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Disclaimer, notes, and acknowledgments can be found in the main post.

Their lead actress quits two days after casting. Three weeks before they’re scheduled to open and some two-bit street-corner preacher convinces the boy that getting up onstage in a dress is immoral, licentious, and against the teachings of the Church.

Peter Burke would like to find that preacher and shove his script up the man’s self-righteous, interfering arse.

“It’s over,” Will moans, thumping his head down on his desk and staining his forehead with ink.

“It is over,” Burbage agrees, taking a swallow of ale and staring glumly down into his now-empty mug.

“I’ll figure something out,” Peter says. Somehow. He’ll think of something.

He needs to go talk to his wife. She’ll know what to do.

“You’re royally buggered,” she says, leaning over his shoulder to look at the script in front of him. He manfully resists the urge to bang his head against the table.

“Can’t you play the part?”

She laughs and gives him a kiss on the neck before sitting down next to him in a rustle of velvet skirts. “I wouldn’t even if it weren’t banned. I’m very happy with my current occupation, thank you very much.” And as her balls and fetes draw in most of their income, he really isn’t going to argue.

“It’s too late to cancel or delay the shows,” he mutters, opening his folio and flipping through pages and pages of merchant’s fees and publicity costs, the flyers that have already been printed. “Every other theatre in town’s either in performance or in rehearsals, and none of the actors out of work right now are good enough.”

“And it’s an important role?”

“It could be heartbreaking.” He slips the script out from under his papers and passes it over to her. She reads in silence for a few minutes while he contemplates whether he’d be better off jumping to his death from the roof of a building, or a bridge…

“Well. There’s always Neal Caffrey,” she says quietly, handing the script back to him.

“No, there’s not.” He glares at the papers in front of him as if he can somehow intimidate a new answer from them.

“You were all set to hire him when he was first working. From the way you talked about him – well, I was starting to get a bit jealous, to be perfectly honest.”

“I barely even remember the boy.”

“You’re a horrid liar,” she says, her hands on her hips. He’d seen four of the performances the boy had given in his short-lived career. Marveled at not only his beauty, but his skill. “You wanted him,” she says. He opens his mouth to protest – “for the Chamberlain’s Men.”

“He’s unreliable.” He’d gotten arrested for theft halfway through the run and his company had taken tremendous losses. They’d disbanded a month later due to financial hardship. Caffrey may be brilliant, but Peter doesn’t particularly want to court financial ruin.

He looks at the papers spread out in front of him and realizes that he may already be doing that.

“You know he’s working again, I saw the advert at the market yesterday.” She gives him a kiss on the cheek before heading to the door. “Go see him,” she says. “He might be your only option.”

His wife is beautiful, smart, strong – and right. He goes to his study to get out the flyer he’s been holding onto for the last four years, and barely resists the urge to rub his thumb over the blurred ink of Caffrey’s name.

Caffrey had made quite a splash on the scene, four years back. Thin and pretty, good memorization, decent projection, strong singing voice. He’d been in high demand. Had his pick of companies, all the best roles. Word was Marlowe had been writing a role just for him.

Peter had seen him in Edward II. And there was undeniably something…special about him. Some spark that made the leading men raise their game, that made audiences quiet down and lean in closer. Something that said don’t look away. I’m about to tell you something wonderful.

Then he’d been arrested for theft.

All of the theatres were precariously perched between the masses and the church, pleading art and providing entertainment. Hiring a thief would have raised an uproar about the licentious nature of the profession.

But it’s been years. And they really are desperate.

The Friar’s Bellow is a truly disgusting venue. He arrives in time to catch the last of the matinee performance, and it – it isn’t good.

He stands in the back and tries to avoid getting spilled on by any of the rowdy crowd members. They’re all crammed into a medium-sized courtyard, crowded around a stage that’s only raised two or three feet off of the ground. So he doesn’t get a great view of Caffrey. His memory of the boy is of a time years past, and his expectations have undoubtedly rising in the interim, but – but what he can see makes him feel a little sick. Neal’s face is thin, cheekbones pronounced even underneath what must be a solid inch of makeup. His costume is gaudy, low-cut, and the chest protrudes to a truly unnatural degree. He’s shouting his lines to try and make himself heard, but it’s a lost cause. The comments he’s shouting over are truly disgusting.

Peter has just a moment where he thinks that maybe that two-bit street preacher might have had a point. Listening to the degrading, insulting, explicit shouts and requests from the men around him.

This isn’t what theatre is supposed to be. This isn’t who Neal Caffrey is supposed to be.

After the show ends he slips into the converted stable that passes for a backstage area. He’s performed in worse, sure, back in the early days when they were touring around to every tiny village that they could find on a map – but not much worse. And not in a long time.

Neal and the old man who’d been playing some variation on a grumpy fishwife have their own tiny cubicle. It doesn’t have a door, but he knocks on the frame for form’s sake.

“You may enter,” the old man says with a huge sigh, pulling off his wig and scraping off the bulk of his make-up with the dull side of an eating knife.

“Thank you kindly,” Peter replies, stepping carefully over a pile of…something…and into their dressing room. “I’m actually here to speak with Mr. Caffrey, if you wouldn’t mind giving us a moment of privacy?”

“Mr. Caffrey,” the old man says with a laugh, pulling up his skirts, his fake breasts bouncing around. “You have a gentleman caller! His purse looks full,” he says to Neal with a leer. “Take all the time you need.” He exits the room, cackling the whole way. Peter shifts uncomfortably in the ensuing silence, wondering what about his demeanor hints that he’s seeking some sort of unsavory service.

Neal Caffrey is at once everything he remembered – and more.

He’s never met the boy in person before. Everyone seems different offstage, and Neal is no exception. He’s grown, yes – probably another inch or two in height over the intervening years. He’s also thinner than Peter remembered. Perhaps it was a trick of make-up then, too, but – but up close he can see the boy’s collarbones. The hint of ribs even through the layers of corset and muslin. It’s not unusual for the boy actors to watch their figures, to stay slim in order to play the roles of young girls – but Neal looks fragile.

So, yes, less than he’d remembered. More real, more flawed. But also – also, more. Neal has…presence. Even small and subdued, he radiates challenge. Peter can’t pull his eyes away from him.

“You’re the producer for the Globe,” Neal says, a moment after Peter realizes he’s been staring at the boy rather rudely. “Peter Burke.”

“And you’re Neal Caffrey,” Peter says, staring at the pale, thin young man with the impossible blue eyes. “And you are so much better than this.”

Neal smiles at him. And then turns away and continues cleaning his face. Peter waits until he’s finished. Lets Neal remove the last of the reminder of that performance.

“You saw me perform Edward II. Four years ago.”

“How did you know?”

“You caused quite a stir,” Neal replies, with a coquettish smile. “Showing up in the audience unannounced. Backstage was all aflutter, wondering who you were scouting. Also, you were wearing that same exact doublet. It’s atrocious, by the way.”

“It’s a classic,” Peter replies with a glare, uncomfortably tugging at the edge of the red satin fabric. Elizabeth had been mentioning a new tailor she’d found recently. Maybe that had been a hint…

“Are you here to laugh?” Neal asks quietly. His eyelids are still dark with kohl, his lips an impossible red from the remnants of paint and his vigorous rubbing to remove it. “You wouldn’t be the first.”

He feels a burst of pity but shoves it down. “And I won’t be the last,” he says. “If you stay here.”

Neal raises an eyebrow. “I’m signed on for four more years. It’s the only way they’d hire me,” he says with a shrug. “Given my…history.”

“Given your criminal activity,” Peter says, to see how Neal will react.

He just nods. And plays with the makeup kit on the counter in front of him. Peter hates that he looks so unconcerned. So he grabs his wrist and pulls his arm close. Neal doesn’t protest. His wrist is thin, Peter’s hand circles it and his fingers overlap. He wonders how many men have come into this small room after one of Neal’s performances and asked for a private show.

He can feel the scar. The raised skin covered by a layer of skin-tone makeup. He scrapes his fingernail over it, revealing pale skin and a harsh black M, burned into the brawn of Neal’s thumb.

“I only cover it during performances,” Neal says quietly. “I know – I know I’m not to conceal it otherwise.”

“I’m here to offer you a job.” The only reaction Neal gives is the quickening of his pulse. Peter can feel it under the tips of his fingers. He knows he should let go. “A trial,” he elaborates, holding on for just a bit longer. “We’re short a lead actress for our newest play. It opens in a week. We can buy out your contract for that long. And if things work out – maybe longer.”

“So I’d – I’d be working for the Globe?” Neal asks, a bit of awe in his voice. Peter tightens his grip and Neal gasps at the painful pressure.

“No. You’d be working for me. If you screw up, it’s on my head. If you can’t learn your lines, if you ruin a performance, if you have another error in judgment and decide to run and get caught again – I’ll be sorry, Neal. But you’ll be sorrier.” Neal nods quickly and tugs at Peter’s grasp. “You break your contract and you’d be lucky to get away with just a lashing. Breach of contract counts as a second offense.” And the courts love to throw their weight around. “Am I understood?”

There’s a flush high in Neal’s cheeks, and Peter realizes, looking at him, that it’s the first time he’s seen him without make-up on. Seen him without a role to play. He’s disconcertingly handsome. “And if I don’t screw up?” Neal asks, still not meeting Peter’s eyes. “What happens then?”

Peter lets go and looks at the white imprint his fingers have left around Neal’s wrist. “Then you get to be a part of the best theatre troupe in London. Rehearsals start at daybreak tomorrow morning.” He pulls a script out of his bag and tosses it onto the counter. “Prepare for your first three scenes.”

“What’s the part?” Neal asks, already leafing through the script.

“Ophelia,” Peter replies, and he takes his leave.

He goes to a bar and stays there until the sun goes down and the streetlamps are lit. Tries to drink away the memory of Neal’s soft skin under his hands, the way his blood had been pounding in his veins. Wonders whether it’s bad luck or kismet that’s brought them together so neatly. Whether it should be a sign or a warning.

Elizabeth’s still awake when he gets home, and she helps strip him of his clothes. “Did he take the bait?”

“I don’t know,” he murmurs into the soft skin of her breast, letting her pull the covers over them both. Doesn’t know whether he’d be better off with or without Neal Caffrey crashing through his carefully ordered life, knocking it all out of place just by being himself. Neal Caffrey with his slim waist and harsh scars and unmistakable talent. “I really don’t know.”

He gets his answer quite early the following morning. Because Neal goddamn Caffrey is in his house, on his couch, drinking tea with his wife. It takes him a moment to recognize the man. Clean and fresh, dressed in dapper clothes – dressed in men’s clothing. Out-of-date but obviously expensive, well-made. It seems strange to not see the man in a dress.

Neal smiles an easy hello when he sees Peter on the stairs. As if they’ve been playing a one-sided game of hide-and-seek and Peter’s inadvertently won.

“What are you doing here?” he asks, straightening his clothes, feeling caught-out and uncomfortably exposed on home ground.

“I had an idea,” Neal says, waving his script with a flourish. “My landlady has a dress that I can use for Ophelia – I know your last actress was a bit smaller than me, so this way you won’t have to pay to get the clothes tailored!”

“That’s great,” Peter says, and Neal and Elizabeth beam at him. “I’d like to have breakfast with my wife, now.”

Neal nods enthusiastically.

Alone,” he says pointedly.

“Ah, right, excellent!” Neal stands up and gives Elizabeth a goodbye kiss on the back of her hand. She’s obviously charmed by the young man’s attention. So is Satchmeaux, who tries to follow him out the door.

“This is not going to end well,” he says darkly. El just laughs and kisses his cheek and makes sure he takes a croissant with him to give to Neal.

“You’re mad,” Burbage says. He’s got a new mug of ale, but is wearing the same clothes and depressed look on his face. “Hiring some no-good layabout for such a delicate part. This play requires artists, not boys prancing about in petticoats.” Peter doesn’t respond. Just looks down at the empty stage, the actors sitting around doing nothing, Will tearing out what’s left of his hair in the corner, loose pages of the script scattered around him.

“Then why are you in it?” John shouts from where he’s lying prone on the floor.

“Because no one else in the godforsaken pit of a theatre has one goddamn drop of talent in the marrow their overacting bones!” Burbage bellows. And as the echoes of his exclamation die down, Neal Caffrey enters.

He waves up at Peter. Gives everyone else a jaunty grin. “I’ve arrived,” he announces, looking inordinately pleased with himself. “Shall we begin?”

“He’s too old,” Burbage grumbles. “He’s too old and he’s arrogant and I don’t like his face. Or his attitude. Or his – ”

“Either put the ale down and go start rehearsal, or I will have to play the part of Hamlet myself,” Peter says simply.

“Oh, heaven forbid!” Burbage cries, in mock outrage. “I would sooner see the role played by a dog! Or a child! Or a mute, deaf, drunk – ”

“Be gone with you,” Peter says distractedly, watching Neal introduce himself to the other actors. Neal’s a master of body language, but Peter can see how the slight tension in his shoulders, the careful way he holds his right hand tilted away, how every so often he has to reset the smile on his face. As soon as Burbage hits the floor the energy changes. Everyone get up and starts moving, grabbing scripts and props, stretching and repeating their lines to themselves quietly. Burbage goes up to Neal and shakes his hand, and Peter watches Neal’s body language change from confident to respectful.

“We shall start,” Burbage announces, “from the top. To give our new Ophelia the chance to see how the Chamberlain’s Men work. We’ll carry on after your entrance,” he says to Neal, “and simply see how things flow from there.” Neal thanks him and walks over to Peter, who shifts over on his bench to make room.

“How long is it before my entrance?” Neal asks quietly, when the other actors have taken their places.

Peter groans. “You haven’t even read the script, have you? Oh, god, this is going to be a disaster…”

“No, I did, but – I just concentrated on my scenes. To prepare for today. I will read it, though. You can trust me, Peter. I’m not going to let you down.”

“I’ll trust you when you’ve earned it,” Peter grumbles. “You’ve got two scenes to wait. Do you know your cue?” Neal nods. Peter looks at the script being twisted nervously in his hands. “Be careful with that,” he says. “If it needs replacing, the cost comes from your wages.”

There’s a reason The Globe is the most popular theatre in London. And that reason is Richard Burbage. He not only takes command of the stage, he takes command of the entire theatre. The other actors respect him, listen to him, obey him. When he speaks, they listen. And when he’s speaking Will Shakespeare’s words – everyone listens. It’s a combination that’s yet to fail. And Hamlet, Prince of Denmark could very well be their finest collaboration yet.

Neal watches everything carefully. The entrances and exits, every gesture – he watches so closely that Peter almost asks him what, exactly, he’s looking at. What he’s watching for that Peter can’t see. And when Neal hears his cue, Peter pats him solidly (if, perhaps, a bit too heartily) on the shoulder, and watches him make his way to the stage, all the nervousness leaving his body.

He knows from the moment Neal enters that he’s made the right decision. John Heminges, their Laertes, knows too. Neal may be a tad old for Ophelia, but he knows how to move like a young woman, how to speak like one. Carefully, softly, intelligently. He listens, and Peter can see John responding, his monologues coming to life – he chides his younger sister, admonishes her, very obviously cares for her.

And Hughes’ Polonius has never been so honest. Neal listens to her aged father prattle on with a small smile and as much respect as he can muster, and Hughes basks in the attention. It’s already playing better than the scene ever has before.

Neal handles Will’s difficult script with ease, plays the loving sister and obedient daughter with scarcely a hitch. Richard shouts out the blocking directions from the front of the stage, and there are only a few confused moments as everyone rearranges. Peter just sits back, crosses his arms behind his head, and smiles.

Will wanders up to him as they’re busy resetting props for the next scene. “Well don’t you look self-satisfied,” he jibes, eyes not leaving the stage.

“With good reason.” His gamble’s paying off. In spades.

“I’ve got to go,” Will murmurs. “I think I may have a scene or two I need to rewrite…” He makes his way distractedly back to where he left his papers and quills, and starts scribbling down notes furiously.

Oddly, it gets worse as time passes. The other actors have been together for years, and it’s a camaraderie that’s hard to infiltrate. Especially for someone who’s young and pretty and insanely talented. Neal knows that if they had any better option, any man within their own ranks with the necessary set of skills, that he’d be back on the streets in seconds.

But he still tries. He fetches snacks during breaks, picks up the props, listens attentively. Tries to ingratiate himself. And it’s working, but slowly. Ophelia’s a relatively small role and the atmosphere downstairs is far from welcoming, so whenever Neal needs a break, he always comes back to Peter.

He asks pointless questions about seat count and revenue and whatever else he can think of until Peter tells him to shut his mouth. And then he’ll just play with whatever Peter has lying around – paperweights or rubber stamps, letter openers and small statues. It’s like having a six-year stepping all over his toes. An irritation with a wicked sense of humor and slim wrists and a wry smile.

Since hiring Neal Caffrey, Peter’s not gotten very much work done.

DW: Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4

(no subject)

Date: 2010-07-05 02:20 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] afiawri.livejournal.com
I love how well you have kept them in character and how seamlessly you've incorprated them with the historical figures.

And I absolutely adore Neal paging thruogh the script. <3

(no subject)

Date: 2010-07-24 04:51 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hoosierbitch.livejournal.com
Thank you, darling! :D

(no subject)

Date: 2010-07-06 10:30 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deepbluemermaid.livejournal.com
I have to admit, I was rather dubious about the concept of this fic. But oh, I enjoyed this so much - especially the mentions of frazzled Will rewriting the script during rehearsal :)

It reminds me that I have a DVD rip of David Tennant's Hamlet on my hard drive - I really must get around to watching it! I actually had a ticket to see him in Stratford-upon-Avon, which I bought almost a year in advance, but I was so poor when the time rolled around that I sold it on eBay. It cost £18, but I sold it for over £100...

Anyway, pardon my pointless sugar-fueled rambling. I shall go read more, huzzah!

(no subject)

Date: 2010-07-24 04:53 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hoosierbitch.livejournal.com
Thank you so much! I'm thrilled that I carried out the concept in a way that worked for you! :D

I haven't seen the Tennant Hamlet - let me know how awesome it is, mkay?

♥ ♥ ♥

(no subject)

Date: 2010-07-06 09:02 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] daria234.livejournal.com
LOVING this so hard. Will comment when I'm done reading, but I wanted to remember to say that I think the line about Peter unintentionally winning hide and seek was just brilliant. And the Peter/El relationship here is so nicely translated to this setting.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-07-24 04:53 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hoosierbitch.livejournal.com
Thank you so much, Daria! I really appreciate the feedback. :D

(no subject)

Date: 2010-12-03 03:18 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] coffeethyme4me.livejournal.com
I've just started this story, and it's AWESOME. I love seeing you write your element. There's something magical about that. Can't wait to read more!

(no subject)

Date: 2011-01-17 05:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hoosierbitch.livejournal.com

Thank you!

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