"Well, the good news is he's not pressing charges."
Anakin raised his eyebrows and gave a scornful snort. “You are kidding, right? We’re the ones that should be pressing charges!” He shifted in the uncomfortable leather chair that was facing his agent’s desk.
Aayla gave him a hard stare. "Anakin. You know very well that Ahsoka didn’t want to, and plus, you broke his nose and cracked two of his ribs."
"He broke into her house to try and get photos of her! He got off pretty fucking lightly if you ask me!" There was more aggression in his voice than he had intended to direct towards her, but his recollection of the events of the day before yesterday filled him with fury.
She sighed. "Well, yes, but... be that as it may, it’s not up to you to decide his punishment. That’s why we have a legal system.”
Anakin rolled his eyes and slouched further down in his seat. "Whatever Aayla, he got what was coming to him, and you know it. Ahsoka is barely 19! That fucking perv got what he deserved. I can’t fucking believe he’s not in jail right now.”
"You do realise that would have been much more likely to have happened had you not beaten the shit out of him?"
He scoffed, a decent response evading him, and looked away. When he eventually looked back, Aayla's brown eyes were giving him an imploring stare. “Anakin, you know what the paparazzi can be like –”
"I know exactly what they're like," he interrupted, crossing his arms angrily. "They're poisonous, greedy scumbags and the world would be a much better place if we didn't put up with their bullshit."
Aayla sighed again, rubbing her temples, and closed her eyes. After a moment, she reopened them, and looked at him soberly. "Anakin... look, I know you were trying to protect your friend. And personally, I think she's lucky you were there… she must have been terrified.” She paused and steepled her fingers together in front of her before she continued. “…but, professionally?... Well, this isn't exactly your first violent encounter with the paparazzi. Remember March? Or last October?"
Anakin shrugged, slightly uncomfortable as he thought about what Aayla might be getting at. He looked away with a scowl as he responded. "So? They started it, both times. I just finished it. They're fucking vultures, and I hate them."
“Anakin, it’s not just that. You’re… you’re starting to get a bit of a reputation in the industry.”
He gave her a withering stare. “A reputation for what?”
“For being… difficult to work with. You’re aggressive, you don’t respond well to criticism and you try and solve too many of your problems with intimidation. If I’m being totally honest… look, if you weren’t such a good actor, you’d be damn near unhireable by now.”
Taken aback, he gawped at her. Seriously? Is… is that what people think of me? Aayla can be a pain, but she’s never bullshitted me… “Wow, ok… um… shit. Can’t say I was expecting that… well, ok, so what do we do?”
"You are going to play nothing but nice for at least the next 6 months. No fights, no aggression, no nothing. I don’t want to scare you, but… I’m worried the studio is starting to get a little pissed... it’s just, well - there may have been whispers about finding a different lead for the fourth movie."
Anakin's eyes widened in alarm. "What?! They can't replace me, not three films in! The audiences would never go for it. I'm the best thing about that goddamn franchise!"
"It’s only whispers, at the moment, but… I'm just saying. Another... incident... like this would not be a good idea for you, if you want to keep that job. And I know you're smart enough to realise that recurring lead roles in multimillion-dollar superhero franchises don't tend to come around twice in a career."
She held his gaze sternly with one raised eyebrow until he wavered and looked away.
He made a noise of angry exasperation and stood up from his chair abruptly, stuffing his hands into his pockets. Aayla’s office was on the tenth-floor of a tall building in Downtown LA that seemed to be made entirely of glass. Squinting out of her office window into the blinding Los Angeles sunshine, he huffed and muttered, "I'm so sick of this fucking town."
"This town is necessary for you to be a millionaire." Aayla said shortly.
He spun back around to face her. "So I should put up with fucking shitty people invading my life, my friends’ homes, to exploit us? I should tolerate asshole producers on film sets who know fucking nothing but have an opinion on everything, who treat me like some kind of performing monkey?!”
"Anakin..." Aayla said, her tone severe.
“You know why I’m so aggressive, Aayla? Pretty much everyone in this goddamn city is just out for themselves, they’re only interested in what they can get from you. People say Vegas is a monument to greed, but I think we’ve got a pretty strong fucking contender here.”
She made to interrupt, but he was on a roll. “The reason I’m so fucking aggressive is so people will learn that I’m not gonna take their shit. I wouldn’t take it at 20, when creep after fucking creep waved their filthy money at me, hoping I wanted to be famous so bad I’d do just about anything with them, and I sure as shit won’t take it now, when these dickheads think I give more of a fuck about their piece of shit movie than my own goddamn dignity!”
Aayla was quiet.
"And as for the fucking paparazzi…” he continued, the volume of his voice growing ever louder. “I'm fucking sick of them, Aayla, and I don't see why I should have to play nice when these scumbags just keep getting away with making me feel like an animal in a zoo. I’m a person, and I have a right to privacy! I can't go for a fucking piss in this town without some asshole trying to get a picture of it! It's fucking inhumane that… this… should be the price of just… just trying to make a living out of something I enjoy." Finally running out of steam, he turned away and scowled out into the summer haze.
"You're doing a little bit more than just making a living," Aayla said dryly after a long moment, reigniting his anger.
"Oh, don't you dare fucking twist my words like that, Aayla. You know I don't give a shit about the money,” he spat over his shoulder. He paused, and then continued while staring out at the skyline. “Yeah, sure, I might live in a nice house and have nice things… but you know the last time I was really happy? The last time I was really happy, I was waiting tables at some fancy restaurant in Brentwood, sharing a shitty house in Venice with four other people and scraping by on bit parts in TV shows. Plus, the goddamn tabloids have ruined every relationship I’ve had in the last five years before they even began. It’s bullshit. All the fucking money in the world..." He trailed off, leaning forward and thumping his balled fists against the glass in frustration. He didn’t remember clenching them.
“…all the fucking money in the world, what?” Aayla’s voice from behind him was calm, but he could sense the challenge lying underneath. She had never tolerated physical aggression from him in her presence, and he knew she wasn’t about to start now.
All the fucking money in the world doesn’t mean shit to me if I have to be alone to have it, he thought, but didn’t say. He sighed, and stayed silent.
“I take it you’re finished.”
His shoulders slumped, and he returned to the chair in front of Aayla’s desk, sinking heavily back into it as he rubbed at one eye with the heel of his hand. Pushing his sun-blond hair out of his face, he reluctantly returned his gaze to hers. She looked at him expectantly, her expression stony.
“I’m sorry for… I’m sorry. That was a real dick move. It’s not your fault this industry is the way it is. I just get so angry, Aayla…”
“I know. And your frustrations are more than valid - trust me, Anakin, I know. But… this temper of yours... you have got to get it under control.”
“I know. Sorry. …What do I have to do?” he finally said, flatly.
“Literally, nothing. Keep your head down, stay out of trouble, don’t fucking… punch anyone. You just need to be low-profile and do literally nothing that a tabloid rag would even want to so much as tweet about for the next few months, so I can get some good PR going for you.” She sighed, and he noticed her dark, expressive eyes soften a little. “Look, Anakin… despite your flaws, I really do like having you as my client. You’re a really, really talented actor and I know you have what it takes to go as far as you want in this industry, but you have to toe the line. I know you hate it – I know it can be bullshit. This entire city is built on bullshit!... But beating the shit out of your problems isn’t the answer. It will only cause more grief for you in the long run.”
He was quiet. He knew deep down there was truth to Aayla’s words, but every time he thought about that photographer breaking into Ahsoka’s house, it felt like a blinding red mist was descending upon him.
“It just… it makes me feel so weak, Aayla. I want to protect my friends, I want to keep scum like that away from me and the people I care about – I want my life to belong to me. But… it feels like everyone just wants me to accept it as the… I don’t know, the price of fame, or whatever.”
Aayla gave him a weak smile. “You don’t have to accept it. You just can’t… fight your problems, all the time. I can look into how we can achieve some more privacy for you, make some amendments to your contracts about what is and isn’t acceptable, maybe arrange some restraining orders for any 'repeat offenders', so to speak, but please, Anakin, I’m begging you… no more violence. I’m not about to let you throw everything you’ve worked so hard for away. Alright?”
“Shit, shit!” Ben hissed, only just escaping the métro doors before they slammed shut in their usual ruthless fashion. A little bit too much red wine and the book he was currently reading had conspired together to nearly make him miss his stop. He gave silent thanks that it was summer and he wasn’t wearing his long winter coat, or it might have been much less of a clean exit. He regrouped, and started towards the end of the platform. He wound through the labyrinthine passages of the station, the alcohol creating a pleasant softness in his head that abruptly evaporated once he rounded the corner to see that the elevators were out of service. He swore again, sighed, and headed for the steps that spiralled up towards street level.
Five minutes later, he emerged into the balmy June evening, sweat soaking through his light blue shirt, panting and cursing himself for choosing to live in an apartment near the deepest station in the Paris Métro system. As if in further protest his stomach growled, and he glanced down at his watch, finding it was a little before midnight. Thank fuck for that at least, he thought, and cast a glance up and down the Rue des Abbesses for rogue moped drivers before making a beeline for the brasserie on the corner a little further up the street.
Quinlan, his bartender friend who was currently carrying a tray of drinks to an outside table, saw him coming. “The handsome devil himself! And to what do we owe the honour of your exalted presence?” he exclaimed loudly as he deposited the drinks in front of two bemused tourists, drawing stares from them and the other diners.
Ben rolled his eyes as he approached. “Shut up and feed me.”
Not to be deterred, Quinlan lunged forward to draw Ben into an overly familiar hug purposely designed to make him feel uncomfortable in front of their impromptu audience. Ben shoved him off and Quinlan wrinkled his nose, his light brown eyes twinkling.
“You smell like booze…,” Quinlan smirked, and continued more quietly and conspiratorially, “…And sex. What have you been up to, Kenobi?”
“Nothing in particular.” Ben let a small smile curl at the corner of his mouth.
“Is that so? And did ‘nothing in particular’ have a name?” Quinlan raised an eyebrow at him, and began to retreat towards the bar with his empty tray.
“Feed me, and perhaps I’ll tell you.”
“Isn’t it a little early for you to be coming home already? A little… premature, perhaps?” Quinlan asked with feigned innocence as Ben perched himself on a barstool, tugging the folded paperback out of his back pocket and dropping it unceremoniously onto the bar.
“I can assure you, Quinlan, that there is absolutely nothing premature about me whatsoever,” Ben smirked in response.
Quinlan rolled his eyes, and then noticed the book. He cackled and prodded at it gleefully with one finger. “You took reading material to your hook-up?!”
“Mental exertion is just as important as the physical kind, Quin. Now feed me, will you, I’m starving.”
“Ugh, alright, alright. You’re like a stray dog that keeps coming back for scraps. Hold on.” Quinlan ducked into the kitchen behind the bar and said something to the chef that Ben couldn't make out. When he returned, he was shaking his head at Ben with a smug smile.
"What's that look for?"
Quinlan smirked. "It just occurred to me... that's a new level of detached even for you."
It was Ben's turn to roll his eyes. "Oh, come off it, Quin. Look, if you must know, I was meeting a bookseller friend of mine for drinks in the fifth arrondissement to discuss a signing I'm doing at his shop. He had to run off unexpectedly, but there was a nice young man behind the bar who seemed very keen to make sure I wasn't lonely."
"If that's the case, then why are you back before midnight?" Quinlan asked interrogatively.
"He had to get back to his shift."
"You did it at the bar?!"
"Well, in the store room.” Ben laughed at the look on his friend’s face. “Oh, don't act all scandalised with me, Quin - you've done far worse in your time. I know, because you report back to me every time to brag!"
Quinlan conceded, his look of mock-outrage morphing into a sly grin. "Well, how else am I going to make sure you know what you're missing?"
The chef interrupted by leaning out of the kitchen doorway and idly waggling a basket of fries in their direction. Quinlan retrieved them and brought them back to Ben, who nodded his thanks to the chef then doused them in salt and vinegar and began to gratefully devour them. Through a mouthful, he replied, "I've told you before Quin - I don't shag where I eat."
The dark-skinned man gave him a pretend look of disgust and said, "Nevermind, I've suddenly mysteriously lost my attraction to you. Anyway, you're old news to me now - I've fallen in love with a beautiful chef I met the other day."
Ben raised an eyebrow. "How will I ever recover?" he deadpanned, sucking salt off his fingers. "Tell me more, then."
"She's brunette and stunning and she works in a restaurant over on the Rue Garreau."
"She sounds... out of your league," Ben teased, and then ducked as Quinlan flicked stale beer at him from the drip tray on the bar. "So, how did you meet this incredible beauty?"
"Well... we haven't officially met yet. I saw her through the window of her restaurant."
"Ah, love at first stalk."
"I am not stalking her! I'm just... figuring out how to make my move."
"How... predatory," Ben mused, shovelling the last of the fries into his mouth. "Well, do be sure to let me know how that works out for you. In the meantime, I think I'm going to retire to bed."
"You must be getting old, Kenobi," Quinlan teased.
"Not old, thank you very much. Just mildly drunk, and excessively sated. Add those to my tab, will you?" Ben pushed himself up from the stool and returned the paperback to his pocket.
"Ah yes, the elusive Kenobi bar tab. Any thoughts on when you might want to, you know, pay it?"
"When you ask me nicely. Bye, Quin! Thanks for the food!" He grinned and turned to leave.
"For a man on the wrong side of 35, you are infuriatingly immature when it comes to money!" Quinlan called after him.
"Now, that wasn't very nice, was it?” Ben shot back over his shoulder and gave a cheerful wave. He smiled to himself and crossed the road in the direction of Rue Ravignan. As he fumbled in his pocket for his keys, all he could think about was falling into bed.
Anakin had always known he was impulsive, but he had to admit that this might be a new level of rashness, even for him. As he made himself comfortable in the first class seat of the flight that was currently transporting him overnight to Paris, France, like some kind of express parcel, he cast his mind back over the events that had somehow led up to this.
After leaving Aayla’s office, he had felt less angry and more resigned, but no less frustrated about the current circumstances of his life. He didn't regret his participation in the ridiculously successful superhero franchise that had brought him his fame, even if the short beard each film required him to maintain did make his face itch, and he liked his castmates a lot, but the intrusion of the media into his life seemed to have kicked up several notches somewhere between the second and third films. He had enough bullshit to deal with on most of the sets he worked on – marketing teams endlessly trying to get him to plug stuff, producers having a million shitty ideas that they wanted to shoehorn into previously decent movies, and casting agents not taking him seriously because he had the face of ‘a movie star’, but not ‘a serious actor’. Having the Hollywood nonsense spill over into his private life as well was more than he was willing to tolerate.
He just couldn't rationalise why it had to be this way. He understood the necessity of press tours and premieres, the endless primetime interviews and magazine features when he had a film to promote; but wasn't he allowed to have a private life when that wasn't the case? Why was there even a market for candid photographs of him buying a coffee, going for a walk, eating dinner with a friend?! It was enough to turn anyone into a recluse.
In the midst of his wondering, he had decided to pick up some coffees to take round to Ahsoka's place. There were no paparazzi in sight as he entered, although he noticed the cellphones of several tourists pointed unsubtly in his direction. Infuriatingly, in the short time it took him to order and collect his drinks, a gaggle of photographers had materialised outside the coffee shop doors. He had wondered angrily if there was some sort of citywide alert that people sent out when they spotted a celebrity, so the paparazzi knew to swarm like the insects he considered them to be. However, remembering Aayla's plea, he very dutifully kept his head down as he exited with drinks in hand, wasn't violent or aggressive, and very politely and calmly (he thought) asked them all to go fuck themselves.
When he had arrived at Ahsoka's, he had been hoping to discuss his conversation with Aayla and to ask her again if she was totally sure she didn't want to press charges against the photographer that had broken into her house. However, when she had buzzed him in he had quickly realised that she was still shaken up, and it wasn't the right time.
“Sorry, Skyguy… my head’s a little spacy at the moment.”
“Say no more, Snips – I know the perfect cure for that.”
To try and take her mind off things, he had made them some popcorn and sat her down to watch the film they had first met on - a comedy horror about a summer camp where the campers turn the tables on the killer stalking them. He had played a camp counsellor, and she had been one of the teen campers. They had both cringed with laughter watching their younger selves in action.
After he left several hours later, he felt less immediate concern about Ahsoka, but the lingering feeling of being exhausted by LA had remained. It was his text to Padmé seeking advice, he reflected now, that had probably cemented his seat on this particular flight. Padmé was his one-time girlfriend and long-time friend. They had dated for a while when he had first moved to LA, but ultimately the life of a ‘celebrity girlfriend’ had not been one she was interested in.
Despite her job as a chef de cuisine taking her to Paris two years previously, their bond had remained strong, and he was continually grateful for her calming presence in his life. At least, that he was the only way he was currently able to rationalise having so calmly decided to pay her a surprise visit, booked himself a flight that same evening, and packed a bag in the space of about half an hour.
At least I had the foresight to shave, he thought to himself idly. He was intending on keeping a low profile while he was in Paris, and had made the last-minute decision before he left for the airport to get rid of the beard that he had worn for the better part of five years. He had also grabbed a pair of black-rimmed fake glasses he’d kept from an old role, and a grey baseball cap in an attempt to create a passable disguise. Taking off his beard made him look younger, so he hoped the final look was at least more ‘plausible college student’ than it was ‘errant movie star trying to avoid detection’.
He settled into his seat a little more, and tugged the blanket the steward had brought him earlier further up over himself. It was going to be a long flight.
Ben managed just under two hours of lying in bed, staring up at his ceiling, before he gave up and went to the window for a cigarette. His insomnia was starting to become a problem again, although he should have expected it given the time of year.
He had also been mulling over what Quinlan had said to him earlier at the brasserie. A new level of detached… that’s how he described me. Am I detached? Ben tried to be somewhat objective as he exhaled smoke into the humid Parisian night. There’s nothing wrong with just wanting to have a bit of fun. Although, I suppose I have been ‘having a bit of fun’ for the last 5 years now… he took another draw from his cigarette, turning his head to look down the street at the excellent view of the city he was afforded by his fifth-floor apartment. Every time he saw it, he was reminded how glad he was that Montmartre was on a hill, even if he had cursed that same hill on more than one drunken walk home. His street, the Rue Ravignan, pointed south-east further into Paris; more or less directly towards the western end of the Jardin des Tuileries and then the Pont de la Concorde across the river, if you walked far enough in a straight line.
The sight of the city at night, especially in summer, filled him with the same romance it always had, and strengthened his resolve. I’m surely fucked if I start paying any attention to what Quinlan Vos says about me. It’s not like I promised that bartender a marriage proposal; he was just as satisfied as I was for it to be spontaneous. He eked out one last drag from the cigarette, and then leant down to stub it out in the plant pot on his windowsill that he used as an ashtray. Wrong side of 35, indeed. I’m only 37, that’s not even anywhere near middle-age. Plus I’m probably in the best shape of my bloody life. Ben swam regularly, and tried to get to the gym for a workout at least twice a week.
He took one last look over the vista in front of him. Anyway, I’m living in Paris and I’m enjoying myself. That’s what you’re meant to do here, isn’t it? I think I’ve earned the right, considering… he forced himself to stop mid-thought, and shook his head. Leave well alone, Ben. If you can’t sleep, you might as well be productive and get a head start on the day’s writing.
Leaving his window open to let the warm night air waft through his home, he sat down at his desk and opened his laptop. Giving one last thought to his inner monologue regarding Quinlan’s unhelpful comments before he began, he decided that he was quite content with how his life currently operated, and absolutely nothing was going to change that any time soon.