Ben looked up at the signboard as it was slowly lowered to the ground and felt a twinge of sadness and uncertainty peirce through him. Was he doing the right thing? After almost eight years building his own business, was he mad to give it up? Did that signify the end of his dreams?
In a moment of panic, Ben thought of calling the deal off. He didn’t need this anxiety; he was perfectly happy the way he was. Well, perhaps a little haphazard sometimes, a little too caught up in his work and distracted. But he was his own boss. He made the final decisions, he answered to no one. Except Philip of course, but that was different.
He felt warm arms surround him from behind, holding him close and steady. He leaned back, grateful for the strength in those muscular arms, for the silent understanding. He felt the feeling of panic recede and he breathed a little easier.
“You doing ok honey?” Philip asked softly.
Ben let his weight rest on Philip’s solid chest. “Am I doing the right thing Philip?”
Philip’s voice held the infinite patience that made Ben swallow on a suddenly tight throat. “You’ve weighed all the pros and cons. You’ve done the projections, assessed the short term as well as long term risks and benefits. You know the answers, Ben.”
Ben nodded. “Yes I did all those, but that does not mean I am right. I just don’t know for sure …”
“No one can tell the future, Benjamin Wells.” Philip’s arms tightened around him.
“What if I am wrong …?”
Philip cuddled Ben closer, his body heat penetrating the layers of clothing to surround his lover. “What does your heart tell you?”
Ben paused. “I feel excited when I don’t think about it, or analyse it. I want to do it.”
“OK.” Philip planted a firm kiss on the top of Ben’s head. “You know the answer then.”
Six weeks earlier
That seemed to be the question lately and Philip was getting tired of hearing it. Where WAS Ben?
Philip smiled, made some excuse for Ben and slipped away from the crowd. Finding a quiet corner, he fished his hand phone out of his pocket and hit the quick dial button. “Ben, where are you?”
He could hear Ben’s hurried breathing through the connection. “Sorry Philip, I’m … um, on the way?”
“On the way meaning where exactly?”
“Um … at the car park?”
Philip looked out the window, his eyes searching the lines of parked cars. There was no movement of any kind. “I don’t see you. Did you get the right restaurant, honey? Where are you parked?”
There was a short silence, and then Ben’s words rolled over themselves. “I mean I am at my office car park. I am … just leaving. Sorry Philip! I will be there shortly, give me ten minutes!”
Controlling himself with an effort, Philip said quietly but firmly. “No, I will not see you in ten minutes young man.” He could feel Ben grimace. “You are at least half an hour away and there’s no way you are going to make it here in ten! So don’t even try! Especially not in this traffic.”
“I will be there as soon as …”
Philip cut him off. “Listen Ben, change of plans. I want you to go home instead.”
“There’s no point you trying to make it here, rushing around and tired out – and anyway we are about to start eating. Everyone will be half way through by the time you arrive. I will make your excuses. You go back and get yourself some dinner and run a bath or something. I will leave early tonight. We’ll talk when I get back ok?”
He heard Ben’s groan. “No, Philip … let me explain. It wasn’t my fault. The client’s flight got delayed and he …”
“It’s ok Ben,” Philip said soothingly. “I am sure there were good reasons why you couldn’t make it earlier, and I’m not mad, nor am I blaming you. Ok? Now listen to me. Go on home now and stop fretting. Have an early evening and I’ll give you a back rub later tonight. All right?”
Ben grudgingly agreed. “I feel absolutely horrible about this!”
“I love you babe. Now go get some rest.”
Two hours later, Philip let himself into his house. “Ben?” he called.
Philip checked the locks and then ran up the stairs into their bedroom. He caught Ben around the waist and kissed him soundly. “Hmm … you taste of cheese.”
Ben giggled. “I had a cheese sandwich. I am just about to go brush my teeth.”
Philip kept his hands around Ben’s waist. “Your hair is still damp. Have you just showered?”
“Yes?” Ben’s eyes opened wide, a sweet smile hovering on his lips.
Philip’s eyes narrowed. He met the innocent gaze and demanded quietly, “What time did you get in honey?”
Philip raised one eyebrow. “What time?”
“A…bout … half an hour ago?”
“Half an hour?” Philip let Ben go and looked at him. “Half an hour? What happened?”
“Um … what do you mean? Nothing happened.”
“I talked to you almost two hours ago.”
“Oh … I forgot something in the office Philip, and I …”
Philip shook his head, his mouth settling into a stern line. “Benjamin!”
Ben jumped. “Yes?”
“I am not going to put up with this, Ben.”
“Don’t even try.”
“… all right … I’m sorry?”
“No, you are not,” Philip said shortly, much too shortly for Ben’s liking. “But you will be. We’ve been over this time and time again haven’t we, but its just not sticking with you is it Ben? What does it take, hmm?”
Philip began to unbutton his shirt and unbuckle his belt. Ben’s eyes strayed to his hands and he gulped.
Philip let him stew for a few seconds before saying, “Go fetch the paddle and put it on the bed. I am going to shower and when I come out I expect to see you standing in the corner. Move!”
The shower didn’t take long and Philip emerged from the bathroom, vigorously towelling his wet hair. He watched Ben’s stiff back in the corner with a grim smile. His partner was a workaholic, uncompromising and more than a little OCD about his work. He just couldn’t help it, Philip knew. He realized Ben didn’t set out to disobey but Philip also knew he would have to watch him extremely closely if he didn’t want Ben to continue slipping. He didn’t like his Brat being spanked so often.
Picking up the paddle on the bed, Philip sat down and called Ben over.
The spanking that night was not particularly long – it wasn’t necessary with the paddle, not for Ben anyway. A hand spanking usually more than did its work with Ben, so with a paddle it only meant Philip was seriously cross and the punishment was classified as severe.
When it was over, Philip settled a sniffling Brat into bed, flicked off the light switch and wrapped his arms tightly around the curled up frame.
“You spanked him again?” Stewart asked.
Philip reluctantly nodded. “Yes, last night after I got home.”
Stewart frowned. “What is it, the third time in the last two weeks?”
Philip’s sigh was heavy. “Something like that, and that’s why I resorted to the paddle. Ben hates that but I wanted to make sure the impression stayed. He had been doing well for a while but its getting out of hand again!”
Curtis nodded at Philip. The three Tops were all having lunch at Curtis’ country club. “You do know Ben is a workaholic? And its part of their DNA. They can’t help it, unless you are able to remove the stimulus.”
“Of course I know he is a workaholic,” Philip grunted. “I have to watch him all the time to make sure he balances, don’t I?”
Stewart looked at Curtis. “What do you mean – about the stimulus?”
“Both the need to work plus the existence of work drive them but if the workload is distributed or balanced in such a way that their portfolio is reduced, then the drive is abridged accordingly.”
“Ben runs his own business,” Philip reminded Curtis with a snort. “He calls the shots. He decides how much work he can take. He can be up to his ears and he will still not say no.”
“That’s Ben all right.” Stewart laughed.
“And therein lies the problem. He cannot control himself any more than he can be mean-spirited. Coffee gentlemen?” Curtis signalled to the waiter and indicated three coffees, and then asked bluntly, “Has he considered sharing the work load?”
Philip was quick to reply. “He has taken on more staff lately, at my urging. It gets better for a while, then he takes on more work and hey presto he’s back to square one.”
“I meant a partner,” Curtis said softly. “A business partner. Someone who helps makes business decisions.”
Philip looked up sharply. “I am not sure if he’d like that. He may be overworked and tired and swamped but he truly enjoys what he is doing and I am not sure he would want to consider having someone else in his space.”
Curtis stirred his coffee slowly. “To be honest with you, I had an agenda when I arranged lunch today.”
Philip looked at Stewart, who shrugged – as if to say he knew nothing either.
“What kind of agenda?” Philip inquired.
Curtis sipped his coffee first before responding. “I have a friend, a very old friend actually. We go back a long way. He has asked me to approach Ben with a business deal. Jacob is an accountant and has his own financial planning and accounting firm, very much like Ben’s. Only bigger, with a more diversified portfolio and much longer history. He wants to propose a merger. I think Ben will ultimately stand to gain from such a joint-venture.”
Philip frowned. “Why are you telling me this Curtis? You should be talking to Ben.”
“I do intend to talk to Ben about it, but I wanted to bounce it off you first.”
Philip’s voice was non-committal. “I don’t run his company Curtis, nor do I get involved in any way – except to nag him to take on more staff when he needs to. Apart from that, he is very much the boss and this is very much Ben’s decision. I won’t interfere.”
Curtis nodded his head mildly. “I know that Philip. Far be it for me to interfere in George’s private business, his hobbies or interests either; I am not asking you to do that with Ben. I just wanted to give you a heads-up before I approach him.”
“Appreciate that Curtis. This friend of yours? What’s his name, Jacob?”
Curtis smiled. “Yes, Jacob Burman.”
“You trust him?”
“Philip, I’ve known him for more than fifteen years. He’s helped me out many times when I needed financial planning and advice. He’s an honourable man. Yes, I do trust him; otherwise would I even suggest this to you and Ben?”
Philip smiled ruefully. “Of course! I didn’t mean it to come out that way.”
Stewart glanced at Philip and saw the expression on his face. Having been best buddies since childhood he was totally in tune with Philip’s thoughts and moods. Philip wouldn’t ask for more details so that there was no danger of him appearing to be ‘interfering’ but Stewart could. “Tell us more about Jacob. I’ve never heard you mention him before.”
Curtis was happy to respond. “He’s in his fifties, married to a lovely lady by the name of Bea, of whom I am very fond. Unfortunately they have no kids – they would have made delightful parents. They are both warm people. Anyway, Jacob set up his accounting practice when he was around Ben’s age, so he would know all the challenges Ben is going through. He is shrewd but fair. He will be a good business mentor for Ben.”
“Why is he looking at a merger?”
“He has been thinking of taking his company public and to do that he needs the additional revenue and a growing client base. Organic growth takes too long and he’s not a young man. But he does not want to do this with just any other company – there’s plenty out there to choose from. Jacob was very explicit about it; he wants to make sure it’s a company with a conscience and a soul, whose owner is passionate about the business, who sees it as more than just making money.”
Both Philip and Stewart nodded. They could see why Curtis thought Ben’s firm would be an ideal choice.
“How is this going to work, do you know Curtis?” Philip asked despite himself. “Will Jacob want to run the whole show? Will he want to have controlling interest?”
“Ah,” Curtis said as he leaned back in his chair. “Before we go into that, there’s something else you need to know.”
Philip raised his eyebrow suspiciously. “Oh? What?”
Curtis chuckled, his eyes brimming with amusement. “Don’t look so apprehensive Philip! It’s nothing sinister, I promise you. Does the name Burman ring a bell for either of you?”
Philip and Stewart exchanged another look.
“Burman?” Stewart asked. “There’s a Duncan Burman on our membership list.”
Philip rubbed his chin meditatively. “That’s right, recruited by you over a year ago if my memory serves me correctly. A Top. He hasn’t been to too many of our socials. I remember thinking I should call him and prod him a bit. Has he signed up for the winter workshops, Stewart? Do you know?”
“Hmm. Not sure, but then the deadline is still a month away.” Stewart turned to Curtis. “Is Duncan related to Jacob?”
“Yes, he is,” Curtis affirmed. “I’m going to fill you in on a bit of the Burman family history, ok? Duncan is Jacob’s nephew and he works with Jacob in the firm. Actually Duncan is more like a son to him than a nephew. You see, Duncan’s parents were killed in a car crash when Duncan was just a kid and Jacob took him in. Duncan grew up with Jacob and Bea and they regard him like their son. Duncan lived with them until he graduated and eventually moved out.”
“So Duncan is his uncle’s heir,” Stewart summarised.
“Yes, that would be a good summation. Jacob is building his empire for Duncan. I don’t think Jacob is all that interested in power and money and all that materialistic stuff, but he wants to leave a legacy for Duncan. I think he’s always felt that he needed to make it up to Duncan for losing his parents at such a young age.”
“Sounds like he is either terribly compassionate or slightly neurotic!” Philip muttered.
Curtis laughed heartily. “You would know which once you’ve met Jacob. You would be in no doubt once you get to know him.”
“I honestly don’t know.” Ben sat down on the edge of his bed, a worried frown on his face. “My mind is frozen! Gosh ... am I ready to take such a step?” His voice was slightly unsteady.
Philip leaned across the bed, hooked a hand around his waist and pulled him over. “Sleep on it for a few days,” he advised. “There’s no rush and you don’t need to make any hasty decision. You’ve just met Jacob tonight, he’s made you an offer, now give yourself time to mull it over and to get to know him a bit before you take the next step. Treat it like a casual discussion over dinner, that might be easier. No pressure.”
“The discussion may be casual but I got the feeling Jacob was in earnest!” Ben screwed up his nose. “I got the feeling he had already done a lot of homework on me and my company. I know nothing about him in reverse. I feel so unprepared, so inadequate!”
“Don’t be silly, Ben. He is the one making the offer so he has to have done some homework. You just need to listen to him and then consider if his proposal is sound and what you want. There’s no deadline. This is not a work assignment. Come here.”
Ben scuttled into the safety of Philip’s arms and then turned around so that Philip could spoon him from behind. He laid his cheek on his folded arm and sighed deeply. “I don’t know what I want!”
“Of course not, you need more time. Don’t think about it now babe,” Philip said. “This is a huge decision and not something you can work out in a couple of days.”
“Yes, I know,” Ben mumbled. “Absolutely! I would need to run multiple checks on the company and see where they stand, though I am sure Curtis wouldn’t have introduced us if he didn’t know them well or thought they were decent people. Still, I would need references, clients lists, records of their financials, what their staff strength is like, their overheads ...”
“Ben, will you shut up and go to sleep? It’s almost midnight and tomorrow is a work day.”
Ben shifted to get more comfortable. “I didn’t realize it was so late when we finished dinner. They are very nice people aren’t they? So easy-going. I mean both Jacob and Bea are so comfortable to be with. I do like them, which is a plus point I guess.”
Philip smiled in the darkness. He remembered what Curtis had said about Jacob, and Curtis was right. Once he had met Jacob and Bea, he had known. The man radiated warmth and kindness and his wife was a charming lady. Philip had liked them almost immediately and it seemed Ben felt the same way. But he would in no way influence Ben’s decision. That was something Ben would have to work out for himself.
“Duncan is a bit quiet though, I don’t know what he thinks,” Ben muttered. “A dark horse. He looks quite stern too. Would he be a problem, Philip?”
“I don’t know. Go to sleep.”
“He’s a Fraternity member. Why do we not know him? I have hardly seen him since he joined! We gotta make a rule about new members getting to know everyone!”
“Maybe he’s a workaholic like you. No time to socialize.”
Ben paid no attention to the sarcasm. “I must check him out particularly. If he is not on board, things could turn ugly. From what I understand Jacob puts a lot of trust into Duncan. I mean ... look at tonight’s dinner meeting. He got invited too. I need to know how much authority he has. I wonder if he has access to all the firm’s records and books. Is he a people-manager or is he some hard-ass ...”
“Ben, we are not having this discussion tonight ok? Now close your eyes and go to sleep.”
Ignoring the order, Ben twirled his thumb on the quilt and continued to stare into the darkness. After a moment’s silence, Ben said in a hollow whisper, “Gosh Philip, Burman’s firm is considerably larger than mine. I realize this would make me a junior partner, but still ... why would he even consider me?”
Philip tapped Ben’s hip. “Sleep!”
“I can’t.” That was said very softly, the words lingering in the air above the two of them like a sprinkling of stardust.
Philip grunted. “TRY.”
The tone was firm enough to get Ben to close his eyes but a minute later they were wide open. “Jacob said he liked the character of my firm.” He smiled to himself, hugging his pillow tighter. “I like the sound of that. Do you think he had me checked out as well? He must have, otherwise ... “
Ben squealed when Philip swatted him and turned him around so that they were face to face. “You know who else is going to check you out if you don’t shut up?”
Ben grinned into Philip’s face. “Someone nice, I hope.”
Philip’s fingers found Ben’s ribs and dug into them, making the younger man squeal louder and try to back away. A firm hand prevented him from moving anywhere and Ben suddenly felt himself shoved back into the soft mattress. Immediately Philip’s mouth was pressed down on Ben’s, making it impossible for both to talk. The kiss lasted quite a few minutes, by which time Ben was slightly heady from lack of oxygen.
“... umm ...” Ben purred. His arms snaked around Philip’s neck to stop him from pulling away. “More please.”
Philip obligingly leaned down again and kissed Ben again. His hands slipped inside Ben’s t-shirt and began to roam. He pushed the t-shirt up, exposing Ben’s chest and then his head dipped and his teeth began to nibble at a nipple.
Ben arched his back as his legs splayed apart, welcoming Philip’s weight on his stomach and in between his thighs. He closed his eyes and surrendered himself to his lover’s ministrations as Philip moved down his body, all thoughts of business effectively purged from his mind.
Ben ran a quick eye over the names and tapped his pencil on the desk. “I think you may have to consider holding both the Brats and Tops Expectations Workshops on the same day to accommodate the participants. Otherwise couples would have to stay an extra day at Willcott and we are already going to be very tight on space. Aimes is going to throw a fit.”
Philip came and bent over Ben’s shoulder, peering at the LCD screen. “Let me see who’s signed up so far. Hmm ... not bad. I don’t think every member will be able to attend anyway, so in all probability we will need to schedule a later sessions. Will the group size be too big based on current registration or do we need to split into multiple sessions?”
“Nah, I think its fine. I’d rather have it in one go; at least that way everyone gets the same benefits of the discussion and questions and inputs. Also the newbies won’t be so shy if the group is larger.”
“True, but it is also easier for them to hide if the group is big.”
“You’ve got a point there.” Ben leaned back against Philip and tilted his face to look up at his Top. “It will be the job of the workshop facilitator to make sure that does not happen, won’t it?”
“Yes, which is why I want to have at least two facilitators this time. Two seasoned and experienced Brats who can take the group through Brat Expectations thoroughly and more importantly lead and manage the discussion later. Any suggestions?”
“Do you think Marcus can do it?” Ben asked.
“I’m sure he will be able to at some point but not right now. He’s still too new and does not have enough experience in such group activities. And you’re too wrapped up in the merger right now; I don’t want you distracted with anything else. In fact you shouldn’t even be spending so much time helping me on the workshops.”
“I want to!” Ben said with a nice pout. “It’s my lifeline right now. Takes my mind off all the hundred and one things I should do, need to do before I make a decision. I have a headache just thinking about it. I don’t want to think about it.”
“Take it easy honey,” Philip said mildly, his long fingers beginning to knead Ben’s shoulders. “Perhaps you should not think so much. Just ‘feel’ it with your gut.”
“It’s a major decision for me – there’s no turning back if things go wrong.” Ben sounded slightly panicked.
“I know it is. There are pros and cons. You no longer have full authority over your company but you will belong to a much larger one. You will be accountable to someone else now but so will they be to you – you are not going in as an employee but as a partner. You will expand your business in leaps and bounds but you will have a much larger employee base and greater access to other facilities.”
“Yes ...” Ben sighed. “I agree exactly. You’re absolutely right but you’ve not been very helpful either you know?”
Philip laughed. “Look, if it is that hard a decision, then perhaps it’s not the right thing for you to do? Think about that too.”
Ben blinked. His hands stopped in mid-air. Slowly he shook his head. “It doesn’t feel wrong.”
“Um-uhuh ...” Philip’s grunt was non-committal.
“I guess I’m most nervous about making a decision because I hate change and risks?” Ben admitted. “So far all the financials look encouraging. Everything seems above board. Their history is impressive. And I like their values. Very much like mine. I even don’t mind having to report to Jacob; in fact I could use someone like him as a mentor. I think I could fit in. Yet I am so scared of taking the step forward.”
“I can certainly understand that,” Philip said with deep understanding. “It’s a big step after all, a huge step. When do you need to get back to Jacob?”
“Mid of next week.”
“You’re not going to help me with this, are you?” Ben said, sounding exasperated. “You’re a Top, you’re my Top! You are supposed to help your Brat out in difficult situations!”
Philip smiled and pulled Ben up from the chair. He sat down and yanked Ben down onto his lap, his arms hugging Ben’s waist tightly. “I think you are the best person to evaluate your situation, gauge the potential risks versus gains, and make an informed decision. You’ve done the required homework; you have all the skills and the experience to do it.”
“It’s easier when it’s not my own company.”
“OK. Look at it this way then, if you were engaged by someone to conduct this study what would you advise him based on what you’ve discovered? What would you put into your report?”
Ben was silent for a long minute, and then a smile spread slowly over his face. He twisted sideways and swung his arms around Philip’s neck. “I know exactly what I would advise him.”
“There you go!”
Ben’s arms tightened. “You’re amazing! Thanks Philip!”
“That’s nice to hear. You still have a week. Don’t rush Ben. There’s no need to be in a hurry!”
Ben jumped up and pulled another chair over so he could get back to his LCD screen. “I won’t, Philip. I will sleep on it and probably do another couple of checks and simulations before I make my FINAL decision but it’s much clearer now in my mind. In the meantime, we need to get this settled so I can send out the notices and post them on our bulletin board.”
Philip shook his head. ”Must you be so industrious?”
Ben grinned. “I like to keep busy. So - if not me or Marcus, who else?”
Philip ruffled Ben’s hair with an amused smile. “Brat! I was thinking of George actually, with perhaps Gene to assist. What do you think honey?”
Ben pursed his lips for a moment. “Yes, I think that might be a good combination. Everyone is comfortable with George while Gene has a hidden wicked sense of humour which usually helps in these kinds of gatherings. Plus he’s big ... no one wants to mess with him if he’s in charge.”
Philip laughed. “All right then, let me check with them both and if they are agreeable you can post it.”
Six Weeks Later
Burman & Wells
Ben looked up at the imposing new signboard and felt a shot of pride course through him. That was his name up there, with the prestigious Burman crest and logo. And there in smaller wordings with the same stylish fonts ... Financial Planning & Accounting Services ... announcing their business.
He looked up as Duncan approached him.
“Morning. Aren’t you coming in?” Duncan asked as he came within hearing distance. His expression was unreadable.
“Yes, er, I was just looking ...” Ben broke off in embarrassment. To be caught gawking up at his own signboard. He thought he must look so unsophisticated and sound so naive. He hitched his notebook bag higher on his shoulder to hide his discomfiture.
Duncan’s face softened. “We did too, this morning when we came in. My uncle and I both stood right there and we gazed up at it, just like what you did. Looks good, doesn’t it?”
His words took away Ben’s awkwardness and his shoulders loosened up a bit. “Yes,” Ben was able to say whole-heartedly. “It sure does.”
“Come on in,” Duncan invited, a hand on Ben’s back. “Most of your staff is already here and your office is ready and waiting to be occupied.”
“Really?” Ben squeaked. His step was jaunty as he followed Duncan into the building, coming into the modern reception area. He had been there a few times already when they had been working out the deal. But this was the first time he felt the sense of belonging. Of ownership.
I do own this place, Ben thought. Some part of it anyway.WOW!
Duncan led the way confidently into the inner offices where the partners’ offices were located. On the way Ben stopped a few times to chat with his own staff that had come with him to join the new firm. They all looked cheerful and excited and that calmed Ben slightly. It helped him to know he hadn’t made a bad decision. Duncan waited patiently and chatted with some of them as well in an easy and informal manner.
“I must get to know your other staff here too,” Ben mumbled to Duncan as they walked down the corridor. “I don’t want them thinking I … I mean I don’t want to appear distant. Or anything.”
“You will,” Duncan replied easily. “All in good time. They are a friendly bunch really. Most of them have been with us for years and they may sound a bit abrupt or standoffish sometimes but they’re all right. Let’s go say hi to Uncle Jacob first, ok?”
Ben swallowed his unease and managed to reply, “Yes, please.”
Jacob’s office was the centre one and that was where they had met previous occassions. Duncan and Ben’s were on both sides of him. Ben had never been in either. Duncan usually had his door closed during the times he visited and the space on the other side had been a meeting room which was now converted into Ben’s office.
Jacob got up from behind his desk, eyes crinkling, to welcome Ben when he saw the two men walking in.
“Welcome my dear boy,” Jacob said, one hand shaking Ben’s hand and another on his shoulder. It was a warm gesture of friendship and equality and it made some of the tension glide off Ben’s back. “I see Duncan found you. We were worried when we didn’t see you this morning.”
“Hello Jacob. I was just outside ...” Ben took a deep breath, feeling suddenly foolish. Duncan stood by silently, like a sentry.
“I know son,” Jacob said quietly but with real understanding. “It’s a big day for us too. I am very happy with this merger of our business. And so is Duncan. We look forward to a long and fruitful partnership!” His eyes travelled to the silent man and it was obvious he held his nephew in great affection. “Duncan, why don’t you get Ben settled in and then take him around to introduce him to everyone.” Turning back to Ben, he continued, “We have lunch planned today Ben. I will see you later.”
Ben left Jacob to his work and went into his own office. It was much larger than what he was used to and his eyes sparkled at the tastefulness of the furnishings as well as all the modern electronic gadgets they had installed for him. Flat screen LCD monitor. IP desk phone. A shining black Blackberry unit was sitting on his desk, complete with USB and car chargers.
“Go ahead and get comfortable,” Duncan said in a crisp business-like tone. “I will send Nancy in to see if you need anything else. Her job title is secretary but we are pretty independent around here and she does more than secretarial work. She will show you the pantry I am sure – grab a coffee or tea or whatever you fancy. I will be back in an hour and I’ll do the formal round.”
“Sure, thanks,” Ben replied. He waited till Duncan had left and then sank down in his leather chair and began to set his notebook up. He was busy tapping keys and plugging USBs into the pods when a female voice halted him.
“Ahem. Hello Ben, I am Nancy.”
A diminutive lady in her mid-forties stood looking at him with a small smile on her face.
“Oh ... hi Nancy,” Ben said, scrambling up to shake hands. “I’m pleased to meet you.”
“Welcome you to the firm. I hope you find this office comfortable. Do you have everything you need for now?” Nancy looked super efficient, super confident and super organized. Her tone was crisp and professional. Despite her size, Ben figured she was a force to be reckoned with if anyone crossed her.
“No, I have everything I need. Thanks to whoever set this up for me. This is great!”
The compliment did not go unnoticed.
“You are most welcome. Jacob has gone to great lengths; he wants you to be comfortable. He always wants the best and he expects the best as well.” She was polite but at the same time there was something territorial about her tone when she mentioned Jacob that spoke of years of working together with a boss she clearly adores and intends to protect.
I better be careful with her, Ben thought. Sounds like a dragon but it can be both good and bad – Jacob obviously incurs loyalty in his people but they could be overly protective.
“Can I get you a drink, Ben?” That was civilly asked. “Coffee perhaps? Tea?”
Ben recalled Duncan’s words and suddenly realized the meaning behind them. He said immediately, “Thanks but its all right. If you can show me where the pantry is? I usually make my own coffee first thing in the morning.”
That had been the right protocol. Nancy smiled with approval.
Nancy pointed the way to the small but extremely well-stocked pantry and left Ben to make a very strong cup of coffee with a big dollop of cream and a healthy spoonful of sugar for himself. Ben went back in his office and was soon lost in his own world. The rest of the day passed in a quick succession of meeting people, remembering names, then lunch with Jacob and Duncan. Ben also squeezed in a quick meeting with his own staff in the afternoon, to make sure they were all right and to get whatever feedback he could. More notes were added to the thick note pad he carried around.
He made a mental note that he must stop segregating them in his mind as ‘his own staff’ versus the other staff. He would need to encourage them to get integrated with the others. It had to start from him, otherwise they would all fail. This merger was a huge step for them all but the bulk of the responsibility was on him. Ben had thought making the decision to merge with Burman was the hardest step; he now found he had even higher mountains to scale and in retrospect the decision was the simplest. The road ahead was the real challenge. All of which were scary thoughts and he determinedly pushed them deep to the back of his mind. This was no time to start to freak out.
When he finally made it home at six that evening, his self-control was fast slipping away and whatever energy he had was depleting at an alarming rate. He was further irritated that Philip was not home yet. Gritting his teeth and tired beyond words, he dropped his laptop in the middle of the study instead of placing it on the desk as was his usual practice. He then wandered into the kitchen and opened the fridge. He pulled out a beer and took it with him upstairs even though he knew that was against the rules.
No drinking on an empty stomach. No drinking alone in the bath.
That too went straight to the hidden compartment right at the back of his brains.
Stripped and naked, Ben stepped into the hot water. Laying his head back against the folded towel, he tried to relax but found his mind dredging up all the anxiety and negativity he had buried earlier. The buzz from the beer helped a bit but it was hardly enough and his head continued to ache slightly. When he closed his eyes, his eyeballs shifted restlessly under their lids, disturbed and unrestful. Finally exhausted, Ben dozed off as the steam from the bath rose around him.
He jumped as he felt a hand on his shoulder. “Ben.”
Ben looked up, squinting his eyes against the bright glare of the light. “Philip? oh ... I fell asleep.”
“I can see that. Come on out, the water’s cold already and you look like a prune.”
Ben let Philip pull him out of the tub and stood still as Philip briskly rubbed him down with a fluffy thick towel. Such luxury; Ben sighed inside his head. He let Philip take his hand and lead him into their bedroom. He didn’t say anything, just stood naked and waiting as Philip went in search of sleep wear. He was starting to feel good - knowing he was being attended to, knowing he didn’t need to think, knowing he had Philip’s full attention.... but.... it wasn’t quite enough. The restless flutter in his stomach put Ben on edge and when Philip came back towards him, he dropped his eyes so he wouldn’t have to look at Philip.
He automatically put a hand on Philip’s shoulder as Philip bent to let him step into sleeping shorts. A t-shirt was pulled over his head and Ben noticed with satisfaction it was one he particularly liked – the one with a little hole in the sleeve which he had refused to let Philip throw out.
Once dressed, Ben felt himself turned around and swatted smartly across the seat of his shorts.
“What?” Ben jumped away, all drowsiness gone from his eyes.
“You tell me.”
“Um ...” Ben‘s mind whizzed back and traced his steps since coming home. “The ... beer?”
“OK. That’s a good start. Is it just the one? Or did you have more? Any stops on the way home?”
Being asked such direct questions in quick succession had its effect. They were short, precise and demanded immediate attention. One wouldn’t really have time to lie or even think of an alternative response. Skipping around the truth was absolutely not allowed. Evasion would not be tolerated.
“No, just one!” Ben sounded as indignant as he could.
“What did you eat for dinner?”
Darn! Ben raked his brains and came up with nothing.
Philip tipped Ben’s chin up. “I see. Do we have a rule about drinking on an empty stomach, and especially in the tub when you are alone?”
“Eee ... Y-e-s ...?”
Philip promptly swatted him again, sharp enough to elicit a sincere yelp this time. “Break that rule again and it will be considerably more than this,” he warned before delivering another set of swats which made Ben’s eyes sting. He then bent and kissed Ben’s lips firmly as Ben reached back to rub his backside. “Wanna tell me what is bothering you?”
“Nothing,” Ben mumbled, snuggling into Philip’s arms, relieved. The warmth and scent of Philip was reassuring and Ben felt his muscles relax for the first time that day even though he knew he was heading steadily towards thinner ice. Philip was like a sniffer dog, he could sniff out the slightest hint of distress and once he caught on, he didn’t let go. Thank God for that! Ben was honest enough to admit he needed that refuge. This was his real world. Within those arms, nothing could be so wrong that he couldn’t handle.
“What? I said nothing.”
He got another smack, this time on the side of his thigh. It made Ben’s eyes open wider and he breathed a little easier.
“I won’t ask again, Benjamin.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about. I am tired. Can I go to bed?”
“No. Stay right here. Hmm, tell me, how was your day?”
“People were nice but ...”
“But what?” Philip kept his chin up, so he could continue to gaze into his eyes.
“It’s not the same.” Ben winced at the whine in his own voice. He gave his shoulders an impatient shrug as if he wanted to roll the words off his back. He didn’t want to sound like a wimp.
“You’ll get used to it. New place, new faces, that’s pretty normal.” There was no censure in Philip’s tone. It made it so much easier to breathe. There was no defeat in giving up, absolutely no shame.
“I kinda panicked half way through the afternoon,” Ben admitted softly. “What’s wrong with me? I am such a loser!”
“No you’re not!” Philip’s arms squeezed comfortingly around him. “You’re a smart and capable guy.”
“Sure I am!” The tone was decidedly scornful.
“Do we need to discuss about the tone?”
Ben’s voice was small but nevertheless clear. “But it’s true!”
Philip’s hands strayed down to Ben’s butt and stayed there, making Ben acutely aware of it.
“It most definitely is not,” Philip said calmly. “What you’ve done so far is remarkable. You’ve set up your own firm and run it successfully for years. You brought it to new heights with this merger. You negotiated a good deal and in the process didn’t lay off a single employee – you took care of them. Your new partners are decent, just like you. How does that make you a loser?”
Ben had been waiting for just this question. He replied at once. “I freaked out. Right after all the introductions when we were going for lunch, I lost it. I was terrified I had screwed this up, somehow. Everyone there looked so proficient, as if they know everything. Hell, they DO know everything. Most of them have been with Jacob for years. I kept thinking I was missing something, that a disaster is about to happen and I should know it and know what to do but I don’t. And there’s a mountain of backlog I need to get done, all of which are urgent. And my things are all over the freaking place. I’m gonna miss my deadlines. That’s letting people down. People are going to get pissed! I don’t want to look like an idiot. I don’t want my clients to think ....”
“Hey, hey, slow down darling.” Philip rubbed Ben’s back soothingly. “Come on ... take a deep breath. Now look at me Ben. You are entitled to fears and insecurities like anyone else but you are not going to run yourself down or stress yourself to the point of panic. I won’t let you do it! You are worrying needlessly and especially about things that cannot be helped,” Philip told him sternly, with a warning tap on his behind, “and you know how we deal with that. You stop right there or I will do it for you. I love you and I am not going to let you drive yourself mad. Do you understand?”
Ben pressed heavily into the broad chest, his hands clasped tight behind Philip’s back. His stomach was still tight but he could feel it unclenching slowly as his shoulders began to droop. Philip could prop him up in a flash, with a single look.
“Yes,” Ben whispered.
“Good.” Philip gave Ben another crushing hug before pushing him gently towards the bed. “I want you to get into bed now. Go on! I will bring you up something to eat. Then we are going to snuggle in bed, maybe watch some TV and you will have an early night. You will do exactly what I tell you and I don’t want to hear a single word of protest. Is that clear?”
What’s to protest? Ben thought.
That sounded really good and Ben enthusiastically nodded his head.
Within a week Ben found his footing in the new firm, within two the confidence of his rightful place. Without him even realising it, Ben no longer segregated the employees as ‘mine’ versus ‘theirs’. The team came together. A comfortable routine began to evolve and Ben found himself eagerly going to work each day, filled with new plans and exciting ideas. He was at first a bit nervous about presenting them to Jacob as he didn’t want to appear superior or overly pushy but Jacob was a good listener and encouraged him to be open. Jacob listened attentively and asked a lot of searching questions but once he understood Ben’s purpose and objectives, he would give the thumbs up without hesitation.
“I can’t believe it,” Ben said frankly to Jacob after a meeting on another new proposal. “That’s it? You don’t need me to show you more data? We are going to need to come up with some investment for this one. Unlike the others, we can’t just work around our existing systems you know.”
“I know that. Just make sure the paperwork is done. The capital expenditure needs to get logged in.”
“You trust me on this?”
“Ben,” Jacob said, leaning back in his chair to loop up at the earnest face. “You are my partner.”
“Junior partner,” Ben corrected him quietly.
“My partner nevertheless,” Jacob said. “Of course I trust you! Besides I’ve seen how you work and I already know how meticulous you are. I am sure you have done the homework. Haven’t you?”
Ben nodded his head confidently. “Of course!”
“Well there you are! These improvements are good for our company in the long run and I am more than willing to invest. Sometimes it takes a fresh pair of eyes to see what we cannot simply because we see it every day. I strongly believe we need to challenge ourselves continually and I am glad you are not only forward thinking but brave enough to do it. So go bring Duncan up to date with this and get it fixed!”
“Thanks Jacob!” Ben replied happily. “I will get all the projections done and the paperwork as well before I run them by you and Duncan again.”
It meant additional work for Ben but he didn’t mind in the least. He wanted more than anything to prove to Jacob he was every bit as good as the older man thought him to be.
“What are you doing?” Philip asked one evening a week later as they were getting into bed. Ben had his laptop open and a thick file was sitting on the end of the bed.
“I have some urgent work to finish Philip,” Ben explained. “I know I am not supposed to bring work to bed but there’s another half hour to go and this is reading time after all. Unless you prefer I do this in the study and get out of your way?”
“Nice try.” Philip smiled. “Why the urgency?”
Ben quickly explained even as he began to tap on his keyboard. “This is a first major project and its not only my idea but I am also the lead. I can’t fail. I promised I’d get this ready for our meeting tomorrow. Jacob has entrusted me, so if you don’t mind honey, the sooner you let me get on with it the sooner I will be done and we can go to bed. “
Philip raised one eyebrow but he reined in his retort. He said evenly, “OK, just this once then.” With a sigh, he reached for his magazine which he read while Ben clicked away.
Half an hour later, Philip put his magazine aside and looked over at his partner. “Time for bed. Are you done?”
“How much longer?”
“Um. Ten minutes? Please?”
Philip picked up his magazine again. “Ten minutes it is.”
Ben murmured a distracted ‘thank you’ and went on working. He looked up only when Philip tapped his thigh. “OK Ben, time’s up. Save your work and shut it down.”
“This is really unfair.”
“Why is it unfair?”
“THIS IS WORK!”
“Precisely – and that is why you got the extra time,” Philip said calmly. “And do not shout at me please, Benjamin! Look, I know this is work, which is why I have relaxed the rules tonight. Did you think I haven’t noticed you’ve been late coming home every evening this whole week and I have let that pass as well. I think I have actually been way too lenient with you lately and you are either forgetting our house rules or taking advantage of the situation.”
Ben squirmed. He had to confess he had been coming back later and later, only because Philip had not said a word. Philip had been understanding and more than patient and he had used it to his benefit. He looked at Philip and met the firm gaze with a flush. “Sorry.”
“I do understand you want to make an impression and I know how hard you try Ben,” Philip said, his voice softening. “But tell me honestly can this wait till tomorrow morning?”
“Um ... it would be better if I can ...”
“Answer the question please. Can it wait or not?”
Ben sighed loudly, showing his exasperation. “Yes, I suppose it can!”
“Good, now log off and shut that thing down.”
Ben quickly put the laptop away, responding automatically to the tone. He slipped back into bed and yawned loudly, suddenly feeling the weariness in his bones. And then he froze as he took in Philip’s next words.
“Don’t forget we’re going out to George and Curtis’ this Saturday.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten, Ben,” Philip said. “It’s our council meeting and we need to settle the winter workshops? Why ... what’s going on?” Philip asked when Ben didn’t respond.
“Well ...” Ben winced in the darkness. “I have sorta committed myself to something else this Saturday.”
“Um. I arranged for my project team to come in this Saturday for a trial run,” Ben said. “It totally slipped my mind ...”
“Oh for crying out loud Ben!” Philip sounded cross for the first time that night. “Didn’t you put it into your calendar?”
“I thought I did,” Ben said miserably. “I don’t know how I could have missed it. I’m sorry! But I can’t back out now. Can we shift the meeting to the following week?”
“I don’t think we can or want to postpone it; and it’s not fair to the others is it? We still have a lot of work to do as it is and we don’t want to rush at the last minute.”
“How about Sunday then?” Ben sounded desperate.
“No, George and Curtis have some benefit thing to attend on Sunday remember? How long do you think you will be at your office?”
“Half a day at most.” Under the covers Ben crossed his fingers and silently prayed.
Philip paused for a moment. “All right then. I’ll delay the meeting by an hour and we’ll start without you and you can come join us once you are done. I’ll let the others know. That’s the best I can do.”
“Thanks Philip,” Ben said in a small voice. He slid a hand around Philip and gave him a squeeze. “Sorry,” he apologized again, sounding very sincere.
Philip leaned over and kissed him. “I know, don’t worry about it. Go to sleep, babe. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Ben looked at the clock on the wall and groaned inwardly. The trial run was not going well, there were bugs in the system and the technical team was called in to fix them which delayed the entire process. Other unexpected hitches sprung up like they would when you were rushed for time and everyone was frustrated, especially Ben. When he knew he was not going to be able to make the meeting at Curtis’, Ben slipped out to call Philip.
“I’m so sorry,” Ben whispered, feeling terrible for breaking his word and letting them down. “It was unavoidable and I can’t just leave ...”
Philip’s voice was soothing over the line. “Ben, its ok. Don’t stress over it, all right? These things happen, that’s why we have trial runs. We’re almost done anyway. I’ve taken care of your portion and everything is going as planned – I will update you later tonight.”
Ben’s shoulders slumped in relief as well as disappointment. “I will make it up to you Philip, I promise. Once this project is over I will be fine. I am sorry,” he apologized over and over again before finally hanging up. As he slipped his phone into his pocket, he looked up and saw Duncan standing a few feet away. He wondered how much he had heard and flushed as he said, “Hey Duncan.”
Duncan came closer and said in a low voice. “Trouble?”
Ben shook his head and mid-way changed it to a shrug. “Oh no ... um yes, no I don’t think so ....” he said rather disjointedly. He saw Duncan regarding him quizzically and he took a deep breath. “There’s a Fraternity meeting you see, which I was supposed to attend ... and ... I ...”
“Ah,” Duncan held up a hand as Ben struggled with his words. He had come in that morning to lend support to the project even though he was not officially on the team. “I understand. You thought the trial run would be over by now and you were hoping to make it for the other meeting.”
“Was that Philip?”
Duncan cocked his head. “Are you ... in trouble because you could not make it for the other meeting?”
Ben frowned. “No, no, not really ...” Ben was quick to deny the allusion and defend his Top. “But I still feel damned bad about it.”
“Of course you would.” Duncan’s normally severe expression relaxed and he said in a gentler voice. “You’re a responsible person and that is what we valued about you when we were considering the merger. It is tough starting anything new and you are burning both ends of the candle. By the way, I want you to know you guys do a fantastic job with The Fraternity. I appreciate all the updates and the news on the bulletin board. The activities too.”
“You don’t participate much, do you?” Ben took the opportunity to say. “You don’t post any comments on our board, and I have seen you perhaps once or twice only for the dinners.”
Duncan looked a bit embarrassed. “Yes, that is true.”
“Well, the winter workshops are coming up …”
“Yes, I am aware.”
Realizing he wasn’t going to expand further, Ben cleared his throat and nodded towards the conference room. “Better get back in there I suppose. I hope we can wrap it up today.”
“You will, you’ve picked a good team!”
They worked hard through the whole afternoon and by the time all the bugs were cleaned up and Ben was satisfied that everything was running as planned, it was going on 6pm. He tiredly thanked everyone, promised them a grand celebratory dinner once the project took off, and then went home. He thought guiltily of Philip as he drove. He felt a wave of panic as well as gratitude sweep over him as he realized how much he had let Philip down and how supportive Philip had been despite everything. Philip had not uttered a word of blame or censure, and he never ever made Ben feel worse than what he already felt. In fact Philip went to great lengths to make sure there was no guilt trip, which was one thing Ben was terribly good at doing. In the early days of their relationship, Ben would take on the burdens of the world and blamed himself for every little thing that did not go right.
If his parents fought, it was because he was gay and living with another man.
If there was trouble at work, it was because he lacked the foresight.
If it rained when they were supposed to go for a picnic, it was his fault for not being free some other day.
If the car had a puncture, he immediately assumed he had picked up a nail somewhere.
If they ran out of eggs, it was because he had had an omelette the day before.
All the old habits of self-blame attacked Ben with a vengeance as he approached home. Biting his lower lip, he mentally ran through his list of transgressions. He had not planned the project well – thus causing the delay and taking up everyone’s time. He had quietly disobeyed Philip by working incredibly late hours and then taken advantage of his Top’s leniency. He had entirely forgotten the Fraternity meeting which was unforgivable. He had let the council down by not being there and forcing Philip to cover for him. He had disappointed Philip even though Philip hid it well. The list went on.
Ben was riddled with guilt as he parked the car and walked dejectedly up to the house.
The light was on in the kitchen and Ben dropped his keys in the bowl and made his way slowly towards the back of the house. His steps slowed as he heard the clink of pots and pans, and he finally stopped just short of the doorway and leaned against the wall, unable to proceed further. He drew in a ragged breath and closed his eyes.
Ben jumped as he felt a hand on his arm. His eyes flew open.
Philip’s face was gently questioning. “Baby?”
Ben opened his mouth but found he could not speak. Instead he moved straight towards Philip and sagged into his arms as they held him, comfortingly tight. He prayed that Philip wouldn’t ask him how his day went as was his habit when they met after a work day; he wouldn’t know what to say. After a moment where there was only silence and warmth within those encircling arms, Ben felt Philip bent to plant a noisy kiss on his head. It steadied him more than any words could have done.
“Go take a shower honey,” Philip urged. “Dinner should be ready by the time you are done. We shall have an early night; you look bushed but a shower will freshen you up.”
The shower did make Ben feel better. Twenty minutes later, with his hair still damp, he came back into the kitchen and slid rather sheepishly into his chair when Philip pointed at it. In his mind he felt that he had behaved no better than a spoiled and needy brat and he waited in some trepidation until Philip turned and smiled at him. His heart warmed immediately and he smiled back, his mood miraculously improved. He watched as Philip began dishing out a thick beef stew with new potatoes, onions and baby carrots. It was comfort food and looked delicious and he realized Philip must have been home much earlier to get this meal ready.
“Thanks,” Ben muttered when Philip placed a full plate in front of him. The combined aroma of pepper corns, cloves, cinnamon and rosemary smelled heavenly and Ben’s stomach growled. Eagerly he put a spoonful into his mouth and to his dismay found he had difficulty swallowing. He felt Philip’s eyes on him and quickly made a show of chewing. “This is good,” he praised sincerely.
“Is it?” Philip asked with a raised eyebrow. “Hm. I wonder why you aren’t eating it then.”
Ben shoved another heaped spoonful into his mouth. “I am eating it. Look...”
“Ben...” Philip said softly. “Stop that or you’ll choke ... and don’t talk with your mouth full.”
Ben ducked his head and mechanically began to chew. They ate silently for a few minutes, Ben becoming increasingly uncomfortable with each passing minute. His brain was consumed with his own shortcomings and he was fast building up Philip’s disappointment in his mind.
“So ... um, h-how did the meeting go?” Ben found himself breaking the silence.
Philip lifted a shoulder nonchalantly. “It went well. Finish your dinner first and I will fill you in.”
Ben felt his stomach clench. Although Philip’s voice had been light and casual, he thought there was nevertheless a hidden message in the words. He shifted in his seat, wishing he could stop eating right away.
Ben realized he had stopped eating and he looked up to find Philip’s eyes boring into him. “Yes?”
“No one is upset with you about not making the meeting today, OK? Everything was fine. We are on track. So stop letting your imagination run wild.”
Ben swallowed hard. “OK.”
“Good. I want you to stop torturing yourself and finish your stew. It’s not that bad!”
“Sorry.” Ben gave a weak lop-sided grin.
Philip reached out and brushed a lock of hair off Ben’s forehead. “You are a goose sometimes,” he said lovingly.
“Are geese silly?” Ben asked.
Ben laughed. “Thank you.”
“Tell me how your trial run went.”
Ben’s face fell; he wasn’t much in the mood to talk about his disastrous afternoon but somehow Philip drew it out of him. Responding to first one question and then another, Ben found he ended up telling Philip everything. And finishing his dinner.
“It’s not a total waste of time,” Philip said cheerfully. “You did resolve all the issues at the end of the day.”
“Yes, but it should have taken at most three hours, not the whole day!”
Philip pushed his empty plate away and wiped his mouth. “What’s important is you got it fixed. No one expects perfection Ben. We talked about this before – and you are not allowed put this kind of pressure on yourself. Now let’s get the dishes done and we can go into the living room for a chat.”
Ben sighed. Obviously there was going to be a ‘discussion’ or else why mention a chat or going into the living room. Philip wasn’t one to let unfinished business hang and messing up your schedule and missing a Fraternity meeting was definitely unfinished business to Ben. He silently washed and wiped the dishes while Philip wiped down the table and kitchen counters.
Letting Philip take his hand, Ben followed his Top into the living room. Philip pulled him down onto the sofa next to him and leaned over to kiss him. “I’ve missed you today.”
Ben kissed him back briefly. “Yeah, me too,” he responded automatically.
“No, you did not,” Philip said without the least hint of annoyance.
“Did you really?” Philip’s eyes twinkled. “No, seriously Ben, I want you to think about it. This is not a trick question so don’t tense up. Tell me how you felt today.”
“Well ...,” Ben hesitated. “I ... um, I was busy ... and I suppose I was … stressed.”
Ben looked at Philip with large round eyes. “Er ... didn’t you hear what I just told you, how my day went?” he asked, polite exasperation in his voice.
“I know you were frustrated with your project, Ben. But what else were you stressed about?”
Ben frowned. “Well ... isn’t it obvious? I mean I was supposed to meet you guys and I knew I wasn’t going to make it when things started to go wrong. That was SUPER annoying because I really wanted to attend the meeting. So yeah, I was stressed about that as well.”
Philip nodded his head solemnly. “Exactly! I imagine you would have been extra stressed out because of that.”
Ben looked warily at Philip. “Ye-ah ... and ...?”
Philip smiled. “I am getting there. Ben, we all know and understand how you feel about your work and its right that you take it seriously. You ought to be conscientious and committed. That’s a good thing Ben and I am proud of you for being that way.”
“But ...?” Ben prompted when Philip paused.
“But what’s not so good is you having to split your time and priorities between work and The Fraternity. It’s just taking too much out of you, baby. We are beginning to see how that is affecting both your work life and your personal life – and that’s where I come in.”
Ben sat up and stared at Philip fixedly. “W-what are you saying Philip?”
Philip laid a heavy hand on Ben’s thigh. “Listen babe, I don’t want you stretched like this. I definitely don’t think you deserve to be stressed like this. You have done a fabulous job for The Fraternity so far but balancing both jobs ... well, I just think you’ve more than done your part over the years and … perhaps its time you considered relinquishing your role as treasurer.”
Ben gasped. “What?”
Philip was looking calmly at Ben. “It’s just a thought, darling ... but it makes sense to me.”
Ben cut him off. “No shit! Just because I miss one meeting?”
“That is not the reason Ben, and you know it! Plus you also know better than to curse at me!”
Ben’s lips settled into a mulish line. “Oh I am so sorry, but I am sure you get why I am UPSET because you guys discussed this already! Behind my back!”
“Ben, we did not deliberately pick a time when you were not present to discuss this! It just came up this afternoon.”
“What – so all of you think its best I quit? Did everyone say that?”
“Ben, we just want you to have a more balanced life.”
Ben’s response was a disdainful snort.
Philip sighed. “I am only thinking of what is best for your welfare.”
Ben jumped up from the sofa, his face twisting with emotion. “Right. That is just great! My welfare you say? Am I supposed to feel good now?”
Philip stood up too. “Stop it. Nothing has been decided. I just wanted to discuss this with you.”
“Doesn’t sound like it to me,” Ben said bitterly. “You have made up your mind, haven’t you?”
“Sit down Ben.”
Without a word, Philip turned Ben around and landed two sharp slaps on the seat of his sweat pants. Philip’s tone was non negotiable. “I said sit down!”
Ben promptly sat but he kept his head down, avoiding eye contact.
“We will continue this discussion when you have calmed down,” Philip announced, putting emphasis on the word ‘discussion’. “Take a deep breath. Now!”
Ben obeyed the order reluctantly.
“All right then, can you be civil now?” Philip asked sternly.
Ben made himself look up to meet Philip’s eyes.
“I know you love doing this job for The Fraternity,” Philip said in such a kind and gentle voice that Ben felt the burn of tears behind his eyeballs. “And you know how much we all appreciate the fine job you’ve done. Ben, everyone knows that.”
“Then why ... don’t you w-want me to continue?”
“You know why Ben.” Philip ran a hand soothingly down Ben’s arm. “You already spend more than ten hours at the office, you bring work home, you work weekends when my back is turned and you are exhausted. Look at you.”
“I am fine! And this is just a temporary phase!”
Philip remained silent. He looked at his young partner with a great deal of sympathy in his eyes.
“I swear it will get better Philip,” Ben pleaded. “Once this project is over .... I will be in much better shape. I admit I’ve been messing up lately. But I will make sure ...”
“Ben, your temporary phase has been going on for weeks if not months!” Philip reached out to hold Ben’s chin in his fingers. “Be honest with yourself darling. Don’t you think its time to let go?”
Ben’s eyes filled with moisture as he shook his head slowly. A lone tear drop slid down his cheek. Philip’s thumb caught the tear drop and tenderly wiped it away.
“Darling, please ...” Philip said, his voice low and sympathetic. “No one is forcing you to do anything! The final decision is yours. Why don’t you go to bed and sleep on it, and we’ll talk about it some more tomorrow?”
“There’s nothing more to discuss!” Ben said, his voice breaking. “I’ve made up my mind!”
Philip’s forehead creased into a frown.
“It’s fine, I understand,” Ben whispered. “You don’t have to say any more. I don’t want to be a burden. Tomorrow I’ll tender my resignation as treasurer!”
With that, he scrambled to his feet and walked quickly out of the room.
“So that’s it?” Stewart asked. “He gave in just like that?”
“Well, I don’t know. I haven’t actually seen that letter of resignation yet,” Philip said. “He was upset and shot his mouth and I get a feeling he’s regretting it by now. I am sure it’s much harder for him to write it than he thought. He’s been procrastinating and acting nonchalant - as if he has no memory of our discussion or his decision.”
Curtis chuckled. “Brat!”
“Is that being kind, Philip,” gently chided Stewart. “End his misery!”
“I wanted it to be his choice and frankly since he agreed to resign, I think this is the best outcome. I know he is unhappy but at this point I don’t care how we got here, whether he really meant it, or if he acted impulsively or whatever but he needs to come to terms with his decision and the sooner the better.”
The three men were seated around a table at the packed La Cucina, a small upscale Italian restaurant, for lunch. Reservations had to be made at least a week ahead but Curtis was a regular and could usually rustle up a table without too much difficulty.
“Give him a bit of time,” Stewart said, before biting into a bruschetta. “It’s been less than a week since you talked.”
Philip sighed. “Yeah, I know but if he hasn’t done it by this weekend I am going to have to bring it up again. We can’t let this drag on indefinitely.”
Curtis pursed his lips. “It’s a shame though. The boy has been doing such a fine job. He’s a great resource and I hate to lose him on the council.”
Stewart swallowed and nodded his head. “Me too, but it’s just too much for Ben. He needs a firm hand to keep him balanced. He won’t be able to do it himself, brilliant though he is when it comes to finances.”
“He’s been like that always, hasn’t he?” Curtis inquired as he peered at the dish of stuffed olives. “My, this looks good. I must bring George here – he’d love this. Anyway, I remember we talked about it before – Ben’s addiction to work. Many times in fact.”
Philip looked resigned. “Yes, Ben’s a workaholic and we can’t change that. But I can and will put the clamp on and pull the brakes before it gets totally out of control. He was managing ok before the merger, but the situation got aggravated once Burman came into the picture.”
“I thought that was supposed to make it better?” Curtis raised his eyebrows. “More resources, bigger management team? I know Jacob is pretty pleased about the merger.”
“Yeah, in theory it’s supposed to get better,” Philip said thoughtfully. “I expected a period of adjustment and I was prepared for a few weeks of additional anxiety and stress during the transition. Ben frets with changes and new challenges because he’s a perfectionist but once he settles into a routine he would generally be ok. I was waiting for that but I am not seeing this so far; in fact it seems to be getting worse instead of better.”
“The increased activities in The Fraternity could be a factor,” Stewart said sympathetically. “We’ve never been busier, rounding up everyone after Evan’s case, getting everyone to go to the monthly meets and preparing for the coming winter workshops. If Ben was just managing the work-side of things, I think he would still be ok, but he’s put in a lot of extra time for the club as well.”
“Yeah, I know that!” Philip tapped one finger on the table lightly. “That is exactly what I told him. It’s absolutely no reflection of his performance but naturally he would not quite see it that way.”
“So here’s what I am thinking,” Curtis said after selecting an olive from a dish. “If he is doing so well for us why don’t we just give him some extra help instead of asking him to resign? Seems to be self-defeating, that suggestion.”
Both Stewart and Philip stopped and looked at Curtis.
“You mean an assistant?” Philip asked.
“Yeah, like an assistant Treasurer,” Curtis concluded. “Why didn’t we think of that earlier?”
Stewart and Philip exchanged a blank look.
“Yeah, why didn’t we?” Stewart asked.
Philip frowned. “Are we saying we add another member into the council?”
“Why not?” Curtis challenged. “We just said we are busier than ever.”
Stewart wiped his mouth with his napkin, looking thoughtful. “Yes, that’s true. Well, I am open to expanding our council. Phiip?”
“Hmm.” Philip took in a deep breath, feeling suddenly much better. “It does makes sense. And to be honest, this sure sounds more palatable than changing our Treasurer.”
“I like the way this council moves. Do we have a vote on this?” Curtis asked for formality’s sake.
“I vote yes,” Stewart said at once.
“I vote yes too,” Philip seconded.
“Good – consider that tabled then,” Curtis said with a grin. “We don’t need Ben here for a unanimous vote since we are talking about him.”
“So do we have a suitable candidate in mind?” Stewart asked.
“How about Duncan?” Curtis suggested. “He’s a qualified accountant, and a damned fine one from what I hear.”
“Duncan?” Philip looked a bit sceptical. “He’s not been exactly participative since he joined. He hardly knows us or how we work. Neither do we know him.”
“All the more reason to get him involved,” Curtis said. “I know him slightly more than you both and I would like to put in a word for him. He has a good head on his shoulders. He’s qualified, well-informed, honest. A bit reserved but that’s not a bad thing.”
“And you’d vouch for him?” Stewart asked.
“Absolutely!” George affirmed without hesitation. “He hasn’t had things easy despite what you see today. I mean Jacob loves him like a son and provides for him but losing both parents like that and at such a young age ... well, it wasn’t easy.”
“No,” Philip said with a look of sympathy. “I’m sure it couldn’t have been.”
“One other thing though,” Stewart said. “Duncan works with Ben – will there be any sensitivities there? How would he feel playing second fiddle to Ben? This position is to assist Ben. And would Ben mind. Philip, what do you think?”
Philip’s eyes narrowed. “Ben hasn’t told me much about Duncan so I don’t know. At any rate, he does not dislike the man. Whether or not he would like to have Duncan on the council as his assistant is something only Ben can answer. Under the circumstances, there’s a good chance he would grab it. But more importantly, would Duncan agree?”
Curtis looked over at Philip. “Only one way to find out. Let me call him.”
Philip was excited as he headed home. He had hated seeing Ben’s quiet misery the last few days and he was relieved he could put it to an end. Duncan had, surprisingly, agreed without too many reservations. Once he was assured the council wanted him in, he had given his consent – subject to the final decision by Ben of course.
Philip whistled softly to himself as he started to plan a nice dinner, and he thought after the meal he would tell Ben the good news and then they could go upstairs and celebrate by making love, which was something which hadn’t happened a lot lately.
Cheered by all this reflection, Philip got busy once he arrived home. He selected a good bottle of wine and put that into the ice bucket. Then he marinated some chicken in teriyaki sauce and started cutting up vegetables. He kept an eye on the clock and timed it so that the rice would cook just about when Ben would come in, estimating that to be around six.
The clock struck quarter past six and there was still no sign of Ben. Philip wasn’t unduly worried. The rice was done but it could keep; the dinner he had picked could easily be reheated. He waited till six-thirty before he called the office and got Ben’s voicemail, which probably meant he had left. Philip tried his cell phone next. It was switched off. Philip tried the office again, thinking Ben might have gone to the washroom earlier, or been caught up in some meeting. Voicemail again.
Frowning, Philip tapped the phone. There was no doubt Ben’s time had been erratic lately but he would usually call if he was later than six-thirty. In fact, that was a house rule and Ben hardly ever broke it. It wasn’t like Ben to be rebellious and he never openly defied Philip’s rules no matter how cross he was. Theirs was a harmonious household (with the occasional bumps naturally) and most things were quickly resolved with little drama. Philip had always felt that he could depend on Ben to be sensible and responsible and he felt sure there was some reasonable explanation.
Philip busied himself with some paperwork for another half hour before he called the office again and then Ben’s cell phone. Both times came up zero. It was past seven by then. The knot in Philip’s stomach grew slightly tighter. Ben should have called by now if he was delayed. It was too much of a coincidence that Ben was this late on the very day they had discussed his position in The Fraternity. Something must have happened.
Philip decided to call Stewart first. “Did you talk to Ben at all?” he asked.
Stewart was surprised. “No, of course not. You said you wanted to tell him yourself. What’s up?”
Philip quickly explained the situation.
“I thought we reached a good compromise so even if somehow Ben got wind of it, I don’t see any reason for him to be upset, do you?” Stewart asked.
“No,” Philip agreed.
“And Curtis told Duncan specifically to keep it to himself.”
“I know.” Philip clutched the phone between his ear and shoulder and prowled around the living room like a caged animal. “But I have this nagging feeling ... anyway I’ll check in with Curtis. See if he knows anything. Sometimes I swear I don’t know what our Brats think or how their minds work!”
Stewart chuckled. “Let me know when he gets in, will ya?”
Philip next called Curtis and brought him up to speed. “Could Duncan have said anything to Ben about this?”
Curtis said quite confidently, ‘I’m sure he wouldn’t have. I told Duncan to keep it quiet till you had talked to Ben and he’s no blabber mouth. But why don’t you call Duncan directly?”
“I was just going to ask you for his number.”
Philip took down Duncan’s cell phone number and made his third call.
“Yes, who is this?”
“Philip?” Pause. “Oh hi, what’s up?” he asked, his voice a little wary.
“Hey, I’m sorry for disturbing your evening but I wanted to ask you something.”
“No problem, Philip. Go ahead.”
“I was wondering if you and Ben talked at all this afternoon? About Fraternity matters?”
“Hmm. I actually didn’t see much of Ben this afternoon. Not after Curtis’ call anyway. Why, has anything happened?” Duncan was quick to ask.
Philip didn’t think there was anything to hide to a fellow Top so he replied without vacillation. “Well, Ben’s not back yet and he hadn’t called and that’s unusual for him,”
Duncan’s voice was thoughtful. “I see. Well I thought I saw him leave early today actually. Ben’s usually one of the last to go but I thought you guys had plans ....”
“Well ... it might have been around four thrity.”
Philip began to feel the first streak of panic. “Four thirty you say?”
“Thereabouts, certainly not later than five.”
Philip contained the groan that rose in his throat. “Any idea where he could have gone? Did he have an appointment somewhere? Do you know?”
“Not that I am aware of, but then I don’t know all of Ben’s schedules. Look, I am actually on my way back to the office right now – to pick up something I forgot. Why don’t I go check and see if he’s still there?”
There was not much else Philip could do save drive around aimlessly so he said, “Yeah, sounds like a plan, and if I hear from Ben I will call you back as well.”
“I should be there in about fifteen minutes.” Duncan hesitated before continuing. “I don’t mean to pry or to get him into trouble – but Ben’s been looking glum the last few days. I suppose its about the Treasurer role?”
“Yes, he was unhappy about that. I know Curtis talked to you about supporting the position and you agreed to help out, but has he filled you in about Ben’s situation? I don’t mind telling you and you need to know anyway - Ben has been struggling and things were getting out of hand. It has been rather stressful for us the last few weeks. Has he said anything to you?”
“No, no,” Duncan said hurriedly and Philip discerned at once the polite distance Duncan was attempting to put between them.
Philip felt his Top-mentor persona take over and his tone of voice automatically changed. “We’re both Tops, so you don’t have to tread so carefully. I know you are being courteous and respectful of our privacy but its ok for us to discuss my Brat. In this instance anyway.”
Duncan coughed softly.
Philip smiled to himself. “In fact, you have a duty to do so with any Top if you notice anything wrong with their Brats. That’s part of our code.”
Duncan cleared his throat. “Um OK. I’ll remember that.”
Duncan was a relatively new Top in The Fraternity and Philip didn’t know him all that well so he chose his words carefully. Curtis had brought him in and even though Duncan was mostly mentored by Curtis Philip made a mental note to include Duncan in his next Top program.
“Duncan,” Philip said smoothly, “Our relationships with our Brats are not quite the norm of things, wouldn’t you say? This is not telling tales and you need to recognize that Tops in our group are expected to look out for everyone’s Brats – not just their own. It cannot be easy, and sometimes it feels like you are ratting on someone but believe me its better to alert the Top than to have the Brat flounder and get further in trouble. Being in The Fraternity we Tops have a certain responsibility.”
“I understand,” Duncan responded with a distinct note of interest in his voice.
“We should talk more,” Philip said warmly. “Now that you are a part of the council I am sure we will have the opportunity. You don’t have a Brat of your own, if I remember correctly?”
“Um, no, I don’t.”
“All the more reason for you to take a more active role in our programs then.” There was a gentle teasing tone in Philip’s voice. “There are some very nice single Brats in our midst.”
“Sure, I will make a note of that!” Duncan said with a laugh. “I’ll call you back in a while.”
Philip spent the next few minutes peering out the window and staring at the phone.
Duncan’s eyes swept around the car park and saw that it was mostly empty. Ben’s allotted car park space was empty as well. He walked briskly into the building, rode the elevator up to his floor and went into their suite of offices. Ben’s office was in the dark so Duncan went around and checked every other room; everyone had left. He went to his own office, collected the file he wanted and with a final scan of the main office, rode the elevator down to the lobby.
He let himself out of the building and stood for a moment at the pavement. It was a cold night and his hands and cheeks were rapidly getting chilled. Striding towards his car, he looked more carefully around the car park. There in the far distance was a lone vehicle. It was right at the end of the lot and too dark for Duncan to be make out the type, size or color. So he got into his own car and slowly drove towards it. When he was close enough, he left his car idling and got out. One glance at the number plate confirmed it was Ben’s car. Looking around the deserted car park to make sure there was no one else around, he advanced toward the vehicle.
“Ben,” Duncan called out clearly. It looked like there was no one in there. Duncan fought down the uneasiness he felt and strode up to the driver’s side, peering in. The front seats were empty and Duncan was about to turn away when a movement in the back caught his attention.
A pair of heavy eyes set in a pale face peered out at him from the darkness within.
“Ben?” Duncan took a step to his right and tapped smartly on the window. “Open the door Ben.”
They stared at one another for a moment, and then Ben shrugged and unlocked his door.
“What on earth ... Ben?” Duncan demanded. “Are you all right?”
Ben nodded his head and slipped out of the back seat, hugging himself tightly. “Yeah, I’m fine. W-what are you doing here?”
Duncan raised his eyebrows. “I should be asking you that! Why are you parked all the way back here?”
“Were you looking for me?” Ben asked with a hopeful note in his voice.
“Yes, actually Philip called me. He’s looking for you, you know?” He noticed that Ben was shivering.
Ben’s mouth drooped at the corners. “Yeah, I guess. I’m late. Very late.” He saw that Duncan was staring at him and he flushed. “I’m fine!”
“You’re half frozen!” Duncan stated as he fished his mobile phone out of his pocket. “I need to call Philip and let him know you are ok.”
“Don’t!” Ben’s voice shook even more.
Duncan paused with the phone mid-way to his ear. “What’s the matter Ben?” he asked gently.
Ben’s face turned crimson. “I mean I ... I can call him. I will call him myself. It’s ok, you go on home. I just needed some time alone ... there’s some things going on ... look, you won’t ... I ... but I am ok now. Don’t worry ... you go home now. I will be fine.”
“I don’t think so, Ben,” Duncan said quite firmly. “I’ll make you a deal. You can call Philip now or I will. Your choice. But one of us needs to do that right now.”
Ben stared at his feet, making no move.
Duncan gave Ben a sharp glance and made a quick decision. He pressed the button to return call and heard Philip’s voice almost at once.
“He’s ok Philip,” Duncan said. “I found him ... ah .... well no, not exactly working. He was ... we are actually at the car park right now.”
Ben squirmed. He was starting to look acutely uncomfortable. “Tell him I’m on my way back,” he whispered, gesturing wildly with his hands to draw Duncan’s attention.
Duncan reached out a hand and caught hold of Ben’s jacket, stopping him from vanishing into his car. He continued speaking into his phone. “Yes, I did. He’s fine but why don’t I bring him back instead? No trouble. Yes, he can park his car here overnight; it’s quite safe if we move it back to his reserved lot. Ah ... yes, that’s right.”
Ben shook his head vehemently. “No!” he protested weakly. “I can drive home myself! You don’t need to send me,” he said, his face burning even redder.
Duncan smiled at Ben, holding out his phone. “Here, Philip wants to talk to you.”
With a groan and a roll of his eyes heavenward, Ben took the phone. He turned away and kept his voice as low as possible. “Hi Philip. Uh-huh. Yes. No. But I can! .... um ok. All right. Yes, see you in a bit.”
Ben turned back to Duncan and handed the phone back with a shrug. “I am sorry to trouble you. I don’t know what Philip is thinking. I am perfectly able to drive myself back home you know!”
“Never mind, just do as Philip says,” Duncan said quietly, as he steered Ben into the driver’s seat. “Why don’t you park your car back properly at your lot and I will follow you and pick you up from there. Make sure you lock it properly.”
Duncan’s voice and hand were firm enough to leave Ben no choice but to obey. Soon they were riding in Duncan’s four-wheel drive and he was asking for directions. Duncan turned the heater on and Ben held his hands up against the warm air and sighed. “Thanks. It was cold in the car!”
Duncan didn’t respond, just smiled and shook his head to himself. He glanced over at Ben a few times and saw that he had stopped shivering and was looking glum but quite calm, huddled into his corner. There was no fear or anguish emanating from him, just a worried frown on his forehead and a slightly mulish look around his mouth.
Neither of them made much of an attempt at conversation and Ben gave it up entirely as they neared his house, obviously worried (but not frightened) about the forthcoming meeting with his Top.
Duncan stopped the car when they drew up in front of the house and killed the engine. “Come, I’ll walk you in.”
Ben groaned. “You don’t NEED TO!” he growled.
Ignoring the remark, Duncan waited while Ben snapped his safety belt off and slid out into the cold night. Together they walked up the short drive and saw the front door opening, and then Philip was standing at the doorway waiting. His face was expressionless so neither of them could quite make out what he was feeling. When they were within hearing distance, Duncan called out, “Good evening Philip.”
Philip waved a hand in acknowledgement and smiled. “Hey Duncan, thanks.”
“No problem, it’s just a slight detour.”
Philip looked at Ben and held out one hand. Ben went without a word and leaned hard against him. Philip bent his head and whispered something in his ear. Ben nodded, turned to give Duncan a weak grin and then disappeared inside.
Both men waited till Ben had disappeared before Philip spoke. “Sorry about the trouble Duncan.”
“No, not at all.”
“He was sitting in the car, you say? Parked some ways off I imagine?”
Duncan grinned suddenly, making him look much younger. “Yes.”
Philip shook his head and sighed. “Well, I’ll have to unravel that. Look, I really appreciate your help tonight. We must get together one day but right now I should go attend to him,” Philip said with a jerk of his head.
“Of course,” Duncan said. He raised a hand and turned and walked back down the drive.
Philip closed the door and locked it and then went into the kitchen, where he knew Ben would be waiting. “Come here you,” he said as he entered.
Ben sprang up from the chair in which he was lounging and rushed into Philip’s arms. “I am sorry!” he muttered into Philip’s chest.
Philip swatted the side of his hip smartly. “We’ll talk about that after dinner. Are you hungry? I made teriyaki chicken – your favourite I know. Why don’t you heat the rice up in the micro and set the table – bowl and chopsticks shall we? - while I do a quick stir-fry of the veges? We can eat in three minutes.”
Ben was glad to get busy and he did as he was told quickly and silently. He stole a few glances at Philip and bit his lip as they sat down to eat. “How much trouble am I in?” he asked with a grimace.
“Enough,” Philip said cheerfully as he dropped a juicy piece of chicken in Ben’s bowl. “Want to tell me about it?”
Ben swallowed with some difficulty. “I acted like an idiot. I didn’t know what to do so I just drove around and then came back to the office. But I didn’t want to go in, and I didn’t want anyone to see me. So I parked and waited.” His head dipped. “I switched off my phone as well,” he confessed.
Philip calmly went on chewing. “I am aware of that, young man. We’ll come to that later. But first, what, may I ask, sparked this rebellion?”
Ben flushed. “It’s not a rebellion!”
“What is it then? Not coming home, not calling, not answering phone ... what do you call it?”
Ben let go a loud sigh. “You were planning to talk to me tonight weren’t you?”
“We are talking, honey.”
“No, I mean you were planning on talking to me, weren’t you? A-about ... my resignation as treasurer.”
Philip’s brows drew together. “Where did you get that from?”
“I was going to see Duncan about some work and his office door was open. I ... um ... heard him on the phone – with you I thought. He didn’t see me but I heard him say ...”
“What did he say?” Philip asked when Ben stopped, his frown deepening.
“He mentioned something about the treasurer position – are you replacing me with him?”
“Honey!” Philip reached out and held Ben’s hand. “Is that what you thought?”
“Is it true?” Ben’s eyes were pained. “I know I still owe you that letter and I have tried to write it, honest Philip. I tried but I can’t. I thought you might give me another chance, and I wanted to ask you to please reconsider, but then this afternoon I heard Duncan ...”
“And jumped to the conclusion that we had invited Duncan to take your place on the council,” Philip stated matter-of-factly.
“Well – isn’t that right? I mean ... seems to be that way. Why else would you call him? You even sent him to come looking for me, like he’s part of ...”
Philip cut him off. “First of all, it wasn’t me on the phone with Duncan. It was Curtis. And what Curtis said to Duncan is no concern of yours. Second, I didn’t send him to look for you, he was on his way to the office and he offered to check if you were still there. And third, it is never wise to jump to conclusions and then ACT WITHOUT THINKING!” Philip’s voice was suddenly stern.
“I just assumed...”
“Well, you shouldn’t. This is all part of the impulsive behaviour which you know is something I don’t hold with. Haven’t we agreed that we would talk and clarify if we are not sure about something? Was it that difficult to call me to ask? Or to come back home and talk to me? Instead of just taking off like that?”
Ben sat with his head bent. “I felt ... “
Philip tapped the table smartly. “No, that’s not good enough Benjamin! That’s a poor excuse for behaving badly, which is equivalent to callously disregarding everyone else’s feelings and interests except your own. Look at me please.”
Ben jerked as he felt the tears burn at the back of his eyes. When Philip became so stern and sounded so severe he wanted nothing more than to avoid eye contact but he had no choice but to look at his Top.
Philip held Ben’s gaze firmly. “Eavesdropping. Jumping to wrong conclusions. Disappearing without a word. Not answering your phone. Sulking like a child. Endangering yourself even. Is that you Ben? Is that what you do Ben?”
Poor Ben could only shake his head. He had prepared a whole list of reasons to justify his actions but none of them seemed in the least helpful now. What Philip said sounded so reasonable and made his own actions so unpardonable. He stared at Philip, filled with disgust at himself. He had no excuse for his behaviour.
“I ... am ... sorry ...” Ben gulped, unable to finish the sentence.
Twenty seconds passed without a word or movement from either of them. Finally Philip nodded. “Apology accepted.”
Ben held his breath. It wasn’t over – he was too experienced a Brat to believe that and his heart thumped loudly in his chest. “What’s ... going to happen now?” he asked timidly.
Philip’s eyes lost some of its severity. “Several things. First - you are grounded for a whole week. And since you were at least two hours late, you can go to bed two hours early every day of your grounding.”
Ben’s eyes opened wide and despite himself he murmured, “Eight-thirty?”
Philip was unyielding. “Would you rather move it to eight?”
“No,” Ben muttered, flushing. “Of course not!”
Philip bit back a smile. “I thought not.”
“Do I still get the half hour of reading time?”
Ben nodded. At least he didn’t have to lie in bed in the dark at eight thirty like a six-year old kid. Not that lying in bed at nine made it that much better but still ....
“Is – that it?” Ben asked hopefully.
“No,” Philip said smoothly. “You can choose which paddle you want me to use tonight. Go put that on the bed before you shower.”
Ben paled. “Must it be the p-paddle?” he whined.
“Would you rather it be my belt?”
Ben rolled his eyes. “What a question! And what kind of choices are these, Philip. It so ...”
“So what, honey?”
“Nothing,” Ben sighed. “I guess I deserve it all. I told you I was an idiot, didn’t I?”
“You are not an idiot,” Philip said firmly. “And if you insist on insulting yourself, I can find further motivation for you to change your perception.”
Ben glared at him. “I have plenty motivation already, thank you very much.” He paused, looking slightly more relieved now that he knew what to expect, and then ventured to inquire politely, “W-what ... if it wasn’t you, then why was Curtis ... I mean what did Duncan mean ...”
Philip leaned back and looked at his Brat with a half-mocking smile. “You could have saved our evening and yourself all the bother if you had asked this question earlier you know?”
Ben shook his head impatiently. “I know that NOW! So is there something you want to tell me?”
“Yes. I do want to run a proposition by you.”
Philip watched Ben’s expression change from curious to surprise and finally to doubt as he told him about the decision. “What do you think babe?” Philip ended with the question.
“I get to stay on as Treasurer?”
“B-but Duncan? To assist me?” Ben gasped.
“Yes. Do you dislike that?”
Ben hesitated and Philip watched him closely.
“You don’t have to agree just because we suggested it, Ben. Be honest. What do you really feel?”
“Well – I mean, it’s great that I can stay on and I want that very badly, but w-would Duncan contemplate ...”
“We asked him already. Or rather Curtis asked him this afternoon, hence the phone call. And he said yes, but only if you are agreeable.”
“Ben, if you don’t feel comfortable about it, we can always look around for other candidates. It does not have to be Duncan! And you don’t have to worry about him feeling rejected. I will handle that.”
Ben flashed a smile at Philip. “I know Philip, thanks but ... it’s not that I am uncomfortable, I am just surprised, shocked a little actually that he would be ok with it. I don’t have anything against him and he was actually quite decent tonight. He didn’t make a big scene or lecture .... and he was discreet.”
Philip looked pleased. He had liked the way Duncan had handled the episode as well.
“So is it a yes, Ben?”
Ben took a deep breath. “Um ... YES! If Duncan is ok with it, then I say yes too!” he said beaming happily.
Ben knocked on the door softly.
“Hey,” Duncan looked up and said with a quick smile. “Come on in.”
Ben stepped inside Duncan’s spacious office and at a sign from Duncan, he closed the door. “Got a minute?”
“Sure. How’s it going?” Duncan asked in a casual tone that could have meant anything.
Ben grinned shyly. “Just wanted to say thanks for last night. Also welcome to the council.”
Duncan returned the smile readily. “Thank you for the welcome and it was no trouble. Have a seat.”
Ben pulled out a chair and hesitated just before he sat down. Duncan raised an eyebrow which spoke volumes.
“Yeah,” Ben said with a slightly embarrassed laugh. “You don’t have to guess how it went last night.” He lowered himself gingerly into the chair and winced. “I think I deserved it though.”
Duncan’s lips twisted into a wry smile. “I hope I was not the cause of it, or contributed in any way!”
“No, of course not. I take full responsibility,” Ben assured him. “I am just glad it’s all working out. You agreeing to help out with the council probably saved my ass. Well, that’s not strictly true,” Ben giggled with a mischievous grin. “My ass got fried. But what I mean is I don’t have to leave the council now since you agreed to help out.”
Duncan’s eyes danced. “Glad I can contribute. I should do more and I intend to.”
“Great! I want to bring you up to speed on how we do things in the council as soon as possible. There’s plenty going on I can tell you. Have you signed up for the winter workshops?”
“No,” Duncan said ruefully. “Not yet, but I intend to.”
“You MUST!” Ben cried enthusiastically. “It’s going to be great, being in Willcott in winter. It’s even wilder than summer and quite gorgeous! You’ll love it!”
“Frankly I am eager to see the place; I’ve heard so much about it.”
Ben nodded his head. “I am sure you will like it there. Philip will definitely be talking to you about it. He does the Top mentoring, did you know that? So - I was wondering when you would have some time so we can go over the books and other details.”
Duncan glanced at his computer screen and pulled out his schedule. They discussed dates and times and in the end Ben proposed they do it over the weekend since they had too many conflicts.
“I’m grounded this weekend anyway, so may as well make use of the opportunity.” Ben looked at Duncan, stricken. “Oh sorry, that was pretty selfish of me. Do you have plans? Would you rather we move it to the following week?”
Duncan waved the apology aside. “No, this weekend is fine. How about Saturday afternoon? Shall I come over to your place then, since ... um ...“ he trailed off.
Ben grinned. “Yes, that’s the plan. Unless you wanna talk Philip into letting us go off to a Starbucks?”
“I’m pretty sure that’s not going to work,” Duncan said gravely.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Ben groused good-naturedly. “It wouldn’t! Well, that’s fixed then. Come around two and I’ll have everything ready for us so we can start right away. Er ... there’s just one more thing I want to ask you.” He paused. “I wanted to make sure ... you are absolutely all right with this? Helping me on the council?”
Duncan gave a mock frown. “Why, should I be concerned? Are you going to morph from this nice, pleasant and polite young man into a monster?”
Ben laughed. “No, absolutely not.”
“Well then, I see no reason to worry. We are professionals.”
Ben got up slowly, looking pleased. “I agree totally.” He stuck out his hand. “Welcome Duncan!”
Duncan got to his feet and solemnly shook hands. “Thank you Ben.”
T H E E N D