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The thing he hates most of all the things in the world, Geoffrey has decided, or at least most of all the things in the immediate vicinity, given that the former has become the latter as he hasn't seen the sun in a while, nor the sky, nor the former of those entering stage left in the latter, but anyway, the thing he hates most of all about the things in the immediate space of his life is-

"Good morning!" trills a voice near at hand, and completely derails his train of thought. Dreadfully clichéd metaphor, he decides, and then wonders when his interior monologue started sounding so much like Darren Nichols, and then Darren's voice says, dripping with honey, you're crazy, Geoffrey my darling, and he pulls the covers over his head.

It's not even respectably dark under there. And it itches. The thing he hates, he thinks, with accompanying deep breath, most of all, more than translucent sheets that itch and more than non-recreational, really not-fun-at-all drugs and more than Darren Nichols, is the feathers.

There. He smiles to himself in the dim, smashed-glass light under the sheets, which he might as well be naked underneath, and although he is, after all, an actor, and one who's been screwing Ellen Fanshaw for months and thus ought to be used to nudity in public places, this is totally, utterly, not the same kind of thing at all.

He is naked and drugged up the eyeballs and it's not even fun. There is something rotten in this state of mind. All actors are exhibitionists, really, but he's sure he'd rather curl up with limbs strategically arranged and sheets swirled delicately and suggestively in and about. None of this cold, so cold, painfully cold reality where being exposed to an audience is just embarrassing and really fucking cold.

And he is covered with feathers. With no clothes to stick to, he thinks morosely, they shouldn't still be there. Someone ought to get rid of them. But once he throttled the fucking swan – its neck broke with a reassuring crack, he remembers; the same sort of crack Yorick's mandible would make if you bent it right back – he hasn't been able to shake them. Spitting, he takes one out of his mouth and attempts to go back to sleep. This, at least, is an advantage to a place where white surfaces reflect back all light; he doesn't sleep well in pitch blackness, it gives him the shivers. The house lights are warming. Sleep. Yes.

Unfortunately, the cheery voice wishing him a delightful morning in the asylum is a white-clad nurse with a syringe. The sleep is somewhat deeper than anticipated.

*

Geoffrey adores the psychiatrist assigned to him with a deep and endless wellspring of adoration. The man could be Hamlet, incandescent with glory, redefining Geoffrey's definitive, he could be Prospero holding back his own storm, and when he grew old he would be Lear, steady psychological sanity inverted at last, a lonely man in the rain but still shouting his greatness to the heavens.

Or so Geoffrey thinks, until the psychiatrist says, in oily, quiet fashion, "That's really quite ironic, isn't it. Its happening when you were playing Hamlet. Your… event, I mean."

It dawns on Geoffrey then, the realisation. "It's not an act, is it," he says flatly. "It's not an act."

"What's not?" the psychiatrist inquires.

"You actually are this much of a prick."

The psychiatrist merely sniffs. It's disappointing, but it's still a revelation in itself, so Geoffrey tells the next person who comes in, "My psychiatrist is the world's biggest prick and he has the world's smallest penis, isn't that ironic?" and then he opens his eyes and realises it's Darren and clearly all that's now required is the brimstone and pitchforks.

"Visiting hours, bothering the patients, save me from the babbling of idiots!" Darren sweeps in and settles, momentarily, into a chair, before flouncing to his feet and beginning to pace. His hands move in expansive gestures and he's starting to disturb the cloud of feathers on the floor. "Oh, how gloriously, romantically trite you are, Geoffrey."

Geoffrey frowns, much as he did in first grade at the introduction of the multiplication table. It's not an expression he's used much since, either as human being or actor, but it seems appropriate. He's confused.

"The theatre is madness," Darren goes on, not pacing in a straight line but in a large, irregular ellipse. "I myself learned this at the tender age of twelve, when I attempted to carve the soliloquy on my wrist with a razor blade. You know which soliloquy. Oh, you may laugh." He twirls around on one heel, fixing Geoffrey with a dramatic stare. Geoffrey blinks. "You may crack a wry and knowing smile. But I was young, and out of the mouths of babes, truth.

"And, of course, the mouths of madmen. I could read for all the years of my life and not see what you have seen, you and your amateur stumblings through the valley of the shadow. I come to learn, Geoffrey. To know of the abyss from one who has plumbed its icy depths. To have you look into me."

There is a long, long pause, and Geoffrey has been realising, lately, that he's learned to see the movement of time even in the blank white and stillness. He sees it in the dust motes, hears it at night in the creaks of the building. The pause is so long that he can perceive, dimly, how the light through the window slips down the wall, even though he hasn't seen the sun.

Darren stands with one hand up in entreaty, lines of energy crackling in aura around him. "Geoffrey?"

Geoffrey thinks about it. "Are you a personification of my interior monologue?" he asks after a while.

Darren is visibly moved. "Yes," he says gently, emotionally. "Yes."

This conversation is taking longer than he thinks it is, Geoffrey thinks. He's losing the time of his life.

Darren says, "I'm going to Europe. Hopefully I shall never return. You..." He's faltering; he stops, looks around the room and fixes on Geoffrey, curled around a pillow. He smiles. "You, Geoffrey. Just you. Goodbye."

He sweeps out of the room as magnificently and fragrantly as he entered. Geoffrey shifts so his hands are in front of him. He holds them together, interlaced, a grid of multiplication signs, and frowns. And, seeing movement from by the door, gives the psychiatrist the finger.

"Geoffrey, this is an uncooperative attitude," says the man, pen tapping on clipboard.

Geoffrey nods, slowly. "Yes, it is, isn't it?" he says, wonderingly. "It really is!"

Inexplicably delighted, he goes back to sleep.

*

This time, the visitor arrives unannounced. "Geoffrey, there's no need to be frightened."

"No!" Geoffrey yells, hugging his knees. After a second, he starts rocking back and forth. "No. No, I am sitting here shouting at thin air. I do not want this. Please let this not be happening to me."

"Geoffrey." The man at his bedside reaches out and tries to take his hand. "You know who I am. Haven't you spend your entire life in bed with me, metaphorically speaking?"

"You have" – Geoffrey lifts his head and stops rocking long enough to muster up his most withering scorn – "a Canadian accent. You have a full head of hair!" His voice cracks, but he feels that this is perfectly justified in the circumstances. "Fuck. Oh, fuck."

"Exactly! If you were merely hallucinating me, you'd have given me a silly voice and made me look like that dreadful portrait, which, by the way, isn't even of me. Bloody historians."

"I think I'm going to cry." He doesn't, but he's getting close. "I've fucked people around in the past! But mostly myself! I'm an essentially decent human being! I don't deserve this! I don't deserve to be sitting in a psychiatric institution hallucinating William Shakespeare in a stupid hat!"

Shakespeare takes it off, frowning. "What's wrong with it?"

"What's wrong with it?" Geoffrey demands. "It looks like the bastard offspring of a Christmas tree and an explosion in a bobble factory."

"You certainly have a way with words" is the mild reply. Geoffrey sighs deeply and stares at his own feet for a while. When he looks up, Shakespeare is still smiling beatifically back. "It's very simple," he says. "Your mind is so tattered, so close to the edge of reality, that you're able to commune with the dead."

"Why?" Geoffrey cries, too loudly, and a curiously level-headed inner voice points out that there are orderlies in the corridor waiting for an excuse to put him in restraints. This may, he points right back out at it, be a drug-induced dream, and not be happening at all. Maybe not, it says. It still sounds like Darren. Maybe not, and these are not the kind of restraints that are fun.

He's getting a headache. "For the love of all that has ever been holy," he says, quietly, "why is this happening to me? Am I-"

"No, it isn't a dream," Shakespeare tells him. "You knew the risks when you started out on this path."

"What path?" Geoffrey snaps.

"You chose to spend your life dissolving yourself into other people." Shakespeare leans back into his plastic chair. "The people you become aren't even real. And you give everything of your one real self, everything. Body, mind and soul. You've given it, and left nothing behind, and that's why you've ended up here. And unless you reclaim yourself from the text, here is where you'll stay."

Geoffrey merely stares at him. "And you're here, telling me this, because…"

"Because I am an old fool and fond of you, and less than fond of such places as this."

"That's better," Geoffrey says, smiling. "That's more like the right Shakespearean syntax."

"Dude."

"Your semantics, though" – Geoffrey's headache is getting worse – "leave something to be desired."

"Never forget, my sweet, that I was an actor first." Shakespeare gets up, grinning, and sits on the edge of the bed. He reaches onto the floor and picks up one of the largest feathers, waving it so the barbs ruffle in the breeze. "Such lofty beauty in your madness," he says thoughtfully. "Had you committed such a crime in England, the monarch would have seen you brought before her for killing what was rightly hers."

"I killed a swan," Geoffrey says resignedly. "That's all."

"Why?"

"It felt good."

"And it is in pursuit of feeling that good men go mad." Shakespeare stands up again, and twirls. "Remember."

He disappears, just as approaching footsteps become ominously audible. Geoffrey briefly considers telling whomever it is that's coming that there's nothing to worry about, he was just being psychoanalysed by Shakespeare, and then he laughs. And then he stops laughing and wants to cry again.

If he never steps on a stage again, all the rest of his life will be the intermission. How does that work with the seven ages of man, he wants to know; how can he be the lover, sighing with furnace, for the rest of his life? He wants to ask Shakespeare – but Shakespeare's gone, has been dead for four hundred years, and now he actually is crying, but quietly, softly, nothing but an overflow of salt water. There is no drama here.

*

Geoffrey dreams of Ellen. In the dreams she's always Juliet, or Hermione, or Miranda: women who lived a long time ago in another place, women who need to be teased and chased through eight weeks of rehearsal, cornered before they slip, wraith-like, through the gaps between the lines of text. Not like she, herself, a woman who's late every day and smokes in the freezing air, so he tastes nicotine, cold, as they run through the frozen streets.

He remembers her as Titania, the fairy queen who becomes strangely and foolishly human only in her folly. Love is idiocy, love is madness, love is a red thread through Geoffrey's life, done in a tapestry of high passions because this is drama: for it to be real, it must be shouted. But from this point on, he fits the mould, a madman immersed in madness, and he knows how the story would go. Ellen, too, thrives on high drama, flounces and struts her hour upon the stage. For him she'd come at night, unseen and unknown, slip into this room through the locked door, conjured whole from the lines of text.

She would throw off her shoes, happy, and get into bed with him, careless and intimate with his mind and his skin. She'd draw the night in around them, and he wouldn't understand, still, but he wouldn't need to; in the dream there are no feathers, just layers of words and cotton, and he smiles. In the dark, he remembers suddenly, is when you move the furniture.

He has the dreams more than once, lucidly and with clear gloss on every detail. One night he wakes up within it, it's vivid: she's there. Just like that, sitting in a chair with fingertips together and eyes steady on him.

He wants to say, I love you. It comes out as "My inner monologue went to Europe."

She says, "Hush."

He wakes up with a start, and the psychiatrist shakes his head and says it's time to change Geoffrey's current regimen of medication, because it clearly isn't working. Geoffrey can hear him, as if from a great distance, but there are shadows, now, at the edge of his vision, black and soft as if made of text, densely packed and made solid and curling into fading italics at the edges, and he can't see, and there are voices beyond, coming up from the depths by the floor lights, and they're meant to be quiet, they should be quiet, but there's a gaping grave and a safe space down in the dark below the world that he just can't hold off any more. She comes in a circle, through dreams and out of them. Ouroboros, he thinks. Round and around. Shakespeare died on the day he was born.

"Geoffrey," calls a voice, so far away it could be reaching him from the stars. "Geoffrey?"

The ghost. The ghost, white as the sheets pressed into his eyes, smeared against his lashes. The ghosts of the past, and the future he's lost, and if he could, he'd get out of this place and run towards the horizon, the great open spaces where everything is big, painted on a huge canvas of sun and stars and universe, larger than the backdrop, larger than what he can contain in the box of a theatre, larger than the lonely human soliloquy still – still, even now – strutting on the stage, fretting, kicking tiny white feathers into the audience. Even here, where he's curled up in the dark, nasty little shadows are unwinding themselves, becoming trails of exclamation points and accusations, pointed, barbed and sharp, and stark against a background of bright, floodlit white.

"It's all right," comes the voice, falling like drizzle into the hugeness of space, inevitable in its insignificance. "You're okay. We'll get you through this."

It's not her voice. It never was. Upside down under a snowdrift of sheets, Geoffrey thinks that if someone doesn't get him out of here soon, he'll go mad.

*

It's all quiet now. Geoffrey is awake, lying so still that the feathers have settled in a layer of white tracing the lines of his body, soft down against his skin. They don't shift with his breathing.

Oliver enters quietly, without fanfare. He walks down the side of the room, looking at the sun reflecting on the gloss paint on the wall before he looks down, and when he looks, he reacts. The pause has no dramatic value, no scope for interpretation – it's just human. "Geoffrey," he says, "Geoffrey, my darling, what have they done to you?"

Geoffrey notes, silently, that he looks tired, and that he doesn't notice the feathers slipping to the floor in slow, lazy whirls. Oliver sits down on the edge of the bed and Geoffrey doesn't move. The silence is complete, with no audience lurking, expectant, beneath it. The theatre after dark, Geoffrey thinks, in a long, slow meander of thought, is like this: quiet and waiting, but for something that won't come now, not now while scrap paper and dust are swept, in long, slow strokes, away.

The image is so vivid behind his eyelids that he's surprised to be back, again, in this white room, with Oliver fading into it like a ghost.

"Ellen didn't want to come," Oliver says. His voice is almost a whisper. "I had to come. I had to know..."

What Oliver needs to know, Geoffrey thinks, is beyond his power to tell. He can only lie here, surrounded by the debris of a killing, and breathe, in and out and in and out, washed up by the passions of the storm.

"I don't think you're going to tell me," Oliver says. "You always were a contrary little bitch. Although" – and there's a weakness there, a hesitancy – "it's not like... I mean, I can't quite feel you, here."

Geoffrey has the same problem. He wonders if Hamlet could ground himself in his own body, ride the waves of indecision with body and soul united, or whether it felt like this, disembodied and disconnected until the spilling of the blood. The red would signal danger, but also safety – that a slash of each vein would bring forth the same response from his body, at whatever turn of the tragedy.

Oliver says, "I don't know if this – leaving you here – is the right thing to do."

There's no response to make, and Oliver knows that too. Geoffrey's eyes close again. As though from a great distance, he feels the warmth of another human cutting through the insulating layers of cold. Oliver's hands tangle through his hair, brief, gentle, and Geoffrey is being held and kissed, a taste of wistfulness left in his mouth. It's like the theatre, like the passion of real life drawn into a closed, staged space, distilled. It has reality of a different kind.

"Goodnight, sweet prince." Oliver lets him go, lays him down with his eyes open, black, staring at the ceiling. "And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."

He leaves as quietly as he came, always behind the scenes with his silent steps. Geoffrey lies still, wrapped in down and close, antiseptic air, and he watches the way a single feather jerks towards the ceiling with each breath he takes, white upon white upon white.