Level Up

Summary: "No, Envy, I can't come, my kid sister's in the hospital."/ There was a kind of pleasure that came with being perfect. Stacey-centric, slight Stacey/Neil.

English Angst/Family Rated: T Chapters:1 Words: Stacey P. & Neil N.

"Hey, Scott, did you know that I hate her? Envy Adams? I hate her."

:::::

Canada Day Grammar School: Interim Report

Student: Pilgrim, Stacey R.

Teacher's Comments: Sensible, very smart, a mature young lady.

:::::

She stood at the mirror, watching condensation bloom like spectral flowers across its polished surface as the steam from her shower saturated the air. Tiny droplets of water arced down the hollow of her neck and into the chasm between her embarrassingly small breasts and between her fingers. The fifteen-year-old lifted a pallid hand to her bangs, which hooded her thick eyebrows and glassy eyes like a frayed awning. Everything about the girl in the mirror was clunky, awkward. Wrong.

The heating vent connecting the bathroom she shared with her brothers to the basement shuddered as a cry of victory resonated through it. Scott and his friends were raising hell over another stupid Mario Kart Racing tournament (they didn't allow her to play anymore because she tended to throw her controller when she lost). It wasn't that she loathed her oldest brother and his band of equally dorky companions: in fact, she envied them. They could drive and buy coffee everyday and were pretty and confident in their half-grown-up bodies.

A voice that managed to be smoky and seductive without any effort rang up the vent: Nat. Scott's girlfriend, who had been kind of a dork when he brought her home last year (but she watched cartoons with her, so that didn't bother her), and was now an entity of beauty. Her crimson hair was always meticulously styled and she wore outfits that cost more than the combined retail value of their old and new houses and carried herself with such conviction, no one could dismiss her presence.

She was perfect.

So, Stacey Renee Pilgrim snitched her mother's scrap booking scissors and hacked her fringe off, thin lips pursed into a rictus as years of growth gathered at her feet. But when she bound downstairs, ten pounds lighter, to show her brother, Nat's ever-present frown twitched into a proud smirk.

Good girl.

:::::

They had moved to Toronto when she was twelve-years-old, a time when she, much like Nat (no, she went by Envy nowadays), was trapped in a somewhat awkward phase complete with no friends to speak of. It wasn't that there was some generally unlikable facet to her demeanor: Stacey just had a tendency to keep to herself. In her world of anime and notebooks and perfect report cards, everything was safe and routine. Dull, but safe.

But once she reached high school, which was like junior high without the rules, the popular freshmen lapped her up. They spotted her slouching in, no bangs and no tee-shirt (her mother had insisted she wear something "more feminine" on her first day), and swept her into their world.

They were a group of about fifteen, although a few were interchangeable with whoever Candy, the matriarch, happened to like that day, all perky and giggly. All of them flat-ironed their manes into glossy sheets and drew wings above their eyes and took turns puking in the bathroom stalls after lunch. Stacey didn't exactly enjoy spending time with them, but it certainly was nice to have girls to attend football games with and text late at night.

Having friends was easier than she expected, although it was probably due to her detachment. Stacey drifted through her days, solving every problem logically, choosing every word carefully, purging every meal silently. She smiled wide at her parents, who seemed relieved at her recent social blossoming, and went to the grocery store with Lawrence everyday after school and sat patiently on the couch with Scott and his friends. It was like living a dream, where time passed only out of knowledge and the edges to reality were soft, malleable. It was nice.

Somewhere between the locked doors and glittery lip gloss though, she stopped pretending.

Stacey had never actually liked the purging. Sure, it was the cool way to lose, but something about vomiting terrified her and half the time, she just wept over the basin instead of sticking that scarred finger down her throat. Candy, who was the best at it, seemed to benefit: she had a figure like Envy's, all curvaceous legs and cleavage. That was her goal, really. To be pretty like Candy and Envy. The goal prevented her from relinquishing complete control. Sure, she was numb, and that was nice, but a spark of alertness still glimmered within her.

She would be pretty.

:::::

Exercise x Perfect Grades x Football Games - Food = Perfection

:::::

Christmas Break started off difficult. After devoting the required hours to her friends, painting her nails and shopping in stores that never seemed warm enough, Stacey retreated into her bedroom to enjoy the last week of her vacation. Bundled up in every sweater she owned, she plotted out her strategy to avoid dinner. Forming them was easy, like the equations she had to solve for Calculus (Honors all the way); it was executing them that was difficult.

Scott came home for Christmas Day with Envy on his arm. Wallace rolled in at noon, fashionably late as usual, with pearl earrings for her mother and a silk necktie for her father. That was one of the reasons Stacey adored Wallace. He was generous and funny and just seemed to stroll through life without a care (of course, his favorite drinks seemed to help).

After dinner, where Stacey nibbled a sample from each portion on her plate and went back to her roots with a little finger n' puke, she shyly asked if she could model her new clothes for Scott and Envy. He nodded; she shrugged indifferently.

She ducked into the bathroom where she cut her bangs off and stripped down to her underwear. The girl in the mirror had washboard ribs and shovel blade hips and knobby knees, and seeing her, watching her breathe and move, was so spellbinding, Stacey stood there for half an eternity in awe.

Without a single warning, the door creaked open. Envy peered in, her strawberry lips pursed and arms crossed. Stacey flinched instinctively as they stared one another down through the mirror, drinking in every detail of each other's bodies. A nauseating pulse of guilt throbbed deep in Stacey's gut as she struggled to see what Envy saw: a skeleton wearing a teenaged girl's faded bra and panties.

"Uh, I- -"

"Good job, kid." There was an unmistakable note of admiration in Envy's voice. "You look really good. Isn't it nicer to be like this, to be pretty?"

"Yeah," Stacey breathed, unable to stop herself from smiling. "It's great."

:::::

So Stacey spent her Christmas Break watching cheesy action flicks with Wallace and learning how to do French braid her hair from Envy and playing her violin along with Scott on his (well, Lawrence's) bass. She didn't mind how cold she was.

She had achieved perfection.

:::::

"Stacey, what the hell is wrong with you?"

She couldn't breathe and her skin was cold and Candy wouldn't stop yelling at her, telling her to get the hell up, that she was making a scene. And this was it, this was the detachment, god was it nice but this time she was going all the way what does perfection equal what can she take out next how can she

:::::

Scott was the first to visit her in the hospital. They had wired her porcelain frame down so she couldn't sneak away to purge or struggle when the food tray arrived. Not that she cared anymore. She was far too exhausted to fight the fight anymore. If they wanted to pump her full of fat again, fine. It didn't matter.

He dragged an unnecessarily uncomfortable armchair up to her bedside and that was when Stacey realized his hair was cut. Not just bangs: all of it, snipped down to a layer of dirty-blonde fuzz that was handsome, but so un-Scott that her breath hitched in her throat. She unhooked the stupid oxygen mask to speak in her new, whispery voice: "What happened to- -?"

"Envy broke up with me," he interrupted, eyes shimmering with a film of tears. "I got this stupid haircut and then I got drunk and then we had this stupid fight and-and… "

"Bro." Stacey reached out to grab his hand, even though she was ever-so-slightly irritated he hadn't even asked how she was. "You're way too good for her."

He glanced up at her, at her doe eyes floating in extra-large sockets, and where his heart had been before Envy tore it out of him ached even worse. "You're too good for her too, Stace."

They sit in silence awhile until her nurse, Jessica, stopped by to examine her vitals and suggest the two visit the hospital's playroom. So he pushed her wheelchair (can't have another meltdown) down the hallway and they played the hospital's newest edition of Mario Kart. Scott let her win, but Stacey still threw her controller.

:::::

And so her life pretty much restarted, like the first sixteen years had just been an alpha software and now, after all the system flaws were excised, she had the beta copy in her hands. There was no more crying from her parents, although her mother still packed her lunch and measured out all of her meals with a critical eye. She severed all ties with Candy and the other Glitter Girls, preferring to spend her time with Wallace or whatever boyfriend she had at the moment.

She graduated high school. She went to college. She lived.

Her oldest brother started to date another girl, Ramona Flowers, who dyed her hair every three weeks and carried around a bag with a star pasted on the side. She was mysterious, but kind and sarcastic and, after their encounter in the library, a competent fighter. There was drama and parties and battles that Stacey preferred to watch from afar. She knew Scott would win every time.

At the Chaos Theater, where Wallace bought her an icy beer that would probably taste better coming up than it did going down, Stacey had a feeling Scott was anticipating a fight the moment he walked in. He had broken up with Ramona, but instead of sinking into a bottomless depression (like with Envy, Envy just ruined him), he just… detached. Sure, he bought that apartment where Stacey occasionally crashed when she argued with her roommate, but all he did was play video games and eat Goldfish. Not exactly a productive existence.

So the Evil Ex parade reached its grand finale with that Douche-of-the-Decade, Gideon, who had the gall to slam a two-foot long sword through her older brother. Stacey called her parents with the news Scott had been murdered by the world's biggest dickhead, struggling to grapple with the fact that the providence's best fighter was bleeding heavily across the club's mirrored floor. But Scott, being Scott, leveled up and was on his feet in just minutes, alongside Ramona.

There was a fight. Gideon exploded. Her wallet became twenty-six dollars (in change) heavier.

But instead of returning to her dorm room, where she would just watch a few shows on her laptop before crashing, Stacey decided to incite a conversation with the kid Scott introduced her to earlier. His name was Neil and his hair was in the process of reaching the length Scott's was in college. They perched on bar stools, watching people scoop up massive handfuls of coins as they sipped their respective drinks (Coke, water to wash down the beer).

Finally, they started discussing school and music and Stacey discovered he was really into indie rock, which she had clung to during the alpha years. They talked about The Antlers and Philosophy and Scott and they didn't stop until the club was officially closed.

He walked her outside, practically glowing from the joy of meeting a beautiful girl (not to mention finally being referred to as Neil). They exchanged numbers and held each other's hands on the street corner, shoulders hunched against the drizzling rain.

She tenderly parted his bangs to catch more of his eclipsed eyes. They were huge and sweet, the kind of eyes that belonged on an anime character and not a slightly dopey, but surprisingly bright, boy. "You're bangs are crazy long."

He shrugged and fingered a lock of her own hair. "I know. I like bangs. You'd look cute with them."

Neil didn't know what triggered it, but suddenly, Stacey was weeping. She kissed him three times, because she missed his lips the first two attempts, and latched her arms around his neck, bony frame heaving with sobs. It was then Neil realized he had fallen in love with Stacey Renee Pilgrim.

It was then Stacey Renee Pilgrim realized she had finally fallen in love with herself.

a/n: Does this need an explanation? Probably. I have a nasty-ass cold and was trapped in bed all day and this happened, oops. Always been crazy interested in Stacey and wanted more elaboration on her and her hatred of Envy. So sorry for serving this literary mush to the fanfiction world. So long friends, I am gone. *backflips into the sun*