"I cannot woo thee as a lover would." - Wilfred Owen
He is hugged and offered herbal tea. He struggles not to stare, all starry-eyed and stupid, and does his best to reign in a relentless grin.
It's been months since he's seen that face in the flesh. It's well-rested and beaming, as strangely fluid and intensely expressive as he'd remembered. Even underneath that thick, unruly beard.
It's those eyes, isn't it? Those... really pretty damn extraordinary green eyes. They're everywhere. They fill up the small dressing room. Even as he's shaking out greetings and pleasantries, he's latching onto those eyes and soaking them up.
His heart pounds so hard he's embarrassed.
Goddamnit, get a grip.
He'd always been jealous of that face. Even as a student at Central Saint Martins, when he was already starting to suspect that his own oh-so-British good looks would typecast him as the posh or romantic type, he'd wished for that face in place of his own. Once, he went to the library with mates and watched, slack-jawed, a recording of that legendary "Hamlet" - the Old Vic one. He was awed and despondent in equal measure. He'd always had confidence in spades but afterwards he knew he'd never be anywhere near as good.
But then came his big break and he couldn't stop grinning, giddy with glee to be learning from and sharing screentime with someone like that: the greatest talent of his generation. He felt all that brilliance rubbing off. He felt confident in his abilities. And by the end he was beaming with pride at the work they'd done together as equals. He got rave reviews.
What he never expected was for his mind to get stuck in a weird loop. A year had passed since they shot those scenes together. They had a brilliant time. Tons of laughs. Went out and got pissed. And he can't put it out of his fucking head.
"It" what exactly? What is this?
It's not like he really dwells on it. He's busier than ever. The agent is practically hammering him with offers and, if he's honest about it, he feels kind of overwhelmed. On top of that, he's dating left and right. But then he gets the odd stretch of time to himself, on the tube, in the shower - Christ, even then - and he's back to that cozy little spot in his head. That shoot. The two of them, hanging out, chatting, him taking on sincere and useful advice. That one scene. Touching, pretending. Pretending so well.
He always thought he was the touchy-feely type - but he'd never met anyone whose tactility was such a natural extension of themselves. While they worked and went out together, he'd feel himself sort of wrapped up in that presence, in that that voice, in all that kind, kind touch.
And that face.
Blokes aren't his thing, never were. Married blokes who also happen to be fellow professionals are definitely not his thing. That being said, he's pretty relaxed about the possibility that he might not be as straight as he'd always thought himself to be. Hell, it almost comes with the job. It's just that he can't think of anyone else who's wreaked such havoc with his brain's natural order of things.
You do one sex scene and your brain turns to mush.
In interviews he barely held back on the gushing: "Kind. Fun. Generous".
Amazing and beautiful.
He was on the verge of questioning his own professionalism. He was on the verge of writing a song about it, for fuck's sake. "It", he finally savvied, was the novel sensation of pining.
In the end, he relieved himself to his best mate and, for a while anyway, he felt better:
"I don't think you need to worry about it, mate. It was your first sex scene and he's fit and nice and you're friends. And he's like your idol. You're starstruck. Anyway, I reckon he's just one of those people: everyone fancies him a little bit."
Over the past few months he'd send off the odd text or photo to say hello. He'd squirm with hope each time he did. Sometimes he'd hear nothing in response, sometimes they'd swap a few lines of silly banter that always trailed off with time.
And now he's here. In New York. In a sparse-looking dressing room on 48th Street. He genuinely thought it'd be more... bohemian or something. It's got flowers, pictures of family and husband, boxes of herbal tea, not much more. It must be, he figures, that the energy of that wild-haired presence is decor enough.
He'd pretty much invited himself, claimed he was just passing through - which was true, except he'd had the tickets to the play sorted out months ago.
He's met like a proper mate. He even gets a peck on the cheek. There it is again: all that... that kindness.
They sink to the sofa, arms cast about each other's shoulders, casual, friendly.
"So, so glad you made it." He's being smiled at, his knee squeezed fondly. "Seeing it tonight?"
"And tomorrow. And last night, fourth row."
There's that laugh he knows a bit too well, not in the least from the endless interviews he's watched: shy, short, somehow sly. Sparkly. Silvery. So sweet. His stomach twists a bit.
"Last night! I wish I'd known. Enjoyed it?"
"Mm. It's intense stuff. I don't know how you do it. I don't think I could."
"You definitely could. Definitely. I'd love to see you do more stage stuff."
"I did that thing earlier this year..."
"With Dominic and Janet, yeah, I know. I was gutted to miss it. They're lovely those two, aren't they?"
"They are. It was loads of fun. All that swordplay..."
Somewhere in the back of his head a bad pun rattles about and he almost coughs. He unfurls his most charming grin and changes topics.
"The beard is intense."
What the hell is he doing? He's reached up and given it the tiniest of tugs. He feels bad almost immediately, but the shy little laugh of response turns into a giggle. His stomach twists again, a bit more this time.
"I like it. I think I'll keep growing it. By the time the run is over I'll be rocking the wizard look."
He laughs but can't think of a clever reply. His stupid tugging hand retreats, but not without helping itself to a tousle of dark hair. After that, he follows the green eyes as they fall meaningfully to the wall clock. The bustle of the cast and stagehands outside the door has grown louder.
"Hey, I'd better let you get on. You know the BAFTA noms? We should celebrate. How about a pint when you're done tonight? If you're not too knackered?"
But the eyes spark at him with another smile.
"I'd love that. But better yet, have dinner with us later this week. Did I text you the address? We're in the East Village."
"Us". "We". "Husband and I".
What else can he do? He smiles and nods.
"Sure, that'd be fun. I fly back on Tuesday. Sometime before then, if you can."
Their arms unwind. His hands are squeezed - kindly - and he squeezes back a little more.
"Anyway... break a leg. I'll try not to pull faces at you from the audience."
He leans in for a hug goodbye and, somewhere along the way, fucks things up spectacularly.
Licorice. No, fennel. Or is it cardamom?
Is that what he's tasting?
They're sweet and so warm. When he's put them flush against his own those lips are so, so warm. His palms press over the beard, ticklish, surprisingly soft, thumbs slid over those cheekbones and, fuckshitgoddamnitall, seconds are rolling past, the crew are laughing and chatting outside - and he's still there. No, it's worse than that: he's brought himself closer, wrapped an arm about that slight waist, made a little noise of arousal. He's pulled those lips open and made them wet with his own.
A soft, steady breath warms his whole face.
It's so good his heart hurts.
There is no resistance.
And no reciprocity.
He's being given time to understand and eventually draws back of his own volition.
Silence afterwards is not what he expected. He thought he'd be told off. Or laughed at. Or they'd laugh together.
Actually, he hoped he'd get kissed back.
Instead, he's being looked at. It's a soft, serious look.
So he prattles out all the things he thinks he should have been told.
"Sorry. That was a bit much. I shouldn't have done that. You're married."
In the end, folded under the silence of that gentle green gaze, he gets it: he's being given a chance to explain himself. And, as much as he can, he does.
"Sorry. It's just... I think I'm a bit confused. You're so... I'm still thinking about you. A lot."
"Let's have that pint and we'll talk about it. We'll work through it. Together. Okay?"
Kindness. All that kindness.
"Okay, yes. Please. Thank you. Thanks, Ben."