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Unreal Until Experienced

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“I’ll have you know,” the viper-taut woman said sharply, “that Oliver Welles would never have stooped to using a painted backdrop.”

Geoffrey pinched the bridge of his nose. He could hear the next sentence coming and, if he had bothered to watch her face, he would have seen her mouth start forming the words. Everyone said the same damn thing. At some point, he had started living in a Sartre play and he damn well wanted to get out.

Oliver Welles hired real magicians for this theatre,” she said accusingly.

Brilliant. Exactly according to the script.

“Thank you, Maria!” Geoffrey shouted, landing too heavily on the first two words to sound entirely sane. “No one’s mentioned that before, I wouldn’t have known if you hadn’t been good enough to inform me of it at this time! How wonderful for us both that I now know the error of my ways!”

Maria sniffed. Then she waited.

Geoffrey made a sarcastic flicking motion with his hands, trying to encourage her to just walk away.

She waited some more, lips pursed.

“In case my sarcasm wasn’t allowing my point to get across, let me be clearer,” Geoffrey said around gritted teeth. “I. Will. Not. Hire. Magicians. For. This. Theatre.”

She sniffed again.

He threw his hands up and slammed the rehearsal door behind him as loudly as he could.

* * *

During his undergraduate education, Geoffrey signed up for a two-hour Friday afternoon seminar called Safe Magic: The Dos and Don’ts of Enchantment in the Theatre. He’d had the grade school version of Magic Safety, of course, the one where a M.A.R.E. (Magical Abuse Resistance Education) officer visited the class of six year olds and glowered ominously at them in an attempt to discourage them from attempting anything magical because, obviously, you couldn’t even trust a simple locating spell in the hands of a six year old. But the M.A.R.E. party line was a bit too hard-and-fast for Geoffrey’s tastes and so he’d joined the school Magic Club sometime pre-puberty, competed in the regional Hex Races all the way through high school, and then double majored in Magic and Theatre in college.

But he took the Safe Magic seminar because no one had ever really addressed the concern that had been twisting away at the back of Geoffrey’s mind for years: what about the theatre?

Because he was skilled enough at magic to recognize it when he saw it and theatre--theatre was filled with it. Magic spilled out of a theatre like there was a fairy orgy going in the middle of a witch circle set on the full moon in fucking Stonehenge.

It had to be dangerous, right, to have that much magic running wild?

But, no, everyone acted like it was completely fine to have all that rampant, natural magic lazing around the flashpoint of a halfway-decent (because the money was good but it wasn’t rewarding work, everyone knows good magicians don’t do it for the pay) magician. Everyone looked at him funny when he suggested that maybe that was a bit like waving a flame torch around a couple kegs of gasoline.

So when he’d seen the flyer for the seminar outside of his Applications of Norrell to Theatre lecture, he’d been thrilled. Finally, he’d thought. Finally someone would talk about the whole gasoline thing.

He’d sat in the front row, twitching his left knee in impatience while the slightly pudgy man had tapped on his microphone a couple of times, looking fairly confounded by the technology around him and the sheer quantity of people who had shown up. (It was an ominous start.)

The speech had been fine--no more, no less. It hadn’t addressed any of Geoffrey’s fears, but at least someone was talking about it. The disappointment and the relief basically cancelled each other out.

But then a gloved hand on the far side of the auditorium was raised in such a way that Geoffrey could feel the owner’s disdain even though he couldn’t see any of the man beyond that ridiculously ruffled shirtsleeve.

And then the lecture went to shit.

“You’ll have to pardon me if I offend you with the intensity of my language,” the man with the glove and the ruffles said in a drawl that could have provided enough disdain to power a generator, “but I’m afraid that the premise of this lecture is pure caveman hysteria and, frankly, I’m shocked anyone as backward thinking as you isn’t living in a log cabin and chasing kids off their lawn with a pitchfork.”

The pudgy man at the lectern pushed his glasses up his nose and blinked. “...Was there a question?” he asked hesitantly and politely. Geoffrey’s left knee stopped twitching.

“Oh,” the man in the audience drawled, “I have a question all right. My question is this: how do you propose to run a modern theatre without any of the conveniences of magic? How would you do Lear’s storm? Or Prospero’s tempest? Shake a sheet of tin?”

The audience tittered.

“I hadn’t actually proposed--” the pudgy man said nervously, his eyes darting around the room as the titters turned into giggles.

“So what if you did use a tin sheet?”

The laughter stopped. Geoffrey looked behind him to see who everyone was staring at--who had spoken--but then he realized.

It was him. He had spoken.

Oh, well. In for a penny, as they say.

“So what if you did use a tin sheet for Lear’s storm?” he continued. “Isn’t it Lear’s job to make it real, not a backstage magic trick?”

“I wasn’t advocating a directorial position, merely advising precautions--” the pudgy man said, too close to his microphone, holding his hands up in the universal position of “there’s a shitshow coming and I want out before it hits.” Neither Geoffrey nor the man with the ruffles was willing to let him re-direct the conversation quite yet, though.

“Surely you don’t expect an audience with modern sensibilities to react with anything but contempt if Lear is howling away at a tin sheet?” the man with the ruffles said, still out of sight.

“Surely you don’t expect a good actor to need tricks--” and Geoffrey hung all the scorn he possibly could on the word “--to make King fucking Lear a tragic figure?”

“I think we should return to the question of practical safety precautions, gentlemen,” the lecturer said. “I think I see a hand raised in the back.”

Geoffrey fumed in his seat for the remaining half dozen questions and then stormed out before the host had finished thanking the pudgy man for taking the time out of his busy schedule to give this lecture. He turned around just outside, though, and finally saw the man with the ruffled shirtsleeve through the glass pane of the door. The man was watching Geoffrey too.

And that was how Geoffrey Tennant met Darren Nichols.

Coincidentally, that was also how Geoffrey Tennant began his career as the only North American director who refused to use magic in his productions. He would eventually give thousands of interviews over his career about this eccentric position and he would answer the question “What prompted you to--?” in a thousand different way, not one of them the truth.

The truth was he started out of spite, pure and simple.

He started because Darren Nichols had gotten under his skin.

* * *

Ellen was waiting in his office with her feet up on his desk.

Darren always outsells you because he uses a magician,” she pointed out.

“No, he outsells me because there are flaming horses in Hamlet when he directs it,” Geoffrey said, lifting her feet up so that he could look for his notes on Paulina’s “studied torments” speech from The Winter’s Tale. “He outsells me because I ask something of my audiences beyond the ‘ooooooh’ and ‘aaaaaaaah’ of cheap vaudeville tricks.”

“To-may-to, to-mah-to,” Ellen said, shrugging. She wagged the notepad in her hand.

Damn. How come she could always find his notes before he did?

“My notes, El,” he said in what he hoped was a stern I-am-the-director-you-are-the-actress-I-outrank-you tone.

“My point, Geoff,” she said, dropping her voice into a deep bass and it took Geoffrey a beat to realize she was trying to imitate him.

“Was that an imitation of me or Don Pizarro?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. She opened her mouth and he continued in the interests of keeping a boring conversation as short as possible, “He’s the bass role in Figarro; my point stands. It was a bad imitation.”

Magic, Geoffrey,” Ellen said. “You can’t get an audience without it.”

“Our Hamlet didn’t have an ounce of fairy dust in it and it did fine,” he said.

“Our Hamlet didn’t finish it’s first week,” she said.

“That’s unrelated and you know it,” he said.

“Maybe I don’t know that, you ass,” she said. “Maybe you went fucking mad because you were Hamlet without magic and you had to make up the difference and it’s fucking Hamlet, for god’s sake.”

“I’m not talking about this with you,” Geoffrey decided haughtily and tugged his jacket out from under her with enough force that she toppled out of the chair. “And I won’t change my mind.”

He slammed the door of his own office.

“This isn’t over!” she shouted from inside.

He rolled his eyes.

Of course it fucking wasn’t over. This shit was never over.

* * *

Geoffrey’s production of Romeo and Juliet in their Junior year was the talk of the University. Everyone thought it was so risque to stage an entire production without magic. They thought he was making a point, like that production of Hamlet Sarah Bernhardt had done in 1889 where she’d insisted on not conjuring a Norwegian army for her Hamlet to be watching in IV.5. They said Bernard’s production was about raw emotion, that it was naked in its intensity.

Oliver Welles left a note saying Geoffrey had a future in the theatre.

Pretentious as fuck, but Geoffrey kept the note folded in his copy of R&J to this day.

But Darren fucking Nichols wrote a scathing piece about the production as an op-ed column in the school’s paper. He’d used “abominable,” “atrocious,” and “ass” in one sentence, the alliteration alone making Geoffrey want to pull someone’s hair out. But, more than anything else, Geoffrey had been offended by the accusation that his Romeo and Juliet was a gimmick, a non-magic production just to see what a non-magic production would look like. He said Geoffrey lacked spirit.

So Geoffrey did the review of Darren’s Endgame and called Darren out on the fact that he had cast no actors and had, instead, hired a magician from the graduating class to simply animate lifeless chess pieces. He wondered how Nichols could pass the requirements of the Junior project when he hadn’t even staged a real production since he had no cast. He said Darren lacked spirit.

Two days later, Darren slapped him with a leopard-print glove in the student center while he was buying a coffee.

A week after that, they dueled in the quad. If Darren had expected Geoffrey to not be able to hold his own in a wizard’s duel because he didn’t want magic in his goddamned theatre, he was disappointed. Geoffrey was top of his class in his Magic major. Geoffrey, for his part, was definitely surprised that Darren, despite having hired a hack magician for his production, knew his way around a spell or two.

That’s how Geoffrey got the scar on his chin and Darren got one on his right thigh.

How Darren says the duel ended: a triumphant defeat of the caveman who never did know which end of the wand to hold onto.

How Geoffrey says the duel ended: a puffed-up magic illiterate got his comeuppance and was floored by Geoffrey’s boundless skill.

* * *

The thing is: one director cannot direct two plays at once.

That’s a lie. A director is fully capable of directing two plays at once. He would just have to use magic. It wouldn’t be hard--even Geoffrey knew the spells, right--to stretch out time in one rehearsal and to overlap the same hour twice, literally making a director be in two places at once. A lot of over-worked directors did it.

So the thing really is: Geoffrey cannot direct two plays at once.

He had copies of both plays on his desk and had a hand resting on each cover, index finger tapping in a haphazard beat back and forth between them.

Whichever he didn’t direct, some hack with a magician and a bag of cheap tricks would ruin. He could save the other--make it honest and brutal and fucking worth the price of the goddamn admission--but still.

“This is like Sophie’s Choice,” he said to the empty room.

“It’s really not,” said Oliver. He was perched in the window and drawing circles on the window. “You’re going to direct As You Like It, obviously. You wrote that essay on it in high school. It won that award.”

“First of all,” Geoffrey said, spinning his chair to face him, “it was a contest for extemporaneous speeches. There was no essay. And second of all: the fact that I was able to speak uninterrupted about a play for fifteen minutes has nothing to do with the amount of affection I feel for the play. I could talk for fifteen minutes about the choice of curtains in Hamlet, you know that.”

“I am,” Oliver said, raising an eyebrow, “aware.”

“But, yes, fine. I feel a great affinity for As You Like It.”

“Much more than you do for The Winter’s Tale.”

“Yes, well,” said Geoffrey. “No one feels an affinity for The Winter’s Tale.”

“Darren Nichols does.”

Geoffrey stopped spinning. “No.”

“Yes. He did an interview about it in ‘98.”

“No.” Geoffrey tapped the finger on top of The Winter’s Tale a couple of times. “What did he say?”

“Damned if I know,” said Oliver. “I’m dead, I can’t be bothered to remember that sort of insignificant detail.”

Geoffrey spun the script in a circle on the desk.

* * *

Geoffrey found the interview on youtube. It had that grainy quality that old VHS interviews re-formatted for the internet always have, a sure sign that it was Darren himself who put it online.

But still.

The voice off screen asked, “If you had your pick of any play, which would you direct next?”

Darren’s sharp eyes flickered from the interviewer’s face--which even Geoffrey knew was where your eyes ought to stay when doing an interview and Geoffrey made it a point to know nothing about what you ought to do when doing an interview--and the camera, ever-so-briefly. It was like he looked directly out of the screen, across time, right at Geoffrey.

“If I had my will, I’d direct The Winter’s Tale from now until the end of time,” he said, trying to smile pleasantly but grimacing instead.

“Oh?” the interviewer prompted.

“Oh, yes,” Darren said and leaned forward. “Think about what Paulina says in the last scene: ‘I am sorry, sir, I have thus far stirr’d you: but/ I could afflict you farther.’

Darren paused, dramatically allowing the interviewer to follow instruction and to “think about it.”

“This is a play about affliction--not the kind you can explain away or think your way out of,” Darren said finally. “This is about inexplicable affliction, the kind that defies rationality, the kind that makes a man go mad.”

Geoffrey took a hissing breath.

“Of course, this is also a play in which the porous boundary between literary and theatrical event allows a metatheatrical commentary. Leontes, after all, is a critical observer of his own madness: the inexplicable nature of his descent into madness confounds him just as much as it does the audience,” Darren continued.

His glance flickered back to the camera.

“His madness is inherently magical. Inexplicable.”

The clip ended. Geoffrey chewed a razor blade, twisting it against with his tongue.

* * *

The nice part was that Geoffrey managed to drop Darren’s name into a couple of key conversations without anyone noticing. This meant that when Anna “came up” with the idea to ask Darren to come in to direct one of the plays, Geoffrey could go through the usual motions of hating the idea of Darren directing anything.

“He’s not a director, he’s a Vegas magician,” Geoffrey shouted. She looked unconvinced by his wrath.

“Just pick the play,” Anna said, not looking up from her desk.

He went back to his office, slammed both doors, re-opened them, and tossed her The Winter’s Tale.

“I’m agreeing to this against my better judgement,” he said haughtily.

She finally looked up and just raised an eyebrow.

* * *

There had been a time--sometime between Geoffrey’s third Tempest in a condemned theatre and Darren’s Doll’s House in Japan--when they had ended up accidentally running into each other in a Starbucks just outside the Globe.

And, because this was how Geoffrey’s life worked, they literally ran into each other.

Darren was taking notes in a tiny moleskin notebook, one of the ones that has a slot for your tiny nub of a pencil so that you can be as utterly pretentious as it is physically possible to be all while having great difficulty actually using the notebook to take any notes.

Not that Geoffrey had any thoughts on the subject.

He personally had been distracted by the fact someone had drawn a heart on the side of his coffee, like this was a thing adult humans do.

So they’d literally walked into each other and Geoffrey had just barely managed to not spill coffee all over both of them.

It was the first time they’d been face-to-face since the duel. They’d spent a good deal of time maneuvering around parties and opening nights and whatnot. They had both gotten very good at putting a buffer between them to make snide comments to and, thus, avoid directly insulting the other (which would lead to another duel, obviously).

But there they were, just outside a godawful production of Twelfth Night that, besides completely missing the point of the Malvolio plotline, also had the worst wigs Geoffrey had ever seen on a human head.

“Were you at--?” Darren asked and then sniffed, like he was trying to find something neutral to talk about.

“Yeah,” Geoffrey said. He scratched his ear awkwardly.

There was a long pause while they avoided looking at each other.

“The wigs,” Darren said, rolling his eyes.

“I know!” Geoffrey agreed vehemently. “And they’ve utterly ruined Aguecheek. It’s a travesty!”

“Oh, absolutely,” Darren agreed.

By the time Geoffrey had finished his coffee, Darren had shown him the notes he’d taken for the review he was writing. Geoffrey scoffed at the alliteration, they spitballed some more biting insults, and then, suddenly, they’d spent the entire afternoon together on a park bench.

And then, suddenly, they’d spent the night together too.

But Geoffrey wanted to be clear: he still hated the man and everything he stood for.

“Oh, darling,” Darren said the next morning when Geoffrey made it clear. “The feeling has always been mutual.”

* * *

Kate came back to play Rosalind because Geoffrey called in the almost-favor-slash-friendship card. Her hair wasn’t blonde anymore, it was back to the warm chesnut-brown color. She looked...happy. She always had (because she was the type of person who worked on that sort of thing) but it was somehow more striking now, like it had settled somewhere on her face.

He couldn’t really think of a Celia so he took Kate out for lunch.

“I don’t want to make demands on your casting process,” Kate said before she’d even finished slinging her coat onto the back of the chair. “I wouldn’t--I trust you to cast your Celia.”

Geoffrey handed her the soy latte he’d gotten for her--not because he remembered it was her drink but because he happened to have thought of it.

“Celia and Rosalind have to have a real connection,” Geoffrey said, waving his other hand. “I haven’t found--I think you need to be there.”

Kate nodded and took a sip of the coffee. She wrinkled her nose briefly but took another sip without complaining.

“I saw your Lear,” she said. She had always been the one to mention the productions you don’t mention. “Your Cordelia was just--” She took a deep breath, like that finished the sentence.

It sort of did.

“Sophie,” Geoffrey agreed, gritting his teeth. Charles’s face--he couldn’t think about that.

“She broke my heart,” Kate said. They both took a sip of their coffees.

“You know, there’s that one scene with you and Celia,” Geoffrey said, musing out loud. “’Rosalind lacks then the love which teaches thee that thou and I am one.’

Kate nodded, encouraging. “She leaves everything--everyone--just to follow Rosalind.” Kate smiled. “I know a little bit about that.”

Geoffrey wasn’t really listening.

“It’s what I love about Celia,” he said. “It isn’t complicated for her. There’s only love--and then everything else. Love on one side, everything else on the other. There aren’t decisions to be made, not for her, she just....she just...”

“Yeah,” Kate agreed. “’No sooner looked but they loved, no sooner loved but they sighed--’”

“Exactly,” he agreed. “There are no pauses for conscious thought. She has to be all feelings, all--” He ran out of words again.

“You know,” Kate said thoughtfully, “I went to high school with Sarah.” At Geoffrey’s blank look, she clarified. “Darren’s Juliet. We were in high school together.”

“Oh?” Geoffrey said. He’d been working lately on trying to seem interested when people talked to him about things that weren’t theatre.

It wasn’t really working.

“She told me about that running-around-the-building trick,” she continued blithely. She waited a moment and sighed when Geoffrey’s face stayed blank. “You could call her in?”

“To....say hello?” Geoffrey asked, confused.

“No, for an audition,” she clarified.

“Oh,” he said.

God, she could be great. His imagination just went skipping away--he could see her as Celia. She’d be so sure of herself, so very Celia. And with Kate--Kate who could talk herself into feeling anything, Kate who needed triple opinions before she could act--Sarah would be all in-the-instant, all passions--

Wait.

“Hold on, I thought she was doing that TV show about the aliens,” he said. “I thought that was a long term thing.”

Kate shrugged. “Got cancelled.”

Geoffrey sunk back in his seat.

He had a call to make after this coffee.

* * *

Darren and Geoffrey were hired as co-directors once. Stupidly, they both accepted.

Two weeks later, after all semblance of professionalism had completely dissolved, they learned their lesson.

There is still to this day a crater where the theatre used to be. Thankfully, the spell in question appeared to have erased local memory of the theatre as well so no one particularly missed it.

Geoffrey gave an interview three years later in which he laughed for at least three minutes uninterrupted when it was suggested that he and Darren would be “explosive” if they ever worked together.

* * *

“I want it in my contract that Geoffrey is never allowed to chew on razor blades in my rehearsals,” Darren said to Anna, pointing at his contract. “Put it right here.”

Anna took the proffered contract. She wrote it in in pencil--it wasn’t legal, no, but she doubted she could legally put that in a contract and not have Geoffrey committed. Again.

Darren nodded a condescending approval and signed the contract.

“I was in Belgium, you know,” he said. “They don’t hire magicians in Belgium, you do your own spellwork.”

Anna made a noise that she hoped conveyed some sort of mild interest in Darren’s newest “they understand me there” speech.

I do my own spellwork now,” he clarified.

Anna tried to come up with a polite way to respond.

“Oh?” was what she settled on.

It was always a bit risky to let a director do spellwork. They tended to get...carried away. But Darren Nichols got carried away one way or the other; maybe it couldn’t hurt.

And for all that Darren Nichols was famous for that Beckett production where the audience was turned into grains of sand for the first half, Anna knew that there was--there was, for lack of a better term, something magical about his productions.

“And I want a weekly preset meeting with Geoffrey,” he demanded. “Put that in my contract too.”

“Weekly?” Anna said, frowning at the contract. “You....want weekly meetings with Geoffrey?”

“Yes,” he said defensively. “You wouldn’t understand the artistic advantages of conflict.”

Anna hummed noncommittally.

But she wrote the note in.

* * *

Shan’t,” Geoffrey said, aware that he sounded like a petulant Little Lord Fauntleroy but unconcerned by the resemblance.

“As business director of this festival, I have the power to compel you,” Anna warned. “And I know where you live.”

“Dammit, Anna, I’m not living in the costume department anymore,” Geoffrey whined. “I rented an apartment this year, you know I did.”

She sighed. “I rented it for you,” she pointed out. “That’s how I know where you live.”

“Oh,” he said, deflating.

They glared at each other for a moment.

Weekly?” he wheedled.

“Weekly,” she said sternly.

“Ugh,” he said.

“And no chewing razor blades,” she added.

“You can’t--”

“I can, am, and will continue to tell you what you can and cannot do,” she interrupted. “And you will do what I tell you to do because you trust me and you know whose side I’m on.”

Ugh,” he said again.

* * *

In their first official meeting--Geoffrey internally referred to the series of meetings as “Feelings With Madmen”--neither of them spoke for the first half hour, they just glared at each other.

You’re the one who had this written into your contract,” Geoffrey said sullenly, finally.

Darren raised an eyebrow. “You can’t possibly think that’s news to me.”

Geoffrey rolled his eyes. “I’m only saying: you made these meetings happen and now you have nothing to say?” He sank back in his seat. It was a posture he had taken to in his teenage rebellion years and never discarded. It seemed apt. “Mixed signals, that’s all.”

Darren huffed, almost a laugh but a bit too sarcastic to count.

More silence followed.

“Alright, I’ll bite: how are you going to stage Leontes’s madness,” Geoffrey asked, resigned. He could be gracious about this. He could.

Darren smirked. “With magic, of course.”

“Madness might seem ‘magical’ from the outside,” Geoffrey said, trying not to grit his teeth, “but I can assure you, that’s not what it’s like on the inside.”

“Well, you’d know about madness from the inside,” Darren said bluntly but, somehow, not cruelly. “Maybe I want the audience to be on the outside, though. Maybe that’s what I’m trying to do with this production, make Leontes the inexplicable madness no one outside it can possibly begin to comprehend.”

Geoffrey thought about it. Yes, that could work.

It wouldn’t even--He’d seen that reaction. And it was impossible to explain what going mad had felt like, what it meant and the whys and wherefores. Ellen had never understood, no matter how much she tried to get him to believe it had been that for her too.

Hell, even Oliver didn’t understand and he was supernatural these days.

Yes, he could see how it might seem like--how magic might be a good metaphor.

“Fine, sure, maybe,” he begrudgingly agreed. “But how will it work?”

Darren grinned and dropped his notepad on the table.

An hour later, when the scheduled meeting ended, Geoffrey had to admit that he was impressed.

Grudgingly impressed.

* * *

Sarah and Kate were perfect together.

It was everything Geoffrey wanted it to be....and a little more. Because he’d thought Celia and Rosalind, the difference and the union, happened in the big moments. He’d thought Celia so easily abandoning her own father for Rosalind, Rosalind coming out of her safe disguise for Celia--he’d thought those were the moments that made them who they were.

But it happened in such smaller ways.

It happened, for instance, in the moment when Celia and Rosalind re-appear in women’s clothing in the anagnorisis scene. Every time he’d ever seen it done, that had been the throwaway moment. The decision has already been made, after all, and nothing is left but the spectacle of revelation.

But Sarah grabbed Kate’s hand right at the edge of the stage--didn’t look at her, didn’t break the character’s determination--and slightly squeezed. Kate--Rosalind--glanced down at their joined hands and then took a breath, like Celia--Sarah--had just made it possible, had given her the strength she needed to finally rip the bandaid off, to stand in front of the men she’d been hiding from.

No magic needed. Just a simple gesture--one friend reaching out to another.

Oddly, he found himself telling Darren about it in one of their meetings. Not gloating, not even taking credit for it--just telling him. One director to another.

Darren thought about it and nodded.

“It changes everything, really,” he agreed. “And such a tiny gesture, too.”

That led them to talk about Ellen as Paulina, somehow, and what Ellen had said about Paulina’s anger. The problem was this: if Leontes’s rage is a magical madness for which he bears no responsibility, what is Paulina’s rage? It must equal Leontes’s anger in depth, it must match it with every breath, but it also must stay rational and ultimately explicable.

“So you’re saying that Paulina’s anger is the claim of a rational reality on Leontes?” Geoffrey asked. Sometimes working out Darren’s staging was like trying to follow the steps in an incredibly advanced game of chess or to decode a message in code and in another language. Though he wouldn’t admit it out loud, the strategizing appealed to Geoffrey.

Darren frowned. “Paulina’s rage is her own,” he said. “Leontes cannot own it.”

“I wonder if it can belong wholly to two people?” Geoffrey wondered aloud and shrugged.

Darren seemed angrier suddenly, possibly even sullen. He stood up and pointed towards Geoffrey.

“He may be the metaphor, but I’ll be damned if I give the whole play over to him,” he said haughtily. “You’re thinking like a fucking actor again and only seeing the one angle.”

Darren stormed out of the room. Geoffrey wondered when he lost control of that conversation.

* * *

But Geoffrey found himself standing in the back of the theatre while Darren rehearsed the next day. He knew they were running the last scene, he’d asked Maria specifically and then paid her in cupcakes and cigarettes not to mention that he’d asked.

He stared at the back of Darren’s head, wrapped in a glittery scarf today. He chewed on his bottom lip and tried to guess what Darren thought of the scene being acted in front of him.

“You’re not subtle,” Oliver said, appearing next to him.

“I am exquisitely subtle,” Geoffrey said. “All the critics say so.”

“You’re subtle in your productions, I agree. But I think you spent so much subtlety in your directing that you ran out in life,” Oliver said.

“That’s absurd.”

Oliver shrugged. “I no longer have a horse in this race, I’m just making an observation.”

“I don’t have anything to be subtle about,” Geoffrey pointed out. “I’m just a director, watching a fellow director at work. Nothing unusual about that.”

Oliver snorted. “Oh, absolutely,” he agreed sarcastically. “You and Darren--that’s all about different styles of direction. Absolutely. Purely collegial, that’s you two all over.”

Geoffrey stuck his tongue out at him. Oliver sighed and vanished again.

On the stage, Leontes was saying, “Proceed: no foot shall stir.”

Ellen--Paulina--looked at the statue, frozen solid.

“Music,” she said, and the breath of the word exhaled like...an oboe almost, like the room was an orchestra warming up, but, somehow, the oboe was private and quiet. “Awake her; strike!”

A hum of strings started under her words in a deeper register than the oboe, unfurling like a yawn. But on the last word--on the glottal stop even--suddenly a high violin crashed through the lower hum, just a brief glance across the notes. The hum continued, like a warm underbelly, stretching and purring. But the high violin--now joined by a flute--cascaded down and then back up again.

“Tis time, descend,” Ellen ordered the statue. The violin and the flute dropped through the scales--falling--and then back up again as Hermione opened her eyes. Dust fell from her eyelashes when she blinked.

“Be stone no more; approach,” Ellen said and held a hand out to the statue. Its head turned inexorably slowly with clouds of dust moving around it. Ellen reached out a hand--

--and Geoffrey thought about that moment when Kate looked down at Sarah’s hand the day before.

Darren was right, he suddenly realized. This isn’t just Leontes’s curse, is it? His madness, his rage, his sin--it isn’t just his.

This was Paulina’s loss as well.

Geoffrey tried to find Darren in the audience again. He didn’t know whether he wanted to grab his attention or just to see what Darren looked like just then. Just to check.

But Geoffrey found that Darren had twisted around in his seat and was watching him instead.

If Geoffrey had directed The Winter’s Tale, he would have explained away this moment. He would have told Ellen that Paulina was exacting revenge against Leontes, that she was stealing what he loved to punish him for not cherishing it. He would have told Hermione that she was waiting all these years, locked away like Rapunzel, until Leontes atoned. That the fact that she was punishing herself was subsidiary to the fact that she was swallowing her own pain to punish him.

But Darren’s version was....better.

Hermione was the statue and the statue came to life, simple as that. Stone breathed, music made flesh out of rock, and a touch brought back her soul. Paulina wasn’t having tea every Tuesday with a woman she hid in her basement, forcing them to wait on a man’s arrogance; she silently watched pure stone and poured her own grief around it. And she waited.

And it wasn’t Leontes’s kiss that brought life to stone; it was that touch of Paulina’s hand. It was the same gesture from when Celia reached out for Rosalind--a touch to let the other know that everything can be alright.

It was...better.

Geoffrey must have said as much with his eyes because he could tell Darren knew.

But it took him another moment to smirk back. It was like his face had to adjust slightly--to match a feeling it didn’t know how to express--before it settled back into old habits.

Geoffrey could understand that.

Darren gave Ellen the note later--backstage, in the hallway, where Geoffrey couldn’t hear.

“There’s a moment in Geoffrey’s As You Like It,” he began. Then he told her about the way Celia moved for Rosalind’s hand, the way hers had moved for Hermione’s. And then he said something he didn’t want to say.

“There’s magic, yes, but Hermione comes to life because you love her,” he said bluntly. “It’s not a spell--it’s real.”

Ellen nodded.

* * *

There was some drama with Anna and a board member--neither Geoffrey nor Darren particularly cared about the business side of things, especially not since Anna had worked her coup d'etat on Richard, so neither paused to listen to the explanation--but the long and the short of it was that Darren’s The Winter’s Tale was set to open without previews.

He’d yelled for a while at Anna and then she’d locked him in a closet for a couple of hours until he promised not to blame her for things she had no control over. Then he’d told Geoffrey and he’d spun it--Geoffrey had known the spin for what it was but it didn’t matter, it was a valid point--so that Geoffrey ended up locked in the Green Room and was forced to make a similar promise.

So opening night was the first time Darren’s production saw an audience and an audience saw it.

Perhaps they should have predicted this would end badly. Everything always did in the theatre, after all.

* * *

Geoffrey sat in the second balcony because he didn’t want anyone to see how rapt he got. He recognized this was a losing battle--Oliver had told him as much. But still. Pride. A man must have his pride.

“You’re ridiculous,” Oliver had told him at the coat check.

You’re ridiculous,” Geoffrey hissed back. It earned him a confused stare from the coat check attendant. “Not you. Obviously.” He turned his back on the increasingly puzzled attendant and went to find his seat.

The production was beautiful. Even Geoffrey had to admire the spellwork, especially with the bear.

And then it all went pear-shaped in the last scene.

When Paulina reached toward the statue’s hand--the moment flesh touched stone--

--something went wrong.

Geoffrey had the distinct impression that the world folded inwards, collapsing on him with a gentle creak.

“Oh, shi--” he began to say but then everything went black.

* * *

“Haven’t I always said?” he demanded when the universe realigned itself. He hadn’t even opened his eyes yet, but he’d never been a man who needed an audience for his monologues. “Haven’t I always said? Theatre has too much magic already, it’s dangerous--I always said--didn’t I always say?”

“Yes, yes, god, you’re the cleverest girl at the ball,” Darren said from somewhere underneath him. “Now, could you get off of me?”

Geoffrey opened his eyes.

And, yes, he seemed to have fallen on top of Darren. He sat up. Darren groaned.

“That was my lung you just sat on,” he said, elbowing Geoffrey in the thigh.

“Sorry,” said Geoffrey and he shifted to the right slightly.

Darren sat up next to him.

“Oh god,” he said.

“Oh shit,” Geoffrey agreed.

They were looking at younger versions of themselves splayed across the sidewalk in front of them, each holding a fencing sword limply in one hand. And this was definitely their campus--their undergrad campus, and this was definitely not the present.

“It’s the duel,” Darren breathed. “We’ve gone back in time to the duel.”

“Huh. No wonder I’ve never been able to remember who won this duel,” Geoffrey said.

“You told everyone you remembered it,” Darren said sharply, his tone and eyebrow in parallel accusation. “I think you wrote an op-ed about it.”

“Yes, well,” Geoffrey said. “I lied.”

Darren sighed. “Me too.”

“But, more importantly, I was absolutely right--your production accidentally sent us back in time because--”

“It’s dangerous to use magic in the theatre,” Darren recited in a singsong. “Second verse, same as the first.”

“I’m just saying: I was right all along,” Geoffrey said sullenly.

“Stop rubbing it in,” Darren said.

They both looked at their unconscious younger selves. Both were skinnier. That much they had in common at least.

“I lost that vest in Budapest,” Darren said sadly.

“It has fringe,” Geoffrey said, trying to politely convey the utter absurdity of mourning its loss. “And it’s mauve.”

“I miss that vest,” said Darren, ignoring him.

“Forget about the damn vest,” said Geoffrey. “How do we get back to the present?”

“We can’t re-create the performance, we’re missing all the key components,” Darren said. “And we can’t risk meeting ourselves, right?”

“Probably not,” said Geoffrey.. “It would probably screw with continuity.”

“Yeah,” said Darren.

“So we should probably...” Geoffrey trailed off. Nothing sprang to mind.

“I have no idea,” Darren agreed.

They watched their unconscious other selves again. Then Geoffrey had an idea.

“OK,” Geoffrey said suddenly. “If this is right in the middle of our wizard’s duel, then there should be a lot of ambient magic, right?”

“...yes?” Darren agreed. “I don’t see where you’re going with this.”

“I think we can recreate the circumstances of the performance,” Geoffrey said. The thrill of trying something new temporarily drowned out all the other considerations. “In place of the magical aura created by the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief, we’ll use the ambient magic from the duel!”

“To do what?” Darren asked. He obviously had not double majored in Magic when they were undergrads. If they’d had to time, Geoffrey would definitely have paused to point this out....and maybe point and laugh while he was at it.

“We need to produce a moment of theatre that is completely emotionally authentic and magical,” Geoffrey said, jumping to his feet. He held a hand out to Darren and pulled him up. “Best of both worlds.”

“You went insane the last time you tried to act,” Darren pointed out.

“That was unrelated. I keep saying it, no one listens.”

“Are you going to go insane again?”

Geoffrey glared.

“It’s a valid concen!” Darren protested.

Geoffrey sighed. “It’s always a possibility,” he admitted. “Let’s just say this: it’s no more likely that I’ll go insane again.”

Darren shrugged. “I think I should be Paulina,” he said, switching topics suddenly.

Geoffrey blinked. “Why?”

Darren shrugged again. Geoffrey was pretty fluent in the variety of scoffing gestures Darren had in his arsenal after a couple dozen years of being the target of them so he recognized this shrug as something a little more nuanced than the last one.

“It has to be emotionally authentic,” he warned.

Darren glared. “I did understand what you said the first time you said it. I do speak English.”

“It’s just--” Geoffrey said. He scratched the back of his neck awkwardly. “You have to actually....you know. Love. Um. Me.”

Darren rolled his eyes. “You cannot be this dense,” he said. “That won’t be a problem.

Geoffrey blinked in surprise.

“....what?” he asked stupidly.

Darren waved a hand dismissively. “It’s why it makes sense this way. You just stay very still and think about how much you miss Ellen, that should get you to Hermione’s headspace about Leontes. Or. Well. Close enough.”

“What.” Geoffrey was repeating himself, he knew that. The question needed repeating.

“Oh, shut up,” Darren said.

“What? No,” Geoffrey said and it was only about 85% pure instinct that made him disagree with Darren on principle.

“It’s not a pop quiz, Geoffrey,” Darren said, folding his arms. “Just lie back and think of Shakespeare. I can get us out of this in a flash.”

Darren manhandled Geoffrey into position, and slapped his hand when he tried to protest. Then Darren closed his eyes and muttered the spell, the one he’d used on Meg to freeze her in stone.

The sensation wasn’t....bad. It wasn’t what Geoffrey had expected--though to give him credit for expecting to be turned into stone for a theatrical exercise in an attempt to time travel would be giving him more credit than he deserved. But if he had given it a thought, he wouldn’t have imagined being turned to stone being quite like this.

It felt unexpectedly like--well, it felt like what it had felt like to come back to himself, long ago. When he’d been stretched thin, stretched painfully across the entire world, for years, until he was mad with it. Only something as rigid as this could stitch him back together. It felt like what learning to be sane--or, rather, what learning to look sane--had felt like. It felt like...not feeling.

It clarified things.

It meant he could focus on Darren slowly, carefully, the way he couldn’t get himself to focus on anything but Shakespeare usually. It meant he had all the time in the world to...wait. To think.

But Darren was speaking, shouldn’t Geoffrey be listening?

“Music! Awake her!” Darren recited. The music--the fairy orchestra, the oboe, the skittering violin--all started up again. Geoffrey had loved the music before in the rehearsal, and now....now it curled his stone toes.

“Come; I’ll fill your grave up,” Darren said. “Stir; nay, come away.”

Come; I’ll fill your grave up.

The line repeated itself in Geoffrey’s head--why had he not noticed it before? Would Paulina--was she offering a trade or--can a death be traded for--can a grave be filled without a death? Would Paulina--would Darren--would anyone for anyone else--

And there was the moment--the brush of Darren’s hand on Geoffrey’s stone one.

And there was the thing Geoffrey had always called “going mad;” there it was again. There was that feeling of being stretched so far, that breaking was easier than keeping himself together--

--but it wasn’t that, either.

He blinked, the clouds of stone dust fluttering away from his eyelashes.

And he was back in the theatre, back in his seat, back in the present.

God, was it really that simple after all?

* * *

Somewhere much earlier, Darren woke up before Geoffrey. They both still had their swords--useless, really, for a duel with spells, but they both had a theatrical streak a mile wide, didn’t they?

He propped himself up on his elbows and looked over at Geoffrey.

He thought: “What an annoying little shit.”

And then he smiled.