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You, er... may wish to ignore this.



There was something uneasy in her dreams that night; she was restless, waking often and sleeping lightly when she slept, tossing and turning and half sitting up to peer at the clock; all the things one does when sleep is elusive and the night just drags on and on, as if rubbing it in.

She didn't dream; later, she was sure of that, though at the time she kept imagining flashes and fragments of shadow passing over the dreamscape, flitting across the bed, moments she wasn't sure were real or in her head. Eventually, she growled in frustration and pulled the
pillow over her head, curled up in an exhausted, miserable ball. She had to sleep. She had to sleep.

She'd had a plan. She'd avoided sleep for three days, locked up in her room surrounded by textbooks; she had three more hours until sunrise, and five more hours until her final exams.

The dormitory was eerily quiet. At least this semester she couldn't blame her insomnia on her housemates.

She squeezed her eyes tight shut, tensing up all her muscles for one, two, three seconds - as if she could tire herself out - and then relaxed them, one by one, breathing in time with her pulse. Gran had taught her this. It had worked better when she was younger.

When she was relaxed, she lay there, boneless, eyelids heavy. Maybe she'd be able to sleep, after all.

She was nearly asleep when the phone rang.

It rang three times before she sat up, the pillow falling to the floor. On the fourth ring, people started pounding on the walls and ceiling to every side of her - poor souls who hadn't studied earlier, and were now trying to cram it all into the last three hours.

On the fifth ring, she reached out and picked it up from the bedside table, silencing the ring.

"Dad?" she said, her voice thick.

"Shirley," he said, "something's happened."

She nearly dropped the phone.

She'd heard that note in his voice once before, and it had changed her forever.

***

Molly Hardy was a star. There were no two ways about it - she was talented, compelling, persuasive, eccentric; all the qualities that guaranteed a quality actress in post-Millennium Hollywood. People didn't want goddesses anymore, they wanted people as their idols; intelligent, unusual, flawed.

Molly Hardy wasn't flawed. But two out of three was enough, and by the time she was twenty, she was already one of the favoured leading ladies of the silver screen, the chosen star to headline in the more complicated roles, the parts too artsy or deep for cheaper talents who
ran a dime a dozen in Hollywood and everywhere else. Molly was sought-after, for more than just her good looks. She could play anyone, convincingly, thoroughly, believably. Molly Hardy was a chameleon; it was what made her so amazing. There was one very good reason for this.

Molly Hardy was an excellent liar.

It was unlikely that many of her adult mentors or caretakers had ever noticed it, when she was growing up. She could think of a handful of examples to the contrary - one headmaster who had followed her through three schools trying to unmask her as the evil mastermind he believed she truly was, for example - but for the most part, she had spent her childhood, and then her adolescence, quite safe in the modest, retiring, and brilliant persona she'd constructed for herself.

It wasn't all artifice. She was brilliant, and quite complex, and was capable of fairly deep insight. She had a keen understanding of people.

She had also spent a fair portion of her adolescence trying to utterly destroy anyone who might get in her way.

Her goals were nebulous, as they always had been. For the most part, they revolved around things revolving around her. Sometimes individual plans extended to acquiring or attaining certain objects or positions she wasn't, strictly speaking, meant to have, at least not according to various psychological profiles. But she had always been good at making such inconvenient documents disappear when she needed them gone.

It wasn't like she wanted to hurt people, after all. It was just that sometimes, they got in her way, and while she thought of other people, occasionally, she generally thought of herself first.

And in some cases, she thought of herself, alone.

Really; no one else would.

And so Molly Hardy took what she was given, and used it, and became a star. The "retiring" aspect of her persona wasn't all artifice, either. She could only accept a certain minimum of sycophantic worship, and she had no illusions that what she did to keep her fortune intact was worthy of the genuine variety. She was talented, true - but in her opinion, if she hardly had to try to be good at what she did, it hardly seemed fair to enjoy being praised for doing it. Especially when some of her "colleagues" were so truly terrible at their craft, and garnered as much praise, or more.

Sometimes it made her positively ill. As if any of the crowing fans who lined every premiere carpet had any idea of what quality acting was. They cheered only because they knew they were meant to.

Sometimes she hated them all with fury reaching violence; once she had fled the red carpet of a crowded theatre with such rage that she had tightened her hand too hard around the delicate, fluted glass of an award statuette, crushing the fragile thing between her gloved fingers and palm, staining the satin with blood. Her agent had been appalled, because what if someone had seen? People saw blood and assumed different things, these days, and none of them were things that the small, fierce woman who supposedly ran Molly's life wanted to negotiate around.

Molly tolerated it because she had to.

Today, she was being tolerant of a parade. Not in her honour, mind, but something for which she'd "volunteered," to raise money for cancer research or the civil rights of comic book artists or comic book artists with cancer, or something. She hardly paid attention to such things, but on occasion her agent, Maureen, would arrange these things and tell her, in no uncertain terms, that this thing, she had to do, for the sake of her image.

Arguments like that, Molly understood.

And so she sat tolerantly in the back of a convertible, as it made its way down a wide San Diego street, the streets thronged with people in comic book t-shirts. The charity - she'd paid just enough attention to be conversational on camera - was attached to the San Diego Comic Convention, one of the largest of its kind, and the city was full to brimming with asocial freaks from all over the world. Molly smiled pleasantly at them as she passed, surrounded by marching ranks of elves and people wearing purple and green armour, and high plastic wigs with home-made magician's robes. she waved. She had made the mistake of starring in a comic book adaptation last year, that was why this was happening. This was all Maureen's fault. Three days in a harness wearing leather pants, waving in front of a wind machine while people shot blanks at her. She'd made obscene amounts of money off that film, certainly. She just wasn't convinced it had been worth it, especially now that there were desaturated posters featuring her in a cowboy hat and leather chaps, a lasso in one hand and a semi-automatic rifle in the other, tacked up in dorm rooms across the globe. She knew this because apparently, according to Maureen, there had been a survey.

Apparently, she was a big hit with the 18-35 comic-book-reading demographic.

Molly sighed, and kept waving.

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