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Dick looked around him, taking in the rows of seats and the balcony, the box seats, the velvet, the curtains. He took a deep breath in, inhaling the old, museum-like smell of a well-used theater. A smile stretched slowly across his face.

“I don’t know what you’re smiling at,” a voice said at his side, “this place is a dump.”

“But it’s our dump,” he replied, shifting his gaze to the right. Nix looked back with a doubtful expression on his face. But, there was a hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth when they made eye contact.

“Only because the producers are maybe the most incompetent, lazy assholes in New York,” Nix rebutted. Dick ignored his cynicism.

“We’ve got a theater, Lew,” he said quietly, looking at it all again. “In a few months, this place is going to be home.”

Nix followed his eyes and his mouth twisted. “How wonderful.”

Dick elbowed him. “Stop. It’s not that bad. It could, in fact, be much worse.” He gave Nix a look and knew the exact moment when Nix was thinking what he was thinking.

“Shit, anything’s better than that workshop in Georgia.”

“So you agree.”

“As far as that’s concerned. But you really think this place is going to be the birthplace of all our hopes and dreams?”

Dick thought about the show that he was going to put on with help from his four best friends. It was something he’d always wanted to do, and reading this show was the spark he’d needed. And now he was standing on the stage in the empty theater where it was going to happen. Maybe it was rundown, but he could see the shine underneath. He could picture the seats filled with people and the backstage teeming with restless energy. Actors, an orchestra, a crew.

He could imagine the show happening here.

Nix groaned a little and shook his head, casting another quick glance around the theater. “I can already see that you do. No need to say anything.”

There was a pause before he said, “Alright then,” his gaze rested on Dick, “Ron, Lip, and Harry are here and waiting for the grand tour. Shall we show them in?”

A slow smile crept over Dick’s face as he looked at Nix’s exasperated expression. It was tinted with amusement and fondness, so Dick didn’t bother saying anything other than, “Let’s go.” He was excited to get the show on the road now that it was happening.

He joined Nix near the end of the stage, and they walked out to the mezzanine together.

Chapter Text

Speirs eyed the pen that rested on the edge of the table just a hands-length away and contemplated stabbing himself with it. Before he could say anything or reach for it, there was a soft groan from beside him.

“I swear to God if I have to hear another song from Hamilton…”

 Speirs rolled his eyes over to his right to look at Carwood and raised his eyebrows. Carwood’s hands were on his face, and his skin was pulled down as he stared into space. He glanced over and smiled in embarrassment, ducking his head at the same time. “Sorry. It’s been a long day.”

“Oh don’t worry about me. I’m just counting down the seconds until we’re done.”

Carwood’s mouth twitched up at the corner and he looked like he wanted to laugh and agree, but then he glanced back at the audition sheet on the table in front of him. “We should be paying attention,” he said warningly.

“Why? I’ve already made my decision. I know you have too.” Carwood wouldn’t have looked over or started talking otherwise. Speirs took his copy of the audition sheet and placed it in the pile to his left, reaching out for the pen he’d been eyeing in order to make a note.

Carwood was looking at him in a way that suggested he didn’t really approve, but couldn’t say anything about it. Especially not when he pushed his audition sheet to his left, too. Then he startled, straightened, and focused on the stage.

“Yes, thank you.” There was a friendly smile on his face and Speirs glanced up at the stage where the actor stood nervously, hands wrung in front of him. He smiled back shakily and bobbed his head before he walked off the stage.

Speirs leaned back in his chair and braced himself as another actor came on. He half-listened as the actor introduced himself and the solos he’d prepared. Then he came toward the front of the stage and handed over his audition sheets.

When Dick had called and asked for Speirs to cast his show, he’d been in Europe. And his hesitation must have been obvious because before he could answer, Dick started to pitch the musical. By the end, Speirs was searching for plane tickets, fully on board. It was a mixture of the passion in Dick’s voice, the fact that everyone was involved, and that he would do anything for any of his four best friends that did it.

Dick was directing of course and Harry was assisting him. Nix was the stage manager, and Carwood was the musical director. Speirs had been offered an assistant director spot, but he didn’t think he could take it with his full schedule of helping cast other shows that were trying to get off.

Usually casting directors stayed with the production they cast, but Speirs was a special case. He had an eye for talent and potential, but he wasn’t great on the people-managing side of things. Instead he met with the directors of a show to get an idea of what they were looking for, and he helped pick their cast. Then he moved on.

Carwood made an appreciative noise in his throat and made a note on his sheet. Speirs glanced at him, then up at the stage. As everyone had so far, this actor started with his upbeat song.

There was a nervous, but earnest look on his face, and he looked much younger than his resume said he was. Speirs took a closer look at the resume and the audition sheet and looked again at the actor onstage.

He had a lot of experience in a variety of roles and he was comfortable with this bouncy rock song that he delivered, in character.

And it wasn’t Hamilton.

He looked more and more in his element as the song went on. Speirs leaned forward to rest his elbows on the table and focused his attention on the stage.

He ended on a long, high note that Carwood seemed to approve of if his eyebrows and scribbling were anything to go by.

Carwood wrote everything down when he liked someone; every thought and note that came to mind. Sometimes, if he really liked a person, he didn’t look up at all. Speirs was the opposite. He took everything in—good or bad—and usually only noted minor details he wasn’t likely to remember and what his final decision was, in the interest of keeping things organized.

It had been like that from the beginning and seeing such a familiar thing was surprisingly comforting. No matter what happened, Speirs could rely on Carwood to stay constant. He always could.

Onstage, the actor took a breath and checked in with them, waiting for Carwood’s nod, before he started the accompaniment for his ballad.

His voice rang out above distinct drums, far more solid and powerful than before. Carwood’s head was bent and his pen didn’t stop. Speirs made eye contact with the actor—he supposed he was going to have to start thinking of him as Nate or Fick—and decisively slid his sheet to the right. There was no way for Fick to know what it meant, but something lit up in his eyes anyway.

When he finished, the smile on his face chased away any of the uncertainty in his eyes and he glowed. “Thank you,” he said breathlessly when Carwood finally looked up from his marked-up paper.

Speirs nodded at Fick and Carwood grinned back.

Fick turned to leave the stage and Carwood flipped the actor’s sheet to his right. He turned with a light shining in his eyes, and Speirs warmed at the sight.

“That’s our first ‘yes.’ And that’s exactly what we’re looking for,” Carwood said, excited, eyes fixed back on the stage. Happiness and certainty radiated off of him. He looked over to Speirs to be sure that he understood.

Speirs nodded and glanced at the stapled set of papers on his right side compared to the small pile on his left. He liked the contrast. It looked intimidating, especially since the actors didn’t know which side was which. “Hopefully it’s going to pick up after this.” 

Carwood certainly looked like he thought so.

The next actor came in, introduced himself, handed over his paperwork, and Speirs had a shred of hope. Then the opening notes of the upbeat song started and he had to resist the urge to let his head fall to the table. Instead he opted for a blank, stony expression.

Beside him, though he didn’t let it show in his posture or his expression, Carwood groaned softly and deflated. His pen stayed where it was.

“What time is it?” Speirs asked absently.

“3:30. And we’re here ‘til six.”

“Dammit.” He pushed the paperwork to his left and leaned back to get through another version of “Wait For It”.

It wasn’t just the lack of originality. Onstage, the actor failed to sell that he even felt what he was singing. He simply parroted the emotions that were already presented in the song. Even if it was horribly overused, Speirs had almost been persuaded to say yes when he felt like the actors tried to convince him.

If they couldn’t make him think that they belonged on his stage—his friends’ stage—they definitely couldn’t make him look past the fact that they couldn’t think further than the most popular musical on Broadway.

“Yes, thank you for coming in.” Carwood’s voice jarred Speirs into paying attention again. He nodded at the actor and the man walked out.

“And this is only the first day,” Carwood lamented when the door closed.

Speirs looked at the blank piece of paper in front of Carwood and the pile of them sitting to his left. He felt the same way, but he wanted to make it seem better because it looked like Carwood had really thought they’d get a cast in a day. Seeing Carwood disappointed and frustrated bothered him, even if it was justified.

“I wouldn’t worry. I’ve seen worse.”

Carwood looked over in disbelief, but there was hope in his face. “You’ve seen worse than this?” He gestured at the pile of rejections.

Speirs smiled a little. “A few months ago in Chicago. I was casting a show and I got through a day and a half before I got any people for callbacks. But when I started to get them, I got them all at once.” He didn’t mention that the cast wasn’t nearly as big or that it had taken so long because the directors had been very specific, almost picky, about what they wanted.

On the other hand, Dick trusted him. When Speirs had asked for guidelines, Dick had told him that he just wanted people who could execute the show he had in mind. Speirs had taken detailed notes when Dick had described the idea to him originally and he was pretty sure that he knew what he was looking for. But he wondered if maybe his standards were higher because of his friends.

“So maybe Fick’s the beginning of that,” he finished. Carwood nodded to himself and looked hopefully convinced.

The door to the stage opened again and they both turned toward the next actor that came in.

Within only a few seconds, Speirs had another paper on his left.

“So, music director?” he asked, leaning back in his chair, eyes skimming over the chandelier on the ceiling, “When did that happen?”

Carwood glanced over and simply looked at Speirs until he sighed and pushed his sheet to his left. He glanced up at the stage before he answered. When he did, he looked a little embarrassed.

“Remember when I was in the director program with the rest of you at that camp a couple years ago?  One of the supervisors picked me out and said that I would do well with music directing. I didn’t listen to her at first, but Dick convinced me to give it a try… so did you.”

Speirs lifted his eyebrows. He remembered that camp.

He’d met and gotten close to his four best friends—Dick, Nix, Harry, and Carwood —over years of workshops, shows, and a particular camp designed for people in theatre who wanted to move up from acting.

By the time they were all at this camp together, they were pretty close. Nix was on a different track of instruction because of his tendency to smuggle alcohol everywhere he went and the fact that he couldn’t stand all of the rules and formalities that directing required. They provided a framework that suited Speirs perfectly, but he was sometimes surprised that Dick could stand them.

“I mean, you didn’t help the same way Dick did, of course. He sat down and talked to me about it and ran through all of the pros and cons before he told me that he thought I would be good at it. It was after you’d left, to be honest.”

Speirs had himself been picked out by a supervisor who was in charge of the casting department of the camp. With that going on, he hadn’t had as much of a chance to see his other friends. That, and he’d left early to get in on a job on the other side of the country. Then it had been a few years of only seeing them occasionally in between casting gigs.

Until now.

“I don’t know, I was getting bored of the regular directing and I missed working closely with the actors, but I didn’t really think about moving out until you did it.”

“Nix?”

Carwood ducked his head smiled to himself, clearly remembering Nix being in the camp the way Speirs did. “I thought he was just a special case of not fitting it.”

Speirs looked at his friend and tilted his head to the side, considering. He’d always admired Carwood’s ear and his ability to bring people together. In any of their exercises, he’d always been the best person for rallying the actors.

“Well it seems to me like you’ve found the perfect fit.”

Carwood smiled at him and directed it up to the stage as the actor finished. “Yes, thank you.” He looked back at Speirs, eyes shining again, and Speirs couldn’t help returning it.

It was good to be back.

 

“Stop scowling. You’re making them nervous.”

“Maybe they should be nervous.” It was day two of casting and Fick was still the only person they’d accepted.

Carwood elbowed him. A flicker of doubt passed over his face though, and he turned his eyes away from the stage. “Maybe we’re being too picky. It was okay yesterday, but now we only have tomorrow left if we don’t get anyone today.”

Speirs sat forward and leveled a look at Carwood. “We’re not. We know what we’re looking for and it’s up to them to let us see they can measure up, if they don’t already have it. Trust me.” He did, after all, know what he was doing.

Carwood didn’t look sure and he silently searched Speirs’ face. He sat back eventually and looked back at the stage. Speirs frowned.

He kept his eyes fixed on Carwood and shifted over so their arms were pressed together. It didn’t take long for Carwood to look back at him. “We’re going to get it, Carwood.” He reached out for his copy of Fick’s paperwork. “Remember how we felt when he auditioned? How it felt like he was perfect and you could picture him in the show?” Carwood was looking at Speirs intently, focused on his face. “That’s what we’re waiting for. Dozens of people like that.”

Speirs realized that he was leaning into Carwood’s space then and moved away. “And we’ll get them.” He looked at the new paper that had topped the left-hand pile. “I know we will. I know what I’m doing.”

Carwood took a breath and searched Speirs’ face again. He nodded a little bit and he looked more sure the longer he nodded. When he made eye contact again, his were resolute. “You’re right. We’ll get them.” He tapped his pen against the table and looked back up at the now-empty stage. “In the meantime, you need to lighten up.”

“No. If they want a part, they’ll get over me watching them.”    

Carwood tried to be exasperated, Speirs could tell, but he was trying too hard to contain his smile. Speirs’ chest tightened at the sight. It occurred to him that the sparks he’d spent so much time fighting down might be resurfacing.

Another actor entered from stage right, but Speirs already wasn’t feeling it.

“You know, it’s good to have you back.” Carwood shifted closer and crossed his arms over his chest in a mirror of Speirs’ position. Their arms were brushing again. “It’s always been five of us. That’s how it’s supposed to be.”

Speirs looked at the side of Carwood’s face, unsure how to respond. All he knew was that it put him even more at ease than Carwood moving closer had, sparks and all.

"It’s good to be back,” he replied honestly. He’d missed all of his friends during his latest and longest stint away. On his first night back in the city, Speirs had met the other four here at the theater for a tour of the place and to catch up. And it felt good to be able to casually meet up with the other four again, whenever he wanted to—more than he’d expected it to.

He’d been a bit worried that he’d lost his ease with the others after so long. He wasn’t really a people-person after all. But his worry had been for nothing.

When he’d arrived, he’d been greeted warmly. Harry had hugged him, Nix had greeted him and smacked his shoulder, leaving his arm there, and Dick had smiled like all was right in the world. Carwood, though, had grinned and lit up when Speirs had arrived.

Speirs had fit right into place when he’d come back.

He looked over now and found Carwood looking at him with the same light expression. Really, there were worse ways to spend the next four frustrating hours.

 

Carwood was tapping his pen against the top of the table again. This time his mouth was tight and his eyes were worried and Speirs knew there wasn’t anything he could do about it. In some ways that was okay. When they got through it Carwood would be even better at spotting talent.

But it did occur to Speirs that the standards were high, and for no real reason but the fact that he wanted his friends to have the best cast to work with. He had no doubt in his mind that they could handle any cast, especially with Dick at the head of it, but that didn’t change the fact that they deserved better than any cast.

“I’m going to need to revisit my threat about hearing another Hamilton song,” Carwood muttered.  Onstage, another actor was finishing his upbeat song, another version of “You’ll Be Back”, and Speirs had no doubt in his mind that the ballad was going to be History Has Its Eyes on You or Wait for It.

He hummed in agreement and slid his pen out of his own reach just in case.

Carwood pushed his paperwork off to his left and turned to look at Speirs. “So how long are you staying in town after the casting’s over?”

Speirs sighed. “I’m not sure. Dick really wants me to come on as an assistant director, but I have some more work to do in Europe. I left it behind for this, but I don’t know if I can drop it completely.”

“You’d definitely be welcome with a cast this big.” They were sitting side by side again and Carwood was looking at him while his face was still turned to the stage and the actor who was still singing.

It wasn’t unusual, being this close to Carwood. When you entered the theatre life, you pretty much forfeited personal space, and they’d been in plenty of shows together. But it always felt different than when he was this close to Dick or Harry.

“Yes, thank you for coming in,” Carwood said warmly, attention once again on the stage. You’d almost think that he hadn’t pushed the paperwork to the left.

When the door closed and the stage was empty again, Carwood turned to him and the tone of his expression had changed. “Ron, I really think that we need to lighten up a little. We’re running out of time.”

Speirs surveyed the pile in front of him and compared it to Fick’s lonely resume and audition sheet. It pained him a little but, “You’re probably right.” Maybe Fick was an exception.

The door to stage right had opened and another actor entered. Speirs sized him up and decided that he didn’t hate him yet.

The actor looked nervous, a little more so than the others, but he walked to downstage center and introduced himself and was steady enough. Speirs was paying more attention to the paperwork that he’d been handed.

There wasn’t much experience listed and the biggest thing was a musical that had flopped in workshop before it even made it to previews. Speirs gritted his teeth and reminded himself that they were running out of time and they needed people who showed even a little promise. Musicals flopped all the time.

“I’m going to start with my ballad,” the actor said, stepping back into position. Speirs wondered for a moment why he cared, then he realized it was probably mostly for Carwood’s benefit. The actor was focused more on him after all. The friendly one.

Carwood nodded and the actor breathed out shakily. Speirs still wasn’t impressed.

The accompaniment started—soft guitar instead of upbeat piano—and Speirs’ opinion shifted a little. It was a deceptively simple song and Carwood had picked up his pen before the actor reached the first refrain. After that, there was a lot of writing, especially when it came to the build in the middle.

Speirs sat forward and paid closer attention to how the nervousness faded away and the actor became more mobile and steady.

When the song ended, the actor paused to take a breath and to check in. Carwood was still writing and a flash of panic passed over the actor’s face, but Speirs caught his attention and nodded for him to continue to his upbeat song.

There was no intro, the song just started on a burst of piano and the actor’s voice. He slipped directly into character—going from unsure to cocky and self-assured in an instant—and Speirs glanced down at the resume to find the name he didn’t catch earlier.

David Webster dove right into the song. It had similarities to the ballad, but as it progressed, Speirs understood why he wanted to do this one last. It displayed his strengths in an entirely different way and it was the more impressive of the two.

Beside him, Carwood hadn’t looked up throughout the entirety of the second song and the rate that he was writing had picked up.

Webster finished strong, on an abrupt piano burst just like he’d entered, and he looked back at their table, breathing hard. Carwood glanced up from the paper, pen still poised in writing position, to beam at Webster and the actor looked cheered.

Speirs nodded at him and said, “Thank you for coming in.”

Webster smiled at them. “Thanks for seeing me,” he said before he left through the door that all of the others had.

Carwood was back to writing and Speirs made a note on the top of Webster’s sheet before he put it on top of Fick’s.

To his right, Carwood did the same before he looked at Speirs with his eyebrows raised. Neither of them said anything about a possible change in fortune, but they were both thinking it.

On their left, the door opened again and a red-headed actor strode in.

And then everything started to come together finally and the piles to their rights gradually started to grow.

In a rush. All at once.


But it still wasn’t easy.    

“Okay, what about this one?” Lip picked up one of the paper-clipped bundles and showed it to Ron.

He squinted at it and shuffled through his middle pile, and Lip suppressed a sigh. There weren’t nearly as many resumes in his middle pile, just like there weren’t as many attached notes, but the people Ron was unsure about usually led to a long discussion.

They’d made it through the auditions, called back all of the people who’d made it into their accept piles—Nate Fick, David Webster, and everyone who’d come after him on the third audition day—and narrowed it down to here, where they had to actually decide who went where.

Ron found the resume he was looking for and focused on the picture for a second. “This is the one who used a female ballad.”

“Yes and he impressed me with it. Not just because he was willing to do it, but I thought he pulled off the accent really well and he was able to hit all of the notes. It was outside the box and it showed off what he could do. Plus I liked how he got into character with the song from Guys and Dolls.” Lip looked down at Ray Person’s picture and remembered how he’d come onstage with a grin and a bounce in his step. He also remembered being surprised when Ron had moved him to his accept pile.

“Besides, his reading during his callback was great,” Lip added when Ron hadn’t said anything.

“It was…but where would we put him?”

He did sigh now. This was where some of the struggle came in. The actors had read for specific parts when they’d come in for callbacks, but actually deciding who to put where was difficult. He glanced at the middle pile that Ron had pulled Ray from. “I’m assuming you don’t like him enough for a lead role.”

Ron sat back and crossed his arms. “I think there are better people, yes.”

Lip studied him and looked back at Ray’s headshot. “Let’s table this one for now then.”

The rush of people they’d gotten on the third day of auditions was a blessing and a curse. These actors had finally met or blown past the threshold for talent that he and Ron had set, and they’d finally been able to fill their ranks with people for callbacks. But there was a lot of talent sitting on the table in front of them, and it was almost impossible in some cases to sort them into roles.

Already, the “to be determined” fourth pile was growing.

“So who do we have?” There wasn’t immediately a response and Lip looked up to see Ron studying his face. He couldn’t tell what the other man was thinking and it concerned him a little because that wasn’t normal.

“I’ll be right back,” Ron said quickly before he ducked his head, stood up from the chair on Lip’s left, and ducked out of one of the theater doors. Lip watched him go, and it all happened before he could say anything.

He blinked a little before he looked back at the table, but first he looked at the time on his phone and was unsurprised to find that it was 8:17. It certainly felt like it had been four hours.

But they’d made some progress.

David Webster had one of the leads and he’d been one of the first that he and Ron had placed. There were only two roles that they’d really looked at for him, but they picked what they decided was the better one, and the other was still open.

Lip vividly remembered Webster’s surprising audition and how excited he’d been to finally find someone who felt as perfect as Nate Fick had.

They’d also cast Fick as a lead, and they had several chorus members and all of the minor roles.

But there were other problems that were unrelated to the casting. Lip, Dick, Nix, and Harry had all met with the two producers the other day—Mr. Sink and Mr. Ferrando, whom Nix referred to as Godfather.

Both seemed like good men, but they were pushing hard already. They were appointing costume and set designers and a choreographer of their own. And those people wouldn’t be meeting with Dick or any of the other directors before they started working. The producers seemed determined to have everything work the way they wanted it to.

Lip could appreciate that the producers were funding the show, especially because Dick seemed to roll with it, but it hadn’t escaped him how Harry’s jaw had tightened or how Nix’s politeness had become a little more forced than before.

The producers had mentioned that they would take care of tech, too, but that they were running into some trouble with finding people. Lip had noticed that each time they took something else out of Dick’s control, his mouth had gotten a little tighter. But the shine never left his eyes and he’d seemed genuinely grateful and polite.

Now Lip looked at the range of papers that were stretched out over the surface of the table and he knew that they would need extra help in managing such a large cast. And he knew that Ron would be perfect. There wasn’t anyone he wanted to do it more.

In the past few weeks of auditions and callbacks Lip had remembered how great it was to have Ron around. The five of them had all been out together several times and it felt better to have Ron filling in his role in their group. 

All of the old feelings were coming back, too, but Lip didn't mind that much. He'd always been able to live with them. It was worth it just to have Ron back. 

And he hoped he'd be able to convince him to stay on. Dick was okay, but Lip could tell he was already stressed about not knowing the people who would be in charge of different design elements of the show and the fact that the producers didn't have anyone in mind to run tech.

Maybe Ron was better at casting shows, but he was still a damn good director. Lip had good memories of the shows he, Dick, and Harry had directed together in those camps and workshops.

"Here." Ron was back and he handed him a bottle over the back of the seat. Lip reached up and took it as a reflex before he really registered what he was doing.

"What's this?" Ron climbed back into his seat with a bottle of his own.

"They're Nix's."

Lip studied the bottle of Vat and looked back at Ron. "We knew that he already had a stash, but how did you find it?”

Ron shrugged. "I know Nix."

"If I didn't know better I'd think that you look smug."

Ron smiled at that. "We need something for this," he said, gesturing at the table strewn with papers.

Lip looked back at it and grimaced. "Something like a miracle." But alcohol would maybe have to do. He glanced to his left and saw that Ron looked amused. “But we’ve got all the people we need at least,” he added. Ron looked even more amused at that.

“Alright, let’s get back to work.” Lip held up a resume that he knew had made it into both of their accept piles.

“Yes. I liked him. Another lead?”

Lip nodded, knowing exactly which part Ron had in mind. Brad Colbert’s songs had both been darkly intelligent and intense and Lip had known which part he should fill immediately. Ron studied the resume for another second before he slid the paper into the right spot in the lineup they had going. Lip noted the role on the top and placed his copy over Ron’s.

“So have you talked to Dick since Saturday?” he asked before taking a sip from his bottle. Whiskey wasn’t his favorite, but the Vat was smooth enough and it was all they had available.

Ron nodded. “Yeah, he told me about Sink and Godfather looking for people to run tech. That takes some of the work off of his shoulders at least.” He paused for a moment. “Though he told me that he’s not going to have a chance to meet with any of them.”

Lip shook his head. “I’m not sure what the producers are thinking. And I know Dick’s not really excited about having his vision in other people’s hands. Not that he would complain.”

“No of course not,” Ron said, smirking. “I think I’m going to stay though.”

“Really?” Lip turned in disbelief. “What about Europe?”

Ron shrugged and he didn’t look at Lip. “There are other casting directors. And what kind of person would I be if I left my best friends in their time of need? I want to stick with the four of you.” Ron looked at him then and there was an open shine in his eyes.

Lip smiled to himself, ignored the way his heart jumped, and looked back at the three piles sitting in front of him. The next resume on the top of his almost-empty accept pile brought back good memories, too. He’d sung old school Broadway, from A Chorus Line and Sweeney Todd, and Lip had been impressed by his depth of emotion.

“I liked his dedication to the performance,” Ron said, looking at the same resume.

“Yeah. That, and I think he complements Webster’s abilities really well. So I was thinking we should put him in the other role we were also considering for Webster, since the two interact a lot.”

Ron nodded, still looking at the resume. Then he lifted his eyes to meet Lip’s and the chest tightening happened again. “That’s a good choice. Let’s do it.”

Lip marked the name of the character and slid the sheet into place. Then he looked at the layout.

They’d done it. They’d filled up all of the leads—Webster, Colbert, Fick, and now Liebgott—and the minor roles, and the chorus was well on its way. Especially when they could decide that everyone else went there.

Lip looked at the arrangement in front of them and smiled. They had a cast. And Ron was maybe staying on as another assistant director. They had little control over anything else in the show, but they had a cast and the five of them were together again.

A bundle of other papers caught Lip’s eye then. “Alright, what about Person?” he asked, picking the stapled packet up and showing it to Ron. “We said we’d come back to him.”

Ron’s eyes flicked toward the resume, but they returned to Lip a moment later. His expression was soft and considering and his head was tipped to the side. “You decide.”

Lip’s eyebrows lifted and he studied Ron’s face for an explanation. Ron was the expert here and he wasn’t big on relinquishing control. It was a lot like letting people in, and he didn’t do that much either—though Carwood and the other three were usually exceptions.

But he only saw certainty in Ron’s expression and he paused.

For the past couple of weeks, as they’d all gotten used to having Ron with them again, Lip had become even more sharply aware of the way he felt. Or it all came back to him.

There had always been something different between the two of them. Something about the way it felt when they were around each other. And he was pretty sure the way Ron looked at him was different from the way he looked at the others.

So he decided to go out on a limb.

Ron’s hands went immediately to Lip’s waist and he tipped his chin up to meet Lip and to press upward.

And it felt like exhaling after holding his breath, or like sustaining one long note for a full four measures.

They parted for a breath and came back together an instant later. Lip’s hands wandered up to tangle in Ron’s thick, wavy hair and Ron made a noise in the back of his throat. Before he knew it, Lip was sitting on top of the table and Ron was pressing closer.

Lip couldn’t help smiling. At the way they fit together when they were close like this. At the soaring feeling in his chest. At the fact that Ron apparently felt the same way. At the fact that this was happening at all.

The sound of paper tumbling to the floor finally broke them apart.

They both looked over the edge of the table at the papers fanned out on the floor and sighed. Lip turned back around and Ron gave him an apologetic look before he went around the table to start collecting resumes. Lip got off the table and did the same.

But as they crouched on the floor together, Lip caught Ron’s eye and flashed a smile. To his delight, Ron smiled cautiously back.

When they had all of the resumes and audition sheets back in their proper places, Ron leaned against the table and leveled a look at him. “So what did you decide?”

Lip turned back to the table to relocate Ray’s resume and turned with it in his hands. “He’s going in. We need more people in the chorus and we can’t just leave his talent out.”

Ron looked at the resume, considering, before he finally nodded. “You’re right. We can add him to the group of understudies as well.”

That gave them enough understudies then. Lip grinned and put Ray in the spot where the others resided and stepped back to look at the whole layout. It looked like a full cast and he couldn’t help feeling proud—like a new father. This show that he’d been working on with Dick and the others for months now, after tracking down producers and brainstorming exactly how they wanted this musical to look, felt like it was finally becoming real.

And now it had faces and they were another step closer.

Lip was aware that Ron was still looking at him. “What are you thinking?” he asked, looking back.

Ron’s expression was still soft and Lip didn’t think he was aware of the little smile on his face. “You look happy,” he said simply. “And I’m going to enjoy staying here to work with you and the others.”

Lip ducked his head, hiding the smile that slipped onto his face. Ron came closer and put a hand on his shoulder and Lip looked at him reflexively. They were almost exactly the same height, which made a lot of things easier.

“I’m really glad you’re staying.” That shine was in Ron’s eyes again as he looked back and Lip leaned in to kiss him again. The hand on his shoulder tightened a little as Ron pressed forward and returned it.

“Are you sure?” he asked when Lip drew away. There was a look of genuine doubt on his face and Lip frowned.

"What do you mean? Of course I am. I’ve been sure about this for years.” He didn’t know what words to use to convince Ron, so he hoped his expression did the work for him.

Ron’s eyes searched his face and his doubt faded away as the confidence from earlier returned. He swept his gaze over their new cast before he returned it to Lip. “I can’t wait to get started.”

 

Dick looked through the folder and stopped on each page to skim over Lip’s notes before he moved on. Beside him, Nix looked on but with less focus. “This is the whole thing?” He glanced up at Ron and Lip to get the answer.

“Yep. Here they are,” Ron said. He looked proud and certain and Lip smiled.

“The best of the best,” he added. And it was true.

“And you’ve contacted all of them?” Dick asked, glancing over the top of the folder. He looked happy, but like he was waiting to really feel it.

“We have. We’ve reached most of them, but we left a few messages and we’ll call back if we don’t get a response. Everyone’s accepted so far,” Lip reported. All of the actors had been as excited as he and his friends were and it made Lip even more sure about them.

“What do you think, Harry?” Ron asked suspiciously. Harry hadn’t said anything yet and he’d been looking between Lip and Ron for a while. Whenever they looked up, the other two did the same thing.

Harry’s expression eased and he beamed. “Oh I think it’s all great. You two did outstanding work and I can’t wait to get started.” Somehow Ron looked even more suspicious.

Dick and Nix were looking now, too. Dick was smirking and there was a gleam in his eye, but he didn’t say anything. It was Nix, who looked even more amused, that did.

“The two of you really aren’t subtle,” he said matter-of-factly.

Harry outright laughed. “God, you really aren’t.”

“What are you talking about?” Lip asked, with a hint of hope. At his side, Ron was stone faced and trying to stare holes into their friends. 

“Oh please, it’s so obvious that the two of you finally got your shit together,” Nix said, laughing with Harry.

Dick finally took pity and chimed in, “But we’re happy for the two of you.” His eyes were sparkling in amusement and Lip could tell that he was trying not to laugh, too. “It is about time, don’t you think?”

Ron directed his narrowed eyes at Dick then. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes you do, Sparky,” Nix said, slinging an arm around his shoulder and ignoring the bristling. Ron wasn’t really upset, only embarrassed, but Lip squeezed his arm anyway.

“You two have been staring at each other since the second week we were all together,” Harry told them, patting Lip on the back. Lip looked at Dick for help again.

“They’re not wrong,” Dick said, shrugging unhelpfully, “and you know it.” Lip sighed, but realized that they all had a point. He’d been fascinated by Ron since the day he’d met him, and it had never gone away.

At least no one was surprised.

“And we really are glad you two finally worked it out,” Harry told them, sobering and dropping the teasing. Nix nodded, arm still around Ron’s shoulder. Dick was still wearing his supportive smile and Lip felt relieved.

“Thank you. We appreciate it,” he said, smiling. He accepted the hug from Harry and Dick’s affectionate look.

“But don’t think this gets you off the hook for the liquor you stole,” Nix piped up, eyes focused and laser-sharp. “Yes, I noticed,” he said in reply to the look that Lip shot to Ron. For his part, Ron didn’t look concerned.

Dick gave Nix an exasperated eyeroll and they had a short, silent conversation. Dick changed the subject with a shake of his head and held up the cast folder.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “we’re on our way.” There was a grin on his face and a shine in his eyes and Nix detached from Ron to stand beside Dick again. Everyone was smiling.

Lip looked at the other four and imagined all of the faces that were in the folder. He pictured working with his four best friends again and the musical coming together around them. He looked at Ron and saw the same thoughts reflected back at him.

And, Lip thought, everything was alright. 

Chapter Text

“Hey!”

“You asshole, I didn’t know you were gonna be here!”

“Christ, how long has it been anyway?”

The theater was full of the sounds of people being reunited and the din was a little dizzying. Especially when it was paired with the disorienting view of the auditorium from the stage.

David looked out over the thousands of seats that climbed the wall as they stretched back, and he tried to imagine what it might look like when they were filled. He tipped his head up as he followed the seats up to the crystal chandelier on the ceiling. It particularly held his attention.

It drove home the fact this was happening. It was happening to him.

David didn’t have anyone to greet, but watching the reunions was nice, too. He was standing out of the way on stage right and he watched a red head—he thought he’d heard someone call him Malarkey earlier—and another guy with brown hair—who he’d heard called Skip—light up and hug when they saw each other.

There was a lot of that too.

“Do my eyes deceive me? Colbert! Get over here, you giant Hebrew bastard!” someone called from somewhere closer to the center of the stage. David followed the sound to a guy with dark hair and dark eyes, who was looking toward the stage door and the tall, blond man who’d walked through it.

David had met Brad Colbert a little over a week ago when the four leads had gotten together to do table reads. So the last thing he’d expected was to see Brad smile when he saw the shorter man barrel toward him. Or to see him hug the guy.

When the hug neared five seconds though, he rumbled, “Get off of me, Person.”

“Fuck no. I haven’t seen you in two years,” Person responded, tightening his arms.

“Ray… you have three seconds to get your white-trash, mouth-breathing person away from mine.” His tone was a little darker now.

“You always say the cutest things, Brad.”

David didn’t see how they resolved the conflict because another man came through the door behind him.

“Nate!” he exclaimed happily.

Nate looked up and brightened. “Hey David.”       

When they’d met, Nate and David had hit it off instantly. It had started when the four leads were given an improv icebreaker game during their first table read before Mr. Winters showed up.

The game was to tell a story word by word, moving around the group to whoever had the next word. And it started the way it always did.

“Once.”

“Upon.”

“A.”

But Nate had cut in, changing it up with, “Midnight.”

Instantly, David had added, “Dreary.”

After that, it had mostly been the two of them who’d gone back and forth, reciting the whole poem between them. Brad had cut in with a word every now and again throughout, but the fourth had simply sat back and watched.

When Mr. Winters had gotten there, they’d introduced themselves around the table before getting to work and David had learned that Nate had studied classics in college. Afterward, they’d talked and bonded over that.

Now, Nate was here again, and David felt a little less like he was adrift.

Nate watched the exchange between Brad and Ray with an amused smirk on his face. He knew Brad from a previous show, and the two had done a lot of catching up during the table reads. The expression on his face suggested he might know Ray as well.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s been two years,” he shook his head fondly and cast David a look. “Especially not between the two of them.”

“They’re always like this?” David asked, looking to where they were standing. The hug had ended and now Ray was jabbering at Brad while the other actor just listened.

“This and more. Just wait,” Nate replied.

The doors had stopped opening and closing and even though there was no sign of the directors yet, David guessed all the actors had shown up by now.

“Don’t worry everyone! We’ve got our Jew, so we’re all good!” Ray announced, his eyes shining almost as much as his smile. Brad looked put-upon.

“Don’t start in on the Monty Python. Please.” But his protest went unheard and people started singing the song.

“Two! We can’t lose!” Malarkey cheered back. Beside him, smirking, was the other Jew, Joseph Liebgott.

David’s heart sank as Liebgott caught him looking and sneered.

Liebgott was the fourth lead and the one David had to work with the most in the show. And somehow he’d made the other actor hate him before he’d even introduced himself.

David had thought it was because he’d been left out of the icebreaker, but Liebgott hadn’t seemed too upset. And he got along fine with Brad and Nate, so David didn’t understand why he was different. He also seemed to know and get along with everyone else,  if the group around him was any indication.

But Liebgott was always watching David with his brown eyes and a dark look and David really didn’t know what he’d done to deserve it.

The directors showed up before David could think about him anymore. The stage fell relatively quiet—because groups of actors could never quite shut up completely—and all of the room’s attention was focused on the five men downstage.

They were all talking to each other, but Mr. Speirs stepped forward to address the company. “We’re going to take a roll call, but after today be here a minimum of fifteen minutes before the scheduled rehearsal time.” He didn’t add a consequence. Instead it was left out there for them to fill in the blank as they wished.

David didn’t plan on testing it. He’d finally landed a part—a big part—and the idea of having to face Mr. Speirs was terrifying. He’d already done it once and everyone else seemed to agree that was enough.

Mr. Speirs must have reached the same conclusion because he turned his eyes back to his clipboard and started calling names.

David paid attention and followed every name to its answering face and tried to remember them all. The other directors did the same thing. He liked Winters so far and Mr. Lipton had been a comforting presence during the auditions. He’d only met Mr. Welsh and Mr. Nixon once on the first day and they hadn’t stuck around for long.

“And Webster.”

David was jolted out of his thoughts and said, “Here.”

Speirs glanced at Winters then and the lead director stepped forward, eyes skimming over the company. “Alright gentlemen. It’s good to see all of you here—” From behind him, Nixon coughed and Winters turned around to shoot him a look. But the expression on Nixon’s face seemed to stop him and a whole conversation passed silently between them.

The other directors were also looking at each other and David noticed several of the actors doing it too. The whole theater was wrapped up in uncertainty, so it seemed like everyone jumped when the doors from the mezzanine opened and a group of men came down the aisle.

None of the directors looked surprised and Winters turned to face the company. “But before we get started today, the producers and designers for the show would like to introduce themselves before the show gets underway, just so you know who they are.”

The men had reached the stage and they stood alongside the directors, but they didn’t quite look like they belonged there. Two of them stepped forward so they were on Winters’ plane and Winters nodded at them. He fell back into line with the other directors and kept his eyes on the two. David’s gaze slid over to them as well.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” the first one said, eyes running coolly over the assembly in front of him, “I’m Mr. Sink. My colleague, Mr. Ferrando, and I are your producers.”

Mr. Ferrando nodded and leveled a hard look over the company. “We’ve been assured that this company is the best of the best and I sure hope those reports are correct.” A dark look passed over Mr. Speirs’ face, then it cleared away. “All you have to worry about is doing your job and living up to that promise. We’re going to take care of everything else.”

David startled when he heard the man’s voice and he felt some of the other actors around him do the same. He wasn’t sure if he was the only one who picked up on the tension, though, or the way some of the directors looked at this crew of producers and designers, like they were waiting for a shoe to drop.

“Now, the designers and managers are going to be working closely with you and some of you might not be used to that,” Mr. Sink said.

“But part of the success of this show hinges on how well everyone works together,” Mr. Ferrando finished.

Obligingly, David paid attention to the introductions. There was the choreographer and the choreography manager, Mr. Dike and Schwetje respectively. Then Mr. Griego, who was in charge of the props, Mr. Sixta who was the costume designer and manager, Mr. Patterson and Wynn who were general managers, and Mr. Sobel, who was in charge of designing the set and getting it built.

When the introductions were over, the producers directed their attention back to the company. “Thank you gentlemen. Remember, everyone has a part in our success here and it’s going to take all of your dedication.”

 Mr. Sink and Ferrando turned to look at Winters again and nodded, giving the stage back to him. Winters came forward and everyone’s attention slid back to him automatically. “Alright, men, let’s get to work.”

 

They’d been working for about two months now and rehearsals were demanding and exhausting and more often than not, completely frustrating.

David got to spend hours every evening being on the stage and working with the best cast he’d ever been a part of, but he was still waiting for it to be fun.

Winters was a fantastic director and David was a little in awe over how much he was learning under his direction. He was the only director working closely with the leads for now, and he directed the company at large, but David had seen and heard good things about Welsh and Mr. Speirs as well.

But they hadn’t been working as much on scenes lately because the higher-ups wanted to take care of the choreography. When the order had come down a week ago, delivered by Nixon, David had happened to see Winters take in the news with pursed lips and a nod, even though he’d just handed out a schedule for the scenes he was going to have the company cover.

They were doing the large-group choreography now for one of the big chorus numbers and Nate was at the front leading it. He’d been appointed the dance captain—the person in charge of choreography when the choreographer was gone—and he was already being called on for service.

Mr. Dike hadn’t shown up yet and after waiting—and falling behind schedule—for about a half hour, Winters had told Nate to get up and lead a group.

Nate had agreed, but he hadn’t looked sure about it.

Mr. Dike had only worked with them on the number for a day, and David had no idea how Nate remembered half of what he had people running through. Mr. Dike had broken them into groups and broken the dance down and he’d worked with them all day, but David had only personally been through it twice.

“Hey Harvard, come on.”

The tone was impatient and David sighed. In the past two months he’d found out how he’d offended Liebgott. He stood up and turned to face him. “That’s not my name, you know.”

Liebgott smiled like this was how he got his fun. “Shouldn’t respond to it then, College Boy.”

“It’s not my fault I’ve been to college,” David said. He hated College Boy just a little bit more than Harvard.

“Sure, those applications just filled themselves out and the tuition fees were paid by your fairy godmother.”

“Where are we going?” David snapped. They were headed backstage and Liebgott seemed to know.

“Winters wants the group of us to work on some scenes while everyone else is doing the dancing.”

“But Nate’s the one out there leading it.”

Liebgott shot him an unamused look. “They’re scenes he’s not in. Jesus, Ivy League.”

David scowled back at him and didn’t reply. It wouldn’t make a difference. He wasn’t going to win anything in this fight. So they continued walking back to wherever in silence.

There had been a fifteen-minute break in rehearsals during the first week, and the whole cast had been sitting around on the stage, drinking water and talking. David and Nate had been trading stories about school and David had been going on about one of his terrible lit professors.

“Christ, I’m getting a rash from all this privilege,” Liebgott had sneered as he walked past them. It was the first thing he’d said to David since the first day of table reads and outside of their lines.

David had been too shocked to say anything right away. But that had quickly given way to anger. “No one asked you!” he’d called to Liebgott’s back. It wasn’t the wittiest comeback, but it was true and good enough for short notice.

He’d looked back at Nate, who’d watched in silence. “I’m not getting into that,” Nate had said, pointing vaguely. “I don’t have a problem with him. You’re going to have to figure it out for yourself.”

David hadn’t expected much more than that. Nate didn’t meddle in personal stuff. Instead he opted to let other people sort it out for themselves. He’d seen him do it with both Brad and Ray.

But it was frustrating. He was the only person who Liebgott had a problem with. Everyone else got along with him just fine. So David had opted for ignoring the other actor as much as he could and Liebgott seemed to be happy with the arrangement because he reciprocated.

The back area of the theater was huge and they passed the costume workshop and the area where the stage hands were collecting props. David didn’t see them now, but there were only pieces of things scattered around instead of any actual props.

“Where are we going?” he asked then. He couldn’t think of any reason they’d have to go back this far.

“Calm down. We’re almost there,” Liebgott replied. He glanced back at David and added, “Winters wanted to do this where we couldn’t be interrupted.” His tone on the last word was dark.

David nodded. That, unfortunately, made sense.

They came to a set of stairs then and climbed up to a loft that looked like it was used for storage and those moments in shows when a character had to be above the rest of the stage. David glanced over the edge and found himself looking down on a formation he’d forgotten.

Winters and Lipton were sitting on the other side of the space amid a stack of boxes and what looked like old sheets. David looked around and took a deep breath of dust. It definitely wasn’t the kind of place for rehearsing, but it would be hard for anyone to find them, so he supposed it worked.

Brad came up quietly behind them and took in the space with a look of distaste on his face.

“Is there a problem, Mr. Colbert?” Winters asked mildly.

The expression on Brad’s face didn’t change, but he looked back at Winters and met his eyes without any remorse. “No sir. Just taking in what we’ve been reduced to because of the team our producers brought in.”

Winters looked back, expression also unchanged. “Not at all. We’re just staying out of the way of the practice going on downstairs.”

It wasn’t the admonition David expected. Instead Winters and Brad were looking at each other like they were having a different conversation.

Brad nodded and said, “Of course, sir.” Lipton looked on with a similar weary expression.

“Let’s get started then, shall we?” Winters asked. It was more of an invitation than a question and in response David and the other two took seats on available boxes. Winters had already returned his eyes to his version of the book and said, without looking at them, “Let’s start on page 40 with Webster’s line at the top and we’ll go through the scene up to and through the song.”

Winters didn’t even have to look up for David and the other two to flip through their scripts to the right page.

“Everyone ready?” Winters asked when the rifling had stopped.

“Yep.”

“Alright then. Let’s get started.”

 

The dust really was terrible and David quietly thanked God when they were dismissed and he got to climb down from the loft.

“Good work. I’m happy with what we got done,” Winters told them with a smile when everyone was at the foot of the stairs. There was a thin layer of dust on his shirt, and behind him, Lipton was running his hand over his hair. “Take a break for now and we’ll do some ensemble pieces in,” Winters glanced at his watch, “a half hour.”

David, Brad, and Liebgott nodded and the two directors left. Brad and Liebgott started walking back toward the stage and David followed slightly behind, taking a moment to marvel at how different they were now that they weren’t acting.

Neither broadcast much to the world other than annoyance and disinterest, so it would be hard to guess how dynamic they could be just by looking at them.

But Brad had a quiet competence in the way he held himself onstage. He delivered his lines and sang with such steady confidence it was like he’d been born to do it.

And Liebgott took David by surprise every time. He couldn’t look away when he watched the other actor work. He lost himself in the music or the lines and became someone David didn’t recognize as the asshole who wouldn’t stop harassing him. A whole new person really. His eyes lit up and his whole demeanor lightened and David couldn’t help but be fascinated and drawn in.

It was really too bad it ever had to end and things had to go back to normal. David kind of liked not fighting with Liebgott, playing with the chemistry between their two characters instead.

 When they walked back into the light of the stage, David was able to draw parallel with them before they all broke away from each other. Unsurprisingly, Liebgott went the other direction, toward where the rest of the cast sat in a large group. Nate was sitting with Ray and talking on the edge of the group, so Brad beelined for them, and they looked up to greet him as he approached. David returned to the little area he’d set up for himself off to the side.

He got along with Brad and Ray, but he didn’t want to intrude. The three knew each other from a previous show, so David didn’t want to get in the way of their conversation. They were always welcoming, but Nate was his own person and David could manage being alone.

Besides, off to the side wasn’t really far away from the group. The stage wasn’t nearly big enough to hold all of them and leave a lot of space.

It was why he could hear it when Talbert said, “I don’t know, guys. I don’t think there’s actually a way to keep him from yelling.”

“It’s because his rules are fucking stupid and he has so many that you couldn’t keep track of them even if they did make sense,” Guarnere said.

“The guy’s just an asshole. That’s how he is and what he does. No avoiding it,” Kocher told them with a shrug. He took a swig from his bottle of water and everyone mumbled in agreement. David wasn’t sure who they were talking about, but he had an idea.

“And then what the hell’s the deal with Dike?” Skip asked.         

“He never did show up, and there’s no way Winters is going to let him come in and do anything now. It’s way too late,” Malarkey said.

“I heard the directors aren’t too happy with him anyway, but after this who knows what they’re going to do,” Garza said.

“Maybe they’ll sic Speirs on him,” Toye suggested, looking pleased about the idea.

Everyone laughed, but David noticed they also looked around before they really let it go.

“Don’t know what we’ll do after that, then,” Babe said.

“Don’t matter for you, though, does it, understudy?” Guarnere asked. Babe glared and shoved him hard enough for the drink in Guarnere’s hand to tip onto his shirt. “You little shit,” he growled.

“But Babe’s got a point,” Julian chimed in before Guarnere could retaliate.

“Don’t you go takin’ his side,” Guarnere turned his growl to the other actor. But from his other side, Babe cheered.

“Yeah I fucking do.”

“He does. What happens if Dike never comes back?” Perconte asked, returning them to the point.

“I’ll tell you what happens, gents, fucking Encino Man takes over and our lives go to utter shit,” Ray replied, raising his voice so he was addressing the whole group.

“Oh yeah? What makes you say that?” Malarkey asked.

“Are you kidding me? That dumb fuck couldn’t read the notes in the book, let alone direct an entire goddamn company,” Ray scoffed. “I don’t even think that Neanderthal can dance. Just imagine him doing anything the rest of us have to do.

“But the worst thing about him is that the asshole doesn’t even know how fucking stupid he is, so he’d think that he could do it and that he was doing it and that he was doing it well. And that’s where the rest of us get fucked because we have to put up with him and his bullshit. And the whole time, he’ll think that the hell he puts us through is a fucking good job.” He was worked up to the point that David wondered if a full rant was to come.

Everyone else looked back at Ray in a sort of stunned silence.

“Ray, did you forget to take your Adderall again this morning?” Brad asked mildly, though he didn’t look away from his sandwich.

“You fucking know I’m right, Brad. So does Nate. So as scatter-brained, fucked up as Dike is, we’d better pray he comes back,” Ray retorted.

“Okay, but how do you know?” Perconte asked.

“Because Person here is only a mere understudy, he has a lot of time on his hands to devote his insect-like attention span to stalking the people he fixates on,” Brad replied casually, still eating his sandwich.

“Fuck you, Colbert,” Ray said, but it was good-natured and his tone was calmer. “Listen, when he was here the other day I saw the dumb motherfucker trying to read the theater map in the mezz. And I’ve never before seen such a display of utter stupidity. So, like a scientist, I kept tabs on him. Have you ever heard the fuckup try to form a sentence? Because I have. Several times. And I swear I lost IQ points every time.”

“What IQ points?” Walt asked brightly, joining the group with his characteristic smile. Ray squawked and glared at him.

Brad grinned. “Honestly Ray, you need to be more careful. You can’t spare too many more of those.”

Ray sighed. “Fine, you know what? I’ve been beaten and betrayed and I know when to let it go. But mark my words. Having fucking Encino Man in charge of anything more than walking from point A to point B is going to end badly for everyone involved.”

Despite all of the taunting, Brad’s expression was serious as he looked at Ray and David couldn’t help but think Brad agreed.

It was then that the directors and the stage manager showed up. If they’d heard any of what the cast had been talking about, David couldn’t tell.

“Okay guys, it’s getting late so we’re going to let you go soon, but first we’re going to run through the ensemble confrontation scene at the top of Act II,” Welsh said.

“After that you can all go and we’ll start tomorrow at the same time,” Winters told them.

“And remember we’re doing all-day rehearsals this weekend,” Mr. Speirs announced. Everyone nodded and started to put their things away.

Winters let them go and when everyone was back he smiled. It looked genuine. “Alright then, places everyone.”

 

Friday’s rehearsal didn’t seem like it was going to go better.

It started just fine and because there weren’t plans to do anything else, they were actually running scenes now. They did their warmups and then they started with a few of the big ensemble scenes.

But while they were working, David noticed Winters was watching the doors and that Nixon wasn’t around like he normally was, sticking by Winters’ side and watching the rehearsals. Welsh, Lipton, and Mr. Speirs also seemed to be on edge and David was sure he wasn’t the only one who noticed how they occasionally grouped together, ducking their heads toward each other and talking for a few minutes at a time, looking to be deep in discussion. He saw a lot of his cast mates’ gazes flicker over and away again.

But even with whatever was distracting them, none of the directors let it get in the way of what the actors were doing. There was never a lull and one or more of the directors was always paying attention to what was happening. Even when Winters was watching the door, David got the impression that he knew exactly what was going on onstage.

David couldn’t pay too much attention to them though because today they were all being fitted and measured for costumes, and he wasn’t looking forward to meeting the costume designer.

Sixta was taking actors one at a time, starting with chorus members. Since they filled in a lot of background parts, there was slightly more variation in their costumes and there were more of them to account for. David wasn’t expected to get in until later in the rehearsal, but he caught the expressions and the muttering of his cast mates when they came back.

In fact, now they were taking a break, it was all any of them could talk about.

“See? I told you. All he does is yell,” Talbert said when Malarkey finished ranting about how he’d tried on two different costumes and been yelled at when neither of them fit correctly.

“But it ain’t my fault nothing he tried fit! Why the hell was he yelling at me?”

“Kocher hit it on the head when he said Sixta’s just an asshole. There’s no reasoning with that,” Skip replied.

“But you wanna know the stupidest thing?” Espera asked from where he was sitting by Guarnere and Walt. “I saw his ‘designs’ and they’re hardly even half-finished.”

“And what he does have is fucking hideous. I’m not putting on an eggplant colored waistcoat. Fuck that shit,” Toye said.

“I can’t imagine Winters is going to be too excited about it when he finds out,” Perconte said, shaking his head.

“It’s too bad he didn’t get a say in it,” Liebgott agreed. Everyone murmured in response, echoing the sentiment.

Brad’s eyes were on the cluster of directors when he said, “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”

David smiled to himself and noticed Nate perk up a little. From near Brad, Ray rolled his eyes and muttered something that sounded like “fucking Shakespeare fetishist.” But it was David who caught Liebgott’s attention and who got a sneer and a headshake.

His anger flared and before he could stop himself he called, “What’s your problem?”

Everyone’s attention snapped over to him and David felt his ears flush, but he kept his eyes on Liebgott’s.

“What makes you think I have a problem?” he drawled.

“Maybe the fact that you won’t leave me the fuck alone,” David shot back. Beside him, he felt Nate watching closely.

Liebgott smirked and it set off a mean glint in his narrowed eyes. “If I had a problem with you, I wouldn’t be telling you with words, Harvard. Maybe you’re an over-sensitive, spoiled rich kid, but I don’t have a problem with you.”

“Then why pick fights?” That was the crux of it—all he wanted to know. Why was it always David?

Liebgott’s eyes glittered in dark amusement and he cracked his knuckles. “Oh, you want a fight then?”

“Stop. Both of you.” Nate said firmly. He had a hand on David’s shoulder—David hadn’t even realized that he’d leaned toward Liebgott—and his face was hard as he looked back and forth between David and the other actor. “This is stupid. We don’t need fights when there’s plenty of other stuff to worry about.”

David met Nate’s eyes and knew he was right. But he glanced over at Liebgott and couldn’t ignore the way the other actor was still glaring at him.

It wasn’t until the door opened on stage right and the directors came back in that the tension broke. Without anyone having to say anything, all of the actors picked themselves up and retrieved their scripts. As he passed, Ray patted David on the back and some of the other actors nodded at him.

 

It was late when Sixta finally did the leads. Brad had gone in first and Nate’s expression had perfectly mirrored the anxiety David felt. When he’d come back, there was a remote, stony look on Brad’s face and he wouldn’t even talk to Nate about the designs. All he did was shake his head and come up with increasingly creative ways to describe them.

David went next. There was a pit in his stomach and he hoped against all hope everything would fit him and he’d be able to keep his reactions to the designs under control. He really wasn’t good at being yelled at. He knew from experience.

But he shouldn’t have worried. Sixta was gruff and as friendly as Mr. Speirs, but he hadn’t raised his voice once. Of course, it had more to do with the fact that he didn’t have much for David to try on beyond a hat and a coat. David had even snuck a glance at the papers scattered over the main table in the room and discovered the design for his character wasn’t finished. None of the leads were.

Objectively, David realized it wasn’t a good thing, but he couldn’t care too much because he was too relieved that all Sixta had done was take his measurements. The meeting was over before David could really adjust to the absence of yelling.

He was sent back out to the stage, where he found Casey Kasem ranting to Mr. Speirs about wanting to meet with Winters. And because of that, the actors who’d been rehearsing only a few minutes before were standing around, watching. It was normal enough by now that they weren’t surprised when rehearsals were interrupted. The only novelty was who was interrupting and why.

David also caught sight of Gene, Bryan and Spina, the stagehands, standing off to the side and glaring. Mr. Speirs didn’t look thrilled either.

“What is it this time?” David asked Nate, who was watching with a steady, blank expression that meant he was pissed. It was a sentiment echoed by the whole group. Uniting them.

“He’s accusing them of stealing props or going behind his back or something. Something to explain why we don’t have any,” he replied, voice low and heated. He crossed his arms over his chest and glared for a few more moments before he looked at David. “How did it go with Sixta?”

“Not that bad. He doesn’t have anything ready for me, and my design for my main costume is only half finished. He just took my measurements. The most he has done is Brad’s stuff and all of Brad’s descriptions are spot on.”

Nate grimaced. “Great. I think I’m up next.”

“Good luck.”

“Yeah. Hopefully I don’t need it.” Nate spared one last glance at the conflict downstage before he turned and walked toward the costume shop. Now Lipton had joined. He stood beside Mr. Speirs so they formed a united front, and listened to Casey Kasem. It was more heated than David had ever seen it.

As soon as Nate was gone, Liebgott took his place. “What happened with Sixta?”

“Why are you asking me?” David asked back. He was too distracted to soften his tone and it came out harsher than he meant it.

Liebgott scowled, “Colbert’s not talking. Just shaking his head.”

Something about the argument changed and David waved Liebgott off a little. Casey Kasem was red-faced, but Mr. Speirs shook his head and Lipton gestured out toward the mezz. He couldn’t tell what was being said, but it was going downhill.

A few moments later, the three finally walked away. Lipton called back to the actors, “You can leave if you’re done. Otherwise finish up and you can go.” Then he followed Mr. Speirs and the prop master through the door.

When it closed behind them, the actors were alone in tense silence.

“Hey,” Liebgott demanded, grabbing David’s shoulder and turning him back around so they were facing each other.

David shook his hand off, but replied. “I don’t know what he has for you, but there’s probably not much. He really doesn’t have any for us done.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Liebgott was gaping at him, but his disbelief wasn’t directed at David. Instead, it was like they were on the same side.

David just shrugged and Liebgott sighed in annoyance and looked toward the back. “Great.”

“Sorry, that’s all I know.” Liebgott waved him off, it wasn’t a problem.

And with that, David slung his backpack over his shoulder. He didn’t have anything else to do: Nate was busy, Brad wasn’t being social even though Ray was trying, and David was getting along with Liebgott for once.

It was a good place to call it a night.

“See ya, Web!” Ray called after him as he reached the stage door. He was sitting in a group of other actors and Brad looked disgruntled next to him, but not like he was there against his will. Malarkey, Skip, and Penkala were at the head of the group, explaining their game to the people who hadn’t played before.

 David took it all in before he met Ray’s eyes and waved back, smiling a little.

 

“What do you mean you can’t get ahold of Dike?” Winters hissed. David wasn’t an expert, but he couldn’t help but think that Winters sounded slightly panicked. It only showed on his face in the widening of his eyes, but his tone sounded like he was asking for clarification about news of his apartment being on fire. And there was an unmistakable tightness in his posture as he leaned closer to Nixon.

“I mean that I’ve called him probably a dozen times at both numbers and I haven’t heard anything back,” Nixon said. He was much calmer about it, like this wasn’t new to him.

Winters straightened up and put his hands on his hips as he let out a slow breath, eyes cast vaguely toward the chandelier on the ceiling. He wiped a hand over his face before he turned to the company. His eyes raked over the group until he found who he was looking for. “Fick!” he called. Instantly, Nate’s head snapped up and Winters jerked his head to the side to gesture him over. Nixon motioned for the other directors to join them.

David watched Nate walk over to the directors with a sinking feeling in his gut. He noticed Brad was also watching and his face was set in the way it did when he didn’t like what was happening. In fact, all of the actors were paying some kind of attention.

Welsh noticed because he leaned toward the other directors and said something before he approached the company and said, “Alright guys, come with me. We’re going to warm up and go over some scenes.” He glanced back at the directors as he made his way through the company and led the way backstage. All David could do was look at Nate and offer what he hoped was a supportive smile.

 

The company rehearsed group scenes with Welsh for almost 45 minutes before Nixon came back to get them. He spoke quietly with Welsh for a moment before he told the group that the goal for the day was to get as much done as they could to make up for lost time.

Nate was standing on the stage near the directors when David and the rest of the company came back out and his mouth was set in a straight line. He came over and his eyes were clouded over with uncertainty.

Brad looked at him in concern and they made eye contact. “I’m assured that they’re going to bring in another choreographer,” he said hollowly to whatever question Brad’s eyes had asked. “I’m assured of this.” He nodded sharply, setting the issue to rest. Brad’s expression smoothed out, though he cast one last careful glance at Nate. David gave his friend a small smile.

“Men!” Winters called out. Instantly, he had the company’s attention and his gaze glided over them steadily before he continued, “We’re splitting up and going through scenes in Act I. We don’t have any set designs completed, so we’re only going to use the basic blocking for the scenes we’ve been through before.”

Everyone nodded and pulled out their scripts.

The show started with David and Liebgott’s characters meeting up and having a tense conversation. Which wouldn’t be a problem.

Sixta had yelled at Liebgott, like he’d yelled at everyone else. It was about something stupid—David still wasn’t sure what—and Liebgott was pissed because of it. He’d been lashing out at people all day.

Nate hadn’t exactly been yelled at, but he’d been lectured about how his measurements didn’t match the ones he’d provided on his resume and that it made Sixta’s job harder than it needed to be. As far as David knew, Nate had shrugged him off, but it didn’t change the fact that David was the only one aside from Babe, Ray, and the other understudies, who Sixta hadn’t torn into.

David got in character and paid attention to the lines and the movements, but he couldn’t help being distracted by Liebgott.

Their characters interacted with one another more than anyone else in the show, so David couldn’t avoid acting with him. And Liebgott took being in character to another level. He delivered the biting lines with the perfect amount of venom, but more surprising were the gentle moments when he softened his voice and his expressions to match the words his character was saying. And most of those gentle moments were with David’s character.

On the receiving end of it, David could see what made people like him, and it made David want to like him, too. He was loyal and passionate and protective and David knew all of those character traits came from Liebgott himself. He’d seen the way he was with his friends.

But he also saw the way Liebgott’s eyes hardened and his mouth tipped into a scowl whenever one of their scenes ended. Their brief alliance last night apparently wouldn’t last.

By the end of their block, David was worn out and he was glad for the ten minutes the directors were giving them. He went to his normal set-up for his water bottle while the other actors sat down across the stage and started talking or gathering together to play more of the game Malarkey, Skip, and Penkala had created.

“Boy!” Sixta’s harsh voice cut through the theater and everyone stopped what they were doing to look at him. It wasn’t until his eyes lit on David and he stalked over that it was clear who he was yelling at. David froze to the spot.

 “Where did your pieces go?” Sixta thundered when he was in front of David. “Didn’t I tell you to put them back on the rack?”

“I—uh,” David’s thoughts tripped over themselves as he tried to remember. He remembered Sixta leaving to go deeper into the shop, telling him to put the coat and hat back on the rack, and turning to see at least five semi-empty racks in the room around him. He couldn’t remember what he’d decided to do.

“Those pieces were vital parts to your main costume and I can’t find them anywhere! Those weren’t yours to lose! Do you have any idea how that’s going to affect the production of the other costumes for this cast? How far behind we’re going to be?”

David’s mind raced, but he still couldn’t think clearly as Sixta fumed, red-faced, in front of him.

“Mr. Sixta,” Winters’ calm voice cut through and it was softer than Sixta’s, but there was a hard, warning edge to it. Sixta turned to look at him and met Winters’ tight, almost blank expression. “The other directors and I need to talk to you about the costumes and the designs. If you have a moment.”

The costume designer didn’t look like he did, what with the yelling he was currently engaged in. But Winters’ expression didn’t leave room for argument. Sixta gave David another stern look before he followed Winters away.

David was left standing there in a state of shock with his pulse pounding madly in his throat. His stomach clenched tight and he glanced around him, trying to get his bearings.

“Hey Web!” someone called, “Come over here and sit with us.” It sounded a little bit like Ray, but David wasn’t sure why it would be. That was when two solid hands closed around his shoulders and steered him away. He looked to see Nate on his left and a few actors in the group-at-large moved to make room for him. Hoobler patted the stage beside him.

David was lowered to the ground and someone clapped him on the back.

Everyone was smiling at some joke he didn’t quite understand. But it made his chest feel warm and he smiled weakly back.

“There you go, Web. Everything’s fine.”

“Fucking Sixta.”

“What did he lose anyway? And what did it look like?”

David smiled and breathed a laugh. “It was a lime green coat and a dark red newsboy hat.” Everyone groaned and he continued, “I have no idea if they were supposed to go together, but I hope he never finds them.”

“Jesus Christ,” Toye muttered, shaking his head.

“Reminds me of one of my fucking managers,” Ray said, and though he didn’t elaborate, all of the other actors nodded or muttered some kind of agreement.

David did too. He had shitty managers at the restaurant he worked at. And the way Sixta flew off the handle reminded him of his parents, as much as he hated to think about it.

The conversation drifted away to different topics and David gradually felt more comfortable around the other actors. It wasn’t until Welsh, Lipton, and Mr. Speirs came onstage to start rehearsals again—a big group scene in Act I David wasn’t in—that he caught Liebgott looking at him. David was still a little shaky from the confrontation with Sixta and now he was thinking about his parents, so he turned away, hoping to hang out with some of the other actors who weren’t in the scene.

“What’s wrong?” Liebgott asked, drawing close. David ignored him, sure he caught a mocking thread in the actor’s tone.

“Oh, what? Were you having flashbacks to your teachers at prep school?” Liebgott’s voice rose in exasperation. With the thoughts still swimming in David’s head and the way his stomach was still tight, the words hit him the wrong way this time and his anger flared.

“Would you lay off?” he snarled, whirling on the actor who was right behind him. Liebgott looked taken aback and he stepped off a little.

“Yeah, I used to go to Harvard. Yeah, I used to be wealthy. Now I’m on the same level as you, praying for my big break while I work shitty hours and stretch my minimum wage in an effort to make enough money to pay for rent and food.”

Liebgott’s face was confused and it didn’t morph into the stubborn anger David expected to see; the sure sign Liebgott was going to fight back or continue the argument.

“What, did your parents kick you out?” The actor’s tone was rough and slightly mocking, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“Well, they weren’t exactly thrilled when they found out I was leaving Harvard to act. I left before they could get around to it,” David replied heatedly, memories whirling unpleasantly around him. “Just leave me the fuck alone.” His blood rushed through his veins like fire and he stalked away to find Nate. Maybe now that he’d given Liebgott what he’d wanted, he would go away. Maybe David wouldn’t have to deal with him anymore.

And now he didn’t just have a lonely corner of the backstage to go to. He had the rest of the company, too.


 

“You’re such a jackass,” Toye said.

“What the fuck do you mean? How is it my fault?” Joe protested.

Perconte squinted at him, “’Flashbacks to your teachers at prep school?’ ‘What, did your parents kick you out?’ I would say it’s definitely your fault. And I agree, you’re a jackass.”

“Well I didn’t mean it like that! I was worried and he was being difficult, so I—”

“Lost your temper. The way you always do.”

“And why would he even believe you were worried about him? You haven’t done anything but harass him since you two met,” Skip said.

Joe whipped around to glare at him, but he only saw a sliver of judgement on Skip’s face. Mostly there was sad understanding.

“You know what? I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

 “Aww, we love ya, Lieb. Even if you’re an asshole,” Guarnere said, leaning over to knock him on the shoulder.

“Yeah, yeah, fuck all of you.”

“No, fuck Casey Kasem,” Spina grumbled, coming over to their little cluster and throwing himself down beside them. “Son of a bitch.”

“What’s he doing this time?” Joe asked, genuinely curious and genuinely desperate to change the subject.

“Jack shit. He’s doing absolutely nothing, the way he always does. And I’ll bet you that when Winters asks him about the props again he’ll say he told us to do something about it, instead of actually getting us shit the way he’s supposed to.”

Spina was more fired up than Joe had ever seen him.

“So we still don’t have any props?” Guarnere asked.

“We do. Casey Kasem just doesn’t know about them,” Bryan said darkly from behind them. “And he’s not going to know.”

“Where the hell did you get props if he’s not doing anything?” Perconte asked.

“Built or bought or borrowed em ourselves,” Spina replied, leaning back and glaring at nothing.

“Really?”

“It’s not much, but we have some of the more important things at least,” Bryan said, taking a seat. “It’s going to be a bitch to get everything. And we aren’t going to get any help from that useless asshole, but as long as we keep it a secret it won’t get worse.”

“Why the secrecy? Doesn’t that just get you in more trouble for making it look like you’re not doing anything?” Joe asked.

“Because if he knew we actually do have things, important things, he’d probably want to see them and know where they were and fuck with them. And we worked hard for what we have so we’d rather not lose them,” Spina said. Bryan’s eyes glittered darkly in agreement. “Plus, he’d take the credit.”

“So I see the other elusive stage hands. Where’s the third one?” Brad asked as he approached the group, but didn’t move to sit.

“Gene’s talking to Winters about the clusterfuck with the props,” Bryan said. “Just to put him at ease and tell him about Casey Kasem.”

“That’s not going to put Winters at ease,” Brad pointed out. Bryan shrugged.

“It will to know that we’re taking care of things.”

Brad didn’t reply, but looked at Joe. “Come on, we’re doing some of our scenes upstairs. Speirs and Welsh want to run some of the sketchy scenes from the first act with everyone else.”

Joe nodded and rose to his feet while Guarnere huffed, “It ain’t our fault Garza tripped and lost his spot in the book.”

“They still want to run it again,” Brad replied.

As they walked away, Joe tried to gauge how Brad was feeling. Since Web had exploded, Joe hadn’t seen him, though he expected he’d gone to find Nate. Seeing as how the leads were getting together now, he wanted to know if Brad might be on his side.

Brad had been around to see Sixta’s episode and to finally force Web to be with the company instead of barricading himself on the other side of the stage. And Joe knew Brad didn’t mind Web.

But Nate was one of the only people Brad talked to and Nate was one of the only people Web talked to, so Joe saw himself being outnumbered.

It was almost impossible to read Brad anyway, and now it seemed like he was somewhere else entirely. Less accessible than usual. Joe braced himself for the two people who definitely would hate him when they got to the room.

Sure enough, Nate and Web were already there, and though Nate looked up when Joe and Brad came through the door—face neutral—Web looked away and busied himself with his script.

In a silence that would’ve been awkward if it wasn’t normal, Brad and Joe took seats and waited for the directors. When they walked through the door, Lipton looked frustrated and Winters didn’t look anything. His eyes were remote and he cast them over the room, eyebrows inching slightly closer, before he sat down in front of the four actors.

Joe wondered if he’d heard anything but knew it wouldn’t matter. The head director wasn’t going to get involved in conflicts between two of his actors. Joe didn’t plan on making him think it was necessary either.

“We’re going to run through the parts in the show where the four of you interact. As you all know, there aren’t too many of those scenes, but each one is important and I’d like all of you to get comfortable doing them. They require you all working closely together.” Winters’ head was bent toward his book, but he lifted his eyes to look at each one of them individually. It felt like there was a particular weight on his last sentence, but Joe couldn’t be sure.

“And there are a few songs all four of you do that I’d like to run through,” Lipton said. He also seemed to be assessing them, but for a different reason.

The actors nodded and Winters looked back down at his book. “We’ll start on page 16.”

 

Joe was lucky he practically knew the script by heart, because he kept getting distracted.

Web being angry at him didn’t seem to have any effect on their character interactions. His delivery and timing were still spot-on, and Joe felt the intimacy and confidence they were able to fake. And, as always, he couldn’t help wishing it could be real.

And when the lines fell away into singing, he couldn’t help staring. Every time, Web gave himself up to the music and Joe couldn’t look away. His voice was strong and sure and when that light ignited in his eyes, it was like he became a new person, one that Joe only caught glimpses of. He was always a little disappointed when it ended.

As they rehearsed, Joe saw the magic of the theatre take effect. Despite 50% of the leads being pissed at him, they all managed to come together, like their characters. And the longer they went on, the lighter Winters and Lipton became.

Whatever had upset them before disappeared for them, too. In moments like this, the show looked like it was coming together.

Joe never forgot why he loved the theatre, but sometimes it took glaring reminders like this for him to feel it again.

They rehearsed for a long time and Joe almost forgot he’d fucked up. The four of them seemed to be getting along and when he wasn’t looking at Web’s gaze.

Winters’ eyes were shining when they finished the last scene and Joe swore he was glowing. He glanced over at Lipton and the two shared a bright look.

Winters turned back to the actors. “Okay, go ahead and go back to the stage and we’ll pick up in about fifteen. Excellent work here, guys. Thank you.”

As they all gathered their things, there was a light knock on the door and Nixon peered around the corner. “Dick?”

Winters looked up expression still light—maybe even brightening a bit—until he saw the expression on Nixon’s face and his own fell flat, back into that nothingness it had been before. Nixon’s flickered a little, but he jerked his head toward the hallway. Winters got to his feet and looked back at them. “Go back to the stage. We’ll be with you in a little bit.”

He joined Nixon at the door and the two slipped into the hallway. Lipton watched after them with a conflicted, strained look on his face and he turned to the actors, who were also looking. No one spoke for what felt like a long time.

“Sir?” Brad asked. Lipton met his eyes and shook his head.

“Whatever it is, we’ll figure it out. We’ll make sure everything’s alright,” Lipton told them. “Just go back to the stage.”

Everyone nodded and Lipton went through the door, turning in the same direction Winters and Nixon had gone. Joe looked around at the others and though Web avoided his eyes, Joe made contact with Brad and Nate.

Brad’s jaw was clenched and his face was set in the blank expression it took on when shit happened and he didn’t like it. He cast a look back to Nate and Nate held it with his own quiet, knowing expression. Joe tried to look at Web again, longing for that feeling of connection they’d all had only five minutes ago.

There was the sound of a door closing down the hallway and whatever it was keeping them there in the room broke. They flocked to the door all at once. Joe tried not to notice when Web sped up to avoid even walking beside him, thus putting Joe beside Nate.

The sinking feeling in his stomach told him he’d done far more damage than he’d meant to. And if he wanted to fix it, it was going to require a lot of work.

But why should he want to fix it? The thought invaded his head and he invited it. He was always into the pretentious ones and it never worked.

He growled under his breath and pushed past the other three.

The last guy had just up and left and the girl before that had gotten sick of waiting around with him for the next show. After that, he’d thought he was done with the smart ones. They all caught on eventually that he didn’t have anything to offer them and then they were gone.

    

“So it seems like things are going to hell again,” Kocher observed, eyes on Patterson and Wynn talking to Nate downstage.

“Nothing new there, dawg,” Poke replied.

“Jesus Christ, this is getting old,” Joe said. Everyone nodded and hummed some kind of agreement.

It had been longer than fifteen minutes and all of the directors were occupied, which left the actors with nothing to do but sit around and watch everything fall apart. Joe remembered Lipton’s promise that they’d make it alright, but he knew there was only so much they could do.

Unemployment didn’t look pretty.

“Alright, fuck this,” Don said, standing up and looking over the actors. “We’re doing another round of Improv Karaoke.” The whole cast sat up straighter and turned their attention to him. Improv Karaoke was one of the only things that made these tense moments between rehearsing bearable.

Penk and Skip stood to join him and all three got on their phones. One person had the app that picked the actor, one had the app that picked the show, and the other played the accompaniment for whichever song was chosen.

“We assume everyone knows how to play, so we’re just going for it,” Skip said. “I’ve got the random names. And it looks like…Web’s going to go first!”

Joe tried to keep a check on his reaction. Of course it was Web. Of course he wasn’t going to be able to distance himself from the other actor.

“And you’re doing a song from Spring Awakening,” Don told him.

On the other side of the group, directly beside Nate and Ray, Web hesitated. There was a worried look on his face and he shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“Oh come on, you sing in front of everyone all the time and you sang in front of Speirs. And that landed you a lead,” Perco said, leaning toward Web and elbowing him lightly.

Web looked encouraged, but still not really sure what he was doing. “Okay…um. Any song, right?” Penk nodded. Web stood up and walked over to where the three ringleaders stood. “Okay, I’ll do… “And Then There Were None,” I guess.”

Ray popped up from where he was, “I’ll do Fanny’s part!”

Skip pointed at him. “Excellent! That is the enthusiasm we like to see!”

And just like that, the mood on the stage lightened a little bit. Back when the guys had made up the game, Joe had known things weren’t going great. Breaks between rehearsals were never that long on purpose. But it hadn’t been so obvious to everyone, and this was mostly a way to have fun during their downtime. Now it was the only way to hang onto the levity until the directors came back.

 Joe wasn’t sure how he did it, but Winters wasn’t just a fantastic director. He cared about all of them and they cared back. Somehow he was able to make them forget the shit that was happening and inspire them to keep working, harder and better, long past the point where another company would’ve given up. 

That was part of it, too. Joe had known some of the cast beforehand, but the others blew him away. He’d never been in such a dedicated company where everyone wanted to perform and succeed not only for themselves and their careers, but for the directors who were in charge of them.

It made Joe want to believe Lipton all the more.

Up at the head of the group, Penk looked at Web, phone raised. "You ready, Web?" He nodded and there was an excited gleam in his blue eyes, replacing the nerves. "Ray?" Ray jerked his chin up.

Penk tapped his phone and Ray launched into the beginning of the letter while the music came in. 

And then Web started singing. Joe watched the way Web's face became animated with the words and his tone turned savage. Just like it was supposed to.

He wrapped himself in this song like he did with all the others, and Joe watched in fascination. Web looked like he was lit up from within by the notes and the words. In this, he was different from all the other smart assholes Joe had ever been into.

Something about him seemed a little off, though. It was the look on his face, the way it twisted, and the way his voice frayed on some of the words in the middle. He was either deep in character or he was doing this all on his own.

Joe remembered how Web had snapped when he'd mentioned Web's parents, and he remembered what Web had said back. With a vague sense that he was indeed a jackass, Joe paid more attention. 

While Ray mockingly recited another part of the letter and Web watched, eyes glittering with something dark, the sensation clarified into a suspicion that something was very wrong. It stayed with him as the song ended, and Web looked gutted while the yelling and applauding and congratulating that followed every round rose up around the stage.

After a beat, the stricken expression on Web’s face vanished and he beamed at the company around him while they clapped him on the back and pulled him back into the group. Joe barely paid attention when Perco went next. Instead he watched Web, looking for any trace of what he’d seen before.

Two more people had gone, the directors had come back and told them what they were doing, and the actors got into their places before Joe saw it again. 

He felt eyes on him and glanced over to see Web. Joe caught the shadow of the emotion, but it darkened when they made brief eye contact. And it was only brief because Web’s eyes darted away as soon as they met Joe’s.

Winters wanted to go over the last scenes of the show with rough blocking. They still didn’t have any set pieces—they didn’t really need them yet—but as far as Joe knew, there wasn’t even a design in place. In lieu of that, Winters told them to focus less on where they were standing and more on their body language in the scenes.

Joe kept his eyes on Web and wondered about their last scene, one of the show’s last scenes, and how that body language was going to go. The guilt subsided a little in the wake of a rush of annoyance. He wasn’t going to get chewed out by Winters just because he’d stepped on Web’s feelings.

“Okay, next scene,” Winters called out, making a note in his book and leaning to mutter to Nixon, who took more notes in the official book.

Joe strode onto the stage, picking a spot in the center just upstage of Winters and Nixon. Speirs, Lipton, and Welsh were off to either side, watching from different vantage points.

Web followed more slowly and every time Joe looked at him, his gaze skittered away. Joe sighed and flipped his script to the right page before he dropped into a crouch, like they were supposed to. Web was a beat behind and his eyes were still carefully averted.

Winters was still busy talking to Nixon and Joe debated whether or not he should tell Web to knock it off. As soon as the thought entered his head, Winters looked up. “Alright. I know we already ran the lines today. Just act it out here, figure out how you want to play it. Try to make it close and confidential since the two of you are acting in secret at this part.”

Joe nodded and Web did the same. Winters pointed them on their way.

And it worked. The lines were effortless and Joe barely had to look at his script, started using it as the prop map at one point. But even though Joe knew he had it mostly memorized, Web kept his script in his hand and turned the pages. He barely looked at it, but it would have been better than him obviously doing anything to avoid looking at Joe.

They were crouched close together, angled only slightly toward each other for the benefit of the invisible audience, but their shoulders and knees were brushing. On the floor, Joe’s fingers came close to making contact with Web’s. But though they were supposed to be sharing secret information, Web refused to look at him. Joe’s eyes were trained on Web’s face and he caught hints of blue through Web’s eyelashes, but the other actor kept his on the floor or skimmed them over the rows of seats.

The suspicions lurking in Joe’s mind hardened, and he started to think there was more to Web’s pouting than he’d thought.

Winters watched them closely, but he didn’t say anything. They made it through the whole scene without eye contact and Winters still stayed silent. Joe was surprised, but certainly not complaining. He knew they weren’t really getting away with anything because of how Winters’ eyes were narrowed while he watched, but it felt like he was giving them a break.

Joe and Web finished and looked to the directors to see what they would say. The still expression on Winters’ face disappeared and he nodded at them. “That was good for now. Next time we run it, we’ll experiment with different ways to sell the closeness.” And that was how Joe knew to be grateful.

“Next scene,” Welsh clapped and actors rushed into motion. Joe saw Web peel off toward the hallway, and he jumped at his opportunity.

“Hey, I need to talk to you,” he said, quiet because Speirs was talking onstage.

Nate frowned when he looked up. “Why?”

Joe sighed—he couldn’t believe he was doing this—and said, “I need you to tell me why Web’s so upset.”

Immediately, Nate’s expression cleared and he backed off. “I already told David I’m not getting into that. You two have a problem and you need to work it out for yourselves.”

“And I will,” Joe said impatiently, “but he won’t even look at me when we’re doing scenes together. And what I said wasn’t that bad, so it had to have meant something more to him. Did he tell you?”

Nate had a stony expression on his face and he crossed his arms over his chest. “He did. And I don’t blame him for reacting the way he did.”

“Because you know more about him than I do. Look, if you just tell me what it means to him, I’ll apologize and we won’t become another problem.” God knew they didn’t need an addition to the trash heap gathering beside the show.

A flicker of guilt passed through Nate’s eyes and his mouth twisted at the corner as he looked toward the door Web had left through. “I don’t personally have a problem with you, but what you said crossed a line.” There were small fires in his eyes when he returned them to Joe and he felt pinned in place.

He realized Nate was doing it on purpose and ran a hand through his hair. “And I feel like shit. And my shitty decision-making is going to affect the show if I don’t fix this soon. Why did it upset him this time when it hasn’t before? What do his parents have to do with it?”

That question made Nate look a bit like he’d been trapped in a corner without expecting it. “I want you two to fix it as much as you do,” he said. “I like you, Joe. You’re a good friend to everyone else here. But do not try to use this against my friend, okay?” The fire had turned to steel and Joe was disgusted at the thought.

“Jesus Christ, yeah okay.”

Nate sighed and cast another glance at the door before he launched into the story.

“Basically, he’s Moritz if Fanny had given him the money,” His mouth turned up wryly and Joe’s stomach sank.

“David didn’t want to go to Harvard. His parents are really harsh and they wanted a doctor or a lawyer, not David. But they didn’t care what he wanted. They pulled strings and paid for it all and basically packed his bags for him.

“I know you think he just wasted all that money by dropping out, but it wasn’t his idea in the first place. He wanted to go to college, but he studied literature, for Christ’s sake. And eventually he decided he was done because they were making him miserable. He tried to talk to them about it, but they wouldn’t budge.

“So he left Harvard and he never went home. He knew they were going to kick him out over the literature thing or the theatre, so he left. He came to New York City, and got a shitty apartment, and a shitty job with all of his savings, and he’s been auditioning for shows for two years now. This is the first thing that’s stuck and he’s terrified because he’s on his last legs here in the city and he doesn’t know what he’ll do next.

“So when you brought up his parents, he remembered how much he needs this. And that’s why he won’t talk to you. You reminded him that he wants to prove he can do this.”

When Nate finished, the sinking had hardened into guilt. Joe almost felt sick with it. Nate’s eyes had gone soft and sad and he looked at Joe like he understood how he felt.

And just like that, Joe realized. David Webster wasn’t like the spoiled assholes he’d grown up around, causing shit without getting into trouble and throwing their money around like it was a luxury. He didn’t get bored when things got hard and the fun of slumming it faded.

Webster was just like the rest of them, and Joe was a jackass.

Already, the words of the apology were coming together—though it didn’t sound as good as it needed to be—but just as Web came back with a full bottle of water, Winters called attention to the front of the stage.

“You’ve all done fantastic work today and we have another long day in store tomorrow, so we’re going to break here.” A cheer rose up from the company, but Joe couldn’t get behind it. Especially not when the door thudded and he knew Web had left.

“We’ll see you bright and early tomorrow morning!” Welsh called cheerfully.

 

“So what’s the prop situation looking like?” Guarnere asked. The directors had given them half an hour and the actors were lounging around onstage as usual.

Babe looked harassed. “It’s coming along, but after Winters talked to him last time, Casey Kasem’s been nosier than usual, so we’ve had to hide a lot of it. But we’ve got it under control, so I think it’s going to be good.” There was a small smile on his face at that.

“I thought Gene talked to him.”

“He did and Winters gets it. But there’s not really anything he can do about it, so we still have to deal with Casey Kasem.”

“We?”

Babe’s head whipped around. “Gene! Is there a problem?”

“No, I was lookin’ for you. What do you mean, we?”

“Well, I’ve been helping you out and dealing with the same stuff, so it feels like we,” he explained, standing.

Gene looked amused in his quiet way. “You should be payin’ attention to the show. You’re an understudy. You could be put in at any moment.”

Babe rolled his eyes and went a little red. “The show’s fine. You and the props need me more than the show does. An’ until I am put in the show, I’m helping all of you.” He stood up. “So let’s go. What were you lookin’ for me for?”

Gene smiled and the two walked away, talking about the props. From the floor, Guarnere rolled his eyes and shook his head as he watched them. “That idiot,” he muttered.

“I think it’s cute,” Ray said. “And, hey, he’s got something to do. That’s more than the rest of us can say with all of you healthy sons of bitches.”

Guarnere cackled and Joe felt a smile crawl across his own face as he leaned over to elbow Ray. They all gave him shit for a few seconds before he waved them off. He was scowling, but a smile pushed at his mouth and he was laughing before too long.

“Reminds me of a real son of a bitch though,” Ray said darkly. “Fucking Gary.”

Everyone on the stage groaned sympathetically. Ray had ranted at length about his manager at the grocery store and they could all relate.

“He was basically standing over my shoulder for the whole hour before I clocked out and I came this close to asking him if I should just suck the customer’s dick today, but the asshole probably would have said yes,” Ray said, shaking his head.

“God tell me about it,” Web said. “My manager wouldn’t leave me alone all day. I had to stay almost two hours overtime because they never schedule enough people.” In response, the stage groaned for him and Joe found himself joining in. Everyone had a shitty manager story.

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” a bitter, mocking voice said. The stage got hushed .

“Excuse me?” Web asked, looking over his shoulder. He looked startled, but there was iron in his voice. Joe followed the sound of the first voice to Cobb.

“Oh you heard me. You got yelled at by Sixta, so now you think you belong here with the rest of us who’ve been working for all of this. Please. I mean, I’m surprised you haven’t already crawled back to your cushy Harvard dorm, but you’d be doing us all a favor. Stop pretending like you’re one of us.” Cobb’s voice was dripping in loathing.

“Hey, watch your mouth,” Joe snapped.

He’d known he wasn’t the only one who’d felt that way about Web. He’d just been the most vocal, even if he evidently wasn’t the most hostile. And he knew not everyone had jumped on the acceptance train, but Cobb being an understudy probably didn’t help.

Joe was able to understand all of this objectively, but he couldn’t help the wave of defensiveness that crashed over him, like it had when Sixta had yelled at Web. Nate’s story was still ringing in his ears, and it was possible he was trying to make up for his own hostility, but that didn’t change the fact that Web had worked his ass off to be here.

“He’s done the work, just like the rest of us, and he’s damn good at it. There’s no reason he doesn’t belong here. Don’t be a dick because you’re jealous. He hasn’t done anything to deserve that.”

“I auditioned just like you did,” Web said, staring Cobb down. “The directors decided I belong here. And I’m going through the same things everyone else is. I have been all along. And I’m staying whether you like it or not.” His tone was calm but heated and there was a fire in his eyes.

Watching Web defend himself was almost more fascinating than watching him sing or act. Because as much as he shone when he inhabited a character, seeing him as himself was seeing him in all his glory.

Joe was still glaring at Cobb and the understudy looked uncertainly between him and Web. The rest of the company stayed silent, but the tension in the air meant they were on Web’s side. Of course. They were the ones who’d convinced Web he belonged here in the first place.

Eventually Cobb gave up and left the stage. The people sitting near Web were rolling their eyes and shoving his shoulders to show their support. But Web wasn’t paying attention to them.

He was looking at Joe.

And Joe couldn’t read the expression in his eyes—it was too complicated—but Joe jerked his chin up and looked back.

    

They were running the ending scenes again, and the other three leads were onstage without Joe.

“Alright. You either need to stop staring or you need to make a move already,” Toye rasped beside him. The two were watching the scene happening onstage and Joe maybe was staring. “He’s making eye contact again. Now would be the perfect time.”

“Nah, he still hates me.”

“Then what do you have to lose? I know your history with people like him, but you can’t just sit here forever. And why would he hate you? You became his knight in shining armor when you took Cobb on yesterday.” There was something dismissive in his tone, though. Like he didn’t expect Joe would actually do it.

So he instantly rose to the challenge. “That’s dramatic, but fine,” he said. It would be nice to know for sure how Web felt about him now that he’d warmed so much.

Onstage, Winters was breaking up the scene and announcing the next one. Through some twist of fate or a convenient plot device, it was the one with Web that Winters hadn’t been happy with yesterday.

“I’ll take advice from the great romance expert over here and make a goddamn move if it’ll shut him up,” Joe said, standing. Toye didn’t say anything in response, but a lazy, self-satisfied smile spread across his face.

“Make it count when you do,” he said.

Joe shook his head and went back out to the stage.

“And after this, we have an announcement to make,” Winters said. He looked back at Nixon, who was standing behind him with a small smile on his face. All of the other directors looked satisfied, too.

Web was already waiting and Joe met him at center stage. The other actor was fiddling with his script and for a moment, Joe wondered if this was going to be hard. They both dropped into a crouch and then Webster looked at him.

It was a glance really, but it was more than Joe had gotten for almost two days. His track record with smart people flashed through his mind, but it was insulting to Web to group him in with them.

Winters told them to start and Joe took a breath before he said his first line. They were positioned the same way as last time and the lines sounded the same, but now Web was looking at him. And it was different now from even before Joe had fucked up.

Joe had seen the way he was with Nate and the others. He’d seen the way Web’s eyes warmed and the way they flashed in amusement, and it was shocking to have it directed at him. Before, there had been a wall, some distance he put between them, even if it didn’t come into his lines or actions.

But now it was gone. And it was like seeing Web stand up for himself before.

Their scene was coming to an end and Web’s character was about to leave. Joe had already made the decision but before he knew what he was doing, he reached out, cupped his hands around the back of Web’s neck, and made his move.

For a heart-stopping second, Joe thought Web actually did hate him. And it intensified when he felt Web’s hands close around his wrists.

Then Web kissed him back. Hard.

Victory unfurled in his chest, the same way the smile spread across his lips. Joe was the one who pulled away and it took Web a few moments to open his eyes. When he did, he looked shocked.

“I’m a jackass and I’m sorry. I stepped way over the line,” Joe said in a rush. It needed to be out. Web responded by leaning in and kissing him again. Quickly, because Joe pulled away again to marvel.

“You’re not Jewish,” Joe said, still in some kind of shock. It also felt important to note this.

“I…no. I’m not,” Web replied, like he wasn’t sure exactly what was happening, but there was a dim smile on his face.

Joe grinned and something bubbly rose in his chest. “That’s fantastic.” He kissed him again and Web went with it.

“Holy shit, you didn’t tell me it was going to be like this, Lip,” a new voice said.

Joe and Web broke away from each other—and Joe was suddenly aware of the mock cheering from his asshole friends—and looked toward the voice. He grinned before he could draft a glare because he knew he’d recognized that voice.

“Hey, Luz! What’re you doin’ here?” Perco called.

Luz immediately rolled his eyes. “What the fuck do you mean? What do you think I’m doing here?”

Before anyone could say anything else, Winters stepped in. “Everyone, this is George Luz. Though I know he knows most of you. He’s coming on as the tech director for us.” Luz was grinning, hands stuffed in the pockets of his hoodie, and a chorus of cheers rose up.

But Joe noticed two more people standing among the directors.

Welsh stepped forward, an arm around the woman’s waist. “We have new costume designers, too. I’d like you to meet my wife, Kitty, and her friend and business partner, Rudy Reyes.”

“For fuck’s sake, Rudy, are you kidding? It’s been two years and this is what you’re doing?” Ray asked.

Rudy smiled. “Hey, brother. You know, I always imagined doing something with clothes and I met Kitty and we just hit it off. We create custom designs for every body type.”

Brad shook his head, though there was a hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth. “Oh, Jesus Christ.”

Poke was watching with an awed smile and he turned his attention to the directors. “So does this mean we don’t have to deal with Sixta anymore?”

Winters nodded. “He’s occupied with something else at the moment. Kitty and Rudy are going to redo all of the costume designs and get to work making them.”

“Do the producers know about this?” Nate asked.

“It doesn’t matter what they know,” Speirs said. “We’re proceeding as usual, but hopefully at a quicker pace.” Kitty rolled her eyes at him, and Joe got the impression she was the only one able to get away with it.

All of the directors seemed to be in an unnaturally good mood, and it was reflected in the rest of the cast as it dawned on them that things might be getting better. Joe turned to Web, who was still kneeling beside him, “You wanna go out and get dinner sometime?” he asked.

Web’s eyes shone when he looked back. “Yeah, that could be nice.”

Joe found Toye in the crowd of actors and meant to send him a “take that” look, but Toye was smirking at him and Nate, who was standing beside him, had the same expression on his face. Joe sighed in annoyance, but then he looked back at Web and the feeling lifted hopefully again. 

Chapter Text

“You need to stop terrorizing my actors with Shakespeare,” Dick said from the door of the office. Nix turned and caught the flash of a smile and the shine of amusement in Dick’s eyes as he walked past.

“I’m not terrorizing them. I’m bonding with them. Like my director told me to,” he replied, turning back to The Book. Dick made a noise indicating that he didn’t appreciate the reference to his title or the idea that his suggestion was an order. Nix made a note of it, so he could annoy Dick with it some other time.

“And honestly,” he added, raising his voice so it followed Dick across the room, “who could be terrorized by Shakespeare?”

Dick gave him an exhausted look. “Have you seen any of our friends?” he asked, looking around for his binder.

Nix rolled his eyes and pointed to the blue binder at the same time. “The last place I saw Harry was the costume shop and I don’t know where Lip and Sparky disappeared to. This is why you shouldn’t hire couples.” Dick rolled his eyes back and reached for the binder.

“It didn’t apply to Ron and Lip when we started.”

“But you always knew it would happen at some point,” Nix replied.

Dick shook his head. “Rehearsal starts in 20 minutes,” he pointed out.

Nix shrugged and closed The Book as he gathered his other things. “Maybe you should break out your director voice,” he suggested. Dick muttered something Nix couldn’t quite hear as he left the room, and he smiled.

It wasn’t going to last very long, but it was nice to have moments like this, removed from the stress of everything.

Things had been in a kind of free fall lately with the choreographer, the costume designer, and the prop manager failing on them. And no one to do the damn tech. 

With each new problem, Nix had watched Dick’s expression get tighter. They were already behind his schedule because so many people had insisted on doing the choreography right away. Then Dike had disappeared off the face of the planet, putting rehearsals on hold for two or three more days. Nix was still trying to get a hold of him, though not nearly as hard as before.

Fick was in charge of the choreography now, on top of his role as one of the leads in the show.

Dick didn’t like it—he thought that it was too much to put on one actor—but Nix didn’t know what else to do without tipping off the producers. He’d heard Person’s rant, and though it was dramatic, he agreed with the finer points. He didn’t want Encino Man anywhere near Dick’s production or Dick himself. That was too much stress to put on any of them.

They were also running low on time to do a lot of stuff  that should have been almost done by now.

Then Sixta had gone insane.

Dick had watched the costume situation from a distance, and he hadn’t reacted much when Nix told him the designs weren’t coming along at the pace they wanted. He’d been more focused on finally catching up with the scene work. It took news that Sixta was harassing the actors to make him pay more attention, and he’d finally drawn the line at Sixta yelling at Webster in public.

Nix hadn’t seen him that angry in years.

They’d realized they couldn’t let Sixta continue doing the costumes and Ron had been appointed as the one to get rid of him. Nix still wasn’t sure what that meant, and he didn’t really care because Harry had a wonderful wife who could replace him.

Kitty and her business partner had been installed in the costume shop for about a week now and things were turning around as far as Nix knew.

Then Lip had brought Luz in to do the lighting, and to at least take notes over the rest of the tech. Any progress they made would be an improvement, even if they weren’t ready to add it to rehearsals.

That didn’t mean everything was taken care of though. They still didn’t have any sets or even designs, and the stage hands were putting props together for themselves, hiding them in the loft so the prop manager couldn’t find them.

Nix sighed and pushed through the door that opened on the auditorium floor, about halfway to the stage. It looked like all of the actors were there and Nix glanced at his watch. Rehearsal started in 17 minutes. Ron had them intimidated well.

This also meant he and Lip would show up soon. Nix climbed the stairs to the stage and nodded at the actors who looked up and greeted him. He skirted along the edge and went through the wing on stage left.

The backstage was a big space, but Nix only needed one of the rooms at the back. “I hope I’m not interrupting the newlyweds,” he said as he walked into the costume shop.

“We’ve been married for three years,” Kitty said, frowning.

“Oh, I’m well aware,” Nix replied brightly. Harry scowled at him. “Rehearsal starts in 16 and a half minutes,” Nix responded. Harry grumbled something, but got up from where he’d been sitting and leaned over to kiss Kitty goodbye. Then he and Nix went back to the front.

Harry glanced over and must have seen the look on Nix’s face because he got serious. “What’s the plan for today?”

“Keep our heads above water,” Nix said. “Right now the only plan is rehearsal as usual. You guys direct, I take notes.” As soon as he said it, he realized he wasn’t near any wood.

 Harry grimaced and Nix patted him on the back as they made it back to the stage.

Sure enough, Lip and Ron were standing downstage, watching the actors warm up. Dick was there, too, head bent over his binder and Nix took up his position beside him.

Dick glanced at him and Nix bounced his eyebrows, giving him a little smile. Dick’s expression smoothed out and the corner of his mouth lifted in return. He turned his eyes to the company and raised his voice.

“Good evening, gentlemen. Let’s start with some ensemble work. Then we’ll run through the choreography we have.” Fick had an uneasy smile on his face, but when he made eye contact with Dick it got more confident.

Then Nix watched as Dick and his other friends took the group of actors on the stage and put them into the show. They didn’t have any of the visual elements yet, but Nix could almost see it happening in front of him. Street clothes, scripts in hand, directors standing in front of them, and hardly any movement on an empty stage and Nix saw past all of it.

It had always been Dick’s dream to do a show in a place like this. Chandeliers and box seats and a vast backstage area. When he’d approached Nix about it almost a year ago with a show and a venue in mind, Nix had immediately thought of all the obstacles they’d have.

But he hadn’t said anything because he’d known that Dick had already planned around them.

Instead, Nix had said yes.

They’d recruited their other friends to help and they’d poured their time into what they wanted everything to look like, and how they wanted it to feel. Dick had laid the whole thing out in front of them and they’d figured out how to make it work.

And now it was coming together, not quite the way they’d planned, but Nix could see it. Lip turned around and caught his eye with a runaway grin on his face, and he saw that they all did, too.

“Hey, Nix, can I talk to you?” Luz asked. There was a serious look on his face for once and Nix felt his stomach inch lower.

“Yeah, let’s go over here.” He cast another look at the stage and the group of people who were standing around, reading out loud from their books. It wasn’t anything new for Nix to take notes over. They were in the wing on stage right when he asked, “What’s going on?”

Luz ran a hand through his hair and his mouth tightened as he looked away. When he looked back at Nix his eyes were frustrated. “I definitely can’t do all the tech by myself.”

“We weren’t really planning on having you do that,” Nix lied.

“Right,” Luz said in disbelief. “Look, the lights are fine. I’ll have to test them out and stuff, but I’m good with that. The soundboard is fucked though. It’s a mix of new and old and I don’t know enough about sound tech to be able to tell it apart.” He took a breath and Nix held on as they approached the rapids.

“With the notes I’ve got, I think I can do all the lights myself. Might need an extra person for the spotlight, but it’s not actually that different from a community theater. And we can control it so it’s still awesome, but not much more complicated. But you’re going to need to bring in a sound director.”

He finally stopped to breathe and it looked like he was done. Nix nodded and it was half to Luz, half to himself. “We were looking into it anyway,” he said, then he looked at Luz. “Do you know anyone?”

Luz shrugged. “Maybe. I could probably ask around. No promises.”

Nix waved him off. “That’s fine. Thanks for checking in.” Luz nodded and mock-saluted before he went back out to mingle with the actors.

It wasn’t until he’d gone that Nix let himself sigh. They’d been aware of the possible problem, but they’d let themselves hope. At least it wasn’t something that would set them back right this second. It was just a matter of actually finding someone good, and Nix wasn’t sure they could trust the producers for that.

Nix looked up to see Dick glancing toward him and he braced himself. He got more attention the closer he got, and Dick’s expression got less curious and more closed off. Nix’s stomach sank somehow lower.

This wasn’t nearly as bad as the other news he’d had to deliver, but at this point it hardly mattered. It still felt like a vicious, familiar cycle.

Dick didn’t say anything, just watched and waited for Nix to tell him the bad news. Even though he had to know how much Nix hated doing this, Dick didn’t like to jump to conclusions and he wanted the details.

“So Luz can’t do all the tech. We always knew it was a long shot,” he reminded before he got further, “but he said he doesn’t know as much about the equipment for the soundboard. We’re going to have to find a sound director.”

Dick crossed his arms over his chest and his eyes traveled to the middle distance, the way they always did when he was thinking. It lasted for a few seconds before, slowly, he nodded. “That’s not so bad. We can handle that,” he said, focusing back on Nix. His face had lightened, coming out of the stillness that meant he was bracing himself and the usual confident, determined fire had come back.

“Well if you’re so sure of yourself, get back to rehearsal,” Nix replied, relieved.

Dick’s eyes lingered on him for a beat longer before he shook his head and breathed out a laugh. But there was a smile on his face as he turned back to the actors and Nix was glad.

 

“So this is what we had in mind,” Nix said, flipping The Book open to the first page. They didn’t have a lot of notes on the lighting because they hadn’t known what they could do, but Dick did have a vision. And Nix had it written down.

Luz bent over the first page and nodded to himself. Nix looked out over the edge of the booth to watch the rehearsal on stage. They were going over a new dance number, the one Fick had been worried about, and it looked decent so far.

Because Dike had up and left and no one had been able to find any of his notes, they had one dance and had to come up with the rest. Dike had appointed Fick as the dance captain, and Nix was pretty sure it was because he’d been the first actor Dike had seen. But because of his role, Fick was in charge of remembering the very little Dike had gone over while they found another choreographer, who might never show up.

They were stuck in limbo and Dick, desperate to move on, had asked Fick if he could come up with one or two of the smaller numbers. Ron and Lip told them he had experience, but that didn’t make him a choreographer.

“Is this all you have?” Luz asked, eyes still on The Book.

“We’ve been a little preoccupied,” Nix replied, distractedly taking a drink.

Luz grimaced. “Lip told me about it. But hey, I’m happy to help and take some of the pressure off.”

“You won’t run the sound for us though,” Nix pointed out.

Luz laughed and patted him on the back as he turned back to The Book.

“Hey, Mr. Nixon?” a voice drawled behind him. Nix swallowed the groan he wanted to make and turned toward the door.

“Mr. Speirs said you’d be up here and I havta talk to you about Casey Kasem and the props,” Roe said. His expression was grim, which wasn’t abnormal, but there was a dark, angry gleam in his eyes that told Nix this was worse than usual.

“Are you good with this for now?” he asked over his shoulder.

“Oh yeah, I’m just dandy. You go take care of that other thing,” Luz replied. “Hey Gene.”

Roe nodded at him and turned his eyes back to Nix. “Okay fine, let’s talk outside.”

“What is it now?” he asked when the door was shut and they were standing on the top of the stairs.

“Casey Kasem found part of our stash.”

“Jesus—”

“But the real problem is that he still hasn’t gotten some of the things we were really hoping he would,” Roe interrupted. “Once he found that, he told us we obviously don’t need him anymore. Then Bryan pissed him off.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake. What did he say?”

“That we never have needed him and everyone would be better off if he wasn’t here. That’s when he said he was going to report to the managers that we’ve been goin’ behind his back.”

That was the reason for the glare. Nix sighed and closed his eyes. “What is it you were hoping he’d bring?” he asked.

“The globe. For that big scene in the second act.”

“You can’t just find a globe?” Nix asked. But he knew the answer was no, or they would have it taken care of already.

Roe shook his head. “There was a specific one Mr. Winters wanted, but the prop manager is the only one who’d be able to order it. It’s supposed to light up.”

Nix nodded and rubbed his hand over his face, tucking this into the ever-growing pile of: Shit He Needed to Worry About. “Okay, I’m on it. Thanks for telling me.”

Roe gave him a solemn nod.

“What are you going to do about Casey Kasem? Did he take anything?”

“Nothin we can’t replace. And Bryan’s got it taken care of if he comes back.” Nix nodded and waved him off.

He was going to tell Dick of course, but he’d have to say something to the production managers about it as well. Without letting them know that the company was taking care of everything else on their own. They were basically extensions of the producers, managing the staff and details of the show Godfather and Sink were funding. Maybe the producers could help out this time.

Nix took a deep breath and waited for a few moments to blow it out. He was afraid that the next time he moved, something else would come up.

But Dick and the others were busy, so he could maybe get word to the producers before he had to tell Dick about it. That way he could say he was solving the problem before Dick had to know.

Or Ron. Because he was looking for an excuse to tear into someone lately and Nix was tempted to let him.

He took another drink and charged down the stairs that led to the booth and came out on the side of the auditorium. He made his way to the stage, and Dick glanced over as soon as the door closed behind him. Before Nix could do anything about it, he was coming toward him after casting one last glance at the actors.

“What’s going on?” he asked when they were side by side. There was a hopeful look in his eyes and Nix bit the inside of his cheek before he responded.

“Luz has The Book and he’s looking over the notes we have so far. He seemed fine, so I’m sure he has it covered.”

“Good, that’s what we were hoping for,” Dick looked satisfied, but he paused and his expression looked like a sigh. “What’s wrong?”

“I just have to talk to the producers about getting us one of the props you want,” he said breezily. Judging by the way Dick’s eyes focused, it didn’t work and he knew exactly what Nix wasn’t saying.

“Which prop is it? Actually, no, I don’t want to know.” His mouth was twisted to the side and he tapped his fingers against one of his crossed arms.

Nix watched the movement as he said, “I’ll take care of it, Dick. This isn’t something we have to worry about.”

Dick laughed humorlessly before he shook his head as he inhaled, and then he looked at Nix again. “I trust that you will.” His eyes were tired, but soft, and Nix gave him a grim smile.

He really wished he didn’t have to.

 

“Where’s Harry?”

Kitty and Rudy looked up from a sketchbook and a mannequin and a beat passed before Kitty answered. “Oh, he’s getting us some more material and supplies.” She frowned and looked at the clock. “Honestly, he should be back by now. I told him exactly where to go.”

“Yeah and they didn’t have it. I will have you know, my dear, that red and white silk in the amounts you wanted is hard to find,” Harry said, coming through the door with his arms full of red fabric wrapped around white fabric. “Hey Nix,” he said over his shoulder.

Kitty’s expression said “it’s really not,” but she and Rudy perked up at the sight. Nix watched warily. “What do we need silk for?”

“One whole costume and parts of some others,” Rudy said, not looking up from running his fingers over it.

“Yes, thank you,” Nix said. “I didn’t see silk in any of the designs.”

 “We scrapped those designs and we’re drawing up new ones. Honestly I don’t know how that Sixta guy got this job,” Kitty responded.

“You’re working off of all new designs? How long is that going to take?”

Everyone in the room shot him a dirty look, but Nix stood by his question. “Here,” Kitty said, sliding two folders toward him. “Look at these and tell me what you think.”

Nix obliged and knew what he was looking at immediately. It was a cape design and the one on the left was not only much better than the one on the right, but it actually looked beautiful.

While he looked, Rudy started talking. “You know how we stay in business?” he asked.

“I always assumed it had something to do with the way you two look,” Nix said, without moving his eyes away from the designs in front of him. Rudy laughed and leaned over the table.

“No. We make beautiful designs and we turn them out quickly, but with the highest quality.”

“And we’ve been asked to do costumes before,” Kitty interjected. “So relax. We know about your time crunch. And the beauty of having two of us is that we can get more done at once. We’ll start measuring actors and doing fittings by the end of the week.”

“We would have kept any designs that were good,” Rudy said apologetically. “But that just wasn’t possible.”

Kitty grinned. “It would have weighed down our consciences, too much. So trust us and leave so we can get our work done.”

Nix straightened and slid the folders back to her, returning her smile. She winked and dropped the bad folder into the garbage as she turned to the table at the back of the shop. Harry had a stupid smile on his face and Nix remembered why he was here.

“Come on. Dick wants to run rehearsal and you need to be around,” he said, taking hold of Harry’s sleeve and pulling him out of the costume shop.

“Aren’t they great?” Harry asked in his dopey voice.

“Yes, your wife’s a saint,” Nix said, knowing exactly who Harry was talking about. “She would have to be to put up with you for so long.”

“Ha ha, that joke isn’t old at all,” Harry said sarcastically. “She’s saving our asses with this costume thing. You can’t deny that.”

“And I’m extremely grateful. Dick will be too when he learns that one of our big problems has been solved.” The situation with Casey Kasem had happened yesterday and Nix had made the inquiry to the producers through the managers, but he hadn’t heard anything back yet.

On the bright side, the stage hands said they were nearly done with all of the props and hey, could they maybe get some idea about the set pieces?

“Yes. One of many,” Harry muttered.

“Dick’s choosing not to focus on that,” Nix replied. He was meeting with Sobel about the set later. Nix and the others—mostly Ron—were trying to get in on it, but Dick wasn’t making promises.

Nix grimaced at the thought. Sobel was a self-important jackass who didn’t actually seem to know what he was doing, and he knew they needed him because he milked that for all it was worth.

Dick hated him.

So did Nix.

When they got back to the stage, the actors were sitting around, talking like they did when they weren’t busy.

“Oh shit,” Harry muttered when he saw the other three directors standing downstage waiting for him. They were all looking at someone’s marked-up book and consulting, but as Harry made his way toward them, Dick glanced up at Nix.

It always happened whenever he and Dick were in the same room, and it was nice. Grounding. Something that Nix looked forward to. It made some of the stress lift and Nix’s mouth lifted too. He raised his eyebrows and pointed at Harry.

Dick smiled back and nodded in thanks. Though they were across the stage from each other, Nix thought he could picture the expression in Dick’s eyes. Nix’s must have changed then because Dick shook his head a little, amused, before he turned his attention toward something Ron was saying.

Taking advantage of the rare downtime, Nix leaned against the wall, took a lazy sip from his flask and paid more attention to the actors. And the stress came crashing back down.

There hadn’t really been any problems from the actors, oddly enough. But then, a few days ago, whatever had been brewing between Liebgott and Webster had erupted in a bad way and they suddenly hadn’t been doing what they were supposed to.

They’d fixed it—in the most dramatic, ostentatious way—before Dick had to get involved. Or Nix had thought so.

Because now they were sitting on opposite sides of the stage, studiously ignoring each other. The other actors sat around the elephant, no one addressing it but everyone aware of it. Nix looked at the situation for a few moments before he decided it wasn’t something he had to deal with. And he hoped it got fixed before it was.

“Sir, do you know when we’re going over blocking?” Colbert asked, looking up from his script. From anyone else it would have been an inappropriate question, but Dick and Colbert had bonded somehow and he sometimes seemed like another director. It was why Dick had made him a captain—someone who watched the company and led small rehearsals if the other directors were busy. Guarnere, Toye, and Espera were others.

Dick wasn’t amused. “We need to have a set design before we can move on to blocking,” he responded, looking like he’d rather think about anything else. Nix observed and took another sip from his flask. “I’m meeting with the designer in an hour, so I’m planning to get to it soon.” He looked at Colbert for a second longer and the actor nodded.

“So let’s get done what we can,” Ron barked. And the stage was instantly a flurry of motion.

 

“What do you mean I’m not invited to the meeting with Sobel?” Nix demanded. “I’m the stage manager, that’s my job!” They were in the upstairs office and Dick was getting ready.

Dick’s eyes were burning. “I know. I tried to explain that to him, but he wants to meet with me alone.” Dick was gathering his binders of notes and each one made a distinctive smack when it was added to the stack. He turned to Nix and some of the fire died down. “I’m sorry. I know you want to be there, but just keep things running here.”

Nix really couldn’t care less about Sobel and he only cared about the sets because they were important. He wanted to be there for moral support and an extra glare.

“Do some more bonding with the actors. You’re the only one they aren’t familiar with.” Dick had all of his things now and he stood there giving Nix the look that implored him to try to make the best of it. Because it was Nix, Dick let his disappointment about the situation show where he would normally cover it up.

Nix sighed. “Only for you, Dick. Only for you.”

It made Dick smile. And that was enough for Nix.

 

The actors were assembled and looking at him, waiting. Nix kept his sigh to himself and resisted the urge to reach for his flask. Dick wouldn’t approve of him openly drinking in front of the company.

With all of the bullshit he’d been wading through for the show, Nix had been pretty removed from the people who were making it real. He knew most of their names and all of their roles, but he knew them better as characters. As the stage manager, this wasn’t a bad thing, but he would eventually be the one working with them the closest, so Lip and Dick said he needed to be approachable.

Which was why, when he wasn’t busy, he was the one making announcements.

“Friends, actors, employees, listen up,” he started, met by a chorus of groans. Colbert smirked near the back of the group and Nix sent him a subtle nod. “We should know more about the sets soon, and then we’ll start going over the blocking. Then you’ll get a chance to see more of me,” Nix flipped through some more of his notes and a cheer rose up from the back of the group.

He smirked and nodded. “Thank you. A real gift, I know. And that’s all I have for now because that’s the only new thing that’s going on. Speirs and Lipton are going to run through two of the ensemble musical numbers in a couple of minutes, and then you’ll be working on the scenes around those numbers. A lot depends on how long the meeting with Sobel takes. I commend you to your own content.” He didn’t get groans this time, but he did get appreciative looks from Colbert, Fick, and Webster.

“Parting is such sweet sorrow,” Person called after him. Nix smiled to himself.

Ron and Lip had disappeared again and Nix knew better than to worry or to look for them. They’d show up in time.

He heard the actors getting together to play another round of Improv Karaoke when someone stepped out in front of him.

The man was smiling hesitantly and holding a notebook. He had a thick gold chain around his neck and wore a Superfly T-shirt. Nix took a step back.

“Hi,” the man said brightly.

“Who the hell are you?”

The smile dimmed just a little and the man blinked in confusion. “Um, I’m Evan Wright. I’m here to do a story on your show.”

“Our show isn’t out yet. It isn’t even being advertised yet.” A dark thought crossed Nix’s mind and he added, “Or it shouldn’t be.”

The reporter’s eyes widened. “Oh, no. I’m doing a series on the production of some of the new theatre in town, and I was hoping to get a chance to hang around for a day or two during rehearsals and interview people. And then maybe I could come back when you start doing tech and dress rehearsals.”

“When will this be published?” Nix asked suspiciously.

“After your opening night. And you can think of this as kind of free publicity if you want. My editors will probably want me to do a follow up on how the show performs after the first couple of nights.”

Nix rubbed a hand over his face. He really didn’t have the time or mental space to worry about this right now. “Who were you planning on shadowing?”

“Actors mostly and then I’d want to talk to you directors. I’d like to talk to every part of the production at some point.”

“I’m the stage maanger.”

“Even better.”

Nix ran it quickly through his mind. Dick or one of the other three must have set this up and there was no way Dick didn’t know about it. Nix wondered why he hadn’t been told, but the thought really only strolled across his mind before it was pushed out by bigger concerns.

“Alright fine.” He cast his eyes back toward the company, where Garza was singing “Giants in the Sky,” and ran his gaze over each head. “Colbert! Person! Get over here,” he called out.

As the actors came over, Nix turned back to Reporter. “Colbert’s one of the leads and Person’s an understudy. You can stick with them.”

“What’s up?” Person asked, eyeing Reporter with some interest.

“This is Evan Wright. He’s a reporter and I want you to introduce him to everyone else, answer his questions, and talk about what we’re doing,” Nix said. Colbert and Person exchanged a glance that made him uneasy.

The feeling grew when both of their eyes lit up and Colbert actually smiled. “Yes sir,” he said.

Person clapped a hand on Reporter’s shoulder, who just beamed, and they led him back toward the rest of the cast. All of them had turned to watch and now they were focused on Reporter, too.

Nix thought he should probably feel bad about leaving Reporter like that, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Instead he went back toward the stairs that would take him up to Dick’s meeting, where he planned to sit in the hallway, eavesdrop, and duck in if Dick needed any help.

Behind him, the stage had gone relatively hushed, in that tense, suspended way that meant the actors suspected something bad was going to happen. Nix tried to ignore them.

He was off the stage, and going up the aisle that ran along the seats when he heard the voices that stopped him in his tracks.

“Mr. Nixon!”

“We need to talk to you.”

Nix pivoted slowly to see the managers, Patterson and Wynn, standing behind him. All at once he rememberd Roe telling him that Casey Kasem had gone to them about the props and he knew the grimace he felt had slipped onto his face.

Nix did his best to hide it and straightened a little, looking at the managers in front of him inquisitively. “What can I do for you?”

“Do you have somewhere we can talk privately?” Patterson asked. His face didn’t give away any of what he was thinking and Nix endeavored to do the same.

“There’s a room backstage,” he replied, gesturing back the way he’d come. “Follow me.”

Nix knew that the actors were watching and had been since the managers had come into the theater, but he gritted his teeth and ignored them. They knew shit was going on, he didn’t have to confirm it, and he heard Person volunteer to go next in Improv Karaoke. (“That’s it, I’m doing “The Schmuel Song” because fuck this noise. Penk, do the honors.”)

When they were in the room backstage that was supposed to store props, Nix faced the managers again, arms crossed. “What do you need?”

The two men exchanged a look before Patterson started talking. “We know that your company has had problems with some of the designers and managers,” he said delicately.

“So we know about what happened with Sixta and Dike,” Wynn continued, less delicately.

Nix thought he could hear each beat of his heart and it took everything in him to keep his expression neutrally dumb as Wynn kept talking. “We’ve always disagreed with the producers about not allowing you the freedom to choose your own people, but it’s clear that something needs to be done.”

“That’s why we wanted to offer our help,” Patterson said.

As the silence stretched out, Nix realized they were waiting for him to speak, and he scrambled to put some words together out of his surprise. “What was it you had in mind?” he asked, still trying to wrap his head around the offer and that he and his friends weren’t in trouble.

The managers exchanged another glance. “We talked with Fick about helping him with the choreography. That way we can keep Encino Man from getting involved,” Wynn said. Beside him, Patterson grimaced.

“That would be great,” Nix told them. It was dawning on him now that this was a solution to another one of their big problems. “I appreciate it and I know the others will, too.”

“Well we want this production to go off well, and it doesn’t seem like the producers are concerned, but they don’t hear what we do or know what we know,” Patterson said.

“And what do you hear?” Nix asked. Most of the anxiety had gone away, but it seemed there was still some left.

“That Sixta’s a crazy son of a bitch and Dike’s a useless no-show,” Wynn answered. “We’ve also heard that your stagehands are having problems with their prop manager.”

“Well their prop manager isn’t doing his job and he’s blaming them for doing theirs,” Nix pointed out. He felt like he was on even footing in this conversation, and he wanted it to stay that way.

“That ain’t a surprise,” Wynn said, rolling his eyes. “Guy who hangs around with Encino Man’s gonna be like that.”

“Do you need help with that, too?” Patterson asked.

Nix thought of the stagehands and the determined look in Roe’s eyes when he mentioned the props they would recover. “No, I think we’re good there.”

 

After they worked out some specifics and the managers left, Nix took a long drink and went back to the stage to find Dick. As he’d expected, Lip and Ron had come back and they and Harry were running small groups through songs and their scenes.

But Nix was more interested in the actors clustered on wooden prop boxes to his left.

“You didn’t do anything, Web. That’s not the problem,” Hoobler said.

“Well then why the hell is he snapping at me and avoiding me?” Webster asked. He sounded more annoyed than anything else.

“Does he not normally snap at you? Because that’s new,” Babe said. Webster shot him a look.

“Basically, he’s afraid of you,” Christenson said, matter-of-fact.

“But that doesn’t make any sense. Why the hell would he be afraid of me?” The other three looked at each other and seemed to shrug through eye contact.

“Look Web,” Hoobler explained, looking uneasy, “Joe’s had trouble with people like you in the past. Every smart person he’s ever dated has either cheated, left, or just broken up with him. So he’s trying to push you away and make you give up.”

Realization dawned on Webster’s face as Babe continued, “So your date must have gone well, if that makes you feel any better.”

“So what do I do now?” Webster’s eyes were wide and concerned.

Christenson smirked a little. “Push back.”

Webster twisted around to look at the actors who were rehearsing. Liebgott was among them and Nix saw Ron had just called an end to the scene they’d been working on. Before anyone else had the chance to move, Webster popped up from where he was and made a beeline for the group.

Nix watched with the other three actors as Webster approached Liebgott. He couldn’t make out what Webster was saying, but it involved hand gesturing and smiling. Absently, and in a way that didn’t mean he cared about their personal problems at all, Nix hoped Webster realized it was a bad idea to tell Liebgott what his friends had said.

He finished whatever it was and Liebgott nodded, though he looked taken aback. Webster beamed and leaned forward to kiss him on the cheek. And Liebgott smiled in response, but Nix made his way over to his friends instead of watching the rest play out.

“So it seems that they’re back together, or whatever their deal is,” Harry observed.

“If those two aren’t careful they’re going to find themselves locked in a room together until they can get along or we need one of the understudies,” Ron said, writing something in his binder without looking up.

“Oh ease up, Sparky,” Nix said, “It’s just relationship drama. Not that you would know anything about that.” Lip smiled and Ron glanced at him and visibly softened before he could reply. Nix and Harry rolled their eyes, though Harry didn’t have ground to stand on.

Ron pointed that out.

“So have you seen Dick?” Lip asked Nix while Harry and Ron kept it up in the background.

“No, is he still in that meeting with Sobel?” Nix asked incredulously.

Lip shrugged. “That’s why I asked.”

Nix felt all of his good mood vanish and he glanced at the actors who were milling around, waiting for the directors’ attention. Then he glanced up toward the booth and the office that lay beyond it. He looked at Lip again. “I’m going to go find out, then,” he said. “You keep doing what you’re doing.”

Lip nodded and the other two took notice. They seemed to understand without having to ask and Nix left the stage without another thought.

He went to the same door and the same stairwell he’d been trying for earlier. And since he didn’t prepare himself, the transition was jarring.

Everything else in the theater was lush and elegant—or trying to be—with the velvet and the brass and the crystal. Even the backstage area had a charm to it with the bare wood and the dust that felt just a little bit older than everything around it. But this stairwell, as something that truly wasn’t supposed to be seen, was practical, utilitarian concrete and steel, like you’d find in any other building.

The sense of the real world felt out of place here and Nix tried his best to ignore it.

He opened the stairwell door at the top and noticed the office door, slightly ajar, to his right. He approached it slowly, though he didn’t hear anything. Inside, Dick was alone and looking out the window with its view of the alley, his back to the door. His hair looked dark and dull in the fluorescent light and Nix noticed the tension in his shoulders, despite his stillness.

He knocked lightly on the doorjamb as he went into the room, pushing the door open as he did. Dick didn’t react visibly, but he did speak. “Nix?”

“Yeah, it’s me. What’re you doing in here?” It was a pointless question because Nix could guess the answer, but it would draw Dick into talking.

“I’ll tell all of you about it all at once,” he sighed. “I don’t want to have to go over it more than that.” He turned around, and Nix had been expecting frustration, not the fury that darkened Dick’s expression. He wanted to say something, but all of his words escaped him.

“Suffice to say, we have another major setback,” Dick said.

“No kidding,” Nix observed. “Sobel must be immune to the director voice.” 

Dick gave him a dark, deeply unamused look and Nix shrugged. At an impasse in their conversation, Dick shook his head and wiped a hand over his face. When it passed, the fire was contained again and Dick glanced at his watch.

Nix waited.

“I assume Lip, Harry, and Ron are leading rehearsal downstairs.” When Nix nodded, Dick retreated back into his head, and Nix noticed how he continued to put away any evidence that he was upset. His shoulders loosened, his anger continued to fade away from his face, and his eyes looked less like a trap and more like the safe, calm place they usually were. It was a tidy routine, unlike Nix’s which involved a flask and a stash of whiskey Ron hadn’t found yet.

“Alright, let’s join them and run through that new dance again. If there’s time we’ll go through some of those big scenes,” Dick said. Nix could see the gears turning in his head as he came up with a plan and he felt a smile rise to his face.

“Yes sir.” This time he only got an eyeroll in response. Then they left the room together and went back down to the production.

“And if it makes you feel any better, it looks like we’re going to get some help with the choreography,” Nix said as they took the stairs down.

“Oh yeah?”

“I had a little meeting with the managers.” But Nix was quick to reassure when Dick’s expression tightened. “They came to me about it. Apparently they disagree with the producers, and they don’t like any of the designers either. So they’ve offered to help us work around them and hide it.”

“Huh,” was all Dick said, but Nix could see him taking that information and filing it away for later examination. In the meantime, he had a little smile on his face and they passed under the chandelier as they made it back to the stage.

 

Of course, the levity wasn’t built to last. More to tide them over until the actors were dismissed and the five of them were secured in their favorite room backstage. It was tucked away beside the costume shop, and it had been discovered by Lip and Dick.

“Alright, hit us with it,” Harry said, accepting the glass Nix slid across the table. He’d broken into his stash and brought some out for everyone. They were also pretending to play poker.

They usually came here after rehearsals to talk about what progress they’d made and what they still needed to do. Alcohol—for Nix, Ron, and Harry mostly—and poker were often involved.

As usual, Dick sat off to the side, sipping at a water bottle and half-heartedly, kind of, sort of playing. He never cared when they called him a stick in the mud, so it wasn’t like he would now either.

“Sobel doesn’t have anything done. He said he has designs and plans, but he’s been waiting for a chance to talk to the producers about them before he puts them on paper, gives them to us or even shows us. I explained how we don’t have time for that, but he doesn’t care.”  Harry slid the cards to him because it was clear he needed something to do with his hands—the label from the water bottle was already torn to shreds.

As soon as the deck was in his grasp, Dick started shuffling with a little more force than necessary, though his voice remained calm. “He acts like this is all beneath him, and he said he needs to go through ‘the proper channels’ even though this requirement isn’t normal.”

“Did he give you an estimate for when he might be willing to give these designs over?” Lip asked from where he was seated under Ron’s arm. He hated Sobel as much as he could hate anyone.

“No. He told me that he’s busy with other things at the moment, and he couldn’t tell when he might have the time to talk to the producers. So I don’t know when we’re going to have a set, but it doesn’t look like it’ll be soon.” His tone was light and controlled, and only Dick could possibly pull that off.

Harry looked incredulous. “But we can’t do that. We should have had this stuff in development last month.”

“At least,” Dick agreed.

“So that’s it? Sobel’s holding us hostage because he doesn’t like us?” Lip asked.

“No, he’s holding us hostage because he doesn’t like Dick,” Ron said darkly, glaring at an invisible Sobel. Dick shook his head, but didn’t disagree.

“When I told him we can’t wait for these designs anymore and tried to explain why, he said that he didn’t like my tone and asked if I was questioning his authority and expertise,” he added. Nix felt his own anger flare at that.

“What do we do, then?” Harry asked, “Wait? And what do we do if it takes another two months for him to ‘find the time?’ We don’t have that long to be without sets. We’re going to run out of things to rehearse and we need to start blocking something soon. It’s not like opening night’s going to move.”

But no one had an answer for him.

“Fuck it,” Ron said suddenly. He had a black look in his eyes and he practically launched himself out of his seat to get a pad of paper and a pencil, rocking his chair back. Lip reached out to steady it and he looked like he agreed. Ron came back and slapped the two things down in the middle of the table. “We do what community theaters do. We know what we want it to look like.”

No one responded, so he grabbed the pencil, bent over the table himself and started sketching a rough square. “We’ve talked about this, right?” he asked as he drew.

Nix embraced the idea first, intoxicated by the sudden tone of “fuck it.” He went to get his own pencil, and one for everyone else, smiling to himself the whole time. “You’re damn right, Sparky,” he said.

After Nix, it didn’t take long for everyone else to jump on board. They drew out the whole set. Each scene. All of the tricky places where things had to be hidden from the audience, all of the places where things were revealed. Careful diagrams with notes beside them.

And it really was as easy as Ron had suggested, to put their ideas of what the set should look like onto paper. They knew they probably couldn’t use the designs, since Dick pointed out it would really tip off the producers that they were taking over the production.

But it was cathartic. And the tone of the room shifted substantially toward the positive, especially when Nix shared his news about the choreography.

It was very early morning when they finally finished up and left the theater. Harry was on his way to being drunk and it looked like the same could be said for Ron. Lip took on the burden of getting both of them home, waving as he got them into a car.

They were out on the sidewalk in front of the theater and New York City traffic rushed around them. Lights shone, streetlights changed, and ads flashed. The city moved on, not caring about what Nix’s friends were doing here. It was oddly comforting.  

“Alright, I’m going to get some sleep,” Dick said, watching Lip’s cab drive away. “Are you good to get home?”

“Oh, I can handle my liquor,” Nix said. “I’m offended you have to ask.” Dick made a face at that, but he nodded and turned to walk toward his train station. Before he could get too far, Nix reached out and caught his sleeve.

Dick didn’t say anything, only let Nix tug him back and turned his head to look at him. His hair was much brighter out here under the streetlights, like a shining red beacon. Nix cleared his throat and tried to remember what he’d been about to say.

“Are you okay, Dick? Really okay with all of this?”

Dick sighed a little and shook his head as he smiled. “It’s not ideal, but I’ll be fine,” he said, and his expression suggested he was going to have to be. Then it softened just a little. “But thanks for asking, Lew.”

Nix smiled wryly back. “No problem.” He took a swig from the flask.

“How are you doing?” It was an odd question, Nix thought. But he nodded.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Considering the fact that none of the problems affected him directly—he just juggled them and told his friends—he wasn’t sure why he would be anything else.

Dick had his puzzle-solving look on his face and Nix had his “there’s not a puzzle to solve” look on his. Dick looked for a few more seconds before he said, “Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

 

Rehearsal had been going well. The actors had finally nailed a big number early in the week, one Lip had been working them through since the beginning. Though it wasn’t their fault the lyricist and composer were sadists who’d had some kind of feud and unnatural expectations.

When they’d finally gotten it, Lip had beamed, giddy and proud. Ron had smiled as he looked at Lip, then flicked his eyes toward the company.

Dick had looked triumphant, his whole face lit up with it. He’d glanced back at Nix, who’d been off to the side as usual and he’d smiled when they made eye contact.

The company was happy as well, and because actors couldn’t stay quiet unless it was part of the script, they’d been congratulating each other with varying levels of sincerity.

Harry had been in the costume shop with Kitty, so he’d missed out on the moment, but he’d heard it because they’d both come running out to the stage to see.

That’s what Nix thought about as he stood anxiously outside the producers’ office.

He resisted the urge to check the time or to wonder how rehearsal was going now. He also didn’t take the time to dwell on Ron’s dark scowl or Harry’s bemused frown when he’d told them that the producers wanted to meet with him. Lip had sighed, crossed his arms, and looked down to hide the way his mouth had twisted.

And as always, the only discernable reaction from Dick was the way his face didn’t change, but for the corner of his mouth tightening.

Part of Nix hoped that they were going to tell him they’d found tech people or a new choreographer. Or that they’d gotten that globe prop.

But the realistic rest of him knew this would just be more bad news that he’d have to then hand down to his friends. It always was when he had to meet with Sink and Godfather.

This was how he’d first learned that the producers were bringing in their own designers and managers. It was how he’d learned that Dike had disappeared off the face of the earth. How he’d learned they still didn’t have tech. How he first found out that Sobel didn’t have any work done and, most recently, that Sobel wanted to meet specifically with Dick.

And with each new case of bad news, Nix had to go back and tell Dick and the others with a sinking feeling of guilt in his stomach. Dick had tried to hide it, but his expression had taken to falling—just a little, only enough for Nix and maybe Lip to notice—when he saw Nix.

Finally, the door opened and a man in a suit walked out. It was expensive and very expensively tailored and Nix suppressed his automatic shudder at the sight. He slipped quickly through the door to decrease the amount of oxygen he had to share with it, and met a secretary who escorted him to the final set of doors.

Nix had another unpleasant sense of déjà vu when he entered the office. It wasn’t anything specific, but it looked like the typical office a businessperson would have and he had to suppress another shudder.

“Mr. Nixon,” Sink greeted, looking up from his conversation with Godfather at the window. Godfather nodded at him. Nix nodded back and shook their hands as they were offered.

“Mr. Sink, Mr. Ferrando,” he replied. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” Nix summoned all of his charm and cluelessness from underneath his unease.

“Well son,” Godfather rasped as they all lowered themselves into the large brown-leather chairs that stood in the center of the room in front of the desk. “We have some bad news about your show and we don’t want to beat around the bush.” He glanced at Sink, who picked up where Godfather had left off like it was scripted.

“Unfortunately, because some of our other investments went south, we’re going to have to pull your funding.” They continued before Nix had a chance to digest the news. “There just isn’t enough money to keep it going, we’re afraid.” And though both men looked regretful, Nix didn’t believe it was about the show.

His stomach sat like lead and he didn’t even bother to go for disbelief. It was all over their faces that the game was over. Still, his next breath was shaky. “What about the actors who’ve already put the work in?” he asked, knowing that it would be the first thing the directors would want to know.

The regret had already passed and it was clear the producers had moved on. “Do what you want with any money you have left,” Godfather advised.

And at his indifferent tone, all of Nix’s charm went out the large, expensive window at the back of the office. He pushed himself out of his chair, “Well thanks for the news,” he clipped, anger mounting. “I’ll just go tell my friends and the company then.” Then he showed himself out before he was dismissed. In his experience, that was what you did to annoy the wealthy.

The anger lasted until he was out on the street again and checked his phone. He’d been in the building for 45 minutes, 43 of which he’d spent waiting. Which meant that it was almost seven.

He sighed and looked around like he could find a solution in the streets of the Upper East Side. When it didn’t work, he raked his hand through his hair as he turned the other way, still searching.

Even without sets, a delay in costumes, an unclear status for props, bare-bones tech, and cobbled-together choreography, the show, amazingly, was coming together. Everyone—directors, actors, the stagehands, tech, costume designers, and the managers—was doing their damndest to make sure of it.

The problem with the sets wasn’t even so bad. Since they’d been going so long with no idea, the actors and directors pretended they were there. The actors did blocking automatically in their scenes, and then the directors filled the spaces with what made sense and what they saw in their heads.

Nix had begun to think that it was almost possible to not have any set, if it came to it. And he knew it had crossed Dick and Ron’s minds at least.

But now it was all over.

Nix raked another hand through his hair and left it there while he tried to think around the growing pit of guilt in his stomach. No solutions came to mind, only what he couldn’t do.

He couldn’t tell Dick.

He couldn’t go back to the theater and the excellent rehearsal and drop this bombshell.

He didn’t think he could handle the light completely dying in Dick’s eyes. He’d pretend to, but he was sure that saying the words would break him more than it would Dick.

This show was Dick’s dream, and it was finally looking like a possibility. Nix couldn’t take that away.

But he needed to know eventually. And the actors needed to be able to get their things in order.

The actors. What would they do? After all this hard work?

He supposed he had time. Nix couldn’t even go back at the moment. There was no way he could mask the hopelessness he felt. Dick could read him like a book, and his face would fall and the light would die.

There would be no chance to ease him in with sarcasm and jokes, and Nix couldn’t do it like that.

He couldn’t do it to the most important person in his life. He couldn’t do it to the friends who’d become his family in the years since they’d met. He couldn’t tell the actors who’d worked so hard and despite so many setbacks and so much bullshit. And he couldn’t tell the crew of volunteers.

Lip had brought in Luz, a lighting tech. Harry had brought in his wife, the seamstress and clothes designer. Ron had offered solutions after last night’s bombshell. The stagehands were going above and beyond their duties to obtain and manage their own props. And Dick was pulling it all together by weaving them into a show.

And, as usual, Nix was the grenade that brought the show crashing down. But this time he was an asteroid and the theater was full of dinosaurs.

There was no fixing an apocalypse.

So he couldn’t go home because of these stupid, greedy rich men and their money concerns. Not yet.

He turned around to glare at the building again and was hit with yet another feeling of déjà vu as he looked up and half-heartedly flipped it off. It hit him like a train this time. Everything around him came to a stop and he paused until the feeling came into focus as an idea.

Without stopping to think about it any further, Nix ran to the nearest subway station.

 

He very carefully didn’t think about what he was doing as he sat on the train and stared at the lights out the window. Instead, his hand was stuck to his flask and his mind wandered back and over to the people he was doing it for.

He’d met all of his friends in camps and workshops over the past five years. The directing track was intense, so you needed friends along the way in order to survive, and they’d all found each other.

He’d met Dick first. During the summer at a directing camp in Ohio. They’d been assigned to the same room at the campsite, but they’d actually met first at the bus stop that took them to the camp. Dick had been surrounded by his family, and Nix had been surrounded by his luggage. As soon as the Winters family peeled away, Nix had needed to know more about the quiet ginger who seemed a little bit separate and totally comfortable with letting the silence go on.

They’d clicked immediately and Nix had found himself stuck to Dick like glue. At camp, they were inseparable. And Dick had let Nix in like he did for no one else. It didn’t take Nix very long to fall in love, or to come to depend on Dick like oxygen.

Lip and Harry had been at that camp, too. Ron had joined their group at the next one. And over the years, they’d all become a family.

The train stopped and he got off without thinking. He found a cab and watched out the window as the car drove. The directions were still burned into his brain, and he watched as they passed the orderly houses with immaculate yards.

Nix had always been enchanted by the theatre, but he hadn’t really planned to join it. The first directing camp had been a spur of the moment decision, just something to get him out of the house.

And it was probably one of the best decisions he’d ever made.

With his little family, he’d ushered in the best years of his life. They’d traveled together when they had the opportunities and even when they were just sitting around and shooting the shit, Nix wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

The neighborhood looked eerily familiar when Nix got out. It should have, of course, but Nix had somehow expected it to move on without him.

It was the same brick-street plaza with the fountain in the center and the benches and bushes of flowers. And the same circle of tidy houses that sat back from it. He carefully avoided the memories it all brought up.

But something didn’t feel exactly the same. He couldn’t put his finger on exactly why—if it was because of him or something else.

All he knew was that it was drudging up old feelings. He didn’t feel like a part of it anymore, but he did feel the pull of an old, ill-fitting version of himself and the weight that version had carried on his shoulders.

Nix wasn’t sure what he was doing, but he kept walking.

The townhouse rose up in front of him, a block away from the plaza, lights on in both the upper and lower level. It also looked the same. Before he could change his mind, Nix took the stairs and knocked on the door.  

In seconds, his mother was on the other side, and just like a movie, she sort of did a double take and her eyes widened before her mouth stretched into a smile. “Lewis!” she said happily as her arms came around his neck.

“Hi Ma,” he replied, wrapping his arms around her back. Her hair smelled the same when it fell across his face and he felt a pang of guilt for never visiting.

A figure moved into the hallway behind her and Nix remembered why he hadn’t.

“Hi Dad,” he greeted, pulling away from his mother. She let him go and turned so she was looking at both of them. Her expression suggested she knew what was coming next and that she didn’t like it. It was a familiar dynamic.

“Lewis,” his father said. “I thought you’d decided you were too good for us.” And just because of his tone, Nix felt like a disappointment again.

But his blood pressure rose alongside it, and Nix couldn’t remember why he’d thought this was a good idea. “Can’t a son come visit his parents?”

“That’s not why you’re here,” Stanhope scoffed.

“Let’s go inside,” his mother said, leaving no room in her tone for an argument. She was glaring and she gave them both a look before she turned and walked back inside. Stanhope went with her.

Nix followed them back through the halls of his childhood home and had the same feeling as before. Everything looked the same and he knew his way around, but there was something different. His stomach twisted as they progressed, but not the same way he was used to.

Their little group made it into the sitting room near the rear of the house and Nix paused for a second before he took the chair that was “his,” if he could still claim it after five years.

“Is Blanche home?” he asked, uneasily. He liked his little sister and he felt guilty about not visiting her either. And he wanted to delay his reason for coming by a little bit longer.

“No, she’s still at school. It’s the middle of the year,” his mother replied. Stanhope was too busy glowering at him.

“Oh, that makes sense. I forgot about that.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Stanhope said in response, expression still dark. Nix took care not roll his eyes and decided not to wait anymore.

“So you’re probably wondering why I’m here after so long,” he said, looking pointedly at Stanhope. Nix still remembered all of the fighting, feeling like he was suffocating because they just didn’t get it—why he was unhappy and what he wanted. And he remembered leaving because it felt like the only way to escape from feeling ready to erupt.

“The show I’m running with my friends just got its funding pulled. The producers told me about it an hour ago,” he said. “We employ over 100 people and everyone involved has been working hard for the past three months to make it come together,  but it would all be wasted,” he took a deep breath before he got to the point. “So I came to ask for a loan.”

His father’s face somehow darkened even more. “A loan implies the money will be paid back, Lewis,” he said.

Nix took a steadying breath and swallowed his first response. When he spoke again, his voice was even and calm. “Yes. That’s why I’m offering to come work in the plant to make up the money.”

Stanhope’s expression slipped and he actually looked surprised by Nix’s offer. “How do I know you’ll keep your word?”

And that hurt. Nix tried to keep it off his face, but he wasn’t sure of his success. “I’ve always kept my word. Didn’t I swear that I wasn’t going to another year at Yale?”

“Ah yes, the last time I gave you money. That ended up going down the drain, too.”

“You knew that I never wanted to go to Yale, Dad,” he shot back. Very forcefully, he pulled back his control and took a breath. “I know it seems like a gamble, but you’re not investing. Whether the show succeeds or fails, you’ll get your money back.” You’ll get me back, he thought bitterly. But it was worth it. If Stanhope gave in, it would be worth being under his control again.

Only for a while, a few months at the most, his voice of reason said. It had Dick’s voice. It had always had Dick’s voice. Somehow before Nix had even met him.

He and Dick had gone to Chicago after that first camp, because it was right there and Dick had never been. And the next year, Nix remembered going to Europe with all four of his friends, and the classes and late nights they’d had there. Harry had met Kitty right before they’d gone, and spent the whole time writing sappy letters that they wouldn’t let him live down. Nix held onto those memories as the silence stretched out.

Stanhope was unreadable so Nix dared to look at his mother. Her expression was troubled and a little complicated, but Nix saw a sharp edge to it. You’d need that edge to be married to Stanhope.

“I agree,” she said quietly. Stanhope’s gaze snapped to her immediately. “Lewis is going to help you out in the plant and earn the money back. You won’t be losing anything and there’s no reason for you to not help your only son with the one thing he’s asked you for in five years.” She looked at Nix, and he could tell she knew how important this was to him. The sad expression in her eyes said she knew he wouldn’t have come otherwise.

When his mother put it like that, and when Stanhope’s brow wrinkled, Nix felt a spark of hope. Maybe the apocalypse wasn’t here yet. Maybe he could finally do something to help instead of watching on the side.

Stanhope was looking at him again, darkness gone, replaced by calculation. Nix looked back, determined to hold his ground. He was the different one. He’d gone away and seen the world and found people he loved more than himself. He’d do anything for them. That was why he didn’t fit here anymore.

After a few moments of looking at him, Stanhope glanced at Nix’s mother and sighed. He shifted in his chair so he could reach his back pocket and his hand came back with the checkbook. “How much do you need?”

 

Nix felt a mixture of emotions as he walked down the street toward the train station, carrying a whole show in his pocket.

On the one hand, the show was going to happen. He’d always had a good idea of the budget, but he’d worked out an exact number on the train ride over, and Stanhope had given him everything they needed to carry them to opening night.

But to call the feeling victory or elation would be jumping the gun. Before Nix had left, he’d also worked out with Stanhope when he would be coming to the plant to work. And it was a lot of money that he had to earn back.

His fate was sealed. After being free for the past five years, Nix was in his father’s sights and back under his thumb.

He slipped a hand into his pocket and his fingers brushed the folded check, signed and official, and he took comfort in knowing that he’d saved Dick’s hopes and dreams.

But it didn’t get rid of the stone in his stomach, as he got on the train to go back over the river.

He turned his phone back on when he got out on the other side, and he was assaulted by a flood of notifications: missed calls, missed text messages, five voicemails: one from each of his friends, but two from Dick.

“I don’t know where you disappeared to,” Dick said on the end of a sigh in his last one. It was from 10:30, “Or why you aren’t answering, but meet me at the theater when you get back. I’ll still be there until around midnight.” There was a long pause and Nix could only hear Dick breathing. “I’ll see you soon.”

From all of the others, spaced throughout the evening and with differing levels of concern, Nix knew that rehearsal had gone well and that it was over by now. It was 11:30, so Nix hoped so. But that meant Dick was waiting for him.

And as soon as he turned the corner into the alley with the door that led directly to the stage, Dick was there, outside and beside the stage door, hands in his pockets, staring into space with one foot kicked up on the brick wall. He was chewing his lip, the way he always did when he was worried but couldn’t do anything about it.

“The hell are you doing?” Nix asked weakly, relieved to see him. He felt solid again for the first time in hours.

Dick’s head snapped around to look at him. His eyes were round and he clearly had a question on his lips, but it vanished and his face changed as he noticed something in Nix’s. “You look miserable. What happened?”

And Nix wanted to shoot back with something witty that would lighten the mood, but he couldn’t do it. Instead, he took a breath and explained everything.

As he talked, Dick’s expression went still and his eyes got more focused.

But when he was done, Dick’s expression changed in a subtle way. He looked proud, and his eyes flicked back and forth over Nix’s face like he couldn’t take it all in. “You went to your family for the show,” he breathed finally, but Nix couldn’t read his voice.

And then Dick was smiling at him in the soft private way Nix loved because it wasn’t an expression many other people got to see him wear. It made Nix want to kiss him. “Of course I did. The show must go on,” he said lightly. He’d been right. It was all worth it to see that look on Dick’s face.

The pride didn’t go away as Dick kept looking at him and Nix wrinkled his nose. “Stop looking at me like that,” he complained, reaching out to push Dick in the chest.

As he rocked back, Dick laughed and the shine stayed put. “You realize this is your show, too, right?” he asked, sobering just a little.

“What do you mean?” Nix asked, confused.

“When you were telling me about what happened, you kept referring to the show as mine,” Dick told him. “But, Lew, it’s yours too. You’ve been part of it since the beginning, and you’re the reason it’s not ending.”

Nix felt warmth creep into his chest at Dick’s insistent words. “Well, when you put it like that…”

“And we’re going to help you,” Dick said. Nix raised an eyebrow. “You’re not going to your father’s plant all by yourself. We’ll come too, so it goes faster and you have some company.” Nix considered arguing, but the determination in Dick’s eyes told him that the decision had been made and he’d be wasting his breath. The warmth spread a little.

They’d all do anything for each other.

“So why did you want to meet me here?” Nix asked. He didn’t trust himself not to do something stupid if they stayed on this subject and that warmth got to move any farther.

“I wanted to take you out somewhere,” Dick said with a shrug. And he had a good poker face, Nix would give him that, but Dick Winters didn’t “go out” at midnight. Sure, he was usually still awake at midnight, but that was because he was caught up in work or reading.

 “But really.”

“You disappeared. I wanted to check on you and ask how it went with the producers.”

Nix shook his head in amusement. “You don’t have to fix everything, Dick, you know that?”

Dick didn’t get a chance to respond because there was a crash from inside the theater, loud enough to reach through the thick stage door.

Without saying anything, only exchanging a panicked look, they turned to the door at the same time. Dick went through first, and Nix was on his heels.

What greeted them was a fully lit theater, a stage full of actors, and the sound of power tools mixed with songs from Newsies. Dick and Nix stopped to process it.

The stage was crowded with wood and wooden structures in different stages of construction. The whole company seemed to be there, working and singing, and Nix stared in disbelief. Beside him, Dick looked dumbstruck.

“What the hell?” Nix breathed, taking it all in.

“Hello sirs,” a voice said from their right.

As one, Nix and Dick turned their heads to see Colbert leaning against the nearest structure while Person sat on top of it. He had a self-satisfied smirk on his face and Person was grinning like a madman.

“What is all of this?” Dick asked, looking around the stage again, more slowly. Nix saw the managers now too. And there was the reporter from earlier, holding a long, wooden board with Hasser while Skip used a circle saw.

Colbert looked lazily at the activity, as if he hadn’t been aware of it. “Just a bit of set building, sir,” he said, turning his eyes back to them. They sparked and his mouth was tipped up.

“After you called rehearsal and all of you disappeared right away, Luz told us to wait before we left. Apparently he’d been trying to find you earlier and he found a stack of set designs instead. He showed them to us and said we must not have any real ones if you’d taken the time to draw up your own,” Person explained. He didn’t swear once in his explanation and Nix wondered if he could possibly be dreaming all of this.

“And I suggested we take your designs and build what you came up with then,” Colbert said. There was a dark side to the satisfied look on his face, a spark of rebellion. He gestured to the rest of the stage as if that was the rest of the story.

“How’d you know that we came up with it?” Nix asked.

“Luz said he’d recognize Speirs’ handwriting anywhere,” Person said. Nix looked out over the company and saw Luz on top of a different structure, receiving a screwdriver from Toye while Espera, Kocher, and Malarkey worked on part of the base.

“Holy shit,” he breathed as he caught sight of the stagehands as well. He turned back to Colbert and Person. “So you just started building set pieces from designs Luz found in a desk drawer in an office backstage? Did it occur to you that they were in that drawer for a reason?” He wasn’t angry, just confused.

“Luz didn’t say jack about a drawer,” Person said.

“And if all of you designed them, that’s good enough for me,” Colbert said. “They’re good designs and it’s about time we had a set. Since we have to take care of everything around here ourselves, we didn’t see the harm in it.”

“Well,” Nix said, turning to Dick, “now that the producers aren’t funding us, we don’t have to deal with what they want anymore.”

Dick nodded at that, his eyes blank as he puzzled out how it would all work. After a few moments, he looked out over the working actors and back at Nix. “You’re absolutely right. Call the others.”

“Wait, what the hell do you mean the producers aren’t funding us?” Person asked.

Dick ignored him and turned to the actors as he raised his voice. “Gentlemen,” he projected, a smile on his face, “we have some important news for all of you and I’d like to introduce you to someone.”

He had everyone’s attention and a mischievous grin on his face as he looked back at Nix and gestured to him. “Our very own son of York.” Nix groaned.

 

They explained the full story when Lip, Harry, and Ron got to the theater, confused and worried.

“So it looks like we’re going to make it to opening night after all,” Dick concluded in front of a rapt audience.

A raucous cheer rose up from the company and someone—probably Luz—started chanting the chorus to “Tubthumping.” Everyone joined in after the first line and they all got back to a less focused, more celebratory form of work.

Nix and the other four turned into each other while the actors transitioned to “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and Dick explained the specifics of the situation. “Nix made a deal with his father to get the money. So we’re all going to work at his plant to pay the loan back sometime after the show starts.”

The other three nodded, as if that had been obvious. They didn’t know everything, but they knew enough about Nix’s relationship with his family. And the fire in their eyes told him that Dick hadn’t had to say it. They would have come along anyway.

There was another fire in Dick’s eyes and Nix tried not to comment.

Dick often got involved in projects with a passion that scared Nix. He poured everything he had into them. All of his time, all of his emotions, all of his sleep and meal times. Nix couldn’t remember how many projects over the years he or Lip would have to check on Dick to get him to eat something or to go to sleep.

There had been one project, his first show, when Dick‘s sleeping patterns took the form of periodic naps and most of what he ingested in a day was caffeinated.

And it looked like that was how this one was going to be, too. For all of them. They were three months into the rehearsal process and still desperately behind schedule with a few more months left to go.

But it wouldn’t be theatre if they weren’t. And they had a lot of help.

Nix looked around at everyone, landing on Dick last, and he couldn’t help thinking it was all worth it. Dick glanced at him, and Nix saw the same feeling reflected back.

Chapter Text

The shop was a glorious thing, Brad thought. Especially after the months of hurried building.

Since the company had taken over, it was full of set pieces, some fully painted and ready to be used, some with last coats or touches needed, most completely constructed.

The shop was also a mess. Paint cans and brushes, tools, wood shavings, and stray pieces of fabric were on the floor while tables overflowed with strings of light and wiring and more tools. It was a mess, but at the very least, they had everything they needed.

And there was a building crew now, who’d taken over most of the responsibility. Dick had hired them as soon as he’d been able to. Now that the cast could finally move forward instead of going over and polishing everything they’d already been through, he was taking full advantage of it. Rehearsals that didn’t stretch into the early hours of the morning were becoming rarer the closer they got to opening night.

Now that they were a week out, Dick told them not to plan for anything else. And as far as Brad knew, everyone in the cast had taken off work for hell week and reduced their hours for this past one. Dick’s hope was to start earlier in the day as well. And though he hadn’t asked, most of the actors had worked it out so they were off and ready to go by noon.

They had a break right now. And even though they had a building crew—led by Compton, Randleman, and Martin Construction—Brad still thought of some set pieces as his. The construction guys didn’t seem to care that he came in and worked on the sets, either.

Not that it would have stopped him.

He liked the shop. It was peaceful and private and he felt like he could think better here.

“Yo, Brad, Iceman, we need you back on the stage.”

Brad took a deep breath and closed his eyes before he turned around to look at Poke. “C’mon dawg, the directors want to run the first act with full dress, as full set as possible, and with tech.” There was a half-smile on his face, like he didn’t realize it was there.

Brad raised his eyebrows and pointed it out. “Careful Poke, you’re starting to look like you have faith in what we’re doing here.”

“Man, ever since the directors got rid of those crazy motherfuckers at the beginning and the producers decided to give up on us, I’ve had nothing but faith. We carried this show out of the jaws of death. Nothing can touch us now.”

Brad smirked and clapped him on the shoulder as they walked back to the stage.

They’d all made incredible progress in the last couple of months, and there wasn’t anything significant standing in their way anymore, but that didn’t mean there weren’t problems. Problems that made him grit his teeth and hate everything just a little bit.

One of them was standing onstage when Brad walked in from stage right. Every bit of his good mood vanished, and he felt the positivity leak out of Poke, too.

“That motherfucker…”

Ray had been right all those months ago when he’d said that Encino Man was their worst nightmare.

And he was talking to Nate downstage.

Nate had his back to Brad, and Encino Man’s expression rarely changed from its look of complete confusion, so Brad couldn’t tell what they were talking about. He guessed that it was bad for Nate because his arms were crossed and his back was stiff, the way he always stood when he was trying to control himself.

But it was always bad for Nate.

After a quick search, Brad found Ray in the crowd. He would have gone over, but Ray had already been looking for him. And when their eyes met, he’d started picking his way through the crowd of other actors.

Brad didn’t even have to ask. “He’s just getting in Nate’s way again. The fucker’s trying to say that Nate and Gunny and Patterson have to run the choreography through him before we can actually do it. I assume that he’s still trying to argue his point, but Nate’s not buying it,” Ray said.

“How long has he been here?” Brad asked, concerned.

Ray shook his head. “Way longer than he needed to be.”

“That’s the second he steps foot in the building.”

Ray smirked. “Then in that case, I think it’s been a half hour that they’ve been talking.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Nope. That lumbering dipshit came in here, talked to Winters, who didn’t look excited to see him, and has been bothering Nate for the whole break.”

Brad looked back toward Nate and the walking disaster that was Encino Man and shook his head. “Jesus Christ.”

Ray nodded. “I tried to eavesdrop, but Nate glared at me when I got close enough and moved away. Which I know is standard Nate Fick Operating Procedure, but it’s annoying as hell.”

Brad sighed. Ray wasn’t wrong about that either.

Despite his protests when Ray brought it up, he’d missed all of them during his two years in England. Brad didn’t have a lot of friends, but the ones he did have were good.

He was half-tempted to go over and interrupt, but Dick beat him to it.

The head director approached in his normal light-hearted, innocuous way. Brad could see the irritation that was underneath, though. Nate stepped back as Dick approached and the director had words with the choreography manager. He didn’t have to say much for Encino Man to look around like an idiot and nod slowly.

Brad, Ray, and Poke all watched as he made his closing remarks and left their stage.

“Good riddance,” Poke muttered as the door fell shut.

At the same time, the heavy silence that hung over the stage came to an end. The actors came back to life and the rest of the directors joined Dick. Nate talked to them for a moment before he turned around and walked back to where Brad, Ray, and Poke stood waiting for him.

Nate’s eyes were bright as he looked at them, and his mouth was pressed into a line. When he was in speaking range he nodded once and said, voice clipped, “Everything’s fine. He was just checking on the status of the choreography before we move further and he’s making a report to Sink and Ferrando because they want to know what’s going on.”

Brad raised his eyebrows. It was a little late for that at this point. The choreography was final and the company had learned it all. There wasn’t a whole hell of a lot they could do about it now. Beside him, Ray snorted.

“I can’t believe those sons of bitches have the balls to pretend they still have any authority over any of this,” he said, laughing.

He wasn’t actually amused, of course. No one was.

When the show hadn’t closed like the producers expected, they’d investigated. Dick and the other directors had been up front about the loan that was keeping the show afloat, and the producers hadn’t been happy about it.

They’d brought in a lawyer who looked at the contracts and said the company didn’t have the right to continue without the producers having a part in it. Dick had refused.

As a result, Buck Compton, the construction worker who happened to have a law degree, had looked over the contracts and said what the lawyer was saying wasn’t exactly true.

However, the contracts did stipulate that the producers had to be involved in some way if the show was to continue. They weren’t actually producing the show anymore, but they kept their titles and unleashed Encino Man on the company as a punishment.

Dick and Speirs told them to ignore him, but it was hard when Nate and his stress levels were Encino Man’s main targets.

“So what’s the caveman going to say in his report? Big bad Nate won’t listen to him and handled all of the choreography behind his back because the ‘producers’ couldn’t be bothered to care before now?” Ray asked, because he’d never encountered a button he didn’t want to push.

Brad elbowed him. Hard. Nate’s expression tightened, which meant that Ray had gotten close if he hadn’t guessed it exactly.

“Ray, I know it’s hard because of all the inbreeding, but try to use that shriveled up organ in your head before you speak.”

Brad got a filthy look in return, but Ray thankfully didn’t say anything else, which was always a gamble. Ray rolled his eyes and he didn’t apologize, but he did look a little remorseful.

And Nate knew how Ray was, which was why he wasn’t really bothered. Brad just wished he didn’t look so much like he was going to throw up.

“Alright everyone, gather up,” Nixon called out to all the actors. He had The Book cradled in one arm and waved them to group around with his other hand. Brad had to forget about Nate and Ray for the time being.

When everyone was in place, Nixon looked up to address them. There was a spark in his eyes and a lightness that hadn’t been there before the loan. All of the directors looked like that.

“We need you back in your costumes and in your places for the top of the show. The goal for tonight is to run through the first act, and then we’ll fix up what we need to. Tomorrow we move to Act II. All through hell week, we’re going to run the show.

“And, just to remind you, this weekend is the last time you can call for lines. After this you’d better make something up if you don’t remember,” Nixon told them.

There was a murmur of assent and a wave of heads bobbing. But the company had been off book for at least two months.

Brad had the whole show memorized at this point. He was only in danger of filling someone else’s lines.

“Well? Places in five,” Dick said.

And if the whole company wasn’t smiling, it felt like it was. “Thank you places,” they replied as one before they left to get into costume.

 

Brad was pulling on the pair of costume jeans that was on his first hanger and stuffing his feet into the black combat boots that accompanied them when he saw Ray again.

At some point in the rush backstage, Ray had peeled away from him and now he was sitting on one of the two completed set pieces. He didn’t notice Brad right away, which gave Brad the opportunity to take in the way he aimlessly kicked his legs as he stared into space, his face blank.

But Brad didn’t have a chance to think of a solution.

“Colbert, where the fuck are your props?” he turned to find Bryan standing behind him, arms crossed and glaring.

“They’re on my side of the stage,” he replied coolly. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ray perk up.

“Why the fuck aren’t they on the prop table?”

Brad liked Bryan. He and the other stagehands had sat around shooting the shit with the actors plenty of times. The guy was laid back until he was poked and Brad identified with that. But he didn’t need to be managed.

“Because the prop table is too far away for it to be of any real use to me when I need to enter a scene.”

Bryan narrowed his eyes and his moustache bristled a little. “Your convenience isn’t the point of the prop table.”

Brad raised an eyebrow in return, but he didn’t respond.

And Bryan was pretty good at staring contests, but Brad wasn’t called “Iceman” for nothing. So Bryan gave up eventually and stalked off toward Brad’s side of the stage.

Brad would just move them back when Bryan wasn’t looking.

“Ooooh, Brad got in trouble,” Ray taunted, grinning stupidly. “Are you two going to go out to the back after rehearsal and throw down?” At least his face was back to normal.

“No. Because we’re both civilized. Remember, you’re not in the sticks anymore. Not every living thing is food or a threat.”

Ray grinned but he didn’t reply. The comment didn’t need one. Instead he ran his eyes over Brad’s costume and whistled. “Hot damn, Rudy and Kitty know what they’re doing. Give me a spin.”

Brad flipped him off and Ray cackled in response while Brad sank down beside him.

“So superstar, feeling under the weather at all?” Ray raised his eyebrows and smiled like he was waiting for good news.  

Brad smirked. “Looks like you’re going to have to work harder to poison me, Ray. And I’ll be honest, I’m not impressed so far.”

“Fuck,” Ray said. “The hell am I going to do now?”

And this was the Ray Brad was comfortable with. He patted him on the head as condescendingly as possible. “I’m sure you’ll think of something.” Ray pushed his hand away. “After all, your species has survived this long somehow.” On the far end of the theater, the door from the mezz opened again and Brad brightened.

“But for now you can take care of Reporter.”

Ray followed Brad’s gaze and sighed. “And here he told us this was a temporary thing.”

“That was before things got exciting,” Brad said. Reporter caught sight of them and waved before he came over. “It’ll be good for you.”

Ray glared, but Brad was already on his way out to the stage.

Over his shoulder, he watched Reporter talking to Ray and he smiled, feeling like he’d accomplished something.

Brad made it to center stage, where the other three leads were already standing, and Nate noticed.

“What?” he asked, like he wasn’t sure he really wanted to know.

Brad just jerked his head toward where Ray was leaning against the set piece, someone else’s sunglasses on his face, rattling something off to Reporter with a cocky, self-assured grin on his face. Nate took in the scene for a few seconds before he huffed a soft “huh.” Brad looked back at him and wondered if he saw the same thing Brad did.

“So how’s he doing?” Nate asked when he turned back to Brad.

Brad glanced back and shrugged. “Everything’s under control.”

“Not really,” Nate replied darkly.

“Sounds like Encino Man wants you to be.” Brad got a dirty look in response.

“Who’re we talking about?” Lieb asked, looking up finally from his conversation with Web. When Brad told him, he grimaced. “Fuck that guy.”

Web shook his head, adjusting the gold tie he was wearing. “Seriously. I like your choreography, Nate. And if the producers wanted to have more control, they should have stuck with the show instead of dumping us just because they lost money somewhere else and didn’t feel an obligation to this expense anymore.” He’d taken to wringing his red beret in his hands while he glared at invisible producers. Lieb smiled, slow and delighted, and wrapped his arm around Web’s waist.

Brad agreed and it looked like Nate wanted to as well, though he’d never say it out loud.

They were interrupted by Dick’s call for final places and a blackout.

 

Overall, the run-through of the first act was successful. And Dick mentioned that in his notes, but—

“What the hell happened during the storm scene?” Speirs demanded, turning to the booth.

Luz yelled back, “Those controls happen at the same time on two different ends of the board. I told you that I needed someone else up here with me. And I’m the lighting tech, so if you want your boom next time, you’re going to need to listen to me.” His voice was put out and frustrated, and Brad sensed he was one of the only people who could get away with talking to Speirs like that.

Still, Speirs’ eyebrows had made an impressive jump toward his hairline. Dick took over before either of them could say anything else.

“We’re working on it, Luz. Was there a reason the flash was delayed?”

The second of silence served as a kind of sigh, and Luz’s voice was softer when it came back. “The ghost likes to play pranks and apparently sticking the knobs was its most recent idea of a joke. Which is a dick move when I’m trying to work here.” His last sentence sounded like it was directed to someone else and from slightly behind Brad, he heard Toye groan.

“Ghost?” Nixon asked, not as skeptical as Brad would have expected.

“You know what, forget about that. I’ll get it under control.” Dick and Nixon exchanged a glance before they opened it up to the other directors. It asked if they should do something about that or leave it alone like Luz suggested.

“Okay,” Dick said eventually. And they moved on to giving notes on the scenes themselves. Toye and Guarnere had almost missed an entrance due to a rapid costume change that had gone wrong. Garza had skipped over a chunk of dialogue that mixed everyone up about where they were in a scene toward the end. And Dick wanted to try something else for the climax of the first act because it hadn’t turned out right.

When Lipton stepped forward to talk about the music, Brad tried to ignore the heat that crept up his back and settled around his collar. His solos and parts in the bigger numbers had been spot on, but he couldn’t quite manage the choreography at the same time.

The choreography really wasn’t that difficult, but he still slipped up on the footwork. It was always the footwork that got him.

But Lipton didn’t single anyone out and Brad’s slip hadn’t been in any numbers where he was the focus, so he’d probably get away with it for now.

Except that Ray had been watching.

“So, Dancing Queen. How’s show life?” he asked when Brad showed up in the doorway of the booth after notes. His smile had too many teeth in it for Brad’s liking.

Luz turned around to grin at him, too, and Reporter looked like he wasn’t sure if he was allowed to join in or not. Brad was sure to let him know with a glance.

Ray was somehow sprawled in a tiny plastic chair near the sound board while Reporter sat in the tech’s chair with a notebook in his hand and Luz stood, leaning against the board.

“Am I interrupting your tea party or something?” he asked testily. Ray looked even more amused at that and Brad gritted his teeth to ignore him.

“No, just finishing up an interview. Unlike the rest of you assholes, Reporter here appreciates the tech side of the theatre,” Luz said, his tone light as he turned back to the controls for the lights. Some of the labels were peeling up at the sides, and he smoothed them down as he focused on readjusting them.

“There’d be more to appreciate if we had full tech like we were supposed to,” Brad replied.

Luz pointed at him without looking up from the dials. “I’m going to take that as you siding with me and not as a dig.” Brad shrugged.

“So what brings you here, Bradley? You stars aren’t supposed to mingle with us lowly underlings,” Ray said, crossing his legs and raising his eyebrows. Brad noticed that he had the costume sunglasses pushed up on the top of his head.

“Don’t group Luz and Reporter in with your underling status,” Brad admonished. Ray rolled his eyes as if he’d hoped for better. “The head director wants to talk to Luz about the tech.”

Luz groaned. “There isn’t shit I can do about anything unless they hire me someone else. I keep telling them that.” But he tossed down the pencil he was using to mark his version of the book with a sigh. “Alright, let’s go. Everyone up.”

The four of them trooped out of the booth and Luz locked the door behind him. “Where are the directors?” he sighed, rubbing hand over his temple when they hit the theater floor.

“They were waiting in the orchestra pit,” Brad told him. Luz nodded and veered off toward the front row of the seats, his binder tucked under his arm.

“I’m going to go with him,” Reporter said, looking to Brad and gesturing with his pen. Brad waved him off after the lighting tech and then he and Ray were left alone.

“I’m assuming that everyone else is hanging out since we have a break, right?” Ray asked lightly, as they walked up the side aisle to the stage.

“Probably,” Brad said, watching the clusters of actors. It looked like Guarnere was timing a small group while they did costume changes. He glanced at Ray, who was staring at them. “I have to go back to the costume shop for an adjustment. Want to come with me?”

Ray turned around to look at him with his big brown eyes, one eyebrow cocked. “Are you inviting me to come ogle at you while you try on clothes so they fit you even tighter? And there’s the possibility that Fruity Rudy stabs you with a safety pin?”

“If you take pictures, I’ll shove your phone down your throat and toss you into the Hudson.”

A grin spread across Ray’s face and his eyes lit up as he took the bait. “Ah, but you can’t stop the internet, Brad. The internet is forever.”

Brad didn’t justify that with a response, instead he knocked on the doorway to the costume shop before he went in. Ray trailed behind him, happily continuing the conversation with himself.

Kitty was apparently the only one there; Harry wasn’t even at her side. She looked up when Brad and Ray entered and leaned over to consult a list on the table beside her elbow.

“That’s right. Brad, you’re here for alterations and a different pair of shoes for the second act.” She gestured vaguely behind her as she turned to a shoe rack and scanned over it. “Rudy’s a little farther back there and I think he was going to get another jacket for you. We don’t like the one you have now.” Halfway through her explanation, she’d stuck a measuring tape between her teeth and reached over her head for a shoebox. Brad also noticed that she had a pencil and at least two different types of needles stuck in her blonde hair.

“Oh and your chart’s in the stack by the door. Would you get that for me?” And even though she was tiny and should have been drowned by racks of clothing and costume supplies that reached over her head, she swam expertly in the tide of organized chaos and commanded the room. Brad was rifling through the pile of folders before he even knew what he was doing.

“What a gentleman,” Ray commented dryly, catching Kitty’s attention.

She pointed at him absently as she reached for a piece of tape and scribbled something on it before tearing it off and sticking it on a pile of fabric. “You. Go get Rudy from the back and tell him that Brad’s here for the alterations to his pants.”

Ray followed her instructions immediately and Brad smirked after him. Kitty came up, took the chart from his hands, and replaced it with the shoebox. “Try those on.”

Brad sat down and worked off the too-small pair that he had while Kitty retrieved his uniform pants from where he’d dropped them off before. He was in sock feet when Ray and Rudy came back.

Rudy smiled serenely when he saw Brad on the bench. “Brad! What’s up man?” he asked, extending his fist. Brad bumped his knuckles against Rudy’s and couldn’t help smiling back.

“What’ve you got for me?” he asked, eyeing the jacket tossed over the designer’s shoulder.

Rudy lit up instantly and started talking about the jacket in far more detail than Brad cared about. As he described the stitching on the sleeves, Brad half-listened and looked over to see that Ray was already looking at him. Brad cut his gaze over to Rudy and rolled his eyes, but he had to smile, too.

Ray seemed to feel the same way because he shook his head again as he developed his own exasperated smile. And seeing that smile was satisfying in a way Brad hadn’t expected.

He slipped the new shoes on as Rudy pivoted to some other feature of the new jacket. The shoes fit perfectly and Kitty wrote something down on her sheet, nodding in approval.

    

The rest of the adjustment was similar to the first time Brad had come in. He put the new, vastly superior jacket on and the pants that needed to be adjusted. Ray made inappropriate comments while Rudy and Kitty hovered around him, pinning and patting. Brad was indeed stabbed with a safety pin. And when it was all over, the uniform pants finally fit.

“Be careful of the pins,” Kitty cautioned, but in a way that suggested she was more concerned about the pins than Brad’s legs.

Brad rubbed the spot on his thigh that had been stabbed as he eased the pants down his legs. “Yeah, yeah,” he muttered, concentrating on not pulling too hard. Ray whistled when he stood up to reach for his jeans and Brad flipped him off.

“You know,” Rudy said, “We’re going to have to get you in sometime soon, Ray. Probably next week. Unless you can do it tomorrow?” His tone was light and unassuming, but Brad saw Ray’s face go still.

“Yeah, I don’t know about that. Why would you need me?” Brad paused tying his shoes and turned his attention to Ray. His posture was stiff and the lightness in his voice was forced. And the question was fake. He knew why.

“In case you need to take over for someone. You’re going to need your own costume pieces.” Rudy stepped back and squinted at Ray. Though he was studying him, he somehow didn’t notice that Ray was upset. “Although I guess it’s possible that you’d fit into some of the costumes for Joe and David. If we made last-minute adjustments,” he continued. Brad remembered then that very few people could read Ray like he could.

Sharing a dressing room and almost all of your free time with someone for over a year led to perks like that.

Ray’s face went through a small cycle of emotions at a speed that would be unreadable for anyone not paying close attention. He crossed his arms and smiled. Only Brad noticed the sharp edge to it.

“You have more important things to worry about than that. I’m the second choice for filling in the leads anyway.”

Rudy frowned a little. “That’s not really how it works.” But Ray was clearly done.

He pivoted to Brad and, voice still tight, said, “I’m gonna go back out to the stage and see if there’s something going on.” Brad nodded, but Ray didn’t wait long enough to see it.

It was then that Rudy realized something was wrong. He turned his confused puppy expression toward Brad who’d gone back to buttoning his jeans.

He shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. It’s not your fault.” Which was mostly true. “I’ll take care of it.” He hoped that was true.

“Thanks for coming in,” Kitty said warmly, smiling. But Brad saw the sharpness in her eyes as she rested her hand on Rudy’s arm. She knew or guessed what was going on.

Rudy’s expression cleared, though he still looked a little guilty. “Yeah. You’re all done. And if you want to send Kocher in next, we’d appreciate it.”

Brad nodded and left the costume shop. He hoped Ray really had gone back to the stage.

When he got there, the place was in a state of minor chaos that seemed to be centered around Nate, Speirs, and Nixon.

He didn’t see Ray anywhere.

When he caught sight of Brad, Poke brightened and strutted over. “Dawg, you should’ve seen our boy here taking on Encino Man.”

“Encino Man came back?” Brad asked distractedly. He scanned the crowd of actors for Ray.

“Yeah, he came in and tried to tell Nate that he wasn’t allowed to do the choreography on his own. And Nate blew him off, said that it was hell week and if Encino Man had actually wanted to do something, he would have already. But the idiot kept arguing and you should have seen how pissed Nate got.” Poke shook his head, grinning. “Man, I thought he was gonna punch a bitch.”

And that got Brad’s undivided attention. “What?”

“Welcome back, bro.” Poke still looked ridiculously pleased with himself, as if he’d had something to do with Nate.

“Did he really almost punch Encino Man?”

“He looked like he wanted to, but it’s not like he took a swing or anything. You know Nate, pillar of self-control.”

Brad nodded. That sounded right. And any other time, he’d want specifics from the source.

“Have you seen Ray?” he asked. Poke shook his head.

“Nah. Is that who’s got you all distracted?” And Brad liked Poke, he really did, but he wasn’t taking it seriously. And he didn’t know how stupid Ray got when he was upset.

“Dude, White Boy’s fine. And if he’s not here, there ain’t nothing you can do about it anyway.” He sobered a little and smacked Brad in the arm. “C’mon bro. Person’s not a complete idiot. He’ll be fine.”

Brad wanted to argue that he hadn’t seen Ray’s face, but Poke was right. There wasn’t anything he could do whether Ray was right in front of him or not.

“Alright guys! We’re getting started again!” Nixon’s voice rang out across the stage, drawing actors’ attention like moths to flames. The other directors fell into place around him.

Dick picked up where Nixon had left off.

“We’re going to clean up Act I and run it one last time. Tomorrow we’ll do the same with Act II.” He stopped to look at all of them and Brad didn’t think he was imagining the look of pride.

“We have one week left until we open and all of your hard work pays off. One more week of hammering and polishing over what you’ve known for months. I know it’s frustrating, but we’re coming into the home stretch.”

The company let out a massive cheer in response and the corners of Dick’s mouth lifted. Beside him, Lipton and Welsh were grinning. Speirs seemed to be fighting off a smile and Nixon threw his arm over his shoulders.

Brad couldn’t help himself. He felt his own spirit rise to the occasion, soaring to match Dick’s words. He’d do anything he could to live up to them. And he knew that everyone else felt the same.

“Once more unto the breach, men!” Nixon called out as the actors took their places.

“God for Harry, England, and Saint George,” Brad replied, loud enough for Nixon to hear. He got a glowing smile in return.

 

“Here. It’s the fancy shit you like,” Ray said, holding out a cup of coffee. It was marked from the shop down the street from where Ray lived.

“Not being gas station sludge doesn’t automatically make it fancy, you hick,” Brad replied, taking the coffee and a drink.

Ray’s mouth quirked up at his eagerness, but Brad ignored it. And when Ray rolled his eyes at Brad’s comment, Brad ignored that, too. Because those were the reactions he’d expected.

Instead, he paid attention to what was different. Dust motes danced around him in the Sunday morning light and Ray’s expression was…quiet somehow. It wasn’t that he looked upset, but more that there was a shadow to the usual lightness in his face.

The coffee felt like a sign.

Brad studied Ray’s face a little closer. Quiet, calm, assuring. Now it felt like Brad was being soothed.

Ray rolled his eyes again, heaving a sigh as he sank down to the stage to sit by Brad. There was a cup of coffee in his own hand and he took a drink before he looked at Brad again. His expression was put-upon and he gestured to the other cup. “That’s my apology for running out like a pussy yesterday. I’m fine.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Yes you did, you freak. You may be a human staring contest, but I can read you like a damn book.”

“You can read books?”

Ray shook his head, but didn’t bother to reply. Brad raised an eyebrow as he watched, taking another drink of the coffee.

He knew Ray was trying to tell him that he was okay again. But, “You don’t need to apologize. I get it.”

“Yeah well, you know what your precious Rolling Stones say: you can’t always get what you want.”

“The Stones say wise things.”

“Yeah Mick Jagger’s a fucking prophet.” And he could very well have been sarcastic, but Brad knew that Ray liked the Stones, so he didn’t say anything about it. Slowly, Ray was becoming more animated and Brad felt the same sense of satisfaction he had yesterday after hooking him up with Reporter.

Most of the company was present by now, so Brad and Ray sat drinking their coffees as the other actors gradually joined their bubble. And as more people grouped together, the shadows around his face disappeared and Ray actually looked like he felt better.

“Gentlemen.” The company was on its feet and ready to move the second the directors stopped downstage and Dick spoke. “Happy Sunday. Once again, we have a lot of work to get done today. We’re running Act II without breaks.

“I know that one of the set pieces is under construction and another is waiting for more paint, but we have the biggest piece and we should have all of the props. Including the globe,” Dick nodded at the stagehands and Babe who were at the side of the group.

The globe was special to the show, but it was even more special now because, despite Casey Kasem, the stagehands had managed to find it online. A perfect substitute for the one they should have had. It had been delivered a week ago.

“And we’re going full costume and as full tech as we can. Once we’re done, you’ll have a small break before we work on polishing it up. Then we’ll run it again. During all of that time, Kitty and Rudy will be taking care of some last minute costume adjustments and fittings.”

When Dick finished, it felt like the whole theater nodded.

“Alright, places in five.”

As they all got up to get ready, Brad caught Ray’s eye. Ray smiled softly at him, the one with just a closed-mouth and dark eyes. It felt like he was offering another coffee.

Brad smiled back, hoping that his was as effective.

 

Despite all of his reassurance, Brad kept an eye on Ray.  

And it turned out to be worth it.

Conversation was bubbling around them and it was care-free and effortless, the way it was supposed to be during breaks. Brad hadn’t noticed when it turned to giving Ray a hard time, but suddenly Walt was laughing at Ray about something that sounded bitter.

“You laugh now, but I could get any one of you out any time I wanted,” Ray said, mock seriously.

“Oh, what the hell are you going to do?” Poke asked, in a good mood for once. It helped that the run-through had gone well.

“I could invoke the Curse,” Ray replied, head tilted to one side as he looked at the actors around him. His eyes were shining the way they did when his thoughts ran away from him and came outside to play.

“Ray,” Nate warned.

Guarnere had a deeply suspicious look in his eyes when he turned around and asked, “What the hell did you just say?”

Ray replied off-handedly, though he was gathering more attention now. “You know, the Curse of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play. Quote something from it or say the M-word and bad things happen.”

“I know what the Curse is,” Guarnere retorted.

“Fuck, maybe some asshole did say something and that’s why we’ve been having all of this shit happen to us,” Toye said, shooting Brad a dark look.

“Except that I’m not an idiot,” Brad replied coolly. He turned to Ray.

“Don’t say shit like that. It makes people nervous,” he told him. And midway through turning around, something else occurred to him. “And don’t actually do it. You’ll fuck over the whole show and you can’t control who the Curse hits, so it’s a stupid plan anyway.”

Walt was shaking his head. “The first thing you learn in the theatre is that you never say the M-word.”

Ray shrugged, smiling like he didn’t care, but Brad didn’t believe it. And he was getting more annoyed that he couldn’t do anything about it but watch.

So that’s what he kept doing.

Everyone moved on from the Scottish Play, but the bad luck came anyway.

No one looked up when the auditorium door opened. It wasn’t until the footfalls made it to the stage, and it was clear they were different from the directors’ that anyone even bothered a glance. And then—

“What the fuck does he think he’s doing here again?” Walt asked. He sounded incredulous. There were similar murmurs going around as Encino Man stopped downstage.

Brad looked beside him and watched Nate’s expression darken. Without looking at anyone, but focusing on Encino Man, he stood up. Brad pulled his legs in as Nate stalked past, straight toward the problem.

Encino Man’s face hardened when he saw Nate’s.

“What are you doing here?” Nate asked, not even bothering to sound polite. “We’re rehearsing.”

“I’m here to watch the choreography and approve it,” Encino Man replied. He apparently hadn’t caught on to Nate’s tone.

And sometimes Brad forgot that because Nate was the dance captain, he was in charge of all of the choreography. The directors usually stepped aside and let him make his own calls, too. It was impossible to forget at this moment.

“There’s nothing you can do about it at this point. We’re approaching opening night and it’s all final,” he said firmly.

“But I have to approve it, according to the producers and the contracts,” Encino Man replied. His tone came off less firm than he was probably hoping for. Certainly not able to stand up to Nate’s.

Nate’s face got dangerously sharp and his words came out of his teeth. “Then watch what we do, say that you approve, and get out.”

Encino Man seemed to finally understand, but it was too late for him to say anything because Nate turned around and left him standing there like a dumbass. Meanwhile, Nate’s eyes were on fire and his jaw was tight as he came back to the actors. Off to the side, Reporter—who’d shown up midway through their run and situated himself quietly in the audience—scribbled madly in his notebook.

Nate sat back down by Brad and other actors leaned over to pat him on the back and congratulate him. He looked a little shaken and he didn’t smile back, but he at least seemed to be on solid ground again. Brad held back, though he was proud and he met Nate’s eyes to let him know. Then he turned back at Encino Man, who looked like he was trying to decide what to do next.

The decision wasn’t up to him, though. Out of nowhere, Speirs materialized.

The confrontation didn’t take very long, and when Encino Man was through the door Speirs gestured to Nate. Brad watched them talking and tried to discern something from their body language. Unlike the confrontation with Encino Man, this discussion was happening farther downstage and with their backs to the actors.

Brad saw Speirs nod when Nate finished talking and he looked over to something that was out of Brad’s line of sight.

That was when the other directors showed up, Lipton in the lead with Welsh, as Dick and Nixon hung back, heads tilted together over the open Book between them.    

“Alright men,” Speirs said. His face wasn’t different from usual, but there was a hardness in his expression that made Brad feel a little less helpless. “We have a lot of work to do.”

 

 “God fucking dammit,” Brad muttered, catching himself against one of the set pieces. Nate saw the stumble, but he didn’t comment.

He, Nate, and a group of other actors were on one side of the stage with Lipton and Speirs, running through the music and choreography. On the other side, the other directors were going through scenes.

And Brad still couldn’t get the fucking choreography. Really, it was only adding to his annoyance at this point, though. All of his thoughts were drowning in frustration and he felt a restless need to get away from it. To get away from everything. For just a minute.

He tried not to think about it, but he couldn’t help it.

So when Lipton dismissed them, Brad didn’t wait for Nate to reach him and made his way through the winding passages of the backstage.

He needed to be able to help it.

    

The shop wasn’t quiet. Not really. Power tools were buzzing and there was a steady pounding from somewhere and people were talking and yelling to each other over the noise of everything else. But there was something muted about the sound. Like it disappeared as soon as it hit the walls.

When they saw him, Buck, Bull, and Johnny greeted him warmly. Brad waved back and said, “That piece in the back, does it still need work?”

“Yeah, we left it for you. You come back to lend us a hand?” Bull said amiably.

The restlessness started to feel desperate and Brad nodded, hoping they would let him go at that.

Mercifully, they did.

The back corner of the shop was a little removed from the rest of it, so more of the sounds were swallowed. And as soon as he sank down beside his set piece, Brad felt like he could breathe. The frustration drew back and his thoughts quieted.

Back when they’d done sets that night of the loan, Brad had started this one. It was only kind of important, but it was his and he’d been working on it ever since. It was almost done now, he just needed to fix the foot and handholds.

As he settled down to work on it, Brad finally let himself think.

He wasn’t really upset about the choreography because he knew he’d get it, and Nate’s confrontation with Encino Man was long overdue and now, hopefully, handled. But the Ray situation was apparently getting worse.

Ray pretended it didn’t bother him that he was an understudy, but Brad knew better.

“You know Bradley, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but you are an unequivocal loser,” a voice said, cutting into his thoughts, “Most guys, when they get upset, they just hit something and get the fuck over it.”

Brad couldn’t see his face, but he could imagine the exasperation very clearly. And even though he was technically upset for Ray, he didn’t respond. Instead he picked up another screw and put it in its place.

 “And you’re going to keep pouting over how you can’t dance, but that’s okay because I’m here for you. As long as Princess Brad wants to sulk, I’ll be right fucking here. What do you think about that?”

Brad smirked, making sure that his mouth was out of view before doing it. He felt marginally better, so he decided to reward Ray.

“You know, Shakespeare invented the word equivocal,” he said.

Ray groaned in response. “Sometimes I fucking hate you.” But he sat down, close enough that his arm brushed against Brad’s.

 “Wanna hear about the latest from my nine to five?” he asked after a few moments of silence.

Brad looked at him squarely. “Do I have a choice? And did you get time off for next week?”

Ray bounced a little in excitement, answering Brad’s first question. “That’s what it relates to. But what the fuck do I need the time off for?” Brad glared at him but Ray brushed him off, launching into the story.

“So it all started when I went to my stupid manager—”

Ray continued to rant, rambling and swearing and having the time of his life. Brad tuned out just enough so that he got the important parts—considering—but filtered out the tangents. Mostly, he watched Ray. The way he gestured and got more animated the more upset he got, and how he leaned into Brad when he was trying to make a point.

Watching Ray rant was like a performance, really. And Brad had missed being able to see it when he was in England.

Now that Nate had confidence in his choreography, the show was coming together piece by piece, and the company was finally, finally in the clear from the producers, Brad could fix this problem. He didn’t have a concrete plan, but he had some ideas.


Ray didn’t know what he’d said yesterday in the shop.

He knew that it was related to Gary giving him shit for requesting time off, but that was it. Brad had been upset, so Ray had opened the floodgates, spewing whatever words tumbled into his head first, going until he’d seen Brad’s expression ease and the corners of his mouth lift. That was always the goal. And after seeing him stalk backstage, it had been a relief to see.

Whatever it had been about, he couldn’t tell if it worked. Brad was still brooding, and it wasn’t clear if it was more than usual.

After the story, they’d talked until Web had come to get them. Then Brad had gone back to acting and Ray had gone back to trying to find something, anything to do.

Back in the beginning it hadn’t been so bad because he’d been learning all of the leads’ lines and solos and had basically been doing what everyone else was. But now that they were through the learning, Ray was out of luck.

Welsh had said they should keep some understudies back from the chorus, so they’d be ready to go at a moment’s notice. Which left Ray—and Babe—sitting off on the sidelines.

Ray lifted his face just in time to see the look of pride in Brad’s eyes. “Yes sir, thank you,” he replied.

Dick was still smirking, but he nodded before he turned away with the other directors. Nixon said something Ray couldn’t hear, but Dick shook his head about. And now Ray noticed that money was changing hands among the actors and people were cheering. Mostly sarcastically.

“You make a shitty Patrick Swayze,” he told Brad, their arms brushing.

“You jumped too late, Baby,” Brad said darkly.

“I bet you could do that lift though,” Ray turned to poke at Brad’s biceps, “with these arms and “Time of My Life” playing? I mean, you did get partway there.” Brad’s answering look rose to the challenge.

Later that night, Ray had to amend the gayest shit Brad had ever said.

He had to do it for himself, too.

 

Ray was in the booth, headset snug over one ear, watching the scene onstage. To his right, Luz hovered over his part of the board, adjusting settings as scenes transitioned. The only illumination they had came from the stage and a small red light under the board.     

The big number was coming up, and Ray liked him a lot, but watching Brad with the choreography had been kind of painful. And it was weird because he wasn’t an awful dancer. As soon as he stopped overthinking the steps, he was able to pull them off. But not a second sooner.

And these steps carried the extra baggage of Nate’s stress. He’d been doing this dance when Encino Man started to plague them. Nate had all the confidence in his choreography now, but this one still worried him and it was mostly Brad’s fault.

It was the only one Brad still hadn’t completely gotten under control, but things had been looking good so far. Days before dress rehearsal seemed like exactly the time when Brad would get his shit together.

The end of the first act was nigh, so Ray adjusted the levels for the mics—they could finally have mics—and prepared to jump in with the music if the orchestra fucked up, as was known to happen.

On the other side of the booth, Luz pushed dials around so the stage dimmed and its hue changed to a soft blue with hints of purple. Ray’s headset crackled and he heard Nixon’s voice, “Be ready if the orchestra doesn’t come in on time.”

Ray’s eyes stayed focused on the stage and the cluster of actors that had fallen effortlessly into formation and he nodded. “Roger.” Brad was near the back, his hair turned frosty in the new light.

The orchestra did come in on time and Ray exhaled with the slide of the strings. Web stepped forward, into a spotlight that had just appeared, and started his solo while the company unfolded around him. It was the end of the act so this final song had snippets of earlier songs and dances mixed into it. Ray’s eyes tracked all the choreography, but he focused especially on Brad.

Ray had learned the same steps, and they looked right to him. Then Brad did his solo part of the song, effortless and beautiful and Ray smiled at absolutely nothing. That voice was like Sea Witch bait.

The song went on and Ray watched, humming softly. The build in the middle was his favorite part and it was also the most complicated part of the dance. The part where Brad usually fucked up.

Ray watched, breath held, as the actors across the stage geared up for their leap, the one move that the company did all together. When the music soared and the company’s voice followed it, the stage was empty for one suspended moment. But it was the landing that typically tripped people up. It segued into another move with complicated footwork that needed to be prepared for.

And Brad stuck it, proving that he was a more-than-decent stage actor.

Ray suddenly found himself on his feet. Not only had Brad done it right, he’d continued doing it right. The solid feeling in Ray’s chest felt an awful lot like pride. And the urge he had to kiss Brad felt an awful lot like something he couldn’t control for long.

The act ended a short while later and Ray switched the mics off as soon as the lights went down. Already he was prepared to harass actors about not touching the power switches on their mic packs, though he knew it would be pointless.

But before any of that could happen, the house lights came up and Ray was ready at the soundboard. He flipped a switch and sparkly music filled the air.

Onstage, Brad stiffened and Ray bit back a grin. But he lost his battle when the Swedes started singing, “You can dance, you can jive. Having the time of your life. Oooh. See that girl, watch that scene, digging the Dancing Queen.”

Ray didn’t stay behind to see the glare he knew was coming his way and he left the booth to the sound of Luz cackling.

Instead, he made it back down to the stage and didn’t give Brad a chance to bitch at him before he dragged the Viking forward and swallowed the insults with his lips. Brad kissed him back, of course, and ABBA continued to mock Brad for him.

You are the Dancing Queen, young and sweet only seventeen,” he sang, laughing, when they parted. Brad tried to pull him back, but Ray skipped away from him. “Dancing Queen, feel the beat from the tambourine.”

And now everyone was singing along for the fun of it, and Ray stopped, turning to beam at Brad from a few steps away. They went pretty much unnoticed over on their side of the stage. Something in Brad’s expression shifted, saying thank you without saying it, and Ray felt his own shift to match it.

“Nice job, Dancing Queen. About damn time, don’t you think?”

“Does your mother know that you’re out?” Brad shot back and Ray felt another manic grin rise to his face.

“Are we going to talk in Mamma Mia references? Because if we are, lay all your love on me, Big Gay Brad.”

Brad shook his head, but there was a smile pulling on the corners of his mouth.

    

“Ray.”

“You’re on break, lighten the fuck up.”

“Ray.”

“Chill the fuck out, homes. We can totally do this.” This was going up to the booth to make out because Ray thought his title as the sound director—one he’d had for an hour—should come with benefits like that.

“Ray. If you’d stop wasting the precious air, you’d realize there’s already someone up there,” Brad growled quietly.

Ray frowned back at him then looked at the door to the booth. Now that he’d stopped to listen, he could hear two voices inside.

“This is your own damn fault, you know.” It was Luz and his voice was an odd mixture of amused, judgmental, and fond.

“Yeah, yeah,” the other voice grumbled. And if Ray had to guess, it sounded a lot like Joe Toye. He looked over his shoulder at Brad, who nodded, focused on the door.

“You think it’s that bad?” Toye asked. Luz made a humming sound.

“Remind me what Speirs said?”

Toye heaved a sigh like he’d done this before. “That if the black eye’s not gone or covered up by opening night, no one will ever find my body in the costume shop.”

Luz laughed quietly and Toye growled at him. Brad tapped Ray on the shoulder and nodded for him to move closer to the cracked door. Ray crept forward, settling on his knees at the top of the stairs, and he felt Brad crouch behind him, his chin hovering over Ray’s head.

In the room, Toye was sitting in the lighting chair and Luz was bent over in front of him, adjusting an icepack over Toye’s right eye. There was a smile on his face, but it wasn’t his normal loud smile with teeth and flash. This one looked private.

Though it was hard in their current position, Ray looked up to make eye contact with Brad, and they were wearing the same suspicious expression. Their eye contact broke when Luz started talking again.

“What did Kitty say?”

“She can probably cover it with makeup if it lightens up.” Toye was watching Luz, looking up at him with an open expression and all of his attention.

Luz pulled the icepack away and tilted his head to the side. And Ray finally caught a glimpse of the black eye he’d been hearing so much about.

Rumor had it that Toye, Luz, and a bunch of the other guys had gone out last night and things had gotten violent, as they apparently often did. Ray had heard that Toye and Guarnere picked fights recreationally when they drank together. And those fights often ended up like this.

But now the bruise didn’t look that much different from the shadows that were normally around Toye’s deep-set eyes.

“I definitely think it’s fading and I’m sure Kitty can cover it. You’re safe from Speirs for now.”

“At least this isn’t your fault this time.”

Luz scoffed in offense. “Hey, you got a black eye when I got drunk and carried away. I almost got a concussion that time you were drunk and knocked me off a barstool.” To punctuate his statement, Luz pushed the icepack back into Toye’s face.

Toye laughed, deep and raspy as his voice, and planted one hand on the icepack while his other arm reached out to pull Luz closer.

And that confirmed all of the suspicions and Ray couldn’t keep his reaction to himself.

Charlie’s reaction nearly drowned it out, though. The bang of a chair and the hiss pervading the booth dragged the two apart and Toye looked around as Luz groaned. Behind him, Brad jumped. And because he was pointlessly gigantic, he hit his head on the low ceiling, making an even louder sound.

Luz got up and moved to the door, but in the small space, Brad and Ray couldn’t leave fast enough. “Relax, the hissing’s just Charlie,” he told Toye. At the uncomprehending look he added, “The ghost I’ve told everyone about. It’s not a huge fan of making out. What the hell?”

The last part was directed at Ray and Brad.

“Do you think Charlie would mind if we made out?” Ray answered and he felt Brad’s glare through the back of his head. “Which is why we came up here, but you took our spot.”

Luz looked at him carefully and Ray saw Toye lean around to glower at them. Then, Luz’s smile came back. “That’s why you should have a backup. Pro tip: always have at least one backup make out spot.” He threw the smile back to Toye. “That’s what we’ve learned.”

He looked back at Ray and winked. And even though Ray could still feel Brad’s glare, he grinned back and moved into the booth.

Brad followed him, not saying anything.

“So, when do you want to try the impression thing? It could work, the directors have been coming up here all day and it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility that they would address the company from here,” Ray said, resting his hip against the soundboard, already over his failed mission.

Across the booth from him, Luz considered it. Brad and Toye went ignored.

“You’re right, and now would be a good time since everyone’s relaxed…”

“Wait a second,” Brad protested, but Ray soldiered on.

“Exactly. I can’t think of a better time. And they all disappeared, so we could have people going for a while,” Ray pointed out.

Luz’s smile grew and Ray stepped back from the board, gesturing widely. And though Brad looked like he wanted to stop it, he was powerless because Luz had already reached the button. On the other side of the booth, Toye was holding his icepack and watching silently. His expression was careful, but Ray didn’t think he shared all of Brad’s feelings about the situation.

Ray elbowed Brad lightly, eyes still on Luz who was now working the impression into his throat. “His impressions are fantastic,” he said eagerly. Brad shook his head and Ray felt his mouth tip into a smile. There was something about the grumpiness that made his heart lift.

It was strange. And gross. But Ray didn’t really mind anymore. Especially now that he knew he could take those feelings out on Brad’s lips.

And then Brad elbowed him back—probably because of the smile and because he could read Ray’s mind—and Ray had to bite down on a larger smile and a suspicious rush of lightness in his chest.

Once more, Luz glanced back at Ray, who nodded quickly. Luz pressed the button and the speakers crackled to life overhead. The lighting tech leaned toward the microphone and swallowed before he spoke.

 

 The voice that came out of his mouth sounded exactly like Nixon and Ray almost lost his shit while Toye and Brad groaned quietly, knowing where this was going. 

"At attention gentlemen." Ray watched through the window in the booth as all of the actors onstage looked around.

"We're getting started on the second act in five minutes. And we want you to really give it your all this time around, since opening night is upon us and we have our public dress in two days." Luz exaggerated the tone of his voice, so Nixon sounded even graver than usual. 

Onstage, the actors were on their feet, listening without looking anywhere. "Well? What the hell are you waiting for? The valiant only taste of death but once!" Brad snorted, but it was impossible to tell if he thought it was funny or atrocious. Still, it got the actors moving. 

With the exception of Nate, whose eyes were focused on the booth and on Brad in particular. Brad was looking back at him because the two of them were the bane of all fun when they were together. Nate turned to Skip and said something. 

Then Skip turned to the booth, a slow grin on his face, and called up, "Careful you don't get a nosebleed up there, Georgie!" 

Surprised, Luz squawked indignantly, "Your short jokes aren't funny, you dickhead."

All the activity onstage stopped. "Depends who you ask," Guarnere called back. 

"Oh, fuck you guys."

But before all of the actors could join in, the doors to the stage opened and the four directors and stage manager walked in. 

They only seemed a little surprised to see all of the actors on their feet. "Why don't we have everyone come to the stage before we resume?" Dick asked, not that it was actually a question or that it was actually directed at "everyone." And his tone them he knew what had been going on. 

Brad shot him a smug look, but Ray just made a face back at him. Behind them, Toye slung an arm around Luz's shoulders, and amused tilt to his lips while Luz sulked. 

When they got to the stage, Speirs gave Luz a dark look until Lipton nudged him. For his part, Luz held up pretty well under it. Nix only looked amused against his better judgment. 

"So, Luz wasn't completely wrong. We need everyone in their places for the second act. But, we'll let you go early tonight if you can get through it without any major problems."

And that offer was too good to refuse. The directors didn't need to say anything else for the company to take advantage of it. 

Before they went their separate ways, Ray turned to Brad and smirked.

"Maybe you can finally take me out on a date," he said. He meant to say it sarcastically, but he saw Brad's eyes light up with the idea, and the sight sent an unexpected rush of warmth through him. 

"We'll see," was all Brad said in reply, but Ray knew better.

"Oh for God's sake, come on," Luz said with an audible eyeroll, grabbing Ray's elbow and pulling him back toward the stairs that led up to the booth.

 

But of course, no one had thought to knock on wood, and the theatre loved dares. Especially when they were related to "nothing going wrong."

And they should have expected it. The last run-throughs of shows before performances always went terrible. 

Guarnere was doing his monologue when there was a crash from upstage, and the room fell silent as everyone went still and tried to figure out what happened. But Ray could see everything clearly. Julian was on his back, clutching his ankle. His chest hitched sharply despite his attempts to breathe evenly, and the set piece he'd fallen from didn't care at all.

A group led by the directors swarmed around him instantly, and Ray exchanged a look with Luz across the booth. 

So their trouble wasn't over yet.

Chapter Text

Babe hadn’t been shocked when he’d been put in the show. Julian’d had to go sprain his ankle—one of those bad sprains you didn’t get over for months—and Babe had been the only understudy capable of taking over.

Which said a lot considering he’d let go of the idea as soon as the stagehands had needed help. It hadn’t kept him from paying any attention to the rehearsals or taking part, but he’d definitely been more focused on his role with them.

And yet, as the only understudy who’d been assigned to Julian’s section of minor characters, there’d been no other choice.

He was kind of freaking out about it.

“I thought I told you to calm down,” Gene drawled beside him. His tone was mild, but there was a hint of real chastisement in it. He didn’t even turn his head, he just watched Babe from the corner of his eye.

“And I told you that you can’t tell me how to feel,” he grumbled back. At least he had Gene with him. He’d literally been at Babe’s side when the directors had told him the news, and here he still was. With Babe while he waited to get costumed for the last time.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to do the part or that he wasn’t excited. He just wasn’t sure that he could do it. They were one day away from their first public performance and Babe knew without a doubt in his mind that yesterday and today wasn’t enough time to learn everything.

Gene disagreed.

“You’ve been around the show as much as anyone. If I have it memorized, so do you,” he’d said when the directors had left and Babe’s panic had come out of its hiding place. The look in his eyes hadn’t even been hard, like Bill’s had been. Just steady Eugene.

Bill, on the other hand, had been thrilled. He’d found out, slapped Babe on the back, and gone on and on about how proud he was.

When Babe hadn’t immediately joined in the celebration, Bill’s eyes had darkened in that terrifying, older-brother way. “Don’t you dare turn this down. You can do it and the directors wouldn’t have put you in if they didn’t think so.”

Babe wasn’t sure that was true, but Bill’s expression didn’t invite a debate.

And when Babe had officially accepted, he’d seen the relief on Lipton’s face and knew that he couldn’t back out, no matter how nervous he was. He’d been left standing there, and then Gene had come up and carefully dragged him away by the sleeve.

“I’ll help you,” he’d said, without any discernable facial expression or inflection in his tone. That wasn’t abnormal, but he did seem to mean it.

“You sure about that? You don’t have to.” The stagehands were always busy, whether it was moving sets or finding misplaced props, and Babe didn’t really think Gene had the time for it. But Gene had only nodded, looking sure. And that was it. There was no arguing with him about it.

Babe looked over at him now, while they waited for Rudy to come back with whatever costume piece he’d gone after. All of the fittings had taken place in a few hours, and Babe had most of his costumes ready to go. They were just scrambling to finish now.

Gene was relaxed beside him, but he was still frowning at the wall, eyebrows pulled down over his eyes. He was probably thinking about what he needed to take care of backstage, and yet here he was.

“You don’t have to do this, you know,” Babe said cautiously. He was pretty good at reading Gene by now, and he was pretty sure what his response would be.

That was another minor downside to this new position. Babe couldn’t help behind the scenes anymore.

He’d gotten accustomed to the backstage, where it was dim—especially since they’d started rehearsing like they’d do it for a performance—and the walls were close and the dust had its own smell, one that Babe associated specifically with the theatre.

The stage was a very different place. It was louder and brighter and open. But even though Babe had gotten used to the backstage, his heart still thrilled when he set foot on the stage and faced all of the seats.

So even though he missed working with Gene, Spina, and Bryan, he couldn’t deny that being onstage was where he belonged. Even if he was completely overwhelmed and under-prepared.

“Hush,” Gene said, his eyes not leaving the wall.

Rudy came into the room, bearing a robe that looked to be about Babe’s height. “This is your last piece right?” For once, the costume designer didn’t sound quite so Zen. The scrambling was that intense.

Babe nodded. “And this is for the…fourth scene in the second act, right Gene?” he asked, shrugging into the soft fabric that reached down to his ankles. He wore it with only a shirt in the show.

Gene startled a little, took stock of the costume, and looked back at Julian’s script where all of the costumes and costume changes were technically marked. But it was all so scattered, Julian was probably the only one who could easily read it. Still, Gene flipped a few pages and nodded. “Yep.”

“And then I only wear it for that scene before I change back into what I was wearing at the top of the show,” Babe said, trying to remember. That was the jeans and black shirt combo. Gene nodded again.

“Alright,” Rudy said, smiling and perking up, “if that fits alright and you don’t have any complaints, then you’re good to go.”

Babe moved around a little before he shook his head, slipped out of the robe, and hung it up on his rack. “Thanks man,” he said. Rudy nodded and offered his fist. Grinning, Babe bumped knuckles with him before Gene dragged him away.

“Where to next?” Babe asked. It had been late when the accident had happened, so Babe had come in the next day, earlier than the normal early he usually arrived at. And he was still overwhelmed and frazzled.

“Your mic. Then you’re going back to the stage to rehearse,” Gene told him—sure as always—as they crossed the stage from behind and took another hidden hallway that let out along the side of the audience. Babe’s character, who he liked a lot, wasn’t in a scene at the moment, so Nixon and Lipton had given him permission from Winters to run around and get all of his stuff together in between.

Babe and Gene ascended the stairs to the booth and opened the door to find Ray and Luz debating the importance of their respective tech.

Gene knocked on the side of the door, and Ray smiled when he saw them. “I’m just saying, Luz, we couldn’t hear jack until I got here and said ‘let there be sound,’” A hissing sound followed Ray’s words and he grinned. “See? Charlie’s on my side. You’re here for your mic pack?” he asked, changing the direction of his attention.

“Yeah, if you wouldn’t mind,” Babe said awkwardly.

“Charlie, what the fuck? You’ve known me longer,” Luz complained from the other side of the booth, eyes on one of the room’s corners.

Ray turned around to a cabinet at the back of the booth and pulled open the door to reveal a catalogue of cubbyholes. He pulled a box wrapped in a cord out of its slot and a Sharpie from his pocket. He scribbled something on the piece of tape on the side and held it out to demonstrate the parts.

“So this is all you need. You have the main mic and the backup right above it. Don’t worry about that, I’ll take care of it up here. And this is the pack,” he held up the box at the end of the cord.

“Do not touch the power switch or I will leave your mic on when you go to the bathroom,” he threatened. “Let me handle all of the turning on and off.”

Gene held his hand out for the mic pack, and Babe said, “And how do I know you won’t turn the mic on in the bathroom anyway?”

Ray gave him a devilish smile. “Don’t get on my bad side.”

Babe didn’t intend to, but he did feel a blush creeping up his neck. “I, uh, I know this is dumb, but I’m sorry about all of this,” he even accompanied the words with a lame gesture. It was the vaguest thing he could have said, but after a moment Ray seemed to understand what he meant.

“No worries, homes. It’s not your fault you were the only one who could save the day.” He sounded serious, too.

Babe practically melted with the relief. “Good.”

“Yeah, leave your mic alone and we’ll be fine.”

“Hey, Babe!” Luz called suddenly. “Looks like you need to get back onstage.” And this was the guy who’d regularly pranked him since the day they’d met, but he looked sincere now.

“Shit, are you sure?” Babe hissed, looking around and trying to determine where they were in the show. A chill of adrenaline ran through his body.

“I have my book right here and if I remember your character right, then you’re on again in a minute and a half.”

“Shit,” Babe repeated, turning wildly and finding Gene standing right there behind him. The stagehand nodded.

“Come on. You’ll be alright.”

“I don’t even know where the hell we are,” he insisted.

“The sitting room scene before Web and Lieb find the doorway and all of the magic stuff starts happening,” Ray supplied, back in his own chair and looking at his book.

Babe lined up all of the information in his head and nodded slowly. “Okay,” he focused on Gene. “Okay, I think I know where that is.”

“You do. Come on,” Gene replied, grabbing Babe’s elbow again and pulling him toward the stairs. “Thanks, guys.”

“No problem. Break a leg, Heffron,” Luz called.

Gene didn’t let him respond and kept him going down the stairs instead. “Shit, there’s a costume change that I have to do, too,” Babe remembered, stiffening and almost tripping the stagehand.

“I’ll help you with that,” Gene growled impatiently, keeping his feet and taking control of Babe’s. “Quit worryin’ ‘bout everything.”

“I can’t help it,” he replied miserably, overwhelmed. But he trusted Gene and his promise to be there.

“You’ve got this, Heffron.” He wasn’t growling anymore.

Babe sighed to himself. He’d broken Gene of the habit of seriously calling him “Heffron” or “Edward” a few months ago, but it still slipped out sometimes. Anyone else and he’d make a bigger deal about it. But since there had been so much going on with the props getting scattered all over the backstage, Babe usually let it go.

And, quite frankly, Gene could call him anything and he’d respond. It had something to do with the way he said any part of Babe’s name and something to do with the way he looked at Babe when he did it. So Babe didn’t try to correct him anymore.

Bill had noticed immediately, of course.

“Edward, huh? The last time I heard someone call you that and mean it, he got a bloody nose and you got detention,” he’d observed early on in the rehearsal process, when Babe had still been new to helping the stagehands.

“Shut up,” he’d replied, feeling his ears going red, “he’s got more to worry about than my name. He probably just doesn’t remember.”

And there hadn’t been a reason for him to remember at that point. After that, the stagehands’ jobs got more frustrating and they’d started to take the props into their own hands. That was when Babe had started helping out more and making friends with the backstage crew. Although “friend” was a strong word to use with Bryan.

That was when he’d told Gene to call him Babe. And he hadn’t really expected Gene to remember then either, but he had.

But every time he slipped, Babe minded a little less.

They made it to the stage and Babe had a moment to brace himself and tune into the scene. Now that he was down here, he recognized it and straightened his shoulders. He didn’t need to look behind him to know that Gene was watching.

He heard his cue, and walked into the scene.

 

Babe left near the end of it, and he had 30 seconds to change his costume and get back out for the beginning of another. He hurried backstage to his station, where the pieces of the next costume were folded and stashed if he wasn’t already wearing them.

Gene was waiting and neither of them bothered with pleasantries. Instead, Babe kicked his shoes off and Gene pulled Babe’s sweater over his head. Babe caught the unsecured mic that shifted on his forehead and shucked off his pants, reaching for the pair that Gene pushed toward him. He stood and stuffed his feet into the new pair of shoes. Gene handed him a bag and Babe slung it over his shoulder.

Before the lights came up, he checked his mic and the bobby pin holding it in place on his head, and finally took the time to breathe. Gene reached out to smooth his hair down and Babe nodded at him, ignoring the way his nerves shivered now that the whirlwind had finally settled.

Babe entered the next scene with the lights.           

As soon as the stage was lit around him, two things became evident: he’d forgotten his prop and Spina had been caught in the light while trying to move part of the set. One was easily fixed. The other would have to be improvised.

Spina slinked out of the scene, sticking toward the background until he was safe in the shadows at the edge of the stage. Babe went into the scene, delivering his opening lines to Web, when he abruptly felt the absence of Gene’s eyes.

He stalled a little in the delivery of the next line, and there was no calling for help at this point. Not the day before the public dress.

Babe rolled with it, using any and all of the skills he’d picked up over the years. Covering and improvising was easy when you were always prepared for it. It’s what being an understudy was all about.

The improv was also easier when you had a good partner for it and Web was one of the best Babe had done it with. He always seemed ready for things to go wrong. 

This time, the line just came out a little more hesitant and Web ad-libbed something that made it fit in, and then they continued the scene.

Babe was too far center for someone to toss the prop to him, but he was lucky that when Brad entered—from the other side of the stage—he came bearing treasure. In the form of an ordinary, blue plastic lighter. The first object in the show to catch magic.

He tossed it to Babe, made an off-hand comment about not forgetting shit just lying around the place, and excused Babe’s character so Brad’s could talk with Web’s.

Babe melted into the background, joining his assigned pair of Tab, Stafford, and Christenson and faking conversation. He played with the lighter according to the script, flicking it on and off, and he felt the return of Gene’s watchful gaze. A quick glance to his right revealed that he was correct.

Once their eyes met, the stagehand gave him a nod before he peeled away, probably to find someone else’s props.

Adjusting to holding onto the props for longer than it took to return them to the table was also new. For the most part everyone, including the stagehands, followed the rule of: “if it’s not your prop, don’t touch it.” But that didn’t keep people from not using the prop table.

When Babe had accepted the role, he’d known logically that Julian’s props had become his, but it had taken a few mishaps for the knowledge to sink in.

“It’s not completely my fault,” he’d complained to Toye once. “The prop table isn’t on the way to any of my entrances. I sort of forget about it.”

“Just do what everyone does,” Toye had advised, “move your props closer.”

A quick montage of all of Bryan’s angry rants about Brad had run through Babe’s head at the idea. “I think I’ll just adjust,” he’d replied.

Gene wouldn’t have been happy about it either. And what Gene’s fallen expression could do to him would be worse than anything Bryan could inflict.

So he’d continued to forget props, but he got better each time he needed one. Now, in his third full run of the show, it was rarer. And theatre ran on a disaster-curve, so even if he did forget, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Hell, it probably wouldn’t even be the most disastrous thing to happen.

The scene spun on and Babe existed happily inside of it. He was quickly getting the feel of the character and the hang of being back onstage.

The act ended without incident. No missed cues, no stumbling in the choreography, no missed lines in the songs or dialogue.

And when the stage blacked out and the house lights came up, everyone looked ecstatic. Babe laughed and high-fived along with everyone else as the cast celebrated the first truly successful run of the first act, with everything on and offstage going right.

The directors congregated downstage, and they looked happier than any of the actors.

     “We only have a few notes to give out,” Welsh said, grinning down at his clipboard. Beside him, Lip looked proud and Nixon looked animated for once. The satisfied smirk on his face, coupled with the little spark in his eyes inspired a lot of confidence; especially considering that he usually only wore that expression for Winters.

Winters stood there, looking out over the cast with his calm, steady gaze. He smiled at them, his eyes shining as he did, and that picture was all the motivation Babe needed. To project better, to learn brand new choreography, to run the first act until he could do it in his sleep, to do whatever Winters wanted them to.

“This was a good run. You should all be proud,” Winters said, matter-of-fact. “And since we don’t have many notes for this act, we’re saving them for the end. Just know that you can’t get complacent now, and I appreciate how dedicated you’ve been up to this point.” He turned back up to the booth and projected his voice to reach the techs.

“And I appreciate that we didn’t have any malfunctions with the mics this time,” he said. His voice hid a warning under its mild tone. He was in on the joke, but it wasn’t one that would happen again.

“No problem, chief,” Ray called back. Babe thought he sounded a little apologetic, but it was always hard to tell with Ray.

Yesterday, he and Brad had been doing their weird flirting thing during intermission and apparently Brad had crossed a line because when rehearsal had started again, his mic had cut out. Right at the beginning of his monologue. And it proceeded to flicker in and out during the second act.

Ray had sworn up and down that it was an accident and he didn’t know what was going on with the board, but he didn’t make mistakes. So though everyone had played along, Babe had seen Nixon drag Brad off to the side later.

Then Brad had disappeared for a while, Luz had come down to mingle with everyone, and no one saw the sound director or the actor for almost the whole interval before Brad had to come back in.

Not that it had mattered. Everyone had been fucking up yesterday.

Now, with the directors leaving notes until later, the music picked up. Ray had figured out how to connect his phone to the sound system, so he and Luz had created playlists for during the intermission. And this sounded like the Get it On Playlist.

Babe sighed, but at least it wasn’t their Nostalgia Playlist that was full of pop music from the 90s and early 2000s. It had started off truly nostalgic, but now it resulted in death threats coming from Toye, Lieb, and Brad. The rest of the company never hesitated to join in.

So it was to the sound of lazy guitar and AC/DC that Babe joined his cast mates on the floor. Conversation had started up around the stage immediately and on the other side the trio was trying to talk Toye into playing Improv Karaoke.

Babe looked around for Gene. Sometimes—especially after they’d started handling things themselves—the stagehands came out during the breaks and sat around and talked with the actors. Recently, the costume designers had started coming out, too. But Babe didn’t see him anywhere now, so he sat down next to Bill, somewhere in the middle of the assembled company, and kept an eye out.

“Hey Lieb,” he greeted, as the other actor sat down. He was also watching Toye argue with Skip. It didn’t seem to be working very well.

“Hi Babe,” Lieb replied before he shook his head. “I don’t know why he tries, Toye’s not gonna do it.” They watched the argument for a few seconds and Lieb was proving to be right.

“Where’s Web?” Babe asked. Skip looked close to giving up, which only meant that Toye was more stubborn than him. But it probably didn’t mean Skip wouldn’t try again.

Lieb gestured vaguely toward the other side of the stage and Babe followed it to where Web was sitting with Nate, Brad, Ray, and Luz. Reporter was hanging around, too, asking Nate questions.

Bill also looked. “Shit, Lieb, did you say something stupid again?”

Lieb snapped around to hiss, “Fuck off. No. He’s just talking to his friends.” His glare was heavy and Babe was half-prepared to jump in if needed. “We don’t have to be attached at all times.”

“Aww, don’t bother,” Babe laughed, “Bill wouldn’t know anything about that.”

Now Bill was the one glaring and he punched Babe in the arm. Harder than he needed to, but it only made it funnier.

“And what about you and Roe, huh? You’re always trailing after him like some lost puppy,” Bill countered.

Suddenly it wasn’t quite so funny anymore. Babe rubbed at his bicep and frowned. “I do not. We’re friends and I help him out.” He could feel his ears turning red.

“Sure,” Lieb laughed.

“Fine! So what if I like him?” Babe said, accepting the fact of the redness and its takeover of his face. “You pushed Web away for weeks, even after you started dating,” he retorted.

Lieb stopped and his eyes cut over to said boyfriend, immediately thrown off the scent. His mouth flattened into the frown he wore so well and he sighed. “And to think I’m going to ask him to move in with me,” he grumbled.

“Wait, really?” Babe asked, caught off-guard by the sudden shift in topic.

“No kidding? Good for you, Joe!” Bill said. His face lit up and he’d apparently forgotten what Babe had said about him and Frannie.

“Yeah man, that’s awesome!” Babe said, extending his knuckles.

“Yeah whatever, it’s not that big a deal,” Lieb replied, quick to brush them off. But he had a kind of embarrassed smile on his face and Babe could tell that he was secretly pleased. “Keep it to yourselves, though, will ya? I haven’t said anything about it to him yet, so don’t go telling anybody else about it.”

Bill put a heavy hand down on Lieb’s shoulder and fixed him with the Older Brother Look that he was somehow able to use on everyone. Overhead, Brian Johnson finished singing about a girl shaking him all night long.

“Your secret’s safe with us, Lieb.”

In response, Lieb rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I appreciate it,” he muttered dryly, shaking Bill’s hand off.

Movement near the side of the stage caught Babe’s eye and his head turned toward it automatically. He was standing before he was even aware of it. “I gotta go. Talk to you guys later.”

Babe felt the other two watch him walk toward stage left—he could feel the smirks on their faces too—but he ignored them.

“Can I do anything?” he asked once he’d stopped. Gene was bent over trying to move the exaggerated grandfather clock piece by himself and having a hard time of it. His face turned up to look at Babe, and his expression was so confused and caught off guard that Babe faltered a little.

But then Gene’s face cleared and he straightened up so he and Babe were on the same eye level again. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”

“Better than this?” Babe shook his head. “You make it sound like helping you out is a chore.”

Gene looked surprised again and he went kind of still before he smiled.

And it was a real smile.

Gene’s were rare, especially compared to other members of the company, but his real smiles were just as brilliant. They lit up his face and made him seem more relaxed. They erased the ever-present crease between his eyebrows by smoothing out his features and Babe loved them.

He felt his heart thud in his chest and his own smile spread out over his face. The red was also returning and spreading up his neck. “You know I like helping out. And it’s the least I could do after what you’ve done for me just today.”

It was then that he registered the song overhead and a guy singing about wanting to get naked with someone. Babe knew before he even felt it that the red had gone darker, and with the open neck of his shirt, it was impossible that Gene didn’t notice.

But the stagehand’s eyes never left Babe’s face. “You should be paying attention to your job,” he said. His words didn’t quite have their normal warning though. And when Gene shook his head and bent back down to grasp the bottom of the piece, Babe wasn’t sure how to react. The minute stretched out, like Babe had done something to offend it.

“Well, come on, then,” Gene prompted, looking up again. There was another smile on his face. This one wasn’t bright or big or flashy in any way. It didn’t change Gene’s face. But it was soft and welcoming and warm and it made Babe melt a little right there. Before he could say anything that would ruin the moment, he grinned back and bent down to grasp the other side of the piece.

“Alright now. One, two…three.” They pushed at the same time and the piece started to move freely.

“You’re gonna have to get two people to do this one,” Babe observed to fill the silence once they’d dragged the piece backstage.

“Yeah, looks like it.” He felt Gene’s eyes on him. Another moment of silence passed.

“Thanks for the help, Babe.”

Surprised and delighted, Babe turned to look at Gene. There was a soft, earnest look in his eyes that matched the smile from earlier, and Babe thought they’d make a nice set if they were ever together.

Babe knew that his own smile was too-wide and probably dopey. If Bill could’ve seen it, it would go on the list of things he wouldn’t let Babe live down.

“Hey. No problem, Gene. This wasn’t that big of a deal.”

Gene was still studying him, his features shifting back to their default sharp, watchful state. He didn’t say anything right away, so Babe continued.

“And thank you for helping me out. I don’t know what I would’ve done without you.”

“You woulda been just fine.” A sound rose up from the stage behind them. The quiet shuffle of a whole company’s worth of feet. Babe glanced back to watch and when he turned around again, there was a fond look on Gene’s face.

“Get back out there and do your job.”

Babe grinned and did as Gene said.


The prop table was empty except for Babe’s corner. Gene stared at it for a while, as if that was going to summon the rest back.

When it didn’t work, he sighed softly and muttered, “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

It didn’t grant him very much serenity, but it was a reflex. And now that it was out there, he ducked his head and started his daily search by checking the various entrance points.

Tonight was the public dress rehearsal and a strange, encompassing sense of calm and stillness hung over the theater. The backstage felt enormous now that it was just him. All of the actors were in their dressing rooms, and he’d lost track of Spina and Bryan.

Gene knew that once they got closer to curtains that all of the space around him would be filled with restless energy, but for now, everything was silent and still, and the anticipation hung heavy like the air before a storm. In less than an hour the excitement would be bouncing off the walls, and he could almost feel it.

But now everyone was getting ready.

The directors were all wearing tuxes. Nixon wasn’t, but he was still wearing a suit, just without the tie or jacket. They were all meeting somewhere to talk about last-minute checks and to get ready for the audience.

The actors were getting into costume and makeup now while Gene, the other stagehands, and the tech directors readied the theater—all decked out in solid black. And part of that meant putting the prop table together before the actors could descend on it.

Most of the props were easy to find right off the bat. Others were either better hidden or lost. Gene sighed again. He tried to be understanding about people moving their props, but that quickly turned into chaos. And more often than not, things moved for convenience got lost.

Like this. Gene bent down and reached far between the supports of a set piece, going after a prop dagger that had caught his eye. When he pulled it out, he held it up to examine it.

It was one of Garza’s. Probably it had been across the stage, closer to where he entered, but it had gotten kicked over here.

Lost.

And found.

Gene took it over to the table and set it down within the tape border that marked Garza’s square of space. Individual actor convenience wasn’t really the point of the prop table. And with a cast this big, it needed to serve more as a common storage area, a way to keep track of everything, than anything else.

The stagehands had tried to appeal to the actors about it. Individually and in groups and through Nixon, but nothing had worked so far.

He glanced at Colbert’s perpetually blank spot and smirked. Colbert’s hiding spots had gotten more sophisticated since the beginning, so his props were virtually impossible to find anymore. Bryan had made it his personal mission to get Colbert to use the prop table, but since none of his props ever actually went missing, Gene was inclined to let it go.

“Hey, Gene, check this out.”

Gene turned around to see Spina walking toward him with his arms full of props. He caught a look at Gene’s expression and smiled a little. “Ransacked the dressing rooms. Some of these assholes are keeping the props on them or at their stations.”

He started to sort them into the tape squares and Gene watched, nodded in approval.

“But I see your boy is doing things right,” Spina observed, looking at the corner that was full now and always had been.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Gene replied, even though it wasn’t true and Spina wouldn’t think it was true.

It felt strange to think about Babe Heffron being his anything.

“Right,” Spina said flatly. “I’m just saying that we must have trained him well.”

“I think Bryan deserves most of the credit,” Gene pointed out. And it was true that Bryan had threatened bodily harm if Babe didn’t use the prop table. Babe hadn’t heard, but he’d picked up on it.

“For intimidation, sure, but I’m pretty sure Heffron would do anything you asked him to. Like if you told him to jump, he’d just ask how high.”

Gene rolled his eyes and didn’t say anything. He didn’t know how to respond, so it was best to just stay quiet and ignore it.

“Do we have everything for once?” a soft, irritable voice demanded.

Spina stepped away from the table, his arms empty. “It seems like it. Well,” he gestured at the one empty square, “except for Colbert’s stuff.”

Bryan let out a disgusted sigh.

His relationship with Colbert was interesting. They seemed to respect each other and they got along just fine. And even with this, Gene thought they at least admired each other’s obstinacy.  

But this was still the one area without common ground.

“He’s never forgotten or lost a prop,” Gene reminded him. Bryan gave him a dark look, but he didn’t disagree.

“Let’s go check the sets,” Gene said then. The table was mostly full and the props that should have been there were probably with their actors. Gene didn’t like leaving it like that, but it would have to do for now.

 

“Is this everyone?” Nixon asked, holding The Book in one arm and a pencil in his hand. He looked over the assembled company spread across the stage.

The stagehands and techs were on stage right, near backstage, and Gene could see Babe standing with Bill and the Trio near the center of the mass of actors. He looked excited, even though he was nervous, and Gene was proud of him.

He’d done a massive amount of work in a short amount of time and he was serious about filling the open role. He still needed help with some small things that the other actors had perfected over several months, but otherwise it was hard to tell that he hadn’t been cast originally.

Downstage, Winters stepped forward.

A small smile played at the corner of his mouth as he regarded them with his hands crossed behind his back. “Gentlemen, tonight we face our first public audience. And even though it’s not opening night, and these aren’t members of the general public, and we won’t have a full house, I expect that you’ll put everything you have into this.

“You’ve done that for as long as you’ve been a part of the show and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your effort. Now go out there and let your work speak for itself.”

The stage erupted into cheers and a few hats were tossed into the air. Gene felt his mouth twitch up at the display. Downstage, Winters was positively glowing as he watched. All of the directors were.

“Okay,” Speirs called, and even he was fighting a smile, “get going. House opens in five. Finish what you need to and get to your places. No fuck-ups this early in the show.” Lipton elbowed him and the company turned and charged toward the backstage.

Except for Colbert, who was in costume and makeup and made his way toward the stagehand-tech cluster with his eyes on Person. Luz peeled away from the little group and followed the actors backstage. And, surprisingly, Babe came over to Gene.

He was also in full costume and makeup and his eyes were sparking with excitement and nerves. But even with that, Babe couldn’t quite keep the smile off of his face. Gene was vaguely aware of Spina and Bryan melting deeper backstage.

“You all ready to go?” Gene asked, studying the actor in front of him to make sure he had everything.

Babe bobbed his head, eyes still bright. Gene reached out and put a hand on his shoulder.

“You’re gonna be alright, Babe. You know what you’re doin’.” Babe nodded again and let out a shaky breath. Gene sighed fondly and curled his fingers into Babe’s sleeve. “C’mon,” he said as he pulled the actor backstage.

When they were in the corner, hidden behind a set piece and in a quiet spot that wouldn’t be seen by anyone else, Gene turned Babe to face him and focused on his eyes. “You’re gonna be fine. Tell me what you’re gonna do.”

Babe took a deep breath and focused on Gene’s face as he rattled off the basic plot, where and when he entered and exited, where his costume changes were, which costume pieces he exchanged each time, and the places where he had solos. Gene nodded along with him to emphasize that Babe knew exactly what he was doing.

“That’s right. And I’m gonna help you with all of it if you need me,” he said when Babe finished. The look on his face was desperate and hopeful at the same time and it did strange things to Gene’s stomach.

“You don’t have to,” Babe protested without much energy. They’d had this conversation.

“It’s not a problem, Heffron,” Gene reminded him firmly. “Now, all ready to go out onstage?”

Babe looked over himself. “I think so.”

Gene took control of the situation. He slipped around behind Babe, having verified he had everything he needed costume-wise, and pulled his shirt up to check the mic pack. Babe yelped.

The little light on the top shined red and the switch was pushed over in the “on” position like it should have been. Gene checked to make sure it was secured.

“Who attached this with tape?” he asked, straightening Babe’s shirt over it and looking back at his face.

“What?” Babe demanded, turning as if trying to see it for himself. “How much?”

“It’s very secure.”

“Aw, goddammit. Fucking Lieb,” Babe groaned, and Gene patted him on the shoulder. He’d help him take it off.

“Go get your props,” Gene told him.

“Just because I interrupted him and Web talking. He wasn’t supposed to attach it to me.”

“I know. Go get your props.”

“This is bullshit,” Babe muttered as he walked away. Gene watched him go and shook his head. Having him go from helping to being onstage hadn’t been too much of an adjustment. Gene had only seen a little less of him and it was good for Babe.

Even though he’d been good help, he thrived in the action onstage.

Gene glanced out toward the stage and saw Colbert and Person still standing to the side. Person was adjusting the mic on Colbert’s forehead, and Colbert was watching him talk. Then Person stepped away and grinned. Gene couldn’t hear any of what they were saying, but when Person dragged Colbert forward by the front of his shirt, he could see it plainly enough.

Colbert was the one who pulled away. He smiled softly as he said something else, and when he turned toward the backstage, Gene took it as a cue to leave.

As he’d predicted, the backstage was now teeming with energy and bodies and Gene felt it catch and vibrate through his skull. Nixon was standing in the midst of the crowd with The Book in hand, directing people where to go and reporting that the house was open and places were in five.

Gene caught up with Spina and Bryan and they spent the next five minutes checking the set pieces were in place, double-checking with the actors who were helping them take it all out, and giving the prop table another once over. Sometime in the rush, Gene slipped his headset on.

Murmurs from the crowd beyond the curtain drifted backstage as the company stilled and fell silent. Everyone was crouched in their places and Gene could barely see the glint of Babe’s hair, poised beside Guarnere at one of the entrances.

Then the stage went dark.

    

Gene watched the show, silent and still, waiting for the next time he had to move. Bryan and Spina were on either side of him, though they didn’t have to be. Gene was there to watch Babe because he’d promised he would in his downtime.

He noticed that the other two were paying attention as well, even though they’d made no such promises.

When Babe’s part in the scene ended and the scene itself got closer to ending, the stagehands peeled away and went back to canvassing the backstage for props and costume pieces. And to get ready for the scene change.

Gene’s brain woke up and his adrenaline began to hum as the stagehands spread out and he tracked down a giant key. The prayer of serenity fell silently from his lips as he searched and the prop table was slowly filled in again.

When they finished, there was only one prop not accounted for. The globe.

Gene felt his stomach sink and he looked up at Spina and Bryan. They shook their heads and his mouth flattened as he cast his eyes around the walls that made up the backstage, thinking. When he glanced back at the other two, he nodded in the universal sign of “keep looking.” They nodded back and split away.

When they’d left, Gene tried to imagine where it could be. This was the piece that they’d found online because it was so specific. It had to light up from inside, spin, and be both small enough to sit on a table upstage and large enough to be seen in the audience.    

The globe, the key to the climax of the show, was vital. But not until the second act, toward the middle. Gene tried to remember that as he searched in vain.

They’d gone to a lot of work to get that globe.

Then he tuned into the dialogue onstage and started. “Shit,” he hissed, hurrying as quietly as he could across backstage to make it to Babe’s exit point. The costume change.

When Gene got there, Babe was waiting for him. He’d likely only been waiting for a second, but that meant they had 29 left.

Babe brightened when he saw Gene, but Gene only nodded before they dove into the well-practiced routine. Babe kicked his shoes off and Gene pulled his sweater off.

Babe wasn’t the only one who had help with a costume change. Big changes and small periods of time meant that a lot of people came together to remove or add clothing, and then to store the costume pieces and put them back where they were supposed to go.

15 seconds.

The whole backstage was hot because of the bright lights and rushing adrenaline. Babe’s cheeks were already flushed. Gene passed him his new pants as Babe pulled off the ones he had on.

10 seconds.

Gene turned to retrieve the bag that was stashed behind him. And when he turned around he stopped.

Babe stood there with his shirt rucked up, his hair a complete mess, still struggling to pull the new pants on. Gene stared. His eyes fell to the line of pale skin he could see between the bottom of Babe’s shirt and the hem of his turquoise boxer-briefs.

Babe looked up at him then and Gene snapped out of it at the panic in his eyes.

5 seconds.

Gene stepped forward and pulled Babe’s shirt down and steadied him. Babe figured out the problem with the pants. Gene gave him the bag.

3 seconds.

As Babe turned back toward the scene, Gene reached out and smoothed his hair down. Babe whirled around, and they were so close that his head almost collided with Gene’s. Their eyes caught.

Zero seconds. The lights came back up.

Babe didn’t move right away, he kept staring, so Gene pushed him out into the lights. He didn’t miss the way Babe’s cheeks were still flushed and that he was taking his sweet time to turn around.

The smile on his face was even harder to miss.

As Babe walked into the scene and toward Webster, Gene ran through his mental checklist. The costume change was done. Bryan, Spina, and some of the background actors had handled the scene change, and the lighter Babe needed in the scene had been stashed in his bag since he never remembered it.

Gene watched the scene for a second—unfolding smoothly and according to the script as far as he could tell—before he faded back into the recesses of the stage.

 

Gene muffled a cough in his sleeve as he disturbed another layer of dust. The loft was awful, but it was a place he hadn’t checked. He dropped the sheet he’d moved and crouched to look under a table.

The second act had just started and the globe was nowhere to be found. It was too late to leave out either because the prop had already been mentioned by the characters in the first act.

Gene tried to calm his frantic worry, so ingrained by now that he couldn’t even feel it anymore, and come up with a new solution. The globe obviously wasn’t going to show up and they needed a replacement. It was the only thing left to do.

He had no idea how it was going to be accomplished, but he started by climbing out of the loft.

He found Spina and Bryan in the wing, watching the show. It wasn’t a big part for Babe and Gene had seen the show as a whole dozens of times now.

“I still can’t find it anywhere,” he hissed.

When they turned around, Spina looked incredulous and Bryan looked pissed.

“Are you fucking kidding me? We’re going to need it soon,” Spina said.

“Do you know who’s supposed to set it?” Bryan asked, scowling.

Gene shook his head. He did know, but he wasn’t about to set Bryan on the guy.

“I’m going to try to find a replacement,” Gene told them, knowing exactly how they would react.

Bryan stood up and stalked away from the stage, gesturing tightly for the other two to follow him. They did.

“How do you think you’re going to do that?” Bryan demanded, crossing his arms over his chest.

“If the other option is having nothing, I don’t think Winters is gonna care about specifics,” Gene replied, scowling over his shoulder at the prop table.

“Jus’…I’m gonna try my best okay? There’s nothin’ else we can do. And don’t tell Nixon unless I’m not back before at least two scenes ahead of when we need it,” Gene continued hurriedly. Even as they were talking his time was running out.

The other two stagehands didn’t look happy about it, but they agreed. Gene nodded and glanced back toward the stage. There was another big set change that all of the stagehands had to help with coming up.

Babe had another costume change later in the act, too. And a solo he’d been nervous about. So nervous, he’d almost made himself sick over it when he’d gotten the part.

Gene looked away, shrugged his headset off, and looked at his friends one last time. They looked exactly the way he felt.

Then he made his way to the door at the back of the theater and hit the alley running.

 

Gene turned down another street, panting. All of the nearby thrift stores and pawn shops were closing for the night, and he was beginning to think he’d have to go back empty-handed.

The out-of-the-way second-hand shops situated around the theatre had been very good to the stagehands back when they’d been gathering props. And now they were failing him.

He couldn’t go back without something. They needed something.

So he kept running. To his right, was another dark shop front and Gene cursed under his breath. His heart hammered in his chest and his head was starting to ache from the stress and the running.

How long had he been gone?

He turned another corner and already saw the dark sign outside of the pawn shop he’d been aiming for.

“Christ kid, what kinda devils are you runnin’ from?”

Gene almost got whiplash from how quickly he stopped and turned his head. His feet carried him another few steps, and in that time he registered that it was a tiny thrift store. And it was still open.

Without thinking or stopping to acknowledge the middle-aged man who’d called out to him, Gene pushed past the guy and into the shop.

“Hey, kid, I’m closing here!” the guy protested loudly, tone changing abruptly. Gene didn’t pay attention to him.

He glided up and down the aisles, skimming the packed shelves, never stopping to take anything in. Globe, globe, globe. Any kind of sphere. Something.

“Don’t make me call the cops, punk.” The man had come back inside and he stood in the doorway, glaring as Gene tore through the shelves.

There was shit everywhere and looking through it was taking too long.

“Hey. We’re closed.” The man said, closer now. When had he gotten closer? Gene looked up at him finally and the shelf behind the man’s head caught his eye. Gene felt his face light up. It was like seeing salvation.

“How much for that globe on that shelf?” he asked, breathless, nodding toward the beautiful bronze ball. It had the continents on it in flat metal shapes, but the oceans were empty space. There would be a way to fashion a light in the middle of it so the whole thing glowed. There had to be.

The man frowned and craned his head back to look. When he turned back to Gene there was a glare on his face, and Gene remembered too late that you never looked desperate in New York.

“Eighty bucks if it’ll get you to leave my shop.”

Gene ducked his head and reached for his wallet. “I have sixty here,” he said, looking up from the opened wallet. “Ya take cards?” The man shook his head firmly and Gene just barely bit down on his aggravated sigh.

“Look, this is for a show that I’m in. We need that globe right now. Please, I can come back and give you the other twenty tomorrow. But I need that globe.”

“Show huh?” The man looked thoughtful. “What kind?”

“A new musical.” Gene had been watching an hourglass on the shelf to the right of the man’s head. Though sand wasn’t falling it was a vivid reminder that he was running out of time.

“I could probably get you a ticket. We open tomorrow night.” Gene really wasn’t sure that he could promise that, but Winters would understand.

The man’s face cleared. “Two tickets. And eighty bucks.”

Gene wasn’t stupid. The globe couldn’t be worth that much. It was beautiful, sure, but it was a little beat up. Still, it was worth his hypothetical first born at this point.

 “Yeah. Sure,” he gasped. The hourglass was making him nervous and his heart hadn’t stopped hammering.

The man nodded and held his hand out. Gene shook it and tried not to snap at the guy to just hand the globe over now.

The storeowner made his way back to the front and behind the counter. Gene followed him and when the man set in on the counter, he asked, “Want it gift-wrapped?”

He only laughed when Gene stared back at him, not quite glaring. Gene didn’t look away as he reached into his wallet, pulled all of the bills out, and handed them over. The man counted them quickly and pushed the globe across the counter, but he didn’t move his hand until he said, “And I’ll see you tomorrow with that twenty and those tickets.”

Gene nodded and finally the globe was his. Though the situation didn’t warrant one, Gene threw a thanks over his shoulder as he ran out of the door.

He tucked the globe under his arm and ran back to the theater only a few blocks away. The shop was down just before the corner and Gene noted its location so he could return. With twenty dollars and a pair of tickets.

Gene sighed and opened the door to the backstage with his shoulder. Bryan and Spina were there in a second. Gene could see the questions in their very different expressions. 

In response, he pulled the globe away from his side and held it out. “What’d I miss?”

Spina’s eyes flew wide and Bryan crossed his arms and leaned back, surveying the replacement.

“This might be better than what we found,” he held his hands out and Gene reluctantly handed it over. While Bryan looked at the new globe, probably already figuring out how to put the light inside, Spina answered Gene’s question.

“Just Babe’s costume change. Guarnere had him covered.” Spina answered his other questions before he could ask. “He was a little disappointed that he didn’t see you, but we said you’d be back before his solo.”

Gene nodded. “That’s what he’s the most worried about.”

“Well you got back just in time.”

He tuned in to what was happening onstage and realized that the globe’s scene was upon them. One more scene before Babe did his solo part.

Gene’s heart had finally stopped racing.

“You’re also in time for the big set change,” Spina said with a grin.

Gene rolled his eyes and walked away, toward where they kept those set pieces. Spina stayed behind with his grin. Bryan was at the prop table, tinkering with the globe. Everything was back to normal and the show was going on. Just like it should.

“Spina, get your ass over here,” Gene hissed. Bryan finished attaching a light to the inside of the globe before he joined them in the wing and handed it over to Gene.

A few minutes later, the lights went down and the stagehands threw their weight into the set piece all at once.

In the typical chaos of the scene change, Gene clutched the globe and only relinquished it to Malarkey the second before the lights came up. Malarkey started when he realized the globe was different, but he didn’t have time to question it because the lights came up.

Gene shook his head and melted back into the shadows to wait.

   

The music rose and, through the speakers overhead, Gene could hear the faint hiss of the mics being turned on. Onstage, the lights shifted colors. Then the minor actors stood up and arranged themselves in a loose triangle. 

Gene watched Babe with Bryan and Spina on either side of him. Spina looked invested, and Bryan looked disinterested, but he was trying too hard.

Babe seemed to be calm, except for the way his fingers rubbed slowly against his pant leg. It was his only fidget, and it was a harmless one.

Perconte opened the song and Gene found himself nodding along to the beat as he watched the cluster of actors. He felt as focused as any of them were.

When the music made it to his turn, Babe swallowed. His voice was thin on the opening notes, but he took a breath and it strengthened and solidified. He sang carefully and precisely, but slowly gained strength and confidence as he continued. He carried the verse to its end and his shoulders were markedly lighter when he did.

And though Gene was stuck looking at his profile, he could see how Babe wanted to smile, how it played at the corner of his mouth and brightened his eyes.

But he was in character and he stuck to a straight face as he turned his attention to Hasser.

Something burst softly in Gene’s chest and his lips took on the smile that Babe’s couldn’t.    

    

The rest of the show went off almost perfectly, and even if you didn’t know how it was supposed to be, the actors coming off the stage gave you a hint. They’d been jubilant then, but they’d had to keep quiet.

Not now.

Because it hadn’t been a full house with a real audience, the theater cleared out quickly and the actors flooded the stage once more to celebrate and listen to notes.

Gene stood at the entrance to the backstage and watched people run around and jump on each other and laugh and yell. It was chaos. Beautiful, exuberant chaos.

He couldn’t see all of it, but he caught glimpses.

Malarkey and Perco were riding around on the backs of Muck and Penk, respectively, and whooping as their carriers charged around the stage, running to and through other groups, stealing hats and other accessories.

Lieb swooped in and slung his arm around Toye’s neck, and Gene was too far away to hear what he was saying through his grin. Web and Shifty were off to the side, grinning and talking with wild hand gestures.

Downstage, Fick was talking to the reporter. His eyes were shining and there was a bright smile on his face whenever he glanced up at the revelry. Wright also looked amazed.

Person was jabbering away to Hasser and Grant, who were talking back just as excitedly. Even Colbert, normally stoic, was caught up in the riot of happiness.

Gene searched the crowd and wasn’t surprised to see Babe with Guarnere, Spina, and a cluster of other people.

What really surprised Gene was how Babe caught sight of him and started pulling away from his friends. A smile was stuck to his face and as he got closer, shrugging off the people who tried to drag him back, Gene could see that his eyes were luminous.

“What’re you doing over here?” he asked, joking. “Party’s out there.” He jerked his thumb toward the unmistakable din.

Gene smiled and ducked his head, but he didn’t bother replying.

Then Babe brightened and bounced a little as he started gushing. “You saw my solo right? That’s the best it’s been, I think! And I didn’t forget anything!” His voice was excitement and leftover adrenaline and a rush of emotions that didn’t quite match the other two.

Gene looked up and marveled at the actor in front of him. Everything about him was vibrant and glowing. He could see Babe’s certainty and comfort and it was such a far cry from how distraught he’d been two days ago that another smile bloomed on Gene’s face and his chest swelled again.

Only Babe could do this to him.

Gene didn’t have words to put to his feelings, but that wasn’t what he was good at anyway.  

So he curled his fingers into Babe’s sleeve—belonging to a costume jacket from the final scene—and tugged him forward, careful to aim his lips just right.

He felt Babe go still and he was vaguely aware that Babe’s free arm was flailing a little at his side. But just as a few seconds passed and Gene was about to say something, Babe settled down and kissed back. He softened and his free hand came up to clutch the fabric at Gene’s side, gripping like it was important he held tight. Gene relaxed back.

Distantly, under the feeling of joy bursting through his whole body, Gene thought it was odd they were being left alone like this.

That was when he finally heard the whistle and Guarnere’s raised voice. Babe reluctantly pulled away and Gene followed his lead.

Babe’s face was red, growing darker now that people were paying attention to them. But he didn’t move away and he still clutched Gene’s shirt. Gene squeezed his arm in reassurance.

It was obnoxious, but friendly, as people cheered and Guarnere dragged them away from the edge of the stage. Babe’s grip on Gene’s shirt tightened, even though he was paying attention to his friends and their teasing congratulations.

It all washed over Gene in a wave and he smiled politely through it as the celebration continued and now included them. At some point, he unhooked Babe’s fingers from his shirt and threaded them through his own.

Babe shot him a smile as he gripped back and Gene smiled, too. The moment—even though it was anything but—somehow felt private, and Gene couldn’t wait until it really was.

The directors were onstage with them now, and Gene wasn’t sure when that had happened.

Winters approached with Nixon hovering over his shoulder, and Welsh and Lipton started talking with actors as Speirs lingered behind them.

“Gene,” Winters called out as he got closer. The stagehand turned to face the director and pulled Babe along with him because of their still-tangled hands.

“I wanted to say thank you for what you did earlier. I’m not sure what we would have done without it.” Winters’ eyes were bright and he looked on top of the world.

“I was just doing my job, sir,” Gene replied, uncomfortable about being thanked.

“Yeah, you could’ve warned me before you went, but you made a good call,” Nixon said, catching up.

“Did Bryan tell you then?” Gene asked.

“He didn’t really have to. I noticed that you were gone before I asked him, but he filled in some blanks.” Nixon shrugged, like it hadn’t been a big deal then and wasn’t one now.

“Do you need to be compensated?” Winters asked. “We can take care of it.”

Gene found Malarkey across the stage and said, “I’ve got a plan to get the money back.” He looked back at Winters and Nixon. “I could use two tickets to tomorrow’s show though.” The director and stage manager looked surprised.

“It took that and money?” Nixon clarified.

“It was a hard negotiation.”

Nixon shook his head, but he wordlessly made a note on his clipboard. “Is that it?” Winters asked. Gene nodded and the other two went on their way, leaving behind more congratulations, especially for Babe.

“What happened?” Babe asked curiously, and his presence came back to the forefront of Gene’s mind. Gene sighed and turned to him. They were finally being ignored again.

“It’s a long story.”

Babe beamed. “I’m up for a long story. Maybe with dinner? O-or coffee?” He started blushing again, but he stood firm on the offer.

Gene shifted the hand that was holding Babe’s. “Sounds like a plan.” And the way Babe’s eyes lit up perfectly matched the way Gene’s heart lifted.

Across the stage, Web and Lieb were standing close together again, talking quietly with their arms looped over each other’s shoulders. Colbert and Person were sitting on the edge of the stage, their knees pressed together, and they looked relaxed, mocking each other only very lightly because no one was around to hear them. Colbert was leaning back on his hands and Person had his headset resting around his neck like Gene’s.

Where the directors were standing and talking, Gene noticed that Speirs and Lipton were standing close, too. And he couldn’t be sure, but it looked like their arms disappeared around each other. It was hard to tell mostly because Winters and Nixon were in the way, standing with their arms nearly pressed together, though it was no closer than usual.

Nearby, Toye and Luz were part of the group that Gene and Babe were also technically in. And though the two weren’t interacting, their arms and the backs of their hands brushed occasionally and resulted in quick glances and slower smiles.

Gene took in the sight of the stage and held Babe’s hand a little bit tighter.

They were on top of the world.

Chapter Text

David leaned over the counter in his dressing room to get closer to his mirror. He couldn’t tell if he’d blended his foundation enough or if he’d been looking at it for so long he’d adjusted to the sight.

Either way, he scrubbed irritably at his face with the sponge one more time before he gave up. At least he was a human in the show. He couldn’t imagine having to do the other makeup.

That was part of why he was alone in the dressing room. Normally David shared it with Hoobler, Skinny, Walt, and Garza but they were all gathered together with the other non-humans to figure out their makeup situation.

It was a good thing, too, because this allowed David to freak out without witnesses.

Tonight was opening night.

He’d never done a show like this. The last time he’d tried, it had gotten shut down in the middle of the process. But now, not only was he in a Broadway show, he was starring in it. And David didn’t have to be afraid of failure anymore; now he could dread what the opposite might look like, and he couldn’t think about anything else.

There was a sudden, hard knock on the door and he almost cracked his head against the mirror. It was loud and demanding, and David told the person to come in as he established a safe distance between himself and the wall.

Joe peeked around the edge of the door as he opened it, and David’s mood improved marginally.

“Hey, are you ready to go?” David asked. He turned away from his reflection and breathed. It was still incredible to him that Joe could completely change the way he felt in an instant—for good or bad—just by being there.

Joe shook his head. “Nah I have to finish getting dressed and then Q-Tip might touch up my makeup.”

“I could help with that.” Not that Joe needed it, he looked great. Joe smiled at him.

“You can come in if you want,” David said. Based on his observations of the makeup the others had to deal with, he and Joe wouldn’t be interrupted for a long time. And having Joe closer would maybe help tame his nerves. “Was there something you needed to talk about?” Joe was still lingering half-behind the door, and if he didn’t know better David would think he was nervous.

“Oh yeah,” Joe ducked his head, severing eye contact, and finally slipped around the door. “I came to bring you these.”

He was holding a bouquet—the last thing David had expected to see—and he went still as Joe came closer to set the vase beside the mirror, and David watched him do it.

He was confused. They didn’t do flowers and he’d never expressed interest in receiving flowers.

But after a moment of looking, he realized these sort of matched the vases that were beside all the other mirrors in the dressing room and probably in all the dressing rooms.

The bouquets and vases that were addressed to actors, from family and friends who’d come to see the show. David had seen Joe’s arrangement as well—bushy and crowded and signed by a whole score of Liebgotts. But that still didn’t explain it.

When Joe turned to face him again, his expression was cautious.

“I didn’t want you to miss out,” he said carefully, avoiding the obvious. But there it was.

David knew Joe knew. He’d sent tickets and a note to his parents last week, and he hadn’t heard anything from them.

And even though Joe was being careful with his voice, David could hear the anger coiled underneath. To him it was a betrayal, even if David hadn’t expected anything and hadn’t bothered to get his hopes up.

But he still got flowers.

He pulled Joe closer, wrapped his arms around his waist and hooked his chin over Joe’s shoulder. When Joe hugged him back, it was intentional and secure.

“I’m glad you like ‘em. They were a bitch to get,” he snarked into David’s shoulder, his tone returning to something more normal. David didn’t bother replying. He just held tighter.

And that made Joe soften again. He sounded quiet a moment later when he breathed, “Move in with me.” After a beat he added, more solid, “I mean, do you want to? Do that?” He didn’t pull away, but kept his cheek pressed firmly into David’s shoulder.

The words froze David to the spot, not only because of the offer, but because they were somehow freaking Joe out to the point that he’d dropped his swagger. And this time, with this grand gesture, Joe didn’t take David’s freezing as a sign of refusal. Now he understood it meant David was figuring out how to react.

It didn’t do much good though. The only thing he could think to do was clench and unclench his hands in the back of Joe’s shirt while he fumbled for what he could say that would describe the crashing feeling in his chest, or the sense of pure awe that was clouding his brain.

“The suspense is killing me, Web,” Joe said testily, but his voice was a little unsteady and David felt comfortable ignoring it.

Eventually the cloud cleared enough so his voice worked again, and David settled on the most boring response, “Yes.”

The idea of it spread out in front of him, another type of something past failure.

That was when Joe pulled away and David could see his face again. For some reason there was shock written all over it, combined with rising hope. “You do?”

A laugh bubbled up and David had to let it out. He felt a little dizzy as he lifted his hands to cup Joe’s jaw. “Yes. Yes, of course I do. That sounds wonderful.”

And finally, finally, Joe eased up and returned David’s giddy smile and he looked the happiest David had ever seen him.

So he kissed him.

When Joe pulled away, his eyes were still shut and he was still laughing as he rested his forehead against David’s chest. Without thinking, David put his arms around his back again. Joe was shaking a little bit and that was how David knew how serious he was.

And he loved it.

He pulled Joe back from his chest and took a moment to look at his impossible boyfriend. They’d come such a long way, and David wouldn’t trade any part of it. He glanced at the flowers next to his dressing room mirror and decided he didn’t need to be nervous. He’d made the right decision, and it didn’t matter what waited for him past the curtains. 


 “You look good.” Ron’s voice floated into the room and Lip spun around to look at him.

It was clear from his face that Ron meant more than good, but Lip wasn’t sure where the compliment came from. He was wearing an old, thin hoodie and jeans, and his tux was still hanging in the office upstairs, waiting for him to finish with the actors.

But Lip was happy with it nonetheless.

“I don’t really, but so do you,” he replied, taking in the tux and the way Ron’s hair tumbled over his forehead. There was even a bit of stubble grazing his jaw, and Lip realized “good” was a dramatic understatement. He wondered when he might see Ron like this again.

His boyfriend smiled, only pressing his lips together really, and Lip smiled back.

“You do,” Ron said. He was closer now and he snaked his arms around Lip’s waist as he buried his nose in his neck.

Lip breathed out a laugh as his skin shivered. “That tickles,” he said quietly. It was also very distracting and the soft kiss that came next didn’t help.

Ron pulled away when Lip pushed lightly at his shoulders. His eyes were more intense than usual, but there was a happy spark lit inside of them too. Lip lifted a hand to Ron’s face and smiled absently as he traced the other man’s cheekbone with his thumb. It wasn’t a new expression, but it was a more common one now.

“They sound great, you know. You’ve done good work with them,” Ron said, leaning into his touch. Lip shrugged.

“They’re easy to work with,” he replied. “They’ve done most of the work anyway. I just pointed out where they should go.”

Ron smirked at him and Lip could feel it under his hand. “Exactly. They didn’t figure it out for themselves. Give yourself some credit.”

He was tempted to shrug again and Ron must have seen it because he leaned in and kissed the protest away. “Learn to take a compliment, Carwood,” he growled against his lips a moment later.

“Mmm, I’ll think about it,” he hummed back, unable to resist the way the corners of his mouth pulled up. Apparently Ron couldn’t either.

Ron kept him close when they moved apart to breathe again and Lip was happy to close his eyes and rest there. But there was a show coming up and a tuxedo calling his name and a whole company to manage. Not to mention his best friends who were depending on him.

“I should go get dressed for the show,” he murmured, aware of Ron’s breath on his cheek.

Ron made a low humming sound at the top of his throat, and moved back another inch so they could look at each other again. “If you say so,” he allowed. Reluctantly, Lip peeled himself away and turned to the door.

“Oh wait,” Ron said, just like Lip expected him to. He let himself be steered back by his elbow and looked up at Ron’s face when he’d been turned around. Then, much to his surprise, Ron opened his jacket and pulled out a small yellow flower.

Lip couldn’t quite tear his eyes away from the uncanny sight of the delicate flower in Ron’s fingers and he wasn’t sure what to say.

“It’s for your tux. We’re all wearing them tonight,” Ron said, sounding unamused. “It was Harry’s idea. He thought it would make us look classy.”

Lip huffed a laugh at that and reached out, taking the flower. “Where’s yours?” He wouldn’t have been surprised if Ron had gotten rid of it.

But he closed his eyes, sighed, and reached into his jacket again. His hand came back holding a red flower that looked like Lip’s, and he beamed at the sight.

“Here, let me.” Lip set his aside and reached out to take the flower in one hand and Ron’s lapel in the other. It took a bit of doing—and Lip could feel Ron watching him the whole time—but he secured the flower and took a step back to see. “You look even better now,” he said.

Ron smiled back and Lip kissed him again.

“Shouldn’t you be getting dressed?” Ron asked one long moment later with an eyebrow raised.

“I’m trying to savor the moment.”

“Maybe we could get married and replicate it someday.”

The grin that stretched across Lip’s face at the words was a different creature from all of the others. It was instantaneous and out of his control. It felt like an extension of the excitement that had started to hum in his chest.

His voice was soft when he replied. “Yeah,” he breathed, “that would be nice.”

He felt Ron’s grin more than he saw it, and Ron reached past him to pick up the yellow flower again. “Come on, I’ll help you get ready.”

As Lip finally made it through the doorway with Ron’s hand on his back, he tilted his head toward him. Ron tilted his back.

“Who picked the flowers out?”

“Kitty, if I’m not mistaken. Why?”

“I like her color choice. Red looks good on you.” And “good” was still an understatement.

In response, Ron slipped his arm further around Lip and leaned into him, his hand coming to rest near his hip. Lip leaned back and settled into the pocket of warmth that opened in his chest. It was one part excitement, one part Ron.


Someone had missed a safety pin during the last costume adjustment, and Brad was blotting away dots of blood before they got onto his white clothes. And as he did that, he thought about the upcoming performance.

Curtain was getting closer and he was cautiously optimistic about their patchwork show’s chances. And the fact that the former producers would be watching again and taking credit for it was as validating as it was annoying. And he could only imagine how Dick felt.

“Oh Brad!” Ray’s voice came drifting through the dressing room and he appeared a moment later, all lit up. Brad felt a spark of happiness, alongside instant suspicion at the tone of voice.

His suspicions only increased when he noticed Ray was holding something behind his back and carefully blocking Brad’s ability to see it.

“Seriously homes? Your lack of trust wounds me,” Ray said when he noticed Brad’s focus.

“A few days ago you threatened to evoke the Curse. Why the fuck would I trust what you’re holding behind your back?” But Brad turned back to the mirror to continue getting ready, and he saw Ray shake his head in the reflection with a put upon look on his face.

“I was going to draw it out, but you’re such a distrusting bastard that it’s not fun,” Ray said, bringing his hands forward.

He held a small glass bowl that was decorated with a ridiculous number of ribbons and tissue paper that spilled over the sides. Rising out of the nest of ornaments were bags of Skittles. Some were the standard size, others were king size. Most were the originals, but Brad spotted some sour Skittles, too.      

“I thought flowers would be too gay and you’d probably throw them out. So you get this.” Ray raised his eyebrows as he said it, so he was clearly very impressed with himself.

Brad examined the bouquet further, not quite sure why this bowl of candy felt different from the flowers beside his mirror that his parents had sent. There was just something about this one that made Brad smile against his will.

“You making this is just as gay as flowers,” he said. It meant “thank you” and Ray understood that if the eyeroll he shot at Brad was any indicator.

“Who said I made it? You think I like you that much?” Ray asked, throwing his shoulders into a dramatic shrug. Brad snorted and set the bouquet on the other side of his mirror.

Instead of a continuing stream of words, it got quiet—he couldn’t even hear Ray’s facial expression anymore—and when Brad looked, Ray’s face was blank and he seemed to be staring through him. He met Ray’s eyes in the mirror and raised an eyebrow.

Another blinding smile stretched over Ray’s face as he shook his head and he said, “Damn, Brad I was going to say something but suddenly,” he raked his eyes over him, “I can’t for the life of me remember what it was supposed to be.”

Brad rolled his eyes because he knew Ray was full of shit. But he didn’t mind because he understood that Ray was generally full of shit, and he kind of loved it.

“Hope that doesn’t affect your ability to do your job,” he replied while he turned to grab his jacket from the chair behind him. “But really, why are you here and not in the booth?” he asked as he straightened the collar. Because Ray spouting shit was usually a front for something.

“Just to get an eyeful before I have to work.” Ray’s eyes slid down his frame again and Brad let himself be objectified. “Honey, honey how you thrill me,” Ray half-sang and his eyes went out of focus again.

Brad frowned and snapped his fingers in front of Ray’s face. “Seriously you backwater hick, what’s going on?” Against his better judgement he was getting concerned.

When Ray’s eyes met Brad’s he wasn’t smiling anymore. Warning sirens went off in Brad’s head, telling him Ray was dipping into serious territory and he had a mission there. Few things made Ray truly nervous and he was clearly working himself up to say something that did.

But instead of saying it, he grabbed the front of Brad’s blood-free shirt and yanked him down so Brad was on his level when their lips met.

Kissing Ray was a weird and wonderful thing. It made Brad pull him closer as all of his insides flipped and his skin tingled where Ray touched it.

He knew that this, too, was a delay tactic, but he found it hard to care. Absorbing Ray’s turbulence was something he’d been doing for a long time now, and he never hesitated when it was time for it again.

Ray was the one who ended the kiss. He pushed his forehead into Brad’s and breathed heavily into the space between them, obviously still tense. But he took a few steps back and looked at Brad with his huge eyes and Brad wondered if Ray was finally going to spit out what was on his mind aside from the bouquet of Skittles.

Ray took a deep breath and Brad braced himself for the impact. He didn’t know if he was going to like what came next.

“You know, I think what we have here is really good. And I just want to let you know that this,” Ray paused to gesture between them, meeting Brad’s eyes straight on, “this is a done deal. I’m not going to fuck you over or go anywhere. I’m here for good. If you want.”

It took a moment for what Ray was saying to really sink in. Of course he was referring to Brad’s last relationship and how horribly that had ended.

And then, on the other side of that understanding, Brad processed what Ray was offering. Calling this a relationship. Making it permanent.

He looked at Ray, who’d gone still and silent, chewing on his lip and staring at Brad. Just waiting for a response.

Brad had sworn off relationships after her. His ability to trust had taken a serious blow when he’d found out about the cheating, and Brad wasn’t sure if he could still do it. Or if he even wanted to put himself through it all again.

But what he and Ray had was good. It was only a few days old, but he knew he couldn’t let it go, and a not-insignificant part of him pushed for the idea of more.

And he wondered if he could do it for this aggravating person who pushed every one of his buttons. But this person also knew how he worked. Just like Brad knew him.

And Ray definitely knew what he was promising now.

Brad crowded back into Ray’s space in a single step. “And why the fuck would I want that?” he asked, all seriousness.

The corner of Ray’s mouth quirked up and Brad guessed that something in his face gave it away. He grinned back and ducked in for another kiss.

This time, Ray’s body was relaxed against his and everything felt right. Then Ray pulled away.

If you change your mind, I’m in the first in line. Take a chance on me,” Ray sang, beaming and shining like he’d gotten everything he’d ever wanted.

“But you’re not still free, so shut up,” Brad told him, trying to kiss him again. Ray shimmied out of his reach.

Gonna do my very best and it ain't no lie. If you put me to the test, if you let me try. You know you’re stuck with me now right?”

“That’s what I agreed to.” Brad was amused, even as he suddenly realized exactly what he’d gotten into. “Shouldn’t you be going back up to the booth to do your job?”

Ray grinned at him. “Hell no, I still have time. Besides Dick’s going to address everyone before anything starts, and I don’t need the exercise.” He sank into Poke’s chair and leaned back, clearly meaning to hang out.

“So this is what ‘stuck with you’ means,” Brad observed as he turned back to the mirror to finish getting ready. But he was happy. Behind him, Ray was still shining and Brad smiled quietly back. 


 “What the hell are you doing?” Babe asked. It was more for an explanation than an actual answer because it was clear Bill was praying the rosary. “You really think God has the time to care about our show?”

“I think that if you don’t go away and let me finish I’ll make sure your mic pack is stuck to you with duct tape.”

Babe smirked and crossed his arms, watching Bill shuffle the ruby-colored beads between his fingers. His friend did another decade or so in silence and when he finished the “Glory Be” he said, “And then you’d have to go to Eugene Roe for help again.”

Babe’s smirk vanished and he prayed his face wouldn’t go red. But it did. He could feel it. The smirk transferred ownership and Babe glared as Bill laughed to himself, shuffling the beads again.

“What trouble are you two getting into? And why does Babe looks like he wants to disappear and hit you at the same time?” Babe perked up a little.

“Frannie!” Bill exclaimed, forgetting about the “Hail Mary” and standing up to greet his wife. Babe also forgot about Bill’s trespasses in light of one of his favorite people.

As soon as she was done with Bill, Frannie grabbed him and pulled him tight. It didn’t matter that he saw her all the time, Frannie hugged fiercely.

“What are you doing back here?” Bill asked, his expression and tone had changed entirely in her presence. She rolled her eyes at him and held out the bouquet in her hand.

“Well I thought I’d just give this to Joe Toye, but then I saw you over here,” she replied. Bill grinned and took the flowers, turning his smile down to them.

“Aww, Frannie you didn’t get me anything?” Babe asked. “I thought I was your favorite!”

Frannie had one arm slung around Bill’s shoulder, but she looked over to smile at Babe. “You are. But I made some promises a few years ago I can’t break now.”

“Typical.”

“Leave my wife alone and go bother Gene or something,” Bill said, waving Babe away with the flowers.

And that was the moment Babe realized he’d fucked up.

“Shit, I don’t have flowers for him,” he said. He didn’t know how he’d forgotten. It was an opening night tradition in the theatre. And he knew Gene’s folks were coming up in a few weeks to see the show, but he didn’t have anything tonight.

Bill looked exasperated. “Stagehands don’t get flowers. He’s not going to be disappointed.”

"That’s stupid. If anyone deserves flowers, it’s Gene,” Babe protested. And now that he thought about it, the more he felt it. He couldn’t believe he’d forgotten to get flowers.

“Gene’s your new beau, right?” Frannie asked. She was still leaning on Bill and her expression was both curious and prying. Babe’s face went red again and he hated his best friend just a little bit.

“Why do you pay attention to anything he says?” Babe asked.

Frannie shook her head and smiled at Bill. “Those same promises.”

“We went out for coffee after the show last night. That’s it.”

“But you want to give him flowers,” Frannie pointed out.

“Because his family won’t be here and I don’t want him to be left out! And who knows where this show would be without him.” Babe wasn’t going to talk about where he might have been without Gene, but he knew Gene had helped him more than he’d had to. Just because Babe had needed him to. If the man deserved flowers for anything it was that.

He also appreciated the kissing.

Frannie had her head tipped to the side, which wasn’t a good sign. But at least she wasn’t teasing him. She turned back to Bill and reclaimed the bouquet she’d given him.

“Hey!” he protested.

“If it means so much to you,” Frannie said as she worked the plastic wrapping loose, “here.” She divided the bouquet and handed the smaller section to Babe.

He took it in awe and with an increasing admiration for Frannie he hadn’t known was possible. In the background, Bill was bitching about it and Frannie was explaining that Bill was fine and he didn’t need so many flowers anyway, especially not when Babe needed them more.

“Thanks, Fran. I love ya,” Babe said, grinning so hard it hurt.

“Go get him, Babe. And make sure you invite me to the wedding.”

With that, Babe rolled his eyes and took off.

All the stagehands were clustered around the prop table, messing with the light inside the globe. Yesterday, their set-up worked for the dress rehearsal, and Malarkey had been able to hide the fact he’d turned it on, but the directors still wanted it to be automatic.

Babe had no idea when the stagehands had gotten the parts for it, but they were putting it together now.

Gene’s back was to him, but Babe could hear his low, drawling voice. It was Spina who noticed him and perked up when he saw it was Babe. His eyes drifted to the flowers instantly and he grinned.

Babe shot him a glare, but Spina just smiled and said, “Hey Babe. How’s it going?” His tone was brighter than it needed to be and Babe wished he could glare like Toye or Brad.

“Just fine Spina,” he said tightly. It occurred to him to hide the flowers just as Gene turned around.

He seemed momentarily surprised to see Babe, but his eyes were bright and he smiled a little. “Here, I think this is as good as we’re gonna get it. Find the directors and see if they like it,” he directed, turning his head and gesturing to the table.

Bryan nodded and took the globe with him. Spina stuck around, grinning at Babe.

“Hey, Spina, why don’t you get the set pieces ready? First one’s big and we can get it all out faster,” Gene said.

“Yeah, Spina, why don’t you fuck off?” Babe asked under his breath.

“Sure thing! See you around, Babe!” Spina said cheerfully as he walked toward the hulking shadows near the wall. Once he was gone, Babe and Gene didn’t really have much more privacy, but it was the most they could ask for.

“Do you need something, Babe?” Gene asked, returning to his prop table. Babe was a little disheartened that Gene hadn’t gotten rid of Spina because of him, but he rallied.

“I came to bring you these,” he said, thrusting the flowers forward.

Gene looked taken aback and he blinked at the flowers for a long time before he took them. Or maybe it only felt like a long time. His cheeks were turning red and Babe could tell his own were flaming. He blamed that for why he started talking.

“So I know stagehands don’t usually get flowers on opening night, but you’re a huge part of the show and you deserve them if anyone does. And I kind of wanted to give you flowers anyway, as thanks, because you’ve helped me out a lot, way more than you’ve needed to. And I wanted you to know I know that, and I really appreciate it. I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t had you.”

Gene was still staring at his flowers so Babe clearly had to continue.

“And I feel bad about it because I actually forgot until Frannie brought flowers for Bill. But there, those are for you. Thank you.” All of the words ran out of him like air from a balloon, and he couldn’t summon any more when he finally finished. Gene had to talk this time.

The stagehand rubbed one of the petals between his fingers and looked up at Babe with a smile on his face. Babe was frozen looking at it.

“You’re an idiot, Heffron,” he said, shaking his head. Then Gene gently grabbed the front of Babe’s shirt and kissed him.

Babe’s whole body seemed to flutter and he was helpless against the automatic urge to smile. This kiss was short though and Gene pulled away and stepped back.

“I forgot to get you flowers for opening night,” he said quietly, his cheeks redder now.

“Oh,” Babe said, surprised that Gene would feel the need. “Don’t worry about it. I don’t need more flowers.”

Gene looked down at the bundle in his hands and pulled one long stem out, offering it to Babe. “I disagree.”

More fluttering happened as Babe took the flower and he felt his face heat up again. His mouth sort of started before he gave it permission to.

“You know, last night was really nice. We should do it again. Keep doing it.” It had been more than nice, and Babe meant more than nice, but Gene seemed to get it if the way his eyes shone was any sign.

“I’d like that.” 


 The booth was quiet for once.

Winters had told Luz to turn the music off 30 minutes ago—it had been the sex playlist again because the techs had no shame—and Person was downstairs, so now the only sound was everyone onstage below. The booth itself was perfectly silent, and Joe was glad because that meant Luz was alone.

He was at the top of the steps, just outside the doorway. Inside, Luz was in his chair, totally absorbed in his book. He pushed a few sliders around and turned a knob or two while he scanned the text, and then he turned the page. He was going backward through the cues, his lips moving without making a sound as he tracked his progress with a finger.

Joe paused, taking in the scene. It was unusual to see Luz like this, quiet and utterly focused. He rubbed a thumb over his bottom lip as his eyes skimmed over the page, and Joe smiled a bit despite himself. Of course, he saw Luz like this more than other people did, but it didn’t detract from the marvel.

He lifted his fist and knocked softly on the doorframe. Luz startled and flew around to see where the sound had come from, but when he saw Joe, he smiled in the way that made Joe feel nearly helpless.

“Jesus, I thought you were used to noises because of the ghost,” he said, stepping into the booth and crossing his arms.

Luz sat back in his chair, eyes alight. “That was a very non-Charlie sound. Also, we have a deal.”

Joe leaned against the soundboard and raised an eyebrow. Luz mocked his position and explained, “It’s going to stay quiet before each show and not fuck with anything during. Then I’ll bring back the figurine it likes so much.”

None of that sentence made sense to Joe, but he let it go. As long as Luz was happy with the arrangement, Joe didn’t need to understand the theater ghost.

“So I heard Person got Colbert some kind of bouquet. And everyone downstairs is getting something,” he said, anticipating the question Luz was going to ask.

“And?”

“Where the fuck’s mine?” He wasn’t ready to do anything with the box in his pocket yet and he needed a buffer before he mentioned it.

Luz’s eyebrows flew upward and he seemed stuck between amused and surprised. The chair even stopped moving. “Are you trying to tell me you feel left out?” There was a smile in his voice, but it didn’t quite show on his face yet.

“I’m just saying that it seems pretty shitty,” he observed, shrugging. “We’ve been together how long?”

“Oh who even knows anymore?” Luz dismissed, smiling slowly. It was clear the amusement was winning over, and Joe had to check himself to keep a straight face.

He sank a little lower against the board and leaned closer to Luz. “It’s like you don’t even care. Even Babe was kind of on top of it.”

“Ooh what does that mean?” Luz asked, looking delighted as he also leaned closer and waited Joe out.

“Frannie bailed him out, but at least he still had something to give Roe.”

“Oh no,” Luz’s voice was quiet and dramatic as the space between them decreased just a little bit more. “How can I make it up to you?”

Joe didn’t have to say anything else because Luz closed the space naturally.

He was a surprisingly steady kisser, like how he’d been with the book before. It had been enough of a shock the first time that Joe had actually stopped, which had led to Luz pulling away and laughing at him.

Now they fit against each other automatically and Joe’s hand curved around Luz’s jaw like they were pieces of a puzzle. He felt the familiar pressure of Luz’s arms on his shoulders, grazing his neck, and Luz’s fingers pressing into his shoulder blades.

It was easy and lazy and comfortable—the result of lots of experience. Joe’s pulse sped up a little bit and he smiled at it all. He couldn’t imagine not being here or having this.

There was something odd about being with Luz. Everything about him should have grated against Joe’s nerves. But it was almost exactly the opposite.

“You don’t actually want flowers,” Luz observed when he should have been breathing.

“How the fuck do you know?”

Luz didn’t bother responding, just rolled his eyes and crossed his wrists behind Joe’s head. “I kind of like you though, so I did put something in your dressing room.”

That didn’t bode well for anyone, but Joe figured there was plenty of time to do something about it.

“I’ll have to keep an eye out for it,” he replied. Luz’s whole face was warm and his smile was something private. It made Joe think he wasn’t aware of it.

Absentmindedly, he rubbed his thumb against Luz’s cheek. Even though he was a professional tech, Luz was a performer at heart, and Joe loved being one of the only people who saw him any other way.

“Forty-two,” Luz said, matter-of-fact, after the silence had gone on for three seconds.

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

Luz tilted his head down and his smile changed. “The answer to life, the universe, and everything. It looked like you were wondering.”

Joe huffed and leaned away. “Okay I’m done with you now,” he said, straightening his shoulders. Behind him, Luz laughed and grabbed Joe’s arm, standing and pulling Joe back around.

He smiled and sang, “Hey, I would fight for you, if you would fight for me,” he nodded at Joe’s fading black eye. It was a stupid line Luz used all the time, but it never failed.

Joe rolled his eyes, but it didn’t change the way Luz grinned at him. “You’re ridiculous,” he said, leveling a look at Luz and keeping all of his amusement off of his face. Luz’s little cheer said he didn’t care and he pulled Joe back in.

When Luz’s headset crackled suddenly, he started and pulled away, blinking rapidly. Joe sat back more slowly and Luz looked at him as he pushed the headset over his ears, then he gestured for Joe to lean in as he held one of the cups away from his head.

“Hey, I need you down on the stage. I have some things to talk to you guys about,” Winters said. And even though it was an instruction, it sounded like an invitation, too.

“Yes sir,” Luz said. “Is Person down there?”

“I just saw him.”

“Excellent. We’ll be right down.” Luz ducked out from underneath the headphones and set them on the board before he turned to Joe again. “Alright Mr. No-Name-Kid,” he said, holding out his hand. “Let’s go.”

Joe rolled his eyes for a third time, but he took Luz’s hand. He followed him out, but before he went through the door, he half-turned to toss the little box from his pocket onto Luz’s chair.

He’d find it later.

Chapter Text

The theater was empty, and for a moment Dick was taken back to when he’d first stepped foot in it. Already a year ago.

It hadn’t looked like much, as Nix had pointed out when he’d finally seen it. The air had been musty and the carpets had been caked in dust. After some inspection, Dick had found damaged lights and old tech boards, and some of the seats in the audience had been broken.

The stage had been the only redeeming quality—and the only thing that really mattered to him. A dark, barren expanse of space that had looked like a dark hole in the wall, bordered by two heavy, red curtains.

A stage.

Dick didn’t know how long the theater had been empty before them, but now that first impression was a distant memory.

Now the space between the curtains was home to set pieces and props, evidence of a show underway. The plush, crimson carpets had been cleaned and everything in the theater had been dusted. The tech boards had been repaired. Lights had been replaced. They’d gradually brought the shine back, and over it all the crystal chandelier twinkled in the warm light that filled the auditorium.

The only similarity was Dick standing there all on his own.

They were six hours out from curtains and the actors would arrive in about four. His friends would show up in one. Dick had already been at the theater for almost that long.

He looked around him and he could picture exactly what it would look like later just like the first time he was here. And it was amazing how the two visions lined up so well, especially after everything they were going without.

Dick sat down on the edge of the stage and took it all in and smiled softly to himself.    

Here they were. Opening night.

    

Of course, their work wasn’t quite over. There was some last minute theater maintenance to take care of before it was open to the public. And though they had a team to come in later to run the box office, usher, and sell refreshments—all arranged through Nix—Dick took over the last-minute cleaning and general housekeeping.

He watched a squad of actors with vacuum cleaners make its way through the aisles and the seats. The managers, the reporter, and some other actors were dusting while Lip and Ron supervised. The techs were in the booth, setting up. Somewhere, he knew the stagehands were gathering and guarding the props. All around him, there was activity.

Onstage, Dick was running the relevant actors through a big scene, and Harry was beside him for another set of eyes.

They were about two hours away from an audience and curtains and Dick could feel the starting trickle of adrenaline that would be flowing through his veins as the time got closer.

“Alright, scene,” he announced, turning his full attention back to the assembled actors. They looked back attentively. The vacuums in the audience powered down a few moments later, so everyone could hear.

“Good work,” he half-turned so he could address the people on both sides. “Finish what you’re doing, then take it easy until we get closer to the show and curtains. You’ve got about an hour until you need to be ready, but we’ll keep you posted.” He saw nodding and smiles blooming in the crowd and he waved his hand to make them disperse.

Only a few people went backstage. Everyone else gathered on the floor to talk, and he heard someone mention Improv Karaoke. Dick shook his head, but he couldn’t help being pleased that they’d all become friends. As long as they didn’t wear themselves out.

“How do you think it’s looking?” he asked Harry.

“I think we got ourselves a sell-out.” There was an incredulous smile on his face and he looked after the actors in awe.

“Well, the show is sold out tonight,” Nix chimed in, suddenly with them on the stage. “We can expect a full house probably through the first week since our show’s new on the scene.” He also glanced around the theater, though his expression held less wonder than Harry’s.

“It’ll take at least that long for the public to decide if they like it,” he added, meeting Dick’s eye.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Nix,” he replied. The corner of the stage manager’s mouth twitched up at Dick’s tone, but Dick ignored him.

“Do you have any thoughts or concerns?” Dick asked as Lip and Ron stopped in front of him. Ron shook his head.

Lip said, “The song in the middle of the second act could use a little more work. I think the actors can do better.”

Dick mentally calculated how much time it would probably take, and then he fit that into the time they had and made a schedule out of it. Wright was out there somewhere, and probably wanted to talk to people—Dick had last seen him talking to Brad and Espera—and Dick wanted to check in with his backstage crew and his techs.

Dick nodded and waved a hand, “Okay, they’re all yours. Give them some time before the show starts, but you can do what you need to until then.”

It was unnecessary, but Dick had to say it. Lip would never work the actors harder than they could go. Dick didn’t need to worry.

Still, it silenced the voice in his head.

Lip nodded. “I’ll have them back before long. Don’t worry.” he said. Dick watched him round up the actors and go to the back.

He was aware of Nix’s eyes trained on him, but Dick couldn’t pay attention to it now. He looked at Ron instead. “Can you keep the cleanup going?”

The look on his face answered Dick’s question, but Ron still said, “It shouldn’t take too long.” He turned back toward the auditorium and sighed. “Welsh, go find out what those idiots are doing,” he said, pointing at Malarkey, Skip, and Perconte.

Dick watched them leave the stage, Ron following Harry, and something else in him quieted. He couldn’t be doing this with better people, really. No one else would do half as good a job.

“I’m making the rounds again. Do you want to come with?” Dick asked, glancing back toward Nix. The suspicious look on his face melted away and he shrugged, so Dick turned around and wasn’t surprised when Nix fell into step beside him.

It only took a few seconds for his nagging thoughts to get the best of him. “Is McGraw still causing problems?” Dick asked, dropping his voice. The techs hadn’t been enthusiastic about the front manager earlier, and Nix was the one with a direct connection to them.

“Well, Luz and Person did beg me to get rid of him,” Nix said wryly, gesturing to the headset draped around his neck. His expression suggested he wouldn’t be opposed to doing it either.

“Oh, and they’re calling him Captain America now.”

Dick shook his head and sighed. Their habit of sarcastically renaming people they didn’t like was counterproductive, but he couldn’t stop them. “Can it wait?” he asked.

Nix lifted one end of his headset to his ear. He listened for a moment and Dick dared to dream when Nix’s eyes flicked up to meet his again. “Probably.” Dick nodded and continued backstage.

“How did they come up with Captain America?” It may be counterproductive, but he was amused against his better judgment.

“I’m not sure, but it’s probably something they’d be more than willing to share.” The grimace on Nix’s face told Dick everything he needed to know.

“There’ll be time for it later,” Dick said, a little less convinced than he’d like.

He felt a hand on his arm then, and turned his head to see Nix’s dark brown eyes boring into his, black eyebrows drawn low over them.

“Dick?”

“Yeah, I’m good,” he said with a sharp shake of his head. Nix looked skeptical, but then the man Dick wanted to see showed up.

He obviously had somewhere to be, but this wouldn’t take long. “Hey, Gene?”

The stagehand stopped in his tracks and blinked owlishly back at them. “Yes sir?”

“How is everything going back here?” Dick asked, looking around the backstage for himself. Someone had strung twinkle lights along the walls so the space glowed soft yellow. The light was dim enough that it didn’t reach everywhere, though.

Set pieces were merely large, shapeless shadows along the back wall, lined up in order of appearance. Dick also saw the dim suggestion of clothing racks on both sides. Every inch of the space was utilized in a way that comforted him. He hadn’t had much chance to get back here, but he’d left it in good hands.

“We’re working on it, sir. We almost have all of the props accounted for, and Bryan’s set up watching the table so nothing goes missing. And we’ll get the sets ready soon.”

All of the props?” Nix asked, one eyebrow raised. Dick wanted to laugh at his tone, but Nix was stationed backstage during show. He would know.

“All of the ones we normally have,” Gene amended. “The others won’t be problems.”

Nix nodded like his suspicions had been confirmed, and Dick had a feeling he knew who the “others” were.

“Is there anything you need from us before the show?” They had the time, but he wanted it to go as smoothly as possible. And he wanted to avoid another situation like last night, even if it had worked out in the end.

Gene looked around him as if the answer would be lying on the floor. “I don’t think so. But I’ll let you know if anything changes.” He gave them a small smile and some of the stress melted out of his expression.

Dick nodded and folded his hands behind his back. “Don’t hesitate to ask.”

“Will do, sir.”

Dick watched him walk away and resisted the urge to check the prop table himself. They had roughly an hour and forty-five minutes, and he had more to do, and the stagehands had it covered for him.

“We have to talk to the techs next,” he said absently and to confirm it.

Nix seemed to catch on and put a hand on Dick’s arm. “Let’s go then. I think they’re both up there.”

Dick turned toward him with a frown. “Where else would they be?”

“With those two you never know,” Nix replied. His expression suggested he was more put-upon than he really was.

“Best to go now then.” And finally Dick moved away from the prop table and toward the stairs leading to the booth. Nix took his place beside him and Dick smiled.

They made their way up the stairs in comfortable quiet and Dick felt some of the pressure in his chest ease. The door to the booth was open, so he knocked on the doorway.

Luz and Ray perked up at the sound and their chairs bent back at the same time.

“Hey, Dick,” Luz chirped.

“What brings you up here?” Ray asked.

“I just wanted to check in.” Dick looked around the small booth and took note of the two open books on the shelf under the board, and the scattered papers covered with two kinds of surprisingly neat handwriting.

“Yeah, we’re good up here,” Luz said, settling back into his chair. “If you want your headset now we can keep you updated.”

“I’ll take that,” Dick replied. Ray nodded and moved to get it. “Are you sure there aren’t any problems?”

“Now that you mention it, if you could get rid of Captain America that would be fantastic,” Ray replied, holding out Dick’s headset and battery pack.

“I heard that he could wait until later,” he said carefully, watching the techs as he wrapped the headset’s wires around his torso to put it in place.

“Later is now,” Luz replied with a grimace. He had one cup of his set over his ear and he rolled his eyes, looking at Ray. “God, this guy.”

Dick didn’t wait for either of them to explain. He lifted the headset up to cover his ears and caught a look at Nix’s strained face. Dick spun the volume control on the pack and a hurried, almost panicked, voice erupted into his ears.

“Holy shit guys, I don’t know if enough people are going to show up. I know people bought all the tickets, but I don’t know if they’re all gonna be claimed.” He spoke breathlessly and almost so fast that Dick couldn’t understand him. 

“Goddammit, this is the kind of shit that always happens to good people, you know? I can’t even remember the last time this didn’t happen to a show I was assigned to—”

Dick pushed his headphones around his neck and spun the volume back to mute. He blinked a few times, waiting for the residual panic to seep out of his head. Nix cast him a knowing look.

“This is what he’s been like?” Dick clarified with a new level of concern. The Captain America situation had jumped up a few spots on the priority list.

 “Sometimes it’s not as bad. Sometimes it’s worse,” Ray said with a shrug, but he’d also slipped his headphones off his ears.

“So you see our dilemma,” Luz summarized.

Dick thought about it for a moment, pushed a few other tasks around on the mental to-do list. “I do,” he said eventually. “But there’s not a lot I can do at the moment. Try to ignore him for now.”

Luz and Ray looked disheartened, but they agreed.

“Sorry guys. If it gets worse, we’ll look at it again, but for now we don’t have any other options.” He hated leaving it, but he didn’t have a good solution.

“Yeah, yeah. We’ll make do,” Ray said glumly.

“That’s the spirit, guys,” Nix chirped. Dick sent him a look, but Nix just grinned back.

“Oh, and is the ghost going to be a problem tonight?” Nix asked. It seemed ridiculous, but Dick had been around theatre—and his theater—long enough to be invested in the answer.

“Don’t worry, the chandelier’s safe,” Luz said. “Charlie knows what we’re doing.”

“Okay then, we’ll check in later,” Dick reminded.

“Thanks.”

Dick left it at that and slipped out of the door with Nix right behind him. Nix didn’t even say anything, just lifted his eyebrows and waited for Dick to interpret the look.

“You hired these people, right?” Dick asked lightly, purposely sidestepping the “I told you so.”

Nix actually looked offended. “They were recommended to me.”

Dick smirked back at Nix and kept walking. “If they get worse, we’ll take care of them. Is he the only problem?”

Nix grimaced. “The only one I’ve heard about, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more.” Dick wished Nix wouldn’t have said that, but he agreed.

“You’re going to have to keep track of them for me. I want to check in with Lip, and the actors one more time to see if they need anything. And I want to see how the cleaning’s going.” He knew how Nix would react, but that didn’t matter.

Nix shook his head and his expression was laughing at Dick. “I’m sure something will have come up that they need your immediate attention for.”

“I need to make sure.”

“I know. Dick Winters the superhero.”

Dick rolled his eyes and tried not to feel embarrassed.  He couldn’t help the fact that he wanted to ensure everything went well. It wasn’t just because the former producers, and the designers and managers would be in the audience either.

He was doing everything he could to maximize his company’s potential. This was their night and Dick was going to make sure that everything was in place for it to be a good one.

Nix probably understood him because he shook his head. “Just go save the day and make yourself feel better. I’ll make sure everything stays in line on this side of things.” He tapped his headset.

A smile washed over Dick’s face. “Thanks, Nix.” He patted his friend on the arm and took off down the stairs. It was nice to have someone understand.

God only knew why it had happened, but Nix—who wasn’t generally invested in much of anything—had taken an interest in Dick the first time they’d met. Then he’d never left. And now they’d grown around each other so much that Dick sometimes wasn’t sure which parts of his personality were his own and which parts he’d picked up from being with Nix.

He made it through the stairwell door and out into the theater proper before his plans were interrupted.

“Mr. Winters?” The voice that asked wasn’t really asking and the tone of it rubbed him the wrong way, but he wasn’t surprised.

“Mr. Sink. Mr. Ferrando,” he said, turning around. “I didn’t expect to see you back here.” The two men stood together like two parts of a single unit, and their faces were mask-like as ever; projecting friendliness when Dick knew better.

He wanted to ask why they were back here and who’d let them in, but he restrained himself. He also resisted the urge to check his watch because he knew that there was time until curtains and that the two men being here was more than a coincidence.

“We just wanted to visit with you before your opening night,” Sink said.

“Is there somewhere we could go that’s more private?” Ferrando asked. He glanced around as if someone might sneak up on them at the back of the theater. Considering that Nix was still on the stairs and Wright was somewhere in the theater, it probably wasn’t out of the question.

Dick nodded. “Come with me.” He didn’t particularly want to show the former producers to deeper parts of the theater, but the fact that it felt like an intrusion into his territory wasn’t a good reason to refuse them.

When they made it to the back room on the left side of the stage, the former producers made a show of looking around the dark, cramped space, and making appreciative noises while doing so. All while wasting time getting to the point. Dick didn’t want this to take longer than it needed to or he would have taken them to the offices upstairs. Still, he waited for one of them to speak first.

“Well Dick, we know we had a falling out of sorts with you and your company,” Sink started.

“And we’re both impressed with how you’ve all kept it going,” Ferrando continued.

“Thank you,” Dick said, guarded and unsure where this might be going.

“You know, I’d say it’s almost a blessing that things turned out the way they did,” Ferrando said, and it looked like he believed it.

“It’s a shame we had to pull our funding from the show and that none of our people worked out, but we appreciate you letting us have some credit,” Sink said. He looked sincere and close to reaching out to put a hand on Dick’s shoulder.

Dick forced a smile and was careful to check his tone when he said, “Of course.” They knew he didn’t have a choice. They were the ones who’d brought it up after the loan.

The breath Dick let out was measured and his face felt stiff. He’d never been as good at this as Nix.

Sink laughed. “Maybe it really is for the best that all that mess had to happen.” Ferrando laughed with him. He said it like it had been a setback for them, and Dick felt a pocket of heat sweep through his body.

“We’re glad we could make it to opening night,” he said tightly.

Ferrando was the one who reached out to put a friendly hand on Dick’s shoulder and his mouth opened into a grin. “I think we’re all happy to see it. Now you just go put on another kickass show. Know that we’ll be out there rooting for you.” He shook Dick’s shoulder with the words and the pocket of heat got hotter.

“We’ll do our best.”

“Good to hear it. We’ll see you after the show, Dick. Break a leg,” Sink said, moving toward the door. Dick nodded after them, not trusting his voice.

As soon as they left, he took a deep breath and let it out while he counted to ten. There was no reason for him to stay in this room, but he needed it for a few more seconds.

Absently, he thumbed the volume dial on his headset off of mute. It was quiet and, surprised, he opened his eyes to look at it. Maybe…

Then Captain America’s voice burst back into the headphones around his neck.

“Guys, I don’t see enough people. Usually shows have lines and shit. What if some other show bought out all the tickets and there aren’t actually people who are coming? What if this is all a waste?” Somehow his voice got more panicked as he talked until Dick couldn’t take it anymore.

He muted the headset again and squared his shoulders. He had a job to do.

And he wasn’t surprised when he found Nix right outside the door, waiting for him.

“What’s going on?” Nix asked cautiously, like he knew it was something unpleasant, but he couldn’t tell what it was.

“I’m getting rid of Captain America.”

Nix’s reaction was a cross between surprised and amused, but it was the amusement that took over.

“Already? What changed your mind?” he asked, crossing his arms and leaning against the wall.

“Listening to him.” Dick started toward the back of the theater, but he didn’t miss Nix’s flash of a smile or his excitement as he followed behind him. “And the former producers,” he added, hitting the stairs at the edge of the stage.

For someone who knew everything that was going on all the time, this news seemed to catch him off guard and his amusement vanished. “Wait, what the hell did they say to you?”

“They think upturning our lives was a blessing and congratulated themselves for making it happen,” Dick said, not slowing down.

“Assholes,” Nix said as Dick opened the door. Dick hummed in agreement, but didn’t bother responding. He’d said enough, Nix knew how he felt.

This time when he reached the booth, Dick didn’t even bother knocking. “Hey guys,” the two techs startled and looked over at him in surprise. “Is McGraw still bothering you?” They looked confused for a second before they realized who he was talking about.

“Well, sir, we’re learning how to tune out all of the crazy bullshit, but having him gone would still be fantastic,” Ray said, raising his eyebrows hopefully. On his other side, Luz nodded.

“That’s what I thought. Change the channel on your headsets. And I’ll see what I can do about getting someone else to man the ticket booth.”

The slow smiles that spread over their faces suggested Christmas might have come early, and they rushed to change their packs to another channel. Dick and Nix did the same.

“Oh hell yeah. Thanks, Dick,” Luz said, grinning. 

Dick couldn’t help the smile on his own face. “You’re welcome. Let us know if you have any other problems.”

“Yes sir,” Ray said. Dick nodded and turned around to go back down the stairs. He’d have to tell the stagehands and his other directors about it next. He met Nix’s eyes as he moved and flashed a smile that was quickly returned. He was back in control.

“Who else are you raining your righteous anger on?” Nix asked as they came back out into the theater.

“Anyone who deserves it,” Dick replied, his mind already racing ahead to the next task. “Do you know where Ron might be?” He turned his head to see Nix’s eyebrows fly up and his expression turn toward the serious.

He whistled. “Damn, you’re bringing out the big guns, aren’t you?”

“I don’t need anyone freaking my crew out or spreading rumors before the show. As long as he’s here, people are going to be on edge,” Dick said. They’d made it back to the stage and he searched the wings for signs of the stagehands. When he couldn’t find them, he ducked backstage with Nix right behind him.

“I can only imagine that Sparky’s loitering around where Lip is, which means the music room if Lip’s not done yet.”

Dick looked at his watch. They had an hour and fifteen minutes. He felt squeezed between two walls with no way out, but he shook off the feeling because he had a plan and he wasn’t out of time yet.

Still his voice came out slightly rushed when he said, “They should be done. I’ll go find them. You stay here, find Harry and the stagehands, and tell them about the change in headset channels.”

The look Nix gave him in return lingered longer than necessary. But he nodded and said, “Will do, boss,” adding the last part just to annoy Dick out of being worried. He even sarcastically saluted. But Dick didn’t take the time to react, and Nix didn’t wait for him to.

Dick turned to the side doors that led up to the balcony and the box seats. He wasn’t excited about having to retrieve Ron and Lip, but it was important.

An hour and fourteen minutes until show time.

 

Fortunately, Dick didn’t walk in on anything that would make his friendships awkward for a few days. When they didn’t have anything to do, Ron and Lip hid up in the balcony until Lip felt guilty about not helping. It would be easy to get them down, but he hadn’t wanted to walk in on one of their impromptu dates.

But he didn’t walk in on anything.

Ron and Lip weren’t in the balcony or the box seats, so Dick eventually switched his headset back to the original channel and hoped at least one of them was wearing his.

It was Lip, of course. And as soon as Dick asked where they were, Lip got concerned and asked if they needed to come back to the stage. He said they were in the office above the theater getting ready, but Dick knew that could mean anything.

He checked that Captain America wasn’t listening before he told them about the new channel and to wrap it up in twenty minutes at most.

Dick needed to get back down to the stage. He had to check in with Nix and confirm last-minute details were taken care of, but the balcony drew him into its quiet and he found himself leaning against the railing to relish it for a moment.

Here, Dick had a perfect view of the stage with all of its people. He couldn’t tell what was going on, but it all looked good. The set pieces for the first scene were in the wings, ready for curtains, and Dick pictured how they’d look onstage with people.

And as he watched his actors milling about and playing games, he felt an old nag in the back of his brain settle down. He’d been worried about the large cast going into the project. It wasn’t much more than a typical production maybe, but it was a lot of people to have in one space.

There hadn’t been a problem, though. He’d watched all kinds of relationships form during the show, and Dick felt successful, even if that wasn’t the real point of what they were doing.

The pit of fire in him from the former producers was still there, but Dick looked past it. He had the actors and the show to focus on now. And watching the whole cast from above, he felt like he was looking at a new shed with a different kind of storm on the way.

They’d done it once, but Dick could still get them ready for the second one.

At that, Dick straightened up and took the stairs down. Nix would be waiting for him and Dick had more things to check off his list.

Sure enough, Nix was on the other side of the door.

“There you are.” He paused for a second to take in the empty space around Dick and his eyebrows moved to form a question. “Where are the other two?”

Dick jerked his thumb toward the other side of the theater. “Getting ready. I told them to be done in twenty minutes.” Nix nodded, and Dick asked, “Harry?”

“Still in the back with his wife. Kitty knows what’s going on so I’m leaving it in her hands,” Nix replied.

Dick frowned. It wasn’t a problem. He knew Harry and he knew Kitty had it handled, but they were getting close and he did have—

Nix put a hand on his arm. Dick looked into his face and Nix said, “You’re obsessing and you don’t need to.”

“It’s opening night and we’ll have a full house and we need to show Sink and Ferrando that we didn’t need them,” Dick protested.

“I love it when you’re petty,” Nix said. Dick rolled his eyes. “Come on, everything’ll be fine. How many shows have you done before?” Nix asked; looking more cavalier than Dick thought was really appropriate.

“This is different and you know it,” Dick retorted. He didn’t like being soothed. It felt condescending.

But Nix’s brand of comfort was a little different. “On the outside, sure. And with all of our problems. But at the core, you’re just putting on another show. Who cares if this one’s on the Great White Way?”

“I do. And I kind of wish you did,” Dick replied, missing the point on purpose. Nix understood that and rolled his eyes.

“Just come with me.” He grabbed Dick’s arm and pulled him toward the stage.

It was still a mess of activity and noise up close, but Dick could see through it now. Like last night, there was a feeling of celebration in the air. Dick could feel their eagerness and the anticipation, and everyone was so close together that it bounced off of everything onstage. Everywhere he looked, something different was happening.

Brad and Guarnere were running lines with two small groups on one side of the stage. Dick could see Smokey, Tab, Stafford, and Liebgott among them. One was a busy scene with a lot going on at once, and its success depended on timing. The other section was a bit longer, but the two deputies were splitting their attention seamlessly.

Dick noticed most of the actors were in costume, too. Just a little apart from the group, Christeson was sitting on an upturned box, altering the sole of one of his shoes and Perconte was beside him with a mouthful of safety pins and his leg propped up on his other knee.

Then there was the Improv Karaoke.  

The song had just changed, and Dick turned his head to see Ray, Malarkey, Skip, Hasser, and Garza stand up. He put his hands in his pockets and watched for a moment. Usually he wasn’t in the room for these games, but he’d heard about them.

“Okay, so this song is from a musical that’s still in workshop,” Malarkey explained. “The audio isn’t great because a guy I know recorded it at one of his rehearsals, but it’s the best we have.” The other four standing with him didn’t seem to think it was a problem if their grins were anything to go by.

Beside him, Dick felt Nix settle into place to watch, too. Penkala lifted the phone with the audio into the air and pressed play.

The five started stomping on a beat and a piano picked up before Skip started singing.

Dick recognized the song. He’d seen the actors who were previewing it perform in a bar when he’d been out with his friends. His actors did it just as well, and the mountain song captured all of the energy buzzing around the stage, and Dick couldn’t help but catch the excitement.

Beside him, Dick could feel Nix looking at him smugly.

And apparently Nix could feel his attention because he said, “Now don’t you feel better?”

Dick ran his eyes over his actors again. The group running lines was slowing down and watching the Improv Karaoke so Brad and Guarnere finally shook their heads and dismissed everyone.

Kitty, Harry, and Rudy had come out from the costume shop and Dick watched Rudy worry over Nate’s costume. Some of the actors picked themselves up from the floor and went over to Kitty with makeup supplies in their hands. Kitty rolled her eyes but obliged, helping the men fix the messes they’d made of their faces.

To the side, Wright was writing in his notebook and he had a dazed smile on his face.

They were all put together.

The problem wasn’t that Dick didn’t think his company could blow the audience away. It was that he didn’t know what might go wrong, and he couldn’t do anything about it.

But that was his problem.

“They look good,” he glanced sidelong at Nix. “Have you seen the stagehands?” Nix came closer so his head was right beside Dick’s and pointed.

Bryan was talking to Brad and their conversation involved a lot of gesturing. Gene had drifted over to the cluster of actors, taking a seat beside Babe and Guarnere. He looked as relaxed as Dick had ever seen him. Spina sat down with another group of actors and cheered along when the Improv Karaoke song finished.

“They told me they have everything covered, but come on,” Nix said, tapping Dick’s elbow again.

Dick followed him backstage to the prop table. On his way, he glanced over the sets and felt a little comfort that they were all there and ready to go.

Seeing the prop table really eased the last knot of anxiety in the pit of his stomach, though. Every square of tape was filled—minus Brad’s—and the globe was there in the center.

He exhaled, and Nix turned to him with a smile. “I told you everything would be fine.”

“I didn’t know you had psychic powers,” Dick replied lightly. They were prepared as they could be for the storm. It helped to know that Nix would be backstage.

“Well, aren’t you a ray of sunshine,” Dick could hear the eyeroll in Nix’s voice. “Have you checked the time recently?”

Dick turned his wrist over and started at seeing the time. “Okay, I’m going to call everyone together and then it’s time to get the show on the road,” he said. He’d been looking at his watch, but now he looked over at Nix, whose expression hadn’t changed.

Dick pushed any lingering anxiety away. He had a job to do.

    

“Alright everyone,” Dick said. He was standing in front of his company and his friends were on either side of him. There was an hour until show time.

“We’re almost there.” He paused to take a breath and survey his company for a moment. The pride he had in them was outweighing the adrenaline. “You all know how I feel. You’ve done an incredible job under the stress we’ve been under.”

He took another moment to dwell in this satisfaction and pride. Nothing could touch them. That had been proved over and over. “I’m honored to have done this with all of you. Show ‘em what you got and break a leg.”

A cheer erupted as he’d known it would and Dick allowed himself a small smile.

“Hey! We’re not done yet!” Ron barked, raising his voice so he could be heard. If you didn’t know better, his stoicism could be mistaken for apathy, but Dick did know and he’d always been able to see the little spark in Ron’s eyes that meant he was invested.

“There’s about an hour until curtains. Places will be called ten minutes before. Have everything ready before that time. Costumes, props, lines, everything you need for the top of the show,” Ron said.

“If you have any questions or concerns between then and now you can always come to us. We’re not taking our places until after you take yours,” Lip reminded them.

“And Kitty says she and Rudy’ll be able to help you out with makeup and costumes, too,” Harry announced. “Remember that the house is opening in five minutes, so you need to take care of it now or you’re SOL.”

There was a lull of silence before Nix said, “And that’s it. Now you’re all dismissed.”

Another cheer rose up and Dick heard Skip and Malarkey propose one more round of Improv Karaoke before the house opened. He also saw the stagehands and a flock of actors group around the sets to move them to the stage.

“So how does it all look?” Ron asked, turning a bit so their line closed into a half-bracket. Harry closed the other side.

“Good,” Dick said. “Everything’s in its place, everything seems to be taken care of. I just need you to do one thing.” Ron raised his eyebrows and looked interested. “I want you to get rid of the guy in the ticket booth.”

From the way he rolled his eyes, Dick thought Ron must know why. “Nothing illegal,” Nix reminded. Ron rolled his eyes again.

“I’ll take care of it,” his eyes swept over the crowd of actors and he called out, “Grant, Kocher.” As they approached, Ron left to join them, saluting Dick on his way.

“Well, that’ll turn out somehow,” Harry said slowly, watching him leave. Dick agreed but decided to let it be.

“What else is going on?” Lip asked. His gaze was searching and Dick knew what he was getting at.

He crossed his arms over his chest and said, “The former producers told me they’re excited to see the show again and took credit for its success by suggesting that dumping us was the best thing they could’ve done. So we’re going to show them they’re right.”

Harry laughed. “Fuck yeah.”

Dick felt Nix’s eyes on him and turned his head to see him frowning. His eyes were far away, but when he noticed Dick noticing him the look in his eyes sharpened and his mouth turned up. “So what are you taking on next?” he asked. Dick shook his head.

“I think that’s everything taken care of,” he said, sweeping his eyes over their stage.

Webster and Liebgott were standing close together, leaning into each other, talking quickly and quietly. Liebgott was shaking his head and Webster was gesturing dramatically as he talked. But they weren’t fighting, that much was clear.

He saw movement near the right side of the stage and saw Babe following Gene with several props in his arms. Gene was talking rapidly to Stafford as he walked, and Bryan was glaring off to the side, tucked under one of the set pieces. Dick was fairly certain he didn’t want to know.

From the part of the stage that was hosting Improv Karaoke, Dick heard Espera say, “Okay, which of you white-ass motherfuckers was singing “Old Man River” last night?” Brad reached out to calm him down, but it didn’t seem to be working.

“Then come with me,” Nix said, grabbing a fistful of Dick’s sleeve. Dick would have followed anyway, but Nix was insistent. When he saw that Dick was in, he turned and started walking, still clutching Dick’s sleeve. Dick looked back to shrug at his friends before he was dragged away.

Nix led him backstage and over to the right side where his booth was.

“We need privacy for this?” Dick asked, noting the small amount of space.

Nix scoffed and turned around to say, “No, but you need to be away from distractions.”

Dick raised an eyebrow.

But Nix had picked a good place for it. His booth was out of the way of the main backstage traffic—he didn’t stay in it for long during the show—and it was quiet. The space around it was illuminated by a concentration of the soft yellow fairy lights. That, along with the remoteness, made it feel like its own little world.

“Are you actually feeling better about all of this?” The earnest look in Nix’s eyes suggested Dick’s answer mattered a lot, so he was careful to be honest.

“I’ll be better when the show starts.”

It was true that his company could do anything, but “anything” wasn’t always done without absorbing a few blows. If Dick could prevent those blows, he’d feel better. The waiting was the thing killing him now.

“It’s all going to be fine. We’ll handle whatever comes up when it does,” Nix said, not quite meeting Dick’s eyes. “You’ve done a fantastic job with all of this. You should be proud.”

Dick’s anxiety melted a little. “When did you become an optimist?” he asked.

Nix huffed a laugh at that. “I’m not. I’m a realist, so you know I must be right.”

Dick couldn’t help his own smile and he ducked his head a little. “What would I do without you?” he asked. It was a genuine question, too. He had Nix, who could read his mind and his moods, and Dick didn’t know how he’d get along without him.

Nix looked away. Dick wasn’t sure if it was the lighting, but his cheeks looked a little red.

“I’m just returning the favor,” he said, in that way that begged Dick to leave it alone. “Usually this table is flipped.” He sounded embarrassed.

But he was right. Usually Dick was the one calming Nix down and pulling a solution out of the web of information and emotions Nix had managed to weave.

“Well, I’m glad you’re here to do it,” he replied. Dick wanted Nix to know that he meant it, that he valued all of Nix’s help—and the fact that he never had to ask for it—more than he could ever say. Nix’s eyes turned to search Dick’s face. Like he wasn’t sure if Dick was being serious.

Dick took care to keep his face as open as he could.

He was in love with his best friend.

It didn’t hit him like an epiphany, so Dick supposed he’d known for a long time. Instead, the acknowledgement felt like something unfolding. Like there had been a combination guarding the knowledge, and Dick had finally gotten it right.

“I am your stage manager,” Nix said, his voice faint and faraway, though he was closer than he’d been before.

“And I wouldn’t have it be anyone else, Lew.” He smiled softly at Nix when he said it.

Then Nix was even closer, his eyes focused below Dick’s eyes. Dick held his breath and watched Nix get closer, but the press of his lips still surprised him.

It was soft and Nix didn’t push. He stayed where he was and was clearly waiting for Dick’s reaction, like it wasn’t obvious what it would be.

Dick lifted his hand to Nix’s cheek and leaned forward, adjusting his mouth so they fit more easily together. Nix startled and his hand reached out to rest on Dick’s hip as he relaxed bit by bit.

The kiss lasted a long time, and Dick was aware of every second of it.

When it ended, they didn’t move far. Dick could feel Nix’s breath on his lips and he felt the smile under his hand. And though he knew Nix wouldn’t see it, he smiled back.

But a smile didn’t feel like enough. He slid his hand down Nix’s face to his neck and laughed silently. He couldn’t bring himself to open his eyes. He didn’t want to open his eyes.

He felt Nix tighten his hand against his hip and blow out a shaky breath that could have been a laugh, or a sigh.

Dick was about to say something, but then their headsets crackled to noisy, startling life.

It wasn’t clear what the sound was at first, but it pulled Dick and Nix away from each other. Abruptly.

“McGraw’s been taken care of,” Ron said. “One of the ushers is taking his place and the house is filling up.”

Dick took a moment to sit back and blink, putting himself back into the present. He’d missed the opening of the house. He’d been planning to watch the people come in.

At least Ron was on top of it.

It took Dick a handful of seconds to find his voice. “What does it look like out there?”

“It looks like the lobby of any other musical. There are people everywhere, and already lines for the bathrooms. I haven’t been in the theater yet, but I assume it’s filling up.”

“It is. Shit, homes, there are people everywhere,” Ray said, and Dick had also somehow forgotten that he was connected to all of his crew.

He turned his attention toward the rest of the backstage, but he didn’t hear much so the actors must be in their dressing rooms. That was good.

If he focused, he could hear the murmur of the audience on the other side of the curtain.

“Is the curtain closed?” he asked. He’d missed so much in a handful of minutes.

“Yep, Lip closed it and moved all the actors off the stage,” Luz reported.

“Good…” Everything was on track then. Dick thought ahead to what came next and felt his pulse quicken. It was nerves, but they were insignificant compared to the excitement. “Where are the others?” Dick was aware of Nix’s eyes on his face and turned his head to meet them. For once he couldn’t read his friend’s expression.

“We’re here,” Lip said. “There’s not much to add to what the others said. Harry and I are just with the actors.”

“Yeah, there were some costume things, but we’re taking care of them,” Harry said.

“Okay. Thanks for checking in. Places in fifteen.”

His headset went quiet and Dick muted it, returning his attention to Nix. He’d pulled his hand away and sat back, and now he was focused on his own headset pack.

“Lew…” Dick wanted to reach out to Nix, but something about Nix’s posture kept him in place.

“I should go check on everything and get to my spot. The director said so,” Nix said, slipping out of the booth. He looked back at Dick, his face serious but unreadable, and he seemed to read something on Dick’s.

“I know,” he said. He nodded a little and lifted his eyebrows, before he turned around and walked away.

It occurred to Dick to be alarmed, but before he could say anything Nix had gone too far for Dick to call after him.

Dick sat back and watched instead. Even though his stomach sank, his chest still felt floaty.

He could only imagine what Nix was thinking, but he knew his friend well enough to be comfortable making assumptions.

Nix was probably starting to doubt what had just happened, and Dick wished he could do something to keep Nix from thinking himself out of the way Dick had kissed him back.

But he was running out of time to get dressed and get to his place before the curtains went up. As much as he loathed doing it, he had to leave it for now.

 

Dick, Ron, and Harry were perched in the back of the theater, watching the stage. Dick had called places a few minutes ago and heard Nix over the headsets echo the order to the actors. It had been met with a chorus of “Thank you places,” and Dick was at peace.

They’d reached the point of no return. The future was upon them and he didn’t have to worry about it anymore; he was going to find out what would happen.

Lip had opted to stay backstage to help the actors so Nix could focus on other things. The stagehands had all checked in, as had Luz.

Ray had been late, but he’d been out of breath when he’d checked in. Dick would have been more worried if he hadn’t seen Ray sneaking toward the stairs from backstage. But everyone was where they needed to be, so he left it all alone.

He kept any eye on his watch, and at 7:30, the stagehands pulled the curtain back, letting the world in.

 

It was amazing.

Dick recognized his bias, but he was able to detach himself enough to see the little things and he still thought it was amazing.

Part of it was because he knew the places where the actors and his crew had pulled together to make it work. But the rest of it was all them. His company.

They weren’t far in, just the third scene, but they were on a roll.

Webster and Liebgott were downstage, facing the audience with their heads together as they delivered their lines. They were comfortable with each other, so blessedly different from the beginning of rehearsals.

Dick hadn’t been thrilled by the prospect of having a couple playing such important roles, but he and Harry had worked with them, so the two managed to leave their relationship offstage, but keep the chemistry.

Babe came in right on time. Liebgott peeled away to “talk” to Toye, Skip, and Espera, and Babe talked to Web, tossing his lighter in one hand. Dick smiled at the sight. The lines came easily and correctly, and then Brad entered and growled his line to Babe, sending the character scurrying.

Everything was running on track.

Then a harsh whisper cut across the headset. “Shit, shit, shit, shit.”

Instantly Dick was on alert. Beside him, Ron and Harry had also straightened. They all exchanged a look.

“Whoa, Hasser, where you goin?” Gene’s deep drawl followed the swearing and Dick realized that Gene’s mic must have picked it up backstage.

Dick exchanged looks with his friends again. Harry shrugged and Ron’s expression did the same. They all listened in.

“My spear! I can’t find it anywhere and I have to go on!”

“Okay, calm down. I’ll find it. Worry about your entrance.”

“But if I go on without it—”

“Just make your entrance and let us worry about it. We’ll figure it out.”

“Go,” Bryan’s more forceful voice insisted.

There was a pause before Hasser said, “Okay, thanks.” Dick could almost hear his smile. When the line was silent for a while, Dick heard Nix check in.

“Is everything under control?”

“We have it covered,” Bryan said.

Onstage, the scene was wrapping up and he heard Nix put the fade out on standby, followed by Luz’s confirmation.

Dick nodded and the line went quiet again. Then the lights went dark.

 

After the last number of the act the lights came up and the murmur from the audience followed them. The sound of people moving, standing, and walking back out to the lobby filled the house and all the activity on the stage had disappeared. It was now only backlit by the work lights filtered through soft blue screens with touches of purple.

Of course, not everyone in the theater left, and Dick could hear their not-so-quiet conversations. And what he heard was good.

Most of it was raving about the last number and dance, and he was pleased. Dick had watched the last scene with bated breath, knowing full well that the dance was complicated and had taken most of the company weeks or months.

But with Nate in the lead and his patience the dance had been everything it was supposed to be. Dick hadn’t noticed anything out of place, so either everyone had it down, or they’d covered any mistakes flawlessly.

He slipped around to the side of the theater, mingling with members of the audience on his way to the stage. Other people were praising the plot, the acting, the singing, the costumes, the design and Dick was so proud he didn’t think a smile or words could cover it.

Harry and Ron were in the crowd behind him and he knew they felt it, too. Harry was more expressive, of course, but that spark in Ron’s eyes hadn’t gone anywhere. Dick called after them to hurry up as he passed the door on the side of the theater and broke through the crowd.

Lip met them in the wing and the wide smile on his face was a good reflection of how they all felt. He ushered them backstage where the rest of the company had spilled out. Dick had given the techs permission to come down too, and they were already backstage.

“Are the mics off?” he asked Ray, who had jumped on Hasser and almost taken him to the floor.

“Oh yeah. Mics go off when the lights go down,” he said, smiling giddily, “sir,” he added as an afterthought, still holding onto Hasser by the neck.

“Good,” Dick said, mostly to himself. The actors were riled up and it would be best if they weren’t heard.

Everyone seemed to be electrified, talking rapidly in hushed voices and hardly able to keep still. Dick could feel the adrenaline buzzing around.

Set pieces rumbled into motion, pushed by the stagehands and a handful of actors. Dick watched silently as pieces for the top of the second were lined up to go out. And though they were celebrating, the show was still moving forward.

Dick didn’t see Nix anywhere so he turned to Lip to ask, “How are things going back here?” He was sure Nix would know, but he was also sure that Nix had bigger things to look after.

Lip nodded. The smile on his face had softened a little, but he was still glowing as he watched actors screwing around and celebrating. “It’s going well. All of the guys are getting into it, and the audience seems to love it, so they’re feeding off of that.”

Dick would have to talk to them about that, but it was fine for tonight. They deserved it.

“I think some of the tech cues might be off by a few seconds though. I noticed a delay,” Lip said.

“Big?”

“Sometimes. It’s usually only noticeable if you’re paying attention to it, but there were a few spots where it dragged.”

“Huh,” Dick scanned the crowd for his techs. This hadn’t happened since Ray joined Luz in the booth, but now that Lip mentioned it, Dick could remember a few times when the pauses were bigger than usual. “Could you tell if it was lights or sound?”

Ray was still with Walt, but he’d added Babe, Tab, Malarkey, an amused Nate, and an unenthused Brad to his group. Dick didn’t see Luz anywhere.

“No. It might be the board itself."

“Okay. Did you see where Luz went?”

Lip sighed. “I’ll go find him.” He peeled off and Dick was left watching the actors.

His worry had gone away. A nagging voice told him that something big could still go wrong, but problems could be solved and Dick knew the audience was in it for the long haul at this point. They’d proved to the former producers and the audience that they had it all covered.

So with that weight lifted, Dick’s thoughts shifted back to Nix. He needed to find him and talk to him before the kiss was blown out of proportion.

But first, he had to talk to Luz.

Lip was leading him out with their heads bent together. Toye trailed behind them with a faraway smile and his hands stuffed in his pockets. Dick caught the tail-end of the conversation and heard Lip say, “I said congratulations. And I am happy for you. Now do your job. We’re not done yet.”

Luz waved him away and Dick saw his giddy smile when he turned it away from Lip. Dick didn’t know what it was about, but he knew it didn’t matter right now.

“We know. Ray and I have been trying to do something about the problem with the board. But we don’t know what’s causing it, so I don’t know what to do.” He must have noticed the look on Dick’s face because he shrugged. “Sorry, I don’t know what to tell you.”

“I don’t think it’s a big problem as long as the show stays on track. Maybe adjust some of your cues to minimize any delays,” Dick said. He would leave the specifics up to them.

“We’ll keep an eye on it, sir,” Luz said. The giddiness had faded and his seriousness shone through. Dick smiled at him, sure that they would.

“That’s all I need then. You can go celebrate.”

The smile widened again and Luz turned to Toye. “Hell yeah we’re going to celebrate,” he said. And to Dick’s surprise, Toye smiled back at Luz. “I’ll see you on the comms,” he said as he left to join Ray and the others, Toye in tow.

Dick turned to see Lip smiling after the tech, and he decided to ask later. He checked his watch, noted that there were five more minutes to the intermission, and decided to try finding Nix.

“What the hell are you two doing?”

Mission accomplished, it seemed. Dick turned to see Nix approaching Skip and Stafford who were holding a handful of props between them. He couldn’t hear their answer, but he could see that it didn’t impress Nix.

“This is why we have problems,” Nix said, exasperated. “I’ll call Bryan over here if you want me to.” That threat was enough to send the two actors scrambling back to the prop table.

Dick decided it would be worth his time to investigate.

“What’s going on?” he asked quietly, sliding into position beside Nix. Nix rolled his eyes and crossed his arms.

“Those two thought it would be fun to hide some props,” Nix replied, leaning back toward Dick, smiling in satisfaction. “They changed their minds.”

Dick watched them put the props back and noticed that all of the stagehands—and Babe—were watching, but not interfering. He and Nix saw the actors disappear into the crowd and Nix shook his head.

“Are we going to talk?” Dick asked next. He knew that they’d have to do it eventually, it was just a matter of time, and he knew what he wanted. The only thing was convincing Nix.

Nix’s face clouded over and he stiffened, moving subtly away.

Dick hated it. Hated Nix pulling away from him. He wasn’t the most emotionally available person, he knew, but Nix had always talked to him about everything. The first summer they’d known each other, Dick had been the audience for a number of rants and he’d heard most of Nix’s backstory through them.

That had always been their relationship as he’d understood it. They talked to each other.

“Oh, what is there to talk about?” Nix asked, sounding far more lighthearted than he looked. He dropped it pretty quickly. “Maybe later. I have a feeling it’ll take a while and the show’s about to start again.” Nix turned to Dick and raised his eyebrows pointedly.

Dick recognized that face. He wasn’t getting anywhere for now. “Fine. But we need to talk. And we need to do it before we leave,” he said, giving Nix his pointed look back.

Nix kept it up for a moment before he nodded. His face was serious, and Dick felt a little bad about taking the lightheartedness out of it. But that wasn’t all his fault; if they’d talked, it wouldn’t have gone anywhere.

He was right about not having enough time anymore, though.

Dick could hear the murmur of people filing back into the house and raised his voice just enough to be heard by his actors.

“Alright, guys.” Almost instantly, the company hushed and turned their attention to him. He gave them a smile he hoped conveyed his hope and happiness. “Places in one minute. Act II is almost ready to go. Knock it out.”

The actors rushed into motion after a collective “Thank you places,” and moved toward dressing rooms, the prop table and costume racks. Dick watched for a moment before he nodded and turned back toward the stage.

All of his friends gathered around him and he could see the same bright fever in their faces.    

“Here we go,” Harry said, turning smiles to all of them.

 

Dick was in a different part of the theater for this act. Still near the back and out of the way, but with a different vantage point.

The crowd had settled down and the show had resumed with the same amount of energy it had carried in the first act. It helped that the act started with an air of urgency and all four leads running onstage.

“They look fantastic,” Harry whispered through the headsets. “We need to make sure this is the level of energy every night.”

“And they look fantastic,” Lip said. “Kitty’s incredible.” Dick looked over to see Harry’s responding dopey smile.

“She won’t be surprised to hear that,” he said, pleased.

“I’ve seen better,” Ron said in a very particular tone of voice that meant a smirk followed the words.

“The fuck you have,” Harry shot back.

“Well remember Harry, Sparky’s been hanging around the professionals in Europe. He’s sitting at a level above the rest of us,” Nix said.

“And Kitty measures up,” Harry said, firmly.

“You all have jobs to be doing,” Dick pointed out softly, eyes still on the stage. That and they weren’t the only ones on the line. He was sure that the crew members weren’t paying attention, but the five of them were the authority here. “And if you keep going you’re going to convince him to go back,” he added.

Nix barked a laugh and other laughs echoed his. It wasn’t true. Ron had announced earlier, when it was just the five of them that he would stay in the States for the foreseeable future. Dick knew it had a lot to do with Lip, but he thought everything else had something to do with it, too.

It felt like old times, and Dick was looking forward to having all of his friends together again.

“Here comes your song, Lip,” Harry said, directing all of their attention back to the stage.

The cues were coming faster and Dick watched the lights come up on the next scene. Whatever the techs had done, he didn’t see a delay.

“Lights look good, guys,” he said.

“To me too,” Lip said.

“Well thank God for that,” Luz replied. He sounded distracted.

Brad and Webster walked on, and their characters were supposed to be arguing silently until they made it to center stage. But it continued to be silent and then Dick heard, “God fucking dammit. Piece of shit.”

“Person, what’s wrong?” Ron demanded before Dick got the chance. Dick motioned for the other two to come closer and they pressed into the corner. He didn’t think anyone had noticed them talking, but he wanted to be safe.

Onstage, Brad and Webster had figured out something was wrong, and Dick was comforted to see that they were rolling with it, ad-libbing when the mics came back on.

“Ray, what’s going on?” Dick asked, more insistent.

“The soundboard fucking gave up and decided to pull some diva shit. I can’t get it to respond to anything.” There was a pause and Dick was about to point out that he needed to think of something when Luz chimed in.

“He took off his headset, but he’s under the board now, trying to fix it.” A pause. “Apparently he has an idea.”

Ray had put a lot of time and effort into the board, understanding and making it work for him. He’d worked hard and done a great job and Brad had been right, Ray made a fantastic sound director.

But it also felt like the delay had been dragging on for minutes instead of what was probably only seconds.

In the show, Brad was ranting about something and Webster’s eyes were fixed on a point in the wing where Dick assumed Nix and/or Lip was conveying what was going on.

Dick was just about to say they didn’t need the sound effect that would cue the start of the music, but then it ran through the house. The orchestra did their jobs, starting the song, and his leads fell back into the lines they were supposed to deliver, though it wasn’t quite seamless.

Faintly, through the still-removed headset, he heard Ray crowing and Luz joining him in celebrating. For his part, Dick breathed a sigh of relief and looked at his friends. Harry looked like he wanted to laugh and Ron stood still, blinking into thin air. Dick understood both impulses.

“Oh thank God,” he whispered. “How’s everyone backstage?” he asked.

“They’re getting back on track,” Lip replied. “Nix and the stagehands are covering it.”

Dick nodded. “Excellent.”

“Let’s hope they all get the song right after all this,” Harry said. Ron smacked him.

Dick wasn’t really nervous, but the song was a hit-or-miss thing. The lyricist and composer must have had some kind of feud, and it had resulted in a sadistic song built on their unrealistic expectations for the human throat and diaphragm. The company could pull it off now, but their accuracy went back and forth. Last night they’d done it, but the rehearsal before had been a stomach-sinking trainwreck.

Liebgott stepped forward to start it off and Dick watched, keeping a tight leash on his thoughts to stay sane. The beat picked up and Nate took over. The chorus joined him and the song went on. Dick had to keep himself from tapping the beat, but he saw Ron nodding along with it, laser-focused on the stage.

So far, it sounded the closest to perfect it ever had, almost exactly the way it was supposed to, according to the first preview of the show that Dick had attended. It was one of the reasons he’d first wanted to do this show. When it ended, flawlessly on time, Dick applauded along with the audience, but he was sure that he meant it more than anyone else.

“Good job, Lip. That was exactly what it was supposed to be,” he said. It was the actors who’d done it, but Lip was the one who’d broken it down and made it understandable to begin with.

“Thanks Dick, but they’re the ones who pulled it off,” Lip replied. Dick could picture the embarrassed smile accompanying the glow on Lip’s face. He was so glad to have his friends with him.

“We just have the rest of the show, then,” Nix said. Now he finally sounded amazed and Dick smiled more.

    

The show went on without any major flaws—and every small one was fixed or covered up—and the audience was invested all the way through.

The globe looked incredible when its importance was eventually revealed. The stagehands had been adding to it during the intermission and their work had improved the light controls so it was better than the original.

When it started to glow, the audience reacted with the awe they were supposed to, and when the final scenes came around, Dick heard them gasp and cheer quietly when Liebgott kissed Webster onstage.

It was everything Dick had hoped for, and the standing ovation and raucous cheering during curtain call confirmed that the company had done its job. At the sound of the applause, he finally, truly relaxed, after hours of preparing for the worst. They’d made it through opening night.

Dick could picture the commotion backstage, the restless energy, and the effort Lip and Nix were making to keep it under control. He desperately wanted to be with them, and to let them back out on their stage. But he waited around in the house to see the crowd out and listen to what they had to say about the performance.

His friends and some of the actors joined him and met the enthusiasm with their own. There were other reporters to talk to and compliments to receive, and Dick couldn’t be happier.

 

An hour after the show, the stage was bustling again, the way Dick pictured it whenever it was empty. Though this time there was a crate of bottles at the edge of it, provided by Nix, and met with much excitement. And now everyone was celebrating.

“I can’t believe you’re giving up your stash,” Harry said, marveling.

“Please. This is just the stuff I don’t want,” Nix replied, watching with more attention than ‘stuff I don’t want’ generally warranted.

“They seem happy with it,” Lip pointed out.

The actors looked the same as last night, but on a bigger, louder scale because almost everyone had a drink in hand. Dick watched it all with a happy glow in his chest.

“You can join them if you want. Our work is done for tonight,” Dick said.

Harry wasted no time. “See you guys around,” he said, “I’m going to go find Kitty.” Ron rolled his eyes as Harry left, but Lip grabbed his elbow and pulled him into the group, toward Luz, Webster, and Nate. He waved at them over his shoulder. Nix smirked.

“Sparky’s lucky Lip can put up with him,” he said.

“Lip’s definitely good for him,” Dick replied. He glanced at Nix, who was watching Ron and Lip, and wondered when to bring up the talk.

“Hey, Nix! We could use some refills!” Ray shouted with a blinding grin on his face. He had one arm around Nate’s shoulders and his other hand lifted in the air.

“Hell yeah that’d be great!” Luz yelled. Already his cheeks were a faint red and it looked like he was leaning on Perconte.

Nix didn’t look thrilled about the idea, but he said, “I should take care of that before they go looking.” He sighed. “I’ll be back. Just have to go find some more rejects.”

He walked toward the edge of the stage and a few cheers rose up. Dick watched him go and couldn’t help smiling. He wasn’t exactly sure where Nix’s theater stash was, but he had a good idea and Nix was going the opposite direction.

The company turned back into itself and Dick waited and watched for a few moments before he slipped off the stage and made his way along the side of the theater. Then he went through the door that would take him to the balcony. Their happiness was magnificent, but he couldn’t enjoy it as much when the noise made his head buzz.

The balcony was more forgiving. The sound spread out by the time it reached him, so it was a bit muted and his thoughts were able to edge in alongside it. Already Dick felt his brain settle down and he took a deep breath as he watched his company.

While everyone was involved in the excitement, what stood out to him was how some—Brad, Gene, Nate, and Webster—were hanging out near the side of the stage, a little removed from the rest and watching like Dick was. He guessed they heard the same buzzing.

It couldn’t have been more than five minutes when Dick heard the door open, and Nix sat down in the seat beside him. In the corner of his eye, Dick saw that he’d come up with five more bottles.

“Do you think that’s going to last them?” he asked, finally looking over.

“No. But this is all they’re getting. They need to be cut off eventually.” Dick laughed. “Yeah, yeah, I get the joke,” Nix said. He sounded annoyed, but he was smirking too.

Silence spread out and it was comfortable as always, but there was weight in it that acknowledged words to come.

Dick wasn’t sure how to bring it up, and he wondered if Nix needed easing into it. He hadn’t looked excited about the idea of talking, and he didn’t look excited now, picking at the seat’s upholstery and carefully avoiding Dick’s eyes.

But Dick knew it had to happen, and the same conviction from the intermission settled over him.

“I’m going to talk about earlier,” Dick said, matter-of-fact. It was a warning for Nix in a way, but Nix seemed to be expecting it because he nodded. It was his grim expression that made Dick apprehensive, but he had to do it.

“It seemed like a long time coming,” he said. Nix looked over, his expression guarded and confused. Dick didn’t know why it was such a surprise.

“Lew, this isn’t going to come out the right way, but I’m glad it happened. I’ve wanted to kiss you for a long time.” Some kind of realization was dawning on his friend’s face, and Dick felt his chest lift. “And I want to keep doing it.” He met Nix’s realization with a soft, unsteady smile. “If you want me to,” he added quickly.

The look on Nix’s face resolved itself in a genuine, if shocked, smile. “You suck at talking about your feelings, Dick,” he said.

“Pots and kettles, Lew” Dick said.

“Just shut up and kiss me,” Nix shot back, his voice rushed.

Dick couldn’t disagree with that. And this time it was easier. Nix relaxed quicker and their laughing got in the way of making it very good, but if Dick was right it didn’t matter.

“So are we going to turn into Lip and Sparky? Or God,” Nix shuddered, “Harry and Kitty?” He’d pulled away, into his own space, but it wasn’t like before. Dick was clearly invited back into that space if he wanted.

“I doubt it,” Dick said. “But we could be together, like they are.”

“It’s a little early for marriage, maybe. First you need to decide if you can live with me.”

“I can,” he said. “But marriage is jumping the gun a bit. We could take it slower than that.”

Nix dropped the joke and smiled. “I like that idea.” There was still a glimmer of uncertainty in his eyes, but that just meant Dick had to convince him.

He nodded at the bottles on the floor next to Nix’s leg and said, “Think we should go back down? They probably need that by now.”

Nix followed his gaze and took a long moment before he responded. “I guess we’ll have more time to do this,” he gestured between them. “And we had that talk you wanted so much.”

“And aren’t you glad we did,” Dick said, standing up. There was more, but this was a good starting place. Nix bent down to retrieve the bottles and followed Dick to his feet.

“Yeah.” The look on his face was a bit like Harry’s when he talked about Kitty, but Dick wasn’t going to point it out.

Dick smiled at him and Nix led the way toward the door to leave the balcony.

They’d barely gotten back onstage when a voice separated itself from the rest of the noise.

“Yo! Winters! Nixon! Come over here, we have something to show you!” Espera called out. Nix glanced at Dick and his eyebrows wondered if they should listen.

Dick shrugged and Nix deposited his bottles to follow Espera’s voice to a circle. The other three directors were already there, and they didn’t look any wiser about the reason why.

“So this was kind of last minute, and annoying, but we wanted to say thank you. And when this turned up we decided it was fitting, especially since we’re not using it anymore,” Brad said.  

Nate brought his hands out from behind his back and held out the globe, the original one the stagehands had labored over. It was glowing like nothing had happened and it looked as perfect as ever, but, Dick realized, it wasn’t anything like the one they had now.

“As thanks for getting us all through the shitshow this whole thing used to be,” Guarnere said.

Dick broke into a smile and took it. Harry and Lip had started laughing and Nix was congratulating them on the idea. Ron wanted to know where it had been. And before Dick could thank them or tell them that he was proud, a song started playing from the speakers.

Ever since I was a child, I tried to be the best,” was as far as it got before the company reacted. Dick couldn’t find Ray in the crowd and noticed that Luz, Brad, and Toye were the only ones who didn’t seem surprised. Luz looked delighted.

“Okay, I refilled the liquor supply, and there isn’t any more where it came from,” Nix announced. And that got everyone to scatter.

“Well that’s just not true,” Ron said, quietly.

“Shut up, Sparky. I’ve moved it,” Nix said. Ron’s expression wondered if Nix was sure about that.

“At least the two of you got your shit together,” Harry said, looking at Nix and Dick. Ron and Lip had knowing looks on their faces.

“What?” Nix demanded.

Dick tuned the conversation out, looking over his stage again, and he paid close attention to the people he’d seen come together.

Across the stage, Webster and Liebgott weren’t talking, but they were holding court over the same group of friends. Dick found Babe where he expected to—with Guarnere and in the middle of everything—and Gene was beside him, clearly a little uncomfortable, but there nonetheless. Brad and Ray were nearby. Ray was talking, rapidly and Brad was watching him with a comfortable, relaxed expression. Luz and Toye were also together and Dick noticed the new rings on their left hands.

There was a subtle shift in attention then and Dick followed it to see Wright. He was talking to Nate, as usual, and Guarnere called out, “Hey, Reporter! Where the fuck have you been?”

The reporter seemed surprised to be noticed and he said, “I was held up by the former producers.” An uneasy grumble passed through the company. “They wanted to weigh in on the show and talk about their contribution.” The grumble got louder, but Dick quieted it.

“I don’t think we have to worry,” he said. “Evan’s been with us for a few months now. I trust he knows the truth.” He looked to Wright for confirmation and got a nod.

“It’s all right here,” he said, holding up the notebook. The company accepted that with a cheer and they brought Evan into the madness.

Nix nudged his arm. “Come on, head director. You’re missing the party,” he said. “You’ve had months to gawk at everyone, and we’ll all be back here tomorrow.”

Dick shook his head, but let himself be pulled into the crowd. “King of New York” was playing overhead now and he had to laugh.

For tonight they sure as hell were.