general idea."

"You know this is cheating." The smile tries to edge onto her face, but she manages to keep it at bay. Her eyes betray her, she knows, but she's relying on the mask to hide it well enough for her purposes. "The slow reveal is about discovering your faults, too. Not just the nice things you send to me on paper."

"Ah," he says, the confident look she remembers so well edging back into his expression, "but that's where you're wrong. Go on, name anything I sent you. Every single one of them reveals my faults."

Greta shoots him a skeptical look. "The sheet music."

"A song I couldn't finish. Easy one. Next?"

She raises her eyebrows, or tries to behind the mask. "The umbrella keychain?"

"I walk around in the rain all the time. Usually get sick. That all you got?"

"Temporary tattoos."

"Can't draw. You know that, you've seen my drawings."


He pauses. "Okay, I'm actually good with a yo-yo. But the hula hoop counteracts that! I try to use a hula hoop, it falls right off me. It's like I have no hips, seriously."

She has to smile at the mental image of him attempting that. "That's something I'd like to see," she tells him honestly.

He smiles, probably sensing his imminent victory. She curses him for that. "And as for the letters, well, obviously I like to ramble. About myself. Because I'm awesome. Ego, might be another one."

He tilts his head, feigning a shy look. She thinks it counts for something that she can tell it's a fake look. "Alright, fine. You've earned this."

She reaches up to untie the mask, holding it up with one hand. When she feels it loosen, she lowers it slowly, revealing her face.

The playful smile on Alex's face transforms as the mask falls away into a smile that is inarguably genuine. She reaches up to touch the smiley face she had Ryan paint on her cheek, as if to make sure it's still there. "For the record," he says, still beaming, "I'm pretty sure you have no faults."

She makes a disbelieving noise. "Oh, please. I bite my nails," she says, waving her fingers in front of her. "I forget names. I steal people's stories away for my very own. Oh, and here's a good one: I sit on my hands and stop myself from trying anything new."

Alex takes a tentative step forward. "For what it's worth, I don't mind holding your hands. You know, to keep you from sitting on them."

She rolls her eyes affectionately, but lets him take her hands. She asks, with just a hint of sarcasm, "You'd do that for me?"

"You deserve the world, Miss Greta," he says, eyes sparkling.

"You see? This is the benefit of the slow reveal! You're supposed to know and accept my faults, skipping over the blind stage of puppy love, therefore--"

"Greta, please. You're ruining the moment."

She takes in his smile and the affectionate look in his eyes, realizing suddenly that they're both leaning in, just a little bit. She tilts her head back just slightly and parts her lips.

"Greta! Paul told me you were back--oh!" Brendon appears in the doorway just as she jerks back a half-step from Alex, who holds onto her hands. "Oh, god. I'm so sorry. I didn't think--You should--I'm so sorry," he says again, then flees.

She waits a beat, wondering if she should call after him, but eventually just laughs. Alex joins in right after, squeezing her hands softly. "Hey," he begins after she calms down, "did I hear you say just now that you love me?"

Greta looks up at him, wide-eyed.

"I totally did, didn't I? 'Puppy love,' you called it, but still. I can see it now. We'll buy a house. White picket fence, a dog and a cat, a garden all of our own, and would you relax? I'm just kidding," he finally says, laughing at her expression.

She tries to contain her sigh of relief, but Alex still catches it and laughs at her, not unkindly. "Maybe I should go find Brendon," she says. "He's probably beating himself up for walking in on us."

"You make it sound so scandalous," Alex says, attempting to look ashamed and failing miserably.

She squeezes his hands before letting them go, and he smiles at her until she is out the door and can't see him anymore. She has a feeling he's still smiling.


Alex insists on taking her to dinner and a movie for their first date. "I know you like Thai food. And coffee. Oh, you should totally add 'stalker' to my list of faults, because even though Bob and Jon told me almost everything I know, we still have a fair few coincidences that are pretty hard to believe. Or were you stalking me?" he asks, voice suddenly stern.

She laughs, shifting her cell phone to her other ear. "'Stalker' was already at the top of your list, Alex. And if I was stalking you, I probably would have figured out how you managed to stand by and watch me play in the park, then leave me a stack of temporary tattoos, all without me seeing you."

"Oh, that one was easy. You get into the zone when you play. It's fascinating. I'm pretty sure I could've danced around naked and gotten away with it, as long as I ran for it before you finished the song."

She blushes, glad he can't see her. "The screams and scandalized families would probably be enough to draw my attention."

"Fair enough," he admits. He makes a hmm noise for a good ten seconds before finally continuing, "Ah! What about Uncommon Ground?"

She makes an inquisitive noise, and he continues, "It's this little cafe down on Clark Street. They have some great veggie options. I guess I should mention, I'm vegan. You can put that under the 'good' or 'bad' column at your own discretion, but it's not going to change, so."

"I'm vegetarian!" she says excitedly. "I try to stay vegan when I can, but I'll admit to the occasional piece of cake."

"Wow, can you get more perfect? No seriously, can you? Because I think I'm going to have to prepare myself if you get any more awesome."

"I'll try to warn you," she murmurs, embarrassed.

His laugh warms her as it carries over the phone line. "So, I'll meet you at your place at 6? If you don't mind taking the El. I can borrow a car from a friend if you really--"

"Alex. No, I don't mind taking the El. Are you usually this neurotic? Because that's going to have to go down in the 'cons' column, and you're already showing a vast majority of 'cons.' The 'pros' are going to get jealous."

"Well try not to tally 'em up until after Friday night, okay? I'm not making any promises, but I do have a few tricks up my sleeve that might give the 'pros' a demanding lead."


After an agonizingly slow week, Friday finally rolls around. Brendon shows up at work just to join in with Ryan to tease her. That lull in the middle of summer is here, though, so their number of customers increases enough to keep either of them from bothering her too much. As soon as they close up shop, though, Max joins in to torment her over what she's going to wear and how much makeup she's going to put on and "oh, are you going to put out? You know what they say about girls who put out on the first date."

"Oh, don't give me that, Maxwell. You don't know anything about girls who put out on the first date."

Max stares hard at her for a few seconds, and then breaks. "I'm trying really hard not to make a 'your mom' joke right now."

She pushes him hard in the arm. "You're practically my mom, so don't even go there."

When she gets back to her apartment, Genevieve and Ashlee are waiting at the front door. She groans inwardly, because they seriously are going to want to know what she's going to wear and how much makeup she's going to put on and also, possibly, if she's planning to put out on the first date. Sometimes having guy friends is just so much easier.

They mean well, though, so she shouldn't really complain. Ashlee puts on her makeup for her, and they both approve of the outfit she's already picked out. She's prepared long before 6 o'clock, so they all three flop down on the couch and watch part of Aladdin on TV.

They both wish her luck and make themselves scarce at 5:45, which leaves her with 15 minutes to kill. Watching Aladdin is suddenly not enough to hold her attention, so she opens up her journal and scribbles down her thoughts until, finally, there is a knock on the door.

"I'm early, I know," Alex begins as soon as she answers the door. "I don't mind waiting on the couch for an hour if I've interrupted your whole process or whatever."

She gives him a dubious look, looking at her watch. "You're all of two minutes early. What do you think I have left to do?"

Alex shrugs, looking repentant. "I don't know how these things work. I don't want to rush you or anything."

She rolls her eyes. "Let's just go, Alex."

Alex grimaces. "Okay, not off to the best start. Can we start over? Hi! Greta! Wow, you look amazing, wouldn't change a thing. Shall we be off?"

Greta glares at him even as he holds his elbow out exaggeratedly, but he holds his hopeful smile for so long that she can't keep a straight face. She laughs and slips her arm through his, letting him lead her down the stairs.

The restaurant is completely charming, and then the sounds of guitar drift in from the other room, and she adds another 10 points to her mental score card. Alex sees her impressed look and says, "Yeah?"

"Alright, I'll give you this one," she relents, letting her teeth show through her smile. "This is the most amazing tea I've ever had at a restaurant. And the salad! I will never be able to eat a salad without strawberries again."

Alex grins around his fork, telling her a story about the guitarist playing now.

"So do you know most of the people that play here?"

Alex shakes his head. "I only come here on special occasions, but a few of my friends play here when they can."

She pauses, wondering whether she should ask, before finally blurting, "Do you think they'd let a keyboardist play sometime?"

Alex looks pleased, so she doesn't feel too bad about asking. "See, I told you I'd keep you from sitting on your hands," he says, reaching out to lay a hand over hers.

She takes a moment to be surprised and impressed that he knew what she was referring to, then raises her eyebrows as if to say well?

"Of course, I bet they'd love to have you play."

She's enjoying the ease of their conversation, already giving him credit for a great first date by the end of dinner. He insists on paying, saying that she can get the movie if she really wants, and then he earns another stack of brownie points on the way out the door.

"Oh, I can't believe I forgot," he says, grabbing the door before it closes and slipping back inside. When he comes back out, he's holding a bouquet of paper roses. "I don't really approve of cut flowers. I hope you don't mind," he says, handing it to her.

"Of course not! I'm not a big fan of cut flowers, either. They die so quickly; it just seems unfair." She glances up at him after a moment of considering the intricacies of the flowers, and he's looking back at her with a soft sort of fondness that throws her completely off-guard. "What?"

He shakes his head, refusing to answer. "For the record, I have a friend that makes those, so you shouldn't give me full credit. But I did actually make one of them! Go on, you'll never guess."

She glances down and notices one crumpled rose arranged so that it's mostly hidden in the bouquet. She makes a thoughtful noise, pointing at that one and saying, "I really can't tell, but you know, I think this one is my favorite."

Alex wraps an arm around her shoulders and leads her on, past the restaurant. When they have to stop on the street corner, he darts in and presses one quick kiss to her temple. She turns to glance up at him a moment later, but the sign changes to allow them to cross, and Alex leads her forward with a smile.

There is a documentary on some guy she's never heard of playing at this small theater Alex loves. He tells her that he honestly doesn't know how the movie will be, but he knows that she loves documentaries and it at least looks promising, so--

And that's when she kisses him. She was kind of planning to save it for her doorstep on the way home, just to prove to herself that she's taking this slow enough, but to hell with it. She doesn't have to prove anything to anyone, and her expectations for herself are far too high.

She stops justifying it after Alex makes a surprised noise and places one hand between her shoulder blades, kissing back eagerly. When he parts his lips just slightly, she darts her tongue forward and sweeps it against his. He responds instantly, and finally she has to pull back before she lets their first kiss get a little too far in the lobby of a movie theater. He blinks back at her for a few seconds before breathing, "Wow."

"Yeah?" she asks, feeling a bit breathless herself.

"Come on, let's find out a little something about an architect named Joe."


She enjoys the movie, but when they leave the theater, she asks, "Did you hate it? Seriously, you can tell me."

Alex looks at her incredulously. "Why would I hate it? I mean, all the things that he accomplished, and he's what? 25? I'm almost 30 and what have I done?"

She blinks. "You're almost 30?"

He stops walking, leading her to stop too. "Yeah. Is that a problem?"

She thinks about it for a minute, then answers truthfully, "No. My mom will probably love it."

He doesn't smile when she looks at him, though. "I mean it, if it's gonna be weird for you--"

"Dude," she interrupts, smiling wider. "I am putting 'neurotic' down permanently in your 'cons' column, I don't care what you say. But 'age' isn't even on the list, okay? Let's just move on."

When they reach her doorstep, she does get to wrap up the night as planned. The kiss is more gentle than their first, but she can still feel it down to her toes. "I'll see you tomorrow night?" she asks, suddenly feeling shy.

"Of course. Even though I won't be playing your love interest this time, I don't want to see you give any less than 120 percent."

"Okay, but you're not allowed to be jealous when my chemistry with Thomas explodes off the stage."

His arrogant smile slips away. "Touché."

"Goodnight, Alex," she says, kissing him quickly, one last time.

"Goodnight, Greta."


Their sophomore performance goes well, overall. Brendon trips as he's heading offstage during the song change, but as he's in the dark, it's easily forgiven and forgotten. No one in the audience will know it was him. There is the occasional pause here and there as someone struggles to remember their line, but compared to last week, the performance is a significant improvement.

Greta never gets to find out if Ryan already knew it was Brendon who tripped, because as soon as she finds him after the show, Ryan is already hugging him and talking him down off the ledge.

"No, come on," Brendon protests. "I ruined everything. It was all running perfectly, a flawless scene change, and then bam! I send a stage prop flying. You could see me running after it, couldn't you? Don't lie to me, Ryan Ross, I can tell when you lie."

Ryan shakes his head at Brendon. "I don't know if anyone even noticed the noise, Brendon. And it was pitch black, so I know no one could see. They probably just thought it was part of the play."

When Greta sees the look they share, she makes herself turn around and walk back out. She was seconds away from interrupting, and her cheeks are still burning when she gets back to her dressing room. Alex is standing there, waiting for her with an origami heart. She takes it happily, noticing immediately that he is hiding one hand behind his back.

"Is there another surprise?" she asks, bouncing on the balls of her feet. She loves carrying the excited rush of being on stage around with her after the performance. It feels like there is a comforting wind following her around, making her feel more alive, and she silently wishes she could pass that feeling on to everyone she knows.

Alex smirks at her. "I'll never be able to hide anything from you, will I?"


He draws his hand out, handing her a photo. "Fine. This was the last thing I was going to give you, before."

She recognizes the fountain instantly, but flips the picture over. Alex has scrawled out we'll always have... on the back, along with a new sketch of the letter A.

"The last thing?" she repeats, glancing up to give him an inquisitive look.

"Yeah, I uh. Well, I thought maybe you'd freak out when you found out I'd been learning the part of your love interest, and just so happened to play it on opening night, after all the other stuff I'd done."

"So you're saying you didn't poison Thomas during the rehearsal? That's so disappointing, I had such high hopes for my memoir--" She gets cut off and can't finish her sentence when Alex starts tickling her side, and she can't stop giggling long enough to talk.

"I'm just saying, you probably had your doubts about my intentions before that, and it seemed like you didn't remember me, so. This was going to be my last ditch effort, and then it was up to you whether to get a restraining order or, you know, this."

Greta takes his hand as he gestures between them, grasping it tightly. She smiles sweetly and says sincerely, "Alex Greenwald, you put a smile on my face."


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