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The Quality of Mercy

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"Oh, Jesus Christ, Ellen," Geoffrey says, panting, slamming her up against the inside of her dressing room door. "That was just, that was incredible, you up there tonight --" and then he can't talk anymore because they're kissing, pressed in close and grabbing for each other's clothes.

"Oh, Geoffrey, careful, that's -- sorry," Ellen says, disentangling her veil from Geoffrey's sword. "Sorry," she says again, and stretches up and kisses him and pulls him down and over to the divan, and he only minds a little when she tears off his justaucorps and shoves it on her makeup table.

He clutches her hair, pulls back only to gulp down deep breaths before he dives in at her again, and she works at the ties on his trousers and manages to shimmy them down his hips far enough for him to pop his cock out. He spits in his palm, gives his dick a swipe and starts flicking the head against Ellen's pussy in short, teasing strokes.

Her hand comes down to meet him and her index and middle fingers part around the head of his dick and then squeeze. A shot of lust sends him growling into her mouth, moving down and licking, nipping at her chin, her collarbone, her breasts.

She feels around on her makeup table and Geoffrey's jacket tumbles to the ground, bringing an array of pastel powders puffing out like smoke. She screws off the cap from the tube of lube with her teeth and spits it on the floor. And then Geoffrey bucks back as she shoves him inside her, and when she lets out a tiny squeak of pain he has to swallow hard and think about hockey. And he doesn't particularly like hockey.

But she rolls him over with surprisingly powerful force, drives her fingernails into his chest and rides him, shouting "Oh! Oh!" so loud that Geoffrey can hear Frank and Cyril laughing from the room next door. He's holding one of her breasts in each hand and he squeezes, flicking both thumbs over her nipples, and then he sits up and shoves his mouth over hers to stop the moaning.

"Oh, god, Ellen," he groans. She pauses mid-stroke, stops, braced on her strong dancer's thighs, and looks at him, and licks her lip.

Then she slams down, hard, her ass smacking Geoffrey's balls, and she kisses him on the neck and he leans in and her teeth snap down on his shoulder, drawing blood.

"Sorry!" she says. "Are you okay? Oh, you're bleeding, Geoffrey, I'm so sorry --"

"Shut up," he says, and kisses her and starts fucking her again.

The next day in makeup, it takes forty-five minutes to cover the bruise before Prince Hal can go on stage for the season's final performance. Geoffrey gets a little scar on his collarbone that doesn't go away. He loves it.

&&

The next season Oliver's gunning for Merchant, and Geoffrey makes a call to his old University to try and locate Rufus McAllister, a young upstart from Geoffrey's alma mater now well-known in Toronto's professional theater scene.

"I never knew him," Geoffrey tells Oliver. "I mean, he was at least six years behind me in school, and even you admit you hadn't heard his name before that Endgame last year that everybody drooled over."

"So?"

"I have a bad feeling about this, Oliver," Geoffrey says. "It could get me into trouble if I stick my neck out for this kid."

"Since when did you stop taking risks in the interest of good theater?" Oliver raises an eyebrow. "Just because you were a decent Prince Hal..." He stops.

"Yeah?"

Oliver leans forward and rests his chin on his steepled fingers. "That was only my second Henry Four," he says. "I don't know why; I must have directed half a dozen Richards."

"Richard the Second is a better play," says Geoffrey.

When Oliver looks up, his eyes are shining, and he's smiling. "You brought them to their feet, Geoffrey. Every single night."

Geoffrey scratches his neck.

"I can just imagine your Hamlet," Oliver says, staring wistfully off into the corner. "God, Geoffrey. Won't that be something?"

"Yes," Geoffrey says, uncertainly.

"Next season, maybe?"

Geoffrey detects the increase in his heartbeat, because of course they've talked about it but Geoffrey never allows himself to think, really, that he'll get to play the Danish prince. But now he exhales, relieved, terrified, excited. "I look forward to it," he manages to say, without humiliating himself or falling over.

Oliver laughs. "You look forward to it?" He pats his hair. "Well then I must be doing something wrong; you should be scared shitless."

Geoffrey swallows. "I promise to be scared shitless next year," he says. "Count on it."

"So let's get through this Merchant," Oliver says. He sits up straighter. "Get McAllister," he says. "Give them your firstborn, if that's what it takes."

Geoffrey sighs. "My purse, my person, my extremest means lie all unlocked to your occasion," he says, and makes the telephone call.

There are two bright kids from the company playing Jessica and Lorenzo this year -- the girl came up from an apprentice last year and Geoffrey wouldn't be surprised if he saw her as Juliet whenever the festival dug that one out next. Oliver's gone ahead -- after weeks of the board laboring over the decision -- and given Shylock to some sci-fi television celebrity with Brylcreem in his silver hair, and the media is buzzing already. Geoffrey tries to ignore it.

Ellen is, of course, Portia, and McAllister will play her Bassanio, and at first Geoffrey's eager to dive into the part of Antonio, all his lavish moral superiority and martyrdom.

But at the first rehearsal McAllister swaggers out to thundering applause (though Geoffrey knows on good authority that half the people hadn't even seen his Beckett, including Ellen), all chiseled good looks and a ridiculous pointed beard and a voice that plays to the rafters. Oliver seems starstruck and Ellen's giddy about playing the romance. Even the sci-fi TV star looks impressed, and he whispers something to Rufus when Rufus sits down, which Rufus responds to with an enthusiastic "thumbs up!" that makes Geoffrey want to vomit.

"Look at him," he hisses to Ellen. "Just look at him up there, prancing around. Don't you see it?"

"Shush," she shushes him. "I'm trying to watch the rehearsal."

Geoffrey exhales and stands up. "I'm on," he says. She waves a careless hand, and he sidles out of the row of seats to make his entrance stage right.

Later, Ellen takes a seat next to him backstage, somewhere in the beginning of act five. "You didn't have to snarl at him," she whispers. "He was just trying a new approach to the speech."

"He was butchering it!" Geoffrey hisses. "Bassanio appeals to Antonio, and Antonio responds because he loves Bassanio. Because at that point, at the beginning of the play, Bassanio is a helpless man in love, and Antonio is driven to his extremely charitable act."

"Right," agrees Ellen.

"But... Rufus! He's got Bassanio flouncing around like he's... blackmailing Antonio! And if I play into it I corrupt the whole character. The whole character!"

Ellen scowls. "You've never been this inflexible to new interpretation before," she says.

Oliver comes sweeping in, looking addled. He stops and peers at Geoffrey.

"What are we going to do?" Oliver says.

"He's your problem," says Geoffrey.

"You're letting him fucking chop your balls off up there," Oliver snorts. "Get it together, Geoffrey."

Geoffrey blinks. "Wait, what?" he says, but Oliver's stomped off.

For the rest of the act, Geoffrey sits with Maria in the booth, watching Jessica and Lorenzo fumble chastely and adorably, but when Rufus and the starship captain come in the whole thing expectedly falls to pieces. And Geoffrey laughs until he cries, or maybe it happens the other way around, while a gun-toting Shylock takes his shirt off and a sultry Bassanio lounges at his feet.

"It's awful, right?" Maria asks. "Sometimes I don't know if I can tell anymore."

"Yes," Geoffrey says. "It is awful. This production, particularly, is awful."

She drops her voice a little lower, even though they're alone in the booth. "But everybody fucking loves this guy," she whispers. "I don't get it."

"Neither do I," Geoffrey whispers, enunciating each word.

Down below Oliver claps his hands, and Geoffrey can hear him once again telling Shylock to please try to remain dressed until the play is over.

"Ugh, I can't even stand to listen to him," Maria says, bringing down the lights.

"What, the spaceship guy?"

"Yeah!" Maria says. "Awful, right?"

Geoffrey straightens up. "Actually, I was talking about Rufus McAllister."

Maria peers at him. "Are you kidding?" she says. "Rufus is terrific. We should get him for the company, seriously."

Rufus McAllister is in Ellen's dressing room when Geoffrey gets there.

"We're going for drinks," she says, screwing on an earring. "You can come if you like. We're just going to be talking about work, you know. Act three scene two."

"Act three scene two," says Geoffrey, just imagining the spectacle already, that sleazebag Rufus preening for Portia while poor Ellen has to pretend to be desperately in love.

"I want to get it right," Ellen goes on. "He's doing such a great thing with it, with the character, don't you think?"

Geoffrey gapes. "You mean the speech? Bassanio's marvelously inappropriate self-help speech? So may the outward shadows be least themselves?"

Rufus stands up and adjusts his pants.

"So!" Rufus shouts, spreading his hands. "May the outward shadows be least themselves, the world is still deceived with ornament!" he hollers. "In law, what plea, so tainted and corrupt but, being seasoned with a gracious voice, obscures the show of evil? In religion, what damned error but some sober brow will --"

Geoffrey punches him in the face.

"Ding, dong, bell," says Oliver, from the doorway, as Rufus crumples to the floor.

Ellen kneels immediately, checking Rufus's face for bruises. "He's fine," she says. "You guys, he's fine."

"Thank god," says Oliver.

"Damn," says Geoffrey.

"Fuck off," says Rufus.

It's still Geoffrey's face on the poster along with the TV actor playing Shylock, and it's still his Antonio, still his Merchant no matter what the rest of the world might seem to think of the brilliant young Rufus McAllister. But Oliver seems to have less and less time for him, and when Geoffrey has the temerity to suggest that they might workshop the courthouse scene a little, Oliver just snuffs and reminds him that Oliver Welles' Merchant of Venice will be played as a romance this year.

Geoffrey gets the same reception when he reaches out to the TV actor. "I mean, considering Antonio and Shylock are the central antagonists of the play -- "

"I know that!" the actor snaps, refusing to open his dressing room door. "You think I don't know what this play's about? I know all the words."

Geoffrey sighs. "All the words, impressive," he says. "Still, I think it couldn't hurt for the two of us to sit down and, you know, spend a little time getting to know one another's processes."

"I'm doing an autograph signing this afternoon," the actor says. "Tell Oliver we can work on that soliloquy over the phone?"

"Over the phone," Geoffrey agrees, then gives the door a rap with his fist and leaves. "I'm in hell," he says, and goes home.

Ellen has her ankles hooked around his neck, and she's sitting on his lap, beaming at him. "That was good tonight, right?" she asks. He cups his hand around her side and slides it up, tucking his thumb under her breast and stroking her gently with his fingertips.

Tonight, he had given the best performance he could, and considering the fact that the starship captain pulled through in the clutch and that Ellen had been customarily astounding, it could have altogether been considered a good dress rehearsal. But after the curtain, when they were backstage drinking beer and passing the joint around, Ellen had been all flushed and breathy, hanging over Rufus.

"Oh hush," Oliver had said, when Geoffrey pointed it out. "It's Bassanio and Portia, it's the love story of the Venetian set!"

"When did this play stop being a scathing cultural commentary on anti-Semetism and turn into a soap opera?" Geoffrey grumbled.

Oliver patted him on the back. "Now you're just being delusional, dear boy," he said.

When Rufus went so far as to actually kiss Ellen, Geoffrey swept her up and lead her, breathless, straight home.

"Hey!" she yells, pinching his shoulder with two fingernails. "Pay attention to me! You're wandering again."

Geoffrey nudges higher up the bed and takes Ellen's hips in both his hands.

"You were spectacular tonight," he says. "You made your Nerissa cry!"

Ellen giggles. "Yeah, I apologized to Selma after that," she says. "I wasn't expecting it to happen myself, I just got caught up in the scene, I guess."

"Oliver loved it," Geoffrey says, reaching around to grab Ellen's ass and then just throwing his arms around her and pulling her toward him. "And you," he says, kissing her several times. "Were hot as hell up there."

"Really?" Ellen says, flattered, and Geoffrey shoves his hands in her hair and she sprawls out on top of him on the bed, writhing.

"Really," says Geoffrey.

"And you love me?" Ellen asks.

Geoffrey sits up, pushing her forward, and then he braces his arms against the mattress and just hovers there looking down on her. "You're such a fucking diva," he grins.

"Well, that's cliched, don't you think?"

He clutches her shoulders. "Rufus. Rufus McAllister. What do you think of him, really?"

Ellen exhales like she's late for the bus. "You want to talk about this now?"

"I think it only fair," Geoffrey says, releasing his grip and sitting back a little. "So?"

Ellen thinks for a while, and Geoffrey just purses his lips and waits for the answer. It's her turn, for god's sake.

"I'm sorry, Geoffrey," she says. "I'm sorry. I think he's magnificent. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I think he's done some very interesting things with the part --"

Geoffrey smacks her, hard, across the face. She blinks for a minute, then swings wide and punches him in the jaw with her right fist, and follows it with a blow to his chest with her left. He falls back onto his ass and sits on the bed for a second, catching his breath, until she comes flying at him again and pins him down and digs her nails into his chest.

"Ow!" he says.

She leans down and bites his neck. "I want to leave scars," she says.

"Ow!" he says, trying to peel her off him but she grips at his arms and wrestles him onto the floor and his heart is racing and his whole body's flushed, and hot, and breathless, and he kisses her as she scrapes across him, scratching and biting. She's got him pinned in the corner but he grabs both her wrists, quick, and looks at her.

She's panting too, and flushed, and lusty. "Ellen," he says. "Did you know this is the first romance we've done here that we didn't play across from each other?" And his chest heaves as he breathes.

She tips her chin down. "I noticed that, yes. At the beginning. I didn't want to say anything."

"Why do you like that bastard Rufus?" Geoffrey moans.

She smiles. "He's just like you were," she says. "Cocky and brilliant."

Geoffrey picks Ellen up -- she's never been heavy, just a waifish soul in his arms -- throws her against the wall and shoves his knee between her legs. She's wet, and slick, and he can feel her pulsing hotly against his knee. "You like that?" he asks, cocking his knee higher and slamming her ass against the wall. "Leave scars," he scoffs. "You can't not leave scars, Ellen."

"Oh, god," she says, and when she leans her head back against the wall he can see the faint white outline of his ruddy handprint on her cheek. He touches it experimentally, and she winces. And immediately he understands why she needs to mark him, to own him.

"I was cocky and brilliant?" Geoffrey asks. "Was?"

She grabs his head and kisses him, hard, and slides her hand down between his thighs and takes his hard, shuddering cock. "He asked me if he could keep the ring," she pants, laughing. "After the show, you know. As a souvenir."

Geoffrey pins her wrists to the wall and kisses her back, and she tugs at his cock and he's like jelly, leaning into her, leaning into the wall. She bites him again. "Souvenir," she says, and then starts slinking down the wall. She catches one of Geoffrey's nipples in her teeth and holds it a little too hard, twists it. Geoffrey moans and his cock strains. He grabs at her breast and smashes it with his hand, and then she drops to her knees and takes his cock in both her hands and pulls it toward her lips, which are bloodied.

Geoffrey throws both his arms against the wall and holds himself there as Ellen sucks him off, rolling his dick against her molars, chewing a little too hard, tugging forcefully with her teeth. He feels bruised and amped with adrenaline.

She stops before he wants her to, and he hangs there, trembling as she pulls herself up and pushes him, stumbling backwards, onto the bed.

"Tell me you love me," she demands. "Geoffrey!"

He lays back on the mattress and she hangs over him, sweaty, and bruised, hot and panting. "Oliver says we're doing Hamlet next year," Geoffrey says.

Ellen stops everything she's doing, sits up properly, and claps her hands with glee. "Oh, Geoffrey, really?"

His cock twitches, desperately, but he ignores it to simply relax on the bed and stare up, at Ellen's wide-eyed bliss, and spread his arms wide like he's taking in the world.

"Tell me I'm more talented than Rufus McAllister," Geoffrey says.

Ellen bashes her elbow down on the top of his thigh and it hurts. He slaps her arm away.

"Of course you are," she says. "Shut up." Then she swipes the back of her hand across her mouth and looks at the streak of blood. She licks it clean and leans down and kisses Geoffrey, and he tastes his blood and hers. She crawls on top of him and he reaches down and spreads her open, and she's hot and wet and waiting for him, and she just slides right down the length of him and he feels her wet ass against the tops of his thighs and he takes her by the waist and throws her down onto him, harder, harder and faster until she claws his arms away and leans down and kisses him sloppily.

He bites her cheek, her neck, her shoulder, her arms, leaving angry semi-circles where his crooked teeth cut the flesh. In many places, he draws blood. His cock strains inside her and she lets out short lyrical moans. "Remember," he says, biting down harder on the top of her breast. "Remember this, this moment."

"Us," she says.

"In the prime of our youth, the heat of our talent, performing the world's best plays in one of the world's best theater festivals."

"Fuck me," she moans. "God, Geoffrey."

"Hamlet, Ellen," Geoffrey says, over a creaking pleasured groan.

"It's going to be perfect," she says, licking his ear.

"That's absurd," he says, clawing at Ellen's ass and pulling her into him, close, and tight. "Nothing's. Perfect. In. The theater," he groans with each stroke.

"Don't underestimate yourself," Ellen continues to purr into his ear, and then she catches his earlobe with her teeth and chomps down, and squeezes her cunt around his cock and draws herself up and he thrashes, and he moans, and he comes. She drives both her hands into his hair and grabs big hunks and pulls.

Pieces of hair tear free as she shoves his face between her legs, and she squeezes his skull between her thighs and leans back and screams as he devours her, "yes! Yes! Just like that!" And he finally pulls his face free and presses his hand down on her throbbing clit, and shoves two fingers inside and beckons at her, rubbing and rolling as she moans and he kisses her, and she lets out that long, shuddering groan, and they both crumple into a pile on the bed.

Geoffrey looks at them, pale, tangled limbs with purpling bruises and drying streaks of blood, glinting sweat and Ellen's smooth waist, the roundness of her breasts, her fragile shoulders, her regal chin, her breathtaking, stupefyingly beautiful face.

"I love you," he says.

"You're more talented than Rufus McAllister," she says.

He grabs her right arm and looks at it. "There!" he says, pointing out twinned teethmark arcs that tore the skin in perfect relief, the blood already scabbing over. "Don't forget," he says. He clutches her arm, and lies there, and breathes, and at some point they fall asleep, sweaty and aching in a tangle of sheets and bruises.

The next day they open the Merchant under layers of pancake makeup and moleskin bandages, and when Antonio gives Bassanio the means to win the heart of fair Portia, Geoffrey feels the sting in his jaw, his chest, his scalp, his thighs. But at the end of the night when the crowd comes wildly to their feet, it's not the TV actor or McAllister that they thunder for, it's Geoffrey's simple Antonio, naked in the footlights and willing to sacrifice all he has, his pound of flesh, for love.