I don't even remember when I started hating the sound of a clock.

Tick.

It was probably when I was a kid, just old enough to start sleeping in my own room, but still young enough to be afraid of the dark. There weren't any monsters, as they told me over and over, but that wasn't what scared me.

There were no monsters, but there was that sound.

Tock.

My parents had put the clock in my room without a second thought. Who would? It's a clock. It's a piece of furniture, a part of a room's decor, that doesn't really mean anything. It doesn't need more than a peremptory selection of its design to match the colour of the wall paint. It's certainly not a monster, and it's certainly nothing to be afraid of.

But in my childish mind, it was everything I feared. It was counting down to my doom, my inevitable demise when it tick-tock'ed just until the right moment before it happened. The monsters would come out when the time was right, and I knew it, and the clock knew it, and it would announce to the world the precise second when they would come.

I left the clock behind when I moved out of my childhood home, but the tick-tock never left me. Each outdated university classroom I sat in with that haunting ring of numbers outlined by hands that were not yet electronically-powered, each office space I sat in with the spindle-armed face that leered down at me loudly, I would hear it reverberating through my brain as if it was sitting directly in my ear canal.

This time is no different. This office, despite being 'open-plan', is tiny and cramped. Despite the openness, it's mostly silent except the clicking of keyboards and shuffling of papers, and that ominous, endless, echoing sound—

Tick.

I sigh and shake my head in an effort to return my focus back to my work. It doesn't help even the tiniest bit.

Tock.

There's nowhere for me to escape. Except maybe the loo. I've been there already at least seven times today, and I know if I go any more, people will definitely look at me funny. They probably already whisper amongst themselves that I have some sort of disgusting, incurable disease that makes me shit every fifteen minutes, and makes me take forever once I'm on the toilet.

Tick.

"Chris? You alright?"

Tock.

"Yeah... Yeah I'm fine."

I bring my head up from my hands. A face is peering down at me. Not just any face, a colleague's face. I should know the name by now. "Sorry. Was just thinking."

"Very deeply." The colleague's concerned expression slowly melts into a cautious smile. "Don't stress too much about the deadline, yeah? It's not a hard-and-fast one, so we can always push back if we can't get everything done in time." When he props a hand on my desk next to my keyboard, a glint at his wrist catches my attention. The edge of his watch peeks out from under his sleeve as he leans on his arm casually and continues gazing at me. "If you're really concerned, I can talk to Hayes about it."

I swallow hard. My eyes are still hovering over the barely-visible watch face. It's a solid slate colour. There aren't any numbers circling the perimeter, but there are some very subtle gold notches that mark every hour. I can just make out the top half of the brand logo, just underneath the notch marking twelve—

"Cartier." I remember his name. Oliver Cartier. It's not the same brand as his watch, but it's still related to watches. It's no wonder I'd forgotten it.

"Er, yeah?"

Drawing my eyes away from the watch, I look up at his startled expression. "Er, nothing. Sorry. It's nothing."

"Erm, okay..." He lifts his hand off my desk slowly, as though he's cautiously trying to escape a wild animal and afraid that any sudden movements might trigger its wrath.

I wordlessly stare as he walks away from my desk. It's not unusual for him to come by my desk unannounced, since he's project managing my team, but I suppose it is unusual for me to acknowledge his presence beyond nodding at whatever he has to say to me regarding whatever thing we're working on at the moment. Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've even said his name out loud. That's probably what surprised him. It doesn't matter though. There's still too much work left, and the clock's ticking isn't going to get any quieter until I finish and can leave here.

...

Finally the office clock tells me that it's a socially acceptable time for me to leave, so I make my escape from its percussive clacking. For today, at least. There's sadly one more day until the weekend, when I can have two days away from hell, and then I'll be right back here for another five days of torture. Maybe I just need to find another workplace that doesn't have stupidly outdated clocks as part of the attempt at 'industrial design' that's seemingly in fashion amongst office decorators these days.

Tick.

As I pass through the front doors of the office building, I hear a voice behind me. "Hey, Chris. A few of the lads are going for a pint." I turn and face Oliver. He jerks a thumb behind him to gesture at the small group of our colleagues filing out behind him through the glass doors. "Fancy joining?" His sleeve lifts up just enough to reveal a sliver of his watch beneath the edge of it. My eyes linger on it before sliding back to his face.

Tock.

"Er... Sure. Yeah, wouldn't mind." I've got no other plans to use as an excuse for not going. At least at a pub, it'll be noisy. I can pretend-but-not-really-have-to-pretend that I can't hear properly and just drink until all other sounds are drowned out of my ears, including that tick-tock-ing.

The inside of the pub is louder and more jam-packed than it has any right to be on a Thursday evening. Just last week, I'd heard somebody at the office say that 'Thursdays are the new Friday' and that most people are likely these days to go out drinking on a Thursday, because Fridays are for family. I'd been sceptical at the time, but I can believe it now as we struggle to find an open space big enough for all of us to stand about.

"I'll get the first round," I shout out to my colleagues. It's really just an excuse to get away from them, and the bar is the only reasonable point of escape. "What d'you all fancy?"

It takes a while for everybody to shout their orders at me. Once I nod enough times to make it seem like I've gotten it all, I shove my way through the crowd toward the bar. Tacky plastic baubles and garlands of fake evergreen boughs line the arches above the bar, and I realise too late why it's more crowded than usual in the pub today. Of course. The holidays. How could I have forgotten?

I finally reach the front of the bar after several minutes of waiting, and begin loudly relaying the names of different types of beers at the bartender, who leans just a bit toward me so she can hear me. She instantly bursts into action when I finish, grabbing freshly-washed glasses as she goes and plunking them down under the respective taps.

"Thought I'd give you a hand."

A voice at my ear makes me whip around to my left. Oliver grins at me and leans one forearm on the bar counter. "So, got any plans for Christmas?" He immediately dives into small-talk as we wait for the bartender to finish pouring the drinks.

"No. Just staying home. You?"

"Same. Family's fucked off to Barcelona without me so I'll be staying here. What about yours?"

My family isn't a conversation topic that I'm comfortable with, but I've had enough practice over the years of having to say the same thing over and over, that I have rehearsed lines at the ready. "Back east still. I don't talk to them much these days." I say the second sentence with a finality which conveys the fact that I don't want to take the topic any further.

Oliver picks up on the hint immediately and nods. "I get that. Well, if you're not doing anything on Christmas, we should get a drink or something. You know, have our own little orphan Christmas." With a grin spreading across his cheeks, he twists his body around to place the other elbow down on the bar as well. Just beneath a fairy light that's tangled into the artificial branches above us, his watch flashes at me.

Tick.

"Er, thanks for the offer. I'll think about it."

Tock.

Pausing, Oliver throws a glance at me sideways before he says cheerfully, "Yeah, let me know." He picks up a few of the full pint glasses that the bartender has lined up on the bar. "See you back there." Carefully balancing the glasses and trying not to spill any, he walks back toward the corner where the rest of our colleagues are laughing at some joke that we've missed.

I pay for the drinks as Oliver leaves me to the thoughts racing through my mind. It's been several years since I've spent Christmas with anybody else. I don't even know Oliver that well. He started at the company only a few months ago, but within that short period of time, he's gotten friendly with pretty much everybody else in the office. The women especially seem fond of him, always gazing at him with star-filled eyes and poorly-masked sighs of desire. He comes by to talk to me often enough, but it's never for anything beyond my involvement in the project du jour. His suggestion of meeting up on Christmas is likely just a pleasantry, nothing more than a continuation of our small talk. Yeah, nothing to take seriously. Taking hold of the rest of the overflowing glasses, I carefully weave my way back to the group.

Over the next couple of hours, my colleagues filter out of the pub one by one until it's just me and Oliver remaining. There were all too many one-mores than I know I should have had, especially on a Thursday night, but I keep sipping at my fourth—maybe fifth—pint. Oliver appears to be faring better, being at least one drink ahead of me. He's got a lop-sided grin on his slightly-flushed face as he peers at me over the rim of his glass.

"Looking forward to the Christmas party tomorrow?" he asks. I groan at the reminder and slap a palm to my forehead.

"I forgot about it, actually," I tell him truthfully. "Was thinking of skipping it, to be honest."

"What? You're seriously going to pass on free drinks?" Oliver laughs and takes another sip of beer to emphasise his point. "Why's that? Got more fun things planned?"

I shake my head and let out a humourless laugh. "Nah. Christmas parties just aren't my thing, really."

"Yeah? What was it like last year?"

Shrug. "It was fine, I reckon. Like any other company Christmas party. People got drunk, some got way too drunk, some let their hair down way more than they should have, some became the subject of office gossip the following Monday. The usual." I'd forgotten that this would be the first time Oliver would be going to our company's Christmas party. Maybe I should try to sell it, rather than make it sound like one of the worst things in the world, which I personally find it to be. I've been told my preferences are unusual, though. At any rate, convincing colleagues to attend corporate functions isn't one of my job requirements.

Oliver's laugh is contagious and I soon find myself chuckling along with him. "Sounds like all the more reason to go, so we can witness the scandals first-hand. What's the real reason you don't want to go?" he pushes on.

After draining my glass, I slam it down on the table a little harder than intended and mutter, "Dunno. Just not really the party sort. Last year's was more than enough." I see his unconvinced smirk out of the edge of my peripheral vision. Something glints for a split second as he claps his hand to my shoulder. It's his watch, catching in the dim, dusty light from the lamp on the wall next to our table.

Tick.

"Come on, mate. It'll be fun. Just come for an hour. You can bail after that if you want."

Tock.

I stare at the trails of beery foam sliding down the side of my empty glass and exhale slowly. I don't even know how he's convinced me so easily, but there's something about the way that there always seems to be the hint of a laugh in the corner of his smile. It gets to me, and it gets to me too damn well. "Fine. An hour can't hurt, I suppose."

A victorious grin spreads across his face as he claps my shoulder again, this time a little harder, then thumps his hand on the table top. "Excellent. Next one's on me. Same as before?"

"Yeah, thanks."

There's definitely something about that smile that gets to me.

Gossip fodder for Monday is being prematurely hatched on the dance floor at the company Christmas party. It's only fifty-three minutes in, yet already I've seen at least three couples with limbs intertwined a little too tightly to pass off as just being friendly. Janet from sales with the head of the French marketing team Henri, Gregory from communications with Sonya from legal, the new head of finance Alina with Rolando the executive assistant. There are definitely more, but I can't recognise any other faces amidst the sweaty haze and strobing lights.

I lean against the bar to shout at the bartender for my third gin and tonic. I'm amazed that he can hear me over the thump-thump-thump-ing beat of the subwoofers. He's probably used to it by now. I don't envy his job. Then again, at least he doesn't have to listen to the ticking of a clock day in and day out.

"Hour's almost up. Thought you'd be on your way home in your pumpkin carriage by now, Cinderella." Oliver appears next to me and speaks directly into my ear so that he doesn't have to shout as loudly. I can still barely hear him.

"Can't pass up free drinks after all," I yell back at him as the bartender passes me a glass garnished with a measly-thin lime wedge. "How come you're not dancing? Pretty sure I heard Georgie say she wanted to 'grind you so hard into the dance floor they'd have to scrape you off with a trowel.'"

Oliver laughs at this and brushes his hand through his hair. An hour ago, it had been styled into waxy perfection, but now it's come undone into a mildly unkempt look that actually suits him better. "Jesus, did you see her with Henri from marketing? Poor bloke's had to pretend to go for a smoke for half an hour just to get away from her. Think I'd best avoid her," he remarks, shaking his head. "What about you? You've got enough free drinks in you by now to dance, haven't you?"

I shake my head back. "There isn't enough alcohol in the world to get me to dance." It's not even that I have two left feet. It's that I genuinely have only just enough control over my legs to walk from point A to B on any normal day, and even then sometimes they get tangled over themselves.

"Don't be ridiculous. Everybody can dance. Come on, just give it a try."

"No thanks. I really don't want—"

Before I can finish, Georgie emerges out of the haze at Oliver's elbow and clutches his forearm in a death-grip. She drags him off before either of us realise what's happening, and soon I see him helplessly swaying while she gyrates against him. When he glances up at me a few seconds later with that lop-sided smile and a shrug, one of the rotating spotlights reflects off his watch into my eyes.

Tick.

They fade into the wildly dancing crowd within seconds. My gin and tonic is gone after a short chat with David from customer support about whether Nicola in sales was going to be alright after Penny from human resources had taken her home while he waits for a vodka Red Bull and large glass of house red, and I take it as my cue to make my exit. I place the empty glass down on the bar top as David shuffles off to deliver the wine to Laura in accounting while sipping his own drink.

Scanning the dance floor once over, I try to seek out a particular tousle-haired, lop-sidedly-smiling face, though I don't know why. I push away from the bar at last and make my way to the cloak room. When I step out into the chilly night while pulling on my coat, I hear footsteps approaching me from behind.

"Oi, Cinderella. Heading home before the clock strikes midnight?"

Tock.

I turn a little too quickly for my current state of drunkenness and wobble in place as I peer at Oliver. "Yeah. It's been over an hour already. I'm pretty knackered." I blink at him. He's got his coat on, too. "Leaving too, are you? Where'd you ditch Georgie?"

"Dunno. Last I saw, I think she was snogging David from support," he replies with a shrug.

"Laura must be devastated."

Oliver chuckles. "Yeah, it's a shame. I always thought they'd be good together." He gazes at me silently for a moment before saying, "Night's still young. Fancy another drink?"

"Drinks aren't free out here in the real world, mate. But you could probably still get back in there if you wanted to, I reckon."

"Nah, think I've had enough of drunk colleagues on the brink of violating several corporate policies regarding interpersonal relations." The corner of his mouth turns up in that cheeky smile of his and I sway a little again, but this time I don't think it's because of the alcohol pumping through my veins. "So, pub? I'll buy."

Words come out of my mouth before I can think to stop them. "Yeah, go on then."

If I had thought the pub yesterday was full, the one we stumble into very clearly disproves the notion that 'Thursdays are the new Friday', unless everybody in here happens to be related, since Fridays are supposedly for family. It's full to overflowing, and large clusters of festively-dressed people, unable to find room inside, stand about shivering outside with their drinks in hand. Somehow Oliver and I manage to squeeze inside and find just enough space in a corner for the two of us to huddle into.

Oliver goes to the bar to get our drinks, and my gaze follows the back of him the entire way. I must still be under the effects of the three gin and tonics, because some questionable thoughts are starting to drift through my mind as I stare at him from behind. Thoughts like whether he's actually interested in Georgie, and whether they've already been complicit in violating company policies regarding interpersonal relations, which is the reason he seems averse to any further infractions, or whether he'd much rather violate those policies with someone other than Georgie, and whether that person was still dancing at the party—

"Deep in thought again? Come on, it's way past work hours. Deadlines are for next week's you to worry about," Oliver quips as he hands me a pint. I give a start and blink at him. I hadn't even realised he'd returned from the bar.

"Er, yeah, right. Sorry. Bad habit," I tell him apologetically. I raise my glass and clink it against his as I murmur, "Cheers." His watch winks at me as he tips his own glass to his mouth.

Tick.

"So what were you thinking of? Reckon you might go back and actually dance?" He's got a teasing smile on his lips. I find myself staring at it for a few seconds too long before taking a nip of beer rather than answering.

I set my glass down on the ledge next to us and lie. "No, just thinking of the things I need to get done on the weekend. Got a lot of life admin to take care of before the end of the year." I doubt he believes me. Nobody does any sort of business during the holidays, so it's extremely unlikely that I would have anything that needs to be dealt with so urgently.

Sure enough, he raises an eyebrow at me sceptically. I shrug and don't make any further attempts to justify myself. My eyes briefly drop down toward our glasses on the ledge, my left hand grasping mine and his right holding his. He lifts that hand to take another drink. The watch face judges me as sceptically as he does.

Tock.

"Offer still stands, you know."

I raise my eyes to Oliver's, confused by this statement. He chuckles at my apparently puzzled expression.

"You know, grabbing a drink on Christmas if you're not up to anything else," he clarifies.

"Oh. Right, yeah." I hesitate but can't think of an excuse quickly enough. "Might do. Haven't got much else going on. Got a place in mind?" Maybe if it turns out that he's on the other side of the city, I could use that as a reason not to go.

He shrugs casually. "I live north, but I don't mind going somewhere more central. Know of any decent places?"

Shaking my head, I take another sip. "No, not really. Don't really get out much, frankly."

"Well, why don't you come over to mine, then? Where d'you live?"

"North as well." I tell him the name of the station I live closest to and he grins.

"No shit. I live just around there, too. You should definitely come round, then," he says cheerfully.

I take another gulp of beer instead of answering.

Promptly, he shifts the conversation to mundane topics, like whether it would actually snow in the next few days because while it's been cold, it's been years since it's been a legitimate white Christmas, or whether the new head of finance was actually going to make good on her promise of increasing profits by at least six percent come next earnings report, or speculating about who from the office would be appearing shame-faced on Monday morning after an embarrassing night and/or weekend of close encounters with someone from another department, or possibly even the same team. The thought of whether he's regretting leaving Georgie and her advances behind at the party zooms through my mind as he speaks.

The top of his lop-sided smile peeks at me over the rim of his glass. "What's with the look? Was there somebody at the party you took a fancy to? Oh Jesus, don't tell me it's Georgie?" he asks, setting his beer down and locking his widened eyes on me. Another glint of his watch draws my own gaze.

Tick.

"Jesus, no. She's much too...Georgie for me." There's no better way to describe what she's too much of. I reckon I could also describe her as being much too female for me, but I'd rather not bring up that subject in this manner.

Oliver nods in agreement. "Don't need to tell me twice," he mutters, "You weren't joking about having to scrape me off the floor if I'd have stayed there any longer." Shaking his head, he takes another gulp of beer, as if trying to rid himself of the memory of dancing—if that could be considered dancing—with Georgie. "Nobody that catches your eye at the office then?"

Tock.

A momentary unease takes hold over me at this question. I down almost half of my remaining beer to settle myself before I can answer, "No, nobody. Rather not violate any corporate policies regarding interpersonal relations, as you put it so articulately earlier." That's only half true. I'd rather not, but that's not to say that I absolutely wouldn't. I can only hope that he doesn't pick up on this subtlety in the quaver that I know had tinged my voice. Trying to keep myself from giving away anything else, I hurriedly knock back the rest of my drink.

"Yeah? That's a shame."

Tick.

I give him a keen glance at this comment. "What d'you mean?"

Tock.

"Nothing. Just thinking it's a shame there isn't anybody at the office worth breaking policy for."

Tick.

In just a few gulps, Oliver finishes his beer and then places the glass back down onto the wall ledge. He leans in toward me, the corner of his lips curving upward just a hint. I swallow anxiously, my eyes darting wildly about to anywhere but his face for the next few seconds. They settle on the visible fraction of his watch, just beneath the edge of his sleeve.

Tock.

"A bit loud in here, isn't it? I've got some booze at my place, so—"

Tick.

"How'd you like to get out of here and come round mine for another drink?"

Tock.

Oliver's flat is a modest size, and much tidier than I'd expected. In fairness, I hadn't really expected anything in the first place, because I hadn't expected to ever be here. As I step inside so that he can close the door behind me, I furtively glance about. "You live on your own then?" I ask, peeling off my coat and slinging it over my arm. He hangs up his own coat on a hook nearby and then takes mine from me to do the same with it.

"Yeah. Managed to get it at a decent price, all considered. Got lucky, I reckon," he chuckles in response. "Make yourself at home. I've got some beers, unless you want something stronger?" He strides into the kitchen adjacent to the living room that I'm now standing in.

"Whatever you're having is fine," I reply. There's nothing at all unusual about the room. A large TV on a sideboard on the opposite wall from the two-seater sofa, a small table that appears to serve as both a work desk and dining surface by the bay windows, a coffee table scattered with partially-opened letters and stray papers. Somehow I'd imagined him living like a university student, with dirty laundry strewn all over the place and empty take-away containers aged for weeks. I'm not sure why. He doesn't give off that kind of aura, by any means. It might just be that I've not visited anybody else's flat since my own university days, when that degree of filth was the norm.

A highball glass containing some amber liquor appears in the corner of my vision. I turn toward Oliver with a small jump to take it from him.

"Hope you don't mind whiskey. I can get you something else if you'd prefer," he says, tilting his own glass toward me.

"No, it's fine. Cheers." I lift my glass as well and clink it against his in gratitude before taking a hesitant taste. Whiskey isn't my favourite, but I've had it enough to know the ones that I do and don't like. This one is quite nice. It's got an intense peaty scent, but tastes surprisingly smooth. "Very nice. Didn't know you're a fan of scotch."

Oliver's smile roots me in place. "I'm sure there's plenty more you don't know about me," he murmurs as he takes another sip.

"Yeah? What else?"

"Well, for one…" He leans in toward me, his smile widening a bit, then abruptly turns to flop down on the sofa.

Tick.

"For one?" I urge him when he trails off and doesn't continue.

"For one, you should come have a seat so I don't feel like I'm a bad host."

I silently comply.

Tock.

"What else don't I know about you?" I prompt again after I plop down next to him. The sofa is just large enough for both of us, but just small enough that the cushions are bending inward so much that we're almost sliding toward each other.

Still smiling, Oliver props his right elbow against the back of the sofa as he—and his watch—considers me with a calculating look.

Tick.

"Reckon you don't know that I know that you have...alternative interests," he chuckles softly.

My brows furrow at him. "What d'you mean?"

"Am I wrong?"

Tock.

I stare at him while my partially-tipsy brain tries to process his words. After a minute, it finally dawns on me what he's talking about. My face becomes hot and I quickly take an uneasy sip of whiskey.

Oliver chuckles softly at my reaction. "So I'm right."

"Fuck off." Lowering the glass and balancing it on my knee, I eye him cautiously. "Did you—?"

"Don't worry, mate. I haven't told anybody at the office," he hastily placates my increasing anxiety, "It's not my place."

I frown faintly into my glass before taking another drink. "Thanks, I suppose."

Dense silence hangs between us as we take intermittent sips of whiskey. Even though my eyes are still on my drink rather than on him, I can tell that he's watching me rather intently. His right arm is still resting on the back of the sofa, and in the quiet I hear the faintest noise from his watch.

Tick.

"There's another thing you don't know about me."

I bring my gaze up to look at him. He's eyeing me with his usual cheeky lop-sided smile.

"What?"

"I'm actually quite chuffed you came along tonight," he says softly.

"Yeah? Why's that?"

Tock.

"Quite the naive one, aren't you?"

I bristle at this comment and shift in my seat in annoyance. "What're you on about?" I demand sharply.

"I mean that you've still not caught on as to why I invited you here in the first place," Oliver murmurs as he pushes himself up from the opposite arm of the sofa that he's been lounging against so that he's tilting closer toward me.

"Why did you? Other than for a drink, that is."

He doesn't reply. Instead, his fingers glide up to my face, brushing my cheek like a ghostly imprint.

Tick.

His hand pulls my head closer to his. That lop-sided smile flits across my lips.

Tock.

With his wrist just by my jaw, I can hear the sound of his watch, as loud as a gong in my ear.

Tick.

The sound doesn't bother me, though.

Tock.

It destroys me.

fin —


A/N: It's been a long time since I've written anything, but a lot of different things inspired me all at once this holiday, and this was the strange result of all those things being mashed together.

I tried really hard not to describe appearances of the characters, nor any of the locations, so those could be left to the reader's imagination, but the pubs were definitely modelled after classic Victorian London pubs because what else could be Christmas-ier? :)

Hope you enjoyed and happy holidays.