Moltslawn Industries

by Kaerutobi Ike (蛙跳び池)
illustrated by The Winter Cynic

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/277364.html)

5th of June

Half the board of management was already sleeping. Martin doodled another little man, colored its coat in a boring pencil grey, filled in its necktie with the usual blue stripes and killed this one with an anvil.

Why? He wondered as Smith — the director from Moltslawn Industries, one of their satellite factories — paused in his presentation. What was his name… Calvin? Corbin? Colin! Colin Smith, stood, eyes blinking slowly at the people present. The washed-out blue of this particular gaze was the perfect color to highlight the emptiness shining through those shallow pools of nothing. It was on par with Colin’s ash-blond-not-really-a-color hair, the man’s non-existent flair for fashion and his overall lack of communication skills. Unless being this boring was considered a talent. In that case, Colin was super-powered.

Why wasn’t this loser transferred? Or demoted? Better yet, fired?

“Do you want me to go over the numbers?” Smith drawled in a tone which Martin had once thought contained irony. On their first meeting, it had sounded to Martin as though Smith was secretly laughing at the members of the board. Time had disabused him of the idea.

From his spot next to Frank Ankline, at the head of the giant conference table, old Alexander Smith gave the go ahead.

Colin Smith launched into another droning speech.

Martin hoped for Alexander’s sake that he wasn’t related to Colin. Given the high number of Smiths working for Smith & Ankline, especially in the Moltslawn Division, it was a possibility, but so far Martin hadn’t found two from the same family.

The next stickman died of a knife in his heart. Which was a boring way to go, but Martin was even growing tired of his distraction.

He wished he had the courage to speak up. They already knew the numbers. Moltslawn Industries was a stagnant swamp of predictability. Already on shaky ground, each it year moved closer to financial disaster. There were bets around the company, about the number of years remaining before it was knocked down by a breeze. With some luck, it would mark the dismissal of Colin Smith himself.

In the meantime, Martin and the others had to suffer through the man’s endless, agonizing, abstruse reports.

x-x-x

21st of July

In Martin’s agenda, Saturday the 21st was circled twice in red and proclaimed a “playdate with Christopher and the Tornado” supposed to start at noon and end the following day.

Much like with Christmas when he was young, Martin had felt like this week would never end and the 21st never come. But it was all worth it now as stood at the edge of the park and a canonnball shaped like a child bowled him over.

“Uncle Marty!” screamed Zayn with all the volume and the joy of a five year old who didn’t care that his war-cry was an eardrum-splitting screech this close.

Even ass down in the dirt with a rock digging into his butt, Zayn’s death grip hug made this moment the best Martin had felt all week.

“Hey, you two, smile for the camera!”

Atop the mop of brown locks obstructing his sight, Martin caught a glimpse of a phone pointed at them. Moving Zayn a little to the side, Martin discovered Chris attached to the phone. He was as gorgeous as ever with his brown hair – the very same Zayn had won in the genetic lottery — in complete disarray and an old t-shirt that Martin had not seen since college. It did inspiring things to Chris’ wide shoulder and defined abs. Casual was not what Chris usually went for now that he had the money to dress himself in designer clothes.

Martin’s best friend also looked ready to piss himself with laughter as he checked the picture he had just taken and went for more. “Zayn! Give a kiss to your uncle Marty!”

Zayn’s little arms pulled tighter and sticky mouth slobbered all over Martin’s cheek.

“Hi Tornado,” Martin said, hugging the child back. His face must have been split into a blissed-out smile by now; Chris was giving him the “you are hopeless yet I remain inexplicably fond of you” shake of the head.

Chris took a couple more pictures then he stored the phone away and picked up a bulging duffel bag that laid at his feet — also a relic of younger times when Chris and Martin shared one of everything because they had no money and had not yet leveled up to wearing suits. “Should I break out the crowbar or do you think you two octopuses can separate on your own?” he asked by way of greeting.

Zayn giggled against Martin’s neck and was soon laughing and kicking Martin’s stomach as Chris tried to prise him away.

Martin’s pleas of “Ow, ow, guys,” went unheard as Zayn screeched again, even louder than before, because Chris was making growling noises against his son’s back and promising endless tickling torture. Martin spread his arms in surrender. “I give up,” he shouted loud enough to be heard this time. Then he laughed, unable to resist the gleeful look on Zayn’s face as his father lifted him away and pretended to eat him.

Martin got to his feet and did his best to dust his clothes. When there was less screaming going on, he clapped a hand on Chris’ shoulder. “O Famished One, I bring news of burgers hiding in a nearby temple of greasy unhealthiness. Shall we go see how they cower before you?”

For Zayn’s benefit, Chris made a big show of considering the proposal and accepting with all the disdain of a lord agreeing with a lowly servant.

The walk to the diner was slow but filled with laughter. Zayn ended up riding on his father’s shoulder and Martin was named first squire and charged to guard the bag — which weighed a ton and was no more comfortable than it had been when had Martin co-owned it. Putting it down was a relief.

“That thing killed my shoulder,” Martin announced as everyone picked a seat on a fire-engine red banquette framing a matching plastic table. Zain immediately took possession of the only menu around to show off his nascent reading skills.

Half turned to face his kid, Chris managed to give Martin an apologetic smile. “Sorry. I always mean to buy a new one but the resolution only lasts until Zain goes back to his mother and then I forget until it’s my weekend again.”

Also, with Zayn under his care for two weekends a month and a week during the holidays, it probably wasn’t a pressing concern of Chris. Martin used to think Zayn’s mother was a heartless bitch for trying to keep father and son apart so much. But that was because Martin loved Chris like a brother and was a little blind to his faults. The truth of the matter — he was mature enough to admit it to himself now — was that Sara had allowed Chris probably exactly the amount of time he could handle taking care of a kid. Despite the good relationship he entertained with his young son, Christopher was not father material. Not that Martin would ever say so out loud. Instead he congratulated Zayn on his incredible skill with the word “spaghetti” and tried to convince him this place made it in the form of worms with cricket sauce.

As usual when Martin spent a day with Zayn, he was exhausted but delighted by the time evening came and Zayn was put to sleep in the guest room. Chris had bailed on story time and was collapsed on the couch, watching the TV on mute with glazed over eyes. Martin joined him there, even though it was a bad idea likely to end with a crick in his neck when he fell asleep where he sat.

They shared a moment of peaceful silence. It lingered long enough that Martin had started to drift when Chris’s words pierced through his haze.

“I’ve met someone.”

Martin groaned, hoping Chris would hear the invitation to go on in the garbled sounds that came out.

“Her name is Grace. She’s nice.”

Nice could refer to all kind of things in Chris’s world. She could be easy on the eyes. Or she could be kind. Maybe she was great in bed. In the last case Martin didn’t want details. Whatever, Martin was happy for his friend. He tried to find a way to express this and settled on a garbled “M’glad.”

Chris must have reached the end of what he wanted to share, his next words were a little slurred. “She’s married.”

Martin was too tired to pretend to care. “Y’like sneakin’ around. Just don’t break her marriage…”

Chris grabbed the afghan that covered the back of the couch and rolled in it. “M’always careful.” There was a long silence after that, long enough that Martin thought Chris was asleep. He was drifting himself when Chris muttered something that sounded like, “We should find you someone too.”

Zayn woke them up at six. Martin’s neck was killing him.

x-x-x

15th of September

The Investigation Department’s most monotonous job was to go over other departments’ accounts and check that no one was cheating or stealing from the company. Then there was the exciting stuff, when one or more of Martin’s department — usually a team of two or three — was sent into a department or company whose numbers were sinking, with order to check what was being done wrong.

There was a betting pool around Investigation about who would be on the Moltslawn Industries case when a team was sent to the small town of Moltslawn to check on the factory. Everyone in the company knew the tale of how old Alexander had started there and had brought it in when he and Ankline merged their small kingdoms into one respectable empire. Moltslawn Industries had always benefited from special treatment and was the job that could make or break someone’s career in Investigation.

Being both good at his job and some sort of honorary member of Alexander Smith’s family, Martin was usually appointed to these troublesome cases. Therefore he had great hopes that Moltslawn Industries would propel him to new heights of success. Until then, there was enough on his plate to keep two of him busy.

Martin scanned the meeting room, spotted Greg Johnson and made his way over to him, thinking he could get a few things out of the way before the meeting started. Greg was in charge of Acquisition and someone in his department had misfiled so many documents Martin was three days behind his review of their accounts. Greg held the key to make Martin’s life easier. So far he had been dangling this key without any sign that he intended to hand it over. Martin was almost done finding the posturing amusing.

He did feel a little bad for Greg when he found him in deep talk with Colin Boring-as-Fuck Smith. From the little Martin had to listen to before Smith was done with Greg, one on one conversations weren’t anymore Smith’s forte than public presentation. Greg watched Smith go with barely concealed relief.

As soon as Colin was out of earshot he turned to Martin, a hint of a sneer marring his handsome face.

“Can you believe that guy exists? What a waste of oxygen. We should help along Darwinism and organise his assassination. I’ll fund it with my own savings,” Greg muttered.

“I’m in; do you think we can make it as painful as his last presentation?”

To Martin’s surprise, Luke, Head of the South Division, but a decent conversationalist and certainly one of the more open-minded people in this room, had stopped next to them on his way to his seat and butted in their conversation. “Can I advice you two gentlemen to go easy on the gossip?”

“Luke,” Greg said, smiling his most charming smile, “even you have to admit that that guy isn’t good enough for his job, whatever qualities he may or may not possess.”

But Luke wasn’t impressed. “Some words you don’t want to have come back to bite you. So keep them to yourselves when you don’t know who could be listening.”

This last part intrigued Martin, but Luke was leaving for his seat already and he didn’t get to ask who exactly might take umbrage at Smith’s being belittled.

x-x-x

24th of September

More often than not, Martin loved Alexander Smith like a father. And then there were the times when the old man was a workaholic pain in Martin’s ass. Being called at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon qualified for the second set of circumstances. Two things usually happened when old man Smith called Martin to his office so close to a weekend. The first thing was an increase in Martin’s monthly paycheck. The second was an abrupt evaporation of Martin’s social life due to drastic increase of workload.

Because of this, Martin waited for for the elevator to Alexander’s floor with mixed feelings. On the one hand, if this kept happening, he was due to get a promotion at some point instead of merely being given a raise; on the other, Martin had plans to get drunk and laid this weekend. Chris had convinced him that even if he wasn’t ready for a new relationship yet, he should at least get over his last relationship. Charles was two years gone. It was time to stop “sulking or pining or whatever you think you’re doing and at least get out there for a fuck,” in Chris’ delicate words. Delicate or not, Martin hadn’t been with anyone in six months and it was time to get some.

Any sexy thought was smothered as Martin stepped into Alexander’s office. The place screamed ‘straight old man’ and had a particular brand of respectability that didn’t lend itself to any rating above PG-13. Maybe it was the majesty of the higher ceilings and larger doors. Maybe it was the contrast between warm wood panelling and huge windows letting in cold greying light. Maybe it came from the overly carved frames of the pictures on the walls. Martin’s grandma used to have frames like those. She liked to fill them with pictures of Jesus, His mother and all His saints; the weight of their gazes had kept Martin on his best behaviour every time he visited her house.

Maybe it was just that Martin had a deep respect for Alexander Smith as a person. The old man had managed to stay welcoming despite the power he wielded on an everyday basis, offering advice to younger and newer managers, judging people for their worth and not their number of years. He had always made Martin feel like he was some sort of spiritual son rather than a mere employee. It was true five years ago when Martin had been invited in this office for the first time, it was still true today, when Smith invited Martin to pour himself a glass of the liquor that rested in a crystal decanter on a mahogany side table.

“Martin! Glad you could make it. Get a drink and sit down.”

Martin did, enjoying the taste of good whiskey on his tongue as he took place in a comfortable armchair. Alexander’s furniture respected anyone’s standard of elegance and comfort. Martin had favoured a more modern look for his own office, but he could appreciate the cosiness of this particular decor.

There were pleasantries and Martin enquired about the health of the old man’s wife, and Smith asked if Martin would bring anyone to the company Christmas party this year.

“Ah, well, right now the answer is no.”

“It does a great deal to help a man’s credibility when he can keep someone at his side. You’re young, handsome and successful. Surely that’s just as attractive to other men as it is to the ladies?”

“Oh it is. The problem isn’t keeping someone, it’s leaving the office long enough to meet someone, Alex. And I have a feeling it’s about to get harder.”

Alexander gracefully accepted defeat. “You’re just too irreplaceable,” he said, glass of whiskey raised as though for toasting. “I might have been a bigoted old coot, but I can admit when I’m wrong. You’re a great addition to this company, Martin, and more than that, you are a good man. I don’t care what my pastor says, if all your kind is like you then his gospel is wrong.”

Martin’s glass was still hovering near his mouth but Martin’s brain was too busy processing the words to care that he looked like an idiot. In fact, coming from old Alexander Smith, he was touched.

“That’s… I’m really flattered you think so highly of me.”

Alexander smiled at that, looking really pleased with Martin’s words. “Ah, gratitude sounds good on young people. I wish my own children were more like you.”

Kids? Plural? It was the first time Martin heard that Alexander had family beside his wife. Edith was a perfect corporate wife; she was in all the committees organising company events; she knew everyone in the industry and she had the most amazing repartees. She was also desperately old-school and dedicated to looking like she agreed with everything her husband said. Martin didn’t like to spend too much time with her because it was very frustrating to watch her pinch her lips and give wan smiles when Martin just knew she could be giving all these old men from the board of directors invaluable advice. Despite all these great qualities though, she didn’t look particularly maternal to Martin. Not that he couldn’t be wrong, but… surely, the fact that no one had ever mentioned kids until now must have been a sign of something?

Still, it wasn’t Martin’s place to judge anyone’s potential shortcomings as parents. In fact, trying at all made the Smiths better parents than Martin’s — or Chris’s — genitors could ever hope to be. So he didn’t feel at all guilty selling out and going the boot-licking road. “I’m sure they are very thankful to have a great man like you as their father.” To tell the truth, if he was in these people’s shoes, he would feel grateful.

Alexander snorted. “God knows they should be, what with how much money and time went into feeding, clothing and educating them. Look at the Ankline boy; he turned out pretty great, working hand in hand with his pop. They might not agree on everything but whenever Ankline decides to go, he knows Luke will step in without a problem.”

Today was full of revelations. Martin managed to not look as flabbergasted this time as he asked: “Luke? Luke from South Division? He’s Ankline’s son?” Now that it had been pointed out, it was true the two of them shared an undeniable family resemblance.

“Ankline and I agree that nepotism is the death of good business,” Smith explained. And what a load of bullshit it was, though Martin wasn’t going to say that to the old man’s face. “We agreed early on that any kid would earn their place in the company with hard work, not blood ties.” Okay, so Alexander was only being hard on his own kids, maybe? Because Martin had beneficiated more than once of the privileged relationship he maintained with the Smiths.

Martin couldn’t help a bit of morbid curiosity for these people who could claim biological ties with the people he considered family. “Do your children also work here?” Was it one of the Smiths? Luke didn’t use the name Ankline. Did he go by his mother’s maiden name then? Martin had to ask Edith what her maiden name was. There was a woman in accounting who looked just like her.

“Know what? Fulfill an assignment for me and I’ll tell you about my kids during your promotion party.”

Ah, good old work. “Promotion?” He just knew the pay raises couldn’t last indefinitely.

Smith, the old bastard, smirked with all the glee of a scheming five-year-old. “Oh yeah, I never got around to telling you why I called you in here, did I?”

You old crook. “I’m afraid not, Alex.”

x-x-x

28th of September

It was a good surprise to find out that night that Chris had invaded the flat.

“I hope you don’t mind. I have an appointment in town at ass o’clock tomorrow morning and I didn’t want to add traffic to that.”

Martin showed how appreciative he was by breaking out the good stuff. At the moment it was a bottle of ‘Mount Gay 1703 Old Cask’ rum, bought as much for the taste as for the irony.

Once properly sunk in their respective sides of the couch, with a black-and-white movie for added asshole effect — Chris’s idea when he channel-surfed over Lost Horizon — all there was to do was unwind and bitch about their jobs.

They had long stopped following the plot when Chris filled his third glass and finished with his side of that conversation, the listing of his clients’ many, many faults. “He doesn’t even listen when I talk, but I absolutely had to be at this meeting so that I could watch while he ignored all of my advice. I bet he does it just to screw with me.” Chris sighed with more dramatic intent than real wariness. “What about you?”

Martin couldn’t help a tiny smile. “I’m getting promoted.”

Chris looked up, woe forgotten and dialed all the way back to damn fucking happy. “That’s not what I call bad news. Congratulations!”

Seeing Chris so happy filled Martin’s chest with warmth and bubbles and maybe a few kittens. His lips stretched wider into a real smile. “There are conditions.” He said without any of the bitterness he had been feeling a minute ago.

Chris’ joyous smile didn’t relent. “But you’re promoted.”

“I’ll have to babysit this guy—”

“Who’s soon going to regret not being you, because you’re promoted.”

“He’s supposed to be director of a factory in Moltslawn. It’s so far from my flat I have to go live in a company house.”

“For which they will pay rent, until they promote you.”

“He’s the most boring guy you’ve ever seen. I’ll be there at least six months.”

“And then they’ll promote you.”

Martin laughed. “I am a lucky bastard aren’t I? Still, it will suck.”

Chris laid back against the sofa, languid and happy with the world like only he knew how to be. “Do you want a good story to make you feel better?” he asked. “I have a good story. Actually, I have an hilarious story.”

Chris had many excellent stories. And when they weren’t great stories of their own right, Chris managed to make them sound like they were. Martin poured another glass of rum, fully expecting to be laughing his ass off not long from now.

“Okay, I’m ready. Go on.”

“So, I told you about Grace.”

“You mean you attack me with poetry about her every other time I call you.”

Chris smiled. “Yes, she is an amazingly inspirational person.”

Feeling magnanimous, Martin didn’t comment and gestured for his friend to continue.

“So the other day I was with her. At her house. In her bed.”

“If this is going to be a retelling of your sexual prowesses, I am not interested,” Martin reminded him.

Chris winked. “To each its own. You are missing out on a few epic tales you know.”

“Missing out on life trauma you mean. Go back to your story, before or after the no-doubt-awesome sex I don’t want to hear about.”

Chris toasted him. “After the awesome sex. Don’t make that face, I’m not going there. So, after the awesome sex, I was lying on the bed while Grace took a shower. They have this massive king-sized bed. Satin bedsheets, soft pillows, amazing mattress. You could hold an orgy on that thing.” Chris looked from his glass just as Martin opened his mouth to warn him off again. “No sex, I know. Just, imagine something very, very big with a lot of rumpled bedding and me, showing off all my rugged charms for the world to see.”

“You want me to imagine you naked?”

“You don’t have to, you’ve seen me naked.”

“Fair enough. So, you’re stark naked on the bed. Someone walked in on you, didn’t they? Was it the cleaning lady? Is your story about bribing the cleaning lady?”

Chris’s smile took on a satisfied edge. So not the cleaning lady. Martin winced. “Please tell me it wasn’t one of the kids.”

“Her husband,” Chris announced with delight. So much delight that Martin’s first thought was he was being played.

Chris took a sip of rum. “You’re not convinced. I swear, it’s real. And it gets better.” Now Chris sounded gleeful. “So I’m rolling naked on the bed when the door opens and this guy walks in. Of course he freezes when he spots me and I make a statue impersonation as well while desperately trying to remember where I left my pants. And when I spot them they’re too far to get from the bed.

“I’m trying to guess if me moving will set the guy off when I see him giving me the up-and-down. Exactly like your friend Charles used to do.” Martin had to clamp a hand over his mouth to keep a sudden burst of laughter from showering Chris with his mouthful of liquor. “And suddenly the man says, like he meets naked men everyday: ‘You must be Christopher, Grace has told me a lot about you. I’m her husband.’ I forgot all about my clothes.

“I’m gaping on the bed, not knowing my left from my right and wondering if I’ve fallen back asleep because dreaming would explain that fiasco nicely when the shower stops and Grace comes out of the bathroom. She looks at the guy, looks at my face, and she folds over laughing. The guy is still smiling politely at me, though I could see in his eyes he was really enjoying seeing me suffer. Which he proves when he turns to Grace and tells her: ‘Your tastes are still impeccable, honey. He’s gorgeous.’ And he doesn’t mean to hurt me like some assholes do. I can tell it’s genuine and that he wants to like me, the guy who bangs his wife.”

From Chris’s tone he wanted to like Grace’s husband too. Martin could just imagine the scene unfolding. The guy holding his hand out for Chris to shake, Chris, who was sitting naked on the bed, too flabbergasted to do anything about it. In Martin’s mind, the guy looked sophisticated; he wore a suit, had his hair gelled back and a smile was tugging slightly at the corner of finely shaped lips, the only outward sign that this man was inwardly laughing at Chris’s fumbling.

It made Martin laugh again, and Chris joined in because he liked laughing even when it was at his own expenses.

“Oh, Chris. Only you.”

“At least the man is nice. Cooked us lunch and opened a great bottle of wine. He and Grace teased me because it took me five whole minutes to make a grab for my pants and then he and I teased Grace because she snores. It didn’t even feel weird.”

“So they’re what? A very open-minded couple?”

Chris shrugged. “I didn’t have a chance to ask. I didn’t get another alone moment with Grace and I wasn’t about to ask him. I might be screwing his wife but we’d just met.”

And just like that Martin was laughing again.

x-x-x

1st of October

Moltslawn Industries smelled like oil, dust and burnt plastic. Martin’s new office was the size of the closet in his old office, without the good insulation, the soundproofing, or the view of the neighbouring skyscrapers. Instead he had one tiny skylight window that shone right onto the computer screen, rendering the otherwise surprisingly decent model completely useless.

Worst of all, his door opened straight into the office area. Apparently, Moltslawn Industries didn’t stand on ceremony. Colin shared a tiny open-space with the eleven members of the administrative staff, all of whom were on a first-name basis. Martin could hear them type and whisper through the gap between his door and the floor.

On the plus side, he would be able to monitor them without being obvious.

Fuck his life.

x-x-x

4th of October

That Monday, there was an ‘official’ meeting of the administrative staff over coffee.

Everything that was wrong with Moltslawn Industries became painfully obvious during that ‘meeting’.

Smith just dumped Martin in the break room with a short, “This is Martin Wright from Investigation.” There was not even an explanation for his presence, which was that this fucking ship was sinking. How could they all look like they didn’t know or care?

Martin went back to his ‘office’ frustrated with this job, and unhappy with his life. So unhappy he sat at his desk for a good five minutes without doing anything. In fact, he was still contemplating the unfairness of this appointment when the voices started in the next room. Apparently Colin Smith didn’t suffer from the same reputation here as he did back at headquarters. It sounded like all eleven employees mobbed him as soon as he walked in the room. They asked him what they were supposed to do with Martin, who could hear them all, thank you very much.

x-x-x

5th of October

“Yes, Chris, I said I’m happy for you, but I really have to go. See you again when you land back.”

Martin hung up the phone before the conversation went on a tangent, one Chris would inevitably bring back around to how perfect Grace was in every way imaginable. It was becoming a recurring annoyance.

Martin leaned back in his armchair, which had until now dutifully provided the illusion that Martin regularly sat on a cloud. This time, instead of accommodating him, the piece of furniture stuck. He pushed harder against the back of his chair hoping to unstick the mechanism. No luck.

Martin had the urge to start screaming ‘no’ at the top of his lungs.

God, just when he needed all the relaxation he could get. First working with Smith. Then Chris wasn’t coming out of the honeymoon phase of his relationship with Grace. Not only could Martin not get his fix of easy friendship and manly nights out for booze, he could see a heartache darkening the horizon and growing in intensity with each passing week.

This was the worst time of his life.

x-x-x

11th of October

Lucy wore ‘harried with no time for your bullshit’ like soldiers carried rifles. Even Martin dreaded interrupting her in her work, but there were files he needed. Files that were, for some reason, restricted in access. Also, there was a frightening number of other documents filed according to a very innovative system — meaning without consideration for any standard filing system or even common sense. This late in the day, Martin didn’t want to try and guess what that system might be.

“Lucy, I’m so sorry to bother you again, but I need access to the lease for the factory?”

Lucy also didn’t discriminate between the rabble and higher management. Everyone had a right to get stared down her pointy nose through her round glasses with the same scorn. “I believe the document you are talking about, sir, is in the red folder you borrowed from me two hours ago.”

“It isn’t. And I am surprised by how difficult it is to find such important documents. Maybe you could explain?”

“I wouldn’t know, sir. Everything is in the archives; you should be able to consult all the documents you need”

“Not if they are currently absent from their proper place.” Lucy wasn’t rolling her eyes yet, but by God if she did, Martin would have to find a way to get to her that wouldn’t mean firing the most efficient worker at Moltslawn Industries or possibly the entire town. “Is this some form of hazing?”

Lucy’s eyebrow rose about two millimetres. Martin couldn’t tell if she wasn’t impressed or on the contrary very surprised. “Hazing, sir?”

“Are you all having fun at my expenses? Did you re-file everything in the archive so that it was impossible to find anything on purpose?” Now the eyebrow was slowly but steadily going higher and higher and Martin decided if he could have the file he would give up dignity without regret. “Will I have to dance? Or sing? Because I can spare us all the time-waste and do it now if it’s really a requirement. Or, you know, get really drunk or walk around naked—”

Martin was given the up-and-down so fast he couldn’t say for certain that it really happened. What did happen was Lucy’s hand shot to her mouth, but not soon enough to prevent a snort from escaping. Martin was so pleased to be making any manner of progress with the staff that he wasn’t even annoyed to be made fun of.

The snorting incident lasted but a second, after which Lucy lowered her hand, all composure and glare of death recovered. “There is no hazing, sir. The file must be somewhere.”

“Well, I would be forever in your debt if you had the kindness to find it for me. At the rate this investigation is going, I will be reviewing your accounts through Christmas.”

“I’m sad to hear it, sir.”

If she hadn’t been so unaffected by his frustration, Martin might have let things stand there. But she just looked at him like he was a kid throwing a tantrum and he couldn’t let that stand. “Do you guys throw a Halloween party for the office?”

The glint in Lucy’s eyes gave her away. Bingo!

“Great. Drinks after work? Weekend barbecues? A WhatsApp group? I bet it’s under Moltslawn’s name too. Bring Your Kids to Work Day?”

That brought Lucy’s ever so small but growing frown of worry — or annoyance or maybe the woman had a toothache — to the second most obvious display of emotion of the day: bewilderment.

“I— what? No, I don’t think so.”

“Thank you for your help.” Well, since Martin would be here for a while, he could maybe gate-crash some of those events and convince Smith that Bring your Kids to Work needed to happen. Either Martin made some friends or it would make the people more eager to see him leave. In both case: more cooperation. Plus, kids. That would guarantee at least one good day in this hell-hole.

x-x-x

21st of October

At first it was distracting to be unable to tune out the activity of the administrative staff, then it became background noise for a few blessed weeks. But now something was wrong and Martin was unable to concentrate again.

Eyes going over the last sentence for the fifth time, Martin tried to understand how the words worked together to produce meaning, all the while keeping an ear out for unfamiliar voices or noises. When neither failed to produce any result, Martin opted for a trip to the coffee machine to refuel. While he was at it, he needed the projections made for the last quarter, which meant talking to Smith.

All eleven staff members, people who couldn’t shut up when Martin needed to concentrate, went silent as soon as the door opened. And though all their eyes were firmly on their screens, Martin was willing to bet he had their undivided attention. Because the people working in this damn factory were — for reasons beyond Martin’s understanding — completely hostile to Martin’s presence. Or not hostile, precisely, but definitively on edge. Suspicious, even. Whatever Smith had explained to them, they went above and beyond the usual distrust that Martin encountered when he visited branches of Smith & Ankline to go over their finances. Usually people were eager to help the Investigation team, be it to prove that they had nothing to hide or to help save as many jobs as they could. But these people? They acted like Martin was an enemy.

At least the coffee machine in the breakroom liked Martin well enough to fill his cup without protest.

The coffee didn’t right every wrong in Martin’s life but it was comforting enough that he could face Smith for a while. If he could find him.

His first stop was Smith’s desk, which, one would think, was a logical place to find a man responsible for a factory of fifty employees. Well, one would think wrong. It appeared what had been bothering Martin before was the lack of Smith’s… Well, it wasn’t a drone exactly. Without a visual of the guy’s face when he spoke to know that his eyes were empty and his face blank, it really sounded as though the accent were more expression than a regional variant in pronunciation.

“Lucy, where’s Smith?”

Of all the people present, she was the only one who had gone back to work for real; all the others were still pretending to be engrossed in their computer screens or the various papers scattered in front of them. Lucy, unshakable Lucy of the glare of death, jumped in her seat and looked up with an unnatural amount of white around the brown of her eyes before she managed to put on her frown and make her eyes look less saucer and more death ray. Martin had a feeling whatever came out of her mouth next, it wouldn’t be the truth.

“I’m sure he will be back in a minute, sir.”

So Smith wasn’t supposed to be back any minute, but she was going to call him and make sure he was. Which meant that, whatever he was doing, it wasn’t something he was supposed to do on his working hours. Great. It was going to be even easier than he had thought to get the wanker fired.

“Why? Isn’t he on site?”

“Well, yes.”

“Good. I’ll go meet him then. Where is he?”

Smith was in IT. With the speed at which Lucy had given in, it couldn’t be for something too nefarious. And really, IT? What had her so worried about Smith in IT? It was unlikely that Martin would ever find out; Lucy had probably jumped on her phone as soon as Martin left the room. Though if he hurried, he might get there before she could warn him.

The nearby sound of a ringtone had him speed up, but it hadn’t been necessary; the phone was still ringing when Martin stepped in a room that had contained five computers and a lot of boxes the last time he had come. Explosion of electronic parts notwithstanding, it looked the same. Colin Smith was standing at a table, elbow-deep in computer guts. The actual IT guy — the ironic t-shirt and flip-flops gave him away — also had one hand in the computer’s case and a screwdriver in the other. That said, he didn’t look like he minded having someone here doing his job. In fact, he wasn’t looking at what was going on; his eyes were on a phone, on a desk, too far for any of them to reach.

“Colin,” said IT guy, “your phone’s ringing, do you want me to answer?”

Smith didn’t look up from what he was doing. “If your fingers leave that board,” he said, “I’m making you migrate everything to Windows Vista.”

IT guy snorted. “Yeah, right, like you’d subject yourself to that.”

“Okay, I’ve almost got it, get ready to move your fingers out of the way… now.”

IT guy’s hand reappeared, Colin leaned further into the open case of the computer. Also, the phone stopped ringing.

“Great, thanks a lot for that. Sorry to call you down here while your spy is in.”

“It’s okay. At least here I know I’m useful. Lucy keeps grinding her teeth when she has to babysit me upstairs. Now, let’s check if we can access that data. Pass me those cables. Grab my phone while you’re at it.”

If it hadn’t been for that, it might have taken them longer to realise someone else was in the room. Because of the phone’s placement, though, IT guy turned around and his eyes landed right on Martin.

“Uh… Colin?”

x-x-x

23nd of October

“Grace and I had a talk.” Chris looked down in his cup and didn’t say anything else.

Martin’s stomach coiled tight. Here it was, he thought. The long-awaited break-up. He had almost started believing it would last this time. He really hoped this would go smoother than last time. Martin didn’t have the energy to take care of a depressed Chris on top of the mess at Moltslawn Industries right now.

“You’re pensive. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you pensive before,” he said when he couldn’t stand the silence anymore.

Chris gestured in a ‘you know how it is’ fashion, which, no Martin didn’t know how it was and he had a bad feeling about it. An ‘I need you to come bail me out of jail, except I don’t know if they’ll release me because I might have assaulted a guy’ kind of bad feeling.

Martin liked it even less when Chris’ stare turned calculating. “Martin. My very good friend, how do you feel about blind dates?” he asked.

Not a breakup? Oh God, this was getting scary. “You and Grace are not setting me up.”

Chris’s eyes had that gleam they got when he got to plead a particularly difficult case. “Remember that time I convinced you to go camping?”

Martin felt weary all at once. “How could I forget,” he sighed. He should have guessed Chris would bring up the camping trip.

“How did you describe it after? Remind me?”

“It was good but, Chris–”

“Best trip ever.” Chris jabbed his finger in Martin’s chest. Twice. Reminiscing about the camping trip always made Chris overly dramatic. “That’s what you said when we got back to civilisation, Martin. Best. Trip. Ever.”

And how many times had Martin wished he could take it back.

“It doesn’t mean–”

“And what about the museum heist?”

“You can’t use the museum heist, we promised we would never talk about the museum heist.”

“Of course I can use the museum heist. You laughed for hours. I was worried you’d hurt something. That’s how hard and how long you laughed!”

“I claim nerves, I–”

“And then there was the joyride in Kevin’s car.”

A memory of an endless wall of light floated to the surface of Martin’s mind. A street of brightly lit shop-windows, going by so fast everything was blurry and just a continuous rush of freedom and power. The joyride hadn’t lasted because it wasn’t a proper joyride. They had been clever enough to put the car back where it belonged before the real world could cast a shadow on their two hours of flying through the night so fast thoughts couldn’t keep up with them…

Chris’ voice had gone hushed as though he didn’t want to frighten the memory away. “You never knew how to have fun unless I pointed you to it, Martin. Let me steer you in the right direction once again.”

x-x-x

27th of October

Martin eyed the cup of (burning hot, double espresso, splash of cream, exactly the way he liked it) coffee on his desk with growing resentment.

He just knew Lucy was smiling at his back, like he could feel the scowl on his own face.

Four days ago, he had been determined to call Alexander and tell him what he had found. He didn’t have time to do anything. Lucy had busted in his office, arms full of documents that dated to the signature of the merging between Ankline and Smith and granted Moltslawn Industries all kind of privilege, including the right to run itself as the director thought best. The old man was slick. He had managed somehow to keep the factory under his sole power, while affiliating it to the newborn company. When they established a directorship shared by the whole administrative staff, Lucy and Colin were legally, completely within their rights, according to the bylaws of the company. Martin had a few thoughts about Alexander’s reaction if he ever learnt what was going on. It was one thing to make provision for more freedom, and something else to have the the people you trusted use this freedom to change everything without warning.

Out of spite, he turned to face her. “I don’t care how many times you bring me coffee. Joint Directorship isn’t a thing. You are lying to the administration and I’m reporting you!” he said before he closed — not slammed, that would be too childish – the door on her.

Dammit, his whole room smelled of mouth-wateringly good coffee now.

x-x-x

1st of November

“…ust be… tunnel… tin? Martin? Can you hear me?”

“Alex? It sound better now. Can you hear me?”

“Ah, yes. Perfect. As I said, I’m glad you like Moltslawn, Martin, It’s not a big city but it’s a town with a lot of heart. I know I enjoyed my stay there. I remember the people at the factory were very resourceful.”

That’s one way to put it, Martin thought. “Yes, as I said, Alex, now that they’ve warmed up to my presence it’s been… enlightening. The investigation is moving forward in leaps and bounds.”

“Yes. I am looking at your report right now. It sounds very promising. If I understand the finer print, landing this contract with Japan could resolve all our problems?”

“That thing really came out of nowhere. I have to stay prudent and say it won’t solve all our problems. But I’m working with Lu– with the Staff. To make sure they have alternatives.”

“Mm. How do you find working with director Smith then?”

“It’s… ah, well, actually it has greatly improved lately.” Now that he doesn’t pretend to be something he isn’t. “He’s a man full of surprises.” And far better as an IT specialist than as a businessman. “Actually, he’s strangely suited to his position at the factory. I hadn’t expected that.”

“Really?” Was that disappointment in old Alexander’s voice?

It was true, though. As the leader of a team, Colin Smith was actually decent. He knew just enough about everything to make the best of everyone’s opinion, and then let them work on their things while he went back to make sure everything with a motherboard in the building was in prime condition. It wasn’t very orthodox, but it worked for the factory. Lucy was just as often to thank for the solutions they found to the factory’s problem as Martin. From his new perspective, it looked like Moltslawn Industries would have pulled through even without his help.

He would keep an eye on Smith, Lucy and the rest of the crew until the end of the year. If everything worked out like he suspected, he would give them a clean bill of health and move onto other things.

“Really. I think right now this is the position where we get the most of him. Was there anything else?”

“No, nothing, Martin. Thank you for your investment in this.”

“It’s just my jo–”

“No, no, I insist. I take it as a personal favour. Edith says hello, we both look forward to seeing you again.”

“Thank you, Alex, tell Edith I miss her. See you in a couple months.”

x-x-x

8th of November

Take your Kid to Work Day was a great success.

Lucy had the most adorable seven-year-old. The little girl had pigtails and almond eyes and she wore a navy blazer and a tie. Martin wanted to feed her cookies and offer to read her fairy tales every time he saw her look down and hide behind Lucy’s legs. Also, the foreman’s daughter, a tallish ten-year-old who couldn’t stay still, was not impressed with her daddy’s work and it was hilarious. Not as hilarious as everyone’s faces when Martin had started talking with her about baseball and hockey and she answered all his suggestions with: “No, no, no! You’re wrong!”. From the way George was watching them, he hadn’t struck out the possibility that Martin might raise his nose in the air and lecture her about manners. Yet.

Lucy had frowned confusedly at him when he’d finally cracked and offered Lucy junior a cookie from his “very own treasure chest of biscuit delight”.

“I didn’t know you liked children,” Lucy senior had blurted.

While she floundered to make it sound as though she didn’t think Martin to be an stuck-up asshole cliché, Lucy junior finished wrapping Martin around her little finger by taking the smallest daintiest bite of her cookie and nodding with grave approval.

The fun didn’t stop there. Someone had brought in a bona-fide pre-teen. Martin had found him when he passed through the IT department. The kid, Logan, had imprinted on Martin like a baby duckling at the first signs of interest from a grown up. Martin’s heart had melted with the first smile. The kid also had two sisters: the younger one, Lexi, about Zayn’s age, was the definition of precious; the other one, Delilah, had nerdy glasses and a Tolkien book clutched in her small hands. How was Martin supposed to resist?

Logan sounded certain their dad wouldn’t worry too much if they followed Martin for the afternoon tour of the factory that had been set up just for the kids. “Mr. Sutterton can tell him where we are when he comes back,” Logan explained, gesturing to the IT manager who giving Martin yet another variant of the disbelieving look. “And I have my phone.”

“Perfect. I’m kidnapping you then!”

As it turned out, Logan already knew the factory enough that the general explanations Martin had prepared for the visit would have bored him to tears. There was last minute improvisation and soon the visit was a game of ‘can you guess what this machine does? Mr. Nelson, what does that thing do exactly?’

While he planned the event, Martin had expected his day with the kids to be instructive on a social level, he was surprised about all he learned about the small factory through his visit with the children. Also, Nelson kept stepping in every time Martin took a kid on his shoulders, like he thought Martin would drop them instead of just helping them see this or that part of machinery better. And okay, there were a lot of kids and Martin was glad for the help when all of them decided they needed to be boosted up, but Nelson also made those eyes when Martin and Lexi started doll feeding strategies.

Logan, being older than most kids Martin had associated with until now, was more challenging to keep interested than all the younger kids. Lexi wanted to marry Martin. Lucy the second probably just wanted him for his cookie stash. Delilah and George’s kid just liked that he allowed them to educate him about what was a first inning and how Harry Potter played quidditch. Logan went from wanting to show off his own knowledge to wanting to know how a particular machine worked or what Martin thought of video games. Half the questions had Martin turn to Nelson and then he had to explain exactly what he did in Moltslawn if he didn’t know how the factory worked. Logan became enthused with the idea of swooping in to help companies get bigger and better. Martin was thinking of checking how long this passion lasted until he remembered that he wouldn’t be here next year, let alone when Logan was old enough for high-school, or college when it would really make a difference.

He would get to have that kind of influence on Zayn though. If Chris didn’t fuck up his relationship with the kid when the rebellious teenager phase came along. If Zayn still cared at all what his father’s friend thought of his career plan by then.

What strange thoughts to have. And such an inopportune moment. Standing amongst all these children that weren’t his, whom he was showing around this factory that also wasn’t his, while all their parents waited at the door, all of them giving him side glances, no doubt wondering what part this masquerade played in his big nefarious plan to get them all fired.

The rest of the presentation was a bit of a blur. Nelson must have noticed that Martin wasn’t encouraging the kids to ask questions anymore. The older man stepped up and occupied the kids for the few minutes it took the parents to set fruits, cake and drinks on a table set in a corner of the factory for the occasion. The snack was welcomed by the kids with cheers and a race for the table, each kid joining his or her parent for a bite before it was time to go home.

Nelson remained at Martin’s side long enough to say: “It’s tiring to have so many kids around at a time isn’t it? I don’t know how teachers do it for a whole day. But this was fun.”

It was the closest to a friendly conversation since Martin’s arrival in Moltslawn.

Distantly, he registered that Logan, Delilah and Lexi had gathered around someone, no doubt their father. Lexi was reaching to be carried and both Logan and Delilah were talking with animation and both hands. When Martin finally shifted his gaze from them to their father, he finally understood that the looks he had been receiving all day weren’t really fear of him hurting his employee’s precious children as much as they were the lost looks of people who found themselves needing to reevaluate everything they thought they knew about life. That’s what Martin had to do when he realized, Colin Smith had kids. Awesome kids too.

x-x-x

11th of November

How did you dress for a double date with the husband of your best friend’s mistress? Martin had settled for nice-casual: a dark grey shirt, black slacks. He gelled his hair, knowing Chris would mock him for it because it was something he started doing in high school when he wanted to look good. No matter that the intent was to seduce and that Martin had passed the thirty-year-old mark, Chris still called it his ‘teenager look’.

The date was to take place in the only Italian restaurant of Moltslawn’s neighbour town. For a place that served mostly pizza, the decor was on the chic side. The walls were painted a warm yellow with painted grape vines climbing them and trompe-l’oeil style windows showing famous sights from Italy. Plants and a few white statues completed the decor, a particularly bushy thing with sharp-looking leaves separated the entrance from the main room but at first glance the restaurant appeared too well lit for a romantic date. It would be perfect for a friendly meal between adults.

Martin followed a young lady wearing a white shirt and a black skirt that was a conservative knee-length. She led him to a table drowning under several meters of white tablecloth that reached the ground. Anything could have gone on under there and no one would be the wiser. Martin wondered if it was the reason Chris liked this place so much. Speaking of the man, he was already there, and so was Grace.

She looked lovely.

Martin hadn’t aimed high enough with his dressing attire. Chris was wearing a suit. Grace had on a dark blue evening dress that covered her chest up to her neck, which was swan-like and accentuated by the way she had tied her golden hair up and wore dangling earrings. Her shoulders were bare, white and with just a little muscle definition. Her face was the most plain element of her, but plain was a matter of perspective as the main problem was that she had the face of every other attractive woman one could see on TV at the moment. She had done well with her make-up at least. All in all, Grace was an elegant and objectively appealing woman. For Chris to stay for so long there must have been more to her than met the eye.

Chris spotted Martin first and waved; Grace followed her lover’s line of sight and she looked pleased enough with Martin’s appearance. There were greetings, Martin joked about his lack of tie, everyone sat down.

“Chris and I are abandoning you after dinner,” Grace explained. “Chris assures me he will make it worth my while if I accompany him to the opera and suffer in silence. He assured me you and my husband could take care of each other.” She didn’t look very pleased at the idea of the opera.

“The opera.” Martin grimaced. It was a mystery why Chris liked the opera so much. “It must be love,” he told Chris, only half-joking. To Grace he smiled. “I am so glad to know he has you now. He used to take me. Wouldn’t make it worth my while though.”

Grace had a nice laugh. “That’s really cruel of you,” she told Chris, her mouth in a disapproving pout that was rendered moot by the way she made bedroom eyes at him.

“And that’s why you can keep him,” Martin assured her.

Grace was indeed pleasant company.

There were more pleasantries. After a while, Martin wondered when the infamous husband would show up. Suddenly, Grace’s smile widened a little, turned more genuine or maybe just fond. She sat straighter on her chair and waved someone over. “Here he is,” she said, calling a name Martin didn’t catch.

The waitress had seated Martin back to the door. His first impression of Grace’s husband was therefore of a soft tenor with a propension to sharpen its consonants. “I hope you won’t hold this delay against me,” said the voice, “there was a driver who mistook the highway with a school zone.” It was more nuanced than Martin was used to, and managed to convey a little irritation but also good humor.

The bottom of Martin’s stomach dropped. It couldn’t be. Martin couldn’t be that unlucky.

Grace directed her smile on Martin ignorant of how much he hated her right then. “Martin, meet my husband, Colin. Colin–”

Martin turned around, slowly. Someone up in heaven must have it in for him. Colin Fucking Smith was standing two feet from their table, face set in that carefully blank mask that Martin knew so well. Apparently good old Colin had recognized Martin already.

The silence lasted one beat too long. And then several more, until finally Chris asked: “Is there a problem?”

“No,” said Smith. “No problem. Mister Wright and I know each other in a, ah– professional capacity.” At the hesitation Grace had perked up, her smile disappearing as she gave first her husband, then Martin, a worried look. Martin had to remind himself that it shouldn’t feel strange, seeing as the two of them were married. Smith’s next words were for her, but his eyes were on Martin, the watered blue shining for once with a frosty gleam. “We’ll need a few minutes to get used to the idea is all,” said Smith, something in his voice making the words sound like a warning.

Martin’s first reaction was anger, but soon after he was dancing on the edge between indignant and intrigued. This was the final proof that Smith really had a personality. Not only that, but what Martin had seen so far, the dry wit, the open marriage, it hinted at an interesting personality.

Chris caught Martin’s attention gesturing to know if Martin was okay.

“Yes,” Martin said for Chris’ sake before he addressed the rest of the answer to the Smiths. “Of course. Sorry, Mister Smith, you caught me rather wrong-footed.”

Smith smiled, still the perfect illustration of cool and polite.

“Good,” Chris said, “let’s get this meal started then. I suggest drinks. Also, no more of that ‘Mister’ business. Martin, this is Colin, Colin, my very good friend Martin. No need to explain that Grace and I hope you two will get along.”

Colin held his hand out for a handshake, his hair gelled back and his suit from work giving him a sophisticated look while the smile tugging slightly at the corner of is finely shaped lips was the only outward sign that Colin Smith was inwardly laughing at Martin’s uneasiness. And just like that, the husband Martin had imagined for Grace crashed into Smith from work.

“Pleased to meet you, Martin.”

Martin felt himself blush. “Yeah. Same.”

The first part of the evening was relatively normal with Chris and Grace serving as a buffer. Though Grace and Smi– Colin would sometimes pair up to tell a story. S– Colin asked her at some point if she needed her shawl from the car when Martin hadn’t even noticed that she was cold, but Grace declined with a fond smile. In fact, it was the moment Chris and she used to make their excuse and go.

Martin found himself with nothing better to do than stir his coffee while he tried to come up with something to say that wasn’t asking Colin how his marriage worked exactly.

“Thank you for going along with them,” Colin said.

“You’re welcome.”

“Lucy also told me to thank you for the lack of scandal with the direction of Smith & Ankline.”

Martin rolled his eyes. A little. In his mind. “Well, she started giving me coffee. I felt bad for you all.” And angry to have been lied to, and a little bit impressed that the lie lasted so long. “I guess with the proposal from the Japanese it won’t do anyone any good if I rat you out.”

Colin grinned. “Yes, Lucy is bad at wooing people, but she’s genius when it comes to getting us work.” Smiling made Colin looks a decade younger. Martin found it hard to not just stare.

“I– you– It was very good coffee!”

Colin laughed. Even in this, he managed to look coolly amused, but Martin was too busy wishing he would do it again to hold it against him.

“I’m sure it was the best coffee Lucy could find. But, really, if you had to buy someone’s silence, don’t you think you’d find something more effective than coffee?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never had to buy anyone’s silence. Have you?”

“No.”

“It never came up? I mean…”

“Grace’s affairs?” Colin prompted.

“Yeah, how does that work anyway? Are you two just too good together to get a divorce? Or is it a kink? Like, since you’re free to go and find someone whenever you want you never get bored of each other?”

Colin was grinning again. “Not really, no. I’m gay. One hundred percent not interested in women. Grace was getting me out of a tight spot when she signed the marriage contract.”

Okay. That was different. “But, you have kids.”

Colin’s smile lost some of its strength. “Yeah. Which reminds me, we haven’t really explained all of this to the kids yet. And unless Grace and Chris decide to take their relationship to the next level, there is no point. So we would be really grateful if you kept all of that to yourself.”

Logan was probably mature enough to hear it though. And Delilah had seemed like a down-to-earth kid despite her tastes for fantasy books. They were clever kids. And they owed it in part to Colin’s upbringing; the man had to know what he was doing. “Yes. Of course.”

“Okay, enough talk about my marriage. What do you do when you’re not working?”

x-x-x

12th of November

So, Colin Smith was gay and persuaded that his family would disown him if they knew. Martin kept an eye on him all day long, trying to spot anything different now that he had that piece of information to add to his already growing collection of odd-bits about Moltslawn Industries’s dummy-director-slash-IT-specialist.

Who was he kidding? It wasn’t the gay thing, it was finding out how badly Martin had misjudged the man. Colin Smith was a well-liked colleague in an unusual but effective team. He had helped raise three bright kids. He had won Chris over in one meeting. Colin Smith was a witty, charming, kind, well-integrated, competent, somewhat geeky person.

Martin was tired of pretending he didn’t like him.

x-x-x

15th of November

The Sea of Blues Restaurant was more romantic than the Italian had been. Too bad Grace and Chris weren’t there to enjoy it.

From the corner of his eye, Martin caught the moment Colin stopped playing with his napkin to give his watch another look. It had been only five minutes. Colin didn’t pick up anything else. Instead he sighed and straightened in his chair, putting both elbows on the table and resting his chin on his crisscrossed fingers. Martin sat back in his own seat with his glass in one hand and the menu in the other, but he met Colin’s eyes to let him know he was listening.

“Is all of this okay?” Colin asked. “I know I’m not your favorite person.”

Martin raised his glass to that. “I don’t mind. In fact, thank you for suffering through our friends’ good intentions with me, Colin.”

“You’re welcome. Are we still pretending to be waiting for them or do you want to order?”

The salmon was delectable. So was the conversation.

Martin would also soon realise — with some amusement — that listening to their boss call him by his first name was greatly helping his popularity ratings amongst the people of Moltslawn Industries.

x-x-x

25th of November

“So how long has it been exactly?” Colin asked as they walked side by side in the otherwise empty parking lot of the factory. There was still no snow, but it was still cold enough that their breath condensed in tiny puffs of cloud when they breathed.

“How long since what?”

“Since you last spent the night with someone?”

Colin’s face was sporting a small smile and his eyes were set on Martin, ready to latch onto any outward sign of discomfort. Colin had no shame. Chris’s story of the way the met had been a good hint, but Martin had since experienced first hand how far Colin was ready to push to make someone blush and stammer.

“A long time. I had a bad break-up. You?”

“College,” Colin declared without hesitation.

College, that had to be… Martin slowed down, trying to make his math add up. How old was Colin anyway? He had a thirteen-year-old son. “Ten years ago? That can’t be healthy, right?”

Colin stopped and turned around, probably so Martin could see the mocking smile on his face. “Eight years and some. I guess after a while you get used to it? After all, the internet is for porn.”

Martin grimaced; he was on an almost nine-month dry spell and he was getting a little desperate. He couldn’t imagine making it eight years on his own, let alone without getting someone to at least scratch the itch. “But… I mean, there are clubs, you know. Or dating sites? Even Grace is getting some.”

Colin seemed to think it over. Finally he shrugged. “Moltslawn is too small. My father knows everyone here. I didn’t feel comfortable enough meeting someone. Plus, have you met me? I am so bad at meeting people it’s not even funny. And one-night stands are the worst.”

“What did you do in college, then?”

Martin’s college experience had been one long string of one-night stands; his longest relationship back then had lasted two months, a guy whose greatest selling point had been how welcoming his family was.

“I shared an apartment with Grace; the first year we had a baby and then the baby grew into a toddler. So nothing much. Mainly I knew this guy, older family friend. He was bi and… experimenting I guess? We hooked up twice a month the last two years. We’re still friends now.” Yeah, no surprise there. “He’s done quite well for himself. I think my dad wishes I were him sometimes.” Colin’s smile turned sharp as it often did when he was somehow mocking himself, which Martin had noticed was a good part of the time. Whoever this elusive father was, his selfishness had done a number on Colin’s self-esteem.

“Well. I, for one, prefer you as you are.”

“Nice change of heart. I appreciate your hypocrisy.”

“No, I mean it. I like you. You’re a kind person. You’re funny.” Martin decided he could get back at Colin for the line of questioning while he was at it. “Handsome too,” he said, wiggling his eyebrows and trying to get his smile in just that teasing smirk that looked so good on Chris.

Colin didn’t miss a beat. His own smile turned flirty and he stepped into Martin’s personal space. “Handsome, huh?”

And that was… unexpected. But Martin couldn’t be outmanned by someone who had just admitted that he was practically a virgin. He put a hand on Colin’s shoulder, close enough to Colin’s neck that his knuckles brushed the skin. Leaning close he tried to keep his laughter in as he whispered, “You’re hot. In fact, let’s find a bed and have crazy monkey sex together.”

Martin’s hand slipped from Colin’s shoulder when the guy doubled over in laughter. Colin still had tears in his eyes when he stood straight and said, “Why, thank you Martin. I’m touched. In fact,” he stepped close again, so close Martin had to step back, and then again until he felt a company van at his back. Colin loomed over him. He wasn’t very tall or very large, but Martin was on the thin side himself, and he felt his heartbeat double as he let Colin press his body into his. Martin might have been joking when he told Colin that he was hot, but in his own way Colin was hot. Not eye-catching, not beautiful, but he had a presence, wits and a surprising ease in social situations that weren’t business meetings. Colin was someone Martin could see himself sleeping with.

Martin was growing short of breath. Colin wasn’t moving anymore, his body was a teasing, hard line of warmth against Martin.

“Huh,” Colin said, voice hoarse, breath coming out in small gusts of warm air against Martin’s cheek. “I didn’t think this through.”

Yeah, Martin thought, me neither. Sleeping together was a bad idea. The first stop on the highway for disaster in fact. Because of work. Because of Colin’s kids. Because Colin was so afraid of being gay he’d rather spend eight years of his life alone than come out of his closet. But mainly because Martin knew himself well enough to know he would fall hard if given the chance. Colin was nice. Colin had kids. Colin and Grace were a perfect fit in the life Martin had only really ever shared with Chris.

The cold tip of Colin’s nose brushed his cheek, warm breath puffed against his lips. Martin allowed himself one kiss. One indulgent press of lips and the wet caress of tongues. Martin’s hand at the back of Colin’s neck and Colin’s fingers combing through Martin’s hair. One pulse of pleasure through his chest and low in his belly. One regretful groan as he panted for air and pushed Colin away.

For someone who was so careful to appear straight, Colin wasn’t impressed enough by Martin’s warning that: “Someone might see.”

In fact, Colin tried to step right back in and Martin almost let him.

“No,” he said, pleaded, as he kept his arms up between them, keeping Colin away.

“Why?”

“Bad idea. It’s a very bad idea.”

Colin didn’t answer. He didn’t try to push again.

They separated in silence and left in their respective cars to go their separate ways.

Martin didn’t know how Colin felt when he got home, but Martin was lonely, frustrated and cold.

x-x-x

26th of November

The best option would have been for Martin and Colin to pretend the kiss had never happened. That way, they could resume their friendship and enjoy their time together until Martin moved out of Moltslawn. Now, since Colin was so deep in his closet, the most plausible option was his pretending that Martin didn’t exist. Possibly until it was time to go back to headquarters. Martin didn’t want to lose his best friend in Moltslawn, especially not when Chris’s life revolved around Grace and Grace only.

In the deepest part of his heart, Martin didn’t want to lose Colin’s friendship at all. In fact, he wanted more. But this one was the wishful option. It was the white-picket-fenced dream of marriage and children with an unattainable happily ever after. Colin already had it with Grace. Martin didn’t need previous experiences to tell him it was the doomed option. The one that brought pain and more pain and complications and disaster. There was just no way.

And even when Colin ambushed Martin in the staff room, saying, “I’m a coward, but it’s not you I’m afraid of; we are going to talk and you’re not leaving until we both agree on what happens next,” Martin didn’t let himself hope.

“Do you really want to have this conversation here?” Martin asked with a pointed nod at the door. Anyone could just waltz in. Martin had uncovered Colin’s secret status as a dummy director by doing just that.

“They’re not–” Colin combed his hair back nervously. “Okay, you’re right, but we need to discuss this at some point though. I don’t want– This could be good, Martin,” Colin said, gesturing at the space between them.

“Yeah, no. This,” Martin said, replicating Colin’s gesture, “can only end in tears. Colin, you’re so deep in the closet even your kids think you’re happily married, while I’ve never had to hide a single day in my life.”

Colin blinked. “Never– You’re friends with Alexander Smith!”

“Yes, and he knows.”

Colin looked like he had a lot to say — or maybe ask — about that. Martin wanted to defend Alexander though he didn’t know exactly from what. Colin didn’t give him time to settle on something.

“Let’s not discuss that. You’ve given only one argument against. I can– If this works– Martin, I’m in the closet because I made one big decision when I was seventeen and there was never really a reason to change that but I–” Martin stopped paying attention, he was too entranced by the sight of Colin’s cheeks turning pink. Colin Smith, the man who had poked fun at Martin by asking about his sex life, was blushing.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.”

Colin’s blush intensified. “I said, I could come out if I had a good reason. I think you might be that good reason.”

It wasn’t binding and Martin had heard similar words before, but Colin was so earnest. Even if Colin changed his mind later, he truly believed these words now. Martin knew better, he really did, but he decided he could delude himself for a while and believe them too.

X-x-x

27th of November

The clouds had finally surrendered their precious snowflakes during the night. In the light of the day, Colin and Grace’s garden glittered like it was covered in a layer of tiny diamonds. Martin had been invited over to help Colin and his kids build what seemed to be the Traditional First Snowman of Winter. After that, he had had to go back inside to try and outrun the cold that would no doubt befall him if he didn’t get dry and warm fast, but Colin and the kids were still out, attending various snow activities like pelting each other with snowballs and —in Delilah’s case — building a snow-woman because gender equality was important.

“And then she said she wanted to make a wizard snow-person because muggles were already over-represented in this garden.” Martin took the mug Grace was giving him and settled down in a blue couch so soft it re-shaped around Martin’s ass.

Grace laughed in surprise as she sat down in one of the matching armchairs. The Smith’s living room looked like it came out of a catalogue. A few red carpets on the floor and a multicoloured afghan on the couch provided just enough warmth and chaos to dispel that impression. “I still haven’t decided if I should introduce her to the concept of delusion,” Grace said with a smile that was one hundred percent pride, “or push her into politics.”

Martin hummed in approval. “Delilah for president. It has a nice ring to it. Your kids are wonderful by the way. You two certainly did something right with them.”

Despite the praise, Grace’s next words were more pensive than pleased. “Yeah, I guess we managed okay.”

Martin didn’t say a word while she sipped her tea and watched her husband and their kids be an almost picture perfect family on the other side of the window.

“Actually,” she said suddenly, “It’s good that I have you alone for a bit, Martin. I wanted to talk to you.”

“If it’s about Chris, I have learned my lesson and don’t give relationship advice anymore.”

Chris’s name made Grace face lighten up, but she was serious again before long. “It’s not about Chris.”

“Colin?”

“Colin. I guess this will be my take on this ‘don’t hurt him or else’ thing.” She was still smiling congenially enough by then, but when she talked next there was something sad in her expression. “I’m serious, Martin, don’t hurt him. He is the nicest person I know, and his father and I have already done a good enough job of making him miserable.”

Martin had heard enough about Colin’ father to get a good idea of how much of an asshole he was. But Martin was rather under the impression that Grace had been a positive development in Colin’s life. From the way Colin acted around her, he liked her a lot.

And this conversation was becoming too heavy. “Consider me warned. Can I also have your blessing?” Not that it will save this relationship when the time comes for it to crash and burn.

Grace definitely looked more like herself with a smile gracing her lips. But despite Martin’s best efforts, Grace’s smile still trembled a little. “You do. If I’m really honest with you, me wanting the two of you to work out isn’t entirely selfless. In fact, I would greatly benefit from the two of you being disgustingly happy together.”

“Oh yeah? How so?”

“I want a divorce.”

Martin almost dropped his mug. “A divorce? Is it really the best time? What if you and Chris don’t work out?”

“It has nothing to do with Chris and it wouldn’t be right now. I’m thinking, after we explain to the kids and give them some time to get used to the idea. Maybe next year.”

It made sense. In fact, it was courageous and Martin completely approved. “Have you told Colin? He’s going to hate the idea.”

Grace sighed, like it pained her to think about it. “Yes, I know.”

“Can I ask you, if not for Chris, then why do you want it?”

Grace looked out the window again. She really was a beautiful woman, Martin thought. And maybe Chris was a little bit lucky after all that Colin wasn’t anywhere near straight, because Grace looked like a woman with a broken heart as her eyes found her husband out in the snow and followed him for a while. “I’m finally over him,” she whispered, voice a little bit hoarse though her eyes remained dry. “It took so long. I was just a stupid teenager and he rode in like a fucking white knight, ready to save me in my moment of need. You should have seen us back then, Martin. I was the queen of the school and he was just this nerd with too much attitude for his own good. We had never talked, not even to greet each other in the all, before he came to my house to tell me Tyler would never do right by me.” She had been talking more to herself than Martin until then, but she looked up and addressed him now. “It was a horrible cliché really. I was one of the pom-pom girls; my boyfriend, Tyler, was part of the football team. We wouldn’t have lasted past high-school, and here I was, seventeen and pregnant.”

That meant… Martin looked out the window until he found the blue jacket Logan was wearing. The kid was climbing his father, trying to push snow around his neck and failing because he was laughing instead of pushing his advantage.

“You mean Logan…”

“None of them. I… I had the girls… well. Delilah– It was a bad time. Their biological father was… we’re friends now. He agreed to meet them if they ever asked.” She sobbed — no, it was the beginning of a laugh, a hysterical sound that hurt Martin just as much to listen to as it seemed to hurt Grace. Luckily it was very short. “Colin goes to extreme lengths sometimes, but I have my own list of fucked up choices, Martin. Colin really helped me out when he married me, and we make great friends, but now I want to make better choices. I know it’s unfair, he’s a good guy, he was patient and kind to me all the years I’ve known him. But using each other as crutches has bent us all out of shape, and we both deserve better. And me leaving, I think it will help both of us face our problems and go for what we really need.”

Yes, she was a strong, beautiful woman. Getting to share her life just served to prove once again that Chris really was a lucky bastard.

x-x-x

3rd of December

“Fancy a drink?”

Martin whirled around so fast he scattered papers all over the desk, to find that Colin had creeped in without making a sound. There certainly hadn’t been any knocking to warn Martin and maybe spare him the feeling of his heart trying to pound out of his chest.

“God! Colin, are you trying to kill me?”

“Sorry, I’m sorry.” Colin looked equal parts sorry and amused with his hands raised in a pacifying gesture, his face trying and failing to frown. “I knocked, didn’t you hear?”

Martin shook his head.

“Ah, well. I guess we can make the first glass an apology drink. You weren’t planning on working on a Friday evening, were you?”

“I was about to go.” Martin gestured to the papers scattered on the floor. “Actually I was putting this away. Give me a minute.”

Colin kneeled down at his side to help gather the papers. When he handed a couple over, Martin noticed that he wasn’t wearing the same clothes as earlier. The last time Martin had seen Colin, he had been wearing a t-shirt and jeans. Now, he wore a dark pair of dress-pants and a tight fitting grey sweater over a white shirt. It did good things to his eyes, which probably meant that Colin hadn’t picked it himself.

“You look good. What’s the occasion?”

“Grace brought the clothes when she came over to warn me about showing my face at home tonight. She’s having a girls’ night with her sister, her mum and her niece. Only my daughters are invited; Logan has already sought shelter at a friend’s house.”

“It sounds like you might need a place to sleep.”

Colin gave one of his cocksure smiles, which was a little ridiculous and ironic considering Martin knew the man wasn’t getting any. Still, it was Colin and Colin had no shame, even when it came to bad pick-up lines. “Are you offering?”

“Sure.” Martin thought of teasing Colin like he had been teased the night of his first kiss. But he thought better of it and instead stepped close to for a hug, which he followed by kissing Colin’s nose, his cheek and finally his neck. “I would love to have you at mine for a drink and more. Interested?”

Colin was a little breathless but otherwise kept a perfectly straight face. “It sounds perfect. Count me in for more.”

Martin snorted. Yeah. Shameless.

They drove into town and had dinner, dessert and coffee, after which Colin pulled Martin into a bar for drinks. There was no more talk of sleeping arrangements. Colin was his usual self all through the evening, charming and maybe a little more aloof than usual. Martin was disappointed.

They tried several cocktails over a long conversation on all things mindless and safe. It was entertaining and Martin was grateful for the chance to just let go of work, Colin and Grace’s marriage and just everything complicated in his life. By the end of the evening, they were both laughing a lot and had to take a taxi to Martin’s apartment.

Martin snorted and used Colin to keep himself up while he looked for his keys. They had been in his coat pocket, but the coat pocket wasn’t where Martin had left it. Colin almost tripped and grabbed Martin, probably to steady himself back. They were so, so drunk.

“We are so drunk,” Colin agreed. Or maybe he was just discovering it too.

Martin shushed him. Colin. By putting a finger on his lips. Mouth. Colin’s mouth. Colin really had a nice, kissable mouth.

The key found itself when it fell on the floor, frightening them to death.

Colin looked down, looked back up. The two of them stared at each other and suddenly exploded in fits of laughter.

Martin’s apartment was nice and warm and Colin was nice and warm. And kissable. Martin kissed him. And then there were more kisses. Because Colin was so kissable. And his mouth tasted like the last thing they had drunk, which contained… Martin licked into Colin’s mouth again and groaned.

“I don’t like raspberries,” he said against Colin’s lips. Colin giggled and kissed him, probably to shut him up.

illustrated by The Winter Cynic

They made out propped against a wall for a long time, only moving to the bed when Colin stopped groping and kissing Martin suddenly and said, “I really, really wanted to ask you to have sex tonight, but then I overestimated the need for liquid courage.”

All the blood in Martin’s body moved south, which is probably what helped with the thinking since the alcohol clouding Martin’s mind went with it. He started feeling how hot it was in there with their coats still on, how sweaty they had become under their clothes and how his fingers slid against the skin of Colin’s back where they were resting. He registered the way his lips felt puffy and wet from kissing, and it sent heat pooling low in his belly.

“Oh, God. Colin…” There was no words for how much he wanted what Colin had just evoked, and so Martin kissed him again, more aggressively. Colin welcomed Martin’s renewed fervor with a moan and kissed back just as hard.

They lost the coats in the hallway, abandoned their shirts and Colin’s sweater on the way to the room and landed half-naked and still wearing their shoes on Martin’s bed. It didn’t matter yet. Colin had found out how sensitive Martin’s nipples were and was nipping and kissing them while Martin carded one hand through fine blond hair and raked the other along Colin’s back.

The air was warm and their bodies were growing warmer. They rolled on the bed a few times, exchanging more kisses and exploring skin with growing desperation.

Martin had been entertaining the thought of losing the rest of their clothes for a while when Colin slipped his hand in the back of his pants and pulled him down to grind their hips together. The feeling of his cock twitching and leaking in his underwear convinced him that it had to be now.

“Fuck. Colin, slow down, please.”

Colin groaned, hips bucking one last time before he stilled. “Don’t– Why? Please, Martin!”

The way Coin’s voice cracked on his name was almost enough for him to forget why he was stopping. But then he remembered how much he didn’t look forward to dealing with shoelaces, especially with the way Colin trembled from holding still.

“We need to get those off.”

Martin had to give his cock a hard squeeze, and then another, just so he could get off Colin and start tugging at zippers and button, hoping the illustration would help Colin understand the upside to what he was asking. But he didn’t need to worry. With a loud “fuck!” Colin was on his feet and bending over to get rid of his shoes. And fuck if Martin’s trousers didn’t become even tighter at the sight.

Martin felt even sounder of mind when they both climbed back on the bed. Colin was also giving signs of having sobered up some. His eyes were on Martin’s face as he kneeled in the middle of the mattress. Martin joined him there and leaned to start the kissing again, but Colin grabbed his shoulders and kept him at arm’s length.

“You’re gorgeous,” Colin said with awe in his voice.

Martin smiled and arched back a little to put himself on display. Keeping in shape had never felt so rewarding as it did now, and he could almost feel Colin’s eyes move down his chest and abs like a touch.

Colin’s work t-shirt tended to cling and Martin was a little prepared for the wiry body in front of him, all the long muscles and smooth, milky skin. Nonetheless, he knew he wore the same hunger on his face that Colin was displaying now.

“And you’re ravishing,” Martin said. “I’d like to show you how much.”

Colin laughed. “Oh, by all mean.” He let go of Martin’s shoulders to spread his own arms in invitation.

There was so much Martin wanted to do. But first, he smiled wickedly at Colin and pushed him back in a jumble of limbs. Colin didn’t fight back; he straightened his limbs instead until he was on his back, smiling up at Martin. Martin couldn’t resist kissing that smile. Then he moved lower to suck and nip Colin’s neck and collarbone.

He brushed his fingers against Colin’s sides and abs and the skin there was as soft as it looked. Colin was humming in approval, a low rumbling sound that Martin wanted to tease him about because it sounded so much like a happy cat’s purr.

Martin tried Colin’s nipples to return the favour from earlier, but Colin pushed him away with a whispered “not there”. So Martin moved lower and spent some time teasing the faint line between Colin’s abs. His reward was the return of Colin’s hands on his shoulder and the back of his neck, caressing and kneading the muscles there until Martin wanted to purr too.

Both of Colin’s hands ended up tugging gently at his hair as Martin moved lower still and peppered Colin’s happy trail with wet kisses.

Martin scooted back until he was crouched between Colin’s legs, a hand on each thigh with his thumbs pressing small circles on the inside, where the skin felt most tender. Colin was panting by this point, and his eyes, when Martin looked up, were scrunched close.

Colin groaned when Martin’s lips left his skin and his fingers clenched painfully in Martin’s hair for a second. They relaxed almost instantly and Colin garbled something that sounded first apologetic and then like begging. Martin felt warm inside when he caught the words ‘please’ and ‘Martin’ and something that might be ‘anything’. It also awakened something just a little bit wicked in him and he bent down his head until his mouth was close enough to Colin’s cock that his breath had to be a hot, wet tease against Colin’s sensitive skin.

“Oh God, Martin, please.”

“Such pretty, pretty words,” Martin teased. “Tell me more.”

Colin wasn’t quite beyond words yet. Martin’s request was met with a sudden barrage of words. “Tease, you’re a damn tease. Please, don’t stop. Touch me again. I want you. I want your hands and I want your mouth. Please, please, put your mouth back or I’m going to die. You feel so good your mouth is–” Martin never knew what his mouth was because he wrapped it around the head of Colin’s cock and the word was replaced by a long, blissful moan.

Martin wasn’t finished with Colin just yet. He sucked a little, just enough to get a taste of salt and bitterness, then he took his mouth off and nuzzled the inside of Colin’s thigh, licking next to where his thumbs were now pressing bruises. He laughed while Colin cussed him. Martin pretended to take pity on him then and he moved back to Colin’s cock, not taking it in this time, but mouthing at the base and kissing along the length.

Colin pleaded some more, but when that got no reaction, Martin felt the hand in his hair pull him up, and up, until Colin’s lips crashed onto his. The kiss was fierce and sharp, with a lot of teeth. Colin let go of Martin’s hair to pull at his hips, grinding them together to seek relief. Martin realised suddenly how hard he was, how much he had been aching for friction.

They broke the kiss for air. Martin’s eyes fell on Colin and he couldn’t look away. Colin was a mess, and his eyes looked so bright in comparison to the red in his cheek, that Martin couldn’t believe he had ever thought them dull. Colin was still moving his hips and pulling on Martin’s in encouragement for Martin to join in.

“You– Do you know how long I’ve waited for this?” Colin whispered. “I feel like I’ve been hard for weeks. I’ve wanted to date you since that day with the kids, but I’ve had a hardon for you since almost the day we met. You glaring daggers at me during board meetings was the sexiest thing in my entire life.”

Martin was very pleased with the words but not nearly as much as his dick, which twitched and made a valiant effort to ejaculate there and then. Colin must have felt it, because he bucked hard and ground his own cock against Martin’s. Even if Martin had been keeping still on purpose, it would have been impossible to not join in after that.

“Colin–”

“Don’t. You’ve talked enough. My turn. I thought I was having a wet dream when I saw you with Grace at the restaurant. And then I thought I was out of my mind when you started being nice and looking interested. If you had any idea how many times I thought of walking into your office and drop on my knees to blow you the last few days, if you knew–”

“No more teasing, I promise,” Martin said, surprised when the words came out intelligible. “You feel so good.”

“Fuck. Ah!”

Martin watched Colin’s eyes grow glazed over as their skin became slippery with pre-come and sweat. Eventually, his own eyes were closed more often than not as he concentrated on the pleasure gathering in his groin and all the sparks Colin’s fingers lit everywhere else.

At the end they were both out of voice and out of words. Colin’s orgasm came with a sigh of relief, which Martin stole from his lips with a kiss, just as his own body peaked and clenched tight from pleasure. He bucked and spilled against Colin’s belly, too tired to do more than the most basic mop-up using the sleep-pants he kept under a pillow. Colin was already fast asleep when Martin spooned him after chucking the now-disgusting sleepwear on the floor. He was out in seconds.

x-x-x

10th of December

Martin waited until they were on another double date with Grace and Chris to broach the subject. He broached the subject after dinner, while Grace was appreciating a glass of port and the men were trying different whiskeys.

“We should all go together at the company’s Christmas Party this year. Chris can come as my plus-one.”

He had been relying on everyone to agree and for the matter to be settled in seconds. Instead, heavy silence settled down on their group as Colin blanched and Grace grimaced.

“What? What did I miss?” Martin asked, conscious that things could only get worse from there. He just hoped he hadn’t just frightened Colin away over a stupid work get-together.

“We never go to the Christmas Party,” Grace said, failing to make it sound unimportant just with the way she kept staring at Colin as though checking with him that what she said was okay.

It was Chris and Martin’s turn to exchange a look. Though Colin and Grace had little quirks that appeared at random moments to remind others that they were the ones legally bound in wedlock, it never manifested through submission of any kind on Grace’s part. Colin was the one who looked for approval and offered comfort. Grace initiated in-jokes and friendly hugs.

“Okay, what are we missing?” Chris asked gently, taking Grace’s hand in his. She closed her fingers in his and Martin felt the need to check for Colin’s reaction. But Colin was looking at Martin, not at them.

“My parents will be at that party,” Colin said. “We try to avoid spending more time than necessary in their presence.”

Parents. Colin was a Smith. Alexander had special links to Moltslawn Industries and a special interest in its director.

Martin was an idiot.

“Martin? What was that?”

“Everything makes so much sense now. And Alexander’s discourse on nepotism is a load of hypocritical bullshit.”

Colin’s smile looked thinner and weaker by the second. “Not just his discourses.”

They didn’t talk about this again, and Martin didn’t really find a good time to explain why he would still be going to the party.

X-x-x

23rd of December

Martin had done his best to not think too much about the fact that Colin and Alexander were related. He just couldn’t see the Alexander he knew in the picture Colin had painted of a man too close minded and too busy making money to really care about his children. Martin’s Alexander had wished he could find someone to bring to the Christmas Party; how did that fit in with the father who had made Colin so afraid of who he was that he not only wed a woman he encouraged to cheat on him, he also created a complicated lie to give the appearance that he followed in his father’s footsteps when he couldn’t do the work?

Now sitting in the well-known office on the top floor of Smith & Ankline, he couldn’t shake the thought. Funny how the cosiness and comfort were still here despite Martin’s uneasiness. He felt almost frustrated that he didn’t feel any different in the presence of Colin’s neglectful father.

Alexander hadn’t changed either. He still wore the imposing presence of Smith & Ankline, as perceptive and paternal as ever.

“You look like a man going through a crisis,” the old man said as he seated himself in the other armchair. His expression was open, he looked ready to listen and advise.

“Do you remember, Alex, the time you told me about the condition for my promotion?”

The thing is, now that Martin knew what to look for, there was something in the way the old man blinked and tilted his head to the side that was so Colin. Or rather, there was something in the way Colin welcomed surprise with a blink and a tilt of his head that was just his father.

Alexander let the pause weigh just enough on his answer to let Martin know he was being indulged. “I do. Is something wrong in Moltslawn? Your last report seemed rather hopeful.”

“The factory is doing well. I wanted to talk with you about a few other things you said that day.”

Alexander took a good look at Martin and leaned forward in a position Martin had seen many times before, elbows resting on the armrests and fingers crossed together. Martin had Alexander Smith’s undivided attention. He was surprised that he had never noticed that Colin’s washed-out blue eyes were an exact match for Alexander’s intense gaze.

“That day, you told me that I was an asset for this company, no matter my sexuality and you encouraged me to find someone.”

“Yes, Martin, I remember.”

Martin had a few opening lines, but they were all fuelled by the simple picture Grace and Colin had drawn for him of Alexander Smith as a man who didn’t love his son and would never accept him. Confronted once again with the man he knew, he couldn’t bring himself to storm ahead and accuse him of being a liar and an homophobe. Life was never so easy.

The old man must have sensed Martin’s reluctance for he asked, “Is that what you want to talk about? Did the people at Moltslawn make you feel like your preference for men was a problem? Or did you want to bring someone at the Christmas Party but don’t feel comfortable enough doing so?”

“The people at Moltslawn made me feel perfectly welcome. I guess it’s the second thing.”

It was a surprise to see Alexander’s worried frown turn into a warm smile. “Then let me congratulate you first. I wish you two a happy and prosperous relationship.”

And here it was again. How could this man also be the one Colin had described?

“I can assure you, Martin,” Smith continued, “I won’t stand for discrimination of any kind in this company.”

“I know you won’t, Alex.”

“Then what is the problem?”

Martin wriggled in his seat. “Can I ask you a personal question?”

Smith nodded.

“You know I respect you, Alex. You’re a great boss and I would even say you are like a father to me. Now, you’ve talked a lot of the company’s stance on tolerance and you’ve just proved that you don’t mind me as a person. But what do you think of homosexuals in general?”

To Smith’s credit, he didn’t answer immediately. Martin could tell from the way the old man looked at him that the minute of reflection was as much to ponder his answer as to guess where this line of questioning was leading to. But Smith played along.

“To answer your question, right now my position is that people are free to bed anyone they damn well please. So long as nobody gets hurt, it’s just none of my business.” Alexander paused there, probably because a lifetime of meetings had taught him to give his audience time to digest big declarations. “But I have a feeling you’re not after my indifference, am I right? You said you thought of me as a father figure, and if there’s one thing kids want it’s their parents’ approval. Well, Martin, I’m flattered that you think so highly of me, and I approve of you. You’re a good person, a great employee and, from what I hear, an excellent coworker. Learning about your inclination was a surprise at first, but I’ve never regretted having you in the company and though it might have bothered me a little at the beginning I have gotten to know you and I realised along the way that this kind of thing didn’t matter. In fact, I hope we can resolve whatever problem you feel need to be addressed to your satisfaction and that I will get to meet your friend at the Christmas Party. I intend to tell him in person all the good I think of you. I’m sure Edith thinks the same.” And Martin was sure Edith would follow her husband’s lead whatever her own convictions were. “So, Martin. What’s bothering you?”

“I wish someone had told my friend what you just said.” Martin hesitated. What he had to say, it could go bad in so many ways. On the other hand, it could make things so much better. “You would like him, Alex. You will like him. He’s great with computers — quite genius actually because he wasn’t allowed to study in that field and he’s still as good as anyone we hire for the IT department. And he’s clever, he knows his limits and he knows how to surround himself with people who can balance out his weaknesses with their strengths. He’s a natural leader in his own way because he makes people fall for his charm and his wit and they want to make him happy, because he’s so very kind. Kind enough to put up with people’s shit until they’re ready to face their problems.” Martin had been avoiding Alexander’s eyes but now he met the older man’s gaze and didn’t let it go. “But he’s also scared. Scared enough to marry a girl and pretend to be straight for thirteen years. Scared that if he stopped pretending to be someone else, people would hate him. His family would hate him.” Martin let the words sink in in silence. Gave old man Smith time to take them in and gave himself time to swallow around the ball that had settled in his chest. Please, he thought, please let it be for the best. “What you said just now, would you stand by that in public?”

“You mean, make a speech?”

“To your son.”

Smith sat without a word for what felt like too damn long. His gaze never wavered from Martin’s so it was easy to follow the changes in them. The way they closed halfway as Smith thought about everything he had been told and tried to fit it together, the slight widening that indicated the exact moment when he realised what Martin had asked, the way they narrowed as he asked, almost menacingly, “Pardon me?”

“I think you should sit your son down and tell him what you just told me. He really needs the ‘love you no matter what’ speech.”

Martin didn’t wait to be dismissed. He left Alexander to ponder and maybe seethe a little too.

The bottle of rum he had shared with Chris so long ago was still in the liquor cabinet of Martin’s apartment. Martin took one glass before he called Colin to tell him he wouldn’t be back in Moltslawn over the holiday and that he would be back to work at the main office after that. Which Colin already knew if he had talked to Lucy at all in the last twenty-four hours. He also wished him good luck for the Smith Family Christmas Dinner, Colin had moaned about during their last date. Once the phone call was over, Martin downed the rest of the bottle and went to bed.

Colin would be furious when he learned what Martin had done. So furious it would be the end for real this time. And if it wasn’t…

If it wasn’t…

If Colin came back after what Martin had done, then it would be time to latch on and never let go.

X-x-x

3rd of January

The holidays were quiet. As usual. Since Chris and Martin had no family, they spent it together. They ate too much, drank a lot and behaved like they were twenty and stupid again. There was Skyping with Zayn, exchange of presents, bad movies and reassurance that whatever the future held, they would be each other’s family “until death do us part” — Chris’s words. Which Martin had repeated back, because it was true.

Upon his return to work, Martin found out his new office had a view. It didn’t quite matter as much as the fact that he could keep the room at 25°C all year long if he wanted to, but it was a nice view.

The box of things he had brought back from Moltslawn Industries was still sitting untouched on his new desk. A piece of furniture that made Martin’s computer and pens look like a boat and canoes, lost at sea and much too small to ever hope to survive the temerity of setting out in the first place.There were also empty shelves, waiting for Martin to find something worthy of being displayed there for the world to know him by — a metaphor that could be applied to Martin’s life.

But all of that didn’t matter right now, because there was also a guest leaning against the doorjamb.

“I had a funny conversation with my dad the other day,” Colin said by way of greeting.

Martin had fallen in love and in lust many times before, there had never been a relationship that distance and a little time couldn’t cure. And yet, here he was, wishing he could walk to Colin and kiss him, missing the intimacy and pleasure and mourning for the easy conversation and just being together.

“How much trouble does that make me in?” Martin asked, unable to let go despite Colin’s hard expression and cold voice. He had never wanted something so much while also knowing so clearly that it was over. Not unlikely. Not unrealistic. Screwed up by his hand beyond any repair.

“I don’t know yet.” Colin frowned. Suddenly his eyes softened and Martin’s heart soared with hope. “It’s hard to stay mad at you.”

Martin checked the door for other unexpected guests and was glad to see that no one was in sight. A couple steps brought him close enough to raise an hesitant hand and caress Colin’s cheek. “You don’t have to be. Please, don’t be mad.”

Colin leaned into the touch, from there Martin felt it natural to move closer and take Colin into his arms.

Colin returned the embrace without missing a beat. “I’m not even sure what all of it was about,” he said, sounding hurt. “Why didn’t you warn me? Why did you have to do it at all.”

“Because I wanted us to have a chance and it was only happening if you stopped being so afraid of your father. And I… I know him a little too. I know him as a guy who made sure I wasn’t treated different, someone who wishes me happiness even if it’s not the kind of happiness he would want for himself. I had high hopes it would be for the best. I should have warned you first, but I’m not sorry I did it.”

Colin pecked him on the lips. “Thanks, I guess.”

Martin answered with a full on kiss that left them both gasping for air. “Anytime. Colin?”

“Yeah?”

“I love you.”

 


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One thought on “Moltslawn Industries

  1. Hi, I really enjoyed this story! I love office romances and it was fascinating following how Martin’s perception of Colin kept evolving.

    It begs for a sequel…

    😀

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