He has a tenuous grasp on the scene, feeling as though it keeps slipping from his fingers every time she speaks. They're in an otherwise-empty conference room, sitting across from each other at the long table and trying to rehearse their lines together. And Tilda is tactful, giving Skandar a decent chance to get to grips with things, not mentioning the trouble he's clearly having.
But eventually she speaks up, perhaps losing her patience with him. He can't blame her.
"What's the problem, little man?" she asks, eyes twinkling, and the use of the old nickname sends a tingle down Skandar's spine.
"Oh no, no problem," Skandar lies, grinning brightly back at her and flipping back to the beginning of the scene in his script.
"Skandar," says Tilda, taking the script from his hands and placing it down on the table between them. She rests her elbow on the table, chin in hand, and looks at him with an expression that quite clearly says—to him, at least—'cut the bullshit'. In fact, she looks at him for so long that he starts to get seriously uncomfortable.
"What?" he asks eventually, letting out an anxious laugh.
"Skandar, we've been rehearsing for more than twenty minutes now, and it's really a very short scene," Tilda says. "I know you can do better than this."
She sounds concerned rather than disappointed, but he finds himself apologising anyway. "I'm sorry. I know. It's just—this scene. Don't you think it sounds a bit—" he says, and trails off, not sure exactly how to phrase it. Not sure what it sounds like.
It doesn't help that her eyes are on him, curious and scrutinizing. And his heart sinks, because god, this is how it's always been. He thought maybe it would be different this time, now that he's eighteen and this is their third time working together. But she's always been such a presence in his life, and he can't avoid that, can't seem to act casual with her no matter how hard he tries.
He remembers sitting in a sleigh with her at twelve years old, blushing as the rest of the cast and crew teased him, called her his girlfriend. He remembers how he'd giggle and squirm and tell them to shut up, and how he'd still be bright red when Andrew called action, and she was unfazed, just smiling at him in amusement, cocooning him in her furs. He remembers how he'd get so embarrassed and uncomfortable that he'd almost be unable to say his lines.
Seems not much has changed since then.
And maybe it's unfair, but suddenly he's angry at her, like it's her fault he feels this way. Because she's the one who's such a distraction, and it's not fair for her to be so composed, acting so bemused by his behaviour.
"You know what I mean," he snaps, losing his temper at the way she's just sitting there quietly smiling at him.
"Maybe I don't," she says, melodiously, leaning back in her chair and folding her arms. "Please, enlighten me. What's wrong with the lines?"
"There's nothing wrong with them," he says, frustrated, kicking at the table leg like a moody teenager. She always makes him feel so young, so immature. "Ugh, forget it. Let's just try again."
She shrugs, ever evasive. "Sure," she says, pulling her script back across the table towards her.
And at first it's all right, and he can ignore the way the blood is pumping faster through his veins as though he's ready for something. But then she's saying, I can make you my King, and pausing to smile at him before the and much more, and his fingers tremble, script shaking in his hands.
"What are you trying to prove, Edmund?" she asks, and she's good, so good, speaking as if to an insolent child, and it brings him right back, right back to being twelve and a traitor and out of his depth in so many ways.
"That you're a man?" she continues, mockingly, and he can't look her in the eye, he can't, because he's not at all in character and it doesn't feel like she is, either, it hits too close to home and it's too harsh and personal and suffocating.
"Look at me, Edmund," she says, which isn't in the script, and he knows that because his eyes are boring holes in the fucking paper as it quivers in his clammy hands.
But he does look at her, because he's never been able to deny her anything, because he just seems to comply instantly and automatically whenever she asks something of him (or demands it). And there's something wicked simmering behind her green eyes, and he can't stand it, can't stand how amused she looks by his state of distress. By the ease with which she can work him into a frenzy like this.
"I can make you that," she says simply, eyes fixed on his, and her face falls serious, as if all the gentle teasing has suddenly gone from her voice.
He doesn't remember his line. He can't. All he can do is stare into those eyes, and he really feels just like Edmund, faced with this Witch who has an evil attachment to his head and his heart, who can see his darkest dreams and desires, and tease and tempt him like no one else. She's a misty, inhuman apparition to him now, not a real woman sitting on a chair across from him in a plaid skirt.
They stare at each other for so long. So, so long.
"I can make you that." She says the line again, eventually, intonation dropping. It's not clear if she's prompting him, or something more.
He remembers that time—the one time she ever got truly angry with him, the time she came across him nicking sweets from craft services during the first movie, on a dare from Will. She'd been witness to a telling-off Andrew had given him the previous day, probably his third ban from caffeine and sugar since they'd started shooting. And it was horrible, because she reminded him of his mother in that moment. It reminded him that she was a mother, that he'd been fooling himself that they could be friends, that no matter how many times they went to the movies or played miniature golf together she was still a grown-up and he was still a kid, and she saw him as her responsibility.
That was easy to forget with Tilda, because she seemed so much like an equal to everybody, cast and crew alike, ages irrelevant. The things she chose to do with him—and with the others, with Will and Anna and Georgie—were the things Skandar would do with friends, and it got confusing in his twelve-year-old mind. And because she was such an important person on set, someone everyone was in awe of, Skandar felt special for being the one who had the most scenes with her.
He felt special when he split off from the others to film scenes with her alone, like he was an adult and they were just co-stars working together on the same level. And he felt special when she wanted to spend time with him off set, too, when she took him to lunch and to the cinema—just the two of them. And then he felt special every time he saw her on set and said, "Hey, Matilde," quoting Zoolander and seeing others look puzzled by their inside joke. And then at the wrap party, she gave him that greenstone necklace, a gift much more meaningful than any she gave to the others.
He brings his hand to his throat absentmindedly, wishing he could still feel the rough black cord of the necklace there, remembering how he wore it for years until it finally frayed and split.
It was like a reminder to him, that necklace, a reminder of how things had truly been during shooting, how magical the atmosphere was. Being on set back then, the way he felt about her seemed quite normal. It didn't cause him so much anguish. Because on set, everybody was enamoured with Tilda, would speak openly of their admiration and not try to hide their stares when she entered a room. But back home, back at school, it was hard not to feel that his infatuation was wrong somehow. Because everything around him told him that she wasn't the type of woman a teenage boy should want, not with her androgynous face and short haircut and no make-up. Not to mention the fact that she's easily old enough to be his mother.
"Your line, Skandar," Tilda breathes, then, hardly even a whisper, and he's brought back to the present, sitting here so many years later as an adult—finally—not a child, tension crackling in the air between them.
"I don't know it," he hears himself say, and his voice sounds strange to his own ears—it's almost as though he expects it to come out higher, as though he's forgotten that it broke a long time ago now.
She's never expressed surprise at the way he's grown, the way Liam does at each premiere, the way journalists do in their articles. She sees his aging the same way he does—a perfectly normal, natural, and expected thing. At the Wardrobe and Caspian premieres, she greeted him exactly the same way: "Well, don't you look handsome?" No my, haven't you grown, like a distant aunt. And it's comforting, in some ways, because it makes him feel closer to her, makes him feel like she understands, because the only others who don't mention it are the people who see him every day. But at the same time, it makes him wonder if she even notices, whether she's even aware that he's a young man now instead of the child he was when they met. He wants—needs—her to know that, and sometimes it's hard to tell if she does.
"You have a script," she reminds him coolly with a smile.
He feels his sinuses sting as though he's about to cry. He shakes his head, partly to try and shake off the feeling, and partly in disagreement, because no, no he doesn't, there's no script for this situation and the one in his hands is useless to him now, only serving to confuse him further. She seems so gentle now, but for some reason there's old fear creeping into his bones, and he feels on edge around her, wary. It's a familiar feeling, but one has hasn't experienced for a very long time.
People on set used to call it his girls' disease, Will used to say it was a 'mild form of hating all women'. But the truth is, Skandar was just intimidated by them, particularly those who were much older and scarier, because he couldn't tell what they could possibly be thinking and they made him feel even more awkward in his own skin. And after all, no woman is more intimidating than Tilda Swinton.
Andrew's elaborate planning of their interactions didn't help. He remembers how he was allowed to practice his lines with Tilda—much like this, at tables that seemed even bigger when he was so little—but he never saw her at any other time. And she was so professional, and so serious, barely saying a word to him besides what was in the script and then vanishing after each rehearsal. He would get so nervous beforehand, scared of messing up because it seemed like if he did, she would get really angry with him.
And then the next time he saw her, she was the White Witch, coils of dreadlocked hair like snakes, crown of icicles on her head, costume that looked as though it had been made from the snow and frozen rivers as well as the pelts of dead animals. Her skin was ghostly pale and she seemed eight foot tall, otherworldly. He'd thought she couldn't possibly be more frightening to him, and he was so wrong.
But then something strange happened. After their very first filmed scene together, Andrew called cut, and as he passed by he winked and said to her, "You can talk to him now." Tilda turned to Skandar and grinned, and it was the first time he had ever seen her smile.
She explained to him that their contact had been limited so that his reactions would seem more real when they finally came to film their first scene. And then all of a sudden she was friendly, so friendly, chatting with him like all the other cast and crew and making him feel silly for ever being so scared of her in the first place. She had seemed so threatening, but beneath it all she was so lovely, and it made Skandar think that perhaps he shouldn't be so afraid of women after all.
He's startled to realise that his eyes are welling up.
"Come here," Tilda says softly now, and beckons.
He thinks she can't possibly expect him to walk all the way around the long, long table to her side, and so he slides down off his chair, slips beneath the table instead, crawls under it towards her, trying not to bang his head. It's a childish move, perhaps, but it comes instinctively to him.
He comes to rest at her feet. Her legs are open, and it seems almost easy to shuffle between them. Only his heart betrays him, thudding in his chest in response to what he's doing, fitting himself between her knees in order to push his head out a little from under the table and look up at her.
She's smiling again, as she reaches down to caress his cheek. His head tilts into the touch, and he's smiling back up at her, sheepishly. She takes his other cheek, cups his face in her hands, and he feels his skin colour against her palms. This is how Tilda is—incredibly intimate sometimes, often with no real meaning behind it and seemingly unaware of whether or not it's appropriate. He remembers her once taking Will's hand on the red carpet, and how Will was startled and embarrassed, and Skandar felt jealous, and stupid for it.
"What's bothering that brain of yours?" Tilda whispers, her voice so beautiful and lilting, soothing his nerves.
But he can't reply, can't possibly explain, and so he just drops his head down onto her lap, lets it rest on her thigh, scratchy wool against his cheek. He feels safe here, somehow, despite the strangeness of it and how anxious it makes him at the same time, how shamefully exciting it is to be between her legs. He feels special, again, maybe—privileged. And he feels like she could look after him—won't, but could, and that's enough.
She's twisting a strand of his hair around her finger. His mouth is slightly open, and it seems easy to lift his head a little, to press a kiss to covered skin. He gets no reaction, so he does it again. Her hand falls from his head this time, and she watches him with curiosity but not much else. Boldly, his hands ease the skirt up, and his mouth keeps moving down, until he finds bare skin of her thigh against his lips. She's looking at him, still, and he can't figure out her expression. The main thing he can see is that she doesn't look all that surprised, which bothers him, because he's finding it hard to believe he's really doing this.
His eyes flicker down, and in the dim light he sees the thin, spidery veins beneath the white skin of her thigh, and the tiger stripes of stretchmarks as he pushes her skirt further up. Things that betray her age, perhaps, but neither of them mention it—her because she's not ashamed, and him because he knows she has no reason to be.
She's a true Scot with nothing on beneath her kilt. It startles him and he thinks perhaps it shouldn't, but then everything about this is making his nerves feel horribly delicate, and it's startling just to be on his knees before her like this, to feel her cool, bare thigh against the hot skin of his cheek. He feels so vulnerable, and he hasn't felt this way for a long, long time. Possibly, he thinks, not since the last time he worked with her.
He shifts, slowly, and she echoes the movement, sliding further forwards along the chair to make things easier for him. She does it so gracefully, so casually, that it doesn't seem like the gesture it is—encouragement, an offering.
He brushes his mouth against the slightly coarse hair between her legs, and catches himself smiling—she dyes her hair so often, it's easy to forget she's a natural redhead. But it seems strange that down here, she's just the same as any other woman. And perhaps it's a silly thing to be surprised by, but in all other respects, she's so wildly different from the women Skandar has met, and it's jarring sometimes, to be reminded that she's human too, just like him.
For a moment he's not sure he can do this—if he really wants to. He feels panicked and claustrophobic between her legs, heart in his throat. But when he looks up at her, she's smiling, looking at him like he's a puppy or a sweet but foolish child. And it's as though she's read his mind, as though she doesn't really expect anything of him at all, as though this is all a game to her and she's comfortable in the knowledge that she's winning.
He feels a desperate need to prove himself to her, a need to wipe the smile from her face. He needs to make her see, make her feel, just how much of a man he is. It's a burst of anger, but beneath it there's a deep-seated love, a desperation to show her how much she means to him.
He feels as though he's always flustered in her presence, bumbling around making a fool of himself while she seems perfectly composed and confident at all times. The only time he's ever seen that falter was that one time she snapped, lost her temper with him. And again, he felt like Edmund, seeing a flash of the true Jadis for the first time. He wants to see that again, wants to feel like she's truly herself with him.
This isn't something he feels he's skilled at, because it's not something he's done much before, and never with anyone who would know much better, just teenage girls glad to have a guy reciprocate for once. And he wants to be good, for her, wants to shatter her composure and see her sprawled out in the chair in front of him gasping for breath. But he's almost frantic, he's so eager, and he's just as flustered as ever, his tongue slip-sliding clumsily over slick skin (other men have probably made her wetter, he thinks, and feels angry for it, childish jealousy welling up inside him).
I know you can do better, her words echo in his head, almost taunting, and he clutches at her thighs and the wool of her skirt and strokes deeper and deeper inside her until he thinks he hears her breath hitch. When he looks up at her, he knows how his face must look—angry, his brow furrowed savagely and his eyes dark with determination. And she's placid as ever, even with the quickening rise and fall of her chest, sweat shining in the hollow of her neck. She loosens her tie with her slender fingers, taking her time, in no hurry. Then she reaches down with the same hand, strokes it through his damp hair as if she's petting him. He shakes her off, angrily, finds a hot hard bud beneath his tongue and works at it, his eyes still fixed on her, burning.
She seems to almost smirk at him as she lifts one leg, gently hooking it over his shoulder, pulling him in closer, keeping him right where he is. He feels the breath catch in his throat. Her expression is challenging, and at once, he hates her and adores her, can't tell if he wants to make her come because he loves her or just to prove that he can.
He thinks of using his fingers, he thinks of technique, of things he's read and things his friends have said, but in that moment the only thing that matters is that he sees a reaction, and it almost doesn't matter if it's good or bad. And he gets it, when his teeth graze her delicate skin not quite accidentally, and he feels her jolt beneath him. The satisfaction is even more intense than he anticipated, and he does it again, and suckles hard at her, feels her pulse and hears her breathing quicken, louder and heavier.
It's this that starts to make him hard, starts to make him strain against the seam of his jeans and squirm in the hold she's got him in. He lets one hand slip from her thigh and go to his crotch, unbuttoning and unzipping and shoving his hand inside his boxers for some relief. He's slower with her then, distracted, finding it hard to focus on what he's doing as he strokes and tugs at himself fervently like a boy just learning how to wank.
And to his surprise, he feels a hand clutching at the back of his head, gripping his skull, Tilda silently urging him on. With her leg still hooked around the back of his neck and his face pressed against her, he can barely breathe, but it doesn't panic him, somehow just excites him further, and he works and works at her with his tongue until her thighs are trembling around his head, and oh god, he's actually making her thighs tremble, and he's stroking himself frantically with his sweaty hand and realising that perhaps this has been a fantasy of his for much, much too long.
(Memories he's tried to suppress out of shame come flooding back to him: confused and hard in his trailer at twelve, thinking of her cuddling him close in her furs—regularly wanking to a sex scene in one of her other movies at fourteen, hiding the DVD beneath his mattress—and then, at sixteen, fantasising about this, and many other things, trying desperately to think of ex-girlfriends and Jessica Alba but always, always coming back to Tilda—)
And now he's eighteen years old and everything is tense and tight and throbbing as she comes with a soft cry that rings in his ears, and for a moment he's still going, tongue aching and stiff as he drags it over her again and again until her leg falls from his shoulder and she's gently easing his head back. He can't bring himself to look at her right away, and his hand is still moving furiously around himself as if on autopilot as he just stares, almost blankly, between her legs.
But then he feels her stroke her fingers down his cheek, and he melts into the touch once again, lets her lift his chin up to look at her. She's slightly pink in the cheeks and her forehead bears a slight sheen of sweat, but aside from that and her still-heavy breathing, she looks the same as always. Skandar, though, knows his mouth is wet, his whole face is deep red with embarrassment and arousal, and his hair is damp and matted. He stares at her, and she cups his face and watches him, as he brings himself over the edge, biting his lip to hold back a groan as he spills over his clenched hand.
He goes weak, slumps on the floor before her, and he's only vaguely aware of her pushing back her chair to make more room before pulling him up towards her. His wet hand is shaking down between his legs, but he forgets about it when she kisses him, soft and slow and using her tongue, and making him shudder against her when he thinks about where his mouth has just been. Then she's straightening out her kilt and reaching down to clean him off with a tissue she's produced from her pocket, and he just lets her do it. A memory comes to him of the White Witch wiping powdered sugar from Edmund's lips, and something aches in his heart.
She's almost businesslike as she tucks him back into his trousers and zips him up.
"Do you feel better now?" she asks him softly, and he's infuriated to see that her slightly bemused smile is back.
But he doesn't have a chance to dwell on it, because just then there's a loud creak and the door is opening, and there's a woman standing there in the doorway looking a little startled. And Skandar is still kneeling on the floor, and he ducks down, his instinct being to hide, at least to hide the telltale signs of what they've been doing that are all over his face. He'd almost forgotten that they were in public, that the door wasn't locked, and the thought that this woman could have been just a couple of minutes earlier makes him panic.
"Oh, hi," says the woman, "I—er—I didn't realise anyone was in here."
"We were just rehearsing," Tilda replies, relaxed as ever, "it seemed to be the only empty place."
And, quick as a flash, her hand slides down by her side and Skandar sees that she's pointing a pen at him. He stares at it blankly, and then realises what she's doing and takes it, hurriedly scrambling to his feet.
"Yeah, just uh, running through some lines," he says, and clears his throat. "Dropped my pen."
The woman nods, but still looks slightly puzzled, and Skandar wipes his mouth, agitated, sure that it's written all over his face. He's surprised, though, that somewhere beneath the panic is that childish excitement again, to be sharing a secret with Tilda. It makes him feel pathetic to recognise that it's there, still, even after what he's just done.
"Well, we need the room, I'm afraid," the woman says. "Is there anywhere else you could rehearse?"
Tilda heaves a sigh. "Ah, the trials and tribulations of acting," she says wryly. "Well, we'll endeavor to find another nook or cranny, won't we, Skandar?"
Skandar runs a hand through his damp hair, nodding. "Yeah, yeah, no worries," he says, and grabs his script at the same time as Tilda reaches for hers. Their hands brush and he practically feels sparks.
He squeezes past the woman in the doorway with his head hung low, and Tilda follows with hers held high.
Only a few minutes later, they're sitting opposite each other on the floor of the corridor, and the paper is quivering in Skandar's hands once again as Tilda looks him in the eye and reads her lines like they aren't really lines at all.
"You can't kill me off," she says, voice soft and strangely sympathetic, "I'm always there. Forever in your mind."
And Skandar realises, with a sinking feeling in his heart, that she's right. He feels that reluctant acceptance sink in, knowing that it really doesn't matter what he does. This relationship will never, ever change.