The day Roman met Dante was the worst day of his life.
Not because of them. The two events were unrelated. (Time’s just funny that way).
But the fact remains that Dante’s first words to him were “Well don’t you look like shit. What happened, did the Beast steal your Belle?”
To D’s credit, they had no idea what an effect their words would have. But that didn’t stop Roman from flipping them off as he started to cry all over their bar again.
And that left them with a choice. Ignore the crying man, as they’ve ignored so many bar patrons, passing him drinks in silence until he drinks himself into becoming a part of it. It would be a little different - most patrons aren’t in an outfit that looks straight out of a Disney coloring book. But they could do it. Or, instead, they could do this.
“Forgive me, Princey, that was uncalled for. Let me get you a drink, you tell me all about it, hmm?”
And the man dressed like a prince looked up, tears still leaking out of his eyes, and nodded.
Dante was a professional. They prided themselves on the ability to match a drink to a mood - not always what their patrons wanted, but always what they needed . And what this face needed was maudlin, but not self-pitying. Something with some sweetness, but complexity.
“Un Vieux Carre pour le monsiuer,” they said with a smile, sliding the elegant cocktail to land in the man’s immediately open hand.
“Merci beaucoup,” he responded, almost automatically. He took a sip, and paused, looked down into the glass, and carefully took a second, swirling it in his mouth.
“Like it? It’s a New Orleans classic,” Dante said, leaning on the bar. It was a quiet Tuesday night, they had time to chat. “Let me know what you think, or if you want, you can tell me why royalty is getting weepy in my bar tonight.”
Tears started leaking once more.
“Or we can start with your name?”
“Good evening, Roman. I’m Dante. If you forgot about seeing the sign already, this is The Snake’s Den bar, and I’m the snake. Now that we’re all caught up, how’s that drink-”
“It’s my fucking boyfr- my fucking ex !” Roman cried out suddenly, interrupting the bartender’s calm voice. “That absolute- he just- and then he-!” and there were tears leaking down his face again, but hotter now, dripping with anger and not just despair. He swigged more of his drink, and kept talking, words tumbling out like a burst dam.
“We’d been together for years, and I thought it was perfect, ya know, we were both actors! We understood the struggle together! And he’d encourage me to try out for the big parts that I would have only dreamed of, but I actually got some of them! And then this- this fucking play, it’s only my childhood dream, and he says, “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to be castmates?” and we both audition, me for the Beast and him for Gaston, but then it turns out, oh, actually, he went the FUCK behind my back and auditioned for the Beast too!”
Dante listened, nodding and humming in understanding, a perfect sounding board. “That must have been tense when he told you,” they offered sympathetically.
Roman slumped at that. “I wish. My friend texted me that the cast list had been posted and I wasn’t on it. I told him I was on the way to his place cause I needed to talk, and before I could get there, he… broke up with me. Via text message. ”
In spite of themself, Dante gasped aloud. “He did not! ”
“He did! Like, am I in some fuckin’ teenage melodrama?! Did I somehow date a cartoonishly terrible villain in a DCOM?!”
Dante nodded sagely. “Perhaps that’s why he didn’t go for Gaston - he wouldn’t have had to act at all.”
Roman leaned forward, eyes flashing. “And you know what’s even worse?! He’d been helping me prepare for my audition and listening to all the ideas I’ve had for how I would play the Beast, if I got the chance! But I didn’t want to make too bold a choice in the audition room, so I was holding out. And that piece of shit used my idea to get the part!”
“A scoundrel and a thief!”
“And you know the absolute worst part?”
Roman seemed to freeze as his thought connected from brain to mouth and he processed it fully. His shoulders slumped. “I wish he’d take me back.”
Dante stood up straight. “My dear Roman emperor, let me be the first to tell you: bull shit . To quote a wise scholar: “He doesn’t deserve you! If he doesn’t treat you right by now, you’re gone .””
Roman smiled weakly. “But he- he pushed me, in my acting. He was my fire, the one who encouraged me to be ambitious and dream big and- without him… I don’t know that I’ll be able to.”
Dante nodded. They spoke softly, calmly. “Roman, I’m going to say something that might be hard to hear. His actions in these auditions? They showed that not only did he not respect this dream, but he never respected any of them. He only wanted you to succeed as far as it made him look good.”
Roman scowled. “He was an ass, but he wasn’t that , he wasn’t just a manipulative bastard, he believed in me-”
“He didn’t,” Dante interrupted. They were still calm, almost gentle. “He believed in his ability to keep pushing you to be an asset to him. Until it wasn’t beneficial anymore.”
“And you knew this, deep down. And that part of you wasn’t taken by surprise.”
Roman stared, his face a mask of many emotions at once - confusion, heartbreak, denial, acceptance, but what won out was rage.
“You know what? Fuck you, I don’t need your psychoanalysis bullshit! Hasn’t my day been hard enough? See you fucking never!”
Dante watched him storm out, leaving the rest of his drink. A man in a prince costume, disappearing into the night. If it had been a decent narrative, it would have been raining.
But narratives aren’t often perfect.
Neither are promises made in anger.
Dante looked up to see Roman arriving back at The Snake’s Den only days later, looking a bit chagrined and only slightly less regal out of costume.
“Barkeep, I regretfully did not pay for my drink at our last encounter, and have come to rectify it.”
Dante nodded graciously. “While I appreciate your integrity, it was on the house.”
“Nevertheless, I insist that you accept payment.”
“Why don’t you have another, keep me company on slow evening?” they suggested.
Roman hesitated for all of a second before sitting down once more, the same stool as the last time.
Two months later, it was Roman’s Stool and no one dared occupy it even in his absence, unless it was truly and utterly packed.
In two months more, Roman had dragged friends to the Den too, but none became a fixture the way the actor was.
And one week after that, it was another quiet evening. A Tuesday, just as it had been before. (Time is rather funny that way).
And in one of the comfortable silences that patron and bartender often found themselves sliding into and out of with ease, Roman cleared his throat.
Dante looked up. “Yes, darling?” Their nicknames and pet names had escalated the day Roman realized he needed an honorific besides ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ and had chosen ‘dearest,’ but neither of them seemed to mind.
“My dear, I- remember what you said, that first night?”
Dante pursed their lips. “Of course I do. And I stand by it.”
Roman nodded. “I… I know you do. I know you wouldn’t lie to me.”
“I might lie to other people though,” they pointed out blandly. “Like the people who come in with a sob story when it’s all just their own choices. Because the boss said I can’t call people ‘sad sacks of pathos’ any more.”
“Your way with words will never fail to delight me, my Divine Comedian. I know you didn’t think it was a lie, but I didn’t fully believe you until recently.”
Dante put down their cleaning cloth and leaned in near their friend. “May I be so bold as to ask what changed?”
“So this will sound a little melodramatic-”
“You? Dramatic? Perish the thought.”
“Fuck you too, my sweet serpent.”
Dante blew a kiss and fluttered their eyelashes at him. “Pardon me, I interrupted you, you were saying?”
Roman shifted in his seat, adjusting without meeting Dante’s eyes. “I didn’t want to believe you, that that bastard was never cheering me on for my sake alone. Because- I said he was my fire, and I meant it. He was determined, and ambitious, and I thought that him urging me on meant that I was sharing in it. He was burning red, and that was what I wanted to be, and I thought I could be an equal flame where we burned stronger together.”
Dante nodded, humming quietly in understanding without interrupting.
“But instead, I was just the candle that helped him burn brighter while slowly melting away. I was always so exhilarated with him, excited but then so exhausted. I always wanted to be more, or wanted to be what he wanted, at least. And he always wanted more. I tried and tried and I could never be enough because he just… he drained me.” A single tear leaked out and courses down Roman’s tan cheek.
Dante reached over and wrapped their hand around his, and squeezed. “Love could look like that, could look like encouragement and ambition. But I don’t think that’s what you had, Ro.”
Roman blinked up at them. Both realized it was the first nickname based on their actual name that either had used. “So I wasn’t just a fool to think he really meant it?”
“Of course not, sweetheart. He was the fool, to not fully appreciate you.”
The lights of the bar shone through tawny bottles of liquor and glinted off the brass trappings, bathing them in a warm glow. Roman looked up at Dante, and he could have sworn they were absorbing the light and releasing it anew, their golden skin practically incandescent. And their smile, softening as they looked at Roman, focused on brushing away the dampness from his face, a careful and doting look that they never directed at their other friends.
Roman swallowed hard. “Dante, darling?”
They met his eyes, face lighting with a smile that rivaled the sun. “Yes, Roman?”
“I think I know what love looks like, now.”
“And what’s that?”
Roman rose up to Dante’s eye level, cupping their cheek in his hand. “It’s golden,” he breathed out, before their lips met.