Theater is, at its roots, some very brave people mutually consenting to a make-believe world, with nothing but language to rest on.
– Sarah Ruhl
It began on a grey afternoon in November, a windy and cold day that heralded a long line of windy and cold days to come. Trash skittered across the sidewalk in short-lived whirlwinds, eddying up against towering monoliths of concrete and brick before dying out again even in the nicest, best-kept parts of Midtown. People hurried by, swept along like the refuse and the wet leaves, noses buried in coat collars and scarves, and Quentin Coldwater was late for a meeting.
The lateness was not entirely his fault. He had caught the crosstown train on time, and even thought he might be early, but there had been trouble on the tracks––par for the course, really, and even to be expected given his luck––and when finally he emerged from the damp, dim tunnels of the New York metro system it had been to a dribbling, freezing precipitation that couldn’t quite commit to rain and wasn’t content to merely mist. It had promptly settled in his hair, and his coat and scarf and bag as well, a glimmering shell of water that reminded him what a miserable affair this all was, and how much happier he might be once it was over.
Though, happier was something of a relative term where Quentin Coldwater was concerned.
The building number was 763, which he discovered to be a glass door set in a frame that might have once been gold but was now more of a faded copper. It was sandwiched between a locksmith and a narrow, green-trimmed Greek restaurant, the number etched above the lintel. He double his phone for both the directions and the time, which now read ten minutes past the hour. Shit.
Struggling inside, he found himself at the mouth of a long, dim hallway tiled in grubby linoleum; the wallpaper was out of a different century altogether, printed with a pattern that made him think of dark forests, all overbearing branches that served only to make the narrow hallway feel even tighter. He pressed forward towards the light at the end of the hall––which was a somewhat morbid thought for that November afternoon––and stumbled suddenly into a wide, empty lobby.
He blinked in the glare of the stark lighting and the sudden warmth, which set the near-frozen water embedded in every inch of his clothes to dripping unpleasantly on the shining floor, puddling beneath his shoes and then seeping into the leather. He quickly stepped aside, water spreading behind him, and looked around hopelessly. The dimensions of the room were oddly large given how narrow the building had appeared from the outside, and he had the wild notion that it couldn’t possibly fit in here, and in the moment it took to reorient himself he almost missed the stranger.
The room, it turned out, was not quite empty after all.
He was tall, and narrow, and leaned easily against the counter of a reception desk, which was otherwise abandoned. He held a clipboard loosely in one hand and a pen in the other, held up against his lips not unlike one might hold a cigarette. He wore a vest and a tie and an expression of mild disdain, as though he had already come to a decision about the whole affair and found it taxing, and pointless, and was seeing it through only out of a distant sense of social obligation.
He was also, with his curling dark hair and dark eyes––and, yes, the disdain too––incredibly handsome. This seemed to be in line with the sort of luck Quentin was having today, which one might generally term unfortunate. Quentin preferred bad . The man raised an eyebrow at him. Quentin hastily looked away.
“I’m looking for, uh,” he said intelligently, fumbling for his phone again. It was still in his hand, screen speckled with water. He smeared it unhelpfully on the cuff of his coat and pulled up the email. “Henry Fogg?”
The man looked him up and down––quite clearly considering him and drawing his conclusions, all tucked away under that same expression of mild disdain––and checked his clipboard. “Quentin Coldwater?”
“Hi, um,” Quentin said, one hand closing and opening around the strap of his bag. (It was wet too, and he had nothing dry to wipe his palm on.) “Yes?”
“I’m Eliot.” He held out a hand, which Quentin shook on autopilot, and the man––Eliot––only briefly raised an eyebrow at the dampness. He patted himself dry on the front of his vest. “You’re late.”
“Yeah, I know, sorry, there was a, um––” But Eliot had already begun to move, all rolling grace as turned back towards the elevator, so Quentin closed his mouth and stuffed his phone in his pocket and followed after like a dutiful hound, and only once wondered if he ought to complete the image by shaking the excess water out of his hair and coat.
He didn’t, but it was a near thing.
They passed the elevator ride up in a nearly unbearable silence, Eliot openly staring at him, Quentin trying to decide if the damp of his palms was sweat or rain.
Sweat, most likely. He blotted them unsubtly against his pants. As they were also damp, it didn’t do much good.
He checked his reflection in the shiny elevator door and winced. Bedraggled would have described him rather well at that particular moment in time. Miserable would not have been far off the mark either. Wet rat seemed to encompass it all with a brisk efficiency that made his mouth twist downwards.
So much for first impressions.
The elevator arrived with a chipper, optimistic ding completely at odds with Quentin’s appraisal of the situation, and the doors slid open on the main offices of Brakebills Theatre Company. Eliot sailed unfettered past a harried-looking receptionist, a jumbled collection of overfull cubicles whose occupants barely noticed as they passed, and a short hallway of glass-windowed offices before depositing him at a door that had Artistic Director etched onto the cloudy glass.
Eliot rapped twice. From inside a deep, flat voice called out, “Enter.”
“Break a leg,” said Eliot, and then he ushered Quentin into the office, pulling the door shut behind him and leaving Quentin to his own devices.
A brief spike of panic curled through him, which he staved off as best he could with a careful observation of the room: dark green walls with wooden accents utterly at odds with the white-and-grey cubicles outside, a heavy-looking desk of dark wood, a liquor cabinet in one corner holding a myriad of half-empty––or half-full, depending on how you cared to look at it––bottles, a bookcase overflowing with books and plays, including an entire shelf dedicated to pasts productions by the Brakebills company itself whose spines Quentin read and recognized with a shivery thrill.
And behind the desk, fingers laced neatly in front of him and eyes boring into Quentin, sat Henry Fogg himself: legendary artistic director; man of mystery, terror, and power.
And drink, apparently. A health serving of something amber sat in a glass at his elbow. Quentin swallowed once, tightly, and held out a hand.
“Hi,” he said. “Quentin Coldwater. Sorry I’m late.”
“Are you?” asked Fogg without inflection. He ignored Quentin’s hand, and Quentin retracted it with a wince.
“Um,” he said. Fogg nodded once at the chair across the desk, a clear invitation. Quentin sat.
“My associates tell me you’re quite the promising playwright, Mr. Coldwater.”
“Um, yes. Sir.” He tacked it on thoughtlessly, and then immediately wished he hadn’t. Fogg’s expression barely twitched.
“Tell me: why the hell should we consider you for the residency position?”
Quentin blinked at him. “I’m sorry?”
“What is it about––” He skimmed over his notes, frowned, and continued, “––your body of work that makes any of it worth producing?”
Quentin opened his mouth, and closed it sharply, and opened it again. “It’s–– I’m not sure what you–– My agent should have, um, spoken with you?”
“He did, yes.”
“And I–– Sorry, I thought this was a, um, meeting of introduction?” A courtesy meeting, his agent had called it. The whole thing practically in the bag. He just needed to shake the right hands, kiss the right ass, drop off the newest script, and Bob’s your uncle.
Though, judging by Henry Fogg’s face Bob was definitely not his uncle and “in the bag” had been a gross overstatement. If he’d know it was going to be an interrogation he’d have prepared better. Or, like, at all.
Fogg was still staring at him, inscrutable. “It is,” he agreed.
“And you were interested in having me on for the season?” Quentin pushed. Clarified. One or the other. Maybe both. Henry Fogg’s head tilted a little, like he was considering a problem.
“Are you interested in working with us for the season?”
He was having an out of body experience, he decided. Or a bad dream. It was like one of those stress nightmares; he’d look down and realize he wasn’t wearing any pants and the panic would wake him up, and realize he hadn’t even had this meeting at all, and that would be that.
“Yes,” he answered, a little snappish. “Of course. That’s why I’m here.”
“Good. So–– Why should we accept you?”
Quentin stared at him, mouth opening slightly. He swallowed down his first response––a hearty what the fuck is your problem––and closed his lips around a you tell me.
The third option ended up being not much better.
“You need it.”
Fogg leaned forward, just a little. “Do we?”
Quentin grit his teeth. In for a penny, and all that. “Yes.”
He had the sense he was being tested, only no one had bothered to tell him what the material was, or how he was being graded. He considered Fogg for a moment, who considered him right back. His face betrayed not a hint of emotion.
Well. Fine. Quentin could take a test as well as anybody.
“Your workshop model is outdated. You haven’t produced anything new since the company of Third Year walked out of your residency program two years ago. Without something to contribute you’ll be run out by younger and bolder production houses.”
This was a passable answer, apparently, because a flicker of interest passed across Fogg’s face. He looked, for the first time since Quentin had stumbled in, as though he might be willing to engage in a conversation. One eyebrow twitched.
“You seem to have a dismal view of our chances. Are you certain you wish to work with us?”
It wasn’t a lie, exactly. He’d have just as happily tried Roundabout, or Cherry Lane. Hell, he could have given up the scene entirely and started shipping bastardized television pilots out to LA. His agent had suggested it often enough. But, still. He wanted to do theatre. He wanted to tell these stories live up on stage.
And this was Brakebills.
Henry Fogg’s expression was a clear invitation to continue. Quentin swallowed.
“I saw Christopher Plover’s Fillory here when I was a kid,” he explained. “I didn’t know anything about theatre, but my dad brought me all the way into the city to see it, and it–– It changed my life.” Had saved his life, really, if one wanted to get technical about it, but there was no need to share that. “It… It opened up a whole new world to me, you know? It put me on the path that brought me here. So–– Yeah. I want to work with you.”
“And you, in turn, are what we need here?”
Quentin snorted. “I have no idea,” he admitted. “But I want to be here, so it seemed worth a shot.”
Fogg stared at him another long, uncomfortable minute, then leaned back in his seat. Quentin wondered, distantly, if he’d said too much, but if he had there was nothing to be done about it now. He’d probably freak out about this in, like, half an hour. At least he’d be out of the building by then, instead of sitting in Henry Fogg’s office.
Fogg steepled his fingers with a small, considerate frown. “Thank you for coming to meet with me, Mr. Coldwater.”
Quentin wet his lips carefully. “You’re welcome.”
“I understand you have new material for us today?”
“Good,” said Fogg, setting his hands flat on the desk with a sharp clap. “I’ll read it and get back to you.”
Quentin blinked. The tone in the room had changed, just like that. Fogg offered him the edge of a smile that was almost warm.
“Right,” he said. “Um. Thanks. I’ll just––”
“Eliot will take it.”
“Sure, yeah. Right. Okay. Thank you for your time, Mr, uh. Henry. Thanks, Henry.”
Henry Fogg stared at him a moment, eyes flat and unsettling, smiling the edge of that strange smile, then he nodded once and stood. Quentin stood with him, nearly knocking his chair over in the process. Fogg held a hand out, and Quentin shook it numbly.
“Have a good day, Mr. Coldwater.”
Then it was back out into the office, and down the hall, and into the elevator with disdainful, handsome Eliot. Muzak played quietly, a jazz rendition of a Christmas song that would be out of season for another few weeks at least. Quentin closed his eyes and tried to make sense of anything that had just happened.
He mostly failed.
“He’s like that with everyone,” Eliot said, brisk and almost comforting. Quentin opened his eyes.
Eliot was staring at him. There was something oddly piercing about his gaze, like he was peeling back the layers of Quentin’s mind one by one, which would explain how he knew what Quentin was thinking.
Or, more likely, he’d been in this position before.
“Right,” he said, trying to come up with something to say that wasn’t just a long, convoluted curse .
Eliot’s lips quirked, drawing Quentin’s attention in a way that was enormously distracting. “Don’t take it too personally.”
“Yeah, I’ll do that,” Quentin muttered, not particularly kindly, and Eliot’s mouth went from quirked to something that might even be called a smile, which he wore with a great deal of grace and ease, which was really just, like, unfair when you thought about it.
He was saved the trouble of finding something else on which to fixate by the ding of the elevator. The doors slid back ponderously slow to reveal the bright white lobby and the dim hallway beyond. From the sound of things, it was properly raining now.
They stood like that a moment, just inside the elevator, and then Eliot prompted, “You have new materials for us?”
“Oh, right, shit. Sorry.” He fumbled with his bag, and Eliot stuck a long arm out to hold the doors as Quentin went fishing through paperwork and paperbacks and a small army of pens with various amounts of ink left in them for the string-wrapped envelope tucked between the Chatwins’ Kings and Queens collection and Stoppard’s Arcadia. He peeled off the sticky note Julia had left (a winky face and a heart, thoughtfully stuck on when he hadn’t been paying attention) and passed the whole precious thing over to Eliot, who tucked it under his arm.
“See you around,” said Quentin, closing his bag.
“I hope so,” Eliot returned. Quentin assumed he meant, I hope I get the opportunity to work with you in the future.
Eliot, however, was grinning at him, wide and more than a little predatory, and Quentin understood immediately the other possibility of his statement and flushed.
“Uh,” he said.
“Nice to meet you, Quentin,” Eliot said, and Quentin muttered a harried, “Yep, I, um, you too!”
Then he turned on one heel, marched back through the puddle he had left upon his arrival, and strode out into the stinging November rain before he managed to make a greater fool of himself.
“C’mon, Q,” said Julia Wicker, fingers wrapped around the paper sleeve of her coffee cup. Outside the rain had faded to a stinging mist; inside the cafe was overcrowded and it was hard to hear oneself think, much less speak. Quentin hunched miserably over his drink, hair dripping in his eyes. “It can’t have been that bad.”
“It was,” he assured her. He had been turning the meeting–– test–– interview–– whatever, over in his head, and no matter how he looked at it he couldn’t imagine it as anything besides a disaster. He sighed and shook his head a little––Julia carefully brushed droplets of water off the plastic lid of her cup––and sighed again. “I don’t know what I was expecting.”
“Are they going to take you on?”
“I thought they were.”
“They asked to see my new sample.”
“That’s good then, right?”
“But they were… weird about it. I mean, Fogg––”
“Henry Fogg? You actually met with Henry Fogg?”
“I was late to meet with Henry Fogg.” He raked his wet hair out of his face and shivered as it dripped down the back of his shirt. Julia leaned forward.
“But you met him.”
“And it was weird, okay? He asked me why I thought it was worth producing my work anyways and if I really wanted them to do it, and I said…” You need it , his overclear memory echoed back to him. Quentin winced. “I pretty much told them I was their only option.”
Julia whistled, low and lost amidst the chatter of the cafe. “Damn, Q.”
“I know. I may as well have just shot myself in the foot and gotten it over with.”
“Maybe not. Did he throw you out?”
“He said he’d read the sample.”
“So that’s a good thing.” She stretched forward over the rickety table to bump her knuckles against his shoulder. “You got in the door!”
“I thought I was in already,” Quentin said, grey and gloomy as the weather. “What if I fucked it up? Maybe I should just sell the rights and let someone make a terrible television show out of it. Then they can bastardize the characters all they want and I can live off the royalties for the rest of my life, another sell-out would-be playwright.”
“Hey,” she said, hard and firm. “None of that. We talked about it. You want to do this, yeah? So you’re doing it.”
“If by ‘doing it’ you mean living hand to mouth as a starving artist––”
“Following your dreams, Q.”
Her mouth pressed in around the corners, a wry and flat little smile to indicate she was perfectly aware of how it sounded, thank you very much. Still, she remained unrepentant. Quentin set his elbows on the table and his chin in his hands, ignoring the precarious way in which it wobbled under his unexpected weight. He scrunched up his nose. “Feel like a load of bullshit.”
“But this is the closest you’ve gotten.”
“So, follow through. That’s what you’ve been talking about, right?”
Following through, yeah. Picking a goal and sticking with it. Working towards something he wanted. And he wanted to make this work. He did.
It was just… wanting things was hard, and sometimes it was easier to not want them after all.
It was a gloomy thought, the sort he couldn’t shake. Some of that, he supposed, could be blamed on the rain. His moods always took a turn when bad weather set in. Another point for the hack-LA-writer side of the equation.
“Follow through,” he echoed, listless. “Yeah.”
“Yeah,” she echoed glumly, gently mocking. Quentin rolled his eyes and picked his elbows up off the table. It rocked in the other direction.
“Okay, okay. Yeah, I’m trying.” He took a sip of his coffee, burning his tongue for his troubles. Julia was still watching him with those sharp eyes, a tick between her brows. He offered her the crooked edge of a smile. “Really,” he promised, more than a little chagrined. He sighed and forced himself to shake off some of the gloom. “I don’t know how I’d do this without you.”
“I’m your guardian angel, Coldwater,” she said warmly, reaching across the table to squeeze his hand. “I’m watching out for you.”
“Also, I need you to pet sit. Kady and I have this thing in south France.”
“Research trip. Slash birthday present.”
“I want to go to France,” Quentin groused, and Julia patted his cheek fondly.
“Make this thing happen and maybe they’ll let you go for your own research trip.”
“That’s such a long shot I don’t even know where to start,” Quentin returned, but he leaned forward and did his utmost to pay full attention to Julia’s winding explanation of the convent she was traveling to in the name of historical research for the project she was consulting on, and between the warmth of his drink and buzz of the cafe crowd and Julia’s own excitement, his needling anxiety retreated enough that he could very nearly enjoy himself for the evening.
Else-when and elsewhere––though not too much later, and not too far away among the press of the city––another conversation about the day’s events unfolded.
“You should have seen him, Bambi,” Eliot Waugh was saying, draped across the couch in their cramped glory of a Manhattan apartment. He lay with his feet hanging over the armrest, too long to fit the dimensions of the battered sofa, head propped up on the leg of his oldest and closest friend, smoke curling from the cigarette at his lips. Outside the rain sluiced down, coloring the city even grayer and drabber than usual. Winter was moving in with a vengeance. Eliot took another drag and blew it out slowly, savoring the memory and the smoke. “All dripping and hopeful. The most expressive eyes. I’m sure he’s a tortured soul.”
“Not every writer has to be a tortured soul, El.” Margo Hanson was far less enamored with the turn the conversation had taken than her best friend-slash-roommate, though some of her reticence was for show. This was the manner of their relationship: unconditional support, and unconditional bitching to balance it out. It worked for them, and so neither broached the veneer of it. “Some people just write.”
“But he’s a playwright,” Eliot insisted, as though it meant something more, which in his mind it did. They were a far more tormented breed; they worked in the theatre, after all.
That he––and Margo, if one were counting, which one was currently not––also worked in the theatre had little bearing on the conversation. His job was largely involved with the the funding and producing of theatre and the prestige that came with the financial sphere of influence. That was a different beast entirely than Art, and any subsequent suffering one might experience in pursuing it.
Margo plucked the cigarette from his fingers, took a drag, and made a face. She blew the smoke out in a long, smooth stream, then said, “You deal with writers all the time and never give a shit. You’re always complaining about them. What’s with the new kid?”
Eliot shrugged a careless shoulder and accepted the cigarette back. “He’s cute.”
“Jesus, El, have you even read his stuff?”
“No.” But that was nothing surprising. It was Todd’s job to read submissions, not his. It was a system that had worked well enough these past few years, and would doubtless continue until Eliot managed to find a position assisting a real producer and escaped the grinding monotony of Brakebills Theatre Co. In fact, he’d recently heard Irene McAllister was seeking a new assistant, and had his eyes firmly set on the job.
Not that Henry Fogg didn’t have it in him, but Brakebills’ days were in the past, and Eliot was more than ready to move on. Greener pastures and grander projects shimmered like mirages on the horizon, and Eliot Waugh was poised to snatch them up as soon as he came close enough. Art was all well and good, but it was a dangerous and uncertain business, and he was far too pragmatic to be caught up in it.
Eliot did not have to be watching Margo to know she was rolling her eyes at him. He likewise did not mention the envelope in his bag, which he had left on the table as soon as he’d gotten home and hadn’t bothered to look at since. He’d get to it. Probably. Reading playwright submissions ran counter to his life’s philosophy, but–– Well, curiosity could prove a powerful motivator, and Eliot was unusually curious about Quentin Coldwater.
“I don’t want to see you get your hopes up over nothing,” Margo said in a way that suggested she cared a great deal more than she was letting on. “You’ve said yourself Fogg hasn’t taken up a new resident since the mess with Third Year.”
That curbed his enthusiasm slightly. He sighed and let Margo prod him off her lap, sitting to stretch his legs out across the coffee table.
“True enough, Bambi. But I could at least get his number.”
“So you can seduce him outside of work?”
“Who’s to say I can’t track him down and put a little sparkle in his life. He probably needs it. You really should have seen him.”
“Sure,” Margo drawled, and took the last drag of his cigarette before stubbing it out in the ashtray. “Think you can do the dishes before all that? They’re piling up.”
“They’re not,” he replied for the sake of argument, and weathered her sharp look with the ease of long practice. “Yes, I’ll do them.”
“Thanks.” She kissed his cheek, scooped up her heels, and made a languid retreat to her room, door clicking shut behind her. Eliot spared a moment to stare fondly in her direction––he did truly love her––and rolled up his sleeves to see to the dishes.
His bag, waiting balefully on the kitchen table where he dropped it, drew his attention with all the subtlety of a brick through a window. Up to his elbows in dish soap and now-cold pasta sauce he ignored it as best he could, which was not particularly well. Hedonism and patience rarely went hand in hand, and Eliot prided himself on his carefully-cultivated streak of hedonism.
Well. He would have to look it over sooner or later. Might as well get it over with.
Once the leftovers were cooling in the fridge and the dishes drying on the rack, he scooped up his things and retreated to his own room, tossing the lot of it onto the chair in front of his desk and fishing out the envelope Quentin Coldwater had handed to him among the blushing and the stutter.
He left it on the bedspread as he stepped through the paces of his evening routine, and not until he was washed, dried, well-moisturized, and had a glass of brandy at his elbow––it was all he could find in the apartment, which was itself a tragedy but one that would keep until tomorrow––did he return his attention to the envelope. Coldwater was scrawled across it in thick marker, and it was tied with string, which was a nice touch, Eliot thought. He appreciated time taken for good presentation.
Feet burrowed under the thick comforter on the end of his bed, propped up on a veritable mountain of pillows, he coaxed the play free of its envelope, slightly water-stained at the corners, and thumbed through the pages before settling on the title.
The Magician. Quaint.
The playwright’s information was printed beneath it: Quentin Coldwater, phone number, an address in Brooklyn. Eliot grimaced. Brooklyn.
“Well, Coldwater,” he said, mostly to himself. He reached for his glass and toasted the absent playwright, who had somehow––miraculously, even––struck Henry enough to consider reviving the artist in residency program after the latest disaster. “Let’s see what you have for us.”
He set the title page aside, and the Dramatis Personae, flipping through until he reached––
The back room of a bookstore: steel shelves crammed with overstock books, mismatched furniture, a fridge buzzing in the corner. Outside: rain. Patrons file through an ‘Employees Only’ door to mill around the space. A dreary night. An electric night. The CLERK stands on a chair, gathering the crowd’s attention.
It suggested a cast of six, mostly doubled, and told the story of a man seeking to find––and then, when the finding proved fruitless, build––his own world.
And it was mesmerizing.
Eliot had read plenty of plays in his time. It came with the territory, and his degree. Straight plays, musicals, the classics, some incredibly niche avant garde shit, good theatre and bad theatre; he had consumed it all. It was more than impatience or self-image that had him passing off new scripts to Todd; he had done his time and sworn to himself that there would be no more muddling through the garbage churned out en masse by clamoring would-be artistes. Surely his years of more or less (and mostly less) honest work and study had earned him that.
But this, this was something new. Coldwater’s play unfolded with an earnestness genuinely arresting, and Eliot flipped through page after page of loose paper, drink forgotten, resolutely ignoring the flickering numbers of his bedside clock as he read first in idle curiosity, then in reluctant admiration, then with a furious, consuming desire to know how it ended. He found himself drawing up stagings in his mind’s eye, murmuring lines out loud to the dark of his room, speaking life into the text on the page.
And oh, how it lived. How it ebbed and flowed and rose and fell and breathed. How deeply, helplessly this little play yearned to live.
When he finished, Eliot sat in his bed for a long minute, legs stretched in front of him, hand resting on the stack of papers discarded on his left. His heart hammered strangely in his chest; he felt as though he had just run a great distance, or climbed a steep hill, or been particularly well fucked. His mind was cotton-clouded and electric all at once. The clock at his side blinked at him, a reminder that it was well past midnight and he had work in the morning. The glass at his elbow was nearly full. He drank from it now and coughed as it went down, unexpectedly sharp.
“Well,” he said into the dim of his room, which seemed to him transformed, alien, magic. “Fuck.”
The call came early in the morning. Quentin missed it by virtue of being in the shower when it arrived, where he was singing very badly. Between the hiss of the water and his three note (if one were feeling generous) range––of which he was making as much use as he could, which really wasn’t much––he didn’t hear the phone ring even once, and when he stepped out of the shower he found a voicemail waiting for him.
“Shit,” he said, wrapped in his towel, freezing his ass off in his drafty Brooklyn bedroom. “Motherfucker. Shit.” He fumbled with the phone, wet fingers slipping over the screen, and viciously pressed the play button on the recording, hit speaker, and let the phone fall on the bed.
This was so he would be free to pace anxiously as he listened, which he did now, towel flapping around his knees, wet hair tangled in his face.
“––ling for Quentin Coldwater. Mr. Coldwater, we have reviewed your materials and are pleased to offer you the residency position at Brakebills––”
“Yes!” The message continued, full of details about things he needed to do next, in the way that these sorts of messages tended to go, but he missed all that because he was busy pumping his fist in the air. He lost his hold on the towel mid victory dance and hardly cared. “Fucking yes! Woooo!!”
“Jesus,” said Penny from down the hall. “Could you please shut the fuck uuuuoh Jesus Coldwater what the fuck.”
“Sorry!” yelped Quentin, grabbing for his towel while his roommate made a sharp one-eighty in the doorway, hands slapping over his eyes. Even Penny’s constant stream of cursing could hardly dampen his spirits. A grin split his face. “Sorry, I just, I got it.”
Penny stayed facing the far wall as Quentin adjusted his towel. “Your weird theatre thing?”
“The residency program, yeah, they accepted me, they’ll–– Holy shit, they’re gonna put up my play. Penny my play’s gonna go up at the House.” Like the Chatwin siblings, and Plover before that, he was–– They were going to–– He could hardly believe it. He was on cloud nine. He was was above cloud nine; he was walking through the, the stratosphere or space itself or whatever came afterwards; he was floating amidst the uppermost firmament of the universe known and unknown, and nothing, not even Penny’s sour, scowling complaints, could bring him down.
Penny, in typical Penny fashion, greeted this bombshell with his usual impatience, which he seemed to reserve in great quantities for Quentin. He peeked over his shoulder and then, when nothing offended his delicate sensitivities, said, “Great, fucking woohoo, could you please put some pants on and stop shouting?”
“Yeah, yeah, sorry.”
“Jesus,” Penny muttered for good measure, and he let Quentin close the door on him without further complaint. Quentin paced another thrilled circuit around his room, mind turned to static, and threw himself down on the bed, towel tangling around his legs.
“Holy shit,” he breathed to the cracked and peeling ceiling, deliriously happy. “I got it.”
He lay there nearly breathless with joy, then forced himself up to dress. He listened to the voicemail again as he did, hands shaking around the fly of his pants and buttons of his shirt.
“This is Brakebills’ Theatre Company calling for Quentin Coldwater. Mr. Coldwater, we have reviewed your materials and are pleased to offer you the residency position at Brakebills for the 2016 spring workshop. Please call us back at your earliest convenience to confirm your acceptance. Welcome to Brakebills, Mr. Coldwater.”
He listened to the voicemail–– pleased to offer you the residency position ––one more time as he toweled his hair dry before returning the call. It rang twice, and then a boy on the other end picked up.
“Brakebills Theatre Co, how may I help you?”
“Hi,” said Quentin, fingers of his free hand tapping against the outside of his leg. He was nervous, suddenly, electric with it. His heart beat against his ribcage. “This is, um, Quentin Coldwater, calling back about the––”
“Oh! Yeah, one sec, hang on.” The line fuzzed for a moment, and Quentin paced a narrow strip across his bedroom floor. Something crackled at the other end, and then the voice came again. “I’m patching you through to Eliot he’ll get you set up. Uh, congrats!”
The line crackled again, and hold music played––an all-strings rendition of a song from a musical Quentin knew he knew but couldn’t place––and then Eliot picked up.
“Eliot Waugh,” he said smoothly, and Quentin’s stomach dipped a moment. “How can I help you today?”
Quentin wet his lips. “This is, um, Quentin. Coldwater. We met briefly last week? Um, I’m calling about the residency program? The guy said he was gonna, um, put me through.”
“Ah. That would have been Todd.” It was a little impressive how much derision Eliot managed to instill in that single syllable. “We’re still trying to teach him manners. Sorry about that.”
“No, it’s alright. He said you can, um, help get things set up?”
“That I can. I’ll need your contact information, availability, and which project you’ll be working on. Oh, and you’ll need to confirm your acceptance, of course.”
“I accept,” said Quentin hastily. “I uh. Definitely accept.”
“Glad to hear it,” Eliot returned, and Quentin couldn’t be sure but it sounded like maybe he was smiling at the other end of the line. “Which project will you be choosing?”
“I… get to pick?”
“The residency program includes a six-week workshop followed by a staged production of a project of the writer’s choosing,” Eliot rattled off. “You can select anything that hasn’t been publicly produced yet. It’s your choice.”
“It was in the fine print, most people miss it.”
Quentin frowned blindly at the opposite wall of his room.
“I guess I just figured I’d do the one my agent sent.” As far as his agent––and mother, and the handful of old college professors he’d sent the play to––had been concerned, it was the most mature, and coherent, and thus the obvious choice for production. Less whimsy, more capital-A Art. The sort of thing that made it to Broadway, instead of silently petering out after a two week run somewhere in Brooklyn. Quentin hadn’t seen the point in arguing, because they were, objectively, correct.
Eliot hummed on the other end of the line. Quentin frowned a little more. Had that been the wrong assumption?
“It’s up to you,” Eliot said slowly, in the sort of way that suggested there was something else he wanted to say. Quentin waited for him to get to it, but the line remained silent.
He cautiously prompted: “But?”
Another beat of hesitation. Quentin perched at the edge of his bed, waiting.
“I think you should consider the new one.”
“The… that thing I brought in for the interview?”
“You… read it?”
“I read all Henry’s submissions.”
God. And he’d thought it was the better option? Was his stuff really that bad?
Quentin pulled a face no one was around to see. “It’s not exactly…” He tried to find a delicate way to put it. “It’s not really, uh. Finished.”
“That’s what the workshop is for,” Eliot returned, easy. Dismissive. Quentin’s stomach twisted.
“I mean, you don’t have to pick right now.”
The line was silent another moment. Quentin sought something to say and came up short. Eliot, thankfully, beat him to it.
“You can take the weekend if you want.” He sounded almost gentle. Quentin let out a breath.
“Yeah, okay, that would be–– That would be great actually. I wasn’t expecting to have to, you know. Decide.”
Eliot hummed. “Well, there’s paperwork to sign too, so–– Want to come in Monday? We can do this in person. It’ll probably be easier.”
Quentin winced. “Monday is, um, not great. Would Tuesday work?”
“Tuesday. Sure. Eleven?”
“It’s a date,” said Eliot, and then the line went dead, leaving Quentin to blush horribly in the peace and quiet of his own bedroom, which slowly yielded to a bright, blooming smile, and the sensation that something new had opened in front of him.
It was not, generally speaking, Eliot’s custom to care overly much about what exactly went on at Brakebills. He minded the gossip, of course, and the details Fogg forgot––so, most details, actually––but in terms of the work being produced, he preferred more of a hands-off approach. Less sticking his neck out for others, more taking care of himself.
Which is why it was truly astonishing that he had––he, himself, Eliot Waugh––stuck his neck out so far for the awkward, anxious playwright as to tell Henry that he was the one for the program.
And he’d meant it too. Even his other works––the sample his agent had sent in the first place, and the excerpts on his horribly-organized website––had the same fire behind them. Tamed, somewhat, but there. Something that reached up off the page and grabbed you, made you listen, made you want to believe.
Eliot was well familiar with intoxication, and he found this sensation strangely similar, which was as unsettling as it was electrifying, and it made him nervous, almost, as he waited for Coldwater to arrive on Tuesday morning.
His hair was tied back today, a few errant strands falling in his face, and he brushed them aside as he entered. He looked more sure of himself, less the meek and bedraggled mess he had two weeks ago. It worked incredibly well for him. Eliot cleared his throat.
“Welcome back,” he said. “This should be relatively painless.”
“Oh, good,” Quentin replied, and followed him into the elevator.
Todd, tucked away behind the reception station where he could do the least amount of harm, waved at them when Eliot scooped a file off his desk. Quentin returned it a little awkwardly.
Eliot ignored the whole exchange and headed for the conference room.
The conference room, despite its title, it was not designed to be a conference room, and barely fit the table and chairs crammed inside it. But it was what they had to work with, so as so often happened around Brakebills, they did their best to make it work. Whoever had used it last had doodled a tree with a clock in the middle of the trunk on the whiteboard with a wilting green marker. Quentin smiled when he saw it, which was nice; he had a sweet, dimpling smile. Eliot made himself busy opening the blinds to let in a little light and frowned down at the people scurrying to and fro below. He was not going soft over a smile; he categorically refused. Even if it came with a clearly talented mind behind it.
Get it together, he told himself sternly, then dropped into a seat halfway down the table, kicking his legs up on a free chair, projecting as much ease and indifference as he could muster, which was quite a lot. He gestured for Quentin to join him, which Quentin promptly did.
“Sorry about yesterday,” stuttered the playwright as he situated himself. Eliot rolled out his neck and pulled his phone free from his pocket where it dug uncomfortably into his leg. “I was in New Jersey.”
Eliot looked up at him. “God, why?”
“My dad. His health’s not great, so.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” He meant it, but the words were awkward in his mouth and even more awkward in the air between them, and Quentin seemed to realize that immediately because he cast his eyes around the table.
“Yeah, it’s um. Anyways. You said there was paperwork?”
“Yes.” He buried his relief and reached for the paperwork. “The boring stuff. Henry would do this, usually, but he’s meeting another applicant this morning.”
Quentin’s expression flickered. “Really? Um, how big is the program?”
“Not for the residency,” Eliot assured him. “She applied for the dramaturg position.” He looked at Quentin with a sudden frown. He hadn’t mentioned any consultants in his application, but that was no guarantee there wasn’t anyone else he wanted to bring on. “Unless you have someone in mind?”
“Not... Really? I mean, my friend Julia usually works with me but she’s in France with her girlfriend, so–– I guess I hadn’t thought that far ahead.”
“Well, they say Quinn is one of the best.”
“Quinn–– Alice Quinn?”
Eliot glanced up, curious again. “You know her?”
“Um. A little.” Quentin’s face did something strange and interesting, and Eliot let his attention shift more fully from the paperwork to the man, both eyebrows climbing at the scent of intrigue. “She’s very, um, talented. Definitely one of the best.”
“Hard to work with, I hear,” returned Eliot, testing the waters, and was rewarded with a wince from Quentin. He smirked. Quentin scowled, which was more endearing if anything.
“No more than anyone else,” he said, sounding defensive––of himself or Quinn, Eliot couldn’t tell. Eliot’s smirk deepened, and Quentin pressed valiantly on. “So, how bad’s this paperwork?”
It was an obvious attempt to change subjects, and Eliot kindly let it go. “Most of it’s just formality. And you get a small stipend, so there’s that too.”
“Oh, hey, lucky me,” said Quentin dryly, and then surprised him with a smile. Eliot returned it, almost without meaning to.
“Don’t get too excited. It’s not that much.”
Quentin shrugged. “I work in the theatre. I’ll take what I can get.”
Eliot laughed despite himself and passed Quentin a small stack of papers. “How pragmatic.”
“I do my best.”
Eliot let him dig into the paperwork in silence, except for occasionally pointing out places to sign, date, initial. Quentin worked with his tongue poking out, slight and pink and just the slightest bit tempting.
Eliot considered him. He was cute in an endearing, hapless sort of way, but there was something beneath it too, a fierceness he wouldn’t have expected. Like there was something banked within him, a great light, or hope, or warmth. What’s under all that , Eliot wondered. What more was there beneath the ill-fitting sweaters and the floppy hair? Curiosity prickled at him.
“Is that it?” Quentin asked some minutes later, rolling out his wrist. Eliot shook himself from his thoughts and skimmed through the documents, all of which were in order.
“Almost,” he said, sliding the last form over. “We still need your decision about what you want to workshop and stage.”
Quentin’s face did a funny little thing as he read the paper, and then his eyes darted aside to Eliot.
“Can I ask you something?” He twisted his pen between his fingers idly, as though he didn’t quite realize he was doing it. Eliot cocked an eyebrow in invitation and watched Quentin chew over the question for a moment. “I–– You said you thought I should consider the new one.”
“I did,” he agreed carefully. Quentin faced him more fully, eyes sharp. It felt remarkably like being seen , and Eliot wasn’t sure how he felt about that. Quentin’s chin pushed out a little bit, like a challenge.
Eliot blinked twice, and opened his mouth, and tried to find something to say besides it wants to live. “I... It was good.”
Quentin’s expression flickered, then smoothed over. “Alright,” he said, dubious.
Eliot hesitated, then leaned forward.
“Can I ask you something?” he returned.
“Why apply for the residency at Brakebills?”
Quentin’s mouth twisted, a smile without humor. “Pretty sure I never would have been accepted anywhere else.”
Bullshit, thought Eliot, and paid him the courtesy of dropping the subject. He leaned back in his chair.
And Quentin–– sighed.
Quentin’s mouth opened, and closed again, and then made a long, thin line. Both eyebrows went up, like a shrug, a little helpless, a little challenging. His eyes flicked to the whiteboard and then back to Eliot, and something in Eliot’s chest went hot and tight. He sat up straighter. Waited.
In Quentin’s hand, the pen went tick tick tick against the table and then fell still.
“The work you do here,” he said slowly, carefully, like he was feeling out the edges of the words before he said them. “It’s… magic. It’s just pure magic. It’s not like anywhere else. I mean, you know, there’s always the, the power of live theatre or whatever but Brakebills is–– It’s a whole different world. It’s what made me want to do… all of this in the first place.”
He looked down, as if embarrassed. “Without Brakebills I’d be–– I needed it. It had to be Brakebills.”
Eliot stared at him. He blinked, once, twice, then rapidly, and leaned back again. His heart stuttered hot and strange, and he fought the urge to rub a hand across his chest. Quentin looked up to stare at him again, hard, all banked fire. Eliot had no response. I know you; I understand you, he thought, and couldn’t put the how and why of it into words. He was off-kilter.
He was losing it, Jesus Christ. It took him a moment, but he set aside his teeming thoughts and controlled his expression––God only knew what it had been doing while Quentin had been sitting there with nothing to do but stare at him––and said, careless as anything, “It’s your choice, of course.”
The moment, whatever it had been, shattered like spun glass. Quentin’s face shuttered, and guilt prickled at Eliot for a moment. He shook it away.
“Of course,” echoed Quentin, and he glanced back down at the paper with a frown. For a moment his pen hovered there, then he scribbled down his decision and passed it back to Eliot.
The Magician was penned down in splotchy blank ink, right above his signature and today’s date. Eliot bit back a sharp, strange, self-satisfied joy and tucked it into the folder with the rest of the forms.
“That’s the last of it,” he said lightly. “I’ll file this and then you’re good to go.” He would get Todd to file it, in fact, but that was a quibble.
“Thanks for your help,” Quentin returned. His expression was a little cautious and soft around the edges, and then suddenly it wasn’t, like he’d remembered himself and tucked away whatever he was thinking. Eliot wondered what that had been, and immediately made himself stop.
“A pleasure,” he returned. “We’ll be in touch.”
“Great.” Quentin stood and collected his things. Eliot showed him out of the room, and down the hall, and back to the elevator. The last thing he saw was Quentin’s tentative smile as the doors closed, and then he was left staring at only his reflection.
He turned around and dropped the paperwork on Todd’s desk, loud enough to make him jump.
“File this,” he ordered, and stalked back to his own workstation.