He waits for the dual clicks (one, two) in quick-fire succession, remembers to breathe as he hears Bel's voice over the speaker, as the numbers count down through her lips. Sometimes he likes to think he's the only one who can recognize the terseness in her voice, underneath all that seeming calm.
She's vibrating with energy the same way the rest of them are, he thinks, glancing down to the sheets on the desk he's learned to memorize through time and patience - Bel's, namely, but also Freddie's, even if it took several months and the occasionally shared drink in a time of need to get the other man to stop looking at him without picturing his past of privilege hanging over his head. He's not completely certain that Freddie's ever changed his opinion of him, but things have settled into an ease for reasons he can't place a finger on.
Even Bel and Freddie have migrated back to their routine sparring sessions, and remarkable still, he himself doesn't experience that all-too familiar and bitter aftertaste of jealousy when he hears the peals of Bel's laughter from within the studio, feeling - knowing - that Freddie's the one responsible for bringing her to near-tears. She seems to reserve a special kind of laugh for Freddie, the kind that brings him back to his days at Sherborne and the foolhardy days of his boyhood - and if he can appreciate the young man's presence for one thing aside than his undeniable talent with the pen, it's his indirect role in Hector's brief flights into nostalgia.
“Three, two, one,” Bel murmurs, hushed and deliberate, and there's the light (hit your mark, fade up vision, go grams, and --)
"Good evening, and welcome to The Hour. We begin with the story that has dominated the past week in the aftermath of - "
There's movement in his periphery, and it jars him, sends him blinking; the lights are at the wrong angle and in his eyes, and beyond the glare, he can see Bel rising through the glass with a questioning frown, and she mouths something that he can't quite seem to make out, but there's a paper being pressed into his hands, and his brain only has a split-second to register those long, spindly fingers as Freddie's before he glances down.
The edges are ripped, crinkling under his fingertips, Freddie had barely given the words a minute to set on the page before tearing it out of the typewriter - and underneath, Freddie's handwriting, added almost as an afterthought, but the way the pen's been pressed into the page, almost hard enough to go straight through, couldn't be described as anything but deliberate:
This isn't right, he thinks, feeling the sweat begin to collect at his temples, this isn't the plan, no one mentioned we were changing stories tonight - questions, I don't have the proper questions. "A-apologies, ladies and gentlemen." His gaze tracks the movement of Freddie's ascension, back out and up into the booth, long legs loping, taking the stairs two at a time to bring him to Bel, barely managing to disguise her anger brimming over, her left hand clenched into a tight fist - and Freddie whispers something in her ear, and the tension eases, and Bel's eyes find his through the glass, and without words, she nods once. Just once.
"I'm afraid we must interrupt our leading story tonight to bring you some breaking news. Just one hour ago, a local hospital in Brighton reported that a strange illness, the causes of which are still unknown, has led to a citywide epidemic. The Prime Minister has ordered a quarantine of the city and all immediately surrounding areas, and advises citizens to stay in their homes. If you or a member of your family appears to be exhibiting symptoms of illness, please bring them to your nearest hospital without delay. The quarantine will remain in effect until further notice. More information will be transmitted over radio as it becomes available."
The light shuts off.
No one so much as utters a word - except for Hector, who releases the breath he hasn't realized he was holding.
The door to the studio bursts open seconds before Freddie storms in, and continues to sway, easing back and forth, until it comes to a standstill.
"Well," Freddie mutters, "happy bloody Christmas to us all, then."
"Are we going to die, then?"
"We're not going to die, Miss Cooper," Bel sighs - partly by default, partly to get the girl to shut up, and Freddie quells his smirk with a brief and direct gnawing on the inside of his own cheek.
Most of them are crowding around the desk, around the lone telephone - although Isaac's craning his neck in the direction of the radio as if his life depends on it - and the funny thing is, Freddie thinks, reaching out for the smoke Lix offers him without any conscious decision on his part, is that there is no if in the situation, not at present, not when they're all eyeing one another, half-expecting each person to suddenly contract an incurable case of blistering pustules - or worse.
The tension hangs in the air, thick and unrelenting, and Freddie yanks at the knot on his tie, effectively freeing himself from the sensation of asphyxiation. He joins Lix at the window, glancing out into the quiet. There's an eerie sort of peace in it, with the main stretch of street decorated in lights, flags and the occasional wreath on a front door - but it hasn't even so much as snowed yet, strange for this time of year. His breath begins to fog up the glass, obscuring his vision, and he steps back, pressing one end of the cigarette against his palm until it slips, paper-thin, through two fingers.
"Perhaps this speaks to the ability of Mr. Madden's gravitas," Lix says, whispers of smoke trailing from her lips on every other word, "but I don't think I've ever seen it look that bare out there at this hour." They've all heard about the quarantine by now, Freddie muses, whether by their programme or another - or even the radio, which has remained unnervingly silent since the first announcement was made. There's no question that there will be more news soon - there's always more news, whether for the good or the contrary - and apparently he's not the only person here who has to contend with their loathing for playing the waiting game.
Bel's disappeared into her office, leaving the shades drawn but not inverted, and he watches (you're always watching, Mr. Lyon) as Hector excuses himself from the rest, filtering in behind her. Their shadows are illuminated by the light from the yellow desk lamp - that ridiculous lamp she's kept all these years, and he can't help but smile faintly at the memory of picking it out for her even now, before Hector steps in and that smile disappears in the wake of his concentration, in staring but attempting not to allude to a stare. Hector covers her shoulders in his hands, and she leans into him, but their backs are turned, preventing him from making out the dialogue. It strikes Freddie, suddenly, that this feels remarkably like voyeurism, but like the quintessential car crash, he can't look away until someone else forces his eye in their direction, and his frustration brims to boiling over, his hand shaking in an otherwise steady grip.
"Mr. Wengrow," he snaps, and Isaac jerks back from fiddling with the radio as though he's been burned, blinking wildly. "There will be an announcement when there is one, and not a millisecond before."
"Que sera, sera," Lix purrs, reaching out to give the end of his tie a covertly direct yank, and Freddie lifts the cigarette to his lips, leaning in for her light.
"You're no Doris Day, you know," he counters, the cigarette moving like a wagging tongue at the edge of his mouth as he speaks.
"And you're a wicked boy," she replies, smoothing over the wrinkles her grip has left in the silk, her touch trailing low, and the hitch in his exhale betrays him. "Be kind to Isaac, will you? His constitution isn't as strong as the rest of ours'."
"Isn't that the idea, though? We've got the very epitome of Darwinism right in this very room. Survival of the fittest, in all its sweaty glory. Who'd you think will go first, hmm? Mr. Campbell over there's looking particularly doomed," Freddie mutters, glancing up slowly, hopefully, for the moment when he'll catch the faintest of smirks filtering into her expression, before it's quickly replaced by the more common exasperation, and he ducks his head away to avoid what comes next, the ruffling of his hair. Next she'll be expecting him to roll over and beg while she scratches his belly, for Christ's sake.
"Be-have," she chides, all playfulness gone for the span of a few seconds, and a quick look around the room serves to explain why - Sissy Cooper's all but weeping in the corner, the cameramen are puffing statically on their cigs like a bunch of stoic smokestacks, and Isaac's removing his glasses to clean them, only to jab them back on his nose, then repeating the action a matter of moments later, as if on a replaying loop, and all the while, the radio drones on: reports of the illness extending into London... residents are continually advised to remain indoors... symptoms appear to mimic that of fever...
Bel reappears in the doorway of her office, Hector looming behind. Freddie meets her gaze above the sea of stony faces, and her eyes are wide and clear.
Nothing precedes the outage other than a small flickering of the lights; the room plunges into darkness. Sissy screams.
Next to him, he can hear the audible sigh from Lix - "I'll fetch the candles" - and around the room, the ends of cigarettes ignite and die out like strange erratic fireflies.
"This place is like a bleeding tomb at night," Freddie whispers, from by her side, and once again, he's voiced her thoughts without her even needing to do so much as look at him differently.
"Then again, normally, we wouldn't be skulking about with a candle in our hands, trying to make sure we're locked down good and tight, would we? There'd be lights, and at best, the benefit of after-hours refreshment," he continues, the sound of his voice carrying down the empty hallway to create a hushed echo, only the occasional syllable ricocheting back for her to hear, and it all serves to make her feel unsettled, perhaps more than the situation calls for at this particular juncture.
"It's a quarantine, Freddie, not the end of the world," she absently replies, even as her gaze sweeps down the length of the hallway, holding the candle up to cast light into the darker corners.
"Well, with the way they're acting in there, you'd half-expect the Four Horsemen to swoop in at any second," he points out, stopping dead in his tracks with no warning. Something grips her tight in her chest, and he holds up a finger as if to bring it to his lips, but doesn't.
"A moment," he declares, and ducks into the lavatory. Bel remains in the hallway with the lone candle an audible sigh causing the flame to flicker.
"Some light would not go amiss!"
She walks in after him, cupping a hand around the light so her sudden stalking movement doesn't leave them in the dark, leaning against the sink as he fumbles with his pants in front of the head, the sound of his belt clasp deafening apart from the noise of their breathing. Bel switches the candle from one hand to the other, absently picking at a string on her skirt. "If your aim was as good as your rhetoric," she adds, clicking her heel against the cracking tiles. He finishes after tossing her a look over his shoulder and moves to join her at the sink, nudging her aside with a bump of hips. They share a smile when she retaliates in kind, looming over him as he washes his hands - and then winces. Freddie's head snaps up at the hiss of pain, the breath she sucks in through gritted teeth.
"What? What is it?" he asks, glancing down as she shakes her hand in a quick wringing.
"Here." He pulls her hand into his and under the stream of cold water, thumb smoothing over her index to push the offending wax away from her skin. Bel looks up at the mirror image of their heads hovering together, the stray pieces of hair that fall across his forehead, free and rebellious, and her fingers clench under the faucet, slick with water, slipping from his grasp.
"It's fine, Freddie, it's fine - barely more than a blister," she says. He takes the candle from her other hand, holds it up between them, shadows shifting over his features as the flame dances between their shared breaths. She's warm, suddenly, overwhelmed by how quickly it comes over her, as though she's sinking into a hot bath, and there's a feeling of dread accompanying the rise in heat, deep down in the pit of her stomach (it's the first warning sign) but her fingers are still cold from the water, and even in the near-darkness, she knows her eyes are wide, telling.
"Moneypenny," he insists.
"Oh, shut up," she mutters, sweeping the strands of hair back from his forehead with a brush of fingers, and kisses that ridiculous face of his, at the edge of his mouth, and she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror again. Her mother's words echo (breathe, Isabel, and for the love of God, stand up straight) and her reflection squares her shoulders again, and Bel plucks the candle out of his hand with a smirk that only grows with every step she takes as she strides across the width of the room.
"It's going to be alright," Bel promises, to convince him almost as much as herself, and disappears to the other side of the door, leaving him to dwell in the dark.
The mood that hangs over the studio is thick enough to leave anyone with difficulty slicing through, but fortunately Bel's assistant - Miss Cooper, is the afterthought of a name that his mind supplies him with - has stopped crying. For a while, he'd started to convince himself that she was damn near inconsolable.
He won't pretend to ignore the fact that Bel and Freddie have up and disappeared - for a span of over thirty minutes, if he can trust his pocketwatch. It's difficult enough to read anything with the lights the way they are, and he attempts to time the drags on his cigarette any time he tries to read where the hands are pointing on the clock face, subconsciously mapping out the timeline. The cameraman have settled into something of a huddle in the center of the room, a thin cloud of smoke hovering over their heads, and he peers through that veil at the first shift of movement from within Bel's office.
"Haven't returned yet, have they?" Lix asks, though she phrases it as less of a question as he walks in to stand in the doorway, leaning against the frame, with its paint starting to crack. He could probably chip off a few more pieces of it now, add to the growing rate at which the entire place seems to be falling apart. No one's expected the programme to succeed for as long as it has, and the building itself was likely tempted to give up on them for a time, he thinks, squinting down at the worn tiles beneath his feet.
"So it would seem," he replies, reaching over to stub out the lingering remnants of the cigarette. The office is barely lit by the lone candle, but his eyes adjust to recognize the shape of a bottle of whiskey resting near her elbow. Wordlessly, she grabs one of the empty teacups and fills it for him, handing it across the desk. He takes it, cradles it in one hand, looks down at the dark liquid.
There's been no more updates coming in over the radio since the second wave of news broke. From what he'd gathered - alongside Miss Cooper's hysterics and the collective breath held amongst the group - there have been reports of illness as close as within London herself. Thus far, no deaths have been announced, though that doesn't mean they're non-existent. It only means the government doesn't want to create more panic than is absolutely necessary.
Despite his better judgment, he glances to the radio in Bel's office - silent, hopeful. Lix shakes her head calmly. She's been here before - not in this set of specifics, but in another time, a different year, under the constant stream of gunfire and the underlying threat of revolution. He puts himself inside her perspective and realizes: for her, this is merely a peaceful evening - albeit a crowded one, of course, given her penchant for enjoying the office to herself on the weekends.
And then again, the whiskey only helps matters. He takes a small sip, at first, and then downs the remainder, focusing on the smoothness of the drink, the heat that burgeons deep in his chest and fuels him forward into releasing another quiet sigh
"They're all children, you know," she murmurs, with a long exhale of her own, and the glint of faint light off metal bring his eyes to her collarbone as she threads the silver strand around her neck through her fingers, absently toying. "They're just children."
"You don't envy them?" he asks, equal parts curious and confused by her meaning, but even as he turns to look out at the rest of the offices, through the window, the two of them return, subtle and silent, Bel rubbing a spot along her index finger.
"Not at all," Lix insists, though there's a softness to her voice that sounds as if she's speaking from very far away, and as he glances back at her face, he finds her expression similarly distant.
"As I was saying, Mr. Wengrow, there's really no need at all to be examining the radio in such an overly thorough manner - overzealous, if you will - when there are several means of listening in to the emergency broadcast within this very room," Freddie continues, taking a seat on the edge of the desk, his foot absently propped on the seat of a chair.
"You - are you - apologizing to me?"
"What? No. Yes. No," Freddie mutters, moving to yank out his tie completely. He has half a mind to tie it around his head and effect some disabling limp, lead Hector into believing he's gone off the rails, but even now, he can feel Bel's glare radiating off his back and thinks better of it, stuffing it deep down into the pocket of his trousers.
"I was merely suggesting that you may want to reconsider the manner in which you - Mr. Wengrow? Isaac? Isaac?"
"He's going to be alright, i'nt he?"
A response escapes her for the moment, even the default mixture of assurance and exasperation that she so often resorts to during tense moments, and Bel takes the suit jacket Freddie offers her, tucking the brown wool over Isaac's shoulders. He's warm to the touch - burning, as though there's an inferno by the likes of Vesuvius trying to escape outward through his skin - but he can't seem to stop shivering, teeth chattering to such a degree that she considers asking for a piece of leather for him to bite down on.
"Of course," she finally answers, and as she rises to her feet, Sissy takes her place at Isaac's side.
Freddie looks paler than ever, struggling to light another cigarette off to the side of the room, and long strides take her to him in a count of five as she plucks the slender stick out from between his lips and presses the back of her hand to his forehead in a sudden smack of contact, causing him to splutter.
"Bel, what - "
"Don't you even think of dying on me now," she insists, intending to lightly chide him until it comes out as a hushed, desperate whisper. His fingers slip around her forearm, sliding up to her wrist, his thumb tracing the curve of slender bones beneath the skin, and she can feel her pulse racing under his hand.
"He going to be alright?" Freddie asks, and her attention travels back to Isaac, propped up against a wall and curling in on himself, fever and chills competing, and as they watch, Sissy draws his head into her lap, fingers running through his hair in a soothing repetition until his shivers turn into slow, rasping breaths.
"We can't go out there yet. They haven't lifted the quarantine, and even if we could - " There'd been nothing mentioned in the announcement about immunity, nothing to suggest this won't become a widespread epidemic. She lowers her hand, still wrapped tightly in Freddie's, shifting his grip to squeeze tightly, and reminds herself to breathe again when the walls seem as though they're starting to close in.
"Go check on the man of the hour," he says, jerking his head in that direction.
"Go." He steals his cigarette back from her and moves to light up, probably under the impression that he'll merely enjoy his smoke while she proceeds to give him a show fawning over Hector, but there are very few people she refuses to offer that level of satisfaction, and right now, Freddie's added himself to that list.
She stalks into her office, pretending she doesn't see Hector moving to try and intercept her, and closes the door behind her.
When she finally falls asleep sitting in her chair, her head pillowed on her arms resting on her desk, her dreams are restless and full of fire.
Up on the roof, he'd be tempted to make a quip about jolly old Saint Nick if Bel were here with him, just to see the way she can barely fight back a grin when he tells a stupid joke, but she's not here. No one is, and for the time being, that's what he prefers, to be left alone with a cigarette and his own thoughts, exhaling into air so cold it's impossible to distinguish between smoke and the heat of his own breath.
He might be cold up here without his jacket, and he'll have no one to blame but himself if this is the way he actually goes out - freezing to death, they say, is just like falling asleep - but it's still preferable over burning up from the inside out. He'll take the risk.
"Oh, good," he hears Hector say from behind him, the creaking door only announcing the arrival of company only a matter of seconds beforehand. "And here I was worried it was going to be cold enough to freeze a man in moments."
"Almost," Freddie says. "Not quite."
"Between this and the fever, though, I think I'll take the slow approach," Hector answers, his voice growing louder until he's standing just over Freddie's shoulder, hands shoved into the pockets of his long overcoat, and Freddie's hands are only mildly trembling as he takes another drag from the cigarette.
"Man like you, I would've figure you for going out in a blaze of glory," he says, one foot idly stamping the ground. "Waving your banner or some such. Highly publicized, regardless. Would it be an open casket, or would you be worried about the potential of your admirers throwing themselves on your corpse in unabashed grief?"
Hector doesn't respond, but there's a grin that plays at the edge of his mouth, tiny and knowing, and Freddie allows himself a private smile of his own for the span of a few beats.
"She's worried about you," he adds, half-muffled around the cigarette. "She may not act the part, but she's only trying to save face for the rest of them. Doesn't want anyone to see her as weak-willed, even now - 'cause now, she feels as if she has more to prove."
"She doesn't," Hector insists, but Freddie shakes his head.
"Not to you," he mutters. "She knows she's got you, you and m - she's got to prove it to them, Hector, every time that someone looks at her as a woman and not as a producer, every time someone harbors that tiny, inconsequential but potentially damaging thought that she's incapable, every moment that she starts to doubt herself - and we, we don't have to think about it because we know she can do this, but Bel - she's got to convince herself every single day."
He stubs out the cigarette, grinding it into the roof underneath the well-worn toe of his shoe.
"She's lucky, you know," Hector says, and Freddie looks up.
"To have a friend like you."
"Luck's got nothing to do with it," he insists, and the glint of the sun peeking out over the city has him squinting, gazing out into the distance at the pink and orange colors that stream across the horizon.
"We should get back."
Hector turns to head in and Freddie idly rubs at the edge of his mouth, finding the lingering red stain of lipstick when he lifts his hand up to the light.
It’s quiet as she wakes, hair stuck to the side of her face, and she stumbles out into the middle of the room, trying to step over the landmines of sleeping cameramen to make her way to a sleeping Sissy, her head lolled over to one side, and Isaac, dozing peacefully in her lap. Her hand still rests on his shoulder, the touch constant and made heavy by sleep, and Bel reaches in to rest her own against Isaac’s forehead, finding it cool to the touch.
Freddie’s passed out face-down near a desk, and she crouches low to wake him, shaking his shoulder until he jerks up and groans mid-snore, blinking blearily to set the room into focus.
“His fever’s broken,” she whispers, shifting to sit as they lean back against the desk together. Freddie scrubs a hand over his face.
Bel checks her watch.
“Half past six.”
“Christ,” Freddie yawns. “And the radio?”
She reaches up above their heads, finding the switch and turning the knob - radio silence, the unmistakable crackling sound, and her hand drops down to her side, a sigh slipping past her lips. In her periphery, she sees him glance at her, then up at the radio, and he’s hoisting himself up to his feet with a grunt, blinking a few more times to stare at the thing up close.
“Well, fever-brain over there must’ve gotten this thing all muddled,” he insists, turning the dials to search for another station.
“Not now, Moneypenny,” he replies, waving a dismissive hand. “This is man’s work.”
She leans back against the desk again, pursing her lips in thought, her gaze drifting down to the floor. Somewhere over the course of the evening, he’s managed to lose his shoes, and one pant leg’s rolled up halfway, exposing the top of his dress sock and the beginning of a skinny calf. She reaches over to adjust it for him while he continues to fiddle, muttering under his breath.
A voice breaks through the silence and Freddie crows in victory - quarantine has been lifted following... normal business shall resume... those affected should still seek treatment...
“Ah, there we are,” he says, following it up with casual bravado, and she rises to join him in standing over the radio, and as he adjusts the volume, the sound brings the others out of sleep, walking over to listen with puffy eyes and wrinkled shirts, and in the corner, Hector rouses from beneath the hat he’s perched over the bridge of his nose, easing stiff legs down from the top of a desk.
She backs away from the milling crowd and into Lix, who presses something into her palm without hesitation.
“Go freshen up,” she quietly suggests, as Bel looks down at the brush and small tube in her hand.
The early morning light makes everything a bit more visible when she ducks into the lavatory, wrinkling up her nose at the reflection that greets her. Her lipstick is smeared onto the side of her cheek and there’s something resembling a bee’s nest sprouting at the top of her head. She works the brush through her hair, gritting her teeth until the tangle yields, and splashes water on her face to clear the rest, reapplying with the borrowed color.
Hector’s waiting for her when she reappears, somehow still managing to look dapper despite having slept in a three-piece suit.
“We seem to be set free at last,” he says, setting his hat on his head with an acknowledging nod in her direction.
Her gaze sweeps their surroundings until she locates Freddie among the rest of them, his shirt half-untucked in the front and his hair sticking out in all directions, and when she lands on Hector again, she smiles.
“Good morning, Bel,” he counters, and quietly takes his leave, and out of everyone, hers is the only pair of eyes that watch him. Freddie’s standing beside her before she can even blink, pulling a loose suspender up over his shoulder.
“So, what now?”
“Let me fetch my coat first.”
Her hands unconsciously delve into its pockets as they leave and her fingers close around a small box, further held closed by a bow and a tiny note pinned, and she slows to a stop as the others walk ahead of her, Isaac leaning on Sissy for support (“I’m taking him straight to hospital, Miss Rowley, just like you said!”), and the doors swing shut behind until she’s left standing in silence, slowly reading over the note.
Given with quite a lot of consideration. (It matches your eyes.)
She opens her gift, and after she secures the beautiful pin to the lapel of her coat, Bel steps out into the early Christmas morning.