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Under the Lights

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Roy had not nailed the audition.  He had not even thumbtacked it.  If he had attached it to the wall in any capacity, it had been with a bit of spit and some wishful thinking and a tiny scrap of tape scavenged from an old report, and a strong breath would have scuttled it.

They’d cast him anyway, which had left him quite concerned about the overall quality of the theater company until he’d met the other actors, who seemed to be much more wall-attachingly-inclined than he could ever dream of.

He had, accordingly, been nursing a suspicion that the director had witnessed some instance of his public speaking and recognized more potential in that than in his steaming, flaming trash bin of an audition piece.

If that was the case, though, that had been a dangerously reductive leap of logic: public speaking had only the barest of essentials in common with acting.  For one thing, if your brain fritzed, and you changed or reordered words or entire sentences on the spot during a political speech, no one was the wiser, and no one particularly cared.  If you altered a single syllable of a line from your script, however, you risked dropping a vital component of a cue, or ruining a reference written in later on, or disorienting your scene partner enough that they lost track of their own lines.

Ed had bamboozled Roy again in the extracurricular reading department: he had naïvely assumed that he would only have to memorize his own lines, but in truth of fact one had to memorize damn near the entire show, including nonverbal blocking and behind-the-scenes instructions that ran nearly as long as the regular text.  Roy had to know the exact words and the exact cadence of every single line that preceded one of his, so that he could breathe in while the other person was speaking and then deliver his response without a lull in the dialogue; he had to remember every single cue for him to step onto the stage, or move around on it, or interact with a prop or a costume piece.  He had to keep the length of every scene that he wasn’t part of in mind so that he wouldn’t get so distracted running lines or fixing makeup that he’d miss an entrance; he also had to have a mental inventory of every prop that he would interact with at any time, and of the ways in which all of them were secretly animated and hellbent on his destruction.

For another thing—the list was long enough that Roy was positive that he could have kept on going until the sun burnt out—public speaking engagements didn’t generally ask you to move your own furniture.  Roy was too new and too tactful to ask if this company had once had stage hands, and had offended or underpaid them to the point that they’d departed; or if they’d simply elected to save money and ruin actors’ backs from the beginning.  Walking backwards while trying to hold one side of a table level enough not to tip over any of the fragile props set in specific places on top of it made eliminating Homunculi look positively appealing in comparison.

Theater did have some major advantages, however, including a certain level of refraction.  None of Roy’s actions reflected on him directly as a human being; everything that he said and did on-stage belonged to an imaginary person that he was inhabiting on a temporary basis.  Public speaking was the opposite: it was a concentrated beam of deliberate self-representation in which you had to display the most polished and upstanding possible version of your own personality in the hopes of selling yourself as a product.  You were accountable for everything that you said and every way that you could be interpreted.  Theater, though…

Theater, for its innumerable faults and tribulations, let him leave himself behind.

The worst thing of all was that he loved it.  It was a nightmare, and it was stressful as hell, and wandering around Central Command muttering lines to yourself and making smaller versions of the accompanying hand gestures apparently made you look ‘slightly unhinged’, per Riza’s estimation—but it was exhilarating, in the strangest way; and it was an immense preoccupation that had nothing whatsoever to do with politics or hierarchies or the military minefield that he had to walk most days.

Ed had been right—of course Ed had been right.  It was a strange, difficult, genuinely wonderful escape.

Roy did sincerely regret losing quite a lot of Friday nights to the endless roster of rehearsals, although there had been almost enough Saturday afternoons to make up the difference.  Ed had never quite come out and said I’m the one who tricked you into doing this anyway, so it makes sense to move my schedule around a little bit; and since Roy had still not detected a single trace of resentment even after all these months, he was trying very, very hard to believe that it just might not exist.

None of that particularly mattered now, though, since this particular Friday night was opening night, and Roy was increasingly confident that he wouldn’t make it long enough to see the curtain rise.

He was sitting on the lower part of the steps leading up to one of the side-entrance doors to the stage.  In less than half an hour, he would, theoretically, have been swaggering through it as roguishly as possible in order to make his official theatrical debut—except for the detail that he was currently experiencing a significant amount of cardiovascular distress.

The distant hubbub of the audience out in the seats had greeted him when he’d settled here, dolled up and decked out and very, very susceptible to the strangely ordinary sort of panic that he’d been pushing to the side for several weeks.

There were people out there—people who had paid money to occupy those padded seats and suspend their disbelief for two hours plus an intermission.  Worst yet, Ed was almost certainly one of them; worse than that, Riza was.

Roy’s heart was pounding.  It was peculiar.  The thought of ruining this play prompted an unmistakably acute but entirely different sort of terror than the kind that he usually experienced while fighting for his life.

He didn’t like it.

His brain was a swirling mess of pessimistic possibilities and out-of-context fragments of his lines, pronounced in his own head with the practiced emphases that he’d carefully applied to them one iteration at a time.  He felt slightly dizzy, and also like he’d had about four times as much coffee as should have been legal in a civilized nation-state.

Casey, who played his henchperson extraordinaire, was making a final survey of their props over at the table tucked up against the frame of the backdrop.  Just as Roy weighed whether his dignity could withstand calling out to her for help, she glanced up and over in his direction, noticed how wan his expression was, and raised an overpainted eyebrow.

Then she trotted over and planted her hands on her hips.  Seated on the third step, Roy was looking her directly in the eyes for one of the first times in their acquaintance, since he usually had to look a long way down.

“I think I’m dying,” Roy said.

“Call-an-ambulance dying?” Casey asked, eyeing him.  “Or tight-in-your-chest-heart-racing-oh-God-oh-God dying?”

He blinked up at her.  “Is there… a… difference?”

“Second one is stage fright,” Casey said.  She paused.  She winced.  “Probably.  I hope.”

“Ah,” Roy said, which implied both a great deal more understanding than he had and a great deal more reassurance than she’d offered.

“It’s okay,” Casey said.  “Everybody gets it—everybody.  Especially opening night.  But it’s going to be fine.  You’re going to get out there, and it’s going to be scary as hell for the first five minutes, and then after that it’s going to be exactly like the last dress rehearsal.  You just go through the blocking, and check off your lines, and it’s all business as usual.  Easy.”

Apparently his expression was not displaying quite as much renewed inspiration as she’d hoped.

“Okay,” she said.  “There’s a couple other things—you’ve never done this before.”

“Yes,” Roy said.  He was hoping to work his way back up to multisyllabic words again very soon, but just now his ribcage was collapsing, and his head was a whirligig.

“So when you get out there,” Casey said, forcing some brightness for him, which he supposed was kind; “any time that you have to look out over the audience, you’re gonna want to unfocus your eyes a little bit.”

That was the first thing she’d said that did sound easy; that sort of thing had started to come worryingly naturally after the temporary blindness had been mostly repaired.

“That prevents you from seeing where the people who came to watch you are sitting,” Casey said, and there was a sly tilt to her mouth and her eyebrow for just a moment before it vanished again.  “And you also don’t get distracted by anybody who looks bored or is asleep or has a weird hat on.  And don’t peek out through the cracks in the set and find your friends in between scenes either, okay?”

“That wasn’t in my contract,” Roy said.  There.  Dignity restored.

Casey rolled her eyes and muttered something under her breath that sounded remarkably like Of course you actually read the contract.  “Well… you can do it tomorrow night if you want.  Just not on opening.  It just makes it worse to know where they are.  Trust me.”

After the many, many hours of time together building their part of this thing, he did.

The prop manager, Frances, sauntered by wringing his hands, which Roy hoped was an unconscious nervous habit rather than a sign of actual distress.  Yet another half-voiced Backstage-approved call emanated towards them; it was like communicating underwater.  “Five minutes to Circle.  Fifteen to places.”

Casey half-called back, “Thank you, five and fifteen,” but Roy was still too tongue-tied to remember that from earlier this week, and could only hope that her response could count as an acknowledgement for both of them.

“I thought of one other problem,” Casey said.

Roy had very nearly succeeded at reminding his circulatory system that he was, in fact, a general of the Amestrian Military; and this was not, in fact, life or death.  “Oh.”

“Yeah,” Casey said.  She frowned at him.  “You’re really funny.”

Roy blinked.  It sounded sincere enough that he started with “Thank… you?”

Casey nodded.  “That’s going to be different from rehearsal.  Barb’s heard the jokes a million times, but the audience hasn’t ever heard them before.  You’re going to need to leave a longer pause after you deliver a line, and you kind of have to feel it out as you go—you have to wait for it to calm down a little before you start your next line, so that they can hear you.  Don’t cut them off, but don’t wait so long that it’s dead air, y’know?  You’ll figure it out.”

“All right,” Roy got out.  “What…” He’d been trying not to consider this contingency, but she’d started the pair of them down a road paved with worst-case scenarios.  “What happens if I forget a line altogether?”

Casey blinked.  “You won’t.”

“What if I do?” he said.  “I can’t… call for it.  It must happen sometimes.”

Casey wrinkled her nose at him.  “Yeah.  It does.  And it’s horrible.  But you just have to keep your cool and not panic and rewind your last line in your head a couple times.  Usually that shakes it loose and reminds you where to start from again.  Your brain keeps ’em in sequence.”

Roy had encountered that curious fact enough times now to believe it, but he also knew what hell panic wrought on one’s memory recall.  He knew that the roaring white emptiness of the Gate was very, very much the distillation of the experience of fear.

“I’m not trying to be a miserable bastard,” he said, “but what if that doesn’t work?”

“Then I’ll try to feed you your line,” Casey said, “before it gets awkward enough for people to start shifting around in their seats.  We’ll get through it.  It’s okay.”  Her eyes lit up.  “Wait, hang on—I got an idea.  But I gotta check with Barb first so she doesn’t freak out.”  She glanced over her shoulder, and Roy, feeling rather numb now from the combination of desperate contingency-planning and abject resignation, followed her gaze.

As if summoned by the thought, their intrepid director was pacing back and forth not far off, taking quick, agitated drags off of her ubiquitous cigarette.  She smoked like Jean had the week before the wedding, but her mind reminded Roy so much of Heymans’s—meticulously methodical and staggeringly creative at turns—that he wasn’t sure whether introducing them would spark a wonderful relationship, or if they’d collaborate to steal the Führership from directly under his nose.

Casey waved feverishly, hissing more than calling to avoid violating the sacred invisibility of the fabled Backstage.  “Barb!  Hey—”

Barb’s shoulders rose in a sigh, but she strode over without any further hesitation than that.  “What’s up?”

“Sorry,” Casey said.  “Just—I had an idea.  If Roy drops a line—”

Barb looked Roy in the eyes.  “He’s not going to drop a line.”

“I know,” Casey said swiftly.  “But if he does—what if he just repeats my last line back to me like he’s mocking me or something?  It’d be totally in-character, and it’d probably help him remember his.  And then if it didn’t, I could start to say his next line, and the second that he picked it up, he could start talking over me like he was stealing my idea on purpose.”

“Sure,” Barb said.

Casey looked delighted.

Barb took a long, long drag off of the cigarette and then twisted her body to blow the smoke over her shoulder, which at least was considerate.

“But he’s not going to need it,” Barb said.

Casey glanced at Roy, who half-shrugged helplessly.  It was bizarrely invigorating to be both so out of his element, and so far down in the hierarchy here.

“But he’s new,” Casey said.

“And he’s military,” Barb said.  “Which means that the last thing that he’s gonna do is be the rookie who fucks up the show because he didn’t prepare enough.  All of you know exactly what the bare minimum to get through a show looks like—he doesn’t.  And he wouldn’t have made it to where he is if failure had ever really been an option, and he hadn’t spent most of his life doing everything in his power to accomplish something once he’d set his mind on it.  He’s probably been running his lines twice while lying in bed every single night before he goes to sleep—after running them while he brushed his teeth, after running them twice over dinner.  He’s probably the safest actor in this cast right now.”

Casey blinked.

“Once,” Roy said.

Barb arched an eyebrow.

“Once over dinner,” Roy said.  “But three times before bed.”

Barb smirked, tipped her cigarette at him, and strolled away.

Under no circumstances was Roy ever going to be introducing her to Breda.

Frances strolled by just behind Casey again, directing a half-voiced “Two minutes to Circle!” at them as he passed.

Casey matched the tone effortlessly, of course.  “Thank you, two!”

“Naïve question,” Roy said, since he had been working very hard in his ordinary life to dissuade people like Jean from starting every sentence with Stupid question, Chief and then asking questions that were sometimes obvious but usually important.  “What’s ‘Circle’?”

“Oh, boy,” Casey said.  He couldn’t quite tell if this expression was a grimace or a cringe.  “Uh… you’re about to find out.  It’s… sort of a… we all get together and stand in a circle—makes sense, right?—and then Barb does a little motivational speech sort of a thing to get everybody revved up before the show.  It’s one of those theater traditions.”

There were a truly remarkable amount of one-of-those-theater-traditions.  Roy had also noticed that a startling amount of actors were selectively superstitious, to an extent that made some of the Ishval lucky charms look amateurish.

“All right,” Roy said.  “I’ll… roll with it.”

The terrible shape joke sailed over Casey’s head and disappeared into the distance.  “Great.  Hey, your eyeliner’s smudging.  Can I fix it for you?”

Roy fished in his paper bag full of makeup for the pencil that he’d borrowed-without-what-a-principled-person-might-call-permission from Vanessa.  Her stash was so extensive that he doubted that she’d ever notice, which was good, since he’d borrowed some other things, too.  “As long as you don’t stab me in the eye.”

“Trust me,” Casey said, taking the pencil as he offered it.  “If I wanted to stab you, you’d know.”

Frances summoned them all to the mysterious Circle mere moments after Casey had finally finished leaning in extraordinarily close to Roy’s nose, muttering to herself, leaning back to assess him, and then leaning in again.  Roy had been told that his face would disappear into a blot of pallor under the stage lights if he didn’t overemphasize his features to what would normally be an unsettling degree, but apparently he’d underestimated the power of outlining his own eyeballs like a cartoon character.  He entertained an idle half-thought of Ed doodling a caricature of him on the back of the program.

As promised, the cast gathered into a loose shape that bore a passing resemblance to a circle, or at least to an oval with lumps around the edge, in the widest open space between the props tables and the dressing room doors.  Roy tried to read the other actors for clues without drawing attention to it.  Casey had stuck next to him on his right side, which was charitable of her; it had been a long time since his last adoption, and he appreciated this one.  Barb was stubbing a cigarette out on the wall, which Roy didn’t imagine that the owners of the theater would appreciate, but he couldn’t imagine anyone calling her on it and not getting the next one in their face.

Danica, the very buxom blonde woman who played the kidnapped princess with about as much melodrama as Roy thought audiences would be able to bear, only seemed to be about halfway into her costume despite the fact that Roy had seen her arrive promptly at call time.  She smiled very prettily and sidled in at Roy’s left, which was… interesting.  Jeron—who was precisely the sort of broad-shouldered, square-jawed, self-aggrandizing asshole who would have flourished in the military but had somehow ended up playing valiant knight characters instead—shoved his way into the circle on her other side.  Roy was eighty-five percent sure that those two were sleeping together; and fifty percent sure that Danica had put her cleavage directly into his visual field on purpose to make Jeron jealous.

Roy watched very intently as ash cascaded down from the mutilated end of Barb’s defenseless cigarette.  He’d suspected that this was coming sooner or later, but opening night was… less than ideal.  He had enough to worry about.

The cigarette, for which Roy now felt a disproportionate amount of empathy, ended up under Barb’s heel next, and then she strode over to the circle and joined it.

“All right,” she said.  “Settle down.”

The ambient mumbling, muffled laughter, and costume-adjusting subsided, and everyone looked at her.

“Okay,” Barb said.  “Right hand over left.”

For one indescribably terrible moment, Roy thought that they were about to attempt team-bonding by way of square-dancing, but then everyone calmly crossed their arms at the wrists in front of them and extended their hands towards the person standing to either side.  Cautiously, just in case square-dancing was still secretly on the table, Roy took Casey’s hand on his right and Danica’s on his left.  Casey darted a glance at him, raised an eyebrow, and squeezed in what she seemed to think was an encouraging way.

“Close your eyes,” Barb said, and Roy supposed that this was as good as any way to die of… whatever the hell was about to happen.  Backstage had always seemed like an extremely liminal space even before he could hear the distant sounds of an audience fidgeting in their seats and striking up conversations.  “Take a few slow, deep, centering breaths.  Focus on your feet on the floor for a second with me.  Now focus on your hands.  All of us are together right now.  All of us are connected.  All of our hearts are beating in the same place, in the same circle, continuously.  We’re all here for the same thing.  We’re all here to put on the best show that those people out there have ever seen—better than they thought they were paying for; better than they ever even dreamed of.  We’re here to blow them away.  And the way that we’re going to do that is by helping each other out, taking care of each other out there, and staying on the ball all night long.  Every minute.  Every single one of us is going to be here, and present, and completely intent.  Pick up those cues.  Blast into those entrances.  Focus, focus, focus.  We already know that this is a great show.  It’s time to make sure they walk out completely shocked by how right we were.”

Roy had already violated several of those instructions—he was much more focused on taking notes on the inspirational speaking components of this experience than on preparing to wow their audience with his dubious prowess as a novice thespian—but he was planning to blame that on the nerves.

“Now hold each other nice and tight,” Barb said, and Casey and Danica each gripped the hand they’d taken; “and all together, we’re going to light a fire—all right?  Light it right in the pit of your stomach; right in the core of your being—you know what that fire is?  That’s the magic of live theater.  Everybody wants to do this; everybody wants to be here, making this happen, becoming a part of it, but we’re the ones who do.  We’re the lucky ones who actually get to live the dream, actually get to walk out there and make this story real to them—make them forget everything else about their lives for… well, for two hours and four minutes if you all keep on those cues, God help me.”

There was some soft, obliging, half-under-the-breath laughter from people with less reason to stifle a wince at this metaphor.

“Feel that fire in you,” Barb said.  “Feel it licking at your ribcage; feel it burning up your throat; feel it and stoke it high.  When you’re on that stage, you savor it.  Give ’em everything you’ve got.  When you’re not, keep that fire burning—keep it fed, keep it white-hot and furiously bright.  Keep it lit and alive so that every time that you make an entrance, every time that you move something or speak a line, they can feel it, too.  Protect it.  Keep it going.  Keep it going in yourselves, and in each other, and in them.  Light them up.”

Roy had to admit that this whole experience had certainly helped to hone his natural inclination for acting: several months ago, he probably would have choked obviously on one of his centering deep breaths by now.

It was a nice thought.  He was going to try to fix his attention on that part.

“All right,” Barb said.  “All together, now, unvoiced.  Good—show.”  Roy’s eyes almost opened despite his best intentions as the whispers picked up around him, and the hands clasped around his started to rise and fall in rhythm with the words.  “Good—showGood—show.”

The mantra picked up speed, and the whispers picked up volume, and the energy cycling through the circle—

Well.  It wasn’t the first time that Roy had been surprised by how much power this shape could contain.

He wasn’t sure whether the statement was meant as a prayer or a plea or an imperative, but he was compelled to iterate it under his breath in time with the others; the words kept coming quicker with every repetition, and their hands jogged up and down faster and faster to keep time—

“Cut it off!” Barb said.  “Cut it off, cut it off—” A collective hiss slingshotted around the circle as everyone caught their breath.  “And hold onto that, hold onto that energy—keep stoking that fire.  Don’t lose it for a minute.  Feel it tingling in your scalp and burning all the way down to the tips of your toes, and let it move you from one scene to the next.  Stay sharp out there.  Look out for each other.  Keep your wits about you.  On three—one, two—”

Everyone except Roy whispered, “Showtime” in perfect unison.

Roy was more than marginally concerned that he had spent the last several months joining a cult, and he hadn’t even noticed.

There wasn’t much time to worry about it, though, because Casey’s and Danica’s hands slipped away from his, and he opened his eyes instinctively to discover that the circle had collapsed.  Everyone promptly started milling around and through the place that it had been, reaching out to tap their hands against each other’s arms and shoulders, saying “Good show” to people individually this time.

This was… definitely a cult.

It was going to be so embarrassing to have to explain this to Ed.

Casey gave him a look that very strongly implied Play along, stupid, which also reminded him of Ed.  Roy plastered on a cordial smile just as some of the other cast members—first the young woman named Lorelei who played the princess’s spunky maidservant; and then Karl, who played the handsome, intelligent squire to Jeron’s rescuing knight, and unsurprisingly ended up with the maidservant in the end—came up to him and patted his extremities and spoke the code.

Roy obediently patted their arms and said “Good show” in return.  There weren’t too many things more embarrassing than accidentally joining a theater cult, but being ritually sacrificed backstage for noncompliance was probably one of them.

Danica approached him next, which wouldn’t have been particularly noteworthy except for the fact that she looked slowly up at him through her eyelashes before very deliberately laying her hand on his arm.

“Good show,” she whispered, arching her eyebrow and setting her shoulders back.

Roy raised his hand and touched her elbow, which seemed like the least-sexy possible place to reciprocate, and kept his face as painfully neutral as he knew how.

He did know how.

“Good show,” he said.

“Hey,” Casey, godsend that she was, muttered from nearby.  “High Wizard.  C’mon.  We need to get your face-rat on.”

Roy played the evil High Wizard Bartolomaeus Skruncke, an absurdly over-the-top villain endowed with considerable magical powers and a grand total of approximately four brain cells.  Partly for character effect, and partly to make Roy’s identity functionally impossible to ascertain, Barb had convinced the costumer to saddle him with an enormous fake mustache.  They’d practiced with it in the dress rehearsals this week and discovered that it had to be glued on extremely securely so that he could continuously twirl the ends.  It bore more than a passing resemblance to a small, disheveled rodent, so he and Casey had taken to calling it the face-rat.  Ed was going to love everything about this so much that he might just weep for joy.

Dutifully, Roy followed Casey over to one of the dusty staircases that led to a dustier storage room, where she sat him down on the third step so that they could begin the arduous process of applying specialty glue first to the mustache itself, and then to what always felt like a disproportionate amount of his face.  

Casey played the High Wizard Skruncke’s extraordinarily long-suffering henchperson Porter.  Roy suspected that the role had originally been written for a male actor, but that Barb did not give a single shit and had deliberately excised every single gendered pronoun in the script.  Casey carried off the part of an overqualified underling—deeply resigned to having both their intelligent objections and moral qualms routinely ignored—with such enormous finesse that Roy sometimes wondered if she’d previously been a part of the military.  He was constantly grateful that she was his primary scene partner for the majority of the show, which had meant that the vast majority of their rehearsals had been together, over the course of which he had become closer friends with her than with any of the rest of the cast.  He wouldn’t have wanted anyone else attaching face-rats to his vulnerable skin.

He did love the effect, though, for all of the travails that it entailed on the practical side.

Every time he came on-stage and entered a “room”, one of his responsibilities—he couldn’t quite tell if this one qualified as blocking, which was usually for the choreographed larger movements that took you through every moment of the scene; or business, which was usually for specific actions taken with props—was to try to make whipping his giant wizard hat off look natural, so that the vast brim of it wouldn’t completely obscure his face.  The last thing that he wanted to do was to dull the impact of the face-rat.

There was quite a lot of cloak-flinging involved, too.  Roy was secretly terrified that he would forget to sweep it aside at a critical moment, try to take one of his exits too quickly, and do a header directly off of the front of the stage, but he supposed that he could probably make it look intentional enough to be hilarious, if nothing else.

That was, by and large, the theme of the whole show, as far as he could tell.  The writing wasn’t going to win it any awards, and it wasn’t going to change anyone’s life, but it was clever, quickly-paced, and extremely entertaining.  Roy couldn’t imagine anyone returning to the ticket window and demanding their money back.

Unless, of course, they fucked it up.

Unless he fucked it up.

Rationally, he recognized that the rest of the play would probably still be amusing enough to carry a poor performance on his part, but all the same—

Barb had entrusted him with a role significant enough to ruin an awful lot of scenes.  He and Casey opened the show by skulking around a dimly-lit forest scene, scouring the artificial plants for brightly-colored poisonous mushroom props.  Roy waltzed around the stage waxing poetic about all of the nefarious purposes for which they could be employed, and Casey followed him around actually collecting mushrooms and calmly pointing out all of the ways in which his nefariously-purposeful plans could go wrong.  After several high-quality quips and no fewer than three mustache-twirls, the region’s princess, who was renowned for her grace and beauty and whatever else it was that made fantasy royalty beloved, accidentally wandered into the mushroom-dotted forest, accompanied by her maidservant and some very unambiguous background music.  They’d gotten lost on their way to meet in secret with the princess’s handsome secret love—a knight that her father found unworthy of betrothal because he was too poor and too kind-hearted—and, quite predictably, the High Wizard Skruncke seized the golden opportunity for diabolical shenanigans and kidnapped her.  The maidservant escaped in the chaos, partly due to an ill-timed mustache twirl that had been incredibly funny to choreograph, and ran off to go recruit the knight and his two squires, one of whom was dashing and clever, and the other of whom was a comic relief dunce.

The rest of the show was charmingly silly in most places and a bit overblown in others.  There was a bit where the rescue party was trying to extract directions to Scruncke’s castle from a pair of incredibly unhelpful sheep-herders, played by Barb and Frances, which was so screamingly funny that Roy still laughed every time he heard the dialogue from backstage.  Roy had nothing but admiration for the entire cast, including Jeron, who was a fairly fine actor despite being such a colossal piece of shit.

Bizarrely enough, three-quarters of the way through the script, there was also a scene where Skruncke stood alone at the front of the stage and unveiled a terrific tragic backstory.  It was a monologue hefty enough to haunt Roy’s nightmares, and it detailed all of the ways in which the world had rejected Skruncke for his magical talents and slowly twisted his desperation to belong into a desire to torment people who had easily found their own places in the world.  It was incongruously sincere right up until Casey as Porter burst in, covered in makeup-ash with her hair spiked up all over, and howled to him that the evil headquarters were on fire.  What followed that was a delightfully ridiculous chase scene that had taken several excruciatingly long and painful rehearsals to hash out, which employed every single entrance and exit at their disposal and relied upon completely flawless timing from start to finish.

Roy was starting to understand that a lot of the appeal of theatrical performance was founded on extremely delayed gratification.  A large number of people had to pour a huge amount of time and energy into elaborate feats of precision and memorization, which they then attempted to execute perfectly in front of a live audience more than once.  It was a very peculiar kind of masochism, but the payoff when you got a two-rehearsal beast of a scene exactly right…

There was a narrow mirror on the wall nearby, so Roy adjusted his cloak and cleaned up a bit of the still-smudging eyeliner with the tip of his little finger.  Maybe Vanessa had left a decoy for him on purpose as a form of playful sabotage, knowing that he was going to steal her things.  He wouldn’t have put it past her.

“I thought Danica was with Jeron,” Roy said while Casey was applying glue to the back of the face-rat, so that he wouldn’t—so that he theoretically wouldn’t—talk as much while they were trying to stick it to his face.

Casey’s expression was so complicated that it gave him very little to go on.  “Sort of.”

A part of Roy wanted to ask, mostly out of morbid curiosity, what that particular sort of meant.

The rest of him understood that he already knew enough.  The rest of him recognized that this was the sort of sort of where it was significantly better never to find out.

“Ah,” he said.

“Yeah,” Casey said, focusing now on smoothing some of the bristly black hairs of the abomination while the glue dried just enough for maximum adhesion to Roy’s defenseless skin.  “I don’t get it.  You’d think they get enough drama on the stage that they don’t need to make more.”

She gave him a half-glance so measured and neutral that he realized that she was waiting for him to pass a judgment, which she could then use to pass a judgment on him.

It was definitely Ed’s fault that he was in this cult now.  Ed had convinced him that this would be a break from politics.  Ed had convinced him that this would be fun.

“Hmm,” Roy said, accepting the little bottle of glue from Casey so that he could start spreading some on his unfortunate face.  Ripping the thing off later hurt like hell, but it looked so divine from a distance that sacrifices had to be made.  “She’s not my type.”

Casey’s eyebrow arched, but a bit of a smile slipped through.  “Blonde?”

“Oh,” Roy said, “blond is definitely my type.  But they have to be smarter than I am; sarcastic enough to scandalize passersby; and able, ready, and willing to kick my ass.  I have very refined tastes.”

“Clearly,” Casey said, with the other eyebrow rising.

He could tell that he’d assuaged her momentary fear that he was going to cheat on one of their leads with the other and increase the messiness of the situation by a factor of ten.  A tactful bit of oversharing sometimes worked wonders—especially with creatives, Roy suspected.  Something about the driving need to be seen and understood.  He would draft that essay in his head tonight if he couldn’t sleep after all of this excitement.

Casey prodded at the glue on the mustache and then nodded to the bit that Roy had slathered on his poor, poor face.  “How’s that doing?”

He tapped a fingertip against it to confirm that it was a bit sticky, but not especially wet.  “Seems about ready to me.”  He made a point of the big, full-throated sigh.  “Rat me up.”

Casey snickered, leaned forward, and pressed the giant mustache to his face.

Riza was going to laugh so hard that she’d blow a blood vessel.  Roy had told her the name of the show when he’d first been cast and received the rehearsal schedule; he’d never mentioned any specifics about opening night or the venue, but he knew that she would be here, and he knew that she would never let him forget it.

Maybe he could convince her to join him for the ne…

What a dangerous thought.

They made a quick exchange—Casey withdrew her hands, and he fanned out his fingertips and pressed the rat to his face in as many places as possible, trying to distribute the force.

Laurence, who played the comic relief squire, hastened over to them before Roy could assess his success so far, looking so alarmed that Roy opened his mouth to ask if something had gone terribly, terribly—

Good show,” Laurence said, reaching out with one hand to catch Casey’s shoulder, and grabbing Roy’s with the other to squeeze tightly.

Roy closed his mouth, opened it again, cleared his throat, and managed, “…good show.”

Laurence sauntered off again.

“He has to get everyone before we start,” Casey said.  “It’s a… thing.”

“Ah,” Roy said.  There were a lot of… things.

“How are you feeling?” Casey asked.  “Or should I not remind you?”

“It’s all right,” Roy said, pushing on the mustache a little harder just beneath his nose.  “If I have a heart attack, at least I’ll do it looking my best.”

Casey grinned.  “It’ll be fine.  Pretend that it’s like another rehearsal, just… with no safety net.  And with a lot of strangers watching.”

“So not like a rehearsal at all,” Roy said.

She rolled her eyes.  “Is this why the blonds always want to kick your ass?”

“Yes,” Roy said.

Roy had long believed that life was, even at the very best of times, a little bit absurd.  Human beings only rarely had the slightest idea what the hell they were doing at any given moment; the universe was infinite; they were all inclined to assign individual actions with staggering significance despite being quasi-functional evolutionary accidents.  There weren’t any rules.  There weren’t any limits.  You could go from being a seven-year-old with a penchant for dusty books to a seventeen-year-old groveling for validation to a twenty-five-year-old with more murders on your hands than you could number anymore.

And you could go from that to listening helplessly while a self-proclaimed god tried to tear down the sky; and then back to an unsettlingly thin pretense of normalcy; and then to a promotion; and then to…

Standing just clear of the sightline of the front row seats, safely around the corner from the stage-left door that you would be entering through, with a giant fake mustache stuck to your face, sweating into your overstated wizardly garb while your director thanked the audience for coming and told them when to expect an intermission, as if this was perfectly normal, and your heart wasn’t liable to explode.

“Breathe,” Casey whispered.

“I know,” Roy whispered back.

“No, I’m serious,” Casey said.  “Breathe.  You have to project your voice, remember?  You have to get all the way to the back row.”

Roy did remember, in an abstract sort of way; but there were a hundred-thousand little tiny details that he also had to remember, on top of which he had to keep the correct lines on the tip of his tongue, which was complicated by the fact that several of the cues sounded similar to each other because of parallel structure—and if his brain grabbed the wrong response, they’d wind up skipping critical exposition and chopping out half of the scene and confusing the hell out of everyone listening backstage and using the specific timing to prepare for their cues—

“I know I’m not blonde,” Casey said while Barb implored the audience to watch their step if they had to leave their seats for any reason, “but would it help if I offered to kick your ass?”

“Probably,” Roy said.

“She’s right, though,” Casey said as Barb crossed the stage to exit on the opposite side from their imminent entrance.  “She’s always right.  You’re going to be brilliant.  You have to be.  You’re just like that.  You never had a choice.”

The lights went down, and the intro music swelled.

Roy forced himself to smile, not that it would have been visible past the mustache even with more light.  “I guess not.”

The lights came up.

Casey pushed his arm and whispered, “Go.”

They went.

Just about all of Casey’s warnings proved true: there were so many demands on Roy’s attention that the giddy, blazing fervor of the adrenaline coursing through his system frequently felt like background noise.  On more than a few occasions, he completely forgot the sea of faces beyond the stage.

For most of it, though, he was quite conscious of the hundred pairs of eyes fixed on him, and the hundred minds behind them.  He could feel their fascination in a way that was remarkable—in a way that was quite like alchemy; in a way that was energy streaming back and forth, humming electric in the air.  He was pouring himself out onto the stage, one line and footstep and sweep of his histrionic wizard cloak at a time, and the investment with which they were soaking it up was nearly tangible.

It was intoxicating.

Roy knew a lot about power—the power to move, the power to manipulate, the power to create and to destroy and to insert an idea into another’s thoughts so subtly that the owner never noticed your intent.  He knew more than he wanted to, most days, about the power to hurt—about how to use someone’s vulnerabilities as weapons against them; about how to cut to the heart of another human being and watch them bleed.  He knew how to pinpoint the weak spots; he knew how to take advantage.  He was a natural at accumulating the kind of power that backed your enemies into a corner.

But until tonight, he had not understood the full extent of the power to entertain.

He had not realized how much more art was than a practice, or an act—how much it was a live-wired, ongoing, transmutative connection.  How much it was a relationship, rather than simply a display.

He was parceling out a part of himself in every single moment and delivering it into the hands and ears of the audience that he wasn’t allowing himself to focus on, and they were feeding their enthusiasm right back into the array.  Funny, really, how much of the world’s energy was transmitted in lines.

It all sounded tragically metaphysical, but that didn’t change the truth: even when he was off-stage, patting down the face-rat and pre-setting props for later scenes, he could sense the intensity of the audience engagement.  Even when there weren’t any audible reactions, he could feel it, and he could feel its effect on the momentum of the show.

They’d displaced the boulder in that very first instant, but he hadn’t expected it to be a dozen times more exhilarating to barrel through the plot when they had everything to lose.  Perhaps successive shows would feel easier, if they at least made it past all of the obstacles once and knew that the hardest hurdles were, in fact, surmountable.  Perhaps eventually it would feel so familiar that he wouldn’t have to hold each line firmly on the front of his tongue, trusting that instinct had brought him the right one, and listening desperately for the moment when the laughter had just begun to fade so that he wouldn’t cut it off in picking up the cue.  Perhaps tomorrow night would feel almost too simple in comparison.  Perhaps he’d get complacent.

Perhaps Laurence, moments before he and Karl and Jeron needed to enter for the shepherd interrogation scene, would toy nervously with his walking stick prop and somehow manage to break it in the middle.

Laurence spent several seconds staring at it in silent terror.  Jeron huffed and rolled his eyes.  Karl swallowed, cringed, and whispered, “You can—you can just threaten to hit them with your hand instead.  You don’t… we can fix it after; no one’ll notice—”

Roy was striding over to them before he’d really made the decision.  “Don’t move.”

Laurence was now staring open-mouthed at him instead of at the two halves of the dowel rod.  “Wh—”

Roy guided the two pieces closer, gently clapped his hands together, focused hard on the simplest array that he thought he could get away with, and laid his palms down over the prop.

Laurence startled violently at the flash of light and the crackle of lightning caged momentarily between Roy’s hands and then seething through the wood—coaxing it to slither and writhe across the gap, dragging both pieces back together and sealing up the break.

It wasn’t Elric-quality work, but it would hold.

Roy stepped back.  Laurence continued to stare at him for the better part of fifteen seconds before whispering, “Are you—you really are a wizard.  That’s why she cast you.”

There wasn’t time to respond before Karl grabbed Laurence’s arm, and Roy scrambled out of the way of the heedless dash towards their entrance.  “Come on—”

Jeron spared Roy a disdainful look on his way after them, which did not come as a surprise.

Once the extraordinarily funny dialogue had picked up on-stage—the whole trio sounded identical to what Roy had heard during rehearsals; evidently it took more than a narrowly-averted prop debacle to throw any of them off of their game—Casey turned to him, leaning in to squint up at him where he was trying to hide under the brim of the ridiculous hat.

“What,” she said, “the fuck.”

Roy kept his voice as low as possible.  “Would you believe me if I said that I really was a wizard?”

No,” Casey said.  “That’s not—alchemy doesn’t—”

“Damn,” Roy said airily.  “Worth a shot.  Would you believe me if I said that ‘I’m a wizard’ will sound more rational than the real explanation?”

“I changed my mind,” Casey said, starting off towards the other end of the stage and hauling on his sleeve to make him follow.  “I don’t even want to know.”

She was right about that much.

By the time that their furious momentum carried them to he climactic scene, Roy was so high on sheer exhilaration that he wasn’t entirely sure that he was going to survive.  There was a bit in the final fight scene where Jeron used his sword to bat Roy’s wizard hat off of his head, and Roy clapped a hand to his chest and gasped loudly at the sheer effrontery—the rest of it passed in a wild, incomprehensible blur, but that part he knew that he’d nailed, because he heard Ed’s laughter brightly and distinctly over the rest of the crowd.  It imbued him with an odd, floaty contentment quite like being drunk on champagne.  He hardly cared what else happened tonight; he had now accomplished the most important thing that he could think of.

He could feel that he was shaking a little by the time they did the bows.  Barb had orchestrated those so that the whole cast bowed together as an ensemble, which Roy enjoyed all the more because it probably rankled like hell for someone like Jeron.  He also relished the evening’s final opportunity to make a grandiose gesture with the hat.

The applause was louder than he’d expected, resonating back off of the roof and washing over the stage.  Over the thunder of it, he heard Ed whooping, and then he heard the unmistakable sharpness of Riza’s wolf-whistle.  He couldn’t quite place it spatially, and he lights were so bright that he couldn’t make out individual faces down below—which was a shame, because he very much wanted to wink in her direction.

Once the approbation had started to die down, the curtain dropped, and they all retreated backstage again.  Roy was about to lean against a wall and just breathe deeply for a few minutes before he attempted to undertake the complicated task of stripping off the wizardly raiment when Casey grabbed his arm.

“Come on,” she said, tugging gently.

He opened his mouth, very nearly said What other torments could possibly await?, and closed his mouth again just in time.

“We go stand outside the theater for a while as the audience leaves,” Casey said, taking pity on him for the umpteenth time tonight.  “Talk to them and stuff.  It’s a thing.”

Roy felt like he’d fallen off of a cliff, or possibly been run down by a speeding passenger train.  He wanted to sleep.  “In… in character, or…”

“Oh, no,” Casey said.  “God, no.”

Even before Casey groaned, “Shit, it’s my mom” and summarily abandoned him, Roy had determined that he didn’t much care for the whole meet-and-greet situation.  It wasn’t that he’d expected the fourth wall to remain intact after the bows or anything quite so lofty as that—more just the fact that it was supremely awkward to have to stand here and wring thank-yous out of theatergoers who were attempting to leave and be on their way.

Doing it as himself, no less, rather than as Skruncke, was a drag.  So much of this process had revolved around avoiding having to be Roy Mustang.

Well—not quite Roy, at least according to the program, but—

“You were fantastic,” a woman who couldn’t have been older than twenty-five told him.  The slow bat of her eyelashes and the curve of her smirk told him a lot more.  “Really… compelling.”

He had never before heard the word ‘compelling’ iterated in a way that sounded quite so much like Call me.

He offered back the blandest and most neutral smile that he had stored away in the arsenal.  “You’re too kind.  Thank you.”

“They usually are, when it comes to you,” a familiar voice said.

As Roy started to turn, an almost-as-familiar voice, even now still startlingly clear without the tinny echo, said, “Be nice, Brother.”

“Don’t know how,” Ed said, swaggering closer with his hands behind his back.  Roy almost caught a peek of what he was hiding, but the combination of a tight waistcoat and tighter slacks was making it incredibly difficult to focus on anything except the breadth of Ed’s shoulders and the swing of his hips.  “Never learned.  Too old now.  Guess it’s hopeless.”

Al sighed.  Roy grinned.  Ed produced a giant bouquet of colorful flowers.

“Here,” he said.

Roy realized too late that he’d let the grin vanish in his surprise.  “I—”

“I guess it’s your equivalent exchange,” Ed said, pushing them at him.  “For being so good.  C’mon, it’s traditional.”

Ed had had no idea that he would be good at all—or at least nothing past a hunch based on many years of office-related melodrama, which was an entirely different creative discipline, and any scientist would know it.

Ed had not gotten him flowers because he’d been good: Ed had gotten him flowers because Ed cared so damn much.  Ed had gotten him flowers as a reward for sticking his neck out and trying something strange; Ed had gotten him flowers to make him feel like he belonged here, among the thespians, after making his way so far out onto this spindly limb.  Ed had gotten him flowers because it was a nice thing to do.  Ed had gotten him flowers because Ed loved him.

Roy nudged Ed’s insistent bouquet-bearing arm out of the way, caught his face up in both hands, and kissed him.

Ed kissed him back for a blissful three-quarters of a second before recoiling away with a very evocative “Bleugh!”

Al sighed again.

Ed was scrubbing at his mouth with the back of his sleeve, pointing the flowers at Roy in a much more accusatory way this time.  “You’ve got that thing on your face!  Is that—what’s it even made of?  Holy shit, Roy—”

At least Roy’s self-preservation instincts had survived that pointed blow to his dignity.  “Ah—Archibald, my dear.”

“Whoever you are,” Ed said, “that thing is an abomination.  I wish your face was Archi-bald right about now.”

“What a shame,” Roy said.  “I’m afraid that the only glue that would hold it up under the stage lights and through all of the sword-fighting was semi-permanent, so until the run of the play is over—”

The abject horror on Ed’s face evened up the score in an instant.

“He’s joking,” Al said, taking a break from paging through the program to pat Ed’s arm.  He kept his voice low, at least.  “If he wore it in to Central Command, that would defeat the entire purpose of having chosen such a subtle pseudonym as ‘Archibald Boniface’ for his theatrical debut.”  He glanced up, one eyebrow arched wryly.  “Very inspired.”

“Thank you,” Roy said.  “It’s not every day that a man gets to pick a new name.”

“Could be,” Ed said, “if you stayed at more questionable hotels.”

“Sage advice,” Roy said, “from the likes of one Frank Lee Brylliand.”

Without looking up from the program this time, Al reached out, clasped Ed’s wrist in his hand, and pushed it forward to hold the flowers out to Roy again.  “You’re just lucky that I talked him down from ‘Seymour Asymptotes’.”

“I still think that’s funny,” Ed said, but he wasn’t resisting Al’s grip.  “The world needs more stupid math jokes.”

Roy took the flowers this time.  They were relentlessly cheerful and smelled surprisingly lovely given the assortment of different stems.  “You have always been my blood pressure’s unsung guardian angel, Al,” he said.  “Ed, these are delightful.  Thank you.”

“What’ll be delightful,” Ed said, eyeing him, “is ripping that thing off your face.”  Ed paused, and then—if Roy was not mistaken; and in the midst of this peculiar adrenaline rush, Roy did not imagine that he was—flushed slightly.  “The, uh… the eyeliner looks kinda good, though.”

Roy tried not to look too smug, not least because he didn’t want to waste a particularly good expression behind the mustache, but he let himself purr a little.  “Does it?”

Ed was definitely blushing.  “You know damn well it does, you asshole.  So when the run of the show’s over, can we light that thing on fire, or what?”

Before Roy could detail his extensive plan to build it a tiny pyre and douse it in kerosene and speak some last rites, Riza approached, tapping her rolled-up program against an open palm.  She paused at a face-rat-safe distance and looked him up and down.

“You need to be more careful,” she said.  “If you steal too many scenes, they’ll start putting you in promotional photos, and someone will figure it out.”

“Oh, dear,” he said, blinking innocently at her.  “I’ll try to be much more mediocre from here on out.”

“Spoken like a true bureaucrat,” Riza said.

They looked at each other.  Her mouth twitched.  She looked at the face-rat.  Her mouth twitched harder.

Motion drew Roy’s eyes again as Casey jogged back over.  “Hey!  People have been talking, and after this we’re gonna go out to the Six Points to celebrate.  Your, uh…” Her gaze darted to the grand total of three gorgeous blonds, all of whom could kick his ass, clustered near him.  “…partners… are totally welcome to come.”

Roy received a gracious two-second reprieve while Riza, Al, and Ed all processed the fact that Casey had just assumed that Roy had somehow managed to rope all three of them into a polyamorous relationship.

Then the screaming laughter started.

Casey actually took a step back, which was a very rational reaction.

“This is Ed,” Roy said when he thought that he could make himself heard without shouting.  “And his brother, Al.  And Riza, who is a very dear friend.”

A very dear friend who was going to be making sarcastic mushy eyes at him all the time from now until the end of eternity, of course, but that wasn’t Casey’s fault.

Casey held a hand over her mouth for a second, which was adorable, and then cleared her throat.  “Oh.  Well… they can all come.  Open invitation.”

“Thank you,” Roy said, meaning it.  He glanced at Ed, who was arching an eyebrow at him.  Much as Roy would have genuinely loved to watch Ed eviscerate Jeron’s arrogance over a beer-splattered table for a while, an even more appealing prospect was having the last few hours of a Friday night with Ed all to himself.  The last few weeks had been crammed with rehearsals and making up work delayed by the rehearsals, and to tell the truth… “I think I may need to go home and go immediately to sleep if I want to have a chance in hell of doing this again tomorrow, but—another time?”

“Oh, yeah,” Casey said, beaming at him.  “There’ll be a lot of other times.”

“He’s a professional spoilsport,” Ed said, elbowing Roy rather gently, all things considered.  “You get used to it.”

Casey hesitated, eyes flicking over Ed’s hair, which the dim light had painted a much paler gold.  “Sorry, you probably get this all the time, but… you look… kinda… familiar?”

Ed grinned.  “Guess I just have one of those faces.”

Brother,” Al said.

Ed turned the full brunt of the grin on him instead.  “What?”

Riza held her hand out for Roy’s flowers.  “You should go get changed before you fall asleep with that monstrosity still on your face, and it attaches itself to you permanently.”

Eew,” Ed said.

Roy resisted the urge to salute, since that could have jeopardized all of the diligent work to stay moderately incognito.  “Shall I meet you back here?”

“Yes,” Al said, so calmly that Roy didn’t think to brace himself.  “Good idea, Archie.”

Ed laughed so hard that tears sparked in his eyes.  Roy would have endured quite a lot more and quite a lot worse for that exchange.

Once Roy had been de-mustached—he would have let Ed tear it off of him in one fell and vengeful swoop, but it hurt significantly less to remove it with the designated solvent—and was dressed more like an ordinary citizen than a diabolical magician, he said the last few goodnights and collected his faithful attendants.

Riza had driven over on her own, but had parked relatively near to where Roy had left his car.  She charitably returned his flowers, hugged him, and murmured “If you wear it into the office, I’ll pretend that I can’t see it, and Jean will panic” into his ear.

They dropped Al off in front of the Elrics’ apartment building, and by the time they made it back to the house, Roy felt like he was sleep-walking.  Ed must have sensed it, somehow, or read it in the clumsiness of his individual movements; there was a warm arm around his waist and a cheek leaned against his shoulder, which steadied him on the walk up to the door.

“This may sound strange,” Roy said as he fumbled with his keys, “but I’m extremely hungry.”

“Of course you are,” Ed said.  He let Roy miss the lock twice before he very gently wrapped his hand around Roy’s wrist to stabilize that, too.  “You just did something completely new and probably terrifying, and you were running around yelling at the top of your voice the entire time.”  Together they finally succeeded in opening the door.  What a damn night.  Ed pulled him inside and locked it behind them.  “Adrenaline burns all your fucking calories.  How do you think I used to eat like there was no tomorrow all the time?”

“I always assumed that there was a lot of spite involved,” Roy said, depositing his bag of miscellaneous theatrical necessities on the floor, because he couldn’t be bothered to take it all the way to the hall table.

“That, too,” Ed said.

“It is unspeakably strange,” Roy said, “how much more sense your expense reports make in retrospect.”  He felt somewhat immaterial once Ed released him, and directed his drifting trajectory into the kitchen.  “Would you want some if I made baco—”

“Yes,” Ed said.  A glance confirmed that he looked tired, too, but he was grinning.  “Why is that even a question?  Get two burners lit over there.  Let’s do this properly.”

Roy made bacon and toast.  Ed made scrambled eggs.  Together they settled down for breakfast at eleven o’clock on a Friday night.

Even just a few bites in, Roy felt significantly more corporeal than he had in at least an hour.  Ed asked interesting questions about the practicalities of the theatrical special effects while Roy worked his way through quite a few more bites, and then Ed sat back and smiled at him warmly.

Roy loved him too much to be scared of the question that he knew was coming.

“So,” Ed said, tilting just slightly to the side.  “How is it?  The whole art-as-catharsis thing.  What do you think?”

Roy had spent a lot of little idle moments during the dress rehearsals contemplating that question, and tonight had brought all of the scattered fragments into stark relief.

“It’s good,” he said.  “It—helps.  At least, I think it does; I suppose that’s a short-term answer to a long-term question.  But it’s been… I’ve liked having something else to think about.  I’ve liked being a part of something that exists purely for the sake of letting other people depart from reality for a little while.  I’ve liked being a part of something that lets me depart from reality for a little while.”  He extended his leg under the table so that he could nudge Ed’s right shin with his toes.  “Most of reality is wonderful, by the way, but it has helped to take my mind off of the things that aren’t.”

Ed ducked his head a little, as if Roy wouldn’t be able to see him smiling from the other side of the table if his hair fell across his face just right.  He nudged his foot back against Roy’s.  “Good.  ’Cause you were really fucking funny.  And it looked like you were having the time of your life.”

It had taken Roy a while to coax himself into believing that Ed actually enjoyed the time that they spent together, even if—or perhaps especially when—the majority of it was passed in the living room, draped over the furniture and commentating on whatever nonsense both of them had suffered over the week.  If one accepted that premise as true, however, it made it stranger still that Ed had been willing to sacrifice most of their recent Friday nights and several Saturday mornings to the vagaries of the rehearsal schedule just for… this.  Just to give Roy this.  Just to let him have it.

“You were right,” Roy said, since Ed would probably never grow out of reveling in hearing him say it.  “It was fun.  And marking out time to do something that I wanted was… meaningful, I think.”

The way that Ed was smiling at him now—

Roy had learned a long time ago, the hardest way there was, that loving someone from the bottom of your heart meant helping them to build what was best for them, whether or not you were walling yourself out of their happiness one brick at a time.

It had never even crossed his mind that someone might someday be willing to do the same for him.

But this one wasn’t a wall—this was a staircase; this was a platform; this was a podium.

This was a stage.

“If I do another show,” Roy said, nudging his toes a little more insistently this time, “you should audition with me.”

Ed wrinkled his nose, but it didn’t quite wipe out the smile.  “What?  No way.  I’d be crap.  I’d ruin it.”

He probably had a point—the sheer power of his sincerity might sink him—but that didn’t matter much.

“I want to share it with you,” Roy said.  The words felt heavy with their own accuracy as he spoke them, which was good, because they weighed his tongue down too much for him to follow with I want you to share in everything good that I’ve ever had, and ever will.

“You already did,” Ed said, pointing the very-late-breakfast fork at him.  “And I’m gonna get Gracia and Elysia tickets for next weekend so that you can share it with them, too.”  He sat back, grinning, and lightly tapped the tines of the fork against his teeth.  God, that should have made Roy’s skin crawl.  He was so damn far gone, and he wasn’t even terrified of it anymore.  “Bet I could rig up some killer special effects, though.  Do they need somebody like that?”

“Anyone with any sense,” Roy said, “will always find a place for someone like you.”

“As long as you find a place for that mustache first,” Ed said, casually.  “And as long as it’s the trash.”

“The trash is much too merciful,” Roy said.  He settled his foot against Ed’s, which was a start on settling the whole of his life against Ed’s.  These days, that was what he wanted.  “How do you feel about timed explosives?”

The way that the laugh illuminated Ed’s face and shivered through his shoulders—

“I feel like I fuckin’ love you,” Ed said, and Roy didn’t think that he could fit any more triumphs into tonight if he tried.