Curtain Call

by llamajoy

The audience is going crazy-- it's better than last year's "Canary," which was pretty damn good; hell, it's better than it's ever been before. No ship in the history of theatre has ever gotten such an ovation. It's more than just applause: the standing penny-crowd is shouting, and the Knights of Pluto are doing a full five-maneuver military salute (in sync, for once). Not a single female eye in the house is dry, not even those hard-nosed Alexandrian knights, and I daresay not even General Beatrix herself. Ha-- who am I kidding; the Regent of Lindblum himself is going through his pockets for a handkerchief. Hard to say who'll notice first; maybe his wife; the kid on the other side of him is too busy standing on her seat and clapping. And then watching them catch each other's eye... well, over half the blokes in the audience (gentlemen or not) have that same sparkle. Just look at 'em, being leaned on by their pretty, weepy dates and betting on getting lucky tonight.

That, my friends, is magic.

Benero and Zenero have turned the spotlights loose; clever fellows, they are. Giddy light careens through the crowd, up the Alexandrian castle crystal, out into the cloudless evening, and back again. It's dizzying, the spectacle; there's so much dazzle it's like the moons have collided and the debris is twinkling down like stars. It's a hell of a feeling, getting high off the sound, the brightness. Better than Cinna's most ludicrously expensive coffee or the oldest and most venerable Burmecian wine.

Burmecians, heh-- there's even a gaggle of them in the house tonight, all the way here in Alexandria, even after the war. You can hear the way they clap over the hubbub of the regular local crowd. It's not like the sound of nobles' kid gloves, not at all; Burmecians stomp their little feet like they're dancing, move their hands like they're making music. That dancing salute would be that rat-chick Freya, even if they made her check her spear at the gate, and she has to go at it empty-handed. And maybe that's her rat-boyfriend, next to her! Who says Burmecians don't love theatre?

The Boss is more than a pro, he knows it's not his show anymore. It's not just "I Want To Be Your Canary;" no, it's more like an impromptu "I Want To Be Your Prince Consort"-- a royal proposal and a shift in succession all in one. How often are the people introduced to their impending monarchs with such panache? That's Zidane for you; it's like he was designed for the theatre, designed for just this entrance. Hundreds of years from now folk will remember his name.

Mist help us if the great-great-grand princesses still have horns and tails.

But nobody cares about that now: the Queen of Alexandria is laughing for the first time in a full year, and her people are drunk on it, splashing themselves carelessly with the extra happiness they're not sure what to do with. Their cups are only so big, after all, and you might as well drink up while you can, and enjoy it. Dagger is holding onto Zidane with both arms flung around his neck, like she's afraid he'll run away; but he's only got eyes for her, whispering close to her cheek like there's nobody else but the two of them in all the country, maybe in all the world. Like there's not a hundred people shouting celebration in his ear.

And maybe he's not acting, either. That's what makes him so good.

Part of being an actor is knowing when the scene is good and played, knowing when your crowd is full. Finale's done, time for the grand exeunt. And so Tantalus circles the Queen, and bows. The twins carry Blank back out on stage, still lying prone but not doing a very convincing job of playing dead, King Leo's sword held at his side at a ridiculous angle and a huge grin on his face. His bandana and his hair are both askew. Zenero drops him (or was that Benero?) when he squirms a little too hard, and he lies on the stage, laughing, clutching the sword like a lily to his chest.

And it doesn't matter a bit that Ruby's been upstaged by a real princess-- she's all regal fine Cornelia when she curtseys, and then pure Ruby when she hoists her petticoats to flash a ribboned garter (or two), and wink at all the whistlers. Baku hoists her on one shoulder and she can-cans to a chorus of delighted crows and catcalls. King Leo and his daughter, man; they should take their show on the road, call it the Royal Revue.

Cinna trips on the scenery on his way to the curtain call, and the crowd cheers anyway. Maybe Cinna did it on purpose; he's beaming like a ragtime mouse from behind the toppled props, playing up the laughs. He tries to carry Blank offstage, 'cause who likes a villain who lingers too long? But he's no match for the redhead, no matter how many cups of joe he might have in him. They're stage fighting before you can say, "Moccha Kirman gotcha Burman."

Somebody has to straighten these lugnuts out, of course, so that means it's my turn on stage-- and damned if there isn't a hue and cry when I step on the boards. I wasn't even in the play! That's just how good a night this is. Alexandria's a great town, after all, lots of Avonophiles, a canary-fan under every gabled roof. They're probably remembering Marcus' marvelous suicide last season, and hollering for that. It was pretty spectacular, what with Dagger's improv-- Queen Garnet's, I should say. Ha! What a handful that little canary turned out to be. Trick sparrow, more like, with more than a pretty elbow up her sleeve.

Probably, Zidane knew that all along, and just never let on. Cheeky bastard.

Rusty thunders up to the stage, then, flanked by the lady general-- to escort the queen, of course, to march her and her lover like a tiny parade back to the throne, back to the castle. All of us bow again, hats off to the Queen and to her Monkey, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls! Baku bows double-low and tosses a wink to Zidane, and it dawns on us, one at a time, that this'll be the last we see of Zidane for a good long while.

Cinna starts a round of "For He's a Jolly Good Genome" (pretty clever, for him) and Blank aims a punch for Zidane's shoulder--

But he's gone, already, borne back to the royal dais on a wave of cheering. Seems he's got the full military complement, too; soldier babes on the left and knock-kneed knights on the right. A crowd is gathering by the Queen's balcony, a crazy bunch: Burmecians and bounty hunters, Regents and... a Qu? Even a string of tiny black mages are picking their fumble-footed way towards him.

He's not looking back.

That punch of Blank's lands on my shoulder instead, that sonuvabitch. It wasn't a friendly fist, either; nothing congratulatory in the way his knuckles connected with my bone. Too bad for him I've got quick reflexes, 'cause I make short work of him, getting both his arms behind his back and carrying him offstage upside down.

The applause of the audience lingers in my ears longer than the laughter, but both fade away once we're belowdecks. It's all right; I don't mind. It's not a night for me, anyway. I knew the act before it played, after all: I gave Zidane that cloak, let him borrow the name of Marcus for a little while. Knew he wouldn't do it any harm.

Gunning up the engine now, Cinna doing most of the work, fiddling with knobs and dials and such, and trying to shout pointers at everyone else. The Boss just ignores him, 'cause nobody works that new engine like Cinna does, so why mess with perfection? The twins do everything backwards and old-style, like it was still a Mist engine and not a good clean steam one. Soon Cinna will have the thing percolating happily on its way.

Blank, still wrongway up with his nose around my knees, is muttering to himself, sotto voce. That he's not to be struck with the rest of the scenery, maybe; that he's got two feet of his own-- nothing so civil as a request to put him down, of course. So I don't.

Ruby's come below last of anyone, breathless and sitting down all at once with a flounce. All the gathered gil jingles from her petticoats like golden rain across the boards. Not a bad haul, for just one show! But she's laughing and letting it slip out of her fingers: too tired and too happy to care much about the money. The coins'll still be there once we're airborne and away.

"One of those Pluto knights take a fancy to you, Ruby Lou?" This from Blank, kicking one boot idly against the side of my head. Ouch. I make to drop him but he's too fast, locking his knees around my neck and hanging like a monkey. Bastard. Bet he learned that maneuver from Zidane. I don't think too hard about that, though.

Ruby blushes but sticks her chin out gamely. "Nah, just Ashley seein' me off, that's all. Some of us have friends in Alexandria, after all! And who needs knights with you clowns around?" Blank's got his hands at the backs of my knees now, and seven hells he's trying to tickle me. Ruby's grin turns wicked. "What is this, a floor show?"

"Well," says Blank, like he's not topsy-turvy with his greedy thief fingers seeking purchase around my ankles, like I'm not even there, "you try telling him to put me down."

She looks up at me, head tilted a little. Her lipstick's smudged and her hair is coming loose, and she's damn lovely, whether she knows it or not. It's a crazy world, this one, where a garnet sits on a cushioned throne with mythril pins in her hair, and a ruby sits on bare boards with her sleeves rolled and her socks in need of darning. For just a moment, she and Blank have matching looks on their faces, and when they both sigh I feel Blank's breath against my legs, prickly and ticklish. I'm no mind reader, don't claim to be-- but I know that they were thinking, thismorning, that we'd be a full troupe of eight again.

Or maybe they were both hoping it, for all they knew the scene wouldn't play that way. I wonder, briefly, if there isn't something I should say. I don't think the cue is mine, though; no lines of mine would fit this silence.

Eventually Ruby says, "Nah, I reckon you pro'ly needed the pickin' up." And she stands up, with the grace of a princess, and by the look on her face I can't tell just which one of us she's talking to.

"Seems we all do," I say. I won't say his name, but even without the syllables spoken we're all thinking about the same person. Of course. And it's hard to put into words, but I don't want Tantalus to define itself by his absense. Don't want to watch Ruby force a smile when she doesn't mean it; don't want to hear Cinna start a joke that he won't remember the punchline to. Don't want the Boss to go easy on the rest of us without the extra pair of hands-- don't want to put it that way, "the rest of us." ...Don't want to let Blank pull that headband further down over his eyes and pretend he's fine.

I mean, I don't blame Zidane for taking his cue and following through-- but anybody else would have been a damn fool to have left this behind.

I'd be a fool, if I did.

But there's no words for all that; not any comfortable iambic pentameter to sum it all up and make them see. Doesn't matter, though, 'cause the aft bells are ringing. The Boss is calling for all hands; the engine's primed and we're set to go.

"Ha, guess it's home-goin' time," Ruby says, with a self-aware little giggle. I'm watching her closely-- every time she's trying to talk herself out of something, she gets this same pout. This time before she can, she leans way over (very nice) and kisses Blank on the mouth. He quits squirming, dragging like a lead weight on my shoulders; but before I can dump him she's rightside up again, leaning those soft curves close and kissing me. (Very nice indeed.)

"It was a great show, boys. But don't let it go to your heads, mmkay?" Unsteady on her feet when she turns to go, her next laugh is an honest one. "I should talk, I guess-- standing up too fast."

Blank shifts his weight, peers up at me from between his knees. "You gonna put me down?"

"Depends. You gonna keep sulking?"

He rests his head against the hollow of my calf, by the boot. He's forgotten to struggle, but surely the blood's all gone to his head by now. "'M not sulking."

I can't help it; I'm grinning. "I can carry you all the way back, you know. Your choice."

Ruby knocks her knuckles against the heel of his shoe. "Baku might wonder, sweetheart."

He glares up at me. "Why d'you care?"

What a numbskull. He really doesn't know-- but I ought to be used to that by now, right? It's been a few seasons since we played any Ipsen, but the answering line is scripted, so even if it goes without saying I say it anyway. "Only because I wanted to. ...Bro."

Ruby gets it (she always does), and helps me get him to his feet. None of us are late on deck for the Boss' call. Blank doesn't speak to me for the rest of the night; I can tell he's thinking. Practically smell the smoke coming out of his ears, he's so hard at work puzzling it through. And if Ruby leans against his shoulder, whispering with him while the wind catches at their hair-- then I sure as hell won't complain. She'll bring him 'round. Maybe they'll bring each other through. Together we're greater than the sum of our parts, like they say.

And it just wouldn't do for the troupe to play too many happy endings in one night. It's better to save something for the next performance, after all.


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