"Oh come on," said Rory, again, tipping sideways, just a little, until his shoulder bumped fondly into that of the slighter man at his side. "Help a mate out. You know you'd love it."
Ben shifted to make an accommodating leaning post for Rory's more meaty shoulder. It was amazing, Rory thought, how he fitted so well at his side, how good a friend he was, they'd been together on so many productions before, after all, on Hamlet and Richard II and... He stared into his pint glass, losing track. Well, perhaps it wasn't so surprising, they had been in the pub a while.
"No," said Ben, definitively, although reduced to one syllable and mooning into his own pint glass. He rallied. "Not 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Anything but that. It's not safe."
"But it's directing my first play," argued Rory, "A proper play, not an opera, like 'Winter's Tale'. I need your help... You know you like doing different stuff and you've never done 'Dream' - a comedy could stretch you. And it's not like you never play light."
"People prefer me emotionally tortured though," Ben corrected him, looking up at him before widening his eyes and dropping his bottom lip - almost - into a pout.
Fucking hell, thought Rory, his mouth suddenly dry, maybe the last round was a round too far, at that.
"You could play Bottom," he offered, "That's about as far from your usual roles as you can get."
"What, the rude bumbling mechanical who gets to seduce the Queen of the Fae?" asked Ben, rhetorically, Rory assumed. It wasn't like they both didn't know their Shakespeare. There was something in Ben's voice though...
"I'll do it!" said Ben and lifted his pint glass in a wide swinging motion, that Rory assumed to be some sort of toast. He raised his own to clink, even if it wasn't the right sort of glass. Bugger that, this was a victory. He'd got Ben to say yes, even if it did take him getting utterly pissed to do it. Rory might have felt guilty, if he wasn't equally utterly wankered himself.
He completely forgot about the strange note he'd heard in Ben's voice...
"Really, Ben?" Rory thought he had a headache coming on.
Ben's grin was a little manic. "But Bottom, he says 'I will discharge it in either your straw-colour
beard, your orange-tawny beard, your purple-in-grain beard, or your French-crown-colour beard, your perfect yellow. I just want to try them out."
"Yes, but that doesn't mean you need try them all on stage at once!"
"But it's funny, Rory darling, you can't say it isn't." And Ben started whipping on and off beard after beard, some so preposterous that Rory couldn't help but find his mouth curling up at the edges. It was funny. Ridiculously so. Where had he even got all the crazy prop beards? And, of course, Ben turned out to be as brilliant at physical comedy as he was at everything else. Of course.
The rest of the mechanical cast were obviously holding their breath. He suspected that only Ben had the chutzpah - and the friendship and the clout - to argue with the director like this. He shouldn't let him win, really, just in case Rory lost some of his authority and respect. But since when did he want to be that kind of autocratic director? Rory rubbed his eyes.
"Go on then, you mad loon." Rory waved a hand and Ben skipped up to him and literally kissed him on the cheek. Rory found himself smiling again, even if it was shameless manipulation. This was turning out to be a far more physical comedy based Dream than he had really intended, way more Carry-On and slapstick - it wasn't his usual style at all, Rory knew, but it was good to be broken out of his comfort zone. Wasn't it? And it was all down to Ben.
Who knew he had it in him, either...?
"Tights?" Rory asked dubiously, " I hadn't really thought..."
"Well, not modern dress, anyway, surely?" said Ben in a wheedling way. Still with that slightly manic gleam in his eye.
Rory was actually starting to get worried about Ben as the weeks of rehearsals went on. This wasn't the sensitive, quiet man he thought he knew. Someone who didn't like to meet your eye for too long and nervously picked at his sleeves if he thought someone was staring. Normally, Ben only got confident and loud on stage, where he blossomed into whoever was required of him. Where he could lose himself in the part, as many actors were prone to. A little method, Ben was, Rory knew - although that was a long way from how he liked to work. He didn't like to lose himself, he liked to think about the part and craft the personality carefully, from as much research as he could fit in. But he'd always respected Ben and the way he worked. And it had never been a problem between them before... Well, he supposed he hadn't ever directed him before either.
Rory sighed. At least this time Ben had chosen a quiet spot to have his say, no more confronting him in front of the other cast members. He supposed he should be grateful.
"I just think..." Ben paused, as though he was trying to think of how to put it, "I just think it would be sillier..."
"Sillier?" asked Rory, somewhat shocked. Not because that didn't suit Dream, of all Shakespeare's plays, but he still had never really thought of it as something Ben would want. Still, it was him who had suggested playing Bottom to Ben. And Ben did like to stretch himself...
"How about some hairy trousers?" he suggested instead, "A cross between chaps and goat legs, to help suggest the donkey transformation later on - to help give Puck the idea?"
"Perfect," Ben breathed, his eyes sparkling with... satisfaction? He leaned forward, this time cuddling Rory's arm a bit before he gave him his customary kiss on the cheek. Which was in itself becoming a bad habit, he realised. Rory tried to examine his feelings like he had taught himself to do for a part, in order to place the correct ones into each character, the perfect blend. He found that he was all muddied up with thoughts of Ben - his eyes, his smile, his sense of humour, his constant black clothing. His soft lips against his cheek.
Dammit, Rory thought, as his heart flipped in his chest. I am in trouble here.
He really didn't know what trouble was.
It was dress rehearsal. Rory was pleased that they had finally got here. He was ecstatic because there was the intense upbeat energy of a production that everyone knew was good. He was panicking quietly because it was the dress rehearsal and it was at the Old Vic and it was his first proper play and...
He felt an arm snake round his waist. The subtle woodsy and old paper scent of Ben crept into his nostrils, calming him and exciting him in equal measure. Ben was in costume and he still looked good.
Rory was panicking because Ben had made this whole thing so much better, and Rory was so proud of him, of them all and... Well, let's face it, he was having inappropriate feelings for his Bottom. Oh god. He was even making puns about it in his own head. He was doomed.
"Everything all right?" Ben asked, and Rory didn't know what to say, given the path his thoughts were taking. Rory felt as though he was flushing and hoped he wasn't really. He swallowed and tried a smile. There were times that he really wished he didn't look like some mild-mannered boring accountant.
"Just a bit nervous," he confessed, with a ghost of a laugh.
Ben apparently couldn't stop grinning. "It's going to be fine, if we've got this far without incident, I'm sure it will be ok."
There was a kind of popping noise and a cold draft wafted around Rory's ankles bringing with it the smell of wet leaves. Strange in the Old Vic, he thought, a stagehand must have left a door open somewhere...
Ben's face had fallen though. From manic glee, he seemed to have devolved to biting his bottom lip in an anxious fashion. It made Rory's stomach swoop and not just from his nerves.
Ben's arm tightened around his waist for a second, before letting go and straightening up. "Come on then, let's go and face the music."
What, Rory thought. "What?" He hoped he didn't look as confused as he felt.
"I think some of my family have arrived," Ben answered him gently. "I did tell you it wasn't safe for me to play 'Dream'."
"You promised!" wailed the undoubtedly beautiful, but obviously dramatic woman in her... twenties? thirties? forties? Rory couldn't quite tell. She seemed to shift a little as he tried to look at her. And were those sparkles? What an interesting effect, a miracle what you could do with makeup these days.
"Well, I didn't," said Ben, "Not in so many words."
"It was heavily implied," said the gentleman, easily, who was broad of chest, with a curling beard and a brow of clear command. Mmm, thought Rory, I wonder if he's also an actor, he'd make a wonderful Lear, or maybe he's too young for that, a Henry V perhaps. He realised he was dreamily staring and came back to himself with a shake of his head.
"It's embarrassing," the lady continued to complain with a beautiful tremulous tone in her voice, like bells, "Airing the family dirty laundry in public like this."
"Auntie Tania, the play is 400 years old," said Ben, impatiently, "It's been staged hundreds of times in those centuries. I think it's a little late to be complaining about spoilers now."
"But it's different when there's family involved," Auntie Tania continued to wail. She was very good at it. Ben huffed at her. Rory thought it very entertaining, watching him fluff up, like a cat. An adorable cat... who would scratch his eyes out if he knew what he was thinking.
Actually, was Ben changing a bit himself? He really was a wonderful actor. He was always slim and gorgeous, but now his features seemed even pointier and his eyes more slanted... How curious.
"And who are you meant to be anyway?" she continued, "You could have at least tried to be a King, darling, even if you haven't got a fine enough figure to be Lord Oberon himself!" Auntie Tania appeared to wave at her male companion. Rory assumed that Gerard Horan who was playing Oberon, was somewhere in the background out of his sight. Otherwise it made no sense.
Oh, that was good, Ben was smiling again. Albeit dangerously. "I'm exactly who I chose to be."
"But what is it with the frankly laughable beard and the... For Mab's sake, are those trousers actually hairy? Really, darling..." Auntie Tanya appeared to be becoming a little overcome. She swayed artfully and clutched her companion's arm in an affected way. Rory admired her dedication to the part.
"I'm playing Bottom, Auntie - you remember, the weaver with the big..." Auntie Tania gave a little scream. Her male companion chuckled, with an edge that made Rory shiver, for some reason.
"No need to be crass, darling." Auntie Tania was smiling now too and Rory didn't like it, not one little bit. She turned to acknowledge Rory for the first time in the conversation. "And who's this charming young man? Yours, darling? Or..." She looked between Ben and him quickly with glittering eyes. "Oh, I see how it is."
"Leave him alone," Ben's voice was flat. "He's not yours to play with."
"But he's not yours, either, is he? That's clear. You've laid no claim on him. So if I did this..." She reached into her handbag like a striking snake and pulled out a sprig of herbs. Ben's hand shot forward and grasped her wrist before she could toss them or whatever else she had planned. Make a salad? Rory was a touch taken aback - why on earth was greenery being waved around in his dress rehearsal? Had Ben come up with another idea?
"No," said Ben, with a chilling finality.
Auntie Tania pouted. "Well, if you don't want him, I don't see why we can't have a little love-in-idleness. Just for fun, darling, I've been so bored... And now you're going to be publically prancing about in hairy breeks pretending to..." She shuddered.
Ben reached out one long finger and it was ridiculous, but Rory held his breath, as Ben reached across the space separating them and turned his head by pushing lightly on his chin. Rory looked away for a few seconds, so he missed her expression, but Auntie Tania's voice was petulant and unhappy.
"Oh, there it is - how dull of you."
"And now I think it's time you went home, Auntie," said Ben, his beautiful, mellifluous voice pointed but firm, "And take Uncle with you, please. We don't want a repeat of Chelmsford, now do we?"
Rory turned his head back to see Ben's uncle waggling his eyebrows and Ben looking highly unamused.
"If you have to, you can buy a ticket when we open, like anybody else," Ben added, when they looked like they might argue. There was a certain amount of flouncing and then they were gone, leaving the scent of rose petals and something earthier in the air.
Rory wasn't sure, but he couldn't quite remember them leaving... Oh well, he was probably distracted with thoughts of the dress rehearsal. Probably.
Ben let out a breath and a subtle tension in his frame softened. He sidled up to Rory's side and said, "That could have been worse."
"Right," said Rory, floundering. He found his hand had crept up to his cheek. The one that Ben had kept kissing. He wondered if there was something to see there, a mark in the shape of Ben's lips perhaps, shining like moonlight.
"Oh, sorry about that." Now Ben seemed embarrassed. "It just seemed safer, you see."
Rory's stomach was in knots. "Oh, of course. Naturally. I didn't expect... It didn't mean..." He broke off in confusion. What could it mean? What had he been expecting from Ben? What the hell was an intelligent, educated, literary actor/director like him supposed to do, except apparently act like an idiot schoolboy?
Ben unhooked his ridiculous beard, which somehow Rory had forgotten he even had on, and looked at him seriously, just for a moment. Rory had no idea what he saw but he found he was holding his breath anyway. Ben pushed himself closer, holding on to Rory's arm and leaning in.
"To be on the safe side, I should..." said Ben.
"Oh, yes," said Rory, quickly, and as fast as that Ben's lips were soft on his cheek, warmth and pressure and the whole of him feeling surrounded by that electric awareness that was Ben's full regard. He realised after a second of appreciating it that Ben wasn't pulling away this time. He was hovering instead, the warmth of his skin a heartbeat away from Rory's own. What was he waiting for? Was he hoping for more, just as Rory had been all this time? Were they really just a pair of oblivious fools? Well, yes, he supposed, yes they were.
Steadily, Rory turned his head, slow enough that Ben could change his mind, if he wanted to, but instead he leaned in even more, eager and trembling and then they were kissing, properly this time, heat and tongue and their noses bumping, just a little bit. And it was messy and real and really, really good.
Absently, Rory remembered they had a dress rehearsal to get back to but it seemed very far away in the circumstances. He also remembered that there had been something very odd about Ben's aunt and uncle...
"Umm," said Rory, intelligently, but then he did have a great deal to distract him. "I meant to ask, was that... Were they really...?" He decided that maybe he didn't actually need to finish that particular sentence. Or even think about it too hard, to be fair.
"You can't choose your family," said Ben, at last, philosophically, and kissed him again.