Disclaimer: All of the characters in "Nightcaps" are fictional, and none is based on a real life person. Any resemblance or similarity between any of the characters and any real person is purely coincidental. Mr. Howard McGillin and Mr. Andrew Lloyd Webber are mentioned in passing, but only to establish setting (much in the same way Leroux mentions Fauré, Bloch, and Saint-Saëns). Neither person is present in the story.
A/N: Nightcaps was written for the Valentine's Day Morbidity Contest, and was voted as "Most Enjoyable" and "Most Original." It is a dark comedy that jabs at the behind-the-scenes politics and ruthlessness in the world of theatre.
The phantom leaned heavily against the portcullis, painfully clutching his heart and listening to the faint strains of song echoing above the dark waters. Christine and her young Vicomte, professing their undying love to one another…He listened, long after her voice had faded to nothing. And then another sound took its place—the incoherent babbling of riotous people, clanking through his labyrinth and into his lair.
It was over, all of it—his music, his love. There was nothing left for him, except to vanish with the night as the sun threatened the last few hours of darkness. With a grand cry, he strode to his throne and swept his cloak over his tall frame, vanishing just as the irate opera mob climbed down the portcullis and invaded his domain.
Back, back he fell into the throne, into the darkness, and waited. Waited while they searched his lair, rifled through his music…Waited, until strong arms came around him.
"Fancy a snog?"
A raspy voice snorted into his ear, breath warm and tinged with vodka. The phantom chuckled and pushed the crewman's hands away. "Only if you wear a short skirt, you whorish slapper. Help me get out of this thing before curtain."
The crewman obliged, pulling the actor out of the throne rig until he found his footing. Smoothing down his waistcoat, he squinted into the blackness, watching obscure shapes and shadows dart back and forth until his eyes slowly adjusted to the dim lighting. The sharp smell of sweat and paint filled his nostrils as he breathed deeply, glad to be out of the cramped space for the thousandth time. Performers swarmed around him in a colored sea of sequins and satin, twinkling every now and then in the thin strip of light escaping from beneath the curtain. He searched for one particular form, clad in white; there she was, stage-left, fluffing her dark curls while a makeup artist smoothed a brush over her lovely face. He took a step toward her.
"Christ!" hissed a flurry of blonde hair as he collided with a woman, just as she was darting off stage. The white prop mask went flying from her hands.
"Sorry, sorry," he mumbled, helplessly waving his hands around the grimacing 'Meg Giry' as she hopped around, shaking her foot.
"Shit, Hal, you've stepped on my toes!"
"Oh my dear, truly—"
"If that tart understudy goes on in my place tomorrow night because of this, I'll never let you hear the end of it."
"Really, I am very sorry. It's these contacts, you see—I told the makeup artist they aren't the right prescription, but no one ever seems to listen to me." He knelt down and scooped up the mask.
"Forget it," she snapped, snatching the mask from his outstretched hand and chucking it toward the prop manager before hobbling away for curtain call. The actor watched her retreating back in chagrin, then sighed and slipped his wig back onto his head, smoothing it into place.
He whirled around to find the very woman he had been seeking out. His Christine—rather, not Christine—yet his Christine, all the same. She was holding his mask for him.
"I think you might need this for curtain call, given the import of this performance. Congratulations, Hal." She stood up on tiptoes and planted a quick kiss on his cheek, then rubbed the smudge of lipstick away. "Can't have the audience thinking the story ended differently, can we? Christine and the phantom, shagging and all that…kind of ruins the whole tragedy bit."
The actor laughed. "Hmm, I seem to have missed out on this 'shagging.' Give a poor fellow a break! It's not every day that one becomes the longest-running phantom, is it?"
"Take that, McGillin! If only he could see you now." She playfully shook her fist in the air with her costar. "Do you think he came tonight? He told Artie he was thinking about it."
"Sir Andy?" Hal shrugged nonchalantly. "I hadn't thought to look. I'll suppose we'll find out in a minute."
In truth, Hal had been sneaking coy glances the audience's way the entire evening, looking for the rather distinctive Brit amidst shadowed faces, but had yet to spot him. Curtain call, however, would give him an opportunity to search unabashedly for the man. Jogging onstage after the beaming young actress, he grinned and bowed for the clapping masses, his gaze sweeping up and down each row.
Sir Andy was not among them.
Bitter disappointment welled up within him, stinging his tongue, as he went through the now perfunctory motions for his audience. Had it been so much to ask that the composer nod his way just once and acknowledge the considerable role he played in the success of the show? Apparently so. Nevertheless, he curbed his ill humor and smiled, graciously gestured to the orchestra pit and joined the cast for one final bow before retreating backstage.
All around him, actors and crew scurried back and forth, hurriedly clearing away the night's performance. While several paused to murmur quick well-wishes to the veteran phantom, most headed for their respective rooms to shed costumes and hit the streets.
"Hal!" Before he could turn around, an enthusiastic young man was before him, shaking his hand and grasping his shoulder. "FanTAStic performance, old man. Really, really splendid tonight. It's an accomplishment, to be sure—not every actor can say he has played the same role for so long a time. Why, you must live and breathe phantom by now!"
"Er, something like that—"
"—oh, but it's a shame Webber couldn't make it."
"Yes, well…" Hal glanced away from the overly-zealous 'Vicomte de Chagny,' looking for his young actress. Spotting her in the hallway just offstage, he muttered an apology to the boy and ran to catch up with her.
"What are your plans for tonight?" he asked breathlessly, grasping the woman's elbow. Her eyes snapped to his fingers upon her arm in surprise.
"I…don't…" she cast about for a response.
"The bugger didn't show. Have a nightcap with me across the street."
"Just one drink. Nothing more, I promise. You have to pass by there on your way home, anyway."
"We've been through this countless times; I don't date coworkers."
"Not a date—just friends," he pleaded, his eyes searching hers.
"I'm sorry," she shook her head. "It's been a long week, so I'm going home."
"But we have to celebrate—beating McGillin, and all—"
"Congrats again, Hal," she murmured, and swiftly retreated.
"Yeah, I'll just see you tomorrow, then," the actor meekly waved after her, watching her retreating back until it vanished down her dressing room hallway. Sighing, he doggedly kicked at a pile of rigging rope on the stage floor, then stumbled backwards as his foot caught in it. A coarse cackle erupted behind him.
"Ha! Not so handy with a rope offstage, are ye'?" the crewman barked. "Serves ye' right, tossing me aside for that 'un. I'd have snogged you."
"Go scare some kiddies."
Hal glared at the inebriated crewman, then stalked toward his dressing room to put the phantom away for the night.
It wasn't as if he had been expecting a grandiose carnival of Hannibalistic proportions, but a text message? Hal snapped his mobile shut and fell into his dressing room chair, glaring at his reflection in the mirror as he peeled away layers of prosthetics. A nominal payrise would have been nice, with a bunch of balloons or a cake that read in bold letters "Happy 1471st Phantom!" He even would have appreciated a card signed by the cast. The only thing that had greeted him in his dressing room, however, was a blinking screen and a message from the producer, which read:
"congrats hal swing by 10am 2morrow—talk contracts artie"
The actor snorted. Well, at least he would be getting an extension out of his achievement. And it was an achievement, despite the rather anticlimactic evening. After all, how many actors were willing to spend a full hour in the makeup chair night after night, twisting ankles falling through trapdoors, losing the girl every single time, only to not even be recognized in street clothes outside the theatre?
He was made for the role, and the role for him. No one could play the part as he did, with such tragic and breathtaking beauty; no one could understand as he did, what it was like to be alone, and excluded…
No one, except for her.
Running a wet cloth over his face one more time, Hal slung his rucksack over his shoulder and strode purposefully for her room. She would listen to him. She would understand his pungent disappointment and share in his loneliness—had she not just commented to him exactly six days ago how she was sick of take-away, but dining alone was too daunting? He smiled softly at her sad confession. Perhaps, she might even reconsider having that drink.
"…and honestly, I just don't know what to make of it."
Her voice floated from within her dressing room, and he halted in confusion. Had she heard him coming? He opened his mouth to reply, but another voice greeted him, this once decidedly lower.
"I can tell you exactly what to make of it—one too many nights as the phantom, that's what. It's made him go barmy!"
That exuberant, fresh-faced boy, 'Raoul'. Hal froze in utter disbelief.
"Don't say that," the woman chided. "Hal's a nice-enough person—eccentric, but nice."
"Oh come on! Haven't you noticed how creepy he's gotten lately? Everyone has, even Artie. And the way he watches you all the time, follows you around. It's…weird."
She sighed. "I know. I've told him again and again that I don't think of him that way—for God's sake, the man's old enough to be my father! But damn it, it feels like I'm kicking a puppy every time I turn him down."
"He's spineless," the boy said. "Completely passive. I don't understand how the man can play a revenge-hungry genius for so long and not have some serious hostility issues."
"Hal's just…sweet. He wouldn't hurt a fly."
"I don't know. One of these days, he'll probably snap and then we're all done for. Speaking of which…" The quiet rustle of clothing met his ears and to his horror, Hal knew that the boy was making himself comfortable. "I had a meeting with Artie this morning."
"How did it go?"
"Well…Hal's out and I'm in. I've got it!"
The woman gave a delighted little squeal, and Hal imagined her throwing her arms around the young man. "I knew they would give the part to you! Oh, you'll be a fantastic phantom—just perfect for the role."
"It's what I've always wanted, you know. I mean, playing Raoul is great and all, but he doesn't even have his own song! The phantom, though—that's something."
"Oh..." The actress' enthusiasm suddenly dropped. "But what are they going to tell Hal? And when, for that matter?"
"Tomorrow morning." More quiet rustling. "Look honey, I feel bad for the fellow too, but the fact is that he's grown old—stale! Artie wants to re-energize the show, and he thinks that a change in the guard will do it. Now that Hal's got his 'longest running phantom' title, it's time for le boot."
"This will destroy him."
"He'll find other shows."
"Phantom is his show."
"It will be better for him, trust me. Better for us, too." And then there was a drawn-out, uncomfortable silence, followed by a woman's contented sigh.
"Want to go for a nightcap?" she murmured.
A nightcap. Hal stood there, ashen, outside her dressing room door. Oddly, he felt nothing. It was a curious sensation, in lieu of the horrific betrayal. Before, he had always assumed that when, years away, the eventual announcement of his replacement was made, he would be prepared to either accept the news with a modicum of grace or fling himself from the catwalk. Funny; now, neither prospect seemed alluring.
He studied the door frame for a long time—the brassy hinges, the way the grain swirled and collided in no particular pattern—until, gradually, his glazed eyes drifted to the rucksack at his feet. It was not his rucksack, though; that one was still slung over his shoulder. This one belonged to the boy; that sly, scheming, insidious boy. In his hurry to be with his lover, he had apparently just dropped it in her doorway.
Nightcaps, eh? Hal languidly reached down, flipped open the front pocket, and slid out the boy's wallet. How predictable, he mused cynically. In the most obvious place. Yes, this should do the trick nicely.
The young actor uneasily wandered onto the darkened stage, squinting into the blackness for movement.
There was no answer.
"I found your post-it on my dressing room door—you said you'd found my wallet. Why the hell did you want to meet me here?"
Still no answer.
"I'd like to have it back, please." He edged a bit further onto the stage, braced to dodge any unseen, unstable objects—or people—that might come at him. Just as he had decided no one was there and was ready to leave in disgust, a low, strange, cackling floated down from the rafters.
The sound chilled him to the bone. He stared up into the abyss above the stage. Suddenly, a blinding beam of light shone down upon him, and his hand flew to his eyes to shield them.
"Cut it out, Hal; you're scaring the shit out of me! Now why don't you come down from there, and we can discuss this whole business civilly."
"Do you love her?"
The beam fell away just to the right and he could barely see Hal, shrouded in shadow just behind the stage light, his white-gloved hands flurrying about at some task. White gloves, and a white mask... Good God, the man was still in costume! An elaborate prank was what it was—simply a prank. The boy laughed nervously.
"You can't be serious!" Gloved hands paused at their task as the man's eyes bore down upon his head, his revulsion palpable. He was deadly serious. "Look, Hal. I hardly know the woman—"
"—Does she love you?"
"Hal, really, this is insane—"
"Does she LOVE you?" the actor bellowed, his fierce voice reverberating through the empty theatre.
"No!" he cried. "No, we don't love each other!"
"That is a pity," the actor whispered icily. "If you had said 'yes,' it might have saved your life."
Before the boy could escape the stage, a thin thing came hurtling down from the rafters directly above him, its snakelike body weaving in and out of the beam of light. And then it was upon him, around him, its fibers taut about his neck, pulling him up, up, onto his toes.
"For God's sake!" he choked, "Don't kill me! Hal—"
"And why shouldn't I, monsieur?" the man sneered. "You are a thief! An ingrate pariah who has taken everything dear to me!"
"You don't even love her—you said so yourself."
"I can't breathe—"
"You have destroyed my life!"
The rope burned around his neck. He felt his grip upon the ground slipping as he was pulled higher, inch by inch—
"And now I will destroy yours."
—until his toes were no longer touching the ground at all. He opened his mouth for air, frantically gulping, trying to breathe—
"Really, Raoul, you're not a bad fellow. If you had only stayed where you belonged; kept your hand out of the cookie jar, so to speak." He laughed wickedly. "But you just had to have more. Had to have her."
—precious oxygen, but there was nothing…nothing but fire, and pain, and—
"You never would have made a good phantom, you know. You lack the—what is it? Ah yes. The hostility. Genius. Hunger for revenge."
—blurred images, flashing colors, and then. Just. Nothing.
A quiet, nefarious laughter echoed through the hall. The actor knotted the rope around the rafter, tested its strength, and crawled down to the stage.
"Revenge." He strode over to the center of the stage where his lifeless prey swung. "You could never have played the phantom, monsieur, for you do not understand as I do." Wandering into the dark stage-left, he returned with a small footstool and placed it, overturned, next to the dead man's feet.
You could never play the phantom," he repeated slowly, matter-of-factly. "Never, because I am the phantom." A smile spread across his lips.
"Pity," he mused. "You'll miss that nightcap."
Police still swarmed the stage the next morning, not long before curtain, in a flurry of flashing cameras and yellow tape. Hal carefully sidestepped a discarded cup of coffee and gazed at the mad scene, searching. There she was, stage-right. He moved toward her, listening to her tearful deposition to the officer.
"…don't understand it! He was happy, not stressed; had everything he wanted." The man offered her a handkerchief and she took it, dabbing at her eyes. "We were just across the street having drinks when he realized he'd forgotten it. He never came back, so I just assumed he'd changed his mind about…us."
Hal shook his head, aching for her tears. It was tragic, yes, but she would recover. Move on to someone else, even. Turning away, he wandered across the stage, grimly nodding to crying cast members and crew. One crewman in particular caught his eye. Hal drifted toward the exit, but it was too late; he was coming his way.
"Nasty business," said the crewman.
"Yes," Hal murmured. "Horrible."
'Wouldn't have thought the kid was capable of it."
"And the way he went, too—hanging. Rather ironic, wouldn't ye' say?" The man peered at Hal, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.
Hal cleared his throat. "Perhaps the strain was just too much for him."
"At least one of us knows how to use that thing 'round here," the crewman said, nodding to the pile of rigging rope, now surrounded by police tape. "Shame, isn't it?"
The small mobile at Hal's waist began to vibrate; relieved, he muttered an "excuse me" and distanced himself from the watchful eyes of the crewman. Flipping it open, he read the brief text message.
"hal—cancel mtg. this morning, reschedule 10am 2morrow talk contract renewal—2 more yrs? artie"
A smile played upon the actor's lips. The show must go on, he mused. Take that, McGillin. Snapping the mobile shut, he strode purposefully toward Christine.
Maybe now she'd take him up on that nightcap.
A/N: Pretty different from what I normally write. Please let me know what you think!