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What Profits A Man

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“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

— (King James Bible, Mark 8:36)

It’s a sobering feeling to be stuck at home alone while the world is out celebrating. When you’re stuck between four solid walls in the pitch black, being tormented by the whirlwind of thoughts tempesting your mind. There is no recourse, though you wish upon wishes that the regrets and the meaningless hypotheticals would cease even just for a moment. Meanwhile, the world craves the opposite: that their festivus may never waver, that they may relive the day for eternity.

Eternity. That was the length of time from dawn to dusk. Twenty-four hours stretched as far as the universe could muster; a scientific experiment conducted to determine how much pressure could be exerted upon the day before everything snapped.

But Paul Merroney did not snap. He rarely ‘snapped’ as the definition would have it. Gratuitous displays of anger, sprinklings of violence, voices raised to the Heavens...it was Ted Hammond’s style, but it certainly wasn’t Paul’s. Paul internalised his feelings to save face—a chip would be remiss to fall upon the shoulder of his immaculate pinstripe suit. Perhaps his words were more blunt than usual, his resistance a little tauter, but, no, nothing was catastrophic enough that he couldn’t handle. He was a Merroney, for goodness sakes! Situations were only difficult if one lacked the proper tools to fix them. Since his nervous breakdown at twenty-two, his toolbox was stocked to the brim with all sorts of mechanisms and machinations to help him cope with whatever life had to offer.

That was, until the Christmas party. The emotional dam burst, leaving a gaping hole the usual soldering tools couldn’t hold a candle to. He resorted to half-truths...or half-lies, claiming his reason for staying in London over the holiday break was to see the rights issue through. He was shocked that they bought such a shallow excuse.

In reality, he couldn’t fathom seeing his wife, April, sneak Rex Burton-Smithers lascivious glances from the corners of her eyes. And knowing that, while he was in England, their tongues could have been ten feet down each other’s throats and the invisible imprint of a foreign hand's tender caresses were embedded on her skin was all the incentive he needed to keep his feet planted on the soil. The imagery disgusted him. It...hurt him. It hurt him in ways even he didn’t understand—a betrayal that stabbed his heart with the same blade his so-called ‘friends’ in the schoolyard used against him. Because he preferred to keep his interests on the straight and narrow rather than participating in childish follies, he was forever deemed a ‘swot’. And a ‘swot’ was all he ever was.

How April had the gall to think such a thing was okay was beyond him. To be a married woman skipping off to the islands with an old flame? The wretch. She was no different than the people she looked down upon—another upstart with values comparable to a rubbish heap. Sometimes Paul wished he’d never married her in the first place; that the flight was a one-way ticket to the Bay of Whales where she could live the rest of her days in solitary confinement and only the wind could hear her protestations…

No. No, he didn’t mean any of that. He just wished things were different. That none of this had to happen; that none of their dirty laundry had to be aired out in front of everyone, especially so soon after tying the knot. The sheer embarrassment of it all! But, then again, Jennifer and Ted were far from a model couple; Brian and Jane were both divorcees; and Mary's husband was a two-timer. Paul's mother would frown at the thought that her son could, potentially, be grouped together with that motley crew. She’d only married once and happily stayed with her husband until the end.

Paul massaged his temple and allowed his eyes to open. The sitting room that was once bright and airy was now blanketed with shadows and stifling to the breath. The silence was deafening as well: neither a laugh nor the thin clinking of champagne flutes were heard. Not even the sound of nature outside. His own personal purgatory.

Weeks ago, when he would return home from another late day at the office, he’d be greeted by April frolicking about the place as if she were an Olympic figure skater. All the while she’d plead for Paul to dance with her because it had been ‘so long’ since they’d had a good dance. Looking up from his paperwork, Paul would reply that they’ve only danced once—at the wedding—and that one occasion suited him fine. Like a light, April’s eyes would dim. She’d fall back in her seat and let out an affected sigh before snapping back with another stale retort about how he was ‘dreadfully boring’ and ‘stiffer than a wood plank’ when he danced, anyway. He’d look at her with a furtive scowl (or an awkward smirk), dripping not with contempt, but with disappointment.

They both knew they had nothing in common save for a desire to remain heads and shoulders above the masses. But it was a trait so shallow that it couldn’t make two magnets stick together.

Still, at least her quips and (not so) subtle jabs that interrupted him during his occasional work-from-home stints meant that she was there. With him. Now all he was left with was pure, unadulterated silence. A silence that, for once in his life, suffocated him like a boa constrictor who had no qualms about squeezing every last breath out of him.

Paul rolled up his sleeve and checked the time. The hour was late, but not the feeling. Despite being a complete wreck, he knew there was no chance of him getting a lick of sleep as long as his mind kept switching between rewinding memories like a broken projector and playing as an cheap, back alley clairvoyant.

He reached for the bottle of scotch sitting on the coffee table. It was only a tad lighter than it was when he’d pulled it from the cabinet, but the stark realisation that he was participating in a drunken wallowing session pained him. Were the glasses he downed at the party not enough? How could he sit there gulping drink when he knew how easily it could send a man to his abject demise? The epitome of a quick fix that killed slowly.

With his hand gripping the neck, he set the bottle back down and fell back into the cushions. He couldn’t go on like this. It was bad enough that Brian, of all people, was proselytising for him to lay off the brown stuff and that the Rileys had caught him in such a vulnerable state. There was no doubt that the office was tittering his name on the ride home with equal parts amusement and spurious pity. Little did they know that he didn't need their pity—he had enough of his own.

In one swift motion, Paul leapt from the couch and switched on the lamp on the table beside him. He then unfastened his briefcase and shuffled through the assortment of notes collated inside. There was nothing like reading through a good proposal or drafting a tender to make him feel at ease, which always was a point of contention for April who spent the days perched upon her holy throne. “Everyone else calls a friend or steps out into the limelight when they feel a bit down,” she’d say, “But not Paul. His idea of entertainment is to bury himself under a mound of paperwork like an insipid little worker ant who refuses to see the forest for the trees.”

He scoffed to himself. While she was gazing up at the trees and thinking about how wonderful it would be to loaf about in a hammock for hours, he was busy drafting ideas that mattered. That lot of sticks and grass would be the perfect location for a new depot. Or even a service center. In her own special way, April reminded him of David—two individuals who had somehow convinced themselves that the world was built by chasing skirts or gossiping with those who had nothing better to do but stroll around with their necks outstretched.

If Paul had done the same, he wouldn’t be in the position he was today. He’d be slaving away trying to make ends meet like everyone else he’d known back at home. But April and David...and even Mary for that matter could never understand that struggle. Born (or bred) with silver spoons in their mouths, they couldn’t fathom having to choose between a ration of food on the table or some decent fitting clothes.

So while everyone’s attention was stuck on the forest like bears who can’t lift their heads to the sky, Paul’s eyes were set on the city. But now that he was here, he had to stay here, and there was no way in hell anyone was going to take away what he’d accomplished at such a young age. To think that it could've been him who took the chairman's seat at the bank instead of Simon. After all of those years...years of priming and guidance under the wing of Sir Neville...it could have been him. But Ted, David, Jane, and Mary would never understand the sacrifices. A glittering dream stored back in its box and hidden away because of the prospects of a family-owned lorry company. If only they knew.

As Paul thumbed through the various papers, he wondered where the endorphins had gone. Work was not another grueling task of the daily routine for him; something one dreaded every time the alarm clock ripped them from their restless slumber. He took great pride in what he did and loved driving to work every morning to check up on the numbers game. But as he stared at those tiny black letters on the page, he felt an overwhelming sense of futility creeping on his back and whispering in his ear about what a dunce he was to think that any of that stuff mattered in life.

Paul's nostrils flared with pent-up irritation. He slammed down the dossiers without remorse, leaving them in a disheveled heap on the table. A surge of energy shot through him, coursing through every vein and filling his core with anger. Everything in this dreadful world was wrong and every horrid creature on Earth was sent here to repulse him from sun up to sun down. He despised them for the cruel games they played; their propensity for inefficiency; and their constant vacuity. April...how could she...It wasn't his fault that he had a job to do! Business is always in a state of flux and waits for no one. In the blink of an eye one could find an opportunity to score big, or they could falter and lose it all. By contrast, holidays to Timbuktu were forever and had nowhere near the same time-constraints.

If Hammonds was far enough in its timeline to warrant off-hand directing, he would have hopped on the flight without a second thought. Why couldn't she understand that? Instead, he was made out as a heartless villain. Heartless—that's all anyone ever described him as. Heartless, selfish, uncaring, and every other negative adjective one could think of. But he wasn't evil; that implied he had a willingness to inflict harm without care of the consequences. No, he wasn't evil.

Paul’s body began to tingle violently. His heart rate accelerated to speeds it hadn’t reached in eons. The blurriness forming in his head did nothing to cloud the torment that he was experiencing in his mind. He dashed back to the couch, tumbled onto the cushions, and shrouded his face with his hands.

And then, through his quivering nerves, he wept.

~~~~

When his engagement was through, it felt like time had restarted. Not in the sense where was reliving the torture all over again but that, when he was in his own cocoon, the seconds seemed to stop ticking. Paul wiped his damp, blemished cheeks with the back of his hand. In his stupor he realised that there was no possible way he could stay in this house alone for the remainder of the holiday break. The walls had eyes and the air was warm. Regardless of where he looked he was forced to recall a memory that he’d rather push aside.

Paul picked up the phone and brought the receiver to his ear. The dial tone droned endlessly, waiting for his request until it ultimately cut off into extinction. He returned the phone back to its port, but kept his hand on the ready.

Certainly he could stay at his father-in-law’s home, and it would work in his favour to build further rapport with Mr Winter if battle lines ever needed to be drawn. Paul checked the time again—a call to him would have to be placed tomorrow, when it wasn’t interrupting anyone’s precious beauty sleep.

The name ‘Clare’ was second on the list and he chuckled pitifully to himself at the mere thought of her. How things had changed...but for better or for worse, who was to say? He hoped she was well.

Then there was his mother. An obvious choice, but she was much too prodding and would inevitably dote on him as if he were still a young boy. There was a difference between motherly ingratiation and romantic fawning. Sir Nev…? Oh, what terrible choices all! He flicked through his mental rolodex—everyone was either an acquaintance or someone he’d rather step on nails than have a casual conversation with. Someone like Martin Farrell, for instance: a nice fellow, but also complacent and demure to a fault. How hopelessly boring!

That only left him with one person: Brian Hammond. Arguably his only friend despite them never meeting outside of work hours unless the reason for doing so pertained to work itself. But Paul liked Brian regardless. Not only was he the most respectable and cultured one out of the Hammond Clan, but he did a fine job with those balance sheets.

Ever since the day of Brian’s inevitable breakdown, Paul had always had a glimmer of interest in him that surpassed the expected work relations. He wasn’t his usual type, but he inherently checked more boxes than April ever did. And knowing that Brian felt the same[1]was a lovely added touch, but back then Paul remained adamant that nothing was to occur between them. So nothing progressed and their usual workplace relationship resumed as if nothing flirtatious was spoken between them.

But now, Paul wished something had. These days, Brian had his mind set on Jane who welcomed him with open arms. If he recalled correctly, they both had gone home together after the party…

No matter. He was well-known for being a man who called at any hour provided he needed to relay an important piece of information to his staff. And, right now, he needed someone to free him from himself.

Without belaboring the point, Paul poured himself a shot of liquid courage and downed it before dialing the number. The steady trill of the line provided a simple reminder that he could always hang up and return to pretending that his feelings for the accountant was just another wanton expression of all he had tried to suppress. Not to mention they were both, in some capacity, bound to another. But what was one night of casual conversation?

The line clicked on, sending the faint sound of a man and woman chuckling through the speaker. But it was the masculine voice who answered the phone.

“Hello?”

“Brian?”

“Paul? Is that you?”

“Yes, it’s me,” Paul responded, his voice in a soft monotone.

“Don’t tell me you’ve called to warn us about an upcoming meeting you’ve already got scheduled!”

Paul slipped his foot underneath his leg and changed the subject to something more meaningful than boilerplate Hammond humour, “Brian, I have something to tell you.”

Brain laughed through his nose, “Well, on with it! It’s not like you to be so cryptic.”

Paul hesitated a moment, but he felt his body relax just by hearing the voice of the coworker he felt so attached to. He exhaled a breath only he could hear. “I like you, Brian,” he admitted.

“Paul, it’s no secret that we’re friends, no matter how blasphemous Ted thinks it is.”

No, Brian,” Paul responded with a hint of force, “I’ve been thinking about the confession you relayed to me last year.”

“Confession,” Brian repeated solemnly.

“Yes, the confession.”

“Um...would you hold on a moment?”

There was a muffled sound on the line, presumably of Brian placing his hand over the speaker, followed by the fading voice of Jane ribbing about how Paul was the ‘anti-leisure police’. A moment later the noise subsided and returned to its clear state. “Go on."

“I was a fool to let it falter, Brian. To think that I could assimilate into a strata rife with homophobia and convince myself that my feelings for you weren’t valid.”

Brian sighed softly, “What about April?”

A pang of emotion hit Paul straight in the heart. Even at the party Brian acted like a broken record—continuously interspersing April’s name into every sentence as if his modus operandi was to be her personal advertiser.

“How much did Mrs Winter pay you to shill as well as you are?” Paul smirked.

Brian’s eyes widened in disbelief, “She’s your wife, Paul, whether you like it or not! I can’t not think about her feelings as well. I may be divorced, but I think it’s safe to say that I have more experience with women and their wiles than you do.”

“Which is exactly why that...plaything of hers can please her better than I ever could,” Paul clicked his teeth and twisted his lips downward, “I admit that we...aren’t the most compatible people on the planet.”

“Did you ever love her?”

“I can’t expect a woman who finds it laborious to choose between which outfit to wear for a run to the shops to understand the importance of hard work.”

“But did you love her?”

He knew exactly why he'd bothered to make April's acquaintance in the first place, and it wasn't because romance was written in the stars. She annoyed him and he was insufferable to her, yet there was a seed of guilt germinating within him that maybe this was all his fault. They had shared laughs and wonderful times out in the country; and her prim rants and raves about the most minute of things were always a source of amusement because he was much the same way. Her epicurean taste for style was always welcomed and she was a decent cook, for what it was worth!

Paul knitted his brows and sighed a mighty sigh, “Perhaps I did. Or maybe I do, but—”

“Not in that way…”

There was a brief silence between them before Brian continued, “Can I ask you another question?”

“You know you don’t need permission to ask me something, Brian.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

Another second of silence. Paul covered his face with his hand and ran his fingers gingerly through his thick brown hair, “I...don’t want to be alone. I need something—anything—to get my mind off of this drivel until she comes back.”

Brian’s voice uplifted, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find that difficult to believe. You always seemed like the independent type who could survive in the deepest jungle without human contact provided your hands were busy.”

“Despite the propaganda your family force-feeds one another, I am not a robot,” Paul corrected, “I have feelings and needs like anyone else.

The comment was made in jest, but it instantly reminded Paul of Mrs Hammond’s parting words to him only a couple of hours earlier: “You’re what they call a winner, aren’t you? You win every time.”

Those vitriolic words sliced at his heart like a freshly sharpened blade. Mary, like the rest of her brood, found it hard to accept that he did, in fact, possess a heart. A heart that was capable of being moved by the peaks and troughs of life. But now he wished he was that robot who could plug and unplug himself at any given time; a robot who was not capable of love or being loved. Of course, it was an impossible dream.

“I know you do…” Brian lamented, “Look, I…” Another nervous chuckle escaped his lips, “I feel like I’m breaking up with you.”

Paul filled in the blanks, “You can’t come over tonight.”

“I...no.”

“I see.”

The brash, feminine voice of Jane telling Brian to ‘can it’ reverberated through the airwaves.

“Is that Jane?” Paul asked, despite knowing full well who was present.

“I’m afraid it is.”

Paul sucked in his lips, his face dropping with disappointment. “Give her my love,” he mumbled.

“I will...Oh, but Paul? Paul?”

The line went dead.

~~~~

Paul slept on the couch that night. It wasn’t the most preferable sleeping arrangement, but the trek over to his bedroom where he then had to change his clothes and participate in the other mundane aspects of life was a slog he was willing to forgo for one night.

But upon waking up, he felt as though he’d waded in muck and wanted nothing more than to tear off his top layer of skin. Paul rushed to douse himself in the cold shock of the shower and replace his business attire with a black cashmere turtleneck. Then he had the mortifying ordeal of having to clean up his mess...that dastardly bottle of scotch. Paul Merroney, infamous teetotaler, manages to down glasses of the brown drink but magically awakens the next morning fit as a fiddle. Just how does he do it?

As soon as he finished chugging another glass of water, he was further awakened by a few thin knocks on the front door. He huffed slightly to himself and strided into the vestibule to greet this apparent ‘somebody’. It was a man about his height with brunet hair that swooped perfectly over his forehead. He was dressed in a mauve button-down of the paisley variety.

“Sorry to disturb you,” Brian smiled with one of his toothy grins, “I hope you aren’t too hungover from last night!”

Paul scrunched up his face into a small grimace, “Only just; I remember why I never cared to touch that vile liquid...What a surprise to see you.”

Brian was let into the sitting room where the azure curtains remained closed and the near-empty bottle of scotch and its companion (complete with a dainty ring of alcohol left at the bottom) were returned to their original places on the coffee table. The familiar sight elicited a frown from the accountant, but he took a seat without speaking about it directly.

“Paul...do you remember what happened last night?” he asked.

Paul made himself comfortably uncomfortable on the couch by pretending his weight was too much to handle and falling onto the cushions. His face appeared long and his eyes languid, and he sighed audibly as he touched his forehead, “I remember the party, fine...your wicked witch of a mother...being driven home by the Rileys...But the rest is a blur, I’m afraid.”

Brian reached over to place a gentle hand on his friend’s knee, “Oh, Paul. I know your situation with April is...less than ideal but, take it from me, it isn’t worth it.”

“I’m not an alcoholic, Brian. I just needed something to take away the pain.”

The accountant’s eyes drooped as he slid his hand away and back into his lap, “I’m sorry I couldn’t be there.”

“Don’t be. I understand that a woman of Jane’s...intrigue can be tempting for some.” Paul lifted his eyes to glare at Brian through the slits of his fingers. “But you’re here now, and that’s what matters.”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

Paul waited a moment. He waited to see if Brian would make the first move, if he would resume those tantalising sensibilities that led him to confess last year. Did he expect sex? No. And, in fact, it was the last thing he wanted. He just wanted Brian to be present; to make his hair stand on end through a series of light, feathered touches against his skin. And, maybe, to love him as he loved any of his other lovers from days gone by. But now Brian was only a statue: displaying some semblance of emotion, but also being cold and unmoving.

Paul gripped his head and threw his face into his hands. A delicate whimper passed through his lips. “Damn it,” he muttered.

“Ah, the morning after—” Brian rose to his feet, “I haven’t missed those. Although maybe I did come at just the right time. What have you had to eat?”

Paul waved away the suggestion. “It’s fine...Brian. There’s a bottle of aspirin in the kitchen drawer.”

Paul,” Brian assured, “You insisted on taking care of me in my embarrassing public stupor last year, now it’s only fair that I return the favour!”

He gave himself the liberty of traipsing through the galley kitchen and poking through the cabinets and refrigerator. There were some stray vegetables, dry pasta, and an assortment of other mismatched items that required more skill to prepare than what Brian was capable of. Luckily, there was half a loaf of bread tucked away in the box and a tin canister of coffee grounds sitting amongst the spices. His signature breakfast of toast and coffee was a go!

He prepared the bread in the toaster and heated up an ample amount of water. In the meantime, he sifted through the kitchen drawer to find the bottle of aspirin Paul requested. The bread popped out of the toaster in record time; it’s original floppy white appearance was now stiff and the most delicious shade of brown. Brian grabbed a knife and smeared a pat of butter on one side. The flaxen dollop instantly melted into the bread, giving the dry and flavourless starch a lovely underlying saltiness.

Brian brought out the plate of toast and the pill bottle out to the sitting room where Paul was splayed like a Regency-era matron on a chaise longue.

“You didn’t have to do this,” Paul insisted, gazing up into the other’s kind eyes.

Brian smiled, “But I did. Coffee should be ready soon.”

And once the water was boiling, Brian poured it into a French press and let the coffee steep for a few minutes before pressing down the plunger and pouring it into two porcelain cups.

He peeked his head from around the bend, “Any milk or sugar?”

Paul shook his head and the coffee was brought out as is.

Despite Paul’s ‘throbbing headache’ and ‘fatigue’ over his untimely imbibe, he wasted no time in conversing about the rights issue and other work-related topics. Numerous times had Brian tried to veer the subject elsewhere, but he soon gave up and allowed Merroney to indulge in his business pleasures. That’s how it always was. When Brian was convalescing for all those months, Paul’s meetings with him would be about work and work alone even when Brian explicitly stated that he wanted to chat about anything else.

Other topics bored Paul. He was neither interested in the pop culture of today nor the pop culture of 200 B.C. When anyone wished to discuss a new record or film, his ears effectively shut off until he could whip up a segue that suited him. He did know about The Godfather, but that was only because Clare insisted on taking him to see it. Dare he say the film wasn’t half bad?

When there was a lull in the discussion, Brian took the wheel and asked the question that had been plaguing him ever since their phone call the previous night. How long was Paul planning to keep it hidden under the rug?

Brian gulped the last drop of coffee and set the saucer on the table. “Do you remember calling me last night?” he asked, “It was rather alarming, if I must admit. You could’ve called April—(Paul glowered at him from the corner of his eyes) or...your mother? But instead you wanted my company. I know I should be flattered but—”

Paul chuckled, “My mother? She’s a sweet lady but she knows nothing about my day to day affairs.”

Brian licked and pursed his lips at that horrid word: affairs. It was truly the word of the day. “Pardon my candor, Paul, but I’ve noticed that you have some kind of...predilection for pushing people away, whether directly or indirectly.”

The coy smirk remained painted on Paul’s visage. “And yet, you stayed,” he said, “Why is that?”

By contrast, Brian’s face was as still as stone, “Because I like you, Paul. I consider you a friend.”

‘A friend’. But what constituted a friend in this case? A glorified acquaintance? A coworker? Someone you met at the pub for a round of non-alcoholic beverages? Or something more? Paul set down his cup and crossed his legs at the knee. His smirk turned downwards into a hard line.

“I remember calling you, Brian." He crossed his arms loosely, “And I meant every word I said.”

“I figured you did. They say a few drinks brings out everyone’s deep, dark secrets. You wouldn’t have admitted it if it weren’t the truth.” Brian stood, “I’ll leave you to rest.”

Paul looked up, but kept his focus affixed on the accountant, “I’m not hungover, Brian.”

“What?”

Paul lifted himself up and stepped over so they were both face to face. “I’m not hungover,” he repeated, “But I appreciate what you’ve done for me.”

Brian blinked.

“And if you don’t mind, I'd rather you not leave. I do have another favour to ask of you,” Paul added.

“My gosh,” Brian slapped his head, “Was this a trick, Paul? Another one of your tricks? Or a test of some sort? To see if I was worthy enough for you? How am I supposed to react to this? No, how should I react to this according to you?”

“Kiss me.”

“Kiss you? You must be joking, this is all moving too fast—”

There was a glint in the accountant’s eyes that revealed that his words didn’t exactly match his innermost feelings towards the situation at hand. Paul caught this and rolled his eyes coquettishly, “Oh, for heaven’s sakes, Brian, shut up and kiss me already. We aren’t getting any younger.”

Brian rubbed his neck and averted his gaze to the floor, “I’m not experienced in this area at all; if you can believe it.”

“I can. And I imagine Jane wears the trousers in your little fling as well?”

“Actually, I—”

The conversation was bordering on tedious. He didn’t call Brian to sit around and talk shop or listen to him flounder over his words as if a calculator was the only thing he’d caressed in his life. At the same time, Paul found Brian’s shyness to be endearing...all the more reason to have him take charge as he was meant to do.

A dirty smirk shot up from the corner of Paul’s lips and he grabbed ahold of the accountant’s button-down, pulling them close. Then, before any of them had a chance to think, he planted a deep smooch smack in the center of Brian’s mouth. It was softer than he’d expected. Pleasant. The mustache that he refused to shave added a rough sensation to the kiss, but it wasn’t irritating enough to warrant stopping.

In tandem, the two men’s cheeks began to flush with warmth. A sudden swell of emotions built up in Brian and inspired him to take the helm. He wrapped his arm around Paul’s petit waist, pulling their bodies even tighter together. His other hand rose higher until it stopped at the side of the Chairman’s head. Then, his fingers slid slowly upwards and through the thick waves of hair Paul took great pride in.

The sensual touch sent a shiver of delight through Paul’s core, and when Brian tugged on a clump of curls, Paul parted their lips and gasped under his breath. With the intimacy adjourned, Paul draped his arms around his lover’s neck and stared wide into the other’s eyes, “...Brian,” he purred.

Brian face twitched as though he couldn’t decide whether to plaster on a goofy grin or stand in stone-faced shock at what had just transpired between them. “Was...was that too much?”

Paul raised his brow and bit the corner of his lip through a satisfied smile, “No.”

“Oh,” Brian returned the same expression of pleasure, though more conservative in tone. “Good. I’d hate to displease the chairman of the board I sit on.”

One of Brian’s arms was now hanging by his side whilst the other was still wrapped around Paul’s waist. Paul rectified this immediately and, when he was swaddled to his satisfaction, he rested his head upon the accountant’s shoulder and sighed. Yes, he was a fool to let this encounter go unchecked the first time their love had been confessed. He missed this dearly: to release his inhibitions and be locked within the arms of another man. Society was a failure in so many ways.

“Did you feel the same about Farrell?” he asked en sotto.

"Martin Farrell?" Brian ran his hand up and down the extent of Paul’s back, “No. No I didn’t. Should I have?”

Paul pulled his head away from Brian's shoulder and chuckled under his breath. "Is that a joke?"

"He might have been a Merroney-approved fancy!"

Paul primmed up his mouth and kissed Brian again, "You wish!"

~~~~

Their close encounters led them to the couch, where their tongues continued to dance between spells of sweet nothings. When their cravings were sated, Paul kicked off his shoes and lied down with his head in Brian’s lap. Without any further commands, Brian teased and caressed Paul’s hair, twirling the coils around his fingers and massaging his scalp. The gentle pets had a sparkling magic to them that lulled Paul into a peaceful rest. The curtains had since been drawn as well, allowing a fresh coat of light to flood the room. The shadows that once taunted him had been exorcised, leaving nothing but the wispy thoughts of romantic bliss. He wanted to know everything about how Brian felt towards him. What turned him on? What turned him off? What made Paul different compared to any other banker walking on the side of the street (well, he already knew but he wanted to hear it from Brian's mouth).

Then he wondered what was Brian’s ideal date? Where would they go, what would they do? Would Brian surprise him with a gift that he didn’t ask for but would gladly accept? And how would he show affection without making it overt to the rest of the world? Slipping notes between Paul’s paperwork when he wasn’t looking? Cheeky winks from across the boardroom? He wondered if allowing Brian move his ragtag, makeshift 'office' from the boardroom to his office would be too obvious. Probably so.

Paul sighed to himself. Thank goodness Miss Vickary was all but a memory, she wouldn’t waste a moment to run her mouth had her interest been piqued by the slightest hint that something was growing between ‘Mr Merroney’ and ‘Brian Hammond’.

After a few minutes had passed, Paul called for Brian with the same soft force that he used so often back at Hammonds. A dictator he was not, but he was certainly a man who knew what he wanted.

“Yes, Paul?”

“It’s a beautiful day out and I’d rather not be cooped in this place alone for the rest of the day. I think you should take me somewhere.”

“Hm...to the cinema?”

Paul grimaced, “Good heavens, no; it bores me intensely. There must be something better you can think of.”

“...The opera? Or the London Symphonia,” Brian intoned, “I’d wager you were the Mahler type?”

Paul’s eyes fluttered open. The first thing he saw was the face of the man who so dutifully watched over him. “The mauler type?” he chuffed, “I’m not a rabid dog. I’ve never mauled anyone in my life.”

Brian chuckled, “No, Paul, Gustav Mahler—the composer. I thought you were a purveyor of the classical arts?”

“I’m sorry I led you astray.”

“But those cassettes you brought me, you didn’t settle for the typical Beethoven and Bach. I don’t believe you bought me any of those at all.”

“I have my ways,” Paul winked, “Clare.”

Brian’s shoulders fell, but his voice remained in high spirits, “Ah, then I should invite her to a day out at the symphony instead!”

“Go ahead. Though she wouldn’t give you the time of day.”

The banter brought a gust of disquietude into the room. Brian removed his hand from Paul’s hair and rested it on the arm of the ivory couch. This act displeased Paul, and he reached for Brian’s other hand only for it to be pulled away before their fingers could intertwine.

“Now what is it?” he exasperated.

“You do realise we can’t go on like this, Paul.”

Paul’s heart skipped a beat. He whisked himself up and turned towards Brian, who appeared more like a stranger than the paramour he’d locked lips with only a few minutes before. He wanted to believe his comment was a joke (albeit a poor one), but the words were spoken like daggers—there was not a hint of playfulness behind them. He felt himself being stabbed by rejection again. So many in such a short time, and always just when he needed them most.

“What are you getting at?”

Brian ran a hand along the side of his face, rubbing his brow in slow circles, but said nothing. Paul sat back against the cushions and stared out at the fireplace in front of them where, between the ormolu garnitures, sat framed photographs of him and April on their wedding day. He could feel her gaze scrutinising him through the glass, judging the harmless escapade he had with one of the Hammond brothers.

He wouldn’t put it past her to leave a hidden camera lying around. It would provide the infallible evidence needed for their first row after her arrival back in London. While she could claim that she and Burton-Smithers never did so much as stare into each other’s eyes, she had all the indisputable footage of him getting too close for comfort with Brian. Nevermind her obvious stint with the other Paul. In that case, it was two intrigues against one. And, hell, what about her afternoon with Ted?

“You’re a great guy,” Brian finally said, “An enigma as fascinating as the pyramids. But I won’t help you get back at her. Nor will I destroy my relationship with Jane.”

Paul whipped his attention back around. “Get back at her?” he scoffed, “The only thing I’m trying to ‘get back’ at is the feelings we originally had with one another. We—you and I.”

“This is cheating, Paul, in more ways than one. It reminds me of when Ann and I were together—we both thought sneaking off into the night was some kind of revenge for the other’s lack of affection. Tantalising, yes, but it only added fuel to the fire. In an instant, everything became more confusing and spiteful; and those affairs—no matter how tempting and substantial they seemed—are not built to last,” Brian slid his hand from his face and turned to Paul who was glaring at him through a veil of apprehensive understanding, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

Paul gritted his teeth and jumped to his feet. He rambled around the foyer in deafening silence until he stopped in front of the fireplace. He refused to make eye contact with those photographs for fear or what he might feel. He already felt himself returning to the same state he was in yesterday.

With one hand on his hip, he placed the other on the edge of the mantle, gripping it firmly. He set his eyes on the gilded mirror hanging above it all and stared at himself with the utmost contempt. A cheater. A jealous cheater he was, and no better than April or anyone else he looked down upon. The sight of his face disgusted him and he turned away. “Why did you come here,” he asked. “It wasn’t to teach me a lesson. Not after how you’ve...riled me.”

Brian stood, “There was a reason. But it doesn’t matter now.”

“You’re right. I shouldn’t have believed anything substantial would have come from this.”

Brian took a minced step towards Paul. His hand was raised to his chest and wavered between giving his friend a consoling pat on the shoulder or just forgetting it all.

“I made my bed and I must sleep in it,” Paul continued, “With or without April.”

Brian’s hand fell to his side, “I’m afraid so.”

Paul spun around. His face appeared calmer than his words, but the vigour had all but gone, “Do you remember the rose you gave me when I first visited you in hospital?”

“I...yes. I do.”

“I should have kept it.”

The two men stood staring at one another—both only a few feet away but wavelengths apart. Brian shook his head and slipped Paul a gentle touch on the arm as he saw himself out, “I’m glad you didn’t. Good morning, Paul.”

Paul watched him leave, but said not a word. His lips were tingling, but he dared not touch them. And when the door shut for the first and final time, he flinched.