oh Charlie Harper we love you get up

by spitkitten

It’s unfair, Charlie thinks, how handsome Mitchell Shaw is. Unfair, unjust, unnecessary. It’s the kind of handsomeness that sort of hurts Charlie’s feelings, actually: It wounds his professional pride.

Mitchell Shaw — please, call me Mitchell — is not an actor. He has no need to be that tall, or to be that square-jawed, or to be straining the shoulder seams of that turtleneck like that, like he’s single-handedly trying to inspire a GQ article titled something like Why the Sexy Academic Look is So Sexy Academ-chic Right Now. Nobody’s paying him to be built like that, like he could heft two kegs up three flights of stairs without breaking a sweat. He’s just doing it for fun.

Mitchell has three degrees — they’re listed on his website — and he can’t be much more than thirty. He’s one of Britain’s leading dialect coaches. He’s got a very stylish office in the heart of Soho with a kitchen area and a nice big couch. He doesn’t need to be hot too. 

“Right, Charlie,” Mitchell says, looking down into a Moleskine notebook in the manner of a doctor consulting patient notes, then pauses. “Your agent sent me through the scripts, but she was a little vague about the target accent. Do you know exactly what we’re aiming for? Beyond ‘British’.”

Just aim away from whatever the hell it was I did last time, Charlie thinks, and we’ll be golden. “Uh, we want to match the other actors in the show, I guess. The real Brits. Did you watch the first season? They talk sort of like …” Sort of like Mitchell, actually, low and light and over-precise, the syllables seeming to melt away as soon as they’re spoken. Sort of like they’re joking — laughing at you, or playing some kind of weird trick. “Like the Queen of England.”

“Everybody watched it,” Mitchell says, lightly, sounding sort of like he’s laughing at Charlie, or playing some kind of weird trick. He’s looking down, making notes, so Charlie must have said something of use. “You must be excited to be joining for the new series. Or perhaps it wasn’t as big in the States?”

“It was pretty big,” Charlie says. “I’m stoked, for sure. I’m still pinching myself, actually. I kind of don’t know how it happened.”

There are some people who might look at an actor shifting from starring in tentpole movies to TV work shot in Britain — even as a series lead, even for the world’s most popular streaming service — and see a sickening fall from grace. But Charlie sees the beginning of a redemption arc.

He’s already had the fall from grace — or semi-grace. He’d been working towards grace, doing supporting role after supporting role; people had started looking at him in Whole Foods in that sharp, accusing, blood-in-the-water way, that Wait, aren’t you the guy who … way. Started pulling out their phones and plugging actor young brown hair blue eyes into Google. But then the movie that was going to be Charlie’s big break — his first leading role in a major studio release, one with (whisper it) franchise potential — had actually turned out to be … Well, he’s seen it called a lot of things: a flop, a monstrosity, a cringefest, by the people who are still saying “cringefest” in this day and age. A meme factory, essentially. 

Charlie’s British accent — demanded at the very last minute from the director and cobbled together from nothing more than YouTube tips and increasingly sweaty-palmed panic  — wasn’t the only element at fault, but it was the one that was easiest to clip and post all over Twitter, captioned with a string of laugh-cry emojis, or tiny little skulls. An aural nightmare, the critics raved. Bizarre. Impossible to replicate. Rich, complex and fascinatingly bad — like a glass of full-bodied red with a little bit of vomit in it.

People still reach for their phones when they see him at the grocery store, but now it’s to stick them in his face and get him to say things like “Cor, blimey, guv’nor.”

So, yeah, he figures there’s not really anywhere to go from here other than up. Landing himself a role in the latest hit show to ride the “soft-porn period drama” wave is probably way better than he deserves. The internet certainly seems to think so, judging by the general outpouring of anguish and hilarity after the casting was announced.

Maybe that was why he landed the role, actually. Outrage generates content, generates clicks, generates buzz, generates views, generates profit. You’ll never believe what this talentless fuck-up is attempting now! People with ears HATE him!

But that’s why he’s here, in England, two weeks before the shoot officially begins, sitting in Mitchell Shaw’s office and breathing in the weird cucumber-y smell of his herbal tea. Because Mitchell Shaw is going to My Fair Lady Charlie until that one performance becomes a hilarious footnote in his career, something he can laugh about on talk shows in twenty years, looking effortlessly cool — happy and calm and hair perfect for once. Charlie’s not a fuck-up; he’s not a failure. Or he doesn’t have to be either forever. He’s a temporarily embarrassed movie star, and Mitchell Shaw’s going to help him prove it. Mitchell’s going to make it so Charlie doesn’t have to wake up cringing every morning, into a universe where his name is a punchline. Mitchell’s going to fix it. Everything’s going to be fine. 

Mitchell shakes him from these comforting reflections by decisively finishing his note, the period a smart little rap against the paper. He still doesn’t look up, just keeps his eyes fixed on the words, nodding slightly to himself. 

Beyond one appraising swoop when Charlie walked in, Mitchell’s barely looked at him at all. It’s noticeable. Charlie is, to put it bluntly, a pretty attractive guy. He’s so used to being looked at, at least a little, that the lack of attention is starting to make him hot and itchy about the collarbones. But he guesses that if he looked like Mitchell Shaw, and dressed like Mitchell Shaw, and was as smart as Mitchell Shaw, then “pretty attractive” probably wouldn’t do all that much for him either.

“Right,” Mitchell says. “I’d assumed as much, to be honest. We’ll be aiming, essentially, for received pronunciation. Public schoolboy voice. Which means we’ve got a decent margin for error, because nobody actually talks like that.”

Charlie just sits there feeling confused, and doesn’t say, But you’re talking like that right now. There’s something about Mitchell — that sense of cool detachment, maybe, or just that perfect face — that makes Charlie want him to think that he, Charlie, is not a total idiot. And the best way to achieve that, he figures, is to keep his mouth shut as much as possible.

“Now,” Mitchell says, and finally looks up; Charlie tries not to startle too obviously. “This is the point where I like to take a second for us to appreciate your presenting accent. Let me guess: proper Cali boy, born and bred.”

“Sacramento,” Charlie mumbles, made shy by the ease with which Mitchell has picked out his dumb, surf-bunny, Bill-and-Ted drawl. “And then L.A. Obviously.”

Mitchell smiles, very slightly, just the tiniest shift at the corners of his mouth. “One of my favorites,” he says, voice softened in a way that tells Charlie that his frightened-rabbit look has been noted, and he is now being handled. “A shame to put it aside for so long, really.” Then, as quickly as it had come, that flash of warmth — real or not — is gone, and Mitchell’s retreated into brisk professionalism again. “Right, I have three ground rules.”

Rules, yes, okay. Charlie can do rules. He’s kind of amazing at rules, actually. He fishes his own notebook and pen out of his bag, and looks up obediently. He catches Mitchell clocking the notebook, but it’s impossible to tell from that smart, stern face whether or not he approves.

“One,” Mitchell says, and starts ticking his rules off on fingers that are blunt and strong and imperious. Not just their movements: The fingers themselves look imperious, as though they could be doing anything — flashing a peace sign, crafting balloon animals, knitting — and still somehow make it seem like an impressive, intimidating thing to do. “Don’t be late.” 

Okay, Charlie can manage that one — he’s as good at getting in the car when he’s told to as the next guy. Better, possibly. He’s stuck in a hotel near the studio, out in the middle of those rolling hills that seem to crop up the second you get out of London, so it’s not like he has much to waylay him. 

“Two,” Mitchell continues. “Be brave. The first step towards giving good dialect is just opening your mouth and trying. Sometimes, it’s going to go horribly, and you’re going to look a little bit silly. Sometimes you’re going to get it exactly right. If you want to improve, you’ll have to try everything once.” 

2, Charlie writes, carefully. Be brave. Try.

“And three,” –Mitchell’s lips pull tight into something like a grimace, like he’s got a sudden headache at the very thought of working with Charlie, which is just great, super cool– “please, if you don’t understand something, then don’t pretend you do. You have no idea how much time I waste because actors don’t want to look stupid, and they’re, well, actors, so it takes me a while to tell.”

“Oh,” Charlie says and brightens, relaxes a little. “Well, hey. That won’t be a problem, because you’ll be able to tell with me, right away. I’m not a very good liar.”

Mitchell just looks at him, and Charlie remembers that his employment is completely dependent on everybody in the world believing he’s an outstanding liar.

“I mean, I’m not–” He waves a hand, stupidly, and feels that heat at his throat crawl higher. “Look, I read your website. I know you usually work with, like, Oscar nominees. I’m not Meryl Streep, is what I’m saying.” I’m the guy who threw $180 million down the drain by pronouncing “bastard” wrong, he doesn’t say, because there’s absolutely no way Mitchell doesn’t know that. He only hasn’t mentioned the Major Studio Fuck-Up because he’s very British and very polite.

“No,” Mitchell says slowly, something like amusement in those dark, steady eyes, “I can see that you’re not Meryl Streep. How about you just agree not to lie to me, instead of offering to do it badly? In return, I promise not to lie to you.” His face softens again. “That means I’m going to tell you whenever something’s not working, I’m afraid, but it also means that when I say it’s sounding good, you’ll know you can believe me.”

“Okay, yeah, three rules, no lying,” Charlie says, earnestly, and nods three times, to show that he can count to three. “Got it.”

Mitchell checks his watch. “Very good,” he says, “that’s the formalities over with. Now the fun begins. I want you to set the notebook aside for a second, form a fist, punch yourself — lightly — in the belly, and say ‘cup’. Don’t be embarrassed: I’ll do it too. Like this. Cup. Hear that ‘uh’ sound? Uh, uh, uh.”

And that’s how it continues for the next two hours. Charlie goes at every exercise as gamely as he can, feeling as though Mitchell’s leading him by the hand through a dense but sun-dappled forest. He keeps tripping, stumbling, and he’s got no coherent idea of the road ahead, but it does feel like they’re progressing, somehow, and every now and then Mitchell will say something that prompts a tiny, golden epiphany, as though the trees have parted overhead and let the light stream in.

The key thing to remember, apparently, is that the fake English Charlie’s after is almost entirely non-rhotic: “That’s r-h-o-t-i-c,” Mitchell says, evenly, glancing at Charlie’s notes, and Charlie scribbles them out and rewrites it correctly and tries his best not to burst into flames. “Which, in basic terms, means that you drop any ‘R’s that come after a vowel.”

“No ‘R’s,” Charlie says, writing it down, then is struck by a thought. “But what about ‘arse’?”

“What about arse, indeed,” Mitchell says, words delicate in his mouth, and this time he’s definitely laughing at Charlie. All that uh-ing and ooh-ing must have worn out Charlie’s shame, because he finds that he doesn’t really mind: This time, the bashful glow of warmth in his chest and his cheeks feels almost nice — like pleasure, or pride. “There’s actually no ‘R’ there either,” Mitchell continues. “But it sounds like there is, because the vowel is elongated. Which leads me to the next point: the trap-bath split …”

Before he lets Charlie go, Mitchell gets him to try some test phrases: The Colonel’s murder occurred in the church; Who will talk to my naughty daughter?; The Count never wore trousers around the house.

Charlie tries not to snigger at the sound of the words in Mitchell’s dry, serious voice, and then tries not to wince at the insane jumble of vowels they become in his own mouth. He sounds like Dick Van fucking Dyke, if Dick Van Dyke were, like, concussed or something. If he’d taken a wrong step and fallen right off that rooftop, and then tried to audition for Downton Abbey. But it’s better. It’s definitely better.

Mitchell’s looking at him, and he’s not exactly jumping for joy, but there’s something like satisfaction in the tilt of his mouth. “It’s not very good,” he says, then holds up a soothing hand at the sight of whatever that puts on Charlie’s face. “Yet. But if you keep trying this hard, then in two weeks, it will be. We’ll get you there. I promise.”

Charlie spends the car ride out of London staring at his messy notes and soundlessly shaping words — feeling his heart flutter hotly in the hollow of his throat, and stubbornly refusing to wonder why.

 

*

 

The light’s all wrong for L.A. in the afternoon. The sky is pale lilac and there’s a drift of mist hanging in it, making everything soft and glowy, like Charlie’s looking through a lens smeared with Vaseline. He’s never seen it look anything like that, except in the very early morning. Or — or maybe it is the morning? Is he even in L.A.? Charlie can’t remember.

“Breathe,” Mitchell says. He’s not in his usual chair but sitting on the couch, and doing a better job of that than Charlie ever has, feet planted, limbs still and strong.

Charlie feels his lungs expand within him, nudge softly against his ribs. Warm air, coffee, that shimmery hot-penny not-smell of cucumber and honey. Mitchell’s office, obviously. Charlie’s standing in the middle of it like an idiot, and it seems bigger than before, the air dense, constricting. As though that mist has snuck inside to lie across his shoulders like the world’s heaviest feather boa. 

His shoes are off, and he’s not wearing any socks. The carpet is as warm as half-set asphalt under his feet. He knows without trying that if he made to move, it would cling to his soles in the same way. 

“Line,” he says, and it sounds weird, kind of distant and echoey. Like it’s left his mouth and gone round the entire world, then come up to surprise him from behind.

“If you desire my approbation,” Mitchell says, “then you must prove that you deserve it.”

Charlie couldn’t say where it comes in the script, but he’s more than ready to believe it’s in there. He repeats it back, trying to match Mitchell’s cadence, but his tongue feels thick and there’s a hot ache in the roof of his mouth, and though it sounds the same, exactly the same, he knows that it isn’t. Not at all. He feels the knowledge come upon him, feels it turn him sick and panicky. He’s got it wrong.

“No,” Mitchell says. “Deserve. Stop leaning on the ‘R’. Bring your tongue to the front of your mouth, behind your teeth. Keep it flat. Again.”

Charlie tries. He tries.

“Oh, Charlie,” Mitchell says.

It’s so amused and pitying that Charlie’s stomach fucking drops like he’s crested a rollercoaster — a dizzy, melting heave within him. His mind stops dead, turns to nothing but noise and heat; his joints go to liquid. He wants to fall to his knees right here and … And what? He doesn’t know, exactly. Whatever Mitchell wants. Fuck

“Don’t you know where the front of your mouth is?” Mitchell asks.

“I do,” Charlie hears himself say, voice sounding thin, almost frantic, “I’m trying, I promise, I just–“

“Prove it,” Mitchell says. “Mouth open. Stick your tongue out.” 

Another sweet, molten swell of humiliation. Try everything once, Charlie thinks, shakily, and fixes his eyes on the edge of the rug, and does it.

“Good boy.” It’s a low, dark croon. “Very prettily done. Now come here.”

Charlie stumbles forward and drops to his knees in front of Mitchell, gazes up at him, still letting his tongue loll in his open mouth like — like a fucking porn star. He feels almost feverish: not just hot but strange, full of shivers, his thoughts skittering about like wet marbles. His breath has picked up against his will; it seems like he ought to be able to see it spilling from his open mouth as steam.

Mitchell just looks at him, cool, assessing, something like a smile in the set of his jaw. Slowly, he reaches out, and takes Charlie’s chin in one of those refined hands, holds it between a thumb and a curled forefinger. Tilts it up.

Charlie swallows. It’s difficult. Like his saliva’s somehow thicker than usual, or there’s something big sunk deep in his throat. He keeps his mouth open.

“Poor thing,” Mitchell says, turning Charlie’s face a little as though to catch the light. “It’s such a pity. You have a perfectly decent mouth — you just don’t know how to use it.” And he lays two fingers flat against Charlie’s tongue, presses it down against his teeth. His skin is cool; Charlie tastes salt, and something thick and metallic that blooms and deepens on his tongue. He thinks it might be ink. “Try it now,” Mitchell says. “Deserve.”

Charlie tries. It comes out muffled, soft round the edges, like he’s drunk. Spit pools under his tongue with the movement; he feels — he hears — it press against the base of Mitchell’s fingers where they rest against his lower lip, a wet chirruping squish. He feels himself flush, a pink slap of heat right across his face, all the way up to his scalp. 

“Again,” Mitchell says, impassively. And then, “again,” until spit is literally running down Charlie’s chin, no matter how desperately he swallows. He feels it track down the line of his throat and start soaking into his collar

“Messy,” Mitchell says, finally. “But better. Now, can you do it without my help?”

He draws his fingers from Charlie’s mouth, then pulls out an honest-to-god handkerchief, like it’s the 18-fucking-40s, and wipes his hands, movements spare and businesslike. Charlie just stares for a second. Then he realizes that he can close his mouth, and does. His face is slippery and wet and starting to feel sort of sticky, and licking his lips for sure doesn’t help. He wants, very badly, to lift an arm to wipe at his chin — but they both feel so heavy, like they’re sunk in wet cement, like they’ve somehow been tied without him noticing. All he can do is bring up a shoulder and nuzzle at it, trying to rub off the worst of his mess on his own sweatshirt.

Mitchell’s waiting.

Charlie tries to think, a little, but his head’s too fuzzy and full of pounding. The whole room is full of pounding, the lines of the walls and the floor and the furniture curving and flexing and turning to fog in a quick, thick rhythm, the same thick rhythm that Charlie can feel inside himself, not just in his head but in his chest. Between his legs. He leans forward, lays his temple against the side of Mitchell’s corduroy-clad knee, and rests there, attempting to blink away his confusion. 

There’s no way Mitchell can possibly have had his fingers in Charlie’s mouth long enough to leave his lips swollen, no way he was applying enough force. And yet they feel swollen, and hot, and tacky with thickening spit. Mitchell could bend down and lick them clean, take this terrible, itching heat away with a long cool kiss and make Charlie presentable again. Charlie wants to ask him for it, wants to beg. 

But Mitchell doesn’t want to kiss him, and he doesn’t want to hear Charlie beg. He wants to hear Charlie say insane things in a stupid British accent.

Mouth moving almost mechanically, Charlie tries the whole line again. 

It’s no good, he can tell. He feels Mitchell shift, glances up and finds that he’s leaning over to pick up a book from the coffee table. Mitchell catches him looking: He puts a hand in Charlie’s hair and gently, irresistibly, draws his head back against his knee. “No,” he says, voice firm. “You need to concentrate on your words. It’s just one line, Charlie. If you can say it perfectly for me, maybe I’ll let you lick at something more substantial than my fingers.”

A hoarse little whimper escapes Charlie at that, and he tries again, but he thinks it might actually be getting worse now, because every time the floor stirs beneath him his breath hitches and the syllables scatter, breaking up and jumping in pitch. Something cool and implacable presses against the heat between his legs — Mitchell’s shoe, maybe — and Charlie’s hips jerk once and then again and then oh God, he’s grinding down against the pressure, rubbing himself off on Mitchell’s stylish loafers like an animal, panting, his line spilling from his mouth in broken, senseless rushes of syllables. His calves twitch, his bare toes curl against the floorboards; there’s an itching weight against the back of his neck, a heavy lump of shame that presses his head down and makes tears prickle in his eyes. But the friction is so good that he just can’t stop. The very thought of stopping makes his heart stutter, sick with incomprehension. 

A hand strokes firmly through his hair: It only makes Charlie feel even more like a misbehaving pet, but that’s sort of nice, in its own terrible way. Above his own babbling, he hears the crisp hushing sound of Mitchell turning a page, and then a soft laugh.

“Points for effort, darling,” Mitchell says. “But you’ll have to do so much better than that.”

And that’s all it takes apparently, for everything in Charlie’s body to seize tight, and the whole room to spasm and fall in on him, his nerves screaming blankly with strange, shameful joy. 

Then it’s dark and hot and there’s a spreading wetness between his legs, and Charlie’s not humping Mitchell’s $700 shoes, just the crushed-up pillow from his hotel bed. His mouth is so dry that his breath is almost a whistle, and he can’t seem to stop grinding into the squishy damp mess he’s made, thighs twitching with aftershocks, lashes scratching against cotton. His mind tilts and thrashes against the darkness and, for a second, he thinks he came so hard he went blind. Then he realizes that it’s almost the reverse: He came so hard he woke up.

He rolls onto his back, and blinks at the ceiling, listening to his shocky, rasping breath and the pound of his heart.

Holy fuck. He literally hasn’t done that in years. And the dream itself–

In one irresistible flash, he remembers Mitchell’s purring voice — thinks of what he might say if he could see Charlie now, sweating through his t-shirt and creaming in his boxers like a horny teenager. The confused thrill of shame that he’d felt in the dream seems to fold over, double, and his spent cock twitches painfully against his thigh. 

His fitness tracker nuzzles at his wrist to congratulate him on his workout. A smiley face flashes up and tells him to go rehydrate. It’s 4 a.m. Six hours before Charlie has to get in the car, and head to London, and look Mitchell in the face again.

Fuck.

 

*

 

“You can try to deny your desire for me,” Mitchell says. “And yet your body betrays you.”

“You can try to deny your desire for me,” Charlie repeats, obediently. “And yet your body betrays you.”

“Your breath catches. Your cheeks flush. Your fingers tremble.”

“Your breath catches. Your cheeks flush. Your fingers — fuck, fingers, fing-uhs — tremble. Fuck.”

“Are you feeling all right? You look tired today.”

“Are you feeling all right? You look tired today.”

“No, Charlie. You look tired.”

You look tired,” Charlie says, then he gets it, and a wave of hot, itchy humiliation crashes over his head. He’s getting pretty used to that: It’s been happening a lot since The Dream. That’s how he’s been thinking about it: Capital T, Capital D. Or it’s how he had been thinking about it until Tuesday, when his alarm had startled him awake right as he’d finally got his face pressed against Mitchell’s crotch, and had been about to make a proper start on mouthing pleadingly at the corduroy. Now The First Dream would maybe be a more accurate label. “Oh,” Charlie says. “Sorry. Do I? I don’t feel tired.” 

He doesn’t completely remember what was going on in his head this morning, only that it involved corsetry and he woke up dick-first, to the obscene sound of his own muffled moans. He didn’t get back to sleep, just kicked off his boxers and lay there in a stupor for two hours before his wake-up call, thinking dazedly about close rooms and strong hands. About pressure on his ribs and the dizzy white bliss at the edge of a faint.

He feels pretty tired. 

Mitchell just looks at him, and Charlie doesn’t need a mirror to know about the blotchy flush climbing up his throat. Not his finest performance. He can practically hear the teens in the audience jeering. He can feel the popcorn bouncing off his forehead.

“What are you doing after this?” Mitchell asks. Charlie tries to think, can’t, fumbles for his phone to find out, but Mitchell stops him with a wave of one of those imperious hands; Charlie’s going to blame the sleep deprivation thing for the way his gaze follows Mitchell’s fingers like a kitten seeing yarn for the first time. “Never mind,” Mitchell is saying, all decision. “You can’t work like this: I doubt you’re going to remember what you had for lunch today, let alone where the emphasis should go in crinoline.”

“Spinach, beet and hazelnut salad,” Charlie says, automatically. “And a pea protein shake. Sorry. I’m really sorry. It’s, uh. The bed. In my hotel. It’s a piece of shit.”

As excuses go, it’s better than my subconscious and my dick are conspiring to kill me and they’re using you as the murder weapon, but only marginally. Charlie’s hotel was built as a royal hunting lodge in 1552, a number that looks more like a street address than a date: Charlie knows this because there’s a plaque in the foyer, next to a framed map of the area that looks like it was hand-drawn by monks. When his car first pulled into the driveway, he thought he’d been taken out on location by mistake. The bed is one of the nicest beds he’s ever slept in. Or not-slept in. For sure the nicest bed he’s ever had a pseudo-historical breathplay wet dream in. Poor little rich boy doesn’t begin to cover it.

But he must look really bad, because Mitchell just makes a soft “tsk”-ing noise of sympathy, and starts scribbling something in his book — end-of-session notes, it looks like. “Right,” he says, “class is canceled for today. You need rest.”

“Canceled? But, Mitchell, shooting starts tomorrow, and I think I’m still goose-fronting those vowels–”

Mitchell doesn’t look up, but a tension enters his frame — surprise, or amusement. “Goose-fronting,” he says. “I don’t usually call it that. Have you been doing your own research? Cheating on me with that guy who does critique videos for WIRED?”

Charlie’s in one of those videos, or clips of him are. He might have forced himself to watch it a couple of times in his hotel room, just to know which of his bad habits to look out for. But suddenly he’s not worried about goose-fronting, or flattened vowels, or his sloppy oral posture, because hearing those words in Mitchell’s low, clear voice — cheating on me — has him too heat-dazed for complex linguistics.

Mitchell doesn’t seem to expect much else, thank God. “Stop worrying about that,” he says, “and have a lie down.” Somehow, that steady manner of his makes the words sound like a shrug. Like what he’s suggesting is totally normal. “Put your feet up.”

“I–” Charlie starts, then just gawks at him, trying to work out the catch. “You mean, like … nap?” Mitchell nods slowly down at his notebook, the beginnings of a smile legible round his eyes. Is this a trap? Does he know, somehow, about the dreams? Is this a dream? “For real? Here?”

“I’d offer you the guest room.” The smile’s got into Mitchell’s voice now, too. “But it’s in Kennington. So the couch will have to do.” 

Then he finally looks up at Charlie, and his eyes are so friendly — so open — that Charlie’s heart gives a tight, tender flinch in his chest, and it’s his turn to look away, dropping his eyes guiltily to the floor to hide it. 

Either he gets away with it, or Mitchell’s so used to Charlie behaving like a twitchy mess that it doesn’t register anymore. “Look,” Mitchell’s saying, sounding a little like an equine handler with a spooked charge. “You’re nervous. I get it. Accent work is frightening: It’s like taking your clothes off in public, but you don’t even know what’s under them till they’re gone. It frightens everybody — even my Oscar nominees. But I’m going to tell you exactly what I tell them. I know that you want to work at it; I know that you want to prepare. Prepare, prepare, prepare and get it perfect — before you have to go on set and be hideously vulnerable in front of a bunch of strangers, and then in front of the world. Right?”

He pauses, and when Charlie sneaks a look up, he has his brows raised. 

Charlie has had conversations before: He does realize that this is the part where he’s meant to reply. But he’s a bit busy reeling from the potent combination of Mitchell’s seemingly genuine concern and the fact that he’s chosen to express this concern by talking about getting naked. He can only manage a pretty feeble nod. 

It seems to be enough for Mitchell. “Listen to me, Charlie: There’s no such thing as a perfect accent. Real humans say things oddly all the time for all sorts of reasons. Real humans break the rules. If you approach it defensively like that — how do I keep the critics off my back? — then you’ll stop thinking of your lines as words, spoken by a human to a human, and start thinking of them as just” –he waves his hand– “a robotic series of noises. And a robotic series of noises isn’t going to move anyone, no matter how much it pleases the armchair experts. Nobody swoons over linguistics textbooks. So. Let’s just relax for a bit, okay? Stay loose. Leave room for you. That’s who the studio hired, after all.”

Then he shuts his notebook with a decisive snap and stands and stretches out his back, and Charlie stops thinking anything at all except shoulders and big and yes. He sits there, staring, as Mitchell checks his watch and sighs — not a bad sigh, just lazy and satisfied. Feline, almost. But if Charlie’s a drowsy little kitten, then Mitchell’s a lion, or lynx, or something, sleek and poised. All quiet power and self-possession.

Jesus. Charlie actually does need sleep.

“And then,” Mitchell continues from above him, his voice lightening, turning a little teasing, “I usually say: ‘Also, I loved you in The Hours, Ms. Streep.’ But for you, I think I’ll finish by just telling you the truth, which is that you don’t need to worry. It’s good, Charlie. It’s sounding really good. Very well done.”

Something in Charlie’s chest does a shy, warm flip at the words — his heart again, maybe, playing the spoilt lapdog, doing somersaults to show off, eager for more praise. “Oh,” he says, dazedly. “It is? Okay, sure. Thank you.” So that he isn’t just sitting there with his face on fire, he casts a look at Mitchell’s couch. It’s spotless. “Um. Should I, like … take my shoes off?”

“If you’re more comfortable without them, then knock yourself out.” Mitchell bends to collect his mug from the table, and huffs out a small laugh. “Ha,” he says, almost to himself. “Knock yourself out. Don’t do that. Just go to sleep the normal way.”

“Ha,” Charlie repeats, emptily. When Mitchell slips out into the hall, he tries not to watch him go. 

He didn’t know corduroy could cling like that.

God. Obviously, Charlie’s not going to go to sleep. He’d love to, but unfortunately his horrible traitor body cannot be trusted, and the thought of having a dream here, of waking up to see Mitchell standing over him with disgust in his eyes, sends a flood of shame spilling through him, and not the so-awful-it’s-good kind of shame. Mostly not that kind anyway. Instead, he pulls his phone from his pocket — along with the cheap corded headphones he considers his well-deserved punishment for dropping his left AirPod down a storm drain — and pulls up the recording of his lines that Mitchell sent him. Whatever Mitchell says, another quick run-through can’t possibly hurt. 

He skips through the recording for a bit, looking for a scene where everybody’s definitely got all their clothes on. Romantic lead Lord Reginald Chisholm-Blount (pronounced “Chizym-Blunt“, apparently, because of fucking course it is) is basically a self-pitying, sex-crazed lunatic — not a role Charlie’s finding very challenging to step into, not right now. But he does occasionally take a break from all that to have long conversations about lines of succession, presumably to give viewers a chance to refill their snack bowl and let the cat in; Charlie finds one such conversation now, and stares at the ceiling, shaping the words along with past-Mitchell, his mind wandering.

It’s sounding good, Mitchell had said. Well done. 

As always with that kind of frank praise, Charlie almost can’t bear to think about it directly: He has to sidle up and sneak sideways little looks at it, because if it knows how badly he wants it, it’ll freak and skitter away from him. Well done. Oh, God, it’s already happening — it’s starting to turn sour, the longer it sits in his head. It’s starting to scare the shit out of him.

Doing a decent job of something is the first step towards doing that same thing surprisingly badly. What happens the next time Charlie fucks it up? Will Mitchell assume that the apparent improvement had just been a fluke? Maybe it was a fluke: Maybe when they get to set Charlie will find that he can’t do it at all.

He knows that he’s spiraling. He knows it’s not rational. He knows that. But no amount of knowing can keep him from picturing it: Mitchell’s face, stilled with surprise, then confusion, then a wry, pitying disappointment. Oh, Charlie.

No. Charlie feels the remnants of the dream, that First Dream, trying to creep back into his consciousness, and shoves at them, hard. He’s not supposed to be thinking about that, not in the daytime, and certainly not here on Mitchell’s couch. 

He looks at the shadow of the lampshade against the ceiling, and sighs. 

It’s not like it’s a surprise to him that he’s attracted to men. It’s not even a surprise that the attraction seems to take the form of wanting to be put on his knees and have his brain reduced to a fine paste. Charlie knows that — has known the gay part since he was thirteen, and figured out the rest after high school, when he was bopping around LA, broke and shiny and sleeping (or not-sleeping) on people’s couches. He’s even had a few real grown-up relationships, some more successful than others. 

Patrick, the realtor who’d taken Charlie out to dinners in Laurel Canyon and laughed hard enough at the way he’d pronounced prosciutto that it had other diners turning in their chairs. Jesus, Charlie, it’s lucky you’re a looker. Javi, the willowy dancer who’d been only fractionally less neurotic than Charlie, the pair of them so skittish together they’d had to get roaring drunk just to sit on the couch and kiss. Conrad Taft, the director of a largely ignored View from the Bridge at The Zephyr who’d liked to have Charlie up against the vanity in his dressing-room, drawers knocking welcome bruises into his hips and the mirror cold against on his cheek. The pair of them ringed in light. Charlie remembers that first time: blinking away the dazzle from the festoon bulbs and daring a look at their reflection, catching Conrad grinning at himself and tossing back his hair. Always wanted to do that with somebody, he’d said afterwards, slapping Charlie appreciatively on the ass. Pants back on, baby — you’re on in fifteen.  

Jay, the super-stacked start-up guy Charlie had met on some app, and who’d turned into a fairly satisfying non-committal fuck until the evening they’d tried some puppy play: not really Charlie’s thing, but he’d been handling it okay, following commands and committing to the role, letting the humiliation turn his head hot and foggy, starting, even, to enjoy it — right up to the moment he’d been called a bad dog. And, bam. He’d been crying, really crying, so hard Jay’d called the scene and sent him home, obviously freaked. He’d ghosted Charlie, after that. Honestly, Charlie can’t blame him.

And then nothing, for a long time. Not since lunch with his agent, Angela, back when the Major Studio Fuck-Up was still a golden opportunity, glowing softly in Charlie’s future. She’d been grappling with a complex salad and asking him if he was seeing anybody. “It’s not the thirties,” she’d said. “I won’t demand to meet her, or anything. But just give me the broad strokes.”

“Her?” Charlie had said, like an absolute fucking idiot.

Angela had gone very still, a piece of arugula suspended halfway to her lips, statement earrings jittering by her jaw. “Yes, Charlie,” she’d said, slowly. “It is a her, isn’t it?”

An electric fritz of panic that left his thoughts in tatters; his fork slippery, suddenly, in his hand. “Oh, yeah, no,” he’d said. “I just meant there is no her. I’m single.”

Angela had dropped her arugula, thrown her head back and laughed like an extra in a party scene. “Phew!” she’d said, theatrically — Phe-yew! — and mimed wiping her forehead. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, honey, you can do what you like, obviously, love is love. I” –a manicured hand to her chest as though she were reciting a pledge– “would be all for that. My niece is a lesbian, I think. But the public — well, I know this sounds awful, but let’s just say that would be a lot more complex to market.” Another chuckle down at her salad — fluttery, almost a sigh. “Phew. You had me going for a second. Well, just be sensible and keep me posted. If you do start dating a stripper or whatever, I don’t want to find out by stumbling across pap snaps of you holding her hand in Whole Foods.”

And so, no more dating. An empty apartment, a silent phone, a pulse of sweaty terror every time he caught an attractive eye. 

He knows it’s not right. He knows it’s not sustainable. Maybe when he’s got through this shoot, through the release and the press tour, he’ll do something about it. Who’d want him right now, anyway? He just needs to get back on the up, and then he’ll–

“Given but a quarter hour,” Mitchell says in his ear, “I could ruin you for any other man.”

This fucking script. Charlie rolls over onto his front, buries his face in the seat cushion and groans. Amazingly, that doesn’t actually stop the tide of soft-core filth, so he fumbles for his phone and blindly thumbs the skip button till everything starts sounding less titillating. Napoleon has a credible invading party massed just off Boulogne, apparently. Good. Let them mass. Maybe they can pop round from wherever the fuck Boulogne is and shoot Charlie in his dumb, rogue-operative dick.

The office door opens. Thanks to the shittiness of his headphones, the noise is crystal clear — that ribbiting creak door handles make whenever somebody tries to move them stealthily. 

Charlie stills like a five-year-old caught up after lights-out, a twitch of guilt in his stomach. Mitchell had told him to relax, and he hasn’t. He’s looked a gift nap in the mouth, or whatever, and now his hot dialect coach is going to give him a bad grade in relaxing. A very normal fear. He breathes in, breathes out, and tries to look as though he’s fast asleep.

It’s quiet enough that even with his eyes closed and his face half-buried in the couch, Charlie can still track Mitchell’s movement: He hears the door eased shut, hears the barely-there pad of Mitchell’s steps, feels the air in the room shift as Mitchell draws closer to the couch. Mitchell stops, and Charlie feels that poised, weighty presence inches from him. Then he feels — or imagines he feels — Mitchell’s eyes upon him, like feeling a shadow fall against his face, but warmer and less tangible. It sends a charge through him, puts a kind of consciousness in every fiber: His being shifts, incrementally, under that attention, trying to perfect itself. Trying to be worth looking at.

Mitchell hums and the air eddies again. For one breathless, heart-stopping second, Charlie’s certain — absolutely certain, so certain that he sees it play in his head, sunlit and shot from above — that he’s about to feel Mitchell’s capable fingers stroke gently against his cheek.

Mitchell doesn’t touch him, just tugs gently at the cord of his headphones. One of the hard plastic nubs slides across the thin skin at Charlie’s throat, and he’s so keyed-up that it’s enough to make him shiver. 

His heart resumes thumping, and smashes the sunlit vision to pieces. He thinks blankly about stirring, but Mitchell’s so obviously trying not to wake him that it seems ungrateful. Also, Charlie’s chest feels drawn-tight with disappointment — guilty, pathetic disappointment — and if he has to meet anybody’s eye right now, he may just burst into tears. Also that.

“I’m not having Charlie Harper strangle himself on my couch,” Mitchell says, very quietly, barely more than a breath. ”Don’t think I’m insured against that.” 

Charlie peeks through his eyelashes, watching as a blurry backlit Mitchell winds the headphones round the phone and carefully places it on the table. He seems to notice the lit screen, and makes a quiet noise at Charlie’s choice of entertainment before tapping pause. Charlie can’t tell if he’s amused or surprised or pleased.

Then he’s gone, moving quietly into the kitchen area. A faucet runs, and something starts making a chirping, bubbling whirr. Oh. Kettle, probably. Charlie lies there and listens and feels the warmth of the sun on his back, breathing easier. It’s nice, actually, just to share a space like this, unwatched but not alone. He can’t remember the last time he did it. He’s alone quite a lot these days, except when there’s thousands of people looking at him and laughing.

Now that really is some poor-little-rich-boy shit. Isn’t semi-fame such a curse? Charlie thinks, suddenly sick of himself. Get a real job, if it bothers you that much.

There’s a regular buzzing noise, a phone on vibrate. Then it stops.

“Hey,” Mitchell says, very quiet, almost a whisper. “What’s up?” He must be wearing headphones of his own, because Charlie doesn’t hear an answer, just Mitchell shifting position and exhaling a sharp huff of air — a laugh, maybe. “No, I’m at work: It’s just that I’ve got a client here.” A pause. “No, you’re good, we can talk. He’s — he’s asleep.”

The person on the other end of the line has something to say about that. Charlie wonders what it is, and the sun on his back gets a bit warmer.

“Well,” Mitchell says, with the evenness of somebody being implacable in the face of extreme provocation, “he’s tired.” He lets out a soft groan, and when he speaks again, there’s more distance to it: He’s turned away, Charlie deduces, towards the window. “Hilarious. You’re hilarious. Now shut up, before I hang up.” The kettle gets louder, jumping in its socket, then stops, and there’s the sound of pouring. “No, you know I’m not going to tell you that. Don’t make me give you my client discretion rant again. That can’t possibly be why you called.”

The conversation changes gear. Charlie listens intently for more talk of him, but it seems Mitchell has successfully shifted focus to the caller’s problem: There’s just a lot of humming and the occasional sage interjection. Charlie drifts for a bit, self-consciousness ebbing away again, coming dangerously close to napping for real.

“Have you tried, I don’t know, talking to him?” Mitchell says, lightly caustic but fond, amused. ”No, of course not, stupid question.” 

His accent’s shifted, Charlie suddenly realizes. It’s lost that brittle, cut-glass quality and become warmer and softer, more body to it. More London — and more something else too, probably something Mitchell got from his parents. If Charlie knew anything about dialects, it would probably tell him everything: where Mitchell was born, where he went to high school, where his grandparents lived. As it is, Charlie just thinks it sounds good. Comfortable. Close and intimate and real.

It’s probably how Mitchell sounds in bed.

As if in answer to that thought — as if he’s caught Charlie being a pathetic creep on his couch — Mitchell lets out a smooth, low laugh, one that Charlie feels slink down his spine. He shivers against the cushions, even in the sunlight, his focus instantly snapping back to the conversation. 

“I’m not going to tell you who it is,” Mitchell says. “But he’s not your type at all, trust me.” There’s a pause, and then: “Oh … Sweet. Very pretty, obviously. Does his homework. Shy, I think, and polite, in a movie star sort of way. Far too nice to be allowed anywhere near you: You’d keep nipping at him, just to see if he squeaked.”

Oh, Charlie thinks, so giddy so quickly that if he were walking, he’d have stumbled. His breath catches, chest tight. Sweet. Pretty. Nice. It’s the kind of praise that’s a little embarrassing, that suddenly turns him all small and fragile, and Charlie– Well, apparently, he likes it. Even when he’s awake, he likes it.

“Oh, really?” Mitchell’s tone is dark and playful. A jungle cat on the scent, lazily swishing its tail. “Had a complete personality transplant since we broke up, have you, sweetheart?” His voice drops to a rumble. “Finally learned to behave?”

That giddy lust intensifies so sharply that Charlie almost feels queasy. His blood thrashes within him: It’s so loud that he has to concentrate hard to hear Mitchell’s next words, and even harder to understand them.

“Sorry,” Mitchell’s saying, “sorry, sorry. That was wrong of me. Unfair.” He doesn’t sound upset, exactly — he’s laughing, a little, either at what his caller is saying, or at himself — but he does sound tired, and faintly regretful. “Kind offer, but no. We’re not doing that anymore. Neither of us really wants that. Sorry. I think I’m — I’m a little more stressed than I realized. Work stuff.” He sighs, and it’s not his happy sigh from earlier. This one’s a bad sigh. 

Work stuff. He’s working with Charlie Harper — you know, from the memes? Why wouldn’t he be stressed? Charlie feels a bit like he’s been through the entire spectrum of human emotion in the last twenty minutes, but luckily he’s still got room for feeling plain old bad.

“That,” Mitchell says tartly, voice a little raised, “would break every single one of my rules. No straight boys, no actors, and definitely no clients. So no. I’m not. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to.”

Oh, Charlie thinks again, just that and not much else. The kind of Oh that’s a brick wall — or a door that Charlie hadn’t even known was there, till it was firmly, decisively closed in his face. 

Mitchell laughs. “Yes, well, that’s why I live a boring, bother-free, rich-bitch lifestyle, and you’re calling me during work hours, pining and penniless. And probably severely dehydrated.”        

And apparently that’s a kiss-off line, because he doesn’t say anything after that, not even a goodbye.

Right. So. Mitchell dates men. Okay. He doesn’t want Charlie. Okay. Good. That’s how it should be. Charlie repeats it to himself a couple of times, like it’s a line he’s struggling to remember, or a vocal exercise — as though belief is a muscle he can strengthen and train. That’s how it should be. Anything else would be deeply inappropriate. It’s a good thing, actually, that Mitchell’s a professional. Good for Mitchell.

Very carefully, Charlie arranges his face to look like it belongs to a normal, undevastated human being. Then he stirs ostentatiously, and “wakes up”. He’s not going to put it in his reel or anything — it goes a little bit Disney princess towards the end — but it’s not bad, considering the circumstances.

Mitchell’s standing in the kitchen, looking composed as ever, mug steaming lightly in his hand. When he speaks his voice is even, and all brittle and airy again. “Hello. Perfect timing. I just got off a call, and your car will be here any second.”

Charlie just finds his sneakers and pulls them on. The sun’s gone in, and the window behind Mitchell’s shoulder is flecked with drops of rain, plump and tense, trembling against the glass like they’ve been put there by a set-dresser. Just before the release of the Major Studio Fuck-Up, Charlie sat on a surprisingly uncomfortable chair at the BAFTAs and listened to a veteran director — a man so famous that looking at him for too long made Charlie nervous to the point of nausea — talk about how London was the most cinematic city in the world. An actor’s city. 

What he’d meant, Charlie is suddenly realizing, is that it rains a lot. And actors, because they’re miserable, self-absorbed idiots who watch too many movies, always think it’s raining for them

“Sorry,” he says, his voice coming out rough, like he really has been sleeping. There’s a heavy ache at the base of his throat: It feels as though his heart has jumped up there and stilled, making it hard to push the sound through. “I’ll get out of your way.”

Mitchell walks him to the door, like a gentleman. Charlie had thought he was desperate to leave — to go and rest his head against a drizzle-spattered car window and feel luxuriously sorry for himself — but there’s still the thought of tomorrow, the shoot. It slows his feet, keeps him lingering in the doorway.

“What–” he starts to say, then is stopped by a yawn, one that takes him by surprise and screws up his face, leaves him blinking and embarrassed. “Jesus. Sorry. What happens now? I’m not– I don’t know if I’m ready.”

Mitchell had been scanning him a little probingly — probably trying to work out how a twenty minute nap could have left Charlie looking worse — but now something in his expression softens. “Well,” he says, “first things first, you go back to your terrible bed and try to get some real sleep. As for the shoot, don’t despair. I’ve been sent your schedule: I’m not going to follow you around the country, but I’ll be at the studio for the days you’re on set, and I’ll come out on location when I can. And when I can’t … Give me your phone.”

Charlie unlocks it and hands it over, watches Mitchell’s hands work. He feels the same way he always feels when his phone’s in somebody else’s hands, unlocked. Like the joint at the base of his neck is made of glass, and somebody’s turned a blowtorch on it. What if Mitchell’s fingers slip, and he sees every dumb-fuck question Charlie’s ever Googled? Or a comprehensive list of all the porn he’s ever watched? At least Mitchell apparently wouldn’t take issue with one pretty obvious common feature. 

“There,” Mitchell says, not looking up. “Now, if you need anything while I’m not around, you can text me. Well, not anything, obviously. New line readings, pronunciation questions, things of that nature.” 

“Oh, woah,” Charlie hears himself say, a note of guilty panic to it. He’d thought Mitchell was going to give him more exercises, or something; he hadn’t been angling for his number. Had he? “I didn’t mean to make you– I mean, thank you so much, that’s — that’s really kind.”

“No need to thank me,” Mitchell says, briskly, looking at his watch again. “All part of the service.”

Work stuff, Charlie remembers him saying, remembers the sound of his sigh. He, Charlie, is work stuff. That’s how it should be.

“I do the same for all my clients,” Mitchell says, and proffers Charlie’s phone.

There’s a universe out there where Charlie peeks up from under his lashes and smiles winsomely and says, But I bet you don’t let them all sleep over, and Mitchell stops and gives him a long look, dark and interested, and replies, half-amused, No, only the pretty ones. Then he grabs Charlie by the front of his t-shirt and pulls him close, right there in the open doorway, and Charlie can’t ruin it by saying anything stupid because he suddenly has Mitchell’s tongue in his mouth. 

And maybe in that universe Charlie is so good at kissing that Mitchell decides dialogue is a criminal waste of his talents, and they blow off the shoot and run away to some chic European city and live in an apartment with huge windows and a sturdy bedframe and drink wine that tastes like wet stones and fuck like bunnies. 

In this universe, Charlie just puts out a nerveless hand, and takes his phone. It’s still open on the contacts, one shiny new number nestled among them. Mitchell Shaw, the contact name says, and then: (Dialect Coach).

 

*

 

Charlie’s in a hotel room at the Brach in Paris. He knows he is, the way he knows his own name, even though the walls are the wrong color and none of the furniture looks quite how it did when he stayed here three years ago. The bed’s definitely different, because it’s what Charlie thinks is called a four-poster, the kind he’s never seen outside a movie set. The sheets feel– Not soft, exactly, but nicer than soft, frictionless as water against his skin. There’s a slight shine to them.

He’s sitting on the mattress, his breath shallow, a slippery heat building in his belly. 

Mitchell’s here too, seated before him, towards the foot of the bed; Charlie feels him there before he sees him, feels his presence — so still, so concrete. As though everything in the room exists poised in relation to him, caught in some kind of tension, quivering.

Charlie is definitely quivering. He can feel a gravity, Mitchell’s gravity, working on his limbs. Even though he can’t move — he hasn’t been told to move — the foot or so of air between them feels so wrong, intolerable, like it’s killing him. A dense pocket of poison that floats just outside him, but that hurts and sickens him all the same. Animals feel something like this, he thinks, before the Santa Ana winds start blowing.

He grits his teeth against it and tries hard not to whine. 

“You know why we’re here,” Mitchell says, voice low and private. Almost gentle, almost coaxing. “Go on.”

Oh. Right. Yeah, Charlie finds that he does know. He lies back, and looks up at the canopy above. He can’t see the fabric: It just looks dark, an endless soft darkness. The sheets are warm. He vacantly rubs a cheek against them, and he must have shaved recently because the slide is delicious. He wonders what time of day it is. 

He doesn’t wonder why he’s naked. Why wouldn’t he be? 

He takes a breath, then he brings his knees up to his chest, spreads them, hooks his forearms under them and pulls them back. Dimly, he registers the easy stretch of his hip flexors as he opens them up. He’s usually tight there from jogging — he wouldn’t usually be able to hold this position for longer than a minute — but right now he couldn’t be more comfortable. Maybe his muscles have melted: He feels limp and floppy all over. 

Almost all over.  

“Hmm,” Mitchell says — purrs really. He’s closer now, though Charlie didn’t hear him move; he doesn’t look — he hasn’t been told to look — but he feels the live warmth of a body against his left side. That sense of wrongness eases, melts away. “That’s nice, sweetheart. Now. Say dinner.”

“Dinner,” Charlie says, eyes on the darkness above him. His lips are so dry that it comes out as a cracked whisper. He licks at them, but it doesn’t help at all because his tongue is dry too, so dry and rough it leaves the thin skin tingling, sparky and sensitized. Maybe if Mitchell kissed him–

There’s a bright whistling noise, like a sword ringing against its sheath, and a crack so loud Charlie jumps, fists clenching where they’re sticking out between his knees, knuckles shining palely through his tan. Then he feels the pain: A shocked, shivery bloom of heat that makes his stomach contract and neon spots dance in front of his eyes. He gasps, and squirms futilely. It does absolutely nothing to ease the sting in his ass, just pulls his spread legs further open. He won’t drop them. He can’t.

“No,” Mitchell says. “Listen to me. Dinner.”

Charlie tries it again, and again, and again, biting his lips and panting harder each time he fails and feels that bright rush of heat, until finally Mitchell’s hand isn’t hurting him anymore, just stroking gently over heated skin and saying, “Good,” in a way that’s better than soothing, that’s calm and pleased. 

Charlie smiles dopily at the sound. He’s too busy breathing to think, his chest heaving, sweat starting to prickle at his collarbones.

“Now,” Mitchell says, “say fingers.”

This time the pain flares up just under Charlie’s ass, where his thigh meets the curve of a cheek. He only gets this one wrong three times, but by then he’s pretty much on fire all over. 

After his fourth try, the blow he’s waiting for never falls. Mitchell rubs a sweet circle into Charlie’s twitching ass, and tension rushes out of him so suddenly that for a second it leaves him breathless, weightless. Empty and inert, except for a deep core of pliant peace. 

He floats for a moment; Mitchell lets him float. Then they start again, and again, and again: Chandelier. Corset. Eager. Director. Sugar. Actor. Troublemaker. Tart.

Each strike sends another gush of stinging heat through Charlie, over him. He’s lost in it, submerged, crying out every time — awed, trembling little noises that fill up the room and bounce loudly off the walls. If the walls are still there. He’s got no idea. The hotel room — the whole world — has narrowed to this bed, and the fleeting feeling of Mitchell’s skin against his and the sound of Mitchell’s voice and the blazing ache that Mitchell’s stoking within him.

The air feels taut, hard for Charlie to pull into his lungs, and thin once it’s in there, barely any use to him at all. Each blow sets the whole world vibrating and puts starry points of light in that limitless darkness above his head, brief flaring constellations that shift and flicker and make Charlie feel dizzy in the extreme. But he keeps his eyes fixed on them, because if he looks down, if he lifts his head, then he’ll be able to see the way he’s spreading himself open, the way his cock is lolling against his tensed and sweaty stomach, too heavy to stand up properly, drooling spurts of pre-come across his hard-won abs. He’ll be able to watch the way the flesh of his ass and his thighs shudders each time Mitchell strikes.

Almost as though he’s caught a whisper of that thought, Mitchell stops petting gently at Charlie’s trembling thigh and his fingers get more demanding: grasping, groping, kneading. Fingers push against sore muscle, forcing a pathetic little whine out of Charlie that might be pain or shame or arousal. Or all three at once, bundled together — a clenched, unnameable feeling as hot and forceful as a fist. 

“My compliments to your trainer,” Mitchell says, sounding genuinely approving. “Quite the arse you have here, Charlie. It’s going to look very lovely thrusting away like a bunny rabbit on laptop screens around the world. But I’m the only one who gets to see it like this, isn’t that right?” His voice turns a little sharper, a little darker, and for the first time a fingertip dips between Charlie’s cheeks, strokes lightly over his exposed asshole. Charlie whines again, short and high like an animal in a snare: He feels his stomach swoop wildly within him — feels that hot fist of a feeling grip at his insides and tug. “Spread open so prettily,” Mitchell says. “All flushed and swollen for me. Giving off heat like a furnace. Can you say furnace, sweetheart?”

“Fur–Furnace,” Charlie chokes out, the word shaky and wet and definitely wrong. This time the smack catches his rim, and Charlie lets out his first sob.

There’s no shifting of the mattress, no stirring of the air, and yet suddenly there’s a hand against his face, warmer than he expected. He nuzzles into it and blinks tearily up at Mitchell, who’s leaning over him. It feels as though Charlie’s seeing his face for the first time in a lifetime. He looks immaculate, not a hair out of place, the slightest suggestion of a frown in the set of his regal features — though whether it’s critical or concerned, Charlie couldn’t say. 

Distantly, he knows he must be hard, because he’s ridiculously turned on and he can feel wetness against his stomach. But it’s like his cock can’t focus, like the blurry pulsing heat lapping at him can’t be distilled to one point. Even the mattress feels like it’s throbbing beneath him. In the canopy above them those pinpricks of light are flaring brighter, steadier, always there. Each throb seems to bring them closer, to drag them down towards the bed.

The night sky, Charlie realizes. They’re not in his head, those lights. He can see the night sky.

“Charlie, sweetheart,” Mitchell says, his eyes serious. “You need to concentrate. You’re starting to bruise. You won’t be able to sit for our morning session. We’ll have to run lines with you face down over my knee like a naughty schoolboy.” Charlie’s too deep in it now to even consider holding back the shudder that sends through him, and Mitchell must see it. “Oh,” he says, not sounding surprised in the slightest. “Ha. So you like that idea. Are you getting this wrong on purpose because you want to be smacked?” 

Charlie shakes his head urgently against the slippery sheets, then has to toss it a bit more because his stupid hair’s fallen in his eyes, sticking to his sweaty forehead. Mitchell’s hand comes up again and brushes it back, soothing and hot. 

Of course his hand is hot, Charlie realizes suddenly: It would be, from the impact. With every strike, Charlie’s leaving a mark on Mitchell too, in a way. He stares up at that impossible, star-studded night and feels the faint stirrings of thought, something shy, half-formed, hopeful and dumb.

“Hm,” Mitchell says, lightly, amused. “I don’t know that I believe you. New word: Let’s try whore.”

Charlie only has to gasp out “whore” twice before he gets it right, and when Mitchell says, “Good boy,” it’s low and pleased, like he really means it. Now even the gentlest stroke of his hand over Charlie’s ass feels almost like another strike, everything stings so badly. So nicely. Fuck. Whichever. Charlie squirms as much as he can in this position, not sure whether he’s trying to get away or get more of that pressure.

“You’re getting better, Charlie,” Mitchell says. “I’m making you better. Can you say that? Better?”

“Better,” Charlie says, and when the next blow falls, he can only turn his face into the sheets and whimper thickly. The fabric clings to his cheek, wet with his mess — his sweat and his tears and his spit. “B–Better — ah! Better, better. I’m getting better.”

“That’s right.” Mitchell’s voice is pleased and smooth — warm satin. Charlie wants to wrap himself up in it, but then he’ll get it messy too. Mitchell probably doesn’t like messy. Does he? “You are. You should see yourself, sweetheart. You’re a picture. Say picture.”

And just like that Charlie can see himself, from above, as though he’s floated free from his body and is looking down. He can see his face, flushed, tear-stained, his eyes dark and glassy. He can see his ass, beaten red, the skin taut and shiny like it’s sunburnt. He can see a perfect livid handprint on the back of his thigh, the same crushed-raspberry color as the head of his cock. And he can see that too, his cock, so hard and heavy that it hurts to look at. It jerks and twitches helplessly under Charlie’s gaze, every spasm of shame only feeding his arousal.

His lips look smudgy, bitten pink. He watches them shape the word, and feels it in his chest at the same time. “Picture.”

Mitchell hums and Charlie watches from above as those maddening, masterful fingers drift through the air, hovering above Charlie’s helpless cock. He can feel his heart beating in his head, watches his chest rise and fall like mad. His glossy lashes flutter against his cheeks; he watches them do it, but he can still see.

Mitchell’s fingers descend. They don’t touch Charlie’s cock, just rub firmly at the thin untouched skin behind his balls.

Instantly, Charlie falls back into himself, into that achy sea of throbbing; he throws his head back and whines, long and loud, looking at the stars. They’re so close now, almost no night left between them, just one bright glowing blanket.

“Charlie,” Mitchell says, “that was perfect.”

And that blanket falls and floods down out of the canopy in one hot gush of starlight that whites out the room — that ought, probably, to annihilate Charlie completely. But it just makes him yelp in shock and shake, all heat and feeling for a second. Then the flash fades, soaks into him, leaves him dazed and languid and heavy with radiance.

He has no idea whether he came, in the traditional sense, or whether it matters. It’s all got a bit too metaphorical to tell. Something happened. Something good.

“Perfect,” he repeats, brilliantly, and turns his head to find Mitchell.

Mitchell’s smiling, small but steady. “That’s right,” he says. “Perfect. Now.“ His hand finds Charlie’s ass again, and his smile deepens, sharpens, turns sly and expectant. “Say harder.”

 

*

 

Shooting starts. Charlie spends several docile weeks being shuttled around England, dimly aware that he’s getting a very thin glimpse of it. It can’t all be stately homes and studios and highways and hotels that used to be hunting lodges, but that’s all he’s seeing right now.

Occasionally somebody who actually owns one of the locations will pop up and prove Mitchell wrong: It turns out that plenty of people talk exactly the way Charlie has learned to. They just all happen to be approximately a thousand years old and richer than God. Charlie lets them tell him about the time in 1702 when the third Earl had an icehouse built especially for packing salmon, and when he says stuff like “Wow,” and “That is so super fascinating,” they believe him because everybody knows that Americans haven’t discovered insincerity yet.

The cast are nice enough, in a RADA kind of way; the crew are efficient and only semi-overtly despise actors. The costume’s stuffy and kind of ridiculous. The accent gets better, easier. The dreams get worse. The acting … Well, Charlie’s for sure nailing “pining horny lunatic”.

There’s two Mitchells, Charlie tells himself. The one who is Charlie’s collaborator and his teacher and kind of his employee — he’s the brisk, blandly polite Mitchell who’s She’s-All-That-ing Charlie into a marketable international product, the one who isn’t interested in him for any other reason, and actually has several rules to preclude the development of any interest. And then there’s the Mitchell who keeps casually strolling into Charlie’s stupid, slutty subconscious: He’s the one who seems very interested in Charlie, if only to order him about, to pull his hair and call him a good boy and spank him into weird dream orgasms. That Mitchell lives exclusively in Charlie’s head, rent-free. It seems like he might actually own the lease. 

They are two distinct entities, utterly unrelated. Except that if they’re ever in the same room together, the universe will explode. 

Charlie tries to banish Dream-Mitchell from his mind completely during the workday. It’s not easy, but it’s doable. Mostly. Apart from in those startling moments where Mitchell will suddenly go beyond supportive professionalism and start being genuinely nice to Charlie, nice and caring and funny, in a dry sort of way. When he starts responding to texted requests for new line readings within ten minutes, sending over voice notes obviously recorded in the middle of the supermarket before Charlie can even start working up a panic. When he notices Charlie shivering between takes of the obligatory wet-shirt scene, collars a production assistant, and calmly, firmly insists that Mr. Harper be brought a space blanket in each break. When he gives Charlie that steady look and asks him how he’s sleeping. Then things start looking pretty dicey for the universe.

It’s part of Mitchell’s job, Charlie tells himself, keeping the talent happy. All part of his job. Just like getting naked and telling people he loves them are parts of Charlie’s job.

It actually takes until the fifth week of the shoot before Charlie has his first closed-set scene, and even then it doesn’t come until halfway through the day. There’s been a lot of shirtlessness, which doesn’t bother Charlie, and a bit of over-the-clothes thrusting, which is more embarrassing, but he’s got to keep his pants on till now. 

“And, as any girl will tell you,” Polly says, “that is how you know it’s love. When you do it without breeches.”

Polly is chatty and pleasant and, like most English actors Charlie’s met, an absolutely shameless chain-smoker of tiny hand-rolled cigarettes. She’s going to be the next big thing, as long as Charlie doesn’t completely fuck this up for her, and they get on pretty well — which is lucky, because they’re about to spend the rest of the afternoon rolling around on an enormous bed, kissing like newlyweds. If newlyweds made a habit of tucking half-deflated dodgeballs between their bits whenever they kissed.

“Right,” the Assistant Director is yelling to pretty much everybody but them, “that’s it for the PG-rated stuff folks. Any non-essentials, out. You’re free! Grab food, drink, whatever. Go wild. Officially you’re on call in case we manage to break anything but realistically? We won’t need you for the rest of the afternoon.”

Charlie goes to tear a stray plastic cup into strips, then thinks somewhat abstractly that this might not be good for the turtles, and chews on his lower lip instead. When he’d first realized Mitchell wouldn’t be around for the nude scenes, he’d been relieved. But now he’s thinking of all the extremely dumb lines he has to say this afternoon, and his throat feels raw. He’s not body-shy, not at all, not when he’s been following his meal plan like a good little gym-rat, right down to the water rations — a gallon a day in the week before shirtless shoots, and then none whatsoever the day before, “to make the skin sit right”. He looks the way he’s been told to. But if he has to become a meme again, he’d really prefer not to be naked

Like he’s been summoned, Mitchell appears at his side, all tall and calm and solid. Charlie breathes.

“Really good work this morning,” Mitchell tells him, voice like a balm, “really good. Lovely, actually. You’re making me look great.”

“Thanks,” Charlie says, vaguely. “You are great. Look, Mitchell, do you think maybe I could get an ear-piece or something? I don’t know if I–“

Somebody — a script supervisor, scurrying to fix a curtain before they leave — pushes past them. Mitchell reaches out, draws Charlie gently out of the way with a hand to the small of his back. The movement brings him almost flush with Mitchell’s side, and it’s so deft, so obviously thoughtless. A purely practical motion, intended only to keep the shoot running smoothly.

It makes every one of Charlie’s nerves shiver and hum like neon in a bulb. Like he’s being run through with a thousand crackling volts.

Mitchell’s looking down at him, and his eyes are amused, semi-scolding, like Charlie’s an overindulged puppy begging for treats. “You don’t need an ear-piece, Charlie,” he says. “You know these lines. I know you do.” His hand is startlingly warm — a bold, radiant heat that presses through the fabric of Charlie’s robe and beyond, deeper.

“But–”

“But I had a feeling you might be about to ask. Here.” Charlie stops gazing into his eyes like a heroine on a Harlequin cover and looks down: With his free hand, Mitchell’s offering him a walkie-talkie, the kind all the crew carry — the kind Mitchell currently has clipped to his own belt. “I’m not leaving the studio,” Mitchell says, and presses it into Charlie’s clumsy hands. “So I’ll be on call all afternoon for any accent emergencies. Now I’m just going to grab my things. Run a couple of lines for me, as a test.” 

He turns and goes, taking his hand with him; the trail it traces across Charlie’s back as it leaves is so casually tender it almost makes Charlie’s knees buckle. 

“I love accent stuff,” Polly says, blithely, in her own very ridiculous but very real Bridget Jones, I’m-awfully-sorry voice. “So fascinating. I wish I weren’t quite so rubbish at them. Last time I really did one was in My Fair Lady at school. Ooh, actually, I still remember all the lines from the vocal training scene. Here, gimme.” She stops fidgeting with her costume and makes grabby hands for the walkie. Charlie surrenders it, and watches as she presses the button and, pushing her accent so far it sounds almost operatic, says: “In Hereford, Hertfordshire and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen.”

The radio makes a soft fshh sound. “Quite a tricky one,” Mitchell says, unphased. “‘R’s abound. Give it a go — Charlie, this time, please.”

Polly proffers the walkie, the button depressed.

“Wait,” Charlie says, wanting, suddenly, to show off. “Say it again, slower, and, y’know … more normal.” Then he copies Polly’s intonation: He has to take a couple of runs at “Hereford”, but the rest comes easily. Polly gives him a little clap, fingers tapping against the heel of her palm.

Fshh. “Very well done,” Mitchell says, over the radio. “Seems to be working.”

Polly elbows Charlie in the ribs. “Hear that? Very well done. Eliza Doolittle, you shall go to the ball!” 

Charlie isn’t sure he’s ever actually seen My Fair Lady, so he’s just going to have to trust Polly that these are lines from it. He shrugs and blushes, and looks round for Mitchell. He’s in video village, folding easily into a low crouch to grab his notebook and a flask from under a chair. “Could you tell I don’t have a clue what Hampshire is?”

Polly laughs and thrusts the walkie at him again, clearly relieved to have found something to do that isn’t think about smoking. “Now do: The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.”

That one’s super easy — no “R”s — and Charlie finds that he can do it without any thought at all, just copying the sounds Polly made. 

Somebody’s saying something to Mitchell; he stands, nodding distractedly, then turns and gives Charlie a thumbs-up with his free hand. Charlie can still feel the phantom warmth of that hand, lingering on his lower back.

“Yay!” Polly says. “So good. Now do: How kind of you to let me come.” And she pushes the button.

“How kind of you,” Charlie says, obediently, “to let me come.”

Over in video village, Mitchell drops his Hydro Flask.

The crash as it hits the deck is loud enough to make Charlie jump, even though it’s coming from halfway across the room, and he actually watched the flask tumble. It seems to wake him up: He hears what he’s just said and feels his face flame.

Mitchell stoops, retrieves the flask and straightens, tucks it under his arm. Then he looks up, right at Charlie, his face unreadable from this distance. He raises his walkie-talkie.

Fshh.

“Good,” he says. If Charlie closed his eyes, it would seem like they were standing right next to each other, so close he’d have to tilt his head up to meet Mitchell’s gaze. “But not quite. Just try ‘come’ again — that ‘uh’ noise. It’s a little lighter in the mouth. Come.”

I’m dreaming, Charlie thinks. I’m dreaming. But he can’t be: It’s not like the delicious bound comfort of his dreams, where he knows exactly what to do and he can’t do anything but that. It’s not like that at all. He stares at Mitchell for a second, his heart trembling, his throat tight. “Come?” he tries, dazedly.

“Perfect,” Mitchell says — lightly, professionally, utterly unbothered. “You’re going to be great.” And then he lowers his handset and leaves.

Charlie lets the walkie sit off to the side, unused, all afternoon. He simply can’t afford to think of Mitchell — either Mitchell — when he’s only wearing a modesty garment. He can’t. If Chisholm-Blount fucks with an American accent, then so be it.

 

*

 

Charlie has absolutely no idea where he is, not even a guess, and he can’t see, even though his eyes are open. There’s something soft covering them, clinging tightly against the bridge of his nose, almost as though it’s molded to his face. There’s no gap underneath for him to peek through, and he can’t tell if the room is light or dark or empty or what. When he blinks, his eyelashes graze against nothing.

He’s probably on a bed: He’s definitely lying face down, his cheek smushed against something soft, and he must not be wearing any clothes because he can feel that softness uninterrupted, all down his front. He lies there, arms by his sides, loose and open. Vulnerable. 

There is something in the room with him — something or someone. An eye, maybe, or a camera. Charlie couldn’t say how he knows: He just does, inside, a shivery feeling, as though there’s something blowing coolly on his organs. The way he feels on his better shooting days — nervy, electric, caught and suspended in the camera’s implacable gaze. Waiting to react and, possibly, to react really well. Perfectly. 

His breath is picking up. The air feels thin, almost alpine. He can hear a hushing noise that might be the sea, or his own breath, or his heartbeat. There’s a light tingling in his lungs and, weirdly, in his calves: a haze of chilly white static, building, spreading, rising. When he tries to move, just his hand, he’s amazed to find he can. It’s too easy somehow; his limbs feel light, hollow, the way they get right after he finishes his last rep and sets down his weights. 

It frightens him, that freedom — gives him a giddy sick feeling, like falling — and that wave-break noise picks up until it’s filling the room. Freedom to move means freedom to fuck up: He’s going to fuck up in front of whoever or whatever it is that’s in the room with him, and then, and then–

“Charlie,” a voice says, so close it must be inside his head. There’s no breath against his cheek, no sound of movement or dip in the mattress. “Charlie, relax.”

And Charlie does. He makes no choice to do it — he doesn’t think good idea, I’ll try that, or yes, I want to please you so I will. He doesn’t take any deep breaths or recite any mantras. The voice just says relax and then he’s relaxed, in every muscle, in one single instant, tension rushing out of him like snow falling from a chalet roof. One wet slump. His shoulders drop; his legs go limp, pliant. He’s surprised he doesn’t sink right into whatever it is he’s lying on. 

That staticky haze suddenly turns warm, and clinging. Now it’s up to his thighs.

“Better?” the voice asks, and then: “You can nod, but I need you to say it out loud.” 

Charlie knows he can nod: He already is nodding, clumsily, against the mattress. His mouth is so slack and soft and relaxed, slow to respond. He licks his lips, swallows. “Yeah,” he says. “Better.” 

The words come out thick and blurry but the accent is there; the accent is good. He knows it is, even before he hears a low, pleased sound.

“Good boy,” the voice purrs. As if in response to the approval, that tingling warmth shifts up and settles, pooling in Charlie’s hips, making him let out a gasp, a tiny shocked intake of breath. “We have some work to do, don’t we?” the voice continues.

“Yeah,” Charlie says again, voice still all slow and dreamy, and even though he can’t see, he tries to blink his way out of his stupor, because the voice — Mitchell, of course — is right: They have got work to do. A scene to shoot. Why else would Charlie be wearing an earpiece — which must be how Mitchell is talking to him like this, close and intimate? Why else would he have that watched, on-camera feeling? He knows it all at once, and it all seems quite natural, quite obvious.

He also knows what kind of scene it is. Why else would he be naked?

“Okay, Charlie,” Mitchell says, low and calm in his ear, “roll your hips.”

Charlie brings his arms up, digs his elbows into the mattress and does as he’s told, then again, and again. He pants hotly into the sheets, his own breath moist against his cheeks, his hair falling forward and tickling at his forehead.

“Good,” Mitchell says, though how he can tell if the set is closed, Charlie has no idea. It doesn’t matter: The word still makes him whimper, makes his hips jerk convulsively, rhythm turning needy and instinctive. Realer. Like he’s really, really humping the bed like a filthy little animal. “Really good, Charlie. Very convincing. Keep at it. A bit faster, now.”

Then there are hands touching him, cool across his shoulders, leaving prickles of sensation behind them. Charlie jumps, flinches, breathing fast. It’s like he’s receiving their movements at a delay; by the time he’s felt the touch, it’s shifted.

“What comes next?” Mitchell says. Does his voice sound amused? Does he already know? Have they been through all of this together already — the cast, the director? Have they made pages and pages of notes and sent emails confirming boundaries, discussed it and blocked it and practiced the motions? Has Charlie just forgotten? 

If you don’t understand something, he thinks, then don’t pretend you do. “I don’t know. I– ah!” –the hand presses firmly at the base of his back, just above the curve of his ass, once and then again. It guides the motion, forcing his hips down, making him gasp and then sigh– “Ah. I don’t remember.”

Mitchell makes a noise that’s half-soothing, half-pitying. “That’s fine, sweetheart,” he says. “That’s why I’m here. I’ll talk you through it. You just be good for me, and I’ll make you look like a star.”

The hands shift again, and then they’re gripping Charlie’s hips, adjusting the tilt, making him arch his back, spread his legs, draw his knees up for more leverage. The contact is firm, business-like, almost impersonal — exactly the kind of touch Charlie’s received countless times from intimacy coordinators setting him up for the perfect shot. But it’s also nothing like that, because he’s usually so twitchy and awkward — crushed up against a bored co-star, a strategic barrier between them, acutely aware of his gracelessness and of the smell of bacon shriveling on the crafty table — that those touches are usually so profoundly, mercifully unsexy. They don’t usually make Charlie clutch at his own hair, or turn his joints all heavy and molten, flood his limbs with an irrepressible will to motion; they don’t make him yelp and moan like a heat-drunk alley cat.

Mitchell laughs in his ear, the sound rich and comfortable. “Lovely energy,” he says, “but don’t tire yourself out yet. We’ve barely started. Now, up onto your knees. Keep your head down.”

Charlie’s hips had been snapping forward, grinding against the mattress properly, but the second Mitchell says to, he stops, and draws weak knees forward to lift his ass into the air. His upper body stays sprawled against the mattress, fists clutching uselessly at the sheets. He’s breathing hard enough that he’s starting to feel it: the compression of his lungs as they strain against the firmness of the mattress, crushed under his own weight. The hands — his co-star’s hands, whoever they might be — help, getting under his hips and pulling up. Their fingers brush coolly over his– well, what Charlie really wishes his trainer wouldn’t call his cum-gutters. The shadowed pelvic lines that he’s done endless reverse crunches to achieve. His co-star’s fingertips seem to find the sensitive hollow beneath them almost incidentally, and Charlie whines and shivers, his hips twitching forwards against their hold, fucking the empty air.

“Hold still,” Mitchell says, a reprimand. It sends a hot flash through Charlie, a heat that stings at his cheeks and his throat and the insides of his thighs. “Arch your back more. Let them get the shot.”

Charlie stills, dazed, exposed, and tries to listen for the movement of the crew. All he can hear is the dark thump of his own heart.

“Good,” Mitchell says. “That’s great. You can move now, if you need to.” He laughs again, appreciative and surprised, when Charlie immediately starts twitching forwards again, unable to stop himself, his thighs quivering. “Oh. Ha. You do need to, don’t you? You’re so hard, sweetheart. And dripping all over the place. Can you do that on cue?” 

Charlie is hard — so, so hard from next to nothing. Now that Mitchell’s pointed it out, he can actually make out the sound of pre-come pattering softly against the bed. Fuck. He can feel his cock bobbing between his legs, stupid, eager. He can feel his balls swinging with each stuttery movement of his hips. 

The sweet, hot rush of shame forces a soft noise from him, and he rubs his face against the sheets. His co-star’s cool hand comes to rub at his stomach, a brisk circle, as though they’re soothing a panicking animal, which they kind of are. Or maybe it’s just the next move in the script.

“Good boy,” Mitchell says in his ear. “Don’t be shy. Spread your knees a bit. Well done. You look so lovely like that. Blushing all over, aren’t you?”

“You can see me?” Charlie asks, half-muffled in the sheets. He can barely string a thought together. That haze has very much reached his head now, the blackness behind his eyes bristling irregularly with impossible sparks of light.

This time Mitchell’s laugh is almost kind. “Everybody can see you, Charlie. You’re a movie star. But I’m the only one who gets to tell you what to do, aren’t I? Now. Ask to be touched.”

“Yes,” Charlie breathes, immediately. “Please, touch me, hold me, anything, please. I need it.” He doesn’t remember his lines at all, but he’s lost any kind of fear, any panic, surrendering to the warmth and the darkness and to Mitchell’s voice, letting it guide him on.

A hand is placed against his flank; another strokes up his thigh, then palms more firmly at his ass, a sure groping motion that’ll make the flesh dimple and go pale under their fingers, the kind of thing that looks good on camera and feels — God, feels amazing. Charlie can feel calves against the insides of his own, keeping his legs spread. The other person must be kneeling right behind him, but his blood’s running so hot that he can’t feel their warmth there, can’t tell whether they’re dressed or not. He could grind back and find out, but Mitchell hasn’t told him to. So he just lets them pet at him, lets them slip fingers between his chest and the mattress to play with his nipples, and shivers under their hands.

The hand on his ass disappears and for one breathless second Charlie waits, lungs empty. Then there’s a crack, an instant pang of heat, a wall of white behind his eyes, and Charlie’s knees skid across the sheets, splaying him out. 

He lies there, stunned, as the darkness creeps back. His hip flexors don’t even twinge. The afterburn — the hot ghost of a hand against his ass — hurts more than the hit itself, a kind of dull glowing heat that burrows into Charlie’s bones and weighs them down.

Somebody in the room is mewling like a porn star, sounding like they’re having the time of their life, or, possibly, a panic attack. Charlie reckons it’s probably him.

“Concentrate, Charlie,” Mitchell says. “That’s your cue. Ask for more. Beg for a couple of fingers inside you.”

“More, please,” Charlie says, emptily. His voice cracks horribly in the middle, but it must be okay because Mitchell doesn’t make him try again. “Please, I need your — I need your fingers inside me.”

A hand presses firmly between his shoulder blades, holding him down. 

“Turn your head,” Mitchell says, almost teasing. “The studio didn’t pay for that pretty face just for you to hide it in the sheets. And, breathe.” 

And then, just like that, Charlie’s got something inside him.

His mouth opens round a thin, fevered noise of satisfaction. The fingers are thick and cool, and there’s definitely more than one in there — two, or maybe three — curling, teasing, spreading him wide. 

Charlie blinks against the dark. So easy, he thinks, blankly. They’d slid right in, in one long, slow thrust. He must have prepared before, though he doesn’t remember it.

“Go on,” Mitchell says. “You know what to do now.”

Yeah, it’s been a while, but Charlie does know what to do with a couple of fingers in his ass, actually. That’s probably one of those “once learned, never forgotten” things. Like falling off a bicycle. He knows what the camera likes too: motion and emotion. He rocks his hips as much as he can in this position, riding that cool hand hard; he moans, tosses his hair, lets a trembling, ecstatic smile spread across his sweaty face. Well, lets is debatable. It all just kind of happens. It feels that fucking good. “Yes,” he says, stupid with bliss, “yes. Thank you. Want it.”

“Louder, sweetheart,” Mitchell says, and does his voice seem a little more gravelly than usual? The sound of it seems to have swollen; in the soft black space behind Charlie’s eyes, it presses outwards, seeking a limit. It almost feels better than any of the rest of it, any other fullness — Mitchell in his head like this, filling him up, leaving no room for thought, or for fear. “You’ve been waiting all day for it,” Mitchell says. “You’re supposed to be desperate for it. Are you desperate for it, Charlie?”

And Charlie opens his mouth and surrenders, lets the words flow right through him. Yes, yes, he’s desperate for it, he needs it, been burning for it, all day, forever. He can’t think for how much he wants it. The person behind him slaps his thigh again, leans forward and puts a fist in his hair, tugging his head back in a way that seems like it should be painful, but isn’t, not really. Charlie’s mouth just runs on till his throat feels dry and raw, like he’s been choking on something thick. But there’s nothing in there except air and sound — filthy, heartfelt sound. “I’ll be good for you, please, I promise, want you so much, be so good, just touch me, fuck me, kiss me, let me come, please, I’ll do anything.”

He stays there for what feels like forever, a needy thrill twitching and building within him, hotter and hotter, but never quite enough.

“Well done,” Mitchell says, at last, “very good,” and Charlie whines against the mattress, weakly, every muscle drawn tight — waiting for that final surge of feeling, that wonderful flash-bulb pop of pleasure.

The fingers draw back, and he’s empty.

Charlie has his first thought in an age: a hurt little twinge of confusion that comes as much from his bowels as it does from his brain. Wait, he thinks, wait wait wait what the fuck?

He wants to collapse and whimper pathetically into the sheets, and apparently that’s allowed because he’s doing it, right now. His mind flutters against the fact of his emptiness like a bird battering itself against a window and gets nowhere. He’d thought he was doing well. Being good. 

All he wants is for somebody to come and stroke him and tell him it’s okay. Specifically, he’d like them to stroke his cock and tell him it’s okay to come, but honestly, at this point, anything will do.

“Right,” Mitchell says. “Just one quick pick-up. Reset from the first slap.” 

Somewhere in the hot soup of Charlie’s body, there’s a sick lurch of horror. Reset? But– He can’t.

Maybe he makes a noise, or maybe Mitchell can just hear the jackrabbit thump of Charlie’s heart over the mic, because his voice turns soft and stern. “Charlie. Up you get. I know you can do it.”

Charlie gets up, and does it.

At some point between the second try at the first slap and the fist in Charlie’s hair, time trips over and doesn’t get back up. It just starts crawling, limping, oozing forwards. The air is so full of the tang of sex that it gives no oxygen, and so thick that Charlie starts to feel like he’s suspended in slowly shifting honey, like the atmosphere itself is pushing him around. Breathless, empty, he lets it draw his body on, lets it combine with Mitchell’s voice and those unseen hands to guide his pliant limbs into the next position. On his back, on his knees, led across the room and pinned against the wall.

His mind — his self — he lets sink down and away, lets it ebb back into the darkness inside, into the dull, soft throb of his own heart. He is darkness and a heartbeat, a blissful nothing. A gap in the world, through which, occasionally, the low, lovely hum of Mitchell’s voice flows. He goes on being a gap for what might be hours. Might be an eternity.

Occasionally he’ll recollect himself, just a little — like stirring in sleep — and he’ll be hit all over by a perfect, unbearable burst of pleasure-horror-shame. It’s rarely a touch that does it — or at least it isn’t a hand or mouth on his cock, a length in his ass, or any of the grinding of parts against parts that reads as “sex” on screen. It’ll be a command from Mitchell, or a piece of praise, or a change in position, a brisk rearrangement of his limbs by his unseen co-star. Any reminder that he’s too dazed and fuckstruck to manage his own movements, that he’s being firmly, gently looked after, and he’ll surface and start shaking with want.

And what it is that he wants …

He wants to be kissed. He’s so good at kissing, and he wants to show Mitchell, show everybody. He wants to beg for the chance. But apparently (CHARLIE begs pathetically for a kiss) is not in the script, because he doesn’t do it — just goes on wanting, and wanting, and doing as he’s told, and slipping in and out of existence.

Eventually, a point comes when he surfaces, floats up and out of the dark, and the hands aren’t there. Charlie’s lying on the bed untouched, alone. He’s shivering.

“Really good,” Mitchell says, in his ear, and so, so far away. “Perfect, Charlie. You’re a trooper. You’re a star.”

Charlie makes an incoherent noise, something between a moan and a sob. His lips are hot. He can feel his heartbeat in them, suddenly thick and violent: They’re the only part of him that he can still feel with any kind of clarity. Everything else seems very vague, soft and tender and messy, as though all that touching has smudged out the boundary line of his body. Now he’s coming apart, drifting out towards the furthest reaches of space, his nerves brushing rawly against everything in existence. Expanding, slowly, as the universe breathes endlessly out. 

He lies there, suspended, all feeling and no body. Just a hot heavy fog, held together by the flimsiest of bonds and lit with occasional flashes of something too vast and too simple for words, not pain, not pleasure, but a blank shining sheerness. Helplessness. Much too much too muchness.

“Well done, sweetheart,” Mitchell says, voice soothing, voice louder, voice everything. Soaking through Charlie, till it’s penetrated into every part of him, every stupid, scattered, space-cadet cell. “Very well done. Okay. Now. Come.”

And Charlie shakes into atoms.

 

*

 

“Actually,” Polly is saying, “I read an article, and the whole fainting thing is completely made-up. Costume historians hate it. People are probably going to tear it to shreds. But I think–“

They’re standing in the middle of a field, breathing in the dense, rural smell of dry grass and warm cow and waiting for some cameras to shift about. As far as fields go, this one seems pretty nice: green all over, and dotted with daisies and baby’s breath and these weird fluffy yellow things that wobble elastically in the breeze like the volume needle on an old-fashioned amp. Very romantic. Perfect for the scene they’re waiting to shoot — the big, climactic corset-crisis scene, where Polly gets to show off her swooning skills, and Charlie has to demonstrate that, for all his stiff, brooding blankness, Chisholm-Blount really does care after all. The kind of scene that, done right, should send the audience into what smirking critics like to call “a tizzy”. 

Charlie thinks he can do it right. He hopes he can do it right. At least there’s not much dialogue. 

The thought has him scanning the field — compulsively, like he’s patting his pockets for his keys — until he finds Mitchell. He’s over by the monitors, looking cool and European in a linen shirt and a pair of tortoiseshell sunglasses that make it hard to tell whether he’s looking back.

What would a normal guy — one who had never once dreamed of being talked to a climax so intense that he literally disintegrated — do at this point, Charlie wonders. He’s not sure anymore, so he just reaches up and gives a halting little wave, like a teen simpering at their crush from the bleachers; half-desperate to attract attention, half-terrified of success.

Mitchell raises a hand and nods in response, dignified. Charlie’s heart trips with something that could be delight or self-loathing. It’s for sure pathetic.

He turns back to Polly and tries, with difficulty, to concentrate on the conversation. Everything’s difficult today, effortful: His thoughts feel heavy, and there’s an anxious moment at the halfway point of every blink where he wonders whether he’ll have the energy to hoist his eyes open again. 

And he only has himself to blame. He’d been sleeping. If it wasn’t always through the night, then it was close enough to make no difference. His body hasn’t actually been tired, or not in ways that matter: He doesn’t look tired, thank God. Make-up hasn’t started tutting at him. It was what his mind got up to while he slept that was the problem, one he’d thought had no solution. Or he’d considered the only obvious solution — drinking himself into a blank and heavenly stupor — and rejected it. Alcohol is very much not in his meal plan, and Charlie’s terror of turning up to set hungover and puffy outweighs the indignity of spending a little while every morning so groggy and horny and heartsick that he wants to punch himself and cry. 

Then yesterday he’d tried to blame a space-out between takes on lingering jetlag, even though he’s been here for — God, for nearly two months now, and Polly had chirpily offered him an Ativan for the evening. 

He should have thought twice. He should have said no. He’d practically bitten her hand off. He’d felt a little buzz, actually, all day, every time he remembered that it was waiting for him; he’d ordered a trainer-approved dessert with his dinner, made a special occasion of it. Then he’d looked at them lined up on his borrowed nightstand — a handful of frozen blueberries and a tiny white ticket to dreamless oblivion, the saddest little treat  — and really needed the pill. 

But there’s a reason he doesn’t usually use sleep-aids, and here, with the mid-morning sun beating down and his costume hugging snugly at him from his boots to his cravat, Charlie’s remembering what that reason is. They always make him feel like shit the next day — drowsy and shaky and fragile. Over-stimulated. The light feels sharp against his eyes, each tiny, twitching movement in the grass like the glittering flash of a flick-knife. The smell of Polly’s cigarette is making his guts shudder and dance within him. If anybody speaks even slightly harshly to him, he’ll jump like a cat and burst into tears. 

It doesn’t help that it’s really fucking hot out here, or that this set-up is taking forever, or that he hasn’t sat down in three hours and there’s a dull, itching tenderness building at the base of his spine.

One moment Charlie’s just standing there being a stroppy little diva, frowning at the ground and totting up these tiny complaints. And then there’s a shift — a tilting, missed-step moment where his day falls to pieces around him, and he realizes that there’s something actually, genuinely wrong.

Polly’s voice fuzzes out to a hum, as though someone in the mixing booth accidentally leant on a slider. Charlie looks up and finds that the picture-perfect vista has turned blurred and hostile, a wall of green and yellow and hurting, over-bright blue that seems ready to rush up at him with violent intent. The field wobbles about beneath his boots like a sheet being shaken out.

“Polly,” he manages, “I think–” 

And then he has to stop, because he doesn’t know what to think — because he’s not thinking anything at all, just standing there and feeling a dull, dreadful blast of fear touch at his bowels, his lungs, his heart, his fucking idiot heart, which is suddenly pumping in double-time, as though Charlie’s pushing hard on the back end of a 5K, when he’s literally just standing there. His blood slams and sloshes through his veins. He swears he can feel it flooding his brain, pressing hard at the back of his eyes, so blunt and invasive that it makes him want to retch — as though that’ll bring relief, clear it out of him, this sick wrong liquid pressure; this helpless slipping feeling. This sense that some huge, uncaring force has a thumb on his off-switch, and is pressing down hard.

A slippery wash of dizziness rushes through him, and those springtime colors turn dim and cold. His limbs feel cold too; his heart feels cold, and shivery. Is this a heart attack? Is he having a fucking heart attack? Is he dying?

Do I have to lie down, Charlie thinks, meek and stupid with terror, or does that part just sort of happen?

“Oh my God,” a woman’s voice says. “Charlie. Are you– Oh my God. Some help here, please! Who’s a first aider?”

Hands grab at his arm, clutch at the fabric of his coat in a way that makes it pull tight across his shoulders, as though Charlie’s struggling against their hold. He isn’t, or he isn’t really meaning to, any more than a stone tossed in deep water really means to sink. 

“Move,” somebody is saying, loudly, authoritatively, a little way away. “Move.” The voice sounds so familiar, but the tone is strange, ragged where it should be smooth, and then when it comes again — so loud its owner must be right by Charlie now — the words are wrong too: “Jesus fuck. Here, let me–“

Then there’s something warm and blessedly solid against Charlie’s front, taking his weight. There’s fabric, fine and crisp, clenched tightly in his panic-slick hand. A sweet, coppery smell. 

A sudden and total cessation of fear — like the pulling of a tooth, but without the pain.

Charlie’s lips move around a clumsy, prayer-like noise: a sigh of relief, maybe, or a name. He sees a face close to his own, or something like a face, a soft-focus tan smudge and two darting points of brightness. Eyes, wide and gorgeous, and so full of urgent feeling that they seem lit from within — that Charlie feels bashful to be caught looking and turns his face away, buries it in the warmth of a linen-covered chest.

He isn’t frightened any more. Maybe he should be. But when the darkness draws around him — firmly, carefully — it’s like a fist closing over something it intends to keep safe.

Charlie’s next concrete sensation is of a tickle at the back of his neck. Grass. He’s lying on his back, and the ground is spinning very gently beneath him. Fun, actually, in a tipsy, helpless sort of way. There’s a cool weight against his forehead: a hand, resting there, as though feeling for fever. It feels absolutely huge, huge and powerful, and shockingly personal. Like being worried about by God.

“Okay, sweetheart,” that same familiar voice says. “Full name, please.”

“Charlie Drew Harper.” It comes out as a dry whisper, careful around the “R”s. The hand moves away, down to Charlie’s throat; efficient fingers tug at his cravat, pulling his collar loose, letting cool air in. Charlie manages to pry his eyes open, and there’s Mitchell, shades pushed up and the sun behind him.

“Right,” Mitchell says, and gives Charlie a pinched little smile, eyes still intent. “Drew. That’s nice. And can you tell me where we are?”

No, Charlie can’t. He can hear the flurry of noise and many-limbed movement that means work and, above that, piercing trills of birdsong — but he has no idea where they are. He hasn’t known all morning. He’d simply got in the car and let it take him where he was wanted. Now he feels like he’s failed to prep for a test he didn’t know was coming: How’s he meant to prove that he’s fine if he lives his whole life like he’s concussed? “Location,” he manages. “Uh, Surrey?”

“Right,” Mitchell says. “That’s a good start. Lift your legs for me?” Then he turns away and his tone gets more commanding. The words slip straight off the surface of Charlie’s brain, leaving very little meaning behind. “More water,” he hears, and, “something with some sugar in, and make sure it’s … something to rest his legs on … yes, that’ll do, pass that … some space.

Charlie allows his feet to be propped up, feeling the prickle of sweat drying on his collarbones. The air’s still hot and thick, even down here at ant-level, but it smells weirdly good — dry earth, and something rich and sweet, like apricots. The scent shakes a memory loose, and Charlie finally fits a name to those feathery splashes of yellow he’s been looking at all morning: cowslips, the county flower. He read all about them at the hotel, on another plaque. There’s something to put in his pocket for the next time somebody wants to write a profile on him. While we wait for our starters, the conversation — such as it was — peters out: Harper fiddles diffidently with the silverware and startles every time I speak, as though he keeps forgetting I’m there. “So what do you do,” I ask him, a little desperately, “for fun?” He puts his fork down, and that sweet, slightly slack-jawed face draws itself into a slow frown of concentration. “Well,” he says at last, “lately I’ve been getting super into reading plaques …

God, Charlie’s head hurts. Inside his vest, his shirt is crushed and spongy with sweat. Wardrobe are going to be mad at him. 

Oh, fuck, everybody’s going to be mad at him. 

Charlie tries to sit up: He holds the action in his mind for about a minute, and then, slowly, falteringly, his body starts to respond. 

“No, no, no,” Mitchell says at once. “A bit precipitate, I think.” His hands dart about, pressing Charlie back down, tucking something under his head, reaching for a bottle — moving so efficiently, so easily, even through air as dense as pudding. “Let’s just stay lying down for a second. Here’s some water. Take little sips for me, s–” He coughs and clears his throat. “Little sips, Charlie.” 

Charlie obediently takes the nozzle of the bottle between his lips and sucks water from it in drips, like a hamster. It’s so cool on his heated tongue that it tastes thick, metallic, and for a second he just rejoices in it. Then he lets it go, turns away to speak. “I’m fine,” he says, or tries to say: The words come out in one bruised slur. He tries harder. “Fine. I totally am, just … Hot day. Ativan hangover. Light-headed. Air-headed, ha ha.”

“Ha ha,” Mitchell says, flatly, unconvinced. “Keep drinking, slowly. What have you had to eat this morning?”

Charlie rattles off his morning meal plan, something he could do in his sleep. It’s repetitive, and short.

“Right,” Mitchell says. His voice sounds tight, and when Charlie peeks up at him there’s a stiffness to his face, a tension in his clean-cut jaw. Is Mitchell mad at Charlie? For passing out? Or for trying to sit up? “Naturally,” Mitchell’s continuing, mad or not. “And your draconian water regime? Are you drinking far too much today, or none at all?”

“Oh, shit.” None at all, actually, because Charlie’s meant to have another shirtless scene tomorrow. He shies away from the bottle, a guilty, instinctual jerk of his head; a little water spills out onto his chin, and the forearm he raises to wipe it away is as floppy and graceless as a stocking full of wet cement. Jesus. “Right. Water. Shouldn’t be–”

“You definitely should be,” Mitchell says. “Doctor’s orders.” He pauses for a second, eyes closed as though concentrating hard, and breathes out sharply through his nose. “So. No carbs, no water, two hours standing in the blazing sun, and a hefty helping of nerves. I don’t think we can necessarily blame this on Ativan side-effects. Let’s call it a concatenation of stressors, each alone capable of knocking you for six.” 

“You can call it that,” Charlie says faintly, “if you want.” He doesn’t know that he’d be able to get his lips around “concatenation” even at his most lucid. In fact, just the effort of hearing it is enough to have his eyelids falling shut without his permission. They’re so heavy that he just leaves them closed, even when he feels a light touch against his forehead again, sure fingers brushing back his damp hair.

“That’s better,” Mitchell says, in a tone of soft approval. “Relax. Just concentrate on breathing.”

Something rosy and expansive shimmers into being then, deep in Charlie’s chest — a blank warm peace he remembers from his dreams. Suddenly, Mitchell being pleased with him seems more real and important than everybody else in this heaving, glittering hell-meadow hating his fucking guts. He’s too wrung-out to remember why he ought to push the feeling away, so he doesn’t. He lies there, feeling it, and listens to the dull roar of activity around them, and lets Mitchell feed him more water, and concentrates on breathing.

He only becomes aware that somebody’s approached because there’s a fuzzy burst of chatter from their walkie-talkie. Squinting upwards gets him nothing more than a vague person-shaped blur, bending over him.

“Adrian says the light’s changing,” the new arrival says. “How you doing, Charlie? Let’s get those eyes open, huh? Can you get up?” 

Charlie ponders that one. He doesn’t feel like he’s dying anymore, which is for sure an improvement, and his heart-rate is starting to find a tentative equilibrium. But the air around him still feels strange and dense, and he has this distracting certainty that it’s waiting for him to sit up into it, because it wants to do something horrible to him. 

“Please,” the person adds, and it becomes clear that it was more a request than a question.

Okay. Charlie guesses he can’t lie on the floor all day just because he has a bad feeling. He gives sitting up a go. 

A curtain of neon-tinged fog drops heavily in front of his eyes; the world gives a wild, funhouse tilt. Then there’s a couple of moments where anything at all might happen, because Charlie is so busy keeping the contents of his stomach where it belongs — inside him — that he stops paying attention to much else.

When he manages to blink away the worst of the floaters, he’s horizontal again, and making a noise like a puppy in a thunderstorm. Mitchell’s hand is resting firmly against his chest, the thumb moving over the smooth fabric of his vest in a comfortingly regular rhythm. If Charlie’s head wasn’t full of some kind of poisonous pulp, he’d probably be really enjoying that. 

He’s enjoying it anyway, a little bit. Each minute stroke seems to beat back the nausea slightly, to quiet the desperate crash of his heart.

“–dehydration,” Mitchell is saying, all cool authority. “Shouldn’t even think about moving till we’ve got some more fluids in him.” 

“Okay.” The person is sounding more annoyed than cajoling, now. It probably wouldn’t improve their mood if Charlie vomited on their sneakers. He focuses, hard, on not doing that. “And how long is that going to–“

“If you rush him back to his feet,” Mitchell says, over them, “he’ll fall right back down again. You can tell Adrian that having first aiders on set isn’t just a formality. He needs to let them administer aid. It’s a responsibility that I take seriously, and he should take it seriously too. If he takes issue with that, he can speak to me himself. And then, shortly afterwards, he can speak to SAG-AFTRA.”

“But the light–“

“Come on. Shoot what you can, and rejig the schedule. Nothing you get right now would be worth it. He’s not going to be turning in his best performance if he’s half an inch from passing out.”

The person scoffs and shifts their feet around, making the grass by Charlie’s cheek shiver and spring about. “Oh yeah,” they say, tersely. “Charlie Harper’s best performance. Wouldn’t want to miss out on that.” 

Charlie‘s heart gives a nasty little spasm of shame, and heat springs to his clammy cheeks. Against his chest, Mitchell’s hand stills. 

“He just has to stand there and look pretty, for God’s sake,” the person continues. “Can’t you … I don’t know, isn’t there something you can give him?”

“What did you have in mind?” Mitchell’s voice is arctic. “Smelling salts? Uppers? Or just a good, hard slap?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“I’ve given you your answer. Walk away, now, before this gets any more unprofessional.”

Those sneakered feet step back a little, as though slapped, or scared. Charlie feels a twinge of sympathy for their owner: If Mitchell ever said anything to him in that flat, cold, disdainful tone, he would just shrivel up and die on the spot. “I–” the person starts, morose but cowed. “Fine. Get him back to Make-up when he’s ready.” They turn and go.

Charlie dares to flutter his eyes open again and finds things pretty much as he left them, though now Mitchell’s looking actively pissed, jaw clenched and eyes stormy. The heat in Charlie’s cheeks increases: Yeah, he knows Mitchell’s mostly just touchy about having his competence questioned, but from down here on the floor, it felt a little like Charlie’s honor was being defended. 

“Thanks,” Charlie manages, voice horribly soft. Then, to cover his ass, he clears his throat and goes on: “For making them go away, I mean. And, y’know, stopping me from smacking my head. I had no idea you were a first aider.” Aider comes out a bit wrong, a bit California. Charlie mouths it to himself a couple of times, trying to get his tongue in the right place.

“It’s not an official position,” Mitchell says, watching him. “I have first aid training and I was close at hand.” 

That doesn’t tally with Charlie’s recollection — he’s pretty sure Mitchell had been half a field away — but he won’t pretend he has a particularly firm grasp of recent events. Mitchell’s still looking at him, eyes deep, a funny expression on his handsome face that falls somewhere between amusement and wincing concern.

“Charlie,” he says. “You don’t have to–” Then he breaks off and shakes his head a little, looking down at his hand where it’s still resting on Charlie’s chest. “I don’t think I’ve ever coached anybody who worked as hard as you do.”

Charlie lies there listening to the birds, and thinks about that for a bit, pulling it apart in his mind like shreds of cotton candy. It’s just as sugary, as feathery-light: It doesn’t mean anything, not really. Effort’s not enough, Charlie knows that. But still. It makes him feel good — warm with pride — and not just because it’s coming from Mitchell. “Well,” he says, finally. “I have to. I’m not exactly a natural. I’m not really a natural at anything.”

Mitchell huffs out a soft laugh, then he must feel Charlie tense up under his hand, because he gives him another soothing stroke. “I’m not laughing at you,” he says. “It’s just that that’s literally the opposite of what I would say, if asked to describe you. I’d say that you’ve got the one thing nobody can teach. It’s more than looks. You can’t manufacture it in the gym. It’s more like … presence. Star quality. The camera just adores you.” He stops and his brows pinch together, like he’s thinking hard. Then he blows out his breath hard — an explosive noise of decision. “Fuck it,” he says, as though to himself. “It’s not like it was in the contract.” He turns to Charlie, eyes serious, intent. “Your agent told me not to mention this, but I’m going to.” 

And then he says it, names it, brings it right there into the field with them — the Major Studio Fuck-Up.

Charlie’s insides turn to ice water. 

“There’s a reason it made a splash, instead of just sinking without a trace,” Mitchell says. “There’s a reason people were talking about it, and there’s a reason they’re going to come across it on television five years from now, and lose the whole afternoon to it. And it’s not the accent or the script or the story — they’re all bad, but none of them are prodigiously bad, I promise. It’s you, Charlie. When you’re around — when you’re on screen, it’s hard to look away.”

Charlie’s mouth had already fallen open at the cussing, but now he’s gaping vacantly like a dead bass. He blinks up at Mitchell. “I think you must have seen a different movie from everybody else,” he hears himself say, the words faint against his own ears.

No,” Mitchell says, firmly, and the hand on Charlie’s chest presses down a little harder, as though Mitchell’s trying to pin him down and make him listen, or to push the compliment into him by force. “Stop that. I saw your movie. Honestly, I barely noticed the accent. I was too busy watching you.” 

His eyes are round with sincerity, and his gaze is so deep and steady that Charlie swears he feels it, like the beam of a spotlight against his face, making his skin heat and his eyes prickle. 

“You have to stop punishing yourself for it,” Mitchell says, softer.

“I’m not.” Charlie’s chest feels tight, caught, his breath halted beneath the broad warmth of Mitchell’s hand like it doesn’t want to leave. His words come out more like a whisper. “I’m not, I’m just … just trying to be better. To be something better.” To be what everybody wants.

“Okay,” Mitchell says, and though a hint of a smile creeps into his voice, he doesn’t sound amused, or mocking. “But you already are something. Something good. You do know that, don’t you?”

He’s so fucking beautiful with the sunlight behind him —  touching at his skin, his hair; making him glow gold at the edges. Even his pushed-up shades look perfect, effortlessly chic. There’s a reddened mark on the bridge of his nose from where they’ve been resting all morning, and Charlie’s brain snags on it, a tiny proof of reality. This isn’t a dream. This is really happening. 

So why does it feel so exactly like his dreams? Why does the air between them suddenly feel tight, like elastic, stretched to its limit and straining to snap back, to bring them crashing together?

Why does it seem like Mitchell’s spotlight gaze just dropped to Charlie’s lips?

“Sorry, I’m coming, I’m coming,” a voice says, each word louder than the last. “I’m here, I’m sorry, I know that took forever.”

Charlie remembers that the rest of the world exists. He must be recovering because when he looks up at this new person, he can actually make out some distinguishing features. Leggings, pink t-shirt, braids: A production runner, young, excited to be there but hiding it relatively well. He’s pretty sure she’s called Keziah. She skids to a halt, panting a little, and drops into a crouch by Charlie’s head like she’s auditioning for ER, or whatever the British equivalent would be. 

“You’re going to be okay, Mr. Harper,” she says, eyes huge and serious. “I got you a brownie.”

That’s the thing about sets: Everybody who works on one thinks they’re the star of their own personal movie. Look at Charlie. He just literally swooned, and now he’s hearing violins because somebody said he wasn’t terrible at his job. It’s hard to look away. That’s what people say about car crashes, for Christ’s sake. 

Charlie wonders whether Mitchell had spotted the gooey, delusional look in his eyes. There’s no hand against his chest anymore. That sort of feels like an answer. 

Charlie struggles up onto his elbows, hating himself. “Oh,” he says to Keziah, glad to have somebody else to look at, “that’s– Thank you so much.”

She smiles, shy and pleased, and holds out a napkin-wrapped brownie. Charlie definitely can’t eat it.

“It is vegan, right?” Mitchell asks, pre-empting his first protest. Keziah nods fervently and says something about avocados. “Good work,” Mitchell says, then, in a voice that brooks no argument: “Eat it, Charlie. You need the blood sugar. I should imagine your trainer will make an exception, if that’s what’s worrying you.” His expression darkens again. “If he takes his job even slightly seriously, then he’ll be mortified that this happened at all. The client’s well-being should always come first.” 

Client, Charlie thinks, with some determination, client client client. That’s all he is to Mitchell, and all he should be. He takes the brownie before anybody can get any ideas about hand-feeding him — kind, practical ideas that would let Charlie find out what a real heart attack feels like — and nibbles meekly at it. It tastes so good and so sweet that his throat aches when he swallows. The world doesn’t implode.

After another avo-brownie, half a bottle of water and a couple more false starts, the ground lies still long enough for Charlie to stumble all the way to his shared trailer, which is a major fucking relief. Mitchell is still very much there, being all calm and considerate and checking Charlie’s pulse every twenty minutes, but it’s much more difficult for any kind of atmosphere to build up when you’re shut in a Winnebago that smells of pasta salad, with most of a production team fussing over your cravat. And a beloved British character actor sitting in the corner in just the top half of his costume and a pair of tiny coral boxer-briefs like a nineteenth-century Pooh Bear, complaining about the fit of his breeches.

He’s finally cleared for duty around two; when he steps down from his trailer, there’s a little scattering of applause. Charlie wishes he could pretend it doesn’t feel good, but it does, it feels so good — even this, a pity clap for managing to turn up to work, for just about clearing a bar that was, quite literally, on the actual floor. It helps that the noise makes Mitchell smile, his eyebrows raised in approval or even, Charlie’s movie-poisoned brain insists, affectionate pride. 

God, he’s pathetic.

All things considered, he’s never been more relieved to get in front of the camera and step into Lord Chisholm-Blount — to be somebody else and recite somebody else’s words in a universe where nobody’s ever heard of Charlie Harper. Where Charlie Harper has never even existed. 

Polly faints very prettily when given the chance: a graceful, jointless topple with all the trimmings — fluttering eyelashes, parted lips, chest straining against her corset. When Charlie gets his arms around her, her gloved hand comes up to grasp feebly at his coat, just a little tug, as weak as a kitten. 

Lord Chisholm-Blount does his best to look both commanding and anguished, while also hitting his marks and holding her at the right angle. “Miss Twistleton-Blyss,” he says. “Louisa.”

Her lashes kiss her cheek, once, twice, and her whole face turns soft and dreamy, a tiny saint-like smile tugging at her lips. ”Reginald,” she breathes, the word sweet with relief. Then she drops her head back, a dead weight. Well, pretending to be a dead weight: She springs back up instantly when Adrian yells cut, making Charlie stumble and get his boot-buckle caught up in her skirts. They’re still laughing and disentangling themselves when Adrian reaches them.

“Fantastic,” he’s saying, “fantastic, Poll — both of you, fantastic. I loved the little coat clutch. I want that again, in close-up.”

Polly rights her skirts, smiling again. “I stole that from Charlie,” she says. “Actually, I stole everything from Charlie, pretty much wholesale. He’s my muse.”

Charlie had actually been feeling okay about the take — after all, he’d stayed conscious for the whole thing, and managed not to drop Polly on her ass — but now he’s buffeted by a faint backwash of embarrassment. “Oh, God,” he says, searching her dress for evidence of his sweaty pawing, “did I do that to you? I’m so sorry.”

“Not to me,” Polly says, lightly. “Look, Adrian, if we’re doing pick-ups, I had an idea. How about a beat on Charlie when I grab at him? Just a quick reaction shot before he gets back to the knight-in-shining-armor stuff. Sort of like, awed, shocked dumb, oh-my-god-she’s-touching-me kind of thing.”

Adrian’s already nodding along before she’s finished, a grin spreading across his face. “Fucking yes,” he says. “Yes, Poll. Love it.” He raises his voice. “Right, re-set, everybody: I want coverage.” A twitch of life runs through the crew: Everybody stops hovering and starts moving and yelling. “Got that, Charlie?” Adrian asks.

Charlie nods. He thinks he has. He remembers the very first day of the shoot, sitting in a room and concentrating hard as a historical consultant in a long skirt and statement glasses explained the importance of propriety in the time period that they were attempting to evoke. All that restraint and repression, that focus on the appropriate: It would heighten even the slightest contact. In a moment of panic, a tiny touch like that might feel like everything — might leave even the most buttoned-up repressive raw and stupid.

Charlie can do raw. He can do stupid. 

“Nice idea,” he says to Polly, as their director hurries off and the swarm of make-up artists descend. “And I know you don’t owe that one to me.”

“No,” Polly says, and stills her face to let a brush run along her cheekbone. Then she cuts a look sideways at Charlie, something sly and speculative in her expression. “That one I stole from your very dreamy dialect coach. Gosh, that guy can run.”

Charlie takes a second to get what she means. Then his brain stops working.

This take, when Chisholm-Blount is supposed to be looking down at Louisa’s half-conscious hand, all Charlie can think about is his own fingers clutching idiotically at Mitchell, sweat dampening Mitchell’s fancy shirt. About Mitchell’s gorgeous face gone blank with panicked awe — as though Charlie’s clumsy touch had knocked through countless hardened layers of sophistication, of control, and found him there, waiting underneath, bare and helpless. About the way Mitchell’s lips had looked around the words something good. His dark, attentive eyes and that note of steady conviction in his voice, as though he were speaking under oath.

About Mitchell behind the monitor now. Watching Charlie. It’s hard to look away.

It turns Charlie’s blood thin and jumpy; it makes him stutter and blush, actually blush on camera, the way he hasn’t since he was eighteen years old and shooting his first commercial, peeking shyly at the lens and feeling the hot gaze of the world sticking to his skin.

Adrian’s in raptures. It’s superb, apparently. Just fucking superb. Charlie’s ears had gone red. There’s going to be gifs.

Charlie hardly hears him, hardly manages a response. He’s too busy looking at Mitchell, and wondering. 

 

*

 

Charlie’s on a red carpet, somewhere, staring at a crackling wall of camera flashes: flashes and faces and an endless stream of smiles. He’s smiling too. His cheeks ache with it, but it looks perfect, just perfect; he catches sight of himself in the darkened car window before it pulls away and barely recognises his reflection, he looks so fucking good. Suit sober, accessories stylish, hair falling just right. Timeless, debonair — a best-dressed Hollywood wet dream. 

Somebody in the crowd screams his name, a sound halfway between ecstasy and a cry of mortal pain. This is it. This is it.

He’s led through the scrum to the stalls by a discreet and faceless guide. Plush red velvet as far as the eye can see, the room hushed and humming with tension; a whole row to himself. Production logos start to shimmer on screen, then finally fade away.

A face appears. Charlie’s own face, as he knows it, with shadows beneath the eyes and a serious case of bedhead. A patch of pink razor-burn just under his jaw. A smudge of toothpaste on the collar of his pale blue sweatshirt. 

He watches from the stalls as the Charlie onscreen stands barefoot in the middle of a very chic office, and is told to stick his tongue out. He watches as one of the hottest guys he’s ever seen tells that Charlie to drop to his knees. He remembers that happening — he must have filmed it, so of course he remembers it. He thinks he knew, at one time, how it felt. But it’s so dim, so distant; it’s like the memory has been saved wrong, like he can’t access it anymore. He can only sit there numb and perfect, and watch as the Charlie onscreen goes on — as he sucks on long, blunt fingers, as he goes to hotels and has his ass beaten pink, as he’s stroked and petted and told that he’s good.

As he‘s pulled close and kissed at the grocery store, right there in the freezer aisle. As he kisses back, happy and brave. As he has freak-outs and gray, jittery days and is sat with and held; as patient hands stroke at his back, his neck. As he listens to somebody much smarter than him complain about their morning, and says things that make them laugh, a laugh that sounds like a reward. As he swaps smiles over dinner, catches eyes hot with promise and holds their dark, steady gaze. As he lies with his head in a broad lap, somewhere that isn’t a set or a trailer or a hotel, but somewhere green and solid and real. As a whole life spills out around him, messy and warm. A life full of open doors and deep, easy breaths and early morning light; a life with space, finally, for something to grow. Something private and vivid and vital and his.

Then the picture flickers and the movie ends. And Charlie’s sitting there on top of the world — in the dark, and alone.

 

*

 

Charlie’s in a back-alley in London, really, definitely, for real, looking vaguely at an open dumpster. It’s warm and still out here, and — as his limited experience has led him to believe is par for the course in this city — there’s a soupçon of piss in the air.

He tilts his head back against the roughness of the wall, and listens to the kitchen noise leaking from the propped-open service door beside him. He can’t see a single star. It disconcerts him so much that he has to stay there for a second, his head tipped back, squinting up at the bulgy orange mass of the sky and feeling dizzy.

He thinks he might have had enough. Enough of this stupid wrap party, of this shoot — of England, in general. Enough of waking up sweaty and confused, of feeling nervous and out of control and fucking unhinged. Of spending all day speaking like a stranger. Of wanting things he can’t have.

Except that’s not really a problem that ends with this shoot, is it? There will be somebody else he can’t have after Mitchell, and then somebody else, and somebody else, and then maybe, when he gets too old to be a heartthrob, he can quietly fade into obscurity and re-enter the dating scene. As a neurotic ex-handsome ex-actor who’s been single and closeted for twenty years. What a catch.

The party’s on St. James’s Street, at some building that supposedly dates from the period covered by the show — all red walls and chandeliers and oil paintings of men with skinny legs and bulbous faces. Walking from his car to the door, Charlie had clocked at least three groups of people clocking him. That might have been because he was wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses at 8 p.m., but if all goes well, then this time next year, that won’t be the reason.

He sighs, and rolls against the brickwork, rests his forehead against it for a second. He ought to sneak back in, before somebody comes looking for him.

There’s a clicking sound, and suddenly the air smells like smoke. Charlie looks up.

Mitchell’s standing on the step. A shard of yellow light from the service door comes past him at an angle, gilding his temple, his cheek. Those sure, capable hands are lighting a cigarette.

Charlie’s happy to see him, sort of: His heart suddenly feels like glass within him, light but fragile. Greedily, trying to snatch up every detail and squirrel it away for a long, lonely later, he watches Mitchell smoke.

Then he realizes that Mitchell has seen him, and that he doesn’t look a bit surprised — that he’s standing there and regarding Charlie calmly, patiently, as though keeping an appointment. As though they’d arranged to meet out here in this alleyway and stare at each other.

“That’s really bad for your voice,” Charlie says, for something to say that isn’t I dream about you every night or I’m going to spend the rest of my life alone or please please please just kiss me. “When you Google vocal work, it’s at the top of every list of things you should give up.”

Mitchell laughs and steps down into the alley, strolls over. “I know,” he says. “But I can’t be a dialect coach all the time. And it gave me an excuse to come out here.” His smile is soft and considering, and there’s a looseness in his shoulders that Charlie hasn’t seen before. He looks good, obviously, but also … comfortable. Off-duty. “So. Here you are. All done. Got that lovely Cali drawl back and everything. Does it feel good?” 

Right now, watching Mitchell smile and ash his cigarette, it mostly feels like a door is closing, forever. “We’re not totally done,” Charlie says, pathetically, trying to put his foot in it and jam it open, just a crack. “We’ve still got pick-ups and ADR and press.”

“You won’t need me for those, though.” Mitchell’s smile takes on that familiar semi-scolding tilt. “Honestly, you haven’t needed me for weeks.” Despite his best efforts, a little of how that makes Charlie feel must make it onto his face, because Mitchell’s look shifts to one of concern. “Charlie. What’s wrong? Are you nervous about going it alone?”

Yeah, you could say that. Charlie just nods.

Mitchell makes a soft noise, and maybe the cigarette really was just an excuse, because he stubs it out on the wall and flicks it gracefully into the dumpster. And then, very slowly, like he’s trying not to spook a stray, he reaches out and lays a hand on Charlie’s arm. “You’re not alone,” he says, seriously. “I can be a dialect coach a bit longer, if that’s what you need. I certainly don’t want you to be nervous. What can I do?”

His hand is heavy and warm, even through Charlie’s jacket. Charlie feels every inch of himself stir under it, come awake — or alive, maybe. 

He’s not so stupid that he doesn’t know what Mitchell means. He means shall I pencil in a refresher session in four months? Shall we run lines over Skype? Should I start prepping invoices? That all sounds very nice, very helpful, but it really isn’t what Charlie needs. What Charlie needs — right now, before he forgets that it’s possible, before he wakes up famous and old and alone — is to go off-script. To make a huge, deranged, embarrassing mistake — to choose to make it. He just needs to say something, to find out if he still can. 

Be brave, Charlie thinks, foggily, to himself. Open your mouth and try.

But Mitchell is a good guy. He’s so good, so decent, so calm: When he says no, he’ll be so nice about it. So professional. He’s made a career out of not laughing at people for sounding idiotic. 

Charlie doesn’t even need to be brave, not really. He just needs to stop being so scared.

“You could kiss me,” Charlie says.

It feels good, instantly, like a joint clicking into place, or an aching knot in his back finally working loose. Like feeling rushing into a limb he’d been worried he’d lost. Maybe in another universe it’s enough, all by itself, and when Mitchell — very carefully, very politely — smiles and demurs, Charlie sits down on the step and shakes with laughter and relief to feel his courage flexing like a worked muscle within him, still there, despite it all.

In this universe, Mitchell doesn’t smile. He doesn’t demur. He goes still, all over, just for one second, eyes dark as wells and fixed on Charlie’s face, something intent and questioning in their depths. 

The hand on Charlie’s arm lets go, moves up. Knuckles brush at the line of his jaw — a barely-there, reverent touch that makes Charlie forget how to breathe. Gently, irresistibly, his chin is urged up.

“I could do that,” Mitchell says, his voice soft and serious. Then he leans in, and proves it.

Charlie’s had a lot of practise at kissing, some of it very recent. He’s had his technique critiqued and corrected and focus-grouped; he’s had the clumsiness and fumbling refined away until it’s all fireworks and sunsets and seamless, crowd-pleasing passion. Give him a sudden summer downpour and a soundtrack full of strings, and he can kiss and kiss for nineteen takes and never smudge his co-star’s make-up. His kisses give cameras butterflies. His kisses make Key Grips swoon. 

He’s very good at kissing.

Mitchell’s better.

It’s so slow at first — not halting, not shy, but deliberate and slow and attentive. Like he’s mapping out what Charlie likes, what makes him gasp and shudder, what makes him go weak and clingy and stupid — learning it and mastering it and giving it to Charlie, freely and generously, again and again and again. He doesn’t need sunsets, doesn’t need soft focus or false rain. Somehow, when his lips are there, so hot and assured against Charlie’s own, the smell of the city and the taste of cigarettes seem suddenly perfect. Better than perfect — stirring and real. 

Pretty quickly, Charlie stops making any attempt to be good at kissing, or staying upright, or anything, really: He lets Mitchell take care of all that and just concentrates on feeling incredible.

When they part, Charlie’s panting. He finds that he’s been pressed firmly against the wall, his fingers clutching at Mitchell’s jacket. “Thank you,” he hears himself say, voice awed and shaky. “Thank you.”

Mitchell makes a noise that’s half-laugh, half-groan, and rests his forehead lightly against Charlie’s own, his eyes closed, his breath falling hotly against Charlie’s cheek. “Thank you?” he asks, disbelieving, and Charlie’s heart stutters to hear that cut-glass accent gone unguarded and rough around the edges. “I kiss Charlie Harper and he thanks me? Is this a dream?”

Not unless it’s one of yours, Charlie thinks, giddily. Mitchell sounds good in Charlie’s dreams, but never this good. If this were a movie, if Charlie had somebody to write lines for him, he would probably say something sexy or fun, something like, “Want me to pinch you?” or — or something. But he’s done with dialogue. He just wants to put his mouth on Mitchell’s, and now he can. So he does.

Mitchell hums against his lips, a smooth, pleased noise, and slips a hand into Charlie’s hair, holds him in place and gives Charlie exactly what he likes — a steady, thorough, claiming kiss that goes on and on, till Charlie’s lungs feel lit up and tingly and he starts seeing bright flecks of light behind his eyes. Until he’s pretty much ready to stay there for the rest of his life, letting Mitchell kiss him full of stars.

Mitchell’s lips are dark and shining when he pulls back, and he’s breathing hard — fascinatingly close, for the first time in their acquaintance, to being actually disheveled. “No need to thank me for that one,” he says, voice rougher than ever. “That was entirely selfish. I’ve been waiting to do that for ages. Weeks.”

“I’ve been wanting it,” Charlie’s mouth says, without permission, in an extremely uncool rush. “Since practically the moment we met. So much. You have no idea how much.”

“Not no idea,” Mitchell says and smiles — only slightly teasingly — at the soft noise of mortification Charlie lets slip. “I did start to wonder, a little. But I’m a professional. I have rules.” 

His voice sounds dreamy, distracted, and it sort of seems like Charlie’s lips might be to blame based on the way Mitchell’s eyes keep flicking to them, the way he reaches up and runs a thumb, very lightly, across them. The touch feels cool, because Charlie’s mouth is so hot with use, clumsy and swollen and slick. Messy. 

Mitchell doesn’t seem to mind at all. “I have rules,” he says, again, as though he’s just remembered what he was saying. “But you really make me want to break them, sweetheart.”

Charlie feels that familiar melting sensation, that perfect, strength-stealing tug in his guts, and it turns out that’s better too, so much better, here, in the real world with Mitchell warm against him. He makes another noise, almost a whimper — the kind of thing that should be truly humiliating, and is, a little. But he likes the way it makes Mitchell’s hand tighten in his hair, and the look it puts on Mitchell’s face: alert, hungry. He likes the way it makes Mitchell’s eyes go dark and keen. 

They seem to drag the truth out of Charlie, those eyes. He speaks, and his voice sounds thin. “I know about your rules. I heard them, at your office. No actors, no clients, no straight boys.”

Mitchell looks taken aback for all of a second, then Charlie watches him put it together. “Oh. Ha. Not napping, then. No wonder you looked so angelic.” He huffs out another laugh — silent, more breath than sound, but they’re pressed so close that Charlie can still feel it in his chest. “Well, you’re no longer a client and — forgive the assumption — I’m beginning to get the idea that you might not be completely straight either.”

“No,” Charlie says, too happy to be terrified, “not at all. And I’m barely an actor. I’m just good at taking my clothes off and doing as I’m told.”

Mitchell blinks handsomely at him for a second, then lunges in and kisses Charlie again — hard, brief, bruising, and so very, very good. “Right,” he says briskly, when they break apart, and steps back, looking about them like he’s trying to remember where they are, and the quickest way to get them out of there. “You’re selling yourself short, of course, but I’d rather argue about that in a taxi. Still want to see that guest room? We can peek in on the way to bed.” 

Charlie sways after him, heat-seeking, dizzy with triumph. “Yes. Yeah, yes, yes please.”

Mitchell looks back at him, and smiles. His eyes are startlingly soft. “Come on, then,” he says, voice gentle, and holds out a hand. “Let’s go. Got everything?”

There’s a second where Charlie just stares at it — that perfect, strong-fingered hand, the one he’s been seeing in his dreams for months — and feels an indistinct thrill of fear. A second where, despite all the tell-tale signs that he’s awake, he just can’t quite believe that he gets to have this, any of this, so easily. It’s like something out of a fairy tale or a slasher flick or a sermon — the moment before everything goes horribly wrong. Here’s a delicious apple, and now everybody’s going to Hell, forever. Enjoying yourself, Charlie? Great. Now here’s the knife. He’s not even totally sure what it is Mitchell’s offering him, but it seems like the kind of thing that just doesn’t come without a price.

Well. He’s got a pretty good idea of what Mitchell might be offering him tonight — a couple months’ worth of good ideas, actually, if Mitchell needs any suggestions. But afterwards … 

That look on Mitchell’s face looks so much like affection.

Tentatively, wonderingly, Charlie lets himself think about a future. That warm, open future, the one from his dream, or something just a little like it.

Maybe it does come with a price. Maybe it’ll blow up his life. Maybe it’ll be worth it. Maybe Charlie’s marketable, miserable life needs blowing up, before it’s too late, and he blinks and finds that he’s sleepwalked his way right to the end of it. Maybe some things are more important than keeping all the worst people in the world on his side. Maybe Charlie needs a new agent. Maybe he needs a new job.

He can decide all of that in the morning. Right now, Charlie wants Mitchell to take him to Kennington, wherever the hell that might be, and fuck him till he forgets his own name.

His cap and his sunglasses are on a chair somewhere upstairs, and it’s Saturday night in central London. Charlie tries, half-heartedly, but finds that he really can’t bring himself to care. Maybe he’s already started deciding some things.

“Everything I need right now,” he says, and reaches out, and takes Mitchell’s hand.

 

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15 thoughts on “oh Charlie Harper we love you get up

  1. I had, as the Old Tymers might say, a case of the blue devils for a few days, and then I started reading this story. By the time I was done, the devils were, if not precisely banished forever, then at least stuffed, wriggling, back into their horrible little sack, where their squawking is much more muffled.

    No, but seriously: as I read the story, I could feel the good neurochemicals being squeezed out and bathing my extremely cranky brain. The entire fever-dream vibe of this story, godddd. And Charlie is a DELIGHT. You do a beautiful job, as always, of communicating the interest/pining/regard of the non-POV character despite crafting these impeccably oblivious himbos. The entire fainting scene. Mitchell’s bitten-off “sweetheart.” CHRIST.

    Thank once again for an incredible story, and also damn your eyes, because I’m gonna be doing nothing but rereading this for a few days so I can roll around in Charlie’s delicious pining for a bit longer.

    • ah!!! hello! literally such a nice surprise to see you here — I had a real “!!!” moment when I got the email notification. like when you spot a celebrity in the wild :’) Thank you so much for reading: I’m so thrilled it cheered you up, oh my goodness. Least I can do! I won’t lie, I was having a sort of blueish week as well, and your comment really helped me out in that regard too, so thank you. Get outta here, devils!

      Charlie… he’s The Most himbo. So pleased u liked him <3

  2. Okay at this point I can only assume you are trying to kill me, personally. The combination of one adorable, sweet guy who desperately needs someone to be nice to him and one needlessly hot, stern but gentle authority figure basically hit me like a brick to the head. Leading with Charlie’s “oh shit he’s HOT” monologue, in absolutely glorious detail, sets the tone so perfectly. Then the ongoing avalanche of “reasons Charlie needs a hug” (and, realistically, a fair bit of therapy as well) over the rest of the story makes it impossible not to want him to have nice things (read: Mitchell).

    The scene where Charlie was prepping to catch someone swooning only to actually faint himself is so, so perfect. The lampshading feels like you’re inviting us to be in on the joke, like, “Yes, I DID make him swoon and yes, of COURSE Mitchell dropped everything and sprinted over to rescue him.” And damned if it doesn’t work! I was reading the whole scene all fluttery and heart-eyed. The brief pause before the other shoe drops for Charlie is also delightful. It’s so satisfying when the information that Mitchell genuinely likes him really clicks into place and he gets adorably flustered about it.

    Getting to see all of Charlie’s filthy dreams along the way was also a treat. 1) They’re stupidly hot. 2) It really helps sync your perspective with his because you get to go directly from the sex scenes to the business ones. Of course he feels so unbalanced around Mitchell with that rattling around in his head, and because we just read it as well, we get some of the awkwardly trying to shift gears feeling too. The setup really kept the tension high throughout, and then you get the big relief at the end as they FINALLY put their interest for each other out there and get it reciprocated.

    • :)) thank youuuu! probably because it started as a pinch-hit and I was trying to go fast, this one is almost certainly the most purely self-indulgent thing I’ve written yet — so I’m so THRILLED that it was TK-indulgent too <3 this is such a lovely, thoughtful comment – probably because you are lovely and thoughtful! it made my day.

      also yes, you’re definitely right. oh Charlie Harper we love you get therapy

  3. The premise of this story—man has the raging Hot Times for someone working with him, enormous amounts of sex occur in the realm of imagination while the actual physical climax is composed of a still-quite-thrilling kiss—was quite a fun one, and the fact that it was quite a pleasure riding around in Charlie’s head made this so much more than just another fun premise! Namedropping Dick van Dyke’s fever dream Cockney was a great way to establish the absolute badness of an accent; I was imagining some truly horrible community-theater mannerisms for Charlie’s earliest attempts. Bless Mitchell for working so diligently! The instant you mentioned that he spoke using RP I started wondering what his deal was, and when his phone call revealed an entirely different accent for speaking off the clock it felt like the most logical thing in the world. Of course someone who makes a living that can support a “rich-bitch lifestyle” is going to pick the most respectable-sounding voice for himself around clients. As May Be Obvious, I adore it when people play around with accents, dialects, and speech, and how they relate to someone’s whole personal history! Now Charlie has someone who can properly appreciate him as a human being, Mitchell has a hot movie star boyfriend who thinks he’s the most important person on the planet, and it’s going to be a busy night in Kennington (wherever the hell that might be). A fine ending, indeed.

    • Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed. I almost wish I could have drawn out more about Mitchell’s background from his off-duty accent, but I was forced to accept that there was absolutely no way Charlie would be able to get anything from it beyond “it’s different” haha. So I’m pleased that was enough to give a broad idea of Mitchell’s whole professional-persona, work-to-live-not-live-to-work, “I’m a self-respecting human being first, and a dialect coach second” deal.

  4. There were several instances throughout this that had me cackling out loud– The mental image of an actor half-dressed “like a nineteenth-century Pooh Bear” made me bury my face in my hands and yell for a bit. Charlie has the most incredible way of making metaphors and comparisons, it’s highly entertaining, and riding around in his POV was so much fun.

    I love the way that Michell was built up to be this impeccable figure of Ultra Sexy Desire in Charlie’s head, but Mitchell-in-reality still had so many elements of a real human being peeking through. It’s hilarious because we both get to see Charlie’s !!!-ing over him (and it’s understandable!), but we, as readers and separate people, still get a sense of what Mitchell is actually like. I love seeing the human element in Ultra Sexy Characters, it’s charming to bring them to a realistic level. Also, that’s basically what a really hardcore crush is, anyway. It’s obvious that Charlie has it *bad* but the little hints that Mitchell reciprocates make it so much sweeter.

    Thank you for writing this! >w<

  5. I don’t know how you DO this to me!!!!!!!!!!! I’m only like 700 words in and I’m already losing it over Charlie and his neuroses!!!!! “made shy by the ease with which Mitchell has picked out his dumb, surf-bunny, Bill-and-Ted drawl” – incredible how you can just pull these stupid boys from any point in time and give them essentially the same “I’m afraid I sound dumb and ppl don’t like me when I talk” problems.
    “He’s kind of amazing at rules, actually.” OH HONEY. “to show he can count to three” WHERE DO YOU GET THESE LITTLE IDIOTS and can I get some for myself. THE SEX DREAM AND THE FITNESS TRACKER OH MY GOD.
    “Doing a decent job of something is the first step towards doing that same thing surprisingly badly.” Oh look this reminds me of that convo we were JUST having lmao.
    I love the trope of overhearing a conversation with someone who knows the other MC better – and Mitchell talking to his ex is so real lmao. I’m prone to exactly that same kind of bad-idea flirting bc it’s just so fun to wind people up and whose buttons do I know better than my exes? And then the exact same “sorry sorry” lmao. Feeling slightly called out. The whole thing from charlie’s pov is so excruciating. He takes everything so personally!!! How does he live like that!!!!!!
    “they believe him because everybody knows that Americans haven’t discovered insincerity yet.” – SCREECH.
    Ahhhhh the convergence of the dreams with the reality via the My Fair Lady quotes! Brilliant! Also, Charlie doing bad aftercare for himself IN HIS DREAMS is just so…. *Charlie*. Dear boy. Little moron. And swooning! Before the corset swooning scene! You do Vibes TM so well, the feeling of the bright summer landscape turning hostile. VISCERAL. A word I associate with all your work.
    I have the sense you have specific people in mind for the casting of the rest of this show, including the beloved british actor in boxer shorts, and I’m dying to know who they are.
    To make a huge, deranged, embarrassing mistake – GOOD BOY. YES, I’M CHEERING FOR HIM SO HARD, HE’S SUCH A GOOD BOY – “I’m just good at taking my clothes off and doing as I’m told.” No dom in their right mind could resist this and it is DELIGHTFUL!!!!!!
    Very very fun all the way through. I do love me a celebrity AU, specifically because of the neuroses and oh boy but you serve up the MOST neurotic men, god bless.

    • reposting because I’m stupid and messed up the thread!
      you already know how happy this comment made me but allow me to thank you again! :’’’’) a blessing!
      I have to say it is so reassuring to hear you say that you like celeb settings for the neuroses: I stalled out on this one for a long time specifically because I couldn’t get beyond the fact that I think being a movie star is like…. inherently very bad for your psyche! But then I just leaned into it. Sorry about your brain, Charlie. But you can’t spell neurotic without erotic!
      Mitchell’s conversation with his ex was my attempt to show that he was human (capable of making silly bad-idea flirting decisions, particularly when he’s spent the morning swapping sex scene lines with a sweet, sleepy, long-lashed, OFF-LIMITS matinee idol) but also that he had at least a modicum of emotional maturity (capable of recognising the bad-ideaness of his flirting and walking it back). He’s gonna need it, because his new boyfriend’s a hot mess whose arse is about to become an international water-cooler discussion topic :’)
      Thank you for all your kind words (and your scorching hot discord speculation on what might be in these two’s immediate future which….I am still thinking about ngl) : I’m just so glad you enjoyed it! <3 xxx

  6. THIS WAS SO DELIGHTFUL!! I want it to go on for another six thousand words! I absolutely love your writing style and the world you’ve built; it all feels so alive. Best wishes to Charlie and his career from now on.

  7. you already know how happy this comment made me but allow me to thank you again! :’’’’) a blessing!
    I have to say it is so reassuring to hear you say that you like celeb settings for the neuroses: I stalled out on this one for a long time specifically because I couldn’t get beyond the fact that I think being a movie star is like…. inherently very bad for your psyche! But then I just leaned into it. Sorry about your brain, Charlie. But you can’t spell neurotic without erotic!
    Mitchell’s conversation with his ex was my attempt to show that he was human (capable of making silly bad-idea flirting decisions, particularly when he’s spent the morning swapping sex scene lines with a sweet, sleepy, long-lashed heartthrob who is very much OFF-LIMITS) but also that he had at least a modicum of emotional maturity (capable of recognising the bad-ideaness of his flirting and walking it back). He’s gonna need all the maturity he’s got, because his new boyfriend’s a hot mess whose arse is about to become an international water-cooler discussion topic :’)
    Thank you for all your kind words (and your scorching hot discord speculation on what might be in these two’s immediate future which….I am still thinking about ngl): I’m just so glad you enjoyed it! <3 xxx

  8. okay this is another one i SWEAR i actually commented on when the issue came out but lol phones and wifi. ANYWAY

    this grabbed me and didn’t let go. the tension! the DREAMS! the way Charlie managed to convince himself all the tells he was seeing were just wishful thinking ;asdflkjasdfa. solidarity, charlie. fucking same hat.

    also like…jesus this story hits close to home. i haven’t worked on a tv set, but the way people were just disregarding charlie’s physical needs bc of the Shoot was A Lot. like good lord people, just because he’s An Celebrity doesn’t mean he’s stopped needing water and sleep. the dinguses are too familiar.

    this is so good thank you for writing it!

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