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Cesare's Cabinet


Proud Adjunct Member of the Rhipodon Society

Almost Never Disclaimers & Chapter Index

Solicitations.

"Stuart. Come in, sit yourself down."

"Thanks." Settling into the chair, Stuart smoothed his palms along the seams of his slacks, arranging himself neatly, and looked at his supervisor expectantly.

Edward Dover shuffled a stack of papers on his desk, and folded his hands. "This is never easy," he remarked, instantly putting Stuart on guard. "I don't need to tell you that by most standards, you've been doing a fine job."

"Thank you, sir."

"Still, there are a lot of considerations in a business like ours. A lot of things we have to take into account when we assess an employee. Not just performance, but attitude, interpersonal skills. Image." He paused significantly. "In public relations, image is everything. We create an image and the associated equity for our clients. It's vitally important that we control and maintain an appropriate image for ourselves as well."

Stuart gave Dover a brittle smile. "I understand that," he said, opening his hands in a gesture that invited the other man to look him over: attractive, personable, with coiffed curly hair, a sharp tailored suit, immaculate shoes, the quintessential stylish young executive.

"Do you?" Dover asked. "I've been hearing some very disturbing talk around the office. So much so that I felt the need to track down the origin of these rumors and learn more. I didn't like what I heard."

He knew, of course, exactly what Dover was talking about, but feigned ignorance. "What was it, then?"

"Apparently you were spotted committing an indiscretion in the men's room at Angelo's," Dover said. "Now, granted, this is hearsay and I wouldn't ordinarily pursue it, but these rumors have opened a door, and... well. It appears there's a lot we didn't know about you, Stuart."

"What, like, that I'm gay?" Stuart asked. "I certainly made no secret of that. I'm Irish, as well," he couldn't resist adding with a dash of sarcasm. "I don't see how that has any bearing on the work I do."

Dover pursed his mouth. "It has a bearing, inasmuch as your behavior reflects on the company as a whole."

"With respect, sir," he said, his tone indicating otherwise, "it does not. My personal life is outside the bounds of my employment with the agency."

"Not," Dover said, "when you neglect your work to... engage in indecent behavior in a bathroom stall with another man."

"Every employee gets an hour for lunch to spend as they see fit," Stuart said. "If you look at the timesheets, you'll find I bill forty hours or more to client work every week, and every minute of that time is accounted for with my immediate superior. I have received nothing but positive reviews of my performance since I started here. Sommersby and Niven has absolutely no stake and no say over what I do when I'm not on company property or company time."

"In a business like ours, I'd say that's up for debate," Dover told him.

Enough of this. "Mr. Dover, you are coming perilously close to saying outright that you're reprimanding me for being homosexual. I'm sure you're aware, that's against the law."

"Stuart, this has nothing to do with sexual orientation. If one of our employees was known to engage in that sort of behavior in a public place with a woman, we would respond in exactly the same way."

"You must have had a lot of meetings like this after last year's Christmas party, then," Stuart replied smoothly.

Dover drew himself up defensively and said nothing, merely narrowing his eyes.

"How exactly are you responding?" Stuart asked. "You haven't really gotten around to saying."

"I'm afraid we've decided to give you the opportunity to seek employment elsewhere," said Dover in clipped tones.

Stuart considered this. Somehow he couldn't stop himself smiling.

"Considering the circumstances, I think you'll find your severance package is more than generous," Dover went on.

"You mean, considering how you're firing me illegally," Stuart said.

"We have consulted a solicitor, of course, and I have been advised that we are completely within our rights to terminate your employment based on your improper behavior," said Dover.

"We'll see what my solicitor has to say about that," Stuart bluffed.

Dover didn't blink. "Security will escort you to the door. Gail has your severance package, you can stop to pick it up on your way out."

"Security? Oh, you mean Jim," Stuart smirked. "That's quite something, you pressing the doorman into service to toss me out. I'm flattered. Almost feel like I should make a scene to justify all the trouble."

He stood to go, but couldn't quite leave without taking another parting shot.

"Those new accounts I brought in," he said. "They signed with me. They didn't want Sommersby and Niven, they wanted me. And they'll have me, once I've found another agency. If I were you, I wouldn't count on revenue from those clients for the next fiscal year." He grinned lazily at Dover. "I'm not threatening you or anything. I'm just saying."

"The contracts they signed--"

"Allow them to terminate the relationship based on changes in resource allocation, including staffing," Stuart interrupted. "That was one of the perks we added into our boilerplate last year, to reassure clients who were balking at signing long-term contracts. One of my suggestions, actually. You seemed to think it was quite ingenious at the time."

Dover pressed the button on his interoffice intercom. "Gail, sent Jim in, please."

Stuart laughed. "I'm going, I'm going," he said, and blew Dover a kiss goodbye, savoring the man's obvious anger and discomfort.

His triumph was short-lived, though, as he got into his car-- which wasn't paid off-- and headed for his flat, which was stylish, spacious, and terribly costly; he had enough in the bank for maybe one more month of rent. The unopened severance envelope sat on the passenger's seat like a love letter from the IRA. He'd considered scorning it, but decided whatever they'd tried to pawn him off with, he had it coming and then some.

He couldn't quite bring himself to go up to his empty walkup once he arrived, not even just to change out of his suit. Stuart sat in the parked car for a few minutes, and finally drove over to Hazel's.

Vince's tanked-out awful Prefect was parked in the driveway. Stuart was almost sure Vince had only bought that stupid car because of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Or maybe it was all he could afford. Fabulous. Vince could give him tips on how to be poor.

As soon as she opened the door, Hazel took one look at him and said, "Oh, now, love, what's happened to you?"

Stuart just looked at her, opening his hands in a shrug, unable to speak or to wipe the strained smile off his face.

"Come on in," she said, tugging his hand, and then yelled loudly, "VINCE! Stuart!"

Vince's feet came pounding down the stairs almost immediately. "Hiya," he said as he came into the hall with an automatic smile that faded almost at once. "What's going on? Thought you had work."

Stuart looked at them both and said heavily, "I got fired."

"Oh my god... what for?" Vince asked.

"Someone from work saw me copping off during a lunch break," he said. "It's ridiculous. It was just a wank in a bathroom stall. I don't even remember the bloke. For that, I lost my job."

Hazel squeezed his hand; he was surprised to find she was still holding onto him. "It'll be all right, love," she said sympathetically, tugging him into the living room. "Come and sit down."

"I am such a twat," he said, falling into the embrace of the battered, puffy old couch.

Vince perched next to him and rubbed his shoulder. "It's not your fault," he said. "It's not right, sacking you over that. 'S none of their business, yeah?"

"Well they made it their business now, didn't they?" Stuart propped his elbow on the armrest and planted his chin glumly on his hand.

"You weren't actually at the office," Vince said. It sounded like a statement, but Stuart could hear the implied question.

"Nah," he said morosely. "There's this sort of combination pub and restaurant place a couple of blocks away. I was just there for lunch, and I saw this bloke, and copped off in the toilets there. It was nothing, it was completely no big deal. Hazel," he raised his voice a bit so it would carry to her in the kitchen, "what the fuck is wrong with you straight people anyway? Can't a lad have a simple wank without bringing the wrath of god down on his head?"

"Sorry love," she said loudly back, "but when we cop off, nine months later there's another mouth to feed. Sex gets to be a big deal when there's consequences."

"So just because you poor sods have babies, you gotta run around spoiling everyone else's fun?" Stuart blew out a disgusted breath, his posture crumpling. "Shit. Vince, trade me places. I wanna stretch out."

They switched seats, and Stuart laid on his side, taking up the rest of the sofa. He grabbed a tatty old throw pillow and put it against Vince's leg, then rested his head there, knowing any minute Vince's arm would come down around him.

Sure enough, Vince's hand spanned his shoulder comfortably by the time Hazel came in with cups of tea. "I thought I'd fix sandwiches," she said. "Turkey and swiss all right?"

"Sounds great," Vince said.

Hazel nodded and went back to the kitchen, not bothering to wait for Stuart to answer. They knew him well enough to let him alone when he was brooding like this.

In school, those times when Stuart or Vince had taken shit from other kids who reckoned they were gay, it always seemed to do this to him. He'd find some way to wring a victory out of it on his own terms, even if it was just a scornful witty line that took the piss out of their tormentors. But it always left him sullen and withdrawn, and furious beyond reason.

He didn't react like this when he was harassed about his nationality-- and there'd been plenty of that in school too-- or when Vince was inevitably the butt of jokes for his science fiction obsession. Those things annoyed him, brought the fight up in him, sure, but he wasn't bothered that much. If some cunt shoved him in the hall and called him a queer, though, he'd burn slow for the rest of the day.

"Vince, do we have any limes?" Hazel called out.

"Yeah, mum, they're in the vegetable crisper."

Stuart blinked, cheering up, and jumped up from the couch to join Hazel in the kitchen. Vince followed just a step behind.

"Limes? Please tell me you're making margaritas," he said.

"Course I am. Here ya go," she said, handing him a hand-cranked ice crusher. "I'll put you to work. Vince, juice the limes, love, I'm still putting together these sandwiches."

Stuart grinned wanly and set to it. In no time they'd produced a small pitcher of Hazel's weapons-grade margaritas. She didn't make them often, scorning them as too girly, but Hazel's margaritas were mouth-puckering muscular brutes that could floor even her in just a couple of rounds; Stuart loved them.

He poured them out into drinking glasses, handing them round, "For you," to Vince, "for you," to Hazel, and then "for me," and he took a long pull straight from the pitcher.

He did it because he knew they'd laugh with him, standing in the kitchen in his stupidly expensive suit, boozing it up; they'd known him long before the flash job and the tidy, pricey walkup. They'd know him long after.

The three of them ate in the warm bright kitchen. The sandwiches tasted wonderful with the tangy, citrusy margaritas. Stuart's mood eased a bit as Vince and Hazel gabbed about the supermarket and some neighborhood gossip.

"Oh, and that Andrea down to the chemists, she just had her baby," Hazel was saying. "They're already saying it looks like Ernie."

"Fuck, it's Ben's first birthday next week," Stuart remembered, bleak anger crashing down on him all over again. "I told Marie I'd come over. The family's gonna be there. Shit."

Hazel tutted. "Not exactly a good time to break it to them, is it, love."

"I'm not breaking anything to them," Stuart growled. "I can't help that they're thick.... Jesus fucking Christ, what am I gonna tell them?" He slid down in his chair until his chin was almost level with the tabletop. "As far as they're concerned, I've never gone wrong at anything, ever. How do I tell them I lost my job?"

Vince reached over and pressed his fingers into the back of Stuart's neck, forcing the tension to loosen. With a sigh Stuart shoved himself up in the chair again and leaned forward, putting his head down on the table. Vince stood and massaged his neck and shoulders for a couple of minutes, until the headache that had been crawling towards completion in his skull died away.

"Well, I'm sorry to say-- for possibly the first time in history-- I'm not coming up with any bright ideas," Hazel said. Vince sat back down next to him and Stuart leaned toward his friend, magnetically drawn to follow until his head was on Vince's shoulder. He felt boneless and exhausted.

"Just tell them you had a row with your boss and stormed out," Vince suggested. "They know better than anyone what a bad temper you've got."

"Might do," Stuart said. "Not a bad story."

"It's practically true," said Vince. "They don't have to know that the row you had was over him firing you." He rolled his shoulder under Stuart's head. "Right then, think it over. Meantime we can't just sit around. Up with you."

Stuart shucked his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, and he and Vince did the dishes, the traditional compensation for getting fed in Hazel's house. The Tylers were normal and unselfconcious with him, Vince's occasional quick reassuring smiles the only concession to the day's events.

"Coronation Street tonight," Hazel said. "I've got to get some work done. There you are, Stuart, you can always take up with me. I'm a right entrepreneur, you know."

"What mad scheme've you got going now?" he asked.

"She's assembling first aid kits," Vince answered for her. "And Christmas crackers."

"I'm not doing those kits any more after this batch," Hazel said. "They always give me the wrong stuff off the truck, and they never come round when they say they're going to. Who gives a toss about medicine anyway, much more important that everyone gets barrettes and little plastic tops when they pop their Christmas crackers. I'm owed a good thirty quid from the last batch of first aid kits-- who knows if I'll ever see that..."

Stuart smiled as Hazel merrily complained about the kits, and watched fondly as she settled in at the table to work on them. Vince had drifted back into the living room, and once Hazel's bitching session wound down, Stuart followed.

Vince had put on the telly, but he muted it when Stuart settled against him on the couch again.

"Aren't you going to say I told you so?" Stuart muttered.

"Course not. I'm proud of you though," Vince said, ruffling Stuart's hair. "You didn't punch that twat or anything. Must've been tempting."

"If this was America, I could get hold of a gun and go shoot up the office," Stuart fantasized darkly.

"What would that accomplish?" Vince asked.

"Hm, well, let's see, the shit bastard cunts who fired me would be dead," Stuart said, "which would be smashing as far as I'm concerned."

"Yeah, and you'd be in prison," Vince pointed out. "Where your own unique brand of personal charm would quickly become an immense liability."

"I'd never get caught," Stuart said. "Homophobia cuts both ways; they'd never believe some poncey little queer had the bottle to massacre his co-workers. I'd just do it, too. Walk in with a sub-machine gun and open fire on the lot of 'em. And if I did wind up in prison, I'd manage just fine, thank you. Wouldn't be that different from school. Plus I'd always have plenty of cigarettes."

"Well, luckily we live in Manchester, so there's going to be no opening fire on anyone, unless you use a slingshot," Vince said. "Maybe we could come up with something a little more constructive."

"I could burn down the building," Stuart offered.

"Something legal," Vince further modified. "Maybe you could see about bringing a lawsuit against them. You said last year there were straight people who'd had at it in the loo at the Christmas party, yeah? Any of them happen to be cheesed off at the company or anything like that? They could testify that nothing happened to them, and you got the shit. That's discrimination."

Stuart sat up, thought it over. "Marilou Osgood," he said. "Jerome Umplebee had her in the ladies' room that night. She's assistant director of human resources or some shite like that. She's always saying she's about ready to quit that place, she'll never get promoted. Plus she's pissed off cos Jerome started seeing someone else the next month."

"There you go. Maybe she'll talk. You should see about getting a solicitor," Vince advised. "I know-- ask Romey. Isn't she dating a law student now?"

"Oh, yeah," Stuart said, making a face. "Lisa."

"Lisa. She could probably put you in touch with someone who'll take the case without a retainer," Vince said. "They'll grab a whopping percentage out of anything you win, but it'll still be more than you have now."

"Plus," Stuart said, "revenge."

*

Lisa's internship was at Jackson, Monk and Rowe's, a staid sort of law office decorated in warm, dark woods. The sense of tradition unto stuffiness was relieved only the framed art on the walls, prints from stylish modern artists; Stuart recognized a piece by Jeff Koons.

Lisa led him into an empty conference room and shut the door behind them, her manner imperious and brisk. She wore a trim gray suit with a skirt, very much in keeping with the office decor, as was her makeup, subtle color giving her a polished, matte look, classic lipstick lesbian.

"Nice to see you again, Stuart," she said in a rote, automatic sort of way as she took a seat.

"Isn't it though?" Stuart replied glibly.

They'd only met twice and hadn't exactly hit it off. Lisa raked him over with her eyes and smiled falsely. "Juuuust lovely," she drew out. "And I'm meant to be doing you a favor, I understand?"

"I just thought you might have an interest," Stuart answered, "what with all that pro bono work 'for the good of the community' you're always on about."

"Right," she said, "I looked over everything you faxed me. Essentially they fired you on hearsay. That's the first weak point. I guess my first question is, was the rumor true?"

"Yep," he said cheerfully. "Spotted this bloke in the restaurant, had him in the handicapped stall. Ten minutes, all told."

She rolled her eyes, thoroughly unimpressed. "And this co-worker of yours, Jason Gardner. He saw you; how much did he see?"

"Me and the other bloke coming out of the stall. He was tucking his shirt in and my hands were in dire need of washing, just dripping, what with--"

"I get the idea," she said drily.

He beamed at her. "So, will you take the case?"

"It wouldn't be me, of course," Lisa said. "I'm just an intern. But I'll do some research, see what kind of precedents I can turn up for dismissals based on the worker's sordid personal life. I'm pretty sure at a minimum, your dismissal violates some of the European Union's new regulations on employee privacy. If I can pile up enough paper, Gareth will represent you on a commission basis."

"Sounds good."

"I doubt this will ever go to court, mind you. The whole point of them firing you was to keep things quiet. What we're looking for is a settlement. So long as you understand that."

"Fine with me," Stuart agreed. "I just want to make them pay. I don't care how."

"All right then. Let's start the paperwork."

The next weeks were busy; Lisa's colleague agreed to represent him, and Stuart got periodic updates on the motions being filed and suppressed. Meantime he networked and sent round resumes and interviewed like mad.

Not a few of the PR and advertising agencies in Manchester became a bit cooler when they connected his name with the pending lawsuit. A few of the smaller agencies were impressed with his "initiative", and he got some offers, but nothing quite as good as what he'd had with Sommersby and Niven. He was determined to get a better position to show those bastards up.

Thrive was a recently established PR and consulting agency, cutting edge, very trendy. Stuart socially engineered his way through the ranks by telephone to get to the office director, Dan Burton, and poured on the charm until he got invited in.

It was mostly an effort to keep his name out there, keep circulating-- a fledgling agency like Thrive would be leery of getting involved with someone who'd already been sacked and was suing a former employer. But Burton had once worked at Leo Burnett; Stuart stood a better chance getting in there if he could win a good word from Burton, and maybe get a consolation business card from his Rolodex.

He went through his paces at the interview, playing it a little looser than he might've if he'd really been trying for the job, and it did seem that Burton was impressed.

Then they got to the difficult questions. "I see your last position was at Sommersby and Niven. Why did you take the job with that agency?" Burton asked.

"When I graduated from university, they were the most aggressive contenders for my services," Stuart said. "I saw a lot of room for growth at Sommersby. They had a strong foundation, but they had few concrete plans for where they were going as a company. I wanted to take part in steering them forward. I drove some new business initiatives that brought in three substantial new accounts."

"And why did you leave?"

"I didn't leave," Stuart said. "They sacked me cos I'm gay."

Burton paused, frowned at him curiously. "Isn't that illegal?"

"The matter is currently in litigation," Stuart affirmed.

"I'm not sure how they thought they'd get away with that," Burton said, running his hand over his mouth, disquieted.

"I don't think they expected me to fight back. Probably reckoned I'd be too worried about queering my chances for the next job." Stuart smiled with no mirth whatsoever. "If you'll pardon the expression."

"Under the circumstances I suppose I'll have to," Burton answered wryly.

Stuart maintained a neutral, stonefaced stare.

"Well, I'd say your dismissal is typical of the problems they're having over at Sommersby," Burton said. "They're so wrapped up in keeping up appearances, they seem to forget that an image starts from the inside. A company's actions shape the way the world sees them, far more than just the face they present. That's our philosophy here at Thrive."

Stuart found himself nodding agreement. "It's an image," he said. "A reflection of what's there, writ large for the world to see. An image isn't the same as a fašade."

Burton smiled at him approvingly. "Well put," he said. "That's why Thrive pairs strategy and consulting services with our public relations offering. We advise our clients on the kind of behavior it takes to create a suitable image. We don't just slap on a veneer, write some press releases, and call it a day. This is all about building relationships-- learning the client's needs, getting deep into their organization, helping them isolate areas for improvement and guiding them through lasting changes."

"Sounds fulfilling," Stuart said, using one of Romey's favorite words; the whole "deep lasting relationships" angle sounded sort of lesbian to him.

"It's extremely rewarding, yes," Burton smiled cannily. Stuart got the impression that the other man sensed the calculation behind Stuart's words and approved of the way Stuart was tailoring his approach. The whole interview felt like that, really; easy, like they both knew they were bullshitting each other, and were judging one another solely on the quality of the doubletalk exchanged.

"Well, Mr. Jones, I'm impressed by what you accomplished while you were at Sommersby, and my expectations have been borne out by meeting with you," Burton said. "I'm very interested to see what you'll be capable of in a more forward-looking environment. I'm prepared to offer you a position as an Account Coordinator. I think you'll find that the salary and benefits here at Thrive are commensurate with your experience and talents." He slid a packet of papers across the desk. "I took the liberty of having Eileen draw up an offer letter."

"You knew you'd want to bring me on before we even met face to face?" Stuart inquired with a smile.

"I did," Burton nodded. "I knew we'd want you on our team after we spoke on the phone. And I think our potential clients will have the same reaction. Feel free to look over the offer. If you don't mind, I need to step out for a moment and speak to my PA."

"Of course." Stuart waited til Burton left, then opened up the folder. Years of undressing many, many strange men had gifted him with a certain unflappable composure when it came to encountering surprises, but he still goggled just the slightest bit at the terms of the agreement. If he signed up with Thrive, he'd be making twice what Sommersby had paid, which hadn't exactly been peanuts. He flipped through the pages. Everything in the offer package looked not just good but droolworthy, flash, fabulous.

When Burton returned, he said, "I suppose you'll get back to us once you've gone through the rest of your interviews."

"I do have a few more scheduled," Stuart answered, "and I've had other offers. But frankly, I don't believe in being coy. I like Thrive; I like the work, I like the clients, I like the atmosphere, and I'd like to work for you." He grinned at Burton. "Where do I sign?"

*

"That's brilliant," Vince cheered, his voice tinny but bright in Stuart's ear. Stuart smiled fiercely into the wind, clutching the pay phone close. He was only a block away from Thrive's offices; he hadn't been able to wait any longer than that to call and share the news.

"You won't believe the salary they've got me on," Stuart said. "We're going out tonight. I know, let's go to Kwok Mahn for dinner, and then do Poptastic. Dress up, okay? We'll make a big night out of it."

"All right," Vince answered eagerly. "Oh... actually..."

Stuart frowned. "What?"

"Nothing... well... I was just thinking, if the offer's as good as all that, maybe you should invite Lisa and Romey."

"What? Why?"

"Well, Lisa's helping you out with the lawsuit, right?" Vince pointed out. "No retainer or anything. Nice of her. And Romey's your friend, she'll be happy about the good news. More of a celebration, yeah?"

"I don't know her that well," Stuart said. "She was just in a few of my classes, and she lives on my block. It's not like we have anything really to talk about. She's a lesbian, for Christ's sake. What're we gonna say to each other?"

"I dunno. What do you talk about with clients?"

"Whatever they want," Stuart said. "Mostly I let them talk and tell them how bloody fascinating they are. I get paid for that. Why would I bother on my own time?"

"You know, for someone who's so good with people, you're awfully antisocial."

"Who said I was good with people?" Stuart said.

"I dunno, around half the gay men in Manchester...?"

"That's not being good with people," he answered. "That's being good at sex. There is a difference. Not that you'd know."

"Stuart, Romey's really fond of you," Vince insisted. "She called me last night to ask how you were doing. I just think after the help they've given you, it would only be fair for you to share your good news with them."

"All Lisa's done is bitch and carp at me, I haven't seen any actual results from all these meetings about the case. And Romey hasn't really done anything," he demurred.

Through the static he heard Vince heave a sigh.

Stuart rolled his eyes. "Fuck's sake, all right, fine, but you call Romey, you're the one chatted with her on the phone all hours. You're going to have to find things to talk about. And if I die of boredom I'm leaving you nothing in my will, I hope you know."

He didn't die of boredom, though it was a close thing at first. Kwok Mahn was quite a popular place; they had to wait for a table, and the servers were so busy that they only got water and tea for the longest time. Romey found eight hundred different ways to ask him how he was feeling about the lawsuit until Stuart was scowling at her outright. She withdrew with dignity and turned to Vince.

"How're you doing, how's Hazel?" Romey asked him breezily.

"She's well, thanks," Vince said. "Probably hitting the Union right about now to cheer on the cross-dressers in the Mister Lovely Legs competition."

Romey laughed. They talked about nothing, movies, music, television-- it was amazing the number of programmes Vince followed, he'd clearly been making good use of all that valuable time Stuart'd been wasting having marathon sessions of fabulous sex with gorgeous strangers.

The small talk trickled on until Vince and Romey bonded over some book they'd both read, The Butcher Boy. Romey tried to shanghai him into the conversation with a friendly, "What about you, Stuart, have you read it yet?"

"No."

"I'm sure you'd love it. It's really very good."

"Oh, I know," Stuart said, "my dad won't shut up about it. Won the Aer Lingus Prize, whatever the fuck that is. I haven't read an Irish novel since The Commitments. Kept hearing how wonderful it was, couldn't get past the first chapter. And now this book-- everyone asks me if I've read it. I'm sick of it."

"Sorry," Romey said, smiling unapologetically.

"I haven't heard the new U2 album or seen The Crying Game, either, just to save you asking," he said.

"I saw that, loved it," said Vince. "Stephen Rea, he's good. I liked him in The Company of Wolves. Now there's a film. Great special effects..." he trailed off as Stuart glared at him. "What?" he demanded. "What've you got your back up about?"

"Nothing," Stuart muttered.

"'S funny. I don't know why you didn't like The Commitments," Vince said. "I mean, you read that Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, you liked it-- that's the same writer."

"That just came out this year," Romey observed, trying to conceal her growing amusement, raising one delicate eyebrow at Stuart.

"Piss off," he told her. "Where's your little dyke friend, anyway? Is she ditching us?"

"She's still at work," Romey said. "On your case, in fact. Don't worry, I'll order for her when the waiter comes round."

"Oh, ick," Stuart said, "next thing you know you're driving her to the airport-- you might as well move in together."

"We are," Romey answered happily. "As soon as her lease is up she's coming to live with me."

"That's fantastic," Vince said. "Congratulations."

"God help you," added Stuart.

"Oh, don't be so cantankerous," Romey teased, "you've thought about living with Vince, you said so at uni. You two are so cute-- I remember how you used to talk about Vince all the time."

Vince's expression was pure incredulity, and he quickly glanced at Stuart, who glowered at Romey with narrowed eyes. Vince dropped his gaze quickly to the folded menu in front of him.

"They're certainly taking their time getting round to our table," Vince said, "we've been here ages. I like this tea though, tastes a bit different from the usual kind. What's it called. Oolong. This is more like maybe green tea, or is it black tea? But green tea is Japanese, I think. Who can keep 'em straight, though, I ask you. Which was it, invented fireworks?"

"We talked about sharing a flat when we were kids," Stuart told Romey coolly.

Vince looked at Stuart uneasily, his brow knitting, and turned to Romey, saying, "Yeah, we're not, you know, together or anything."

Romey blinked at Vince, surprised, and gave Stuart a puzzled look. "But you're with each other all the time."

"We've been friends for ages," Vince explained.

"You're just trying to take the piss," Stuart accused her. "I've told you plenty about my exploits. For fuck's sake, Lisa's representing me because I was seen wanking off some bloke in a public loo."

"I just reckoned you had an open relationship," Romey said, still sounding mystified.

"Jesus, Romey, give me some fucking credit," Stuart snapped.

Vince's mouth tightened, his eyes sweeping the intimate downstairs room where they'd been seated and abandoned by the server. "Oh look," he said flatly, "Lisa's here."

"Sorry I'm late..." Lisa hurried over, setting down her briefcase and giving Romey a greeting kiss. "Hi, babe... Vince, nice to see you again. Stuart. I've got some news for you."

"What's that?"

"It looks like we might wind up going to court after all," Lisa said. "We've got a judge willing to hear the case, and Sommersby isn't budging on the settlement. Their top offer so far's been to compensate you for six months' salary, and that comes with a gag order attached-- Gareth won't stand for that. Ms. Osgood agreed to testify, she quit the agency last month."

"It's going to court?" Vince asked. "What about your mum and dad?"

Stuart leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, giving Vince the evil eye.

Romey and Lisa looked at them curiously, Lisa slowly catching on. "You're not out to your family?" she asked. "You. You! You're not out? How do you even manage that, never mind why?"

"It's nothing to do with anything. Forget it," Stuart ordered.

"Nothing to do--? Stuart, you ass, Gareth and I have put in dozens of hours trying to put this case together. And the biggest advantage we have over Sommersby is that they want to hush this up, whereas you're just the sort of brazen son of a bitch who'd be willing to stand up in court and say you're entitled to toss some stranger off in a public toilet and it's no one's business but your own..."

"Well, it isn't," Stuart reasoned. "Not Sommersby's business and not my family's business either."

"If you're not willing to go to court, this whole thing has been a complete waste of very expensive time," Lisa said. "How could you not tell me that?"

"You said you were trying for a settlement!" Stuart defended.

"I also said I needed all the relevant information up front. Don't you think the fact that you're not out is relevant?" Lisa shook her head, disgusted. "How the fuck can you not be out? You hang around the Village practically every night, what do they think you're up to?"

"It doesn't matter," he said. "Leave it. Surely we can bluff them about going to court."

"I can't believe you're twenty-three years old, out copping off with anyone who'll have you, and you're in the fucking closet," Lisa spat. "That's pathetic."

Stuart glared at Lisa poisonously. "I'm not in the closet. My family doesn't know cos they don't want to know. No one ever talked about sex round our house. If it'd come up, we might've had to discuss how my dad seemed to be having an awful lot of it with people who weren't my mother."

Vince and Romey both seemed to be on the verge of melting with sympathy, but Lisa wasn't having it.

"You're such a fucking drama queen," she said savagely. "Like you're the only one with problems. You know Romey's family won't meet me? They still see her but she can only come round on the condition that she doesn't talk about that sort of thing."

"Lisa," said Romey plaintively, "this isn't the time."

"But that doesn't count, right?" she carried on. "You can waste everyone's time crowing about all the cheap sex you get and hiding out from your mum and dad, cos no one else on earth matters, just you. God knows I'm still sorting shit out with my dad. And I'm sure Vince hasn't had an easy time of it with his family either, not that you'd care--"

At that Stuart, Romey, and Vince exchanged looks and burst into loud, tension-shattering laughter. Lisa blinked at them in surprise.

"So you've not met Hazel, then," Stuart choked, his stomach aching from laughing so hard.

"Sorry," Vince said, trying to regain his composure. "Don't mean to have a go or anything, but-- my mum's practically an honorary gay man, she's so bloody supportive."

"She spends more time on Canal Street than we do," Stuart added.

"It's true, she's quite something," Romey told Lisa.

"You could've mentioned that, hon," Lisa replied, annoyed.

Romey shrugged.

"Sorry to keep you waiting--" the server finally appeared.

"That's okay," Vince told her.

"No it's not. We've been here twenty minutes, at least," Stuart said.

"I'm sorry," the waitress repeated. "Your table's right between two sections, I think we both thought you were on the other person's side. Sorry about that," she said again, quailing a little under Stuart's irked stare. "Um, drinks and desserts are on the house, to make up for the wait."

"Good," he said shortly, and they ordered their meals.

Once the server had taken their menus and gone, Stuart turned his dour gaze on Lisa. "Go ahead with it," he said. "When you have a court date, let me know."

"Good for you, Stuart," Romey said. "You're doing the right thing."

"Jesus, the 'right thing'? In that case, never mind."

Lisa pursed her mouth and gave him a hard look. "You'll go through with it? You'll testify if it comes to that?"

"I just said, didn't I?"

Vince peered at him worriedly. "Do you want me to come with you?"

"Christ, I don't know, I'm not gonna think about it yet. Once there's an actual date set, I'll see about telling them." Just then the server came back with their drinks. Stuart asked, "What's the house wine, again?"

"It's a '79 Pinot Noir."

"Sounds good, let's have a bottle of that."

"Wait," Vince said, "you can't drink that, Stuart. It'll just give you a headache."

"Look, we don't know that's what caused that--"

"Every time you drink red wine you get a migraine. You're probably allergic or something. Do you have a Chablis?" he asked the waitress.

She smiled pertly. "We have Chablis, Chardonnay and White Zinfandel."

"I like a good Zinfandel," Romey said leadingly.

"That's such a girl's drink," Stuart scoffed. "Much too sugary. If you want that, we'll get two bottles. I don't mind, I could probably drink a whole one myself, the mood I'm in."

"Chablis will be fine, one bottle for the four of us, thanks," Lisa said to the waitress. After the girl took off she went on, "You can get pissed on your own time, Stuart."

"Fuck, are you billing me for this?"

"I should do," she shot back. "You're probably just going to write dinner off as a business expense anyway."

"There's an idea. Vince, remind me to look into that later, I bet I could."

Stuart's impatience had obviously made an impression on their server; she hurried back to the table with the Chablis. "Romey mentioned you're moving in together," Vince said to Lisa as the wine was poured. "Congratulations."

She smiled at him, surprised. "Thanks. I'm never at my place any more so I'll be glad to get shot of it."

"How'd you two meet?" Vince asked.

"Choir, at uni," Romey said. "I was a soprano, Lisa's an alto."

"Well, we didn't exactly meet in choir," Lisa said. "But I did spend an awful lot of time in that class staring at the back of Romey's head."

Romey smiled, "I had the biggest crush on her but I didn't even know if she was gay til she finally got up the nerve to ask me out. I was so happy."

"Touching," Stuart said, and turned to Vince. "Kill me now."

Lisa grinned and went on cloyingly, "The first time we went out together, I just knew it was looooove. And I could hardly believe my luck, after all those classes, two long hours looking at her hair every week..."

"Once a week, every week. That was the same class I met Stuart, the year before," Romey said.

"You were in choir?" Vince asked him. "I didn't even know you sing. You never said."

"I had to take an art class, it's required," Stuart answered. "That one was only once a week so that's what I took."

"Stuart has a beautiful voice," Romey said. "They asked him to do a solo. 'Danny Boy'. But he wouldn't do it."

"Jesus," Vince said, "is there anything you're not good at?"

Stuart smirked at him. "Nothing comes to mind."

"Only cos it's such a narrow mind," Lisa interjected with a glimmer of mischief.

"That's right, have a go at me," Stuart invited grimly. "I said I'd do it, didn't I? I'll go through with it."

"Only because you have to," she said. "How could you not tell them? How could they not know?"

"They've got their own problems," Vince interposed. "They just don't see it."

"Lisa, let it go," Romey asked gently.

The food came, and everyone set into their meals in strained silence.

"Last June, they decriminalised homosexuality back in Ireland," Stuart said finally. "Age of consent is seventeen now, for any kind of sex. No exceptions for gays in the armed forces. Sexual orientation's become part of the Unfair Dismissals Act."

"I can't believe you even noticed," Lisa said.

"I heard all about it," Stuart said. "My mum came out against the whole thing."

Romey reached over and grasped his hand briefly. He allowed it with an effort, looking away.

"Maybe she'd come around if you told her," Lisa pointed out, staring at him sternly.

"I guess we'll find out, won't we," he said dully, and returned his attention to his mu shu vegetables.

He was distantly aware of the conversation starting quietly up again, Vince asking about their coming out experiences, Romey and Lisa sharing their stories. He couldn't have concentrated to listen even if he'd cared, sunk deep in unaccustomed thought.

*

The next week he came in to Jackson, Monk & Rowe on his lunch break for his usual Thursday update from Lisa.

"I got a call this morning," she told him. "Court date's set. Three months from next Monday."

Stuart sat back in his chair and chewed on his lip. "Right," he muttered.

Lisa looked at him for a good long time. He ignored her until finally she sighed. "I should leave it at that, I really should. Make you go through with it. You've got to tell them someday, Stuart. Christ, be a man."

"Fuck off," he said by rote, still mulling it over sullenly.

"They're settling," Lisa said.

Stuart glared at her darkly. "Say again?"

"Once the court date was set, Sommersby backed down," she told him. "Gareth's been on the phone with them hashing it out all morning, faxing the agreement back and forth. They've agreed to settle out of court. No gag order. No strings. All you have to do is sign." She shoved a small stack of legal documents across the table toward him.

Sitting up slowly, he paged through the papers, pausing when he came across the relevant figures. The amount was more than impressive. "How much of this is mine?" he asked.

"Sixty-five percent."

He worked out a few preliminary sums in his head. "That's still a lot," he realised.

"A hell of a lot," she agreed. "They know how bad it will look for them if this gets out. It helps that last week, Gareth and I dug up some evidence that they might have been a bit too selective of sex and race in their hiring practices as well. It's a big win. This is one of the most substantial settlements granted for discrimination based on sexual orientation."

"Bet that won't hurt your career any," he observed as he signed the papers. "It's almost like that makes us even."

"I'm assured a good offer to come work at the firm after graduation, that's true," she said. "I don't know about making us even. It'd probably take a serious blow to my head to do that."

"No problem. I'd be happy to give you one," he answered easily.

She flashed him a brittle acknowledging smile, then grew more serious. "This is blood money, Stuart. It's a big pile of cash because you got pushed around for being gay."

"I'm aware of that. I was there, remember?"

"What're you going to do with it?"

"That's none of your business," he answered. "Are we done here?"

"I logged over a hundred hours doing legwork on your fucking lawsuit, Stuart, and for some reason my girlfriend seems to think you're her friend."

"You want something," he said flatly.

Her mouth formed a tight line. "Gareth and some of the other activists I know are forming this co-op," she said. "Investing some of their money back into the community. It's mostly real estate projects. Renovating the old cotton mills and warehouses down along the Canal, turning them into lofts and condos. Stuff like that. They're trying to help turn the Village into something more than a shabby little street of bars and clubs. Make it a proper neighborhood. Something we can all be proud of, you know?"

"I like it all bars and clubs," Stuart informed her.

"Just think about it," she said with thinly preserved patience. "The way these things work, you're secured to get at least as good a return as you would if you just socked it all in the bank. And it's speculation, so you could wind up making a lot more. You can get a better deal on real estate this way, too. Buy it up, fund the improvements, get it up to code and you can move in. Sell it at a profit later. Price of land all over Manchester's been going nothing but up for the past couple of years."

"I don't know, Lisa. You're selling it too hard. Makes me suspicious," he said, drawing it out.

"You never would've got that settlement if the firm hadn't been willing to donate time towards your case," she told him. "If Gareth hadn't done all that work on spec. And me. That's the gay community, pulling together for one of our own. I realise you might not recognise it, but that's what it is."

"But it paid off for you in the end, didn't it."

"That's my point, Stuart. I'm not asking you to be altruistic, God forbid. This'll pay off for you and the community. So you think about it. You think about where that money's going to serve you best, in the end."

Stuart glanced down at the settlement papers again, inked in his last signature, and pushed them back across the table to Lisa. "Let me know when the money comes through. And as for the co-op..." he shrugged. "I'll let you know."

***

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