Backstage Romance Ch. 02byikhneumon©
* Daniel *
I hustled into the karaoke bar twenty minutes late. Kelly's boyfriend, Josh, gave me a shout from behind the bar, where he was serving drinks at top speed to thirsty sorority girls in skimpy Halloween costumes. "Lewis, she's been waiting for you, like, half an hour! Be a pal, get your ass over there and calm her down, or I'm not gettin' any tonight!"
"Ugh. TMI, dude!" I called back. But Josh was actually a pretty decent guy. He was really good to Kelly, and way more cool with me being their third wheel than I had any right to expect.
He'd been exaggerating, I found out when I reached Kelly. She muttered something about "operating on gay time," but she seemed too self-satisfied to be really upset. She'd taken advantage of my tardiness to assign us both songs for the first round of the evening.
It's kind of a guilty secret of mine how much I enjoy singing, even though my voice is nothing special. Kelly, on the other hand, has a great smoky lounge singer alto, and knows how to use it.
"So whaddya think of these songs?" she asked.
I looked at what she had picked out for us. "I think you got our selections mixed up, Kel. 'Fever' is your song. It's way too low for me. Besides, it's a chick song."
"'Chick song?' Excuse me? What kind of sexist are you?"
"It's right there in the lyrics, Kel. 'Chicks were born to give you fever.' You're asking me to sing a straight chick song that's out of my range."
"So change the lyrics, then. Come on, I always do the torch songs. Let's mix things up for once."
I groaned again when saw that she'd picked out the Michael Bublé cover. I hated that version, it was so overdone. "Sorry, sweetie, it's Peggy or nothing," I told her. My voice is tenor, to my eternal dismay. I'd always wanted to have a rich, authoritative baritone instead. Adapting to Peggy Lee's sultry alto was going to be tricky for me, but at least it was going to be listenable. I glared at Kelly and stomped up for my turn at the microphone.
The first verse was low, all right, but I could just handle it, and at least the roughness at the bottom of my voice suited the lyric. The song modulates up from there, so I knew I could handle the rest of it, and started to relax. That was my mistake. Before I knew it I was imagining Jeff Williams, and singing it for his ears only. When I got to the "chicks" line, I switched it to "you were born to give me fever," and had a mortifying moment when I realized I'd mentally changed that word to "Jeff."
When I sat back down, Kelly had a smug look on her face, as if she'd caught me out in the middle of doing something mildly naughty.
"You sang that song like you meant it, Daniel."
"You know sincerity's the secret to a singer's success. Wow. Try saying that five times fast."
She didn't fall for any of it—the explanation or the lame attempt at distraction.
"I've seen your sincere, Daniel. This went way beyond that, right into heartfelt. I just couldn't help wondering if you were singing that song to any guy in particular." She sipped her drink, but her eyes were still fixed on my face, which I hoped and prayed wasn't beet-red at this point. "Maybe a certain handsome leading man?"
I choked on my own drink. "Who, Williams? Are you kidding? Don't you think he's a little bit out of my league?" Shitshitshitshitshit, why'd that last bit slip out?
Kelly's face went from amused to serious. She slid over and pounded on my back to help clear my windpipe, but she took advantage of our proximity to speak softly into my ear. "It's been written all over your face since he first walked into the theater, Daniel. It's okay, you know. Not only is he fucking gorgeous, he's a genuinely nice guy, and he's definitely showing an interest in you. After the losers you've been with, Jeff's the first guy I've seen come along who might actually be worth taking a risk for."
"What on earth makes you think Jeff Williams has any interest in me? You said it yourself, he's a leading man. I'm just the kid handling the props."
"And I'm the Good Witch of the North. Why do you keep selling yourself short?"
"I'm not selling myself short, I'm being realistic. And, oh, did I mention, we're co-workers?"
"Daniel, realistic is recognizing that at the end of the day you're just two guys who might have something good together if you took a chance. The rest is just scenery. And speaking of scenery, for what it's worth, I think you two would be super hot together."
"Speaking as a straight woman?"
"Oh, yeah," she responded, giving it just the right amount of lasciviousness. I laughed, and we were once again at ease. But as we were saying good night, she hugged me and whispered in my ear, "Happy Halloween, Daniel. Just think about what I said, okay?"
I had a feeling it was all I would be able to think about for the foreseeable future.
* Jeff *
Early in the third week of rehearsals, production hit a snag. When we arrived at the theater, Joseph was nowhere to be seen, and Scott, Mark and Daniel were looking very serious. As had become my habit, I threw a smile Daniel's way. Daniel wouldn't meet my eyes. He looked unusually tense, even for someone as tightly wound as he was. Scott waited until he had everyone's attention, then explained the situation:
"Last night, Joseph's mother passed away unexpectedly from a sudden heart attack. They were a close-knit family, so he's pretty broken up. He's promised us he's not backing out of the part, but he is going to be taking a few days' leave to help his father and sister with the funeral arrangements. He left on the first plane this morning. He asked you all to keep him and his family in your prayers, if you happen to be the praying type.
"In the meanwhile, we still have a lot of rehearsal ahead of us before this show's ready to be seen, and we can't afford to waste any time waiting for him to get back. Fortunately our ASM, Daniel, has agreed to step in as Joseph's understudy in the interim, and to work one-on-one with Joseph getting him up to speed once he gets back. I have to say, I put Daniel through a pretty grueling audition before you all arrived here and he knows the play backward and forward, so we shouldn't lose too much momentum.
"We'll be circulating a card later today that you can all sign for Joseph and his family, and taking a collection to send some flowers to the funeral. For now, Christina and Heather, I'd like you to work on scene six on your own this morning while I go through scene seven with Jeff, Angela and Daniel. In the afternoon, I'll come and see where you are on that, and Jeff can take charge of rehearsing his team."
So that was why Daniel was looking tense. Being an understudy was often part of the drill for ASMs, but not all of them were necessarily cut out for the role. For a guy as shy as Daniel was, this must be nerve-wracking.
Shows how little I really knew about the guy I was now dreaming about every night.
By the end of the morning, I had seen a side of Daniel I never imagined existed. The scene we were rehearsing was primarily a confrontation between Angela and me, with lots of juicy emoting for both of us. The character Daniel was playing was caught in the middle, and pretty much spent the whole time trying to find a way out of his awkward situation. At least, that was the way Joseph had been playing it. Daniel, on the other hand, had realized something I should have long ago. All that complicated stage movement that Scott had us practicing non-stop was a metaphor for the relationships between the characters. We were all taking part in some elaborate dance, and Daniel's character was a full participant, not an observer. He made me realize the guy had an agenda and a point of view of his own. Angela and I, or at least our characters, were so intent on our own little drama, we didn't even realize the way he was contributing to the dynamics of the scene.
It made me wonder if that was a metaphor for Daniel behind the scenes as well. I mean, we all relied on him just like we relied on our stagehands, techs and dressers, and he was damn good at what he did. He obviously paid extremely close attention to everything happening on stage as well as off, because he stepped into that ridiculous blocking as if he'd been practicing it with us all along.
He was also, not coincidentally, becoming more and more fascinating to me by the hour, as he revealed depths of talent and insight I had never imagined. I went home that night and the next feeling light-headed. All my blood seemed to have pooled permanently in my groin. Dream-Daniel was developing an improbably large sexual repertoire during my nightly jerk sessions.
By Saturday, I couldn't hold back any longer. The scene was going beautifully, and when we ran it for Scott at the end of the day, he was, characteristically, bouncing off the walls.
"This is gonna be great! Daniel, you sure you're okay reviewing everything with Joseph and getting him up to speed when he gets back?"
"Well, let me know if you need anything. Good job, all of you. Let's call it a night!"
I strolled over to Daniel, trying to act casual, and not at all as though I were stalking him. He seemed much more confident now, after working alongside us so closely for three days, but I still remembered how skittish he'd been before. He was hunched over his script, making a few notes.
"Hey, buy you a drink?" I asked.
He started, and looked up at me, going right back to that defensive posture. Shit. Come on, Jeff, you can do this.
"Daniel, you've been amazing through this. I had no idea you were so talented. I have to admit, I thought you were just going to be a placeholder till Joseph got back, but you even put me and Angela through our paces. A drink's the least I can do to say thank you, and to apologize for underestimating you."
He gave me one of his long inscrutable sideways looks before finding his voice. "Okay, thanks, I think I'd like a drink. But nothing alcoholic, if that's okay. I'm a major lightweight."
The cafe down the street where I had chatted with Scott before rehearsals began had become a favorite hangout for the cast. I looked around nervously when we entered in case anyone we knew was there. I wanted this guy to myself tonight. Fortunately, the coast was clear, and I took us to a table in the back where there was at least a little privacy. My heart was hammering like a lovestruck teenager as I slid into my seat next to Daniel, and I had to fight the impulse to take his hand in mine.
I was dying to learn everything about him—his family, his favorite color, the names of his childhood pets, his taste in movies, and most importantly, whether he was gay, what drove him crazy in bed, and whether I stood any chance at trying out the entire list with him—but I figured I'd better at least start this on a professional basis. Easier, safer. Damn frustrating.
"So, Daniel, where did you learn to act like that? I've been blown away these three days of rehearsals. You picked up on Scott's blocking like it was nothing, and you've given me insights into your character Joseph never touched on—but please, don't ever tell him I said so! Did you study acting in school?"
He squirmed a bit, uncomfortable with praise, I guessed. "Yeah, I went through the whole theater major at the university here. Acting, directing, production, design... you probably know the drill."
"You studied here? I graduated in '93. You?"
The barista called out our drink orders just then—a peppermint mocha for Daniel, a hazelnut latte for me. While I went to fetch them, I did some quick mental arithmetic. Assuming he'd graduated in the standard four years, that was only eight years' difference between us. Eight years wasn't that much. Christ, he had looked so much younger! Maybe I did stand a chance. And we were fellow alumni! I could definitely work with that. I returned to our table and slid his mocha across to him.
"Did you study with Professor Ryan? He was my advisor when I was in school."
"Yeah, he was great. Tough, but he sure knows how to teach."
"I'll say. I think I learned more from him in one semester than I did in five years in Hollywood. So you took a general degree and wound up in stage management. Was that planned or did it just happen? Knowing Ryan, he wouldn't have let a talent like yours slip by him."
"I just wasn't as comfortable being on the stage as I was behind it, you know? Well, no, you probably don't know, you're a natural on stage. I just feel like I'm in an interrogation room or something, with everyone watching you and that bright light glaring in your eyes?"
I stumbled over my next words. For the first time since our encounter backstage, I was getting a full look at Daniel's beautiful face, and all I'd heard in that last sentence were the words "light" and "eyes." Relaxing into the conversation, he had forgotten to adopt his usual defensive pose—chin tucked, hair concealing his expression—and the light coming over my shoulder was indeed sparkling in his eyes. Wait, Jeff, rewind, what were we talking about? I took a sip of my drink to recover my thoughts.
He fidgeted, resuming his usual posture. Down slipped the chestnut veil. No, don't hide from me, not now, babe. Your eyes are so damn beautiful!
"I guess you don't know," he muttered. "I probably sound like an idiot. Anyway, I still love theater, so that's why I chose stage management."
"You don't sound like an idiot, Daniel. You know best where you feel comfortable. I just think it's everybody else's loss not to get to see what you're capable of as a performer."
He ducked his head in embarrassment. Boy really needs to learn how to take a compliment. It still just made him more adorable in my eyes. If that were possible.
"Anyway," he continued, "I got this job a few years out of school and it's been great. They do good work, it's pretty steady pay, and I've learned a lot from Mark. They even have a summer program, so I don't have to work retail or wait tables when the season's over."
I remembered those days. Back before my lucky break. Before Timothy happened. It had been miserable. But I had also felt freer then than I had in all the years since, during that brief period of endless possibility before the momentum of my choices started hemming me in. Christ, I'm getting maudlin.
I cleared my throat. "Daniel," I husked, "what do you like to do outside the theater? Any hobbies? Favorite hangouts? Do you have a girlfriend? Or boyfriend?" Please please please say no. I did have to congratulate myself on the way I'd played that, though—the hasty addition of "boyfriend" as if it were an afterthought to demonstrate my own open-mindedness, rather than the one piece of information I needed above all. It gave us both an out if he was attached, or worse, straight. No, don't do it, Daniel, don't hide behind the hair, don't... damn it.
"Um, no, no boyfriend, not for a while now," he answered. The answer I had been hoping for. Both gay and single. Heavenly choruses went off in my head. "I mostly hang out with Kelly when I'm not working."
"The house manager? The redhead? She seems like a lot of fun. I saw her at rehearsal a while back, but we haven't had a chance to talk since I first met you guys. What do you two like to do?"
He screwed up his face. "Promise you won't laugh?"
"Cross my heart."
"We're karaoke freaks. We go out at least once a month and sing."
"'Fraid so. Lame, I know."
"No, not at all," I hastily assured him. "In fact, that's something I've never tried. I'd love to join you two some time."
He gave me one of his uncertain sideways looks. "Seriously?"
It was now or never. If I didn't say something now I might just burst.
"Honestly, Daniel, I can't think of anything I'd like better than spending time with you." There, I'd made a declaration of my intent, if he cared to look for one. Did you really, Jeff? Really?
He froze for a moment. "I'll have to remember to let you know next time we're planning on going. If I'd known you could have joined us on Halloween." There was an awkward pause. He cleared his throat. "Hey, it's getting late. I'd better head home. Thanks for the drink. And the talk. It's been nice. What do I owe you?"
No, please don't freeze me out, not now. "My treat. I already told you. Wait up, I'll walk you to your car."
"I walked. I don't live far from here."
"Then let me walk you to your door."
"It's really not necessary."
"My pleasure, Daniel."
The barista winked at me as I escorted Daniel to the door. Christ, if my interest was that transparent to her, why couldn't he take the hint? Maybe because you still haven't manned up and asked him out, Jeff. Shut up, I silently responded to my nagging subconscious. Chickenshit, it smugly replied.
It was a cold night: we huddled into our coats as we walked back toward the theater. As we neared the theater parking lot, I thought of something. "Hey, wait a sec. You're shivering. I've got a scarf in my car. Let me get it for you."
He kept heading down the street.
"No need. Why don't you just head out, it's cold, you don't need to see me home."
I panicked. "Daniel, wait, please don't go," I said, grabbing him by the shoulder. He whirled to face me, startled, and our eyes locked. I hadn't touched him since our collision backstage on Halloween. The effect this time was even more electric. I couldn't let go of him, didn't want to. His lips were slightly parted, as if to say something, but nothing came out. I bent my head and kissed them softly.
He moaned as I withdrew. Or maybe I did. Either way, when our eyes met again, there was suddenly an understanding between us. By some miracle or blessing, we both wanted this. I slid my other arm around his waist and kissed him again, more deeply this time. He responded enthusiastically, his own arms sliding up my back to rest on my shoulders. My hand moved from his shoulder and tangled in the silky hair at the back of his neck.
He tasted like coffee and peppermint and chocolate, like Christmas. I devoured his mouth, and he responded in kind. Our tongues danced and dueled as we explored one another, the kiss growing more intense and passionate. My knees were getting weak with need.
Our erections were pressed against each other through our pants. I pulled back, panting, and pressed my mouth to his ear.
"Please come home with me tonight," I whispered. And held my breath, hoping, fearing.
He pulled back just far enough to look me in the eye. That secretive smile of his was back, teasing me, daring me to kiss him again.
"Okay," he whispered back.
I nearly came in my pants right then and there.
* Daniel *
I would have been a nervous wreck heading into rehearsals if it hadn't provided a welcome distraction from my current obsession with all things Williams. I was even able to get into the role to the extent that I could work easily with him and Angela, without losing myself in a puddle of drool. Maybe that was why, when he came up at the end of rehearsal and asked me to join him for a drink, I said yes instead of freezing or panicking. I even kept my head enough to stipulate my no-alcohol rule. No sense in losing control and making an ass out of myself in front of him. I was already risking doing that without any chemical assistance.
Our conversation in the cafe was intensely frustrating, though. With what Kelly had told me, I kept thinking I was getting signals of interest from him, but they were never definite enough to be sure. I didn't dare let my hopes get that high: It would crush me if I were to reveal my own desire for him only to be politely rejected. Williams seemed kind, genuinely interested in knowing me better, and a little solicitous of my well-being—but not in the least flirtatious.