Beneath his head lays several layers of wood. There is the coffin — cramped, irregularity shaped but has since become familiar. Then, the floor, which is made of a different kind of wood, and is in fact supported by a table, too, low to the ground and carrying his body as if he was meant to be picked over and studied as he lingered in the clutches of sleep. The wood, in all the shapes that it takes, is of a fine make, for it scarcely creaks, even as Daniil Dankovsky turns his head and lifts himself up.
It is far more darker than he anticipated. There is no soft light of the outdoor sun peering through his window, and neither is there the glow of a condemnation fire at the street corner illuminating his restless night. There lacks any sort of window, cracked or otherwise, and it is when he lifts himself and feels the stiffness in his shoulders and tastes ashy dust that he realizes that this is the Municipal Theatre.
Daniil turns his head again. There is light, but it is a stage one, and only fills the space in which it is aimed. Here, it is directed upon a particular menace, who is seated on a most uncomfortable looking chair.
"Rise and shine," Mark Immortell chimes, one hand holding a saucer and the other stirring the cup that sits upon it. His spoon looks ornate, with a handsome handle, but it is dull from years — if the years exist at all — of scum and grime. Daniil cannot smell what kind of tea it is; only the dust of an empty theatre. "Did you enjoy yourself?"
"I enjoyed it as much as any man would a day of uncertainty," Daniil replies, less than amused.
"It's hardly my fault that you take your role so seriously. I commend you for it, of course, but what fairness is there in throwing yourself over a blade and then blaming the one who gave you the knife?"
"That's quite the comparison."
"You're quite the character." Mark punctuates his words with a sip.
Daniil looks for the most safe way to climb from his perch — he'd require reaching for Mark's hand to steady himself, and he feels that even through his gloves, his skin would sear right off the bone where he'd clutch Mark's skeletal shape. He sits with his knees drawn in, as if he were assessing his position further. "I disliked it. Are you so beyond the voice of your 'actors' that you’ll ignore my criticism?"
"Not necessarily." Mark sips again. "But what nature is your critique? Is it worth listening to if you do not understand the subject that you partook in?"
"Perhaps I disliked it just because I did. No heavier words, no intricate meanings. I didn't like starting my day in a coffin, only to return that evening and die. With a refusal to elaborate." Daniil wishes he wasn't wrinkling his coattails by sitting on tbem. "Would such criticism infuriate you?"
Mark considers as he perched both elbows on his chair and holds the cup below his chin. "We both know that's not true. That isn't in your nature."
Whatever remains of his nature is stuck inside of his miasmic thoughts, cramped with both words in a script and the natural logic of his own mind. He knows that there exists a world outside of the Theatre — however much it matches what he recalls from the tenth day he relived, he cannot say. Such uncertainty ought to invigorate him — he is a scientist, after all, he is the driving force of curiosity, the very definition of human nature — yet Daniil finds himself frustrated.
"You can keep your chin up," Mark says, leaning back and making the chair creak. Daniil would have figured him weightless, and only appearing solid. "Next time, you'll take a larger stage, and you can have a chance at success."
"That will be difficult to do, for I am not an actor."
"We all start somewhere. What else would you call your most recent failure?" Mark's smile slips into his tone, no matter how he tries to withhold it. "Certainly not your best work."
"I belong in a laboratory. Not a wooden stage and notes not in my own handwriting."
"I do think you'd suit the atmosphere of a theatre," Mark muses, running his fingertip on the rim of his teacup. "The kind wealthy patrons attend in bigger cities. Maybe one day, you can see them."
"Anything to keep me in your immediate vicinity," Daniil says, rolling his eyes. "Even if you and I have conflicting lines of work. We obsess over our own details, and philosophize about life and death; we are too compatible, and therefore, we could never coexist."
"Is that so?"
"For one, I never have time to see plays anymore, I'd never make it to this hypothetical wealthy theatre and its hypothetical extravagant performances."
Mark has a stool that he lays his teacup on, leaning forward and matching Dankovsky's height in the coffin. His knees hurt, extended so straight, but Dankovsky wonders if it even matters, in the grander scheme of whatever exists beyond those theatre doors. With a placid smile, Mark leans a hand on the wood. "Do you think that it is your fate to be in my theatre, which is why you fight every step of the way?"
Fate is a villain — however righteous it may be delivered, it is the antagonist that he has chosen to rebel against, by sheer nature of his own being, or whatever being he can hols on to. Perhaps that is why the written lines on a stack of paper is something he cannot accept. Mark knows him too well for a man that Dankovsky is uncertain if he is at all alive. If he cuts him, will he bleed? Only the living have blood, after all. A bloodless man is immortal, though a body remains non-essential. It is the truth he has accepted outside of these walls — or, perhaps just beyond a curtain — and one that he feels always in the back of his mouth, waiting to crawl up and through his teeth. Manifest as reality and bring together actor and character.
Accepting the possibility of a second self feels like a compromise that Daniil does not want to take. Perhaps he can still speak of its nature without making it true. Mark Immortell can speak about concepts he doesn't believe in, after all.
"Yes," Daniil accepts. "Fate is a force that we all may choose to challenge. Acknowledging its existence and even working within its limits is how one can surpass it. Yet to abide by its rules — such as following the script — and choosing to only exist within those limits is the same as conceding defeat. At least, that is how I choose to face it." He feels himself frown. "And that is how I can stomach your awful writing skills while still refusing to accept I am anything but the man I choose to be."
"Fate and purpose are not the same thing," Mark tuts.
"I never suggested otherwise."
"And for that, I appreciate. Too many viewers of these scenes get caught up in treating someone challenging existence as something absurd that they mistake intent for premeditation."
"Again; your writing is so terrible, I'm hardly surprised."
Daniil finally lifts himself from his coffin, pushing away Mark's hand as an obstruction. He gets to one knee and lifts himself up, running his hands down his legs and coat to quickly brush away both dust and death. He can still feel the sunlight on his skin, beneath his sleeves. Mark seems to stand as well, though he does not hear the creak of the chair this time; perhaps it was his mind playing a trick on him, suggesting the horrifying possibility of a human director. He only acknowledges Mark when he looks over his shoulder, and offers a neutral shrug.
"Visit me for a smoke some time," Mark says, his affable smirk as rotten as his lidded gaze. He leans both hands on his cane, like its a toy to swing. "We can talk once again, with more pretence."
"During the reality that you consider a production?"
"When else? Certainly not when another show is on. That would be rude."
"And you are nothing if not considerate of others."
Daniil chooses not to look at him any further. Mark says his goodbye with a touch against Daniil's elbow, tracing the shape of his limb for a moment, before Daniil departs. It sends an uncomfortable chill through his body, like the brush of death.
"We shall speak again in time," Mark says, like it's a warning. It likely is.