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You're a good man, Cosmo Brown

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Cosmo finds Lina in an automat on Sunset one night. He's looking for a fast hot meal instead, but one glimpse of who's in the line ahead of him makes him think he can hang on for a glass of milk and a sandwich back home. She's wearing those bug-eyed shades and a scarf on her head - enough to discourage fans and photographers, though not discourage them too much - but Cosmo can see the wear in her high heels, and thinks the fur trim on her coat is looking a little flat and dusty. Of course, then there's the fact that she's gracing an automat, rubbing shoulders with the common folk and the down-and-outs of Hollywood.

Contrary to what a lot of people think, Cosmo does know what discretion is, and even has an idea of what it has to do with valour. He sidesteps neatly out of the queue and turns on his heel, but he's barely made a hop for the exit when over the shuffle and mutter of the rest of the crowd he hears an indrawn breath, the clack of high heels, and a growl like a particularly high-pitched mountain lion.

"You."

Cosmo laughs nervously as he pivots. "Oh, me?" He grins and stuffs his hands in his pockets. "Hi, Lina. Fancy meeting you here."

She's glaring at him over the rim of her glasses, but at the mention of her name, she frowns and looks about nervously, as if she's worried people might guess who she is. It's a very unusual look on her, or at least it was until that incident at the premiere. Cosmo wouldn't know; she hasn't been around the studio much since that night. He's just wondering if he can use her distraction as his cue to leave when she seems to come to a decision and lunges for him - gracefully, sure, but one moment they're four feet apart and the next she's grabbed his arm in a clawed grip and is dragging him out the door.

Almost before he can protest, Lina's pulled him into a malt shop a little down the street. It's dimly lit and pretty quiet this time of night, and she makes a beeline for a booth and all but shoves him into the seat before taking her place on the other side of the table. He straightens his jacket and says, "Well, if I'd known you'd be so happy to see me, I would have had my people call your people a whole lot sooner." His arm aches - she's got quite a grip.

Lina takes off her glasses and glares at him some more like she's figuring out what to do, as a waitress comes by and asks them what they want. Cosmo orders a chocolate malt with the idea he's going to need it. Lina asks for a cream soda with a cherry on top, and looks disappointed when the waitress nods and walks away without looking at her. Then Lina notices him noticing her, the troubled look vanishes and, with a couple of blinks, twitches into a bright smile. It's all teeth. "Cosmo," she says, honey-sweet and twice as sticky. "How's life treating you?"

Life's wonderful in ways he can't describe, when he's not being ambushed. "Pretty swell, Lina," he says steadily. "How about you?"

"Awful late to be getting dinner," she purrs, completely ignoring the question. "Isn't the studio feeding you?"

"The caterers went home before I did," he says. "R.F. kept me late working on the score for a new picture."

She smiles wider, but he can see in the way her upper lip curls that she wanted to snarl. "And how is dear R.F. these days?"

"He's doing well, Lina, just like everybody else at the studio," he says, and oh, he knows he should play along, but he's always had trouble keeping his mouth shut: "Why, doesn't Zelda tell you everything?"

The smile cracks, and Lina temporarily drops the kitten act. "Zelda's not talking to me anymore," she mutters, not looking at him.

He almost feels sorry for her. Almost. "Too bad." He can't resist. "And she's always been such a loyal gal."

Lina glares at him again, suspiciously, like she can't tell if he's kidding or not. You'd think after so many years she'd know that he's always kidding, but then again, she never paid attention to the little people.

The waitress comes back with her drinks, and this time Lina makes sure to make eye contact with her. The waitress doesn't so much as raise an eyebrow. Cosmo's got to hand it to her: she's either a real professional, or she's the only waitress in Hollywood who doesn't go to the movies. He watches the little staring match unfold while he sips his malt, and makes sure he has his most innocent face on when it's over and Lina once again remembers that she has company.

She gives him a calculating look from under her eyelashes - her mascara's clumping, he's noticed - and toys with the cherry on her soda. "How's Donnie doing?" she asks, sweet and delicate. It's the expected question, but he's not sure of her approach.

"Don's just wonderful," Cosmo replies. He makes it sound wry, but it's the truth.

"Bet you don't see much of him anymore," she purrs, taking a tiny bite out of her cherry.

He folds his arms. "What are you talking about? I see him every day." Morning, noon and night. It's surprising how little's changed.

Lina scoffs. "Oh, I find that hard to believe... or has little miss what's-her-name abandoned him already?" Her eyes bore into his. It'd be intimidating, but she picks that moment to bite down hard on her cherry and almost cracks her teeth on the stone.

He passes her a napkin and she discretely spits it out, looking furious. "Kathy's doing great too," Cosmo says fondly. "They're very happy."

"Then you might have to find yourself greener pastures," Lina snaps, blotting her watering eyes with another napkin, "Or do you think he'll want you hanging around now? 'Well-known eligible bachelor' - huh, everyone knows what that means."

Cosmo covers his wince with another sip of his malt. The terrible thing about Lina is that she's so dumb about everything, it's always a surprise when she picks something to be smart about instead. He wonders if this is what R.F. felt like when she started talking contract law. "I guess you'd know," he tries. His snappier comebacks seem to have abandoned him.

“Yeah,” she says, regaining her angry little smile. “That’s right, I know. I know what it’s like to be thrown over for the newer model and lose everything, just like that.”

“Yeah, according to the fan magazines it was a real tragedy,” Cosmo says, chin in hand. He can’t believe it, but he’s almost missed her delusions. It beat a slapstick revue any day.

Her face darkens. “Never mind about Donnie,” she snaps, “I’m talking about R.F. I still have a contract, but he won’t even let me on the set!”

“What are you going to do in a talkie, Lina? Mime your lines? Play a mute? You’re not allowed near the up-and-comers anymore in case you try to steal someone’s voice again. What did you expect from trying to blackmail the head of the studio?”

Lina’s looking flustered. “It was my contract! It was fair and square!”

That part wasn’t,” Cosmo says tartly.

“Oh, what do you know?” Lina says angrily. “Maybe you’re still tinkling away at that piano for now, but pretty soon you’ll get ditched just like I was.” Her face smoothes out, quite deliberately, as she drops her shoulders with a girlish little wriggle and puts her simper on again. Cosmo watches in alarm as she puts her neat little hand across the table and strokes his fingers. “Now you and me, Cosmo, we’re birds of a feather. A man like you and a dame like me – maybe together, we could really stick it to the people who overlooked us.”

So that’s her game. He shudders like he wants it to be seen from the cheap seats. “Did something cold just slither down your back, or was it just me?” He slips his hand out from under hers and slides out of the booth in the same motion, flipping enough bills out of his pocketbook to cover the drinks – and probably more, but he doesn’t have time to look. “This was swell, Lina. Let’s never do it again.”

He leaves her in the booth, making high, angry sputters. Getting the last word in makes him feel less like he’s fleeing, but as he slips out the door and flags down a taxi, he wonders exactly how much he’s going to have to look over his shoulder from now on.

~

He doesn’t tell Don or Kathy about the incident – in fact, as soon as he gets home and sees them, he forgets all about it. Kathy’s attempting to bake a cake in Don’s kitchen, and she has flour on her nose and won’t let Don in until it’s ready. Cosmo, on the other hand, gets right of way for promising to help keep Don out.

“Benedict Arnold!” Don calls through the door, and Cosmo makes a face at Kathy that makes her laugh so hard she spills the flour.

“Well, here’s your problem,” Cosmo says. “I’m pretty sure this should be in the cake.”

“Oh, hush,” Kathy says. “So I’ve never baked before. I have a cookbook, all the ingredients, and a ready mind. Plus, I’m an actress, so I can pretend I’m Mrs Beeton and it’ll all turn out fine!” She snaps a dishtowel at him and makes him help her measure and pour ingredients, and only a couple of eggs end up on the floor. It’s a very commendable effort.

In the end, the cake’s higher on one side than the other, and a little crunchier on top than it’s meant to be, but they drench it in syrup and Don declares it worth the wait. “Though I’m not sure it’s worth being abandoned by my loved ones and left so terribly alone,” he sighs, and Cosmo and Kathy mock him with protestations of undying fealty until he drags them both to bed so they can prove it once and for all.

A few days later, R.F. calls everyone to gather round because Monumental Pictures have won the bidding war over a new script.

“Hey, if it’s that good, you’d think it would have been on Broadway,” Don says, plucking it out of R.F.’s hands. Grips, cameramen, directors and actors all try to peer over his shoulder at once, but Don has his back to the piano and Kathy guarding his left flank – Cosmo just swings himself over the top of it, nudging a disgruntled DP out of the way, and suddenly he’s got the best spot on the floor.

“No kidding, Don,” R.F. says sternly, though he doesn’t even try to stop Don flicking through the pages. “This thing’s a guaranteed hit! A country doctor takes his city slicker fiancée home to meet the family, but she’s a terror and he falls for his old sweetheart instead. It’s a real humdinger, a scream from start to finish. We had to knock Warner Brothers and MGM out to get our hands on it, and it wasn’t easy. Just take a look.”

Cosmo hooks his chin over Don’s shoulder and reads along, more and more interested with every page, and pleased as he feels laughter start to vibrate through Don. “Well, this doesn’t look like any movie script I’ve seen,” Cosmo murmurs. “No swords or brawls, but that’s sure a whole lot of talking.” He catches Kathy’s eye, and she covers a giggle with her hand.

Don grins at R.F., smacking the script with the back of his hand. Cosmo sneaks it out of his grip and starts flipping through it himself as Don says, “Well, it’s fantastic! Just a page of that was the funniest thing I’ve read in months!”

“And he reads the reviews in Variety,” Cosmo says. “Kind of an unusual script for this studio, isn’t it?”

“Well, sure,” R.F. says stoutly, “But we made the transition to talkies work like gangbusters, didn’t we? This new picture’s all about the patter – it’s a social comedy, all quips and zingers, stuff the audience will be quoting back and forth all the way home. We need to put our best foot forward, here – show that we can do a straight comedy just as well as we can handle action and even musicals. And who knows? Maybe we’ll throw a few numbers in, if there’s time.”

“Who did you have in mind for it, Mr. Simpson?” Kathy asks, and a clamour of voices joins in with the same question. Cosmo’s reading through it and casting it in his mind – oh sure, Don and Kathy would be great for the main couple, but there’s a lot of juicy parts besides. He might not trust Zelda as far as he could throw her, but she’s perfect for the sharp-tongued older sister. And there’s the brother, a real motor-mouth who gets half the best lines, and the horrifying fiancée, always turning up at the worst possible moment. R.F.’s right: if they pull this off – and if they don’t have unexpected competition in the opening week – it’s guaranteed to get people talking. A pretty face from off the street won’t work in movies any more. A script like this needs all the right voices too.

R.F. makes all the appropriate noises about open casting and auditions, and how he’ll be naming the director tomorrow (it’s going to be Roscoe – he always gets the big ones), and slowly people disperse in excited clusters. Cosmo still has R.F.’s copy of the script, and Kathy and Don huddle around him and lean over his shoulders, reading it, or maybe just making eyes at each other – he’s not going to begrudge them the fun either way. “Really, though, R.F.: who d’you have in mind?” Cosmo asks.

R.F. shakes his head, moustache twitching with his barely-suppressed smile as his gaze darts back and forth between Don and Kathy. “Well, I won’t deny the leads did spring to mind immediately. What do you think, Don? Are you up for it?”

“I’m up for anything,” Don says honestly, and Cosmo elbows him – he can tell from Don’s grin that he’s really thrilled.

“We’ll do it, R.F.,” Kathy says warmly. “Oh... provided it’s fair and square, of course,” she adds quickly. There have been some nasty bits of gossip about her since her star began to rise, and Cosmo’s pretty sure Lina’s the source of at least half of it, but it’s left her a little timid, still, about stepping on toes. He bites his thumb as he goes over the cast list – but no, there’s plenty of parts to go around; just because Kathy’s a shoo-in for the lead shouldn’t get anyone’s feelings hurt.

“Of course!” says Don, circling around Cosmo to put his arm around her. “But oh, R.F., what about that role with the little brother? A lot of jokes need to land there, and Monumental Pictures doesn’t have a whole lot of funnymen on contract. You’re going to need a real clown for that part, somebody who can talk a mile a minute. Any ideas?”

Don nudges Cosmo, and Cosmo looks up from the pages to realise R.F. is giving him a considering look. “Hm, what?” Cosmo says. He looks from R.F. to Don and Kathy’s excited faces, and back again. His eyes go wide, and isn’t sure for a moment if there’s a joke he’s not in on. “Me?”

R.F. looks thoughtful. “It’s worth a shot. Why don’t we do a little line reading right now, just to see if you three can pull it off together? That is, if you think you can handle the shooting and work on the score too, Cosmo?”

“Of course he can!” cries Kathy.

“You can count on him!” Don tells R.F., like it’s silly to even ask. Cosmo’s still a little agape, and then he catches Kathy’s eye. She’s looking at him so sweetly, and slips her hand into his.

“You’ll do it, won’t you, Cosmo?” she asks softly, her blue eyes shining, and, well. He knows he’s got just as much experience in vaudeville as Don, it’s just that he’s been the company’s music man so long, never the guy in front of the camera...

“Sure!” he squeaks. Kathy giggles, and Cosmo clears his throat, flings the script neatly onto the top of the piano and holds his hand out to shake R.F.’s. “Hey, what’s the worst that can happen?”

~

The reading goes perfectly. R.F. just about busts a gut, and Roscoe’s grinning like a maniac, scribbling notes to give to the set designers and costume people in the morning. All this and they haven’t even run auditions yet – Cosmo’s always dizzied by how fast things work in pictures. He’s dizzied by the whole thing, and when they’ve wrapped up the few scenes they were going through, they’re all in the highest spirits. Don declares it a night for celebration, and Cosmo and Kathy grab each of his hands and tug him home, arm in arm in arm.

‘Home’ is always Don’s place. Sure, Cosmo’s got his apartment and Kathy’s got hers, but Don’s place has a whole wardrobe for Kathy’s things, plus quite a few of Cosmo’s clothes tucked away innocuously in Don’s walk-in closet. It’s got three toothbrushes in the bathroom, a kitchen that three people can wander around in without getting in each others’ way, a sofa that three people can curl up on comfortably, and a bed that three people can sleep in just fine.

It’s a lovely night. They spend half of it trading lines back and forth over a leisurely dinner around Don’s kitchen table. Cosmo’s still a little in shock, and tells them so.

“Is it really that surprising?” Don says. “You can tell a joke better than anyone I know, and I’m betting better than anyone R.F. knows. Now there’s talking pictures, it’s the perfect time for you to start telling ‘em where more than just us can hear.”

“And I won’t even need a diction coach.” Cosmo raises his glass in a toast, Don clinks it sincerely, and Kathy laughs so hard remembering how ridiculous he sounded in The Duelling Cavalier that it takes her and Cosmo the rest of the night to get him to stop pouting about it.

~

The next day brings them all back down to earth with a bump.

“Gosh, none of them really have it, do they?” Kathy whispers, as yet another hopeful for the part of the terrible fiancée is cut off mid-sentence. R.F., sitting behind them, gives a dissatisfied grunt.

“We’ll let you know!” Roscoe calls after the actress, with his most worried grin.

“Shall I show the next one in, Mr. Dexter?” the boy with the clipboard asks.

Roscoe loses the sickly grin and just looks sick instead. R.F. leans forward, saying, “Give us a minute, would you, Leo?” As the assistant scurries off, R.F. says, “Well? What do you think?”

“None of them are right,” Roscoe says in exasperation. “I just can’t put my finger on it!”

“They could all stand to lose a little dignity,” Cosmo points out. “Or else put on a whole lot more. All of them were too sincere to be kooky, but not sincere enough to be absurd.”

Don taps his arm. “He’s got a point. None of them were what I pictured when I read that script. It called to mind something really unique, something that’d steal the scene.”

“It did, didn’t it?” Kathy says. “You can just picture her, walking into the frame and making everyone cringe and the whole audience laugh the minute they hear her.”

“Yeah!” Cosmo says. “Like all the most annoying people you’ve ever met, every snobby aunt and pushy sister, all distilled into one person.”

“The kind of person who doesn’t even know she’s awful!” Don puts in. “I mean, look at that garden party scene.”

“That’s my favourite scene,” Roscoe mutters.

“Just swans in and out and doesn’t even realise what a mess she’s made,” Cosmo laughs. “You’ve gotta have a real personality, someone like... someone like...”

There’s a long, terrible moment where all of them realise exactly who they’ve been picturing.

“Lina,” Kathy breathes.

Lina,” they all sigh.

“Well, that’s it. Call the whole thing off,” Don says.

“Now, wait a minute, Don,” R.F. says. “Let’s not be hasty about this.”

“Who’s hasty?” Cosmo says. “You blackballed her yourself!”

“True,” R.F. hedges, “But—“

“We can’t have her around again!” Don says, “Not after what she tried to pull with Kathy!”

“Hang on,” Kathy says.

They all turn sharply. She’s been so quiet and still, but now she’s looking pensively into the middle distance. “Kathy?” Don says softly.

She meets his eyes, and Cosmo’s, taking both their hands in hers. “Now, listen,” she says, “I want this movie to succeed just as much as anyone, and we all know she’d be perfect for the part.”

“Are you sure?” R.F. says, and Cosmo frowns at how transparently relieved he’s looking.

Don covers her hand with both of his, saying, “Now wait, Kathy, after everything she did to you—“

“I’m well aware of what she did, Don,” Kathy says sharply. “I was there. She didn’t succeed, thanks to you three, but even so, things are different now. She’s been practically laughed out of Hollywood, and I’m on a contract, and a rock-solid one at that. Don’t you think I’m a little better-protected than this time last year?”

“Well, maybe, but...” Don trails off, looking truculent.

Cosmo frowns. “Sure, she can’t get her hooks into you anymore, but do you think you could bear working with her?”

“Of course,” Kathy says firmly, and that’s that.

~

Well, that’s that bar the actual re-hiring of Lina Lamont.

She swans in that afternoon in purple silks and round sunglasses, nose in the air and not a hair out of place. You’d barely know she was down at heel enough to be going among the hoi-polloi for dinner. Cosmo, Kathy and Don all hide, peeking around a corner as she makes her way into R.F.’s office. The shouting starts almost immediately.

“Oh, maybe this was a bad idea after all,” Kathy says, looking worried. Words like “My lawyers,” and “Think you can just,” and “Teach you to make a fool out of Lina Lamont!” float out of the door and settle on a rapt tableau of grips, gaffers and set decorators, all of whom seem to have temporarily forgotten where they were going with their gear.

There’s a lull as R.F.’s voice rumbles over Lina’s, low enough to be completely indistinct. “I don’t like this,” says Don. “Even if she agrees to come back, she could talk him into just about anything to do it.”

“Not anything,” Cosmo says. “Hang on.” He straightens his tie, marches up to R.F.’s door, knocks smartly and sticks his head around the door with a sunny smile. “Sorry, R.F., we were just wondering...” he trails off, deliberately, as he pretends to catch sight of Lina for the first time. She looks like she was halfway into saying something savage, and her expression of triumph is being replaced by one of confusion and unease at the sight of Cosmo. “Oh, hi, Lina!” he says cheerfully. “Good thing R.F. could get a hold of you – I told him we’d have to look in every automat on the Sunset Strip.” He nods to R.F. “Never mind, I can bother you later. Bye, Lina!”

He returns to Don and Kathy, folds his arms, and whistles. Fifteen minutes later, Lina stalks out of R.F.’s office and stops in the middle of the sound stage, glaring at all the assembled crew and extras. “Well?” she barks.

“Good to have you back, Miss Lamont!” someone calls, and in an instant, Lina’s surrounded by well-wishers. Her surprise quickly transmutes into pleasure, and it’s not long before the costume supervisor has pulled her into the department for a fitting. R.F. emerges unseen by her, and surveys the scene with satisfaction.

“Boy, how quickly they forget,” Cosmo mutters. Don’s shaking his head incredulously.

Kathy recovers the quickest. “Well, I guess she never lost that star quality?” she offers.

“Yeah, and we’re about to put her star through the wringer,” Don says. “Let’s hope it’s a wrap before she figures that out.” He takes Cosmo and Kathy both by the arm, expression determined. Kathy looks at him adoringly, and Cosmo knows his own expression isn’t much different. “Let’s make a movie!”

~

The road to the premiere is rocky, but not as much as anyone feared. Lina’s not quite as awful as Cosmo’s been expecting, and although she does sneer the first time she has to share a scene with him, they actually manage to make each other laugh a few times. Sure, it ruins the take and makes Roscoe lose his rag, but it breaks the ice. She even manages to be civil to Kathy. It’s funny, but the biggest chill seems to be between her and Zelda – it works pretty well for their characters, but the frost lingers long after the scene has wrapped.

Finally, it’s the premiere, with all the attendant fuss and glamour. Don handles the press like he always does, one arm around Kathy and the other around Cosmo. Cosmo’s honestly a little sick at the idea of hearing himself on screen, but it turns out not to matter, because the movie’s good, it’s fantastic. The script is so sharp and the sound is crisp, so the audience roars in all the right places. Don and Kathy are so good up there, warm and perfect, and Lina – well, she’s honestly a scream. There’s a standing ovation and everything.

They dash backstage while the audience is still whistling, buoyed on the sound of the shouts and applause. “They loved it! They really did!” Kathy gushes.

“Of course they did. That’s why you’re my stars!” R.F. says. “You wait here for the curtain to go up – I’ll meet you around the back.” He takes off, leaving the three of them in the wings, with stagehands chattering excitedly in the background.

Don slings an arm around Cosmo, eyes sparkling. “You weren’t too bad up there,” he says, grinning, and Cosmo laughs and toes the ground.

“Oh, Don,” Kathy says, smacking him in the arm. “He was more than that! You were wonderful, Cosmo,” she tells him, and kisses him, just chastely enough, though for good measure Cosmo swoons right into Don’s arms and sends them both into fits.

It’s too easy, when they’re all so elated, and Cosmo’s still on a diagonal and miming a dead faint when he sees, behind Kathy, a sparkling hem and heels. “Hey, Lina,” he says, straightening up. She hesitates at the edge of the room, like she’s reluctant to approach the stage. “Come on, you’re not going to miss a curtain call, are you?”

The look on her face is unusual – troubled and hesitant. “They’re going to laugh at me,” she says, twisting her fingers around her wrap.

“Well, sure,” Don says brightly. “They’ve been laughing at you for the last two hours.” Kathy elbows him and hisses his name.

Lina frowns. “They never used to laugh at me,” she says. “But nowadays I open my mouth and it’s all a big joke. It’s the joke. What’s wrong with the way I talk, anyway? Have I always been a big joke to everyone?”

“Lina, don’t you get it?” Cosmo says, stepping forward. She meets his eyes with suspicion, and he tucks his hands behind his back, as unthreatening as can be. “This isn’t some breakdown in the projector room – people laughed because you made them laugh. And if this takes off, you can keep making ‘em laugh. You’ll still have a career ahead of you.”

She nods, slowly, but she still looks unsure. “I never wanted to be made a fool of,” she says, taking a step forward.

“Well, that’s the secret,” Cosmo says, as she reluctantly takes his arm. “It’s not a bad life, as long as you’re in on the joke.”

END