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Like I Like My Coffee

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Horatio comes in with a styrofoam cup and a grim look on his face. It’s a daily occurrence; Bill should be able to tune it out by now, but it’s Horatio, and he’s never really found it easy to tune out Horatio, and this morning is no different.

He’s been working with the man for a year and a half, been flatmates with him for nearly the same amount of time, he’s used to his bad habits-- like going out swimming off the freezing fucking coast, and six-am Skyping with nerds like himself in Marseilles to keep up his university French, and his insistence on buying the dubiously labeled ‘espresso’ from Ozzy & Ben’s on a daily basis, but he still doesn’t understand any of them.

Ozzy and Ben are mechanics. They’re amazing mechanics, frankly, and when they modernized the shop a few years ago they got even more amazing because they can both actually work the diagnostic computers and turn off Bill’s sticking ‘low tyre pressure’ light, but someone put it into Ben’s head that modernization also came with waiting-room amenities, and he delegated that to Ozzy, and Ozzy put in a vending machine and a coffee kiosk. Their customers are ninety-nine percent dock workers and red-eyed tugboat captains and the odd soldier from the nearby base, and the coffee is tuned to that audience-- about the color and consistency of tar.

Horatio, who is a skinny hawkfaced hothouse flower from the City and not a tugboat captain holds out a cup of it piteously.

“Look at this.” He sloshes the cup, and the black liquid in it follows the motion sluggishly.

Bill looks at it, and then back at him politely, as if he hasn’t been doing this every morning for a year and a half. “Looks a bit thick.”

“He boils it, Bill. Puts the grounds in boiling water.”

The kettle goes off, and Bill stands, ducking around Horatio to go and unplug it, pouring the water into the waiting teapot.

“Then he just leaves them there,” Horatio continues, abandoning the cup on the little breakroom table Bill’s been sitting at. “Uses a strainer to pour until the carafe’s empty, and then he does it again. I could chew this.”

“From the sound of it,” Bill says mildly, “it would chew you right back. Tea?”

“Uhhhnnnnnn,” his flatmate whines, throwing himself into a chair and sliding down the back.

“It has as much caffeine as coffee, black tea.”

“That’s a lie. That’s a terrible lie told to move tea.”

“Look, this is a ceylon. Really nice. Give it a try,” Bill coaxes, like he does every fortnight or so, because he hasn’t really learned to give up in a year and a half either.

“Nnnnnnn,” Horatio moans. “Give me my coffee back, I need it.”

Bill shoves it dubiously across the table and watches with interest as Horatio shotguns down a mouthful and then shudders convulsively. “You could do instant.”

“Have you looked at the best before dates on the instant in the corner shop? The latest I found was in the late nineties. I think some of it’s surplus from the Cold War.”

“You realise people in this country have been surviving on tea for centuries, now-?”

He gets another pathetic whine in response.

“You could buy a coffee maker.”

“Filter coffee makes me poorly,” Horatio says miserably.

It does, too, Bill knows. Psychosomatic, no doubt, but awful just the same. Migraines and stomach ache and that splotchy rash the one time. “This stuff doesn’t seem to do you much better.”

Horatio takes a deep breath and shoots back another mouthful, gagging a little as he swallows it. But it looks like he’s coming back from the dead, colour coming into his pale face and even his ridiculous springy hair perking up. Which may just be it drying.

“You need an intervention,” he says gravely, and Horatio just holds his coffee a little closer to himself. He may or may not have realised Bill was joking, but Bill wasn’t entirely sure he had been, so his friend doesn’t have to strain himself. Poor boy. He’d be the most vicious queen in England if he had a decent sense of irony.

Bill’s mobile alarm goes off, six chirping bells, and he grabs his tea, gesturing to the break room door. “Bring your poison, ‘Aitch. Let’s go.”

 

There’s still half an hour until the meeting, but they need the time to check for new updates and get their files in order, and they meet up again in the hall outside the boardroom with ten minutes to spare. Horatio looks alive now, dark eyes sparkling, and he twists his mouth sympathetically when he sees the box full of paperwork Bill’s dragging along with him.

Henry’s already in the room, or at least his lower half is, one khaki-clothed bottom peeking out from the snake pit of wires and cords where the computers live. Horatio coughs politely. “Hard at work already, I see, Henry.”

“Good morning, Mister Wellard,” Bill says, nudging Horatio towards a chair with his hip, spinning another out to put the box down on it. “Any problems?”

“Just the usual,” Henry says, pulling himself back and out from under the table. His jumper’s covered in dust, and there’s some streaked on his cheeks and nose. “Video’s completely out, and when it does connect the audio’s static.” He brushes his hair out of his eyes. It’s too long by far and the lad needs someone to cut it neatly for him this time, but nothing has made Bill feel more like his mother in his life than that thought just did, so he banishes it back to the recesses of his brain. Henry’s only just passed his initial three months, but Horatio’s had nothing but good words for his work, and he’s always seemed clever and likeable to Bill. “I’ve been messing with it for an hour, but it’s barely connecting to the main server, never mind London.”

“Weren’t they going to fix that?” Buckland sighs, coming in behind Bill and dropping a thick file on the table.

“The video conferencing or the London Office?” Bill asks, and gets a tired glare in return.

“I’m only saying,” Buckland says, going over to the little tea cart and plugging in the kettle, “I saw Mister Sawyer’s car arriving before I came in. He will not be pleased if he’s come all this way this early in the morning to find we’re only meeting with ourselves.”

“Presupposing he’s ever pleased,” Horatio says grimly, peering at his phone screen. Henry swallows a guilty laugh, and Horatio gives him a conspiratorial little smile. Bill pulls out the most pressing files from his box, and doesn’t remind Buckland that it was Mister Sawyer who insisted on 7:30 status meetings in the first place.

“Thank you, Mister Hornblower,” Buckland says. “Your contribution is invaluable.”

“We’ve just got two new emails,” Horatio says, flashing his mobile screen at Buckland. “Roberts says the new protocols are going to take at least another two days, and Wolfe will still need to test them.”

“Damn,” Buckland hisses, and pulls out his tablet. “Which is going to go over exceptionally well with head office in a few minutes, isn’t it?” He thumps his tablet down on the table when the kettle boils, stalking over to pour himself a cup. “The connection in this room is worthless-- how does a firm our size have such a terrible network?”

His tablet buzzes, finally having fetched the emails, and he pinches at the bridge of his nose, gesturing with his teacup at the thing like it’s the source of all his trouble. Bill can sympathise; he does everything he can from his desk, and even then it seems like he’s dropped off the network at least once a day. The firm may be old and established, but unfortunately, the same can be said for the office.

“Because the building is two hundred years old,” Horatio says. “And we have half as many wireless routers as we need for this much building, since we are in the middle of docks, rocks and nothing our ‘last mile’ is actually twenty or so. And mobile reception is not going to ever be good because-- I must emphasize-- this is a two hundred year old brick building and the nearest mobile phone mast is on the other side of the harbour.”

“I had to climb out to the roof to get a signal yesterday,” Henry says, tapping at the keyboard and pulling up the video screen. “Still barely got through. The rain doesn’t help. Oh, finally!” A waiting message pops up on the screen. “Come on, come on, connect.”

“Having difficulties there, Mister Wellard?” Hobbs holds the door for Mister Sawyer, who pushes past like he’s tearing away the air in front of him. “Too much for you, eh, lad? Well! What’s everyone standing around for? Are we having this meeting or not?”

There’s a general anxious milling, everyone trying to grab a seat without meeting Sawyer’s gaze-- Bill ends up next to Horatio, on the far side of Henry, Buckland across the table looking tired. Henry keeps his eyes firmly on the video screen, his mouth tightening when the waiting display reloads as a timeout message.

“I’m sorry, sir,” Horatio says, glancing between the projector screen and Sawyer. “We’re having trouble with the computer this morning. Let’s just ring in the conference line while we’re waiting.” He stretches across the table to reach the phone, adding in a murmur to Henry, “Just keep trying, my lad.” Henry nods and quickly taps in his login information, filling the screen with the waiting message again.

“Computer trouble,” Sawyer says, and Bill can see his focus coming down on Horatio, jagged and sharp like he’s smashed it against the wall first. “Hardly a promising start for you, Mister Hornblower. Does this reflect the state of your entire report for us? Hmm? Mister Buckland!”

Buckland’s tablet on the table when he puts it down too fast, his inbox still spinning as it tries to search for new emails. “Yes, sir?” Buckland asks, tone calm even if his voice is painfully dry.

“Is this an indication of what I should expect from your update? That your team of software professionals is so beset by computer troubles as to be effectively worthless?”

Please enter your Conference ID,” the teleconference prompter says over the speakerphone, and Horatio manages two digits before Sawyer’s suddenly there, slamming his hand down over Horatio’s. They must be hitting every button at once, because there’s just one long drone before the prompter starts again. “Incorrect ID. Please enter your Conference ID.”

“What are you doing, Mister Hornblower?” Sawyer hisses, still pressing down. The angry drone cuts to a dialtone.

“Sir,” Bill says, half rising, awkward. He wonders how hard Sawyer’s pushing, if Horatio isn’t pulling back because he can’t, or if he just doesn’t want to see what sudden movements will do to Sawyer. Sawyer’s everyone’s nightmare boss, but if he’s escalating to physical violence--

“Ringing the conference,” Horatio says, remarkably evenly, for all his tone’s gone dark and Bill can hear the anger under the surface. It’s always under the surface these days, whenever they have the misfortune of dealing directly with Sawyer. “Mr Hammond will be waiting for us. We can have the conference call without video.”

“Who told you to do that?” Sawyer demands.

“No one, sir,” Horatio says. “I just thought we should ring in.”

“You just thought, did you,” Sawyer says. “You thought you’d just go ahead, without any authorization. Do you not understand the nature of security, Mister Hornblower? Of what it means that this is a highly classified project? All of you young people on your mobiles these days, I’ve doubt you’ve ever heard of a secure line!”

“You need a passcode, sir, and there’s name and voice recognition,” Horatio says. “It’s a secure conference. It’s all intra-office.”

“Not if we can’t see who we’re talking to, it isn’t secure!” Sawyer flings himself back in his chair, and Bill squeezes Horatio’s leg under the table while Horatio hovers his hand over the phone. He doesn’t seem hurt, at least, but Sawyer was a big man once, and there’s still a lot of muscle there, and Bill is going to make sure as soon as he can get Horatio alone. Horatio pulls back slowly, and Bill risks a glance to Henry, who seems to have managed the impossible, because the projector’s showing a desktop, the little hourglass spinning as it tries to pull up the video conferencing programme. “Someone could intercept it! It’s a damn phone line, how are you supposed to know when someone’s listening!”

“There’s a beep,” Horatio says. “It beeps when someone’s joined.”

“Excuse me, Mister Sawyer,” Buckland says, looking down at his tablet. “The London office is asking what the delay is.”

“Just tell them we’re having connection issues,” Horatio says, and Bill clenches his jaw to hide a wince. Horatio has an earnest, take-charge kind of way that people respond to, even if he’s not the one who’s supposed to be taking charge or that people are supposed to respond to. And with Sawyer as touchy as he’s been about his job lately--

“Just tell them, eh!” Sawyer says, and whips his glare to Buckland. “Just tell me, Mister Buckland, who is who’s manager here? You seem perfectly ready to follow orders from your junior!”

“I was only suggesting, sir,” Horatio says, and Bill can see the calm he’s plastering down over himself, trying to send it out to the rest of the meeting. Hobbs is watching him too, sitting quietly by Sawyer, and Bill meets his stare, trying to gauge if he’s going to interrupt. Hobbs has worked for Sawyer for years, far longer than Bill’s been with the firm, and if anyone can tell what’s going on in Sawyer’s head, or intercept him without being strung up for it--

“I’ll send Mister Hammond a message, shall I?” Bill finally says, when Hobbs just keeps watching. “Should I tell him we’ve just got the phone today, sir? I’m sure he’ll understand.”

“Yes... yes,” Sawyer says, and settles back slowly. “Perhaps... well, Mister Wellard? Have you earned your keep?”

Henry swallows, fixing his gaze on the projector screen. “The video’s trying to link, but I don’t think we’re going to get a signal that’s any good, sir. There’s just too much interference.”

“Interference? Someone’s listening in?” Sawyer bellows. “You damn fool, cut that-- unless you want our entire meeting broadcasted for all to hear?” His voice turns sharp, knowing, and Bill forces his head still because the last thing he needs is for Sawyer to see him trading a glance with anyone. “Who put you up to it, eh? Who have you been dialing? Those damn French? I just bet they did, always sniffing around after our contracts. So you’re their spy, eh? You’re going to find out what we’re planning for them, are you, is that the plan?”

“What, no,” says Henry, as the screen fills with static, shapes flickering in and out too quickly to distinguish. “No, sir, of course not.”

“Of course not,” Sawyer mimics. “Of course not. Of course bloody not-- you wouldn’t be able to tell your arse from that keyboard on your own, would you, boy? No, no doubt you have help.” His gaze flies to Horatio, and a little past his shoulder in a way that’s far more disturbing. His voice is low and soft when he says: “So by all means, Mister Hornblower. Ring us in.”

Henry has the sense to cut the snow-filled video feed, and Bill hits ‘send’ on his mobile, hoping that that at least that will work, and get the email to London before Horatio’s done dialing. He gets an extra few minutes to hang his hopes on when Sawyer slaps Horatio’s hand away halfway through the phone number, stabbing the disconnect button until there’s a dialtone and pulling the phone to himself, hunching over it while he pounds in the number and his own passcode. He gets it on the first try, which is more of a fucking relief than it really should be, and they all sit back and wait to be connected.

Horatio meets Bill’s gaze-- he’s angry, frustrated enough that his eyebrows have pulled down and created that line he gets over the bridge of his nose when he’s really upset. He’ll have a headache in no time. Bill pulls a quick, commiserating face, and then settles himself, getting ready to be the bridge between the technical and the managerial that the stream of industry must cross.

Terrible metaphor. He’s tired. Maybe Horatio’s right about the tea.

“Well, about damn time, man,” Mister Hammond’s voice comes through loud and clear, and Bill watches Sawyer’s ears go red. They’re all going to be paying for this one. “I was starting to think you’d all been swept out to sea.”

“Speaking of time,” says another voice that Bill doesn’t recognise right away and wasn’t expecting anyway. “It’s passing quickly. If we could continue this, gentlemen?”

“Of course, of course,” Hammond says. “I’m here, of course, Charlie Hammond, Director, Engineering.”

Hobbs has his notebook open and is dutifully scribbling down the minutes, and for a few seconds, Bill can believe that they might just get through this alive.

“Captain Harry Foster, military liaison,” says the irritable voice from before. Foster, what’s Foster got to do with anything?

“Ed Pellew, finance,” another comes in, clipped.

Christ fuck is the project in such arrears that they’ve got Pellew on it? Dread trails icy fingers down Bill’s spine. A firing squad of senior managers is assembled right on the other side of the line. He knew it was bad-- they’ve been behind deadline consistently and the budget kept sliding out from under their feet-- he hadn’t known it was this bad.

He can feel it as the whole room realises just how fucked they are-- even poor Henry’s gone pale, a cold vacuum of oh shit oh shit sucking away every other thought.

Sawyer stares at the phone, his eyes fucking electric, and Bill braces himself for whatever’s going to come out of his mouth... but it’s just a fixed, “Thank you, Mister Foster, Mister Pellew, good of you to join us. I’m James Sawyer, managing director for this office. With me is Mister Hobbs, my PA, Mister Buckland, my development lead, Mister Hornblower and Mister Wellard, both on Mister Buckland’s team, and Mister Bush, our Business Analyst. I’m afraid I didn’t realise you would be attending, Mister Pellew, or Mister Clive, our representative from finance, would be here as well.”

“A pity, Mister Sawyer,” Pellew says. “It would have been nice to finally hear from Mister Clive. Perhaps you could be so good as to make sure his inbox is receiving emails?” Oh Christ has Clive actually been ignoring Pellew’s emails? Clive’s as non-communicative as he can afford to be, but surely even he knows enough not to brush off one of the most senior executives in the whole damn firm.

“Of course, sir,” Sawyer says, gripping the table. There’s a splotchy flush creeping up his neck. Bill is beyond grateful to the endless coastal rain right now, because if video was on, and the London management could see the expression he knows he’s not keeping off his face.... It’s a nightmare. It’s a full-scale high-resolution centrefold nightmare. Horatio’s staring fixedly at the table beside him, and Bill can see that lightning fast mind flicking through what they know, what that means, what they might be able to do--

“I’m afraid Mister Clive is out of the office today for... health. Reasons,” Hobbs says. “I regret you weren’t informed, Mister Pellew.”

“I see,” Pellew says, and even the crappy phone connection can’t completely hide the way the words rattle their way up from his chest, and god above is Bill glad he’s not Clive. “Well, we must certainly hope Mister Clive recovers and can join us soon.”

“Well then, gentlemen, if we’re all here, let’s get started,” Hammond says. “Mister Sawyer’s been keeping us informed of all your progress. Anything new to report?”

It’s the most strained status meeting Bill’s ever, ever been to. He manages about three words of his update before Sawyer takes over, answering Hammond’s questions with deflections and vague, optimistic nonsense just shy of all-out falsehood. Once or twice he makes up the odd detail-- meetings they haven’t had, reports not yet submitted, doesn’t even seem to realise he’s done it.

The tension’s getting to Buckland, too, he’s looking more and more wan as the whole disaster progresses, his complexion falling somewhere between jaundice and curdled milk. Horatio’s quivering with anger, and Henry’s starting to smell like sick-up and sweat. Bill’s pretty damn sure he knows what health reasons Clive has for staying away, and he’s not normally one to dismiss a serious problem like that, but he is desperately wishing he could just climb his way to the bottom of a bottle himself right about now.

Sawyer presses on through it, trading brittlely cheerful tones with Hammond, but it’s knowing that not only is his boss dishonest at best and careening wildly into dementia at worst, he’s doing so with Edward Pellew on the other end of the line that’s making Bill’s ears ring. They are so fucked. They’re so, so fucked.

“We have an exciting new project on the table as soon as your current product rolls out, that Foster will be presenting the details on. And since your reports have you so far ahead of schedule,” Hammond says cheerily, with more than a little edge. There’s something predatory in his voice. “We’d wondered if you’ll be ready with beta on Monday.”

It’s sort of a suggestion and it’s sort of not a suggestion-- there’s some awful political thing going on here that Bill doesn’t understand, and all right, Sawyer must have been fudging some reports, London’s been leaning on everyone for good numbers, and Hammond is calling his bluff now, really twisting the screws. Now Sawyer’s going to have to admit he’s been a little overconfident, and it’ll be embarrassing as hell and Sawyer will be an absolute nightmare, but they’ll get the extra time they need to wrap it up and wait for bug reports after that and all go have an exhausted pint before this next big project rolls in.

There’s a tense silence.

Bill looks at Sawyer’s red, strained face, and realizes that Sawyer isn’t going to say no. Looks of horror dawn all around the boardroom table as everyone starts to catch on, and even Hobbs is looking uneasy.

He’s going to commit them to Monday he’s going to commit them to Monday--

“Mister Hammond, we can’t guarantee--” Horatio starts, voice grim and determined, and Bill nearly jumps out of his chair oh god that lunatic Sawyer’s going to murder him.

It’s audio only, so the senior engineer in London can’t see the look of rage on Sawyer’s face, and somehow the old mad bastard keeps his voice perfectly level as he says: “Monday? For Beta? All right, it should only be an extra few hours for my team. I’m sure Mister Hornblower, whom you just heard there, is ready to do the extra work. What do you say, Mister Hornblower?”

Horatio’s gone just white with rage, but he shoots a look at Bill, and Bill gives him a desperate, furtive headshake because No you will get fired right here no do not cross him in front of Hammond he will eat you alive and then who will share the rent.

Horatio stares at him, and swallows, and says, “Monday, sir. Of course, sir,” through gritted teeth.

“Are you sure?” asks Foster from the other end of the line, voice sharp and without the pretense of cheerfulness that Hammond’s has. He’s got no interest in playing whatever game Hammond’s playing. He sounds irritated. “I’d rather wait till I’m sure I’ve got everyone’s attention before we get into the American contract.”

“Are you sure, Harry?” Hammond says, like he’s reading it off a script. “Experience or not, if we have to wait too long we’ll have to give it to another office.”

Pellew’s voice cuts through, deep and irritable. “I think we have time to wait for the experts, Charles. And we in the finance office would like to see product delivered to the Dominican and to be getting paid before we start getting excited about working with the US.”

Bill feels like a football. He’s going to be sick, and this is absolutely awful.

“Monday,” Sawyer snaps. “It will be Monday.”

“Wonderful. Then this concludes our call, I think.”

The line from London doesn’t cut before Bill can hear Foster start snapping about ‘a waste of time, you shouldn’t get my consultants involved before you’re ready to--’ and then it’s a dialtone and Bill breathes out convulsively.

“Mister Hornblower. Mister Wellard. My office,” Sawyer says quietly, staring past them, at the wall, through the wall.

Henry actually shivers, and Bill sees Horatio’s hand catch his shoulder and squeeze. Everyone else is fleeing the conference room at a polite office shuffle pace; like a coward, Bill goes along.

It’s half an hour before Horatio and Henry come back to the maze of cubicles, Henry red-eyed, Horatio pale and sneering.

“Well fuck my weekend,” Horatio says, and sprawls into his chair, jams some unplugged headphones on, and starts coding.

Buckland’s waited until Horatio and Henry are back to break the news to Wolfe and his team. It sounds even more absurd coming from him than it did when Sawyer committed them, and Bill struggles to try to explain that this isn’t about them or their work, and to just do the best they can. Wolfe, who is cantankerous at the best of times, storms off with a snarl, punching on his mobile.

Bill stops for lunch and tea. The programmers don’t. It’s past six when Buckland drags himself away and most of the others wait for him to leave the car park before they finally sneak out. Horatio stays, and Bill sits flicking through his Gantt charts as if there’s anything left to do this late in the project until seven-thirty, when Horatio finally shuts his station down. The cleaners are already in, the lights flicked off all around them.

“S’go.” It’s the first thing Horatio’s said since morning.

“I’ll drive,” Bill says, and leads them out to the car they shared this morning.


There’s a car already on the little drive when they get back to their flat around eight, an ‘82 Fiesta that’s seen too much weather and been repainted too cheaply, pulled over right to the edge to give Bill room to pull in alongside. That’ll be Maria, their other flatmate, just home herself. Maria Mason, actually, and it was a few months before they realised that between Maria Mason and Bill Bush and Horatio Hornblower they are basically some kind of depressing kid’s programme. ‘The Awful Alphabet House, where sleep deprivation is fun’.

Maria’s mother runs the single hotel in town, where business guests and people visiting friends on the base stay. Maria does not work for her mother, very pointedly doesn’t-- she works for some kind of call center at one of the shipping companies. Lots of time on the phone and doing five things at once while being yelled at in Russian, Bill gathers. She’s going to move up to Shipping Coordinator one of these days. She’s quite driven, in her gentle flower of womanhood kind of way.

Traditional girl-- the kind who thinks Maria should rhyme with pariah and knows how to knit and actually sew, the kind who wouldn’t move in with a pair of strange men under normal circumstances. Except Bill grew up here and she’s known him since primary, and Horatio, bless him, is so obviously one-hundred percent committed to the male sex, romantically speaking. So she calls it good, on the condition she’s not expected to do more than her share of the dishes just because she’s a lady.

He wouldn’t ask it, her hours are as brutal as theirs and her job is just as thankless, and she bears it very sweetly until she can she go home and unleash all of her miseries onto whatever luckless bastard is on the other side of her Xbox today. Unsurprisingly, she’s already tucked on the settee with the box on when Bill pushes through the door.

“Bad day at the office?” she greets him, tipping her chin away from the microphone on her headset. She hasn’t looked away from whatever game she’s on and Bill isn’t sure how she knows-- except that it’s been back-to-back bad days for the last month-- but he grunts an acknowledgement and peers over her shoulder at the game she’s playing. It’s sleek and grim and futuristic and there are guns, which doesn’t particularly narrow it down for him.

“Just Sawyer being Sawyer. London being London.” There comes a point where he can’t even explain it anymore. It all sounds increasingly implausible and awful.

“I’m sorry, love. No not you, I don’t care about your day. Because you throw plasma grenades like you’re blindfolded. Do you need to talk about it?”

“No. No, it’s all right, I’ll just go see what’s in the fridge.”

He hears Horatio drag in after him and flop down on the settee-- “Head down you go, Horry, got to see the game, there’s a boy,” and looks back into the livingroom to see Horatio curled up on the settee with his head in Maria’s lap and his face a mask of misery. She’s stroking his ridiculous hair absentmindedly with an elbow, hands still busy on the controller.

He jumps a little when she screams “FUCK YOU, FUCKER,” and settles when she soothes him, speaking over a hail of gunfire. “Sorry, love, some twat’s trying to camp where my overshield spawned. Poor dear, is it awful? Coming on your left, I’ve got him.

Horatio’s got practice in speaking Maria, and waits out the interruption without having to think about it. “Sawyer’s going crazy. And London’s already built a new headquarters in Crazy. They want us to have beta ready to ship on Monday,” Horatio moans. “Even if I spend all weekend in the office it’s not going to be done. And then Wolfe will have to get it all tested by five on Monday. We’re all being hung out to dry.”

“It’s not healthy, the way they work you. You ought to quit. Someone go get that fucking sniper, I’m pinned.

“I’m sure they’d be happy to give me a reference. There aren’t too many software engineers in Britain, having a terrible job record shouldn’t be a problem at all--”

“But you’re such a good software engineer,” she says, ignoring the horrified face he gets whenever someone praises him. “You could do loads better than this place.”

“But I like vehicle integrated systems and GPS programming. Maria, I could wind up writing graphical interfaces for awful corporate applications. I need this job.”

“Still it isn’t fair,” she says, frowning. “Someone should say something to them.”

“Pot Noodle for dinner?” Bill asks, after he’s confirmed that no, a magical elf hasn’t come to restock the cupboard or the fridge.

“Sounds lovely ALL RIGHT, LADS, ALL RIGHT, RED!,” Maria assures him. Horatio makes a sound that’s half agreement, half existential despair, which is basically a yes when it comes down to it.

Bill surveys the options. “Piri Piri Chicken, Chilli Beef, or Sweet and Sour?”

“Sweet and Sour,” Maria says instantly, then, “Nah, just one more match, flatmates are home.”

Horatio mumbles “Chilli Beef” into her lap, then again after lifting his head so Bill can actually hear him.

Leaving Bill with the Piri Piri Chicken, but that’s his favourite anyway. Well, after Sweet and Spicey, but you can’t get that one anymore, not even at the corner market which, not to give too much weight to Horatio’s claims of Iron Curtain instant coffee, does seem to have a shocking surplus of everything.

Horatio moans miserably, and Bill fills the kettle and flicks it on, then drags himself off to his room to get out of his suit. He hasn’t had time to do laundry, and the last thing he needs to do is get instant noodles on his one clean shirt. “Watch the water, ‘Aitch?” he calls back.

Horatio moans again, which means he heard him, so Bill takes it as agreement and fetches out a pair of jeans and a jumper. He won’t bother asking Horatio to make him a cup of tea. That would probably push the poor thing over the edge.

Horatio has dragged himself into the kitchen by the time Bill’s dressed in non-work clothes, carefully pouring water into the little pots, stabbing at the noodles with a spoon. Bill takes the spoon and elbows him kindly out of the way. “Go get out of your work stuff. You’ll feel better.”

“Just want me out of my clothes,” Horatio mutters, and Bill nods sagely.

“It would be an advantage.” Bill is not one hundred percent committed to the male sex, a large portion of the pie chart of his soul given over to ‘women, are they lovely (yes)’ and ‘women, to sleep with (a good thing)’ but what percentage of him is same-sex oriented is amply large enough to contain fussy city boys with huge dark eyes and ridiculous hair. This is simply something they have come around to, him and Horatio. “You want to, tonight-?”

“No. I’m going in tomorrow morning. I’ll need the sleep.”

Fuck his weekend indeed. Bill winces. “Want me to bring you lunch, around noon?”

He watches Horatio’s neurotic need Not to Be A Bother war with the idea of eating something besides protein bars while he blows his Saturday in the office. “...yeah. I’d like that. Thank you.”

“Done, then,” Bill agrees. “Pass me the eggs?” There are only two, but he fries them up to mix in with the noodles. He’ll run errands in the morning, restock the fridge and the cupboard, then run lunch to Horatio, and do laundry in the afternoon. It’s not exactly a wild weekend, but it’s about the regular pace, and he won’t be spending it hunched over a work computer.

Horatio rallies by the time the pots are passed out and the three of them are tucked in on the settee, enough to be smiling that crooked, shy smile of his through the latest recorded episode of Top Gear.

“Horry, love, that’s my shoulder,” Maria says after the episode’s done and they’ve switched over to whatever movie BBC Two’s showing tonight. It’s got Molly Ringwald in it, but that’s all Bill can say for sure. “Wake up, darling, and go to bed. Pass me my knitting basket?”

“Are you sure you shouldn’t, too?” Bill asks, grabbing the basket so that Horatio doesn’t have to.

“Mm, nah, just fine,” she says. “I’ve got another hour in me. You?”

“Might have an hour,” he says. “Come on, ‘Aitch. I’ve got you.” He hauls Horatio up to his feet, complaining, and over to his little room. Horatio peels out of his slacks and shirt and falls face first into bed.

It looks like an amazingly good idea, actually. He hadn’t realized how tired he’d gotten. His side is cold where he was sitting against Horatio, and it makes him want to nest into his blankets.

“Maria--” it breaks off in a massive yawn.

“Not an hour, then?”

“Not an hour, no.”

“Head to bed, Bill. I’ll keep it down out here.” He hears the whir of the DVD player behind him as he staggers to his own room and takes his leg off, but his eyes shut as soon as he hits the pillow and he doesn’t last through the credit music of whatever she puts on.


Horatio’s long gone by the time Bill wakes up, a cereal bowl and spoon drying in the rack, the empty cereal box and milk bottle on the recycling pile, and his old beat up Vauxhall Astra gone from where it’s usually rusting up the street. It’s a risky move taking that car, the thing runs about half as often as it doesn’t, but it means Bill has the reliable motor, so he appreciates the thought.

Maria’s left too, he caught her just as she was headed out to her running group and book club, and traded a grunt for a kiss on the forehead, a fresh cup of tea, and the start of a list for the shopping. He showers, does the hoovering, watches the clock much too closely, and tries not to worry. He talks himself out of heading over early the whole time he’s at the corner shop trying to find half the things on the list-- he’d be absolutely no good, there’s nothing he can do other than distract Horatio which is the last thing anyone needs. So he goes home, stocks the fridge and pantry, makes a couple of sandwiches and fills a bag with fruit, and heads down to the car at a perfectly reasonable half eleven.

He hears the sirens and assumes there’s been an accident at the warehouse across the way. He doesn’t have a moment of fear, no strange precognition that something’s gone wrong. No, he’s completely knocked out when he takes the last turn and sees the ambulances and all the police in the car park of the building, some paramedics standing around as a stretcher comes out of the front doors guided by yet more paramedics.

Oh fuck oh shit what. He strains to see who’s on the stretcher before it’s loaded into the back of the ambulance-- looking for familiar ridiculous hair, miles of bony leg. But it isn’t Horatio, he’s pretty sure, mostly sure that wasn’t Horatio. And then another stretcher comes out and is loaded up and Christ fuck.

He parks as close to the building as he can without getting any glares from the police, comes jogging up and doesn’t realize he’s grabbed the bag of fruit and sandwiches until it’s too late, and he’s being braced by a short man in a uniform and barked some questions about what he’s here for.

“My flatmate, he works here, I was bringing him lunch--” Bill lifts the bag defensively.

“On a Saturday?”

“Yes, because we have a massive bloody deadline coming up Monday and he’s pulling overtime,” Bill retorts, really not liking the suspicion in the policeman’s voice. He knows he shouldn’t be swearing at a cop but where is Horatio what the hell’s going on. “Look, his name’s Hornblower. Horatio Hornblower, I’m not being funny, he’s about my age, so tall, is he hurt?”

“What’s your name?”

“Look, what the hell is going on?” his temper isn’t precisely snapping. Bill has a hold on his anger, but he’s allowing it out. That’s all.

The cop pulls out a notebook and looks at him coolly. “I’d like to see some ID.”

He fumbles his wallet out, awkward while he’s still holding the lunchbag, and thrusts it at the man.

“Bush?” the man asks, unnecessarily in Bill’s opinion, scribbling down his name and address.

“Yes.”

“William King?”

Yes.”

The cop hands his license back. “Did someone contact you, tell you to come here?”

“No, Christ. Horatio told me yesterday he’d have to come in this weekend and I said I’d bring him lunch. I was bringing him lunch,” Bill reiterates, gripping the bag like a lifeline to sanity.

Another car comes up the road, speeding, pulls into the parking lot with a screech of tires. It’s a nicer car than his. Bill knows it.

“Bush!” Hobbs snaps as he gets out. He’s got an old windbreaker and a pair of jeans on. Bush has never seen him in anything less than a suit. There’s dog hair all over his legs. “What’s happened?”

“I don’t know, they won’t tell me,” Bush snaps back.

“Who are you?” snaps the cop.

“Guy Hobbs. I’m James Saywer’s personal assistant-- he rang me, maybe half an hour ago, I’ve only just got the message. Where is he?”

“On the way to the hospital. You’ve just missed him,” the cop says, and Hobbs goes pale. “What did he say on the phone?”

Hobbs looks at Bush, back at the policeman. “I’ve got the voicemail. You can hear it.”

The policeman gives Bill another once-over and appears to decide he doesn’t have anything useful to say. “Wait out here. Don’t go anywhere until we’ve cleared you to leave.”

“For fu-- listen, my flatmate, is he all right?”

“He’s fine,” the cop says shortly, and then briskly leads Hobbs inside.

So Bill flops in the grass in the sunshine, feeling a little like he’s got the shakes, ignoring the stares of the cops. After a while he eats one of Horatio’s apples. And then he rings Maria, catching her voicemail, leaving a quick clipped message about something’s happened, don’t know what, Horatio’s all right but the police are here, I’ll bring him home as soon as I can.

Eventually Hobbs is led back out, a few more police officers with him now than just the one he went in with, but they must not be prime suspects or what the fuck even, because he comes over to stand beside Bill.

Bill clamps the apple core in his teeth so he can use both hands to get upright, then uses it to gesture at Hobbs. “And?” Hobbs stares impassively at him, that same blank, just shy of hostile look he’s seen a hundred times. “Damn it, man, what’s happening?”

Hobbs sighs, shakes his head. “They didn’t tell me exactly.”

“There were people on stretchers.”

“Mister Sawyer,” Hobbs says. “And from what I gathered, Mister Wellard too.”

“Christ.” Henry. Bill hadn’t even known Henry was going to be there today. “What happened, did you see Horatio, did they tell you anything?”

“They’re being pretty cagey about it.” The PA’s face goes all shuttered and strained, and after generally seeing the man as a hostile force on the workplace battlefield, Bush is surprised how unsettled he is to see him like this. “Look, you know Sawyer’s not been at his best. You all know that, you certainly haven’t been subtle about showing it,” he adds, with some heat. “He’d been having some trouble. He was on some medications. But that conference with Hammond--” Hobbs swallows. “You know he did a lot of security work during the Cold War. He’s got convinced that Papillion Labs is working with the Russians, and when he rung today he said he had proof that Wellard was in on it.”

Bill stares. “Did you believe him?”

“Of course I didn’t fucking believe him,” Hobbs nearly bellows. “The bloody Russians? Jesus.” He covers his face with his hand, cradling his forehead. “Jesus, James. He’s been working too hard. London’s been pushing him-- I swear, Hammond rings every day. They couldn’t even let him finish one more goddamn project. He was going to retire as soon as this thing with the Dominican was done. Why the hell do you think Hammond dangled the American project in his face like that? Christ. This company wouldn’t have any military contracts if he hadn’t brought his expertise and his networks in with him back in the 90s. He was one of the greats. Now look at him. He’s been barely holding it together-- he didn’t. Christ.”

“Hobbs--”

“He came here.” Hobbs waves a frustrated hand at the building. “I don’t know what he thought he’d do. He gave me my first job, you know that? It was the 80s. No one would give me a shot. But he did and I stayed with him, and now look at him. Christ. I’m going to need to ring his sister.”

But what happened?”

Hobbs looks at him like he hasn’t been paying attention, and Bill tries not to scream. “A confrontation-- two men down, one left standing? Doesn’t look good. They’d pegged your boy for it,” he adds.

Fuck shit he knew that cop had been hedging. “Did they arrest him?”

“I don’t think so. I tried to talk them out of it, at least.” He catches Bill’s expression and scowls. “Don’t you look at me like that, Bush. I think he’s a rude little bastard without the sense God gave a housefly, but he wouldn’t assault Sawyer. Try to get him committed, yes. Assault, no.”

“Yeah. You’d think that,” Bill says bitterly. There are rumors that followed Horatio from the London office.

“I do think that, you little jackass,” Hobbs says bitterly. “I think if he thought it was the right thing, he’d do it and commit career suicide in a heartbeat. He just wouldn’t ask if there was a better way. Thinks he knows best all the damn time.”

Bill is spared from saying something rude or awkward or horrible because the front doors open and a few cops come out, and behind them is thank God Horatio.

The notebook cop leads his flatmate over, pale and angry and miserable looking, and stabs a finger at Bush. “We’ll need your number, in case there’s any further questions, an address to contact you at.” Then, after Bill’s given it, he adds a little less menacingly: “And a contact number and address for you, too, sir.”

Hobbs gets ‘sir’, of course. Bill couldn’t roll his eyes harder if he tried.

Hobbs doesn’t pay it any attention, just giving the cop one of those irritated, blank, just shy of hostile looks, and bruskly confirms where the paramedics took Sawyer before storming off.

“Henry,” Bill says. “Is he-- do his parents know?”

“They’ve been notified,” the cop says. PC Bailee. Bill notes the nameplate, now that Horatio’s here and not in handcuffs and not on a stretcher and he can start actually using his brain again. “I’m afraid I have to request that you leave now. Both of you,” he adds, looking between Horatio and Bill. He doesn’t look like it’s bothering him at all to ask.

Bill scowls, putting a hand on Horatio’s back and leading him towards their car. “Come on, ‘Aitch, I brought your lunch.” He gestures with the bag. “You must be starving.”

“...My keys are still on my desk. And my coat. And my rucksack.” Horatio says, and they have to turn back and trade glowers with PC Bailee some more while another cop goes in and gets Horatio’s stuff because they’re not even letting him back into the building while it’s still a suspicious scene. So much for beta by Monday. He’s going to have to ring Buckland, and happily pass this all over to him.

Horatio’s quiet as they trudge over to the car park, giving Bill a nod as he gets into his Vauxhall.

“You sure?” Bill asks. “We could come get it later.” But Horatio jerks his head no and shuts the door. Bill waits a minute to see if it’ll actually start before getting into the more reliable of the two cars, following him back towards the flat with his mind whirling.

Sawyer snapped. Horatio was there. Somehow this led to stretchers. They’re all fucked, deadline is fucked, fuck fuck fucky fuck. Horatio hasn’t eaten lunch yet.

He rings Buckland in the car, numb to potential tickets, and gives a basic report in clipped tones while Buckland sputters, and hangs up without really listening. So that’s a done thing. Hooray.

He can’t stop worrying about Horatio. About Hobbs’ little dig. Because everyone knows why Mister Haitch Hornblower got shuffled out of the London office, don’t they, everyone knows that he had a fight with another programmer over the same man, and while he’s sure it didn’t go like that, it’s the story. That he’s a jealous, conniving little sod who’ll run tattling to get you in trouble if you cross him. What’s the narrative coming out of this incident going to be? God, if they try to fire him over this Bill’s going to scream.

He sits in his car a while once they’re home-- Horatio goes up the stairs to the flat in a storm of movement. Bill just sits and lets his stomach roil.

 

By the time he musters up the energy to get into the house himself, prying himself out of the quiet car painfully, Horatio’s sitting in front of his desktop computer with a thumb drive in, working on what looks like the interface code for their poor little project. He won’t be able to debug or test it in any meaningful way until he gets back to the office, but he’s coding anyway, face grim and punctuated gibberish that means something only to machines and Horatio spooling out across the screen.

Maria’s deliberately not talking to him, curled up with a single-player something or other with cheerful blocks and gentle music, making her presence as unintrusive as possible.

Bill abandons the lunch bag on the kitchen counter, slumping against the wall. He’s exhausted. He’s worried. He wants to know what the hell happened. He wants to help Horatio, but he can’t until he knows what he needs, and Horatio closes up tighter than a bank vault when he’s upset.

Maria glances over at him, her expression concerned, questioning. Bill thins his lips tight, and tries to figure out how he’s going to ask this.

“So. Heard Sawyer cracked.”

Brilliant. He is absolutely the suavest. Maria gives him a politely appalled look in the reflection of the television screen. Yes, all right, he knows.

Horatio’s expression gets tangled up between furious and miserable. “Did Hobbs say that?”

“Not in so many words,” Bill admits. “But he said he’s been on medication. And he thought Henry was working for the Russians. Or the French. I’m not sure.”

“The French,” Horatio says dully. “Mostly. And to discredit him generally. He blamed us, Henry especially, for the meeting yesterday. He was... he wasn’t well, Bill. I don’t think he knew where he was, exactly.” He rattles out a few more angry lines on his keyboard.

“Did he threaten you?” Bill asks, trying not to patronise. Horatio’s so awkward, and sometimes he starves for comfort and sometimes he’s so pent up with... whatever he’s pent up with, guilt or anger that he can’t really be touched. He wears his emotions like a merit badge, but it’s harder to tell if you’ll get your hand snapped at for trying to reach for them.

“He went after Henry with a fire extinguisher.” Horatio’s expression collapses in on itself, pure unhappiness. “He hit him a couple times before I could pull him off-- I think I hurt his wrist. I shoved him in a closet. He hit his head. I rung 999.” His shoulders buck. “The police came.” He shakes his head, eyes wet, lips twisted. “I know what happens now.”

“Oh ‘Aitch,” Bill says. “That crazy old man.”

“It’ll be all ‘you should have rung first and stayed out of it’, ‘are you sure you didn’t use undue force’, and ‘tell us about the personality conflicts you’d been having,’” Horatio goes on bitterly. “And nobody in the office will blame me, that’s the damnedest part. They’ll all go on assuming that I belted him one because I was angry and they’ll say I had a right to and nobody will believe that if I’d had any other way--”

“I believe you,” Bill says, watching Horatio’s fingers stabbing convulsively at the keys. He usually likes to watch Horatio when he’s coding, because he’s really something when you get him going. This is less sexy, more keyboard acupuncture. He hears himself trying to explain and realizes it’s an awful idea, the words still spilling out as if by stating the obvious it will comfort Horatio somehow. “We’ve all seen how Sawyer’s been. And Henry will back you up. It’s just. It’s hard. When you’re ‘that guy who got some guy given an ASBO because he was jealous.’”

“An ASBO and a restraining order.” Horatio’s hands flatten out on the keyboard and then slam down, filling his editor window with text even more random than code usually looks to Bill. “Three years of talking down Archie in front of his friends and lying to him and hiding his medication and Archie making excuses for him and all it wound up with in the end was an ASBO and a restraining order. I shouldn’t have rung the police, I should have hit him with a fucking car, but I didn’t because I was doing things the right way,” he snaps, and is up and out of his desk chair in a long-limbed whirl of motion.

“Christ, ‘Aitch. You know I didn’t mean it like that. Horatio. I’m sorry--” Bill starts, and Horatio storms right past his apologies and slams the door behind him as he goes.

“Now he’s off,” Maria sighs from the settee, and hits a button on her controller to turn the console off. “Poor boy. It’s stress, you know.”

“I know. I didn’t mean-- I did. I know, stop looking at me like that, I know it wasn’t time for a lecture on office politics--”

Outside, he can hear the Vauxhall start with a wheeze and sputter down the street.

“Wasn’t going to say that,” Maria says. “We know where he’ll be going.” She strips her headset off, wincing as it catches in her curls, and stows it with her controller in the basket by the television. “You get the blankets and things, all right? I’ll make some cocoa.”

“Yeah.” He goes for a towel and some of the ratty old knitted blankets that lurk in the top of the linen closet. “I didn’t mean he shouldn’t do these things. He always does the right thing.”

“I know. And he’s always very sincere about it,” Maria calls from the kitchen.

“And you can tell, you can really tell-- I mean, if he could turn that on all the time he’d be Captain Britain or something,” Bill frets. “But he can’t, and half the time people adore him and then the rest of the time he comes off looking like a complete bellend even when he’s right.”

“I know.”

“Christ, a fire extinguisher. Poor Henry. Poor ‘Aitch. We’re all fucked.”

“Cocoa’s ready.”

They troop out to the car, and Bill drives them to Horatio’s beach.

Beach is maybe a strong word. Bill pulls their Mazda up beside Horatio’s old Vauxhall on the shoulder, and he and Maria trudge down the shallow slope and yellowing, wiry grass and weeds to the rocks and pebbles that constitute the beach. Horatio’s just visible out in the cold grey sea, a streak of white popping up from underneath the water now and then to breathe. They find his clothes where he’s abandoned them on one of the larger stones, and hunker down to wait and freeze.

Bill bogarts one of the blankets damn quickly, and Maria follows suit with the other, clutching the cocoa thermos, but Horatio apparently doesn’t feel the fucking freezing cold like a normal person, because he stays out there long enough that Bill starts to worry Maria’s going to have to go splashing in after him to pull him out. Bill doesn’t swim.

Horatio does, though. Naturally and endlessly. In the summer it’s more funny than anything, how he’ll stay in the cold, cold Atlantic for an hour at a time, happy and sleek and shouting to Bill on the shore. Now, in bloody fucking October it’s a different story, and when he finally comes splashing up to shore, he’s as white as a fresh fall of snow, except where he’s blue.

He chatters sheepishly at them, and Bill rushes over with the towel, scrubbing down his legs and arms and chest and hair, before Maria wraps the blanket she’d been wearing around his shoulders and tugs at his boxers.

“Off,” she says. “No wet clothes. Come on, Horry, love, no hypothermia today.”

“B-b-” he says shyly, and Bill gives Maria a chance to avert her eyes chivalrously before he strips the wet pants off Horatio deliberately, and smacks the towel around his waist. Horatio snatches for it quickly, all the tremors in his pale body vibrating down to the end of his long fingers, and Bill wraps the second blanket around him too. His nailbeds are a bluey sort of purple, and Bill chafes his long, slender hands between his own, until Horatio winces and makes a little groaning, whimpering sound, which probably means he has circulation again.

“Make a fist,” Bill says. “Then you can have cocoa.”

He sort of can, not very tight, but his fingers are working enough to curl in, so Bill reasons he can’t be too frozen through, and Maria hands over the little lid-cup. Bill bundles up Horatio’s clothes, and nudges him with his hip. “Get in the car, you lunatic.”

“C-can you drive mine-?” he asks, and Bill digs through his clothes to find the keys to the Vauxhall.

Which doesn’t start. Maria knows the Vauxhall so she hasn’t left yet, just started the Mazda for the heating system, Horatio bundled in and waiting.

Bill sees Horatio’s face melt in fresh, frustrated agony, because normally while his car not working is barely a blip on the angst radar, he’s had an awful weekend.

“It’s all right,” Bill soothes. “I’ll ring for a tow, it’s all right.”

Bill’s not supposed to fold into the back because of his leg, so Horatio has to get out and shuffle into the back, and they all drive home together. Bill makes Horatio drink at least half of the cocoa.

At home, Horatio’s appetite comes on all at once, and he finally eats the squishy sandwiches Bill made for him hours ago now, and then he looks grimly, lip wobbling, at his desktop.

“Wrong,” Bill says, and marches him to bed, stripping down to his pants and undershirt so that he can lie on him and make sure he doesn’t get up and self-flagellantly try to keep coding. Horatio sulks for five minutes, and then passes out so thoroughly that Bill can get out of bed without even stirring him.

He doesn’t, just drowses with his arms around the lanky body until Maria tells him dinner’s done, and he stirs out to eat a serving of the shepherds pie she’s made and make some distracted conversation. Maria shoos him off after he’s done the dishes and he goes right back into Horatio’s room, taking his leg off for the night before he crawls back into bed, and throwing a protective arm over Horatio’s limp body. Maybe he’ll be able to talk him into a therapy shag tomorrow, just a soothing brothers-in-arms kind of a thing. Maybe they’ll just sleep, like hibernating bears.

He’s a practical man. He can plan how they’re going to make things work come Monday. He’ll salvage this project-- not gracefully, not easily, but they’ll get it wrapped and out the door and then life can start going on again.

And if anyone gives ‘Aitch any trouble about it or can’t take a hint to shut up, he’s going to go after them with a fire extinguisher himself. Winter’s coming and he can’t keep going out to sea every time he’s upset. So Bill will take steps. Manage things. And things will be all right.