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Of Equal Value

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Hector was walking through the office, consulting his notes for the upcoming broadcast and muttering under his breath, when he caught sight that one of the editing rooms was unoccupied and detoured inside. He just needed a few minutes, some time to get himself centered and ready for this bloody show. Every week it seemed as though The Hour was getting more complex, more nuanced, as Bel gained her footing and found the voice that she was seeking for the programme.

He had been doing this for years, broadcasting first on radio and then on the BBC television channels, but it had never been this damnably challenging before.

Before, he'd just been given the scripts, and it had been enough to smile confidently at the camera and read the words off the page. He hadn't been expected to know anything, or contribute much to the actual process of the program.

Now--it was like he'd come alive, like he'd been waiting this whole time for someone to ask for his input, and to his rather considerable surprise Hector found that he did, in fact, have an opinion.

Of course, it was hard not to find passion when Bel was your fearless leader. She was an inspiring figure.

The door to the soundproofed room clicked quietly behind him, and he started to read out the troublesome paragraph. "And so, Madame Heilbron, who had been called to the bar in 1939 to serve in her native city of Liverpool, has been appointed the first woman Recorder for Burnley. She shall take her post this first week of December, and in doing so mark a great day for--no, not great," he cut himself off, leaning over a free spot on the table to strike out the words and scribble new ones in. He frowned; his penmanship truly was atrocious. It was a wonder Sissy could read it well enough to type his notes up.

"I wonder, are you doing this to impress Bel?" Freddie's dry voice came from the other side of the room. Hector was pleased he didn't start, but annoyance crossed his face before he smoothed out his features and turned to face his irritating colleague.

"Do you mean this story, or my tie?" he asked, crossing his arms across his chest and taking care not to crumple his pages.

Freddie spat out a laugh. His shirt was rumpled, his tie knot loose and crooked, the front of his waistcoat showing wear. He was such a little fox of a man, always thinking, always fighting above his weight class. To his credit, he did frequently thump his opponents.

"What does she see in you?" Freddie asked, changing tactics, a film of smoke obscuring his face as he drew his cigarette close to his mouth. Hector had noticed, on more than one occasion, the depth of colour in Freddie's lips. It was part of what made him so irritating, that Hector would notice any part of him at all.

"Charm, intelligence, witty conversation," Hector ticked off with an airiness he did not feel. "Someone who views her not as head girl over a bunch of manic-depressive journalists but as a woman in her own right."

Freddie considered him through his inhalation. Hector did not think he'd made his case; quite frankly, he didn't know what Bel saw in him. That same part of him that had been awoken to the visceral pleasure of engaging in this work agonized over every moment spent with her, comparing Bel to his life with Marnie and finding his marriage wanting. That had never happened before, in the occasional dalliances of his private life. Making Bel laugh was worth a hundred ambition-serving dinners, or so he was coming to believe.

"I think not," Freddie said finally. "Have you got a particularly well-endowed penis? Perhaps she is more given to the baser pleasures than I had given her credit for."

Hector let out a horrified laugh before he could prevent it from escaping. The rudeness of this man was galling--but somehow refreshing at the same time. Bel kept him around long after most would have removed him for his nonexistent manners. That must have been some of the reason why.

"I can't image that you'd genuinely like to know the answer to that question," Hector said, letting his irritation show in the in hardness of his voice. All this felt so much like the silly boys' contests of his public school days. They surely could not be competing over Bel--she herself would laugh in both their faces to find that being the case, and Hector hated to admit it, but he did not know for certain who would win.

Freddie swiveled in his chair, back and forth, the smoke trailing upward in a zig-zag pattern with his motion. Hector looked down at his pages; he really ought to leave Freddie to his musings and machinations and get on with this script. He pushed off from his recline, and as he did so, Freddie's voice stopped him.

"I cannot tell if I find you more or less worthy of Bel's attentions now that you seem to have finally grown an inquisitive mind in that upper-class head of yours," Freddie said contemplatively, managing to sound both approving and condescending at once. Hector ground his teeth in displeasure. "But," Freddie continued, grinding the remains of his cigarette into the disk near the Remington, "if it means you will continue to actually contribute pieces of journalistic merit to The Hour rather than merely the idiotic, ingratiating smile that won you this anchorship, I suppose I must be grateful that Bel is bestowing favor upon you. At least it ceases your uselessness."

Hector's mouth dropped open in shock, Freddie's cool gaze sliding over him as if he were no more than a trifle. Clearly he was, to Freddie, not that the disheveled little ingrate's opinion meant anything to him at all. Hector straightened, and, carriage as erect as he had been taught as a schoolboy, he left editing and re-entered the chaos and sprawl of the newsroom.

Absently he returned to his own desk, set down the papers, and opened the bottom drawer of his desk to reveal a bottle of Oban's finest and a crystal-cut tumbler, a vice he engaged in only sparingly at work. He poured automatically, and leaned back, considering the pale yellow of his glass.

The most awful thing about Freddie, Hector reflected as he took his first sip, was how frequently he spoke truth even when he was better served by politesse.