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Walk You Through the Dark Side of the Morning

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The journey of a thousand leagues starts with a single step...

Falling in with a group of creative people had never crossed her mind as an aspiration in her life, not even in her wildest dreams.  A career path steeped in administration duties and professional accolades was one she trod for many years in a steadfast pursuit of the law.  Yet here she was, a close acquaintance of the online YouTube Let's Play sensation, the Game Grumps.

It had happened purely by chance, through business connections on LinkedIn and a literal six degrees of separation between a work colleague and his American counterpart in California, yet she was grateful for the opportunity to work with them, in her limited capacity as a legal research intern and part-time paralegal.  

She couldn't be of assistance if the servers went down, or if there was a rough edit needed for an episode, or even if the YouTube executives came knocking to negotiate a partnership deal, but she had a knack for social media and crafting a unique promotion message for new segments in development, along with an extensive legal research background.  If ever there was a point of commercial law or contract condition that anyone was unsure of, especially if it meant a binding agreement that could prove problematic, it was up to her to research the relevant facts and precedents to make sure they were not being conned or forced into a cast-iron bond.

When it came to the members of the Game Grumps, she had become quite fond of each of them in the time she had been working there, uncovering their personalities that lay behind their celebrated internet personas, discovering their quirks and how they like to spend their spare time.  She had learned through careful observations over time who preferred to be left alone to work, when each of them needed a break, what snacks or hot drinks they liked on quiet days, and how to make them laugh, which as a fan herself, was often a shining achievement.

While she had been in awe of meeting the man behind the Egoraptor persona and literally the reason they were all working together, it quickly became apparent that Arin was as down to Earth as the next person, and never failed to make her giggle on days when she was stressed due to the overwhelming amount of memo briefs she had to write.  All he had to do was do intone to her in his Grubba voice while walking through the office, face-plant into a bean bag, or even wear a Mega Man helmet and she was in stitches.  Game Grumps and all the affiliated creations were products of his creative mind, and she had nothing but respect for all he had accomplished.

Barry was one of the easiest to talk to when he was not busy editing, and his wealth of knowledge about gaming and video editing impressed her.  He even shared some of his favourite work playlists on Spotify so she could have decent music to listen to.  Barry very often downplayed himself a great deal, claiming that anyone could do his job, and this was all part of his charm for her.  She would often watch him edit and observe his process, realising just how much work went into editing and how much commitment he had to his job.

She and Suzy were quite similar in their attitudes and personalities, preferring to work in the background rather than be front and centre, and were generally rather reserved, but she learned that Suzy sparkled when she was truly relaxed, and would talk about taxidermy and the jewelry crafted for the Phsychic Circle Oddities range with great excitement.  One day, Suzy even blessed her with her signature cat eye make-up and shimmer eyeshadow before they went for lunchtime sushi, and she felt like she had a sister for the first time.  They also shared a love of cats, with her becoming fast friends with Mimi and Mochi, never missing a chance to cuddle them whenever she was invited over to Suzy's home.

Ross was the one who pushed the boundaries of mischief from the first day they met, often mimicking her voice when she answered the office landline since she had a pleasant telephone manner.  He was teaching her the rudimentary skills of Flash animation, and while he was quite patient, it was quite slow progress, but she appreciated him taking the time to be her teacher.  When he worked on his Gameoverse project, if ever he seemed to be feeling down about his progress, she would always reassure him that the fans would support him, and would proceed to mimic an Australian accent in turn to make him guffaw.

Although she seldom saw Brian around the office, whenever they talked together about music or the rudimentary basics of string theory, he was always very soft spoken and paternal with her.  Yet he indulged in his wicked sense of humour and recorded the misfortune of anyone in the office who was victim to an elaborate running joke or prank, and as soon as she was settled into the office routine, even brought his camera phone close to her face when she was drinking a smoothie, making loud slurping noises and almost making her shoot green juice out of her nose several times.  His daughter, Audrey, was always front and centre on his phone wallpaper, and the first time she had met Brian's little girl, she was overwhelmed at how bright and sharp she was at two years old.  While the little girl was initially shy around the new arrival, she soon came around when her dad encouraged her to give the nice lady a hug before they left for the day.

She and Vernon shared the mantle of being new to the Grumps, and she often sympathised with him being the punchlines of many jokes.  Still, his effusive laugh would never fail to lift her spirits, and his rapport with her was almost brotherly since he indulged in boyish teasing on quiet days. He had even tempted her to re-enact an episode of Hot Pepper Gaming on a dare, even to review any game of her choice, but she had politely declined, having seen the torturous ordeals that their fellow colleagues had been through.

She had always admired Matt and Ryan's work on YouTube, what with their frequent collaborations with Mark Fishbach, and now as the principal editors for Game Grumps. Often, they would be working at home or deep in their work at the office editing the latest batch of episodes for the show, but when they were together, they relentlessly tease her by acting overly serious and showering her with pages, comparing her to Slender Man with her fascination with paper, and even volunteered a queen's chair for when she wanted to walk from one end of the room to the other. She had not declined them so far, opting to play along and tell them just how strong and manly they were in order to earn some brownie points and deter any pranks of retribution in future.

Last but not least, there was Dan.  The mellow, soulful, talented singer with the soft curls and the kindest heart of anyone in the entire world.  Ever before she came to work with them, Dan had mesmerised her with his beautiful voice and had succeeded in making her smile on days when she was between jobs and struggling to make a legal career work.  His laugh would light up the room and his vocal warm-ups before recording sessions would be her soundtrack while she worked.  She looked up to him a great deal, figuratively and literally, for when they first met, she had to tilt her head back as they shook hands, and must have come across as completely starstuck.  Or slightly odd, she could not confirm either way, but he had smiled at her, more than likely being kind to the new person.

Maybe it was just girlish longing or a prolonged infatuation now that she was in close proximity to him, but her heart would react in an uptempo manner whenever Dan came towards her, and she often desperately hoped that she was not giving off some signal that she was attracted to him, for such a relationship to exist in work just could not happen.  At least that was what she told herself each time she said goodnight to him or when he gave her a light hug at the end of a long day.

He did tease her, much like the rest of the men as there was always a convivial atmosphere at work, but with him, it was always different somehow.  He was softer with her, and would always ask her afterwards if he had gone too far when she began to blush screaming scarlet.  When he paid attention to her, it was imbuing her with a sense of pride, that she was the one to make him smile, even just for a moment. To be noticed by Dan Avidan was often her greatest fantasy, and she would often berate herself for acting like a fangirl when there was work to be done.

Over time, she could tell that Dan enjoyed peace, especially to meditate or focus his mind before recording, and that he liked his green tea at just the right temperature to soothe his throat, that when he wore his Giants beanie pulled low over his forehead, he did not want to be disturbed by anyone.

He liked to be on his own, and this choice was respected.

However, this began to happen more often over a protracted period, when Dan began to slowly withdraw into himself.  This did not appear to be abnormal, given that he and Brian were burning the midnight oil to finish writing songs for the next Ninja Sex Party album, and it had happened before with the previous songwriting stints for Starbomb, yet she couldn't help but feel that something else was going on, despite being in their employ for close to a year, when all the others had known him far longer.

She never claimed to be the best reader of people.  Even if she had the powers of a psychic bestowed by some trick of fate, it would more than likely be a comedy of errors rather than a helpful tool. More similar to 'That's So Raven' rather than a divining soothsayer.

Still, it would help to know what her friends were thinking, how they were feeling so she could help them, especially if they were in pain. Her heart was emotive that way.

Maybe it was time to speak with him, or at least put her worries to bed.


Choosing the right time to speak to any of her colleagues was a fine line to tread. There was a time and the place for such a conversation, given that they all had important work to do. It would have been all the more awkward if her instincts would turn out to be wrong.

But somehow, when Dan's vocal warm-ups suddenly stopped one afternoon and there was a long, deafening silence, she was compelled to put aside her paperwork and cautiously venture into the quiet relaxation room.

The lights are dimmed low, and she can make out his unmistakable figure stretched out along the length of the sofa, an arm flung over his eyes, shoes discarded to one side of the sofa, and his legs close to hanging over the opposite arm.  He looked dead to the world, his chest rising and falling slowly.

He was quite honestly the most beautiful creature she had ever laid her eyes upon.  She had to know if he was alright...

"Danny?"  Her voice is quiet, cracking slightly with nerves, not wanting to disturb him at all, especially if he was tired.

"Mmmm?"  His inquiry is relaxed rather than sleepy.

"Hi... it's only me... I just wanted to see if you were alright... I know this is a quiet room, and you were warming up earlier, but you went quiet and I didn't see you come out, so... I'm sorry for barging in..."

Dan lifts himself up onto his elbows, looking at her over his shoulder with a neutral expression.  "Trust me, you didn't barge in, sweetness. I know what barging in is, I've done it myself a few times. You're fine... I was just resting my eyes."

"Okay..."

Months ago, she would have made her apologies for walking in and left him at peace. She would have chosen not to get involved with something so personal, but the intuition would not be ignored.

"Dan... I hope you don't think I'm intruding, but... can we talk?"

He does not look taken aback, and instead offers a gentle smile.  "Sure."  

Now he sounded more himself as he patted the sofa beside him, moving himself up into a cross legged seating position, groaning dramatically. "I'm an old man, sweetness. I can feel it in my bones."

The added humour makes her smile, reminding herself that she needed to relax as well, as she takes a seat on the opposite end of the sofa, turning slightly to face him with her right leg tucked up under the left knee, the adjustment giving her an extra moment to choose her words.

"What's on your mind?"

An open invitation to speak freely.

"Dan, I'd like to think... I mean, I hope this isn't a presumption... I hope that you can feel that you can talk to me, and not worry about me telling anyone, because what people talk about is their own business because privacy is important. So... I just wanted to ask you, while I have the courage in me... is everything alright?"

While it was close to darkness in the room, his eyes were unmistakable as he tilts his head to one side and she could not look away even if she tried. "Yeah... yeah, everything's fine. Why do you ask? I'm fine, really."  There is no hint of anger or suspicion, so she continues on.

"It's just... this may be all in my head, so please forgive me, but you've... I mean, I've only observed, that you've been quiet lately. Withdrawn. And it is more than fine to like to be on your own... I just wanted to know if there was any reason for you wanting to be alone. If it's none of my business, please tell me and we can forget that I ever asked. But I honestly do not believe that I would be a good friend if I did not try to ask, because I know what it is like to handle things alone... and it can be soothing to be alone, but..."

Her speech is halted by Dan covering his eyes with his hand, tucking his legs up close to his chest, making himself smaller, and his breath hitches softly, as if he were smothering a sob.

"Dan?  Dan, what's wrong?"

He doesn't answer.  Now her worry is justified.

"Danny?"

Carefully, she reaches out to touch his arm wrapped around his knees, just the lightest brush of a fingertip.  "Dan... I'm listening... please tell me..."

"I... it's nothing... I'm fine..."  His voice is quiet, almost a whisper.

Her first instinct is to be polite, to respect his privacy, but then again, she may never get this chance to talk like this again, and it was obvious that something was indeed very wrong.

"You're not fine... Dan, please talk to me... or tell me to leave. I am not moving until I get an answer or you tell me to go away. It's up to you."  At least she could tell herself that she had tried.

Dan doesn't respond right away, only pressing his fingers against his closed eyelids.  When he lowers his hand, his eyes are glimmering and his brow is furrowed as he swallows thickly.

"I don't want to keep hiding this anymore... I've tried to cover it up, so it wouldn't affect my work, or anyone else, because who am I to bring negativity into the Grump space?  Seems I've failed, haven't I?"

She remains silent, not answering his questions, only shifting over one cushion, keeping a light touch on his arm, curling around his forearm with a gentle pressure to let him know that she was not going anywhere.

"I didn't want to tell anyone, because it's ridiculous and I am over-reacting and it's... I just feel ashamed."

Alarm bells go off in her head but her expression does not change.

"You know I've been seeing someone?" When he pauses, she replies, "Yes. You mentioned her before.  I can't recall her name.."

"Her name is Faith.  I met her at one of those YouTuber parties that we get invited to constantly, and somehow, I got talking to her over the punch bowl, as cliched as it sounds.  She is a writer for one of those gaming magazines, wanted to do a piece on Arin and I... we hit it off pretty well and she gave me her number, which is always encouraging."

His smile does not quite reach his eyes.  She does not prompt him to continue, only regards him in silence.

"So long story short, we gave things a shot, she was all for it, and... everything was going fine until two weeks ago today.  When she came back from a writers' meeting and decided to take out her frustration with work by downing half a bottle of wine and breaking a lamp off the wall in front of me, which was bad enough on its own, but then she is ranting and raving about being screwed over, that her boss was a bitch, that her talent was being squandered, and she deserved better.  I'd never seen her like this before, never seen her go so far, because she did enjoy wine with her meals when we went out and she would have the odd drink in the evenings, and she... she would get quite touchy feely and I didn't mind that one bit, because I am a man, after all..."

He more than likely meant that as a joke, but it was clearly not a laughing matter.

"So... I decided to agree with her, because she had already broken one thing in my apartment, what's to stop her destroying more? I said, out of sheer caring, that I wanted to help her, that she had to let me help her if she was feeling so shitty, and... and the look on her face when I said that.  She started going off at me, saying I was a waste of space with a stupid band and no fucking talent and everything I did was worth absolutely nothing."

Her chest constricts, and her vision begins to swim at the recounting of those insults hurled at him.

"I thought, 'Well, she's drunk, she's angry, she wants a reaction out of me', that's why she is acting like this, but I am not one for confrontation, so... so I turned and walked away, telling her that she could sober up, then talk to me like an adult because I wasn't going to stand there and listen to her being a crappy person... I wish I hadn't said anything... I shouldn't have said a thing... such a fucking mistake..."

At this point, Dan is squeezing himself tighter and tighter, clenching his fists until his knuckles went white, and she does not interrupt, ice cold dread trailing down her spine.

"I start down the hallway, just wanting to go to bed... but then a glass misses my head and shatters in front of me, and while I'm trying not to step on broken glass, she runs up behind me and digs her nails into my shoulder, really hard and it really, really hurt... so I turn around to try and get her off, when everything just slows down and... and she slaps me."

Her entire body goes numb. "She hit you..."

Dan nods slowly, lowering his head down to his knees, mumbling, "I got hit by my girlfriend, and I couldn't hit her back, not even to defend myself.  I just slumped against the wall and went all limp so she'd think she'd won and would go away... she just shoves me hard and stumbles off to bed... I... I don't hit people... I couldn't hit her... so I just took it... I took it like a coward... and she doesn't even remember hitting me, saying I must have been clumsy and walked into a door because I'm such a lanky bastard... and I don't know what to do... I'm scared of provoking her, I'm walking on eggshells, and if there is no alcohol in the house, even if I poured it all away, she'd find more and... and I don't know what to do... I don't want to provoke her and I know I shouldn't stay... but I want to make it work because she really is amazing... I can't fucking deal with all of this..."

He trails off into a sob, and she cannot bear the sound, as well as not wanting to hear anymore.

"Oh, Dan..."

He hitches a breath, before sobbing in earnest, low, plaintive sounds, as if he were trying to force the sounds back down into his chest so they could not be heard.

Without hesitation, she reaches forward to gently tug on his arms, murmuring, "Come here... come here..."

He goes without resistance, and she kneels up beside him, bringing his head to her shoulder, uncoiling him from the knot he had squeezed himself into.  "Let it out, Dan... just cry... just let it out..."

Dan makes no sign he heard her, does not acknowledge her being right or wrong, only turning his head and hiding his face in her shirt, shoulders shaking, reaching up to hold onto her arm, his whimpering muffled.

It didn't matter that a piece of her hair is trapped between her shoulder and Dan's forehead that tugged her scalp whenever Dan burrowed closer to her.  It didn't matter that his tears and breathing were moistening her shirt through to her skin.  It didn't matter that her knees would more than likely be stiff when she stood and straightened them out. It didn't matter about her feelings not being returned when he was in a relationship with someone else.

It would not stop her conjuring up images of dragging Miss Faith by her hair, however.

All that mattered was that she was here for him, when he desperately needed comfort after being in so much pain, even if it did cut a piece of her heart for him to bring away after they parted.

She does not tell him that it would be alright.  She does not offer him advice about leaving his girlfriend.  Now is not the time for platitudes or hollow reassurance.  All she can do is hold him close as he cries, gently rocking him side to side, resting her cheek on top of his head, fingertips lightly brushing through the length of his hair, humming a melody under her breath, doing what she can to ease him.

After several long minutes, Dan stills, breathing deeply against her shoulder, his crying apparently spent.  Loathe as she was to disturb him, and as much as it felt like home to have him in her arms, she had to move her legs before the dreaded pins and needles set in.

"Dan... can I get up for a second, please? I just need to stretch my legs..."

He lifts his head a fraction, blinking blearily and sniffling like a child, Lord love him. "Yeah... of course.. okay.."

She gently releases her hold on him and he lowers himself down onto the sofa, wrapping his arms around himself, heaving a hitched sigh as she stretches her legs, promoting the blood to begin circulating again.

"I'll be right back."

He makes no sign that he heard her, and she quietly steps out of the room to take a moment to take several deep breaths, willing herself to be strong for Dan now. Her emotions were swinging rapidly between heartache and cold anger, but she willed herself to be calm, for Dan's sake.

In the kitchen, she fills a glass with cold water, dampens a clean flannel towel, and tears off three sheets of kitchen roll. The office is quiet, with only Barry and Matt working in the corner with headphones on and their chairs facing their monitors, they do not notice her walking through, she still walks on tiptoe.

When she returns, Dan has not moved, his eyes shut and legs tucked up close. Whispering his name, he slowly stirs and sits up, watching her expectantly with a look that was akin to Bambi eyes.

She offers him a paper towel to blow his nose and the glass of water to drink, sitting beside him once again, resting her hand on his shoulder.

"Now let's get you cleaned up." She kneels up beside him, much like before, and instructing him to close his eyes, gently bathes his eyes with the flannel, holding his chin between her index finger and thumb to keep him steady, brushing any remaining tears tracks from his cheeks, soothing the redness around his nose, and carefully cooling his brow.

"There we go... all clean now."

She looks him over to see if there was anything else she could do, when he opens his eyes slowly to look at her, it is akin to being doused with cold water and she cannot move.

His gaze could be direct at the best of times.  Now, it was almost as if he was staring into her soul.

"I can't believe you stayed.  Why did you?"

It was not an unreasonable question, but she could not find the answer.

Unaware of the line she is crossing in this exact moment, she lifts her hands to cup his cheeks, wanting some kind of contact between them, to be some measure of comfort to him. His expression shifts to slightly bewildered as he blinks up at her with nothing but innocence and trust.

"Because you are my friend, and I am right here for you."

He nods, not pulling away or telling her to take her hands off him, despite the position they are in being rather too intimate for friends, or even acquaintances, to be in.

Yet she could not move away, or stop stroking his cheekbones with her thumbs, banishing the last of any tear trails, memorising the warmth of his skin, the angles of his face, how it felt to be so close to him.

If it were any other person, she would have leaned in all the way by now, so strong is the overwhelming need to kiss him.  But this was Dan.  It had to be different with him, despite the level of eye contact being close to what lovers would engage in, and the fact that his hand was on her waist, keeping her anchored.

"Danny... are we, by any chance, having a staring contest? Because I do believe I have lost several times..."  Her attempt to inject humour into the situation, to make it seem like friends being friends, and that this was completely ordinary.

He doesn't answer, liquid brown eyes drinking her in all the while, and she never felt so exposed in all her life.

Realising that the moment had stretched too long several beats ago, she chooses to break the sustained eye contact, dipping her head with her hair falling to cover her face, allowing her hands to come down to her lap.

She is not prepared for Dan taking hold of her wrist, pressing her right hand close to his cheek, exhaling brokenly.

He says her name with a quiet hesitancy and she lifts her head once more.

"Please... please, stay with me..."

In that moment, she would have gladly committed any crime, broken any law, if it would just make him smile again.  "I will... I will, Dan, I'm not going anywhere."

"Please..."

Almost in slow motion, he wraps his arm around her waist, gently exerting enough pressure to make her lie down beside him on the sofa, and she goes willingly, all remaining reservations vanishing into thin air, shifting just close enough so they can fit together comfortably.  He does not take his eyes off her, and by now, her head is swimming while being the centre of his attention, feeling warmth blossom from each point of contact.  Unable to help herself, she slides her hand up and down his back in a soothing motion, crossing the thin line that separated friendship and romantic intimacy.

"How do you feel?"

"A bit better.  It still hurts, in my heart.  I need to deal with it better, and I think I can now."

"That's good."

"I didn't know I had to cry so much."

"We never do, until it just erupts."

"Emotions are weird.  I should know, being an internet star and someone who sings about sex for a living."

She chuckles.  "Yeah... is there anything you need?"

"Right now... just you."

A pause.

"I'd do anything for you, Dan. You know that, right?"  Blushing, she closes her eyes, mortified that she even admitted that.  It was the best substitute she could muster, instead of 'I love you so much'.  It had to do for now.

"Anything?"

"Anything."

"You are so,so sweet..."  Dan's voice trails off slightly as his body stretches along the length of the sofa, all remaining tension disappearing, pillowing his cheek against her hand with a quiet moan.

The sound sets her nerves tingling, and she stays quiet, listening to his breathing, thinking that he was the most beautiful person in the world that she would protect, even at the cost of her own feelings.

The last few words he whispers into her hair make her heart ache, just before he drops off into a deep sleep, "Sweet... like sugar sprinkles..."

His sigh blows warm breath against her forehead, and for the tiniest moment, she felt like she had an actual chance with him, that it was the only truth she knew, and even if the world caught fire, she would not let him go.

'I don't want to be sweet... I want to be who you want... I want to be yours... let me be yours...'

 

Two hours later...

Stirring from her light doze, she blinks blearily and finds herself still entwined with Dan on the sofa, more than surprised that he is still here and dares not move for fear of disturbing him.  He is snoring quietly, fast asleep, one hand resting in the small of her back where her t-shirt has ridden up, and it is all she can do not to purr in contentment.

Her hand is resting on his chest, over his heart, and she takes this moment to watch him sleep, his hair a soft cloud falling over his brow, all traces of worry and stress banished from his face.

The spell would surely be broken soon, whether it be from the need for friends to remain friends, or even sheer embarrassment, so it was the time to enjoy this closeness while she could, for it may never happen again.

He stretches and groans sleepily, nuzzling his nose into the crown of her head, waking with a low murmur of a name that is not hers.

Oh... 

Reality begins to seep in and her heart gives a painful twist. She shuts her eyes, pretending to be asleep, releasing her hold on his shirt.

After a long moment that feels like an eternity, he gently extracts himself from her hold after gently tugging down the back of her shirt, sliding off the sofa with barely a sound.  She instantly feels colder without him, rolling over onto her stomach, her arm hanging down, looking for all the world fast asleep.

She listens as Dan steps across the room, and then there is the the soft fall of a blanket across her, and tucked in at her sides.  Still, she does not move, even when Dan gently strokes along her hairline, tucking errant strands behind her ear. Even now, she can feel his eyes on her, and it is all she can do not to wake and plead with him to just stay, that it felt like home when he was beside her.

But it was not to be.

His voice a low mumble as he presses a lingering kiss to her forehead, "Have deep and amazing dreams, sugar sprinkles... and thank you."

Warm tears slip from beneath her closed eyelids as he steps away and out the door, closing it behind him with a soft click.  It is only then that she opens her eyes into the darkness, stretching her hand towards the door where he departed, reaching her hand through thin air in vain, before turning her face into the cushion, seeking out the last trace of his body heat and unmistakable scent before they disappeared forever.

Not a stranger to heartbreak, she gives into silent crying that goes unheard.

 


From that evening forward, he would call her sugar sprinkles when he wanted to cheer her up with a soft smile reserved only for her and his gentle hugs would last a moment longer.  It was all the consolation she needed for the small death she died each time.

A part of her would always be in yearning, knowing that even though he would always be so kind to her, that he was able to enjoy her company and confide in her if ever he needed, the fact remained that she was not the one waking up beside him each morning after leading him through the dark nights when he was alone.    

Maybe it would never be her.  

 

Who's gonna walk you
Through the dark side of the morning?
Who's gonna rock you
When the sun won't let you sleep?
Who's waking up to drive you home
When you're drunk and all alone?
Who's gonna walk you
Through the dark side of the morning?

It ain't me...

 

 

Chapter Text

Returning from a short, brisk walk, the cool air crisp and restoring to her tired brain, she lets herself back into the Grump office, lightly turning her head from side to side as her hair comes down from the improvised messy bun, combing through with her fingers and giving a quiet greeting to Barry and Ross, who were working on in-game design for an upcoming project.

The rest of the office is deserted as she walks by the fridge, taking out a bottle of tropical smoothie she had marked with a smiley face drawn on a post-it note, unscrewing the cap and taking a generous swallow to ready herself to get back to work.

Passing by Dan's workspace, hitching a small sigh at his absence, she notices a light blue square device on the coffee table marked 'NSP/Starbomb'.

Tilting her head, she calls out, "Hey, Barry? Has Dan left?"

"Yeah, just about twenty minutes ago. He was drinking his boba tea on the go while checking his phone, nearly spilled it, the big goof."

Ross let out a wicked chuckle, and she would have chided him if not for the crucial matter at hand.

"That's fine, only that he left his hard drive behind, and I know he works on music at his home sometimes."

Barry rolled his eyes good naturedly. "Typical Dan, cutting and running without his music. It's coming up to crunch time for NSP soon."

To punctuate this, Ross does a passable rendition of the chorus of 'Cool Patrol', earning a bemused stare from Barry. "Please don't start dancing, Ross. Spare our friend the sight."

Wiping her hands free of condensation from the cold bottle, she picks up the hard drive, being extra careful knowing the value of the data on it, thinking of all the hard work Dan put into layering vocal lines and harmonies with a secret smile, before clicking back into the present.

"Goodness, I hope he's not panicking about losing it or anything."

Barry does not appear phased. "Hey, he knows how we value external hard drives and that it's as safe as can be here in the office, apart from being locked in a vault with the code 6969 on it," he quips with a chuckle at his own joke.

She looks over at him with a smile out of the corner of her mouth, the reference not lost on her.

"Anyway, I'm going out to buy some more cereal to restock the kitchen. I can call by his apartment on the way and give it back to him. I wouldn't feel right just leaving it here when he might need it."

"Sounds like a plan, and tell Daniel to take care of his hardware, if you know what I'm saying." Ross winks at her in an exaggerated manner and she puts a hand to her forehead in a swooning manner.

"Mr. O'Donovan, please do not engage in such talk, I'm a lady."

In between making a shopping list and sorting out her belongings, she sends Dan a quick text to let him know that she was coming by out of courtesy so she wasn't dropping in unannounced.

She walks out of the office after asking the guys if they needed anything while she was out, adding Marshmallow Maties and a six pack of La Croix to her list, getting into her car, putting Dan's address into her sat-nav and driving off into the dusky evening.

 

After finding Dan's apartment, the door almost seems imposing. This was the first time she had ever been to Dan's home, and while she had been in Suzy and Arin's house many times before, it had always been as an invited guest.

She knew that Dan favoured his privacy a great deal, and so this brief feeling of intrusion was not lost on her for now.

Giving herself a mental shake, she reaffirms her thinking: She was here for work reasons, not here on a personal note. She was a professional, and Dan was her colleague. Her friend. The starman who fell to Earth, with dandelion hair and radiant purity in his heart...

Okay lady, time to focus...

Knocking three times, she takes a step back and waits, the hard-drive safely stowed in her bag hanging from the crook of her arm.

Her palms feel warm and clammy, so she pats the side of her leg until they are dry again. It was almost like being back in school again, to be forced to knock on the principal's door to be reprimanded for talking out of turn.

After a minute, she is about to knock again when the door is swiftly opened, and her greeting dies on her lips when it is not Dan at the door, but a woman.

A tall woman with dark eyes and caramel skin stands before her, wearing a cropped t-shirt that exposes her mid-riff, glossy jet black hair gathered in a voluminous fishtail braid over her shoulder.

Faith... this was her...

"Yes?"

Her voice is deep, husky, almost, and for a moment, she almost forgets why she was there, so struck is she by her looks, and immediately imagines her standing beside Dan and looking even more beautiful. They fit well together.

And yet...

Her eyes have glazed over at the errant thought of Dan dodging a thrown glass and being physically hurt, but somehow, she reaches inside herself to bear down and to be kind, for his sake, at least.

"Hello. You must be Faith. I'm from the Grump office. It's good to meet you."

She extends her hand, and Faith looks down at it with slightly curled lips, before shaking it quickly.

"Charmed. So what brings you here?"

She stands in the doorway, her hip against the frame, the door itself not even opened fully, and it does not occur to her at that point in time that she is literally blocking her way.

"I am sorry for disturbing you, I appreciate it's a bit late in the evening, but Dan left his hard drive back at the office and I am just dropping it back, because he's been working hard on music for the last few weeks, so I just wanted to make sure that he had it in case he needed to work from home at any stage."

Faith's expression does not change.

"I see. Well, that was silly of him, to leave behind something so very important, and having you drive all the way out here. I know I'd be annoyed."

Her chuckle is forced.

"It was no problem, I was on my way to the store anyway, and I sometimes leave things behind when I am rushing home as well. Between you and me, while the Grump office is like a fortress with security alarms, I just wanted to drop it over for his peace of mind and to save him driving back again when he can be chilling out here at home."

"How industrious of you."

The tone of voice is lost on her for now.

"This may be a silly question, but is Dan in, by any chance, so I can give this back to him?"

"Well, he does live here, don't you know?"

In this instance, she recognises the barb hidden beneath the polite tone, but she does not take the bait.

"He's taking a shower, but I'll make sure he gets it back."

She extends her hand in turn, her smile slightly cold.

For some reason, she felt a measure of hesitancy to hand over something so valuable, given what had happened before with items being broken in a fit of anger. The woman in front of her did not appear drunk or angry, so she put it down to being over-sensitive after seeing Dan so upset before.

Perhaps she was misjudging her. It would not be the first time she had done this in her life. People lashed out at those they cared about. Not that she was condoning it, but maybe it was a horrible moment in this person's life, even hurting someone as good and decent as Dan.

Maybe it was time to move on from her own resentment, to be a better person as well.

"Sure. Here you go," and she places it in her palm, feeling a flutter of anxiety in her chest as the other woman's fingers curl around it, bringing it down to her side.

"Thank you. Now I don't mean to be rude, but I'm just making dinner and it's prone to burning..."

"Oh, by all means. Thank you for that, Faith, it was good to meet you."

"Likewise. Goodnight," and she is about to shut the door, when she puts her hand against it, a thought occurring to her just in that moment.

"Wait, wait. Just one more thing, if you don't mind, please."

"Yes?" Her voice sounds strained now.

"Faith... I hope you don't think me forward, but just while I'm here, I won't keep you for too much longer, but I would like to propose something while I have you here. If ever you're around in town or have free time for lunch, then you are welcome to join me and the others for sushi sometime. I think it would be great for Dan and you to just hang out with us, because I'd like to get to know you and I know the others would as well. You can talk to Dan about it, of course, but please just feel free to join us anytime."

This was a half truth wrapped up in an invitation, but to leave here without offering some measure of friendship would be an opportunity lost, perhaps forever.

At first blush, Faith does not appear overly excited at the idea of going out to lunch with her and the rest of the Grumps, but she puts it down to it being late and the fact that she has dinner to make.

"I'll think about it. Thanks."

The smile she gives her is saccharine, very much forced now, and she takes it as a cue to leave. Not that she felt particularly welcomed to begin with.

"Of course. I'll let you go, thanks again, Faith. Have a nice evening."

"Goodbye." And the door closes with a firm click.

The sound echoes down the hallway, ringing in her own ears, and confronted with the door shut in her face, she huffs. "Good evening to you. Don't forget to swallow the lemon juice you were holding in your mouth..."

Grumbling to herself, she turns to leave, walking out the front door of the apartment complex to her car, and driving to the nearest grocery store, for when she was kept busy, there was little time to dwell on anything that troubled her.

 

 

One hour later...

Returning to the Grump space, she puts away the food and cold drinks she bought, then arranges the new legal pads she bought on the workbench, before sitting down, looking ahead into the middle space, her carefully composed smile slowly dropping as she rests her head on her hand, rubbing her scalp with her fingers as was a habit when she needed to think.

Ever since leaving the apartment, hidden in the back of her mind was the lingering sensation of something being gravely wrong following her exchange with Faith.

Given what her prior knowledge of Faith's character had been, it would have troubled her to see a glass of wine in her hand, for example.  But as she replayed their conversation for the fifth time, there was a strong feeling as if her being there was a grave mistake.  It may not have been entirely all her imagination.

But surely visiting someone's home was not a crime? She had messaged Dan ahead of time, so she was not just dropping in on a whim.

Perhaps her timing was off, and it was rather too late to be calling on people...

Or maybe it was Occam's Razor at the end of it all. Perhaps the reason was that Faith did not want her there, plain and simple.

She glances over at Barry, who is wearing headphones as he works on the latest Grump Out video, and needing a good sounding board, she ventures over, pulling up a computer chair beside his, lightly touching his shoulder.

"Hi... can we talk, please, Barry? Only if you're not too busy?"

"Sure. I need to rest my eyes anyway, those graphics are so mind blowing. What's on your mind?"

He removes his headphones and pauses the footage he was editing, folding his hands across his stomach as he turned to face her fully.

Gathering her thoughts, she begins in earnest, "I dropped Dan's hard drive over to his place."

"Great, he'll be glad to have it back."

"Yeah, and we can all enjoy some new NSP soon. Only..."

"Only what?"

"I didn't hand it over to him, per se. I mean, it's in his apartment, so that's something, but anyway... it was Faith, his girlfriend, who answered the door. Dan was in the shower, so I left the hard drive with her, only... something seemed off about it, and I cannot for the life of me figure out way. It was her manner the entire time I was there. She didn't seem too pleased to see someone from the office calling round. It's been driving me to distraction all evening and I've been going over everything I did and said, because I just feel like I did something wrong."

Her speech pattern became more rapid now that she was giving voice to her worries, her mind going a mile a minute, her voice becoming more and more high pitched.

Barry lifts a hand as a signal for her to take a breath, "Hey, hey, slow down there. I'm sure you did nothing wrong. You didn't break the door down or anything like that, and it wasn't in the middle of the night when they were sleeping. Why would you think that you did something wrong?"

She inhales deeply, and lets it out, "I honestly couldn't tell you, but long story short, I offered her an olive branch, that she could come out to lunch with us if ever she was free, that she could join Dan when he was out with us, and truly, she didn't seem enthralled with the idea. I only wanted to be friendly."

"That was decent of you."

"At least I tried to get to know her. I mean, who wouldn't want to hang out with you guys?"

Barry wrinkles his nose with a smile. "That's sweet of you to say. Well, to be honest to the average person, we are kind of weird. Have you even seen our T-shirt commercials? I was throwing random objects at a shirt hanging from the ceiling, and when we hired a new editor, I was imagining Dan and Arin's heads floating around me in a circle and we put him in editing training like an 80's montage. Not something you'd be writing home about."

She laughs freely, having enjoyed those filmed skits many times when she was feeling down.

"Oh, Barry, normal is overrated, but... I just feel that she doesn't want to get to know us, and I don't know how Dan feels about that.  I mean, I wouldn't want to ask about personal things at work with anyone of you, because there is a time and place for it.  I don't even know if he would even want to talk about it with anyone, let alone me.  I mean... you've known him longer. What do you think?"

Barry picks up a pen and lightly tosses it from hand to hand as he considers. "You're right about personal being kept personal.  It's hard to say, but I mean, he's had girlfriends in the past and I only remember one coming by once or twice.  I think he's just wanted to keep his private life private, now that the channel has gotten so huge.  It can be tough to keep up a relationship with all the pressure hanging over you, and you know how much change can be jarring for people on the internet.  It can be especially tricky when someone who is so beloved as Dan is suddenly unavailable..."

"People may take issue with it."

Which was certainly the last thing anyone ever wanted to happen ever again.  The torrent of hate that rained down over Dan and Ross in the early days of Steam Train comes to mind and she only just manages to suppress a shudder.

"It's the price of online fame. That stress and toxicity are all things that we all want to have less of in our lives.  I mean, he's a big boy, yet that kind of hate can still sting.  But coming back to his girlfriend, maybe she's not at that stage of getting to know us yet.  Maybe she just needs more time."

"Yes, that's a good point.  Regardless, I just wanted to make an effort to include Faith with us, because I know what it is like to be left out of things.  All girls schools tend to make that a tradition, with groups of friends and one person being on the outside.  I was being sincere in asking, and I don't want to cut her out of anything, I wasn't out to trick her or anything."

A feeling of defensiveness rises in her now.

Barry frowns slightly. "I don't doubt that at all."

She slumps back in her chair, looking up to the ceiling.  "Is this world so different that we can't let anyone in, Barry?  Is there really so much that we can't show to anyone who isn't in here with us?"

Barry's brow furrows as he thinks over her question, exhaling gently, but not in annoyance.  "You'd be surprised how different it actually is when you are working here.  Look at Ross and Holly, Arin and Suzy, they work together and it's different when you are on the inside, when you can relate to the machinations, the fame, and how important it is that the channel is doing well and that our fans are happy.  There is stress and tiredness involved that not many people may want to be a part of.  Maybe for Dan at this stage of his life, it's a case of keeping work and personal separate for the sake of mental health."

"No, that sounds about right. I wouldn't want to impose or say anything wrong."

She looks down, feeling utterly drained, squeezing her fingers together with a sigh.

"Hey... don't you be getting worried about anything that you did or didn't say. You did a good thing by him. It was important for work and it shows you're thinking of him."

"But still, I..."

Barry wheels his chair forward, dipping his head so he can look her straight in the eye.

"'But still' nothing.  Don't worry about it, because you'll have grey hair in a month, and I don't like to see you sad when you are such a positive person around here.  So chin up, okay?"

He leans forward and chucks her under the chin to illustrate his point, giving her a friendly wink.

She smiles, taking in a deep breath, letting go of any lingering tension, and meeting his smile with her own.

"You're right.  Thanks, Barry."

"Anytime."

 

The next day...

Fuelled by granola and coffee, she spends most of the morning reviewing a YouTube Red contract, making notes to confer with Brent later on at their weekly briefing.  In between contracts and memos, she helps Arin and Vernon film some videos for Instagram, being the camera-person and not the centre of attention.

She feels a pang of sympathy for Vernon as he dissolves into laughter as Arin subjects him to a tickle attack, tears welling up in his eyes and his voice choked with laughter, "My sides!  Oh God, help me!  Stop filming and help me!  Oh God, not the ribs, please not the ribs!"

Her first instinct would have been to rush over to aid him, but a malevolent grin from Arin boring right into her eyes makes her stop right in her tracks before she'd be the next victim.

"Laugh, laugh, laugh! Ha ha, ha ha, ha ha!"

Eventually, he does cease and desist as the video is over one minute.

"It gets boring after twenty seconds, anyway."

Vernon tries to take in a full breath, his face red, "So why did you keep going?!"

"For the views, man. Also because I govern emotionally and I felt like hilariously torturing you today."

Vernon curls up in a ball on the beanbag, mumbling and rocking himself.

"Nice one, boss."  She stays just out of reach as she hands his phone back, not quite sure if he was still in a tickling mood.  Arin hadn't quite crossed the physical humour threshold with her just yet, but that day would surely arrive when she least expected it.

The man himself confirms her sneaking suspicion, "Some day, it will happen.  You'll be visited by the Cheerio Fairy, or the Tickle Monster!" Arin says with great authority.

She feigns a look of mild horror, but grins shortly after. "Right you are, boss. I'll look forward to it, while at the same time, looking over my shoulder as well for the Ad Monster re-appearing."

Dan had been absent all morning, and it was nothing out of the ordinary given that he often worked on music at home, as well as took trips to recording studios with Brian, and she was so busy with her own work, that it didn't cross her mind that anything was wrong.

Her conversation with Barry had eased her a mind a great deal, and he gave her a thumbs up when she passed by his work station.

At three o'clock, she had finished up with her work for the day and had drifted off into a pleasant daydream about visiting the lavender fields in Provence, when a quiet voice speaking her name broke through the reverie.

She blinks and turns in her chair to see it was Dan.  She had not heard him come in, and she would have remarked on him learning some skills from Ninja Brian, but she is immediately struck by how good he looks in his leather jacket, resembling the moody teenage Goth he had portrayed in the I Burgie Burgie commercials.

"Hey," she says brightly, but blinks in confusion when he does not return the smile, his eyes heavy with tiredness.

"Can I have a word, please?" His voice is lacking its usual warmth, and there is a layer of stubble on his jaw that made him look slightly dangerous.

"Yes... yes, of course, Dan, I'll just..."

Even before she had finished her sentence, he had walked, or rather, stalked off away from her without even a backwards glance.

She quickly puts her papers in order on her desk, marking the pile with her name and quick note with what she had been working on, before following him with a measure of trepidation, the action giving her precious seconds to mentally go through a checklist of all the work she had done to pre-empt any conversation about any possible mistakes that would spell disaster for them.

What have I done? Has something happened to a deal? Have I lost them money? Did I miss something that Brent signed off on? Oh God, oh God...

He pushes the door into the quiet room where they had spoken before, the memory still fresh in her mind of him being so close giving her some comfort to ease her nerves, and before it can swing back at her, she darts in just in time and shuts it behind her, though not looking back at the door itself, an old trick that she recalled from drama exams, for it showed how nervous a person was if they even looked back once.

Nervous was the one of many emotions she was feeling, and she told herself to stop trembling like a leaf. This was Dan, not some entitled superior. She would never have to deal with being looked down upon here, none of them were like that. She stands expectantly, a heavy silence having fallen, and she wonders who would be the first to break it, as her voice has retreated down into her chest, and she does not trust it at this moment.

Dan has his back turned to her, his shoulders set in a stiff line, and then he speaks, "You came by last night... with my hard drive."

"I did, yes. You got it back, didn't you?  Everything was fine with it?" A brief pang of fear made her stomach drop, the worst case scenario being that it somehow got broken in transit, that she had made it so he couldn't plug it in anymore. It had happened to her once with a backup drive and she had nearly lost her mind over it, and that was only personal photos, not a year's worth of creative work making a studio album.

"Yes."

She breathes out a sigh of relief, for that fear had been plaguing her a great deal since leaving his apartment the night before.

"Good, that's great. Brilliant, in fact. I knew it was important that you had your mixes in case you needed to work on them at home, and I know what it's like to leave things behind, and I handled it carefully so I hope that the files on it were safe and..."

Dan turns around slowly, and she halts, mid-flow, heart sinking at the expression on his face, that is neither grateful or remotely cheerful.

"I really wish you hadn't."

A long beat.

"Pardon?"

The word feels heavy in her mouth, the beginnings of numbness beginning to radiate out from her chest.

Dan is staring at her from across the room, his posture tense, poised as if to deliver a prepared speech, fists clenching and unclenching at his sides. "I am only going to tell you this once, because that is enough for me to say anything, and you are going to listen to me.  The next time I leave something behind here, just leave it there where I left it.  I don't... I don't want you dropping by unannounced and disturbing my time off... it was... it was inconsiderate and rude of you..."

Bewildered, she tries to speak, mouth suddenly dry, tongue unsticking from the roof of her mouth, "But Dan, I... I texted you, I let you know that I was coming by because... and you were in the shower, so I..."

"/That's not the point/."

She gives a start of fright, the first time Dan had ever come close to shouting in the time she knew him, and the sharp sound sets her on edge.

"Just listen to me, you /have/ to listen to me.  There is a line between my home life and work life that is there for a reason, that I've had for years and it's been working just fine.  You... you are not an exception,... so don't come by anymore. It's intrusive, and it's not appreciated.  You... you are not being helpful so just... leave it alone."

Her throat constricts, terrible visions swimming in her mind, all wearing the face of a dark haired woman whose namesake meant divinity...

"Dan... what's happened?" For a moment, he looks confused rather than defensive.

"What do you mean?"

She calls on the courage she still had in her. "You heard me, Dan. I want the truth. What has happened to make you say all of this?  If it was such a problem to have people coming over, then why didn't you say so before when I first came here?  Why did it take me calling round to make you say all of this?  Truth be told, you're behaving like a real jerk to me and it's not like you at all."

Dan visibly bristles, "Nothing, everything's fine..."

"Please don't lie to me."

She is pleading with him now.

"I am not lying, and you are acting like a child, so just stop it, alright?"

She can do no more except stare aghast, her mouth half open, and she wishes she could cover her ears and block out the terrible words that are coming from this man who looked like Dan Avidan, who had the same facial features and voice, but who had somehow become a completely different person in the space of several days.

"Dan... please... you are not fine, just listen to yourself."

He grits his teeth, "When I say something is fine, it's fine. It's not your business to be asking such things, or telling me about how I am behaving.  You don't know a thing, so stop fucking acting like you do."

"Dan..."

Putting a hand on her forehead, in complete disbelief, she tries to control her breathing as her voice cracks, almost on the verge of bursting into tears. It was almost as if she had personally offended him, and that was never her intention at all, as if their conversation from before had never even happened, when he had cried on her shoulder, called her sugar sprinkles for the first time, had trusted and confided in her when he was crying out for help.

"I don't... I'm just trying to understand because you... because I've never heard you speak like this before.  Just tell me what I did wrong and I can fix it.  Just tell me how, please."

She never liked begging. It was wholly weak and unbecoming of anyone who wanted to appear confident, but she found herself resorting to it now that this man who had become so dear to her was literally lashing out over something so slight.

He immediately switches back to speaking from a script, "Because I don't care if the office has caught fire, you do not call on me for any reason.  And one more thing... don't invite Faith out for lunch.  It's none of your business whether or not my girlfriend comes to hang out with us.  That is her call, and hers alone. She did not appreciate being made a fool of..."

That was when a nerve was touched. From a young age, she never dealt well with being accused of doing something she did not do. To be wronged in her eyes was just the worst possible thing, and here it was, her fears alive, terrible and breathing.

"/Dan/... I wasn't doing anything of the sort! I was being polite to her, offering her to hang out because you are my friend and I wanted to get to know her.  I was respecting your relationship and I wanted to make her feel included with all of us here.  What's wrong with that?  Can't I speak to the woman?  Do I have to make an appointment?  Am I not allowed to talk to her?  I have no idea what she has said, but I was not making fun of her and I am not playing games here so I can't believe you're saying this..."

Dan rounds on her again, "Just shut up for one minute, would you? Leave her out of this, this is between you and me and you... invading my privacy, and... I am only saying it once so get in into your head and have the fucking courtesy to not do it again. Just /listen to me/."

Her eyes begin to sting as he forces the words out. It was never pleasant for someone to raise their voice at her, for it usually meant she had done something wrong.  It was as if her worst nightmare had come to light, that her best intentions had turned out to be entirely the opposite.

"I had no idea you... that you felt so strongly about all of this."

"Well, I do... so now you know. I take it you understand?" He sounds exhausted, as if the tirade had taken all the energy he had in his body.

She swallows thickly, but remains stoic as he meets her eyes with barely concealed contempt. She felt like he truly disliked her in this moment, and she did not know if she could bear it any longer.

Raising her chin, she says in a low monotone, "Fine... okay... I won't bother you at home anymore. I won't come by for any reason, if that is what you want."

"It... it is. It's... it's better this way. So just drop it, and... and just grow up, alright? Just grow up..."

He steps closer to her, and she backs away out of fright, almost tripping over her own feet, the look in his eyes cold and unwelcome. The height difference is even more pronounced now as she cranes her neck back to look up at him, for she has just one last ounce of courage to not look away.

There is a brief flicker of sadness as his lower lip trembles, but he steels himself once more.

"Do you understand what I have said?"

"Yes... Dan. I understand."

The muscle in Dan's jaw is twitching, and despite her instinct to get out and away from this pain, she cannot bring herself to leave him.

He blinks once, and his eyes are soft, glimmering, almost like his old self again.

Before she can make a move to leave, he is reaching towards her, taking hold of her upper arms and she seizes up, her breath catching in her throat, hands curling into fists, the contact unexpected and slightly unwelcome, given all he had said.  She was almost prepared for him to shake some sense into her, or to push her down out of frustration.  Whatever his intention was, she was frightened of him for the first time, and it was a horrible feeling.

What he says next catches her completely off guard.

"You... you haven't done anything wrong..."

"What?"

"You... you did the right thing to bring my hard drive. You... you just came at a bad time, and Faith... she doesn't want anyone coming by. She told me to choose... and... and I need to try with her... she needs help and I have to try... I can't handle her being... being jealous on top of her drinking... because you're my friend and I... I had to say all that to make you see... that I can't fight this... I have to be stronger and I have do do this, don't you see?"

Overcome with horror, she can hardly take in a breath without shuddering.

"Danny... I... please..."

"Don't... please don't try to stop me... I can't... I just can't..."

She tries to free herself from his grasp, so that she can throw her arms around him and keep him from leaving, but he has greater will and strength in this moment, so all she can do is feebly lift her hands and hold onto his forearms, curling into the warm leather of his jacket, tugging at him to try and make him see sense. He is radiating so much heat, more than likely from launching into his tirade from before, and his breathing is catching in his throat as they regard each other.

"Dan... don't... please don't do this..."

"I can't..."

"Danny, please... please..."

He shakes his head. "No..."

And in a move that is all at once gentle and sudden, he has moved her to one side up against the wall, pinning her firmly and looking into her eyes with a look that is borderline desperate, leaning in close to her, voice a ragged whisper, "Don't... don't follow me... just... don't..."

He thrusts him himself out the door with not even a backwards glance, the door swinging behind him with a resounding snap.

"/Danny/..."

The uttering of his name is a rush of breath, the wind effectively knocked out of her, chest constricting, legs feel like water as her back slides down against the wall, sinking down into herself, covering her mouth to stifle the drawn out whimper.

She had experienced rejection before, unsuccessful interviews, potential dates letting her down, not getting a promotion, so-called friends turning their backs on her. This pain was so much worse, knowing that Dan was suffering and had, for all intents and purposes, chosen his relationship over their friendship. If one could even call it a relationship, or maybe they were not even friends to begin with... It was apparent that he was being hurt by this woman, and somehow, the fact that a friend from work had called to his home, had provoked a complete meltdown. It was this horrible prospect that was making it more difficult to bear, knowing that anyone could be so heartless to hurt someone as kind as Dan, and to force him to say such things to anyone, to make this choice, let alone a person he worked with.

The look on his face when he told her to leave him alone...

After several long minutes of mournful sobbing, she makes the decision to reach out one last time, before she would shut the door for the time being.

She dials his number, and hearing his greeting message makes her sob again, but she holds herself together when the tone sounds for her to record a voicemail, her words broken up by hitched breaths, trying to speak around the lump in her throat, "Dan... I know you are not going to pick this up right now... you might not even listen to this message, you might even delete it, but I need to tell you this now, while I have strength in me. I... I will respect your decision to stay away from your home, I will respect the choice you are making, but... I want you to know that I am not giving up on you. I will /never/ give up on you. Please know that, Dan. Just know that I'm here... I'm right here. You can tell me anything... you don't have to suffer alone. You are loved... you are /so loved/ by everyone. Ever since we met, you have made me so happy, and I want you to be happy. I wish... I wish I knew how to help you, Danny because I hate seeing you in pain and... and I am sorry that this is happening to you, I'm sorry... but I'm here, Danny... I'm here for you always, I promise... bye..."

Hanging up, the phone slips from her hand as she addresses the silence in a choked whisper what she couldn't say on the phone, "Come back... please... please come back..."

Even then she would not be moved, for somehow, the hope of waiting for a man who had held her beating heart in his hands was her only means of feeling alive.

To want nothing more than to heal him, like the power of the magical golden flower that flowed through Rapunzel's long hair and lived in the salt of her tears, to heal what had been hurt and to turn back the clock on all the pain that had ever been inflicted on him.  

If only these tears could heal him, rather than trickle down her cheeks and evaporate into thin air.

You were my new dream, Danny... you always will be, always... 

 

 

Chapter Text

Karaoke nights were often the most popular way to let loose after stressful times in the world of the Game Grumps. Given the fondness for Japanese culture in the office, it really was no huge surprise. No night clubs, no loud concerts, just half a dozen people in a room with a few beers, ice waters, nachos with an assortment of dips both spicy and mild, a vast selection of songs to choose from, and the opportunity to showcase theatricality at its most humourous.

It was often a singing tournament with the other participants scoring the performing singer out of ten, although the singing would be almost drowned out by vigorous heckling and shouts of 'Get off the stage!', though nothing patently cruel or humiliating, resulting in the winner being blessed with a commemorative novelty trophy purchased on a whim earlier in the week. It usually devolved into a series of comedic performances with more laughing and attempts at belting off-key than actual singing but always in the best of fun.

Tonight, however, she was not in the most jovial of moods given her lingering stress with work and all that had happened involving Dan. It was a harsh reality where nothing could lighten her mood, not even Ross doing his best metal voice to 'I Will Always Love You' and Arin singing a duet of 'A Whole New World' all by himself, using the full octave range of his voice to emulate Jasmine and Aladdin convincingly.

It had been two whole weeks since the fight, and the civil impasse had worn on. They hardly spoke to each other, worked on opposite sides of the office (though it was pure strategy on her part given his workstation being positioned where it was), and if ever they encountered each other in passing, going to the kitchen or to a recording room, she would immediately drop her head and step back, the picture of a shrinking violet, as if her only being there was an offence to him, and he'd turn around and leave in the opposite direction without a single word.

She often saw the back of him more often than she saw his face, which may be a blessing in disguise for it would only break her even more to look into those eyes and not see the warm glow that he reserved for those he called his friends.

They weren't friends anymore, they were barely even acquaintances, and it all happened in the space of several heartbeats. Just one mistake that she had to make...

No one had noticed the change just yet. She continued to be diligent with her work and he was the steadfast professional in his music and making Let's Play videos with Arin, and truth be told, Arin would certainly speak up if he noticed Dan was off his game in any way at all.  It would only be a matter of time until it became too obvious, when she would make a mistake or someone would catch her in a bad moment where she would certainly snap, and then what would happen?  The Grumps space was the best office she had ever worked in, surrounded by passionate, kind people who thoroughly enjoyed what they created and had nothing but love for their fans.  She had found so many reasons to get up in the morning and make the commute to a safe haven where she was appreciated as a person along with her work that she had strove to perfect for so many years, the career she had fought and worked so hard for, and now the brightest reason, the most beautiful reason for being there, was the source of her greatest pain.

What a screwed up tragedy life could be.

"Hey, it's your turn!" Barry gently taps her shoulder with a chuckle.

Blinking back into the present, she responds slowly, "Pardon?"

"You're up next, go on."

Her expression is more like a grimace, having only been an onlooker in the time she had been working with them, and she had been politely declining the invitation to take part all along, "I don't sing that much, I'll pass."

"Oh come on, I have faith in you, it's so much fun! Besides, you only need to beat a score of six, so it's freaking easy!"

Ryan interjects from across the room, "I thought I scored seven! I killed that Rihanna jam."

"We docked you a point for the twerking, Ryan! No one wanted to see that terrible booty technique," Arin quips, barely able to contain his glee.

"Man, can't a guy do a dance anymore without being objectified? They don't call it the money maker for nothing."  He stands and proceeds to do a gyration that would make any dance choreographer faint away as Ross makes a loud gagging noise in the corner.

Despite all the good natured sniping going on around her, she was truly not in the humour of joining in, already after her third beer and feeling more tired than anything, though she knew that if she refused, Barry would know that something was wrong and would naturally ask her about it since he was such a good friend.  The best, in fact.

"Okay, I'll just... I hadn't picked a song yet and I'm not really sure what to choose."  Translation: I want to tell you that I'm not in the mood because I don't want to be a killjoy so I am just stalling for time and praying that you can read my thoughts through my eyes because you are simply so perceptive, Barry.

Despite her silent wishing, Barry does not pick up on that cue and chuckles heartily, completely at ease and leans over to whisper to her in a gentle tone that made her nerves tingle, "It's fine, take your time, we've got this room booked for the entire night. Just enjoy yourself, you won't even know we are here."

Arin makes a loud raspberry from the corner and high fives Matt loudly, who titters and bends double on the curved sofa.

"Well, maybe not."

Remembering that she was among friends for whom she cared for deeply, she stand slowly after putting her drink to one side, putting on a brave smile, she approaches the machine that was the song selector and starts to browse, nothing taking her fancy just yet and glancing out of the corner of her eye at all the mingling and inebriated antics of some of the others that did little to raise her spirits.

This motion was more to give herself time to try and convince herself to have a good time, to try and forget as much of the negativity as she could.

All the songs were Top 40 and rather upbeat.  Given her mood, she could not sell preppy lovesick pop when she was feeling so low.

On a sheer whim, she looks up Lady GaGa who had been immensely popular during her university days, and while the song Brown Eyes makes her stomach drop, she decides to choose 'Speechless', which was often a tough one for her to sing given that it was so demanding, but if ever there was a song that matched her life right now...

Walking up to the microphone, she taps it a few times, wincing at the loud volume when she spoke, "Hey... hey guys. Sorry to have taken so long but I've got one. It's a Lady Gaga song but it's one of the more... bluesy ones, which I like a lot, so... here I go and please be... kind?"

She laughs a bit too loudly but the others are still giggling to themselves so thankfully her attempt to cover up is not noticed. Reaching over to press play, the timer counts in the first lines and while the screen told her to sing, she stands in front of the microphone stiffly, waiting for the words to appear, but not reading them closely since she knew the song by heart.

 

I can't believe what you said to me

Last night we were alone

You threw your hands up

Baby, you gave up, you gave up

 

I can't believe how you looked at me

With your James Dean glossy eyes

In your tight jeans with your long hair

And your cigarette stained lies

 

As she pauses to take a breath, even over the backing track she perceived that much of the room had fallen quiet and all the men were watching awestruck.

 

Could we fix you if you broke?

And is your punchline just a joke?

 

I'll never talk again

Oh boy, you've left me speechless

You've left me speechless

So speechless

 

And I'll never love again

Oh, friend you've left me speechless

You've left me speechless

So speechless...

 

Shutting her eyes on the held note, she hears a whisper from somewhere off to her left, "Woah... never knew she could sing."

As the second verse begins, she wraps her fingers around the microphone and starts to gently sway her hips from side to side, the music filling her up.

 

I can't believe how you slurred at me

With your half wired broken jaw

You popped my heart seams

All my bubble dreams

Bubble dreams

 

I can't believe how you looked at me

With your Johnny Walker eyes

He's gonna get you

And after he's through

There's gonna be no love left to rye

 

Her voice isn't particularly strong at this part of the song but she puts emotion into it, regardless. At least no one would throw rotten fruit at her or press a buzzer with a large red X. She catches sight of Barry watching, his grin wide, his head nodding in time, and this gives her a needed lift.

 

And I know that it's complicated

But I'm a loser in love, so baby

Raise a glass to mend

All the broken hearts of all my wrecked up friends

 

I'll never talk again

Oh boy, you've left me speechless

You've left me speechless

So speechless

 

And I'll never love again

Oh friend, you've left me speechless

You've left me speechless

So speechless

 

How?

How?

How?

 

How?

How?

How?

 

During the vocal bridge, she subtly loosens the microphone from the stand, managing to free it so she can move about on the stage a bit more freely, finally permitting herself to let loose and perform as best she can.

 

And after all the drinks and bars that we've been to

Would you give it all up?

Could I give it all up for you?

 

There is an ache in her chest as she sings that line, slowly getting into the song more and more, the memories coming back of singing into a hairbrush and imagining music videos in her head, all alone in her room without an audience to hear her or even know she had any semblance of what could be called talent.

 

And after all the boys and the girls that we've been through

Would you give it all up?

Could you give it all up?

If I promise, boy, to you...

 

That I'll never talk again...

And I'll never love again...

I'll never sing a song

Won't even sing along

I'll never talk again

 

So speechless

You've left me speechless

So speechless

You ever talk again

Oh boy, /why/ you so speechless?

 

You've left me speechless

So speechless

 

Now and again, she glances to the door, wishing, hoping, and wanting for Dan to walk through the door, to be there with them, to hear her sing and to see his beautiful smile again. She wanted to do this for him. Only for him, and there was the most tragic part.

 

Some men may follow me

But you choose death and company

Why you so speechless?

Oh, oh...

 

As the song ends, her breath escapes her in a rush as she takes a small bow with no real flair, relieved to be done and to have fulfilled the performance quota for the next six months Just as she is about to make a discrete exit off the stage, not wanting to cause major fuss, the room erupts in applause, much to her sheer surprise.

"Ten! Give her a ten!"

"Ten out of ten, yeah!"

Well, that was unexpected.  Before she can even say 'I wasn't that good' or even offer a chance to protest this rush of compliments, the men had come to the stage and lifted her into the victory queen's chair, hoisting her up and down, as she squeaks loudly in surprise, all the sadness evaporating into thin air.

"Winner, winner, winner!"

The first genuine smile all evening spreads across her face and when she is presented with the trophy, she does her best impression of Kate Winslet winning an Oscar and is treated to another beer and constantly begged in good humour for one more song, which she politely declines.

 

Three beers later...

Sitting at the bar, she gestures with the bottle in a toast to Ross as he puts on sunglasses as if it were a very cool thing to do as Arin and Matt attempt the worm by the jukebox, clapping her hands several times like a performing seal.  She may also have been laughing so loudly over the tolerable din of the music that onlookers turned their heads.

But it was all in good fun. She was having fun, everyone was having fun.  She had to keep laughing so the sadness would not creep in again.  Yet there it was, lurking on the fringes of her mind, wearing the face of the starman who fell to the Earth...

"Hey... you alright?"

In the midst of her brain being consumed by the rhythm of the music and the coloured lights making her dizzy, Barry has joined her, sitting on the stool beside her at the bar, catching his breath after an impromptu hoedown dance where he did his utmost to best anyone who would challenge him.

"Me?  Oh, I'm fine. I am just fine. I'm... I'm rather floaty right now and that... that is more than fine."

Her snort is rather rude and she puts the half-full bottle down on the bar counter with a loud thump.  Barry's smile does not quite reach his eyes as she regards him with her head titled comically to one side.

"I'm glad you're having a good time... but maybe you should slow down?"

While he is not telling her outright to stop, the implication is not so subtle that she does not miss it entirely, even in her inebriated state.

"What?  Why?  Why would I do that?  I am having fun with all of you and I am safe and... and the night is beautiful, Barry.  It is so beautiful and I want to have some fun!"

With that word, she rotates the stool a bit too rapidly towards him and he catches hold of her arm to steady her before she slid right off and into a heap on the bar floor.

"Hey, hey, easy there..."  He tips his head to one side, trying to look in her eyes to see if she was truly alright, and the eye contact makes her heart react in an up-tempo manner.  He did look tired, much like she was, and he was just such a good person. He was always nice to her and he never dismissed her if she had questions.  He actually listened to her when they spoke and he was just so handsome.

She is quite suddenly overcome with a need to crawl into his lap and nuzzle his neck since his cologne smelt divine. 

She blinks and hiccups once.  "Did I... have I ever told you that you are quite handsome, Barry?  Because you are.  You are such a good friend, you are... such a great friend. You are just so great."

His smile is still kind, though by now, she knows deep down that she has gone too far. 

"Thanks. I'm glad you think so."

In the dim light of the bar, she could swear he was beginning to blush.

"Yeah.  And... and I need some air now.  Because... because I am going to be sick if I don't stop, and you're quite right... I need to slow down, and... and I don't want to throw up on your handsome shirt."

She splutters, realising her mistake, making things a lot worse in her eyes, "Face... I meant handsome face." 

Now she mumbles to herself, turning her head away from Barry so he could not hear her, "Shut up, you silly girl... you always screw things up... I screwed up big time... no wonder he... I screwed up... I need... I need to get some air... see you, Barry."

Hopping off the stool rather gracefully, steadying herself by a hand on Barry's shoulder, she slowly runs her hand down the length of Barry's arm to his wrist, the warm flannel pleasant to the touch, mumbling 'You're so warm and nice' before she stumbles away, weaving through the crowd of patrons, thankfully not barging into anyone or spilling their drinks, needing, just needing to breathe cold air into her lungs.

She makes it to the back where there is less light and the music is not pounding in her eardrums, leaning against the back door of the bar, pushing the handle down clumsily and tripping over her feet, almost falling out into the alleyway but finding purchase at the cold wall.

It had stopped raining several hours ago and she cautiously steps about, searching for a dry spot to sit down.  Not the most comfortable of spots to place oneself but she was desperate to just sit somewhere.

Sliding her back down until she reaches the ground, her head makes contact with the bricks and she allows herself to breathe deeply, taking control of her insides, forcing herself to believe that she was not on a rollercoaster and that the earth beneath her was solid and not moving away from her.

I won't be sick... I won't be sick...

Not bowing to her wishes, her body disobeys as she dry heaves, eyes watering as her stomach churns, but nothing comes up apart from a small mouthful of bile that she spits out as she turns her head to one side, wiping her mouth and letting out a shuddering sigh, closing her eyes, wanting to just drift away into the unknown.  Rock bottom must be fairly close by now.

She remains in this state of in between waking and deep sleep until the door swings open and a shadow steps towards her.

"Hey... oh, thank God you're here..."

Barry. Of course. It had to be the decent one.

Throat raw, she manages to draw enough breath to say quite firmly, "I... I want to be alone, Barry."

The lack of conviction in her voice does little to drive away her would-be companion, who just had to be the responsible one.

"You shouldn't be alone in an alley like this. It's cold and it's dangerous out here."

She was so tired of being explained to.  Only the other day Brent was in one of his worse moods and decided to go on a lecturing spree to all who would listen much to her annoyance, and she very nearly snapped at him, though she restrained herself to saying in a tight voice, "Brent... just give me a minute, please."

Her patience with men was being continually tested...

"I'm fine."  The petulance is telling now, and she rakes her fingers through her hair to make it tidy, though only making it a much bigger mess. Why did her scalp itch when she was under stress? Why wouldn't her thoughts just behave?

Barry is clearly not convinced.  "You're not.  Look, I know it's been a busy week, and we all have the right to cut loose, have fun.  But I've never seen you drink so much and I know you're here with us, but it's still not safe to go so far."

"I'm an adult, Barry. I'm not... I'm not a child..."

Her voice cracks on the last word and her chin trembles.

"... you are acting like a child, so just stop it, alright? ... So just drop it, and... and just grow up, alright? Just grow up..."

Dan's voice returns from their argument, it echoes in her head, repeating over and over again, no less stinging than the first time he ever uttered them.

Barry is kneeling beside her, reaching out to touch her shoulder.

"What is it?" The kindness in his voice only makes the pain worse.

"I... I can't... I can't do this anymore... I can't..."

She gulps, hardly able to form the words, wanting Barry to go away now and needing him close in equal measure.

Barry clearly is not deterred despite her pathetic state as he squats in front of her, his hand brushing her hair from her face so he can see her without any barriers and her head lolls into the touch, starving for any kind of contact, be it innocent or otherwise.

"Tell me. I don't... I can't stand seeing you suffer.  Please..."

With those gentle words, it comes out in a torrent, words pouring out before she can even think to stem the flow, "I've tried... I've tried so hard to hide this. But... I can't do this anymore. I'm not... I'm not strong enough. You... you deserve to know because you asked me, and because... you are my friend and you are his as well."

Barry does not prompt her to continue, only making a single nod, and that is her signal.

She clenches her fists together, bearing down with all her strength to tell what she had kept so carefully locked away, "Dan and I... we had a fight, about three weeks ago, the day after I brought his hard drive to his apartment.  He basically told me to stay away and to stop presuming to know him and it was.. it was just awful, and he said such terrible things and he hasn't spoken to me since and he just... he just ignores me whenever we are in the office.  I can't... I can't even look at him anymore without remembering that day and... I don't know what to do anymore.  I love this job, I love all of you, this work is what I have craving my entire adult life, but... but my heart is being torn to shreds every single day and I can't... I can't help him and he told me to stay away, and he has to deal with everything else on top of it, and I just... I just..."

She wraps her arms around her middle, digging her fingers into her sides to feel something, anything if only pain.

Barry's expression slowly becomes more and more shocked as she goes on, worrying his lower lip between his teeth.

"You two fought?"

"Yes."

"This happened weeks ago?"

"Yeah."

"Why... but why didn't you say anything?"

"I couldn't."

Barry huffs a sigh, "That is not an answer."

There it was yet again, the being explained to.  She had enough...

"Well, it's all you're getting, so please leave me to wallow alone."

"No."

She tries to turn away from him, to crawl to another part of the alley away from him or even to hail a cab to escape, but he has her firmly by the shoulders and try as she might, she cannot do anything more than struggle weakly, thumping a hand against his chest with no real force behind it, only whimpering at him to leave her alone. She eventually stills, making tiny whimpers and unable to catch her breath, feeling just so terrible. Barry didn't deserve this. He didn't need to see her like this. There were worse things in the world happening. "Talk to me. I am your friend and I want to help you. I want to help Dan." She grits her teeth, "I couldn't help him. He pushed me away when I reached out to him, and I don't want that to happen to any of you!" Barry does not look phased at her raising her voice.

"This isn't your choice to make. He's my friend..."

"And he will still choose her," she snaps, more out of anger at the woman she hated the most in the world rather than at Barry.

His eyes flash, and she realises what a grave error she has made. "What do you mean?"

Honesty hour, the time has come.

"Faith... he has chosen her... she... she has this hold over him. He's... he's afraid of her, and ever since I came over to his home... ever since I spoke to her and tried to be friends, it's never been the same. It's like I was an intruder and she took offence to me being there, and now... now he's paying the price..."

Her last words trail off into a loud sob as her head drops forward, as Barry continues to hold her steady.

"When you told me how she was acting that night, about how she seemed to not want you there... I didn't even... I never thought that this would have happened..."

Barry trails off before he turns to look her in the eyes with the most intent look she had ever seen. It was not the most pleasant sight but somehow she had the instinct that it was not towards her that he was directing his anger.

"I am going to ask you something... and I want you to answer me honestly because I have to know. I have to know this..."

She gulps, only nodding once, having some measure of an idea as to what he would ask.

"Is Dan being hurt?"

That very scenario had been plaguing her ever since Dan cut the ties between them and the fact that there had been an altercation already that had driven Dan to despair.

Her expression turns stricken, "I... I don't know... I really don't, Barry, please believe me.  But if it's not physical then it's emotional.  She is controlling him and he feels he has to stay away from me.  He was told to choose and he... he chose her. But Barry..."

Her smile is tremulous as tears pool in her eyes, coming at last to the resounding realisation that she had been fighting all along, "I would rather it be me being made to stay away rather than Faith making him choose her over his work, or Grumps, or his music, or Arin, or you, or Suzy, or Brian, or any of you.  I would rather that he has the work rather than a friendship with me, if that is what it takes.  At least... he won't be stopped from making the lovelies happy.  This... this is between him and me, so won't affect the channel. It won't affect the office.  It... it has to be this way... it's better this way."

Barry's mouth is agape, "How can even you say that? It's not better this way when you are obviously suffering."

"I'd rather me than anyone else. Barry... this is the only way that I can make it into work in the morning and face him.  I have to know that he will have his work, his music and his friends.  I'm... I'm of little consequence."

Barry does not look convinced despite her knowing that this was the only right thing to do.  Or so she kept telling herself as she cried herself to sleep.

"You're not to me. I know you're not that to any of us, and that includes Dan."

She murmurs Barry's name, covering her face with her hands and whimpering as Barry hugs her close to his chest.

"Sssshhh... just let it out, honey..."

Now the confessions are uttered thick and fast now that the floodgates are opened, "He should be here with us. He should be here... I want him here... I miss him so much... I really miss him... and it's... it's physically painful and I can't run from it... I can't anymore... I miss him so much..."

Barry gently rocks her, "Sssshhh... shhhh... just cry if you want to. Listen... I don't know how we can help him right now, but we will think of something. This can't continue. He can't suffer like this, and neither can you. We'll figure this out somehow, okay? There, there... it will be fine, okay? Ssshhhh..."

Not recalling how long they spend in the alleyway, all she can do is allow Barry to hold her close and whisper that it would be alright. Not that anyone could predict the future, but she had to find comfort somewhere. Being in the arms of one of her best friends had to soothe her somehow.

 

Barry insists on calling her a cab once they are back inside the bar, and before she can even give her address, he slides in beside her.

The move surprises her, but she was not about to drive him away after all they had shared back at the bar.  She is trembling from the cold and the sheer exhaustion that has come over her since her crying spell.

With no forays or suggestiveness, Barry has sat close and slung his arm around her shoulders and rubs her clasped hands gently to warm her up and she cannot help but lean on his shoulder, the presence warm and comforting.

They do not speak the entire way back to her apartment, and Barry asks the driver to wait for him while she pays her share of the cab fare.

Barry remains close by her side until they reach the front door of the complex and she searches for her keys, ready to let herself in when Barry speaks up for the first time since leaving the bar, "Hey... thanks for telling me about what happened."

She pauses and braves a look up at him, swallowing thickly with her keys hanging from her hand. "It really should have been sooner and I'm sorry for that."

"Hey, these things are never easy to share, especially when it has to do with people you care about."

He was being so kind and she still could not shake this feeling of having hidden this from him.

"But, still... I should have trusted you more."

"I'm a big boy, don't worry about it."

He punctuates this with a wink and she laughs quietly, feeling that bit better.

"Thank you, Barry."

They share a smile and the lack of a height difference is a real change. It was akin to being on equal footing and she finds herself once again thinking about how handsome he was.

"I should..."

"Yeah."

"I mean, I want to say goodnight first."

"Of course. You just take care of yourself, alright?"

He was being so kind to her and it had been so long since anyone had walked her to the front door...

Leaning in carefully, testing the waters, she gently pecks his cheek, quite close to the corner of his mouth, lingering for a moment longer than was acceptable between friends, hearing his inward breath close to her ear, and loops her arms around his neck in a gentle hug, the best way to hide her face while she fervently prayed that she had not made a mistake.

Barry in turn slides his arms lightly around her waist and holds her close, and she can't help nuzzling her face into the crook of his shoulder, wanting this more than anything on Earth right now.

In an almost fearful whisper, "Are we... are we still friends?"

Barry's voice is soft by her ear, one hand stroking down the back of her head in a soothing fashion, "Of course we are. It's okay... I know how you feel, to want some human contact. It's not okay to be lonely, but I am here for you, and you are not alone. You can tell me anything."

"I'll remember that. I promise."

"Good."

She leans back as they are still embracing and looks him directly in the eyes. His gaze is steady and warm, no ounce of want or hunger lingering there. Neither does she feel any stirring in her heart, the tipsy longing from before having since dissipated.

She feels a flutter of butterflies in her belly, being so close to another person, especially someone as sweet as Barry, but there is no passion, only a deep affection.  Nothing had changed, and all was right in the world between them.

"Friends?"

He nods once in affirmation, "Friends." He tips his head forward, gently kissing her on the forehead and they share one last warm hug before he steps away towards the cab to go home himself.

"Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Barry."

 

The next morning...

With the soothing soundtrack of the Vitamin String Quartet guiding her through the morning's paperwork, a great calm for her headache which had faded into the background, she idly writes in her notebook and draws designs in the margins to attempt to amuse herself.

Barry drops into the seat across from her, resting his chin on his palm with a charming smile.

"Hey."

She looks up from her errant drawing and offers him a soft smile in return.

"Hey."

"How are you doing?"

To be honest or to evade... that would have been her choice before. But given all she had shared with Barry, and even giving him a kiss on the cheek after a night of confiding in him, she could not bring herself to lie. "I'm okay."

"Just okay?"

"Yeah. It's... it's a step below fine. But I am feeling better."

"You sure?"

"I think so."

"Good." Barry drums his fingers on the table, making them move closer to her like little spider feet. The resemblance is not lost on her and she has to smile more.

"Listen, I know it's just a quick fix, but while we figure out a way to help Dan, I want to help you feel better. The guys are planning a 'Don't Laugh Challenge' vignette for the lovelies, just because we enjoy torturing each other."

"How about we make a water resistant shirt for that very reason?" Her voice is deadpan, but her eyes have a sparkle of warmth.

"Now there's an idea. Come on, I really want to see you smile today."

He extends a hand with a degree of gallantry and she lightly takes hold across the table, allowing their fingers to slot together, the gesture not lost on her. Despite what happened last night with a line almost being crossed, she feels only deep affection for Barry, knowing that they were still friends.

Sure enough, there were a collection of water bottles in the kitchen to choose from, and already, there were small puddles from where water had been sprayed from laughter.

"Okay, friends, I have another volunteer!"

She bares her teeth in a grin, "Whether or not she is a willing one is yet to be seen, gentlemen."

"Yes!" The general cheers ripple round and rather than shying away, she makes a little curtsey.

"I don't think I've ever made you properly laugh before, so here goes nothing!" Arin rubs his hands together gleefully as Matt and Ryan snicker like evil henchmen behind him.

Well, this ought to be fun.

"At least they can't touch me," she though wryly, wondering if they had any inkling as to how ticklish she was, filling her mouth with water and folding her arms, looking straight into the middle distance, thinking of serious topics like corporate governance and litigation lawsuits.

The guys start off in regular fashion, making farting noises and tripping over themselves, even resorting to whispering funny sounding names like Walla Walla and Seattle. She is smiling but there is no hint of laughter yet.

"She's a tough one."

"I bet if we showed some cat videos, she'd be on the floor."

She nods vigourously, giving a thumbs up, provoking some chuckles.

"Hey, we need to break out the heavy duty jokes."

Matt then proceeds to pick up one of her staple removers, holding it at eye level and making the jaws move up and down as if it were speaking, giving it a squeaky voice like Mickey Mouse, "Hey there, I'm the staple puller, ho ho. I love staples, they are yummy, mmmm, mmmm! I look like a monster with teeth, nom, nom nom! Never ever leave me alone because I'll eat you, eat you, eat you. My head is weird and I look like a Ryhorn! I'm your friend, the staple remover."

A whisper into her left ear, "He genuinely sucks at being funny, doesn't he?"

A laugh very nearly bubbles up though she holds onto the last bit of self control she had, but the guys can see that she is being slowly worn down.  However, when she locks eyes with Arin, the wheels are turning in his brain and then they suddenly click into place when he bares his teeth in a grin, giving her a none too subtle wink.

Oh dear, he had something. Do your worst, Egoraptor.

Arin makes a show of stretching his arms above his head as if he were warming up for a wrestling title bout then approaches her, standing just to her left. "Hey... hey, you wanna hear something spooky?" She nods and shrugs her acceptance, her cheeks puffed, the water making a sloshing motion as her head moves. Her lips are beginning to ache from having to clamp them shut and from the amount of smiling she was doing at all the antics, but she had to be strong for there was water involved and that meant her trousers would get damp. "So I was once driving home at night and I ran out of gas. I couldn't call anyone since my phone was dead and I was nowhere near a gas station or any kind of civilisation so I decided to sleep in the car. I wake up the next morning, after I thought I heard a scratching noise during the night..."

Oh no... oh no, no, no... not that...

"And a voice saying 'Let me in, let me in...' "

No, no, no, no...

"I woke up in the morning, and I go out to check..."

Don't you dare, Arin Hanson. I will end you.

All of the men are rapt, staring at her face.

"... And man door hand hook car door."

It happens like a comedic volcanic eruption. Warm water spills out of her mouth accompanied by a choked howl of laughter, she bends double trying to catch her breath. The camera was pointed straight at her face, and there is nothing she can do but accept her inevitable fate to being laughed at.

The entire room is filled to the rafters with jubilant laughter as she straightens up, claps her hands together, eyes watering and face red, both embarrassed and elated.

"You had to pick that one! The spookiest story ever with the hook hand in the car door and the writer passing out on his keyboard. You've found my weakness, sir."

Arin raises his arms in victory, looking very pleased with himself at making her laugh the loudest.

"Okay, how about we take a quick break from all this? This will obviously be the highlight."

She nods several times, still laughing and Barry walks by with a pleased smile, whispering "I'm saving that clip forever."

Just as she is once again reliving the joy of saying 'Man door hand hook car door' does she happen to be smiling widely as another person passes by, a latecomer to the hilarity, does she turn around, and in an instant, she meets Dan's eyes for the first time in several days from across the room, and it is almost as if she is struck by a bolt of electricity, unable to move or speak.

Dan looks back at her, his mouth slightly open as if to speak, but does not turn away, though his face is unreadable and she almost reverts to her typical manner of shying away, having no idea how long he had been there, but she draws on the strength that the talk with Barry gave her, takes a deep breath, and putting on her most natural and friendly demeanour, gives a wave to him.

He frowns in confusion, but then after a moment's deliberation, raises his hand in turn and waves back.

Well... it was better than being coldly rebuffed.

Even after her hand is lowered back to her side, she does not walk away, not wanting to break this precious eye contact, wanting to have some sort of connection between them again, even if only for a moment.

Then it is with trepidation and growing courage with each step, she starts to walk towards him, time appearing to slow down only marked by the knocking of her heart in her chest.

When he opens his mouth to speak, she smoothly cuts across him as she comes to a stop right in front of him, raising her wrist in front of his face and saying, without shame or compunction, "Do you like this perfume?"

Dan nearly keels back in thinly veiled surprised, managing to inhale once and blinks at her, "Uh... yeah, it's... fruity."

Feeling emboldened now that they had shared a few precious words in conversation, she adjusts the neckline of her blouse in a move that is entirely innocent on her part but if she had more feminine wiles, then it would entirely show off her collarbone.

"Do you like this top I'm wearing?"

His eyes subtly flick downwards and back up again just as quickly.

"Y.. yes?"

Being close to him was more heavenly than drinking a case of the sweetest holy wine.

She wraps her fingers around her rose-gold necklace, a going away present from her parents before she left for California and that was her touchstone.

"Do you like this necklace?"

"Yes. It's... it's very nice."

If ever he tilted his head or shifted his weight from one foot to the other, she made a conscious effort to do the same, to mirror his movements, as if they were performing a secret dance.

"I blow dried my hair this morning."

"Oh? It looks... nice. I don't... I don't know much about hairstyles, but you look nice. You do look nice."

Why did he have to break her heart so sweetly? Why couldn't she just move on like a stronger person would?

"Good. I made an effort today because I know that I see you every day, and I want you to notice me. I look my best for you and everything that I do is to try and get your attention because it is the best feeling in the world. To be noticed, by you, I mean..."

"Really?"

"Yes."

The prospect appears to come as a complete surprise to him, "Oh..."

"I just felt it was time to say something... you know, rather than running away all the time. It's something that I can't stop thinking about, and... I can't stop thinking about you. How does that sound?"

His expression shifts subtly, and his voice lowers at least half an octave, "That sounds good to me."

"Good. So... now that that is cleared up... and because we are actually talking and being somewhat honest with each other... then I want to say that... that I would like to kiss you because I believe this is the only way forward for me... and for us, obviously, because two people are needed to kiss, and I care about what you want as well and consent is important, because I really hope this is a mutual thing because you get a great deal of one sided attention from people who adore you and maybe I should just stop talking..."

Dan's smile is gentle, already reaching for her hands, intertwining their fingers together and it just felt so right.

"You want me to help with that?"

"Yes, please."

She cannot believe that he is even going along with all of this, given all he had said to her before, despite it being an unwilling choice on his part.  But in this moment, after craving his presence for so long, she was not about to stop him.

Even as he steps towards her, her eyes have already closed and all she can do is wait for him to come closer, closer, until...

"Hey, are you okay?"

Her eyes open slowly, back into the present moment, a single voice breaking through. It is Brent is standing behind her with some document folders and his head tilted to one side. She had been standing in the same spot, staring into space with a dreamy look on her face, almost in trance.

Another blink and she looks to where Dan had been standing earlier. She had not gone after him or attempted to speak her mind to the person who mattered the most. In fact, he had only returned the wave and had left straight away. Maybe he had smiled. Maybe even that was not real. Maybe it was wishful thinking escalating each and every day she was apart from him.

"Yes... yes, thank you, Brent. I'm okay..."

All the things she wanted to say existed in imagined conversations that had no prospect of ever happening that replayed over and over in her mind while she lay awake at night, alone. Her personal silent promise still stood when it came to karaoke performances, unfortunately. She had no more songs to sing for a long time. Not until he came back to her.

 

And it's clear this conversation

Won't do anything

'Cause these boys only listen to me

When I sing

 

And I don't feel like singing tonight

All the same songs...

 

Here in these deep city lights

Girl could get lost tonight

I'm finding every reason to be gone

There's nothing here to hold onto

 

Could I hold you?

Chapter Text

"Hey, Arin... how are you? Listen, if you're not too busy, I just need a minute of your time, it won't take very long, I know you have a lot on at the moment, so please bear with me. I've been giving this a great deal of thought lately, about where I am currently and where I'd like to progress to in the near future, and... I think it's time that I moved on from here. It has been very hard to come to this decision, I have really settled in among you and all the guys here, it's really one of the best work environments I've ever been in, one of the most amazing offices, but... I think the time is right for me to move on, to progress, and to take this positive experience to another place where I can do even more good with all that I've learned. Please accept my two week's notice from today, and if there is anything else you need me to firm up on, anything else you need me to do, or if Brent or any of the guys needs assistance on anything, then please let me know and it will be done without any delay, and if you'd like any contacts to assist you in finding a replacement, I will do that as well. I hope that is all okay with you."

Her tremulous smile is frozen in place as she does not regard Arin Hanson in front of her as she uttered that long-winded yet meticulously planned statement, but rather a blank wall in place of the other's visage.  Rehearsing speeches had been a staple of drama training and public speaking workshops for the latter part of her formative years, where a presentation trainer had given her the tip of addressing a blank wall rather than her own reflection for it often led down the self conscious road or cause the speaker to become self absorbed with their delivery, rather than projecting the message out to the audience.

She was less likely to stumble over her words when met with a ghostly pale face and bloodshot eyes caused from another late night of binge watching boxsets while refreshing Social Blade for subscriber counts on the Grumps and NSP channels, still fully committed to monitoring the success of the people she admired, still caring about whether their fans were happy with what they were putting out each day.

Yet one person did not care to even call her a friend anymore...

"Okay... so once again with feeling and honesty, you owe the man this much, girlie."

She fixes her neutral expression in place, and in a masochistic move when her lip begins to wobble and her throat constricts, the warning sign of yet another crying spell looming, without hesitation she swiftly slaps herself in the face, making her head turn sharply, her cheek smarting a great deal that only makes her well up even more.

'You deserve it, you emotional, melodramatic weakling. On your feet and get on with it... you are a fucking adult now stop it...'

She squares her shoulders and begins in a voice that is quivering with emotion, "Arin... Egoraptor... Mr. Hanson, creator of Game Grumps and all around extraordinary person person, who has a glow that no mortal can replicate, here's a real story for you. Please feel free to listen to my take and wrap your creative mind around this one... I am quitting this fantastic job that affords me a comfortable living, an out of this world office and wonderful people I get on very well with because your co-host being of the tall, gorgeaus, and talented variety basically broke my heart and acted like an uncharacteristic asshole, but it's not about him, this is about me and I want to tell you the truth right here and now, Arin, because you deserve to hear it: I am a weak-willed coward who could never handle rejection, despite being quite emotionally intelligent..." At this stage, she nods several times in order to emphasise her point, "I have taken numerous tests to this effect and the numbers do not lie. Yet all the statistics in the world, all the apparent tools I have at my disposal do not change the fact that I am not strong enough to face him each day, knowing how much I feel about him, knowing that he hurt me and that he is being hurt by a controlling, abusive woman who looks like she belongs on the cover of every fashion magazine in existence, so I am living up to being quite selfish, Arin. Rather, I am being quite a childish bitch right now, and I apparently need to grow up and stop acting like a child, only because Danny is my light and my world and every word he has ever said to me is burned into my mind and I'm basically in a living creation of hell each time he walks by, which is the worst, as you can imagine, so I hope my severance package is reasonable, okay, thanks, bye!"

As she manages to draw a breath at the end of the rambling monologue, she digs her the heels of her hands into her closed eyes, as if wanting to push the tears back in, then digging a hand into her unwashed hair that hangs limp around her face, scalp itching from dry shampoo sprayed too liberally.

Of course she would not divulge Dan's secret to Arin, at least not in service to herself. It had been tough to tell Barry, having kept it to herself for so long, she could only imagine what it would do to Arin.  She would not put another person through such torment.

She was truly wallowing on this Sunday afternoon, wrestling with self loathing and frantic worry about Dan, about how he was being treated, resenting everything he said to her, dreading what could be happening to him that was outside of her control, as well as what her future was supposed to be.

If she left, she was weak and unable to face her problems.  If she stayed, she was being tortured by the sight of the man who was being tormented day in and day out, without her being able to do a damn thing about it.

The dregs of coffee tasted bitter on her tongue as she planned to book a flight back home in the next three weeks.  Once she handed her notice to Arin, discussed termination and once they had hired a suitable replacement, then it would be a matter of getting out as soon as possible, and making sure the handover went as smoothly as possible.  Working contract jobs in the past often meant leaving helpful notes for whoever took her place, making sure loose ends were tied up, and being careful not to leave too much to chance.

As time had gone on since the blow up with Dan, she had been prone to using more and more concealer beneath her eyes, due to her sleep pattern being disrupted by unprovoked night terrors where her dressing gown or curtains morphed into malevolent figures looming to attack her.

There was always an anxious thought that her work was being affected, or if her demeanor was coming across as anti-social, for she preferred to be left on her own these days, withdrawing from the usual office pranks and capers.

She had almost come close to snapping at Ryan one day when she was feeling particularly stressed with him pestering her as a joke while she was doing her work, but Brian came to her rescue saying that the grown-ups had to have some peace and quiet in this new world we lived in, and sent Ryan off with a flea in his ear, though they were both smiling, thankfully, so she managed to duck into a quiet room to rest her head against a wall, covering her ears and biting down on a scream before anyone heard.

It was not right to take anything out on the people around her when it was entirely her own fault that she allowed this to get on top of her. She had always developed strong attachments all her life, often to her detriment when the feelings were not reciprocated, or if she drifted apart from someone.

It shouldn't hurt so much. Nothing was worth this much pain.

But what had happened with Dan was unlike anything she had ever experienced. To be told in no uncertain terms to stay away, that he did not want her to be there when he needed help...

She had to leave. There was no other option left. She had to go...

 

The appointed day arrived that she specifically chose to hand in her notice and not look back, for like Daenerys Targaryen, if she did, she would be lost for good.

No matter what she did with the Grunps, be it filmed skits for the channel, taking minor parts in Instagram videos or even sitting in a meeting room or passing through the office while they filmed personal vlogs, the thought of Dan would always creep back in again, much like the night at karaoke when she wanted him there, spent half the night missing him and could have crossed a line with Barry, who remained thoroughly decent to her, bringing her tea and sending her humourous texts with outdated memes to make her laugh.

Even through all the positive atmosphere, the interesting work, the chance to reach her potential, she couldn't bear to be apart from Dan any longer.

It had to stop.  She had to put distance between these intrusive thoughts and this place she loved.  It had to be this way.

So carefully biding her time, gathering what little courage she had left, waiting for Arin and Brent to come back from a meeting with YouTube executives, sitting on the sofa quietly in a corner of the room, scrolling through her Twitter feed, headphones in her ears, all the while wavering between blissful relaxation and the tightness of anxiety.

She does not notice straight away when another person sits on the sofa beside her, and when she chances a look up having felt the cushions shift from their weight, she nearly backs up and topples off the arm-rest when she realises that it is Dan.

'Hello, stranger...'

Luckily, she is relaxed enough that she does not yelp or scream, only gives a start of mild fright, her vision swimming with sudden tears.  Dan is working with his computer resting on his knees, reading glasses perched on his nose with his hair floating around his like like a cloud, as if he had been running his hands through it a great deal.

Why did he have to be so beautiful?

She dares not speak or breathe too loudly, barely moving from her spot, although the temptation to leave is quite overwhelming.

'I work here too... I was sitting here first... if he wants to sit there, he'll just have to accept that I'm not moving... so tough on you, Dan... deal with it, you arrogant asshole... I am not moving, so just deal with it...'

None of these words leave her mouth, only play on a loop in her brain as she begins shuffling the music library on her phone, making some attempt to look occupied, to make it appear that they were two professional people at work, not intruding on each other at all.

The silence had passed the awkward stage several beats ago, moving towards the fringe of comfortable, as she begins to believe that Dan was actively ignoring her by not even acknowledging her presence.

But before she can select another song to listen to, her heart jumps as Dan, without any foray or warning, reaches towards her and rests his hand on top of hers, without the slightest indication as to why and she immediately tenses up, prepared for him to nudge her legs off the sofa in a hint for her to leave him alone.

But that does not appear to be his intention.  After a long moment, the heat of his hand radiating outwards through her skin, making her blood hum at the contact, he is wrapping his fingers around her wrist and tugging it to release from around her knee, bringing it down to the cushion between them, just holding her hand loosely, not even turning his head to look at her or even explain what he was doing, typing with one finger with his free hand.

All she can do is stare in a docile manner, as he soon begins a gentle caress along her palm, toying with her fingertips in a way that make her pulse quicken, and she could swear that he knew how much this was affecting her each and every time his fingers pass over her wrist.

This is what friends did. This is what work colleagues did. There could be no other reason... could there?

Weeks of silence, of leaving the room without a word, passing her by, making her feel so small, and here he was, holding her hand like it was a normal thing to do.

If she wasn't so frozen in place, she would have snatched her hand away and called him every name under the sun for being so damn confusing and for making her head spin and cutting her heart to pieces. 

But she doesn't.  She permits him silently to hold her hand, and does not say a word.  She may well have been chiselled from marble, a stepping stone waiting to help him to a safe land somewhere.

After several long minutes, he places his hand on the lid of the laptop and pushes it closed with a gentle click, lifting it up and placing it on the coffee table in front of them, shifting onto his left side towards her, not raising his head or even looking at her, still holding her hand, their fingers gently interlacing together, and it is the definition of heavenly.

But it shouldn't feel so nice. He was in a committed relationship, albeit a horrible one, but she had to respect his choice.

"Hey..."

His voice is raspy, and she braves a tentative whisper of his name.

"Danny..."

He makes no sign that he heard her, resting his head on his hand, and the dark shadows under his breathtaking eyes give her immense pause.

"You alright?"

She was not alright, by any stretch, but she decides to placate him somewhat.

"Yes... are you?"

"Not really. I just needed this today. Stability... some comfort... you always come to mind when I need those things."

He squeezes her hand that bit tighter and it is all she can do just to fall right into him and never surface again.  But she had to show she was a least somewhat strong in all of this, and not a lovelorn fool.

"Danny... what is this?"

His reply is almost imperceptible, "What do you mean?"

Her sigh is equal parts pained and impatient. "What are we doing, Dan?"

His shrug is non-committal. "I really don't know. Can't it just be that an old man is losing his mind?"

She bites her tongue, quite chagrined.  The passive aggressive coldness she could handle, but when he started making jokes...

"This is not funny."

"Do I look like I'm laughing... ?"

He glances up at her under the soft fall of his hair, and without even considering the impact of her words, she says in a strained whisper, "More than anything... I just want to see you smile again..."

The corner of his mouth barely quirks up, "Yeah... you and me both. But as long as the lovelies and Arin don't notice a change, everything is good, right?"

"If you say so."

It was not that simple.  It couldn't be that simple.  

She is very close to pulling away, trying to reclaim her hand by subtly shifting back from him, not wanting to listen to his voice anymore.  She could not be so close to this wonder of a man when it hurt so much.

As if sensing this, Dan whispers urgently, "Can I have this, please? Just for a little while? Then I'll fuck off and you can return to being so good and pure without me hanging over you. Please... ?"

And that was all she wrote.

Immediately, her muscles relax, her jaw unclenches, her entire body gives in to being in such close proximity to the man she adored who had hurt her so deeply.

"You... you don't have to go now, not if you don't want to."

His exhale is a rush of breath as he folds in on himself no more than a single second after she had uttered those words, shifting to lie down on the sofa, his head nudging the side of her leg, still holding onto her hand for dear life.

"Help me forget... just for a while, please? I really... I really need you right now..."

'You know he is just using you, right?  He confided in you and now he is using you for emotional support while breaking your heart at the same time, over and over again... what a wonderful relationship to have with someone...'

Ignoring the rationality of her conscience was something she was becoming quite adept in.

"Okay..."

Blaming her tiredness, a lack of willpower, and the hopeless devotion to this man, she remained beside him as he wanted, allowing herself to lean her cheek on his shoulder, and now she could feel his trembling, every single breath he took where he was struggling to keep himself under control.

Unconsciously, her free hand lifts towards his hair and gently strokes the soft strands, but she ceases immediately, for she knew how uncomfortable he was with that kind of close contact, even though she was resting beside him, closer than they had ever been these past few weeks.

As she begins to lift her hand up and away from his head, she starts as he takes hold of her wrist and firmly places her hand back where it had been before, stroking his fingertips across her knuckles and down her wrist as a silent form of confirmation, nudging his head up into her head with a hitched sound.

"Sugar sprinkles..."

Never had she felt such sweet, consuming pain...

"I'm here... I'm here, Danny... ssshhh..." Quietly, she starts to hum a song she had been listening to, 'To Make You Feel My Love', not daring to sing the words, for it would make her feelings known, if he had not discovered them already. It is precious minutes with her gentle humming, the motion of her fingers working through his hair, that Dan's breathing evens out, the trembling stops, the hold on her hand loosens a fraction, and he has fallen asleep. Glancing at the clock closest to them on the wall, the time has come for her to go home, so carefully, she begins to slowly extract herself from his hold, shifting away from his curled up position on the sofa, and no sooner than their hands part, his fingers curl in then splay out as if searching for her again.

She has to bear down on the urge to burst into tears, for she did not want to leave him alone.

The far entrance door to the office swings open, and the distinct voice of Arin carries through as he makes a joke to Brent about selling out to YouTube Red.  Despite the volume of the conversation, Dan does not stir, and when the two men approach the sofa, she is upstanding with a neutral, solemn expression with a finger to her lips.

"Hey... is Daniel Y. Sexbang asleep?" Arin stage whispers quite loudly, glancing at his friend with a smile that approaches tenderness.

She nods several times, not trusting her voice right now.

"The big galoot... always sleeping on the job."

Dan snores quietly as if in response.

Brent raises his phone, as if to take an incriminating picture, but Arin lays a hand on his arm. "Dude... he's not even drooling yet, give it time and get a close up. Do you know anything about picture taking?"

He is given a withering look before Brent departs, giving her a friendly pat on the shoulder in passing, opening the secret door to his office.

Arin makes to leave as well, and she spied her chance. It was now or never...

"Arin, do you have a minute?"

"Yeah, what's up, dude?"

Then her mind suddenly halted.  All the rehearsing, all the talking to herself, all the painstaking preparation to even think of giving notice, it all evaporated into nothing.

"I just... I only wanted... I mean..."

"You okay? Is something wrong?"

Arin ducks his head slightly, looking in her eyes with genuine concern.

Why did he have to be so kind when she did not even deserve it?

"No, everything's fine. Just... I just..."

Looking back over her shoulder at the sleeping man on the sofa, her decision is made in an instant.

She turns back to Arin, "If you need anything done this evening, let me know? I'll have my phone with me, just call or text me..."

"If I wanna reach you?" Arin finishes her sentence with a lopsided grin.

Not realising the reference to Kim Possible straight away, she lets out a short laugh as a delayed reaction, covering her mouth so as not to wake Dan.

After recovering her composure, she concurs with a smile, "Yes. Exactly."

"Sure. But seriously, you work so hard and you deserve the break, so take one once in a while, alright? And don't let Suzy catch you overworking, she will lock you in your house with homemade chicken soup and Lush bath-bombs to infinity. She'll even let you borrow Mimi to cuddle for the weekend, and she loves that fluffball of a cat, so just saying."

Feeling her cheeks start to warm at the kindness he was showing her, she nods with a smile, "I will remember that. Thanks, Arin. Have a good evening."

"Later, dude."  With that, he was gone down towards the recording room, humming the theme to the Legend of Zelda to himself.

The moment had come and had passed in the space of one conversation.  It was highly unlikely that she could ever gather the strength to hand over her notice after Arin being so decent to her. How could she throw that back in his face?

She couldn't leave after that. She couldn't leave after Dan falling asleep beside her yet again. She couldn't leave this office, these people, without coming across as extremely ungrateful, without them thinking the worst of her.

She couldn't leave Dan, and whether that made her the strongest person in the world, or the most lovesick fool to have ever lived, that distinction would have to be obsessed over another day.

Somehow, the sharing of his emotive secret bound them together, and he was choosing to be vulnerable around her in quiet moments, to pay her a single ounce of attention once in a while, but only when it suited him. 

Yet she couldn't leave him, not when he needed her.  Being so lonely, it felt good to be needed.  It was the closest thing to being loved she could ever experience with him.

 

As long as he needs me... as long as he needs me... he needs me...

 

I need him... I need him...

 

 

Chapter Text

In moonlight

A flaming ember reignites

Then blows out cold...

 

Just barely holding on

You were the only one

You were the only one...

 

Turning the corner onto the main street, breath heaving at the end of the spontaneous mid-afternoon jog, she picks up the pace for the last few metres, gritting her teeth and balling her hands into fists, feet pounding the pavement and carrying her to the final lamp-post at the halfway point, where she gives it a resounding tap with the palm of her hand as she slows down into an ambling skipping motion, a hand on her side.

Taking a cursory look around to ensure no one was watching, she raises her arms above her head in silent victory for winning the gold medal for the Round the Block Steeplechase in the first race of the season, hopping up and down like an enthusiastic child.

Letting out a long sigh, she murmurs quietly, "Okay, lady... you've had your whimsy, now back to the office you go..."

After a light stretch of her legs, zipping her black sports jacket up to her neck, she sets off back towards the Grump space at a leisurely pace, hoping the adrenaline high would continue at least for the next few hours while she completed the rest of her work for the day.

Entering the parking area, taking a quick check of her phone for any messages or social media notifications, she chuckles at her Twitter feed that is full of Brian's random bursts of hilarity on the NSP account, when all of a sudden as she lifts her head once more, she spots a person at the front door, who appears to be knocking quite loudly, or rather, banging their fist against the door, shouting incoherently.

Hanging back momentarily, confusion flooding through her, she tries to think if there were any appointments today, whether Brent had booked a meeting with a potential new business partner who did not have access to the office, or if it was a delivery they were expecting this afternoon.

Her first instinct is to raise her hand and ask if they needed any help, but as soon as the person turns around, their face a picture of rage with long dark hair flying around their head, her legs almost turn to water and the breath leaves her body in a choked gasp.

It was Faith.

Overcome with fright, she backs up rapidly, almost tripping over her own feet as she ducks back behind a car parked on the sidewalk, covering her mouth, praying that Faith had not seen her.

What in the world was she doing here, and in such a state, banging on the office door?

Her primary gut feeling was that she was either looking for Dan, or spoiling for a fight.  Either way, her being here was an intrusion of the highest order and would only spell trouble.

She had no idea where Dan was, but for the time being, the office was the last place she wanted him to be.  Her first thought is to text Arin or Barry to somehow let them know what was happening, but then they would more than likely ask too many questions, Barry especially, and there was no time to explain.

Swallowing thickly, she knew that she had to be brave.  To even think of confronting Faith after all that had happened was filling her with dread.  It had come to the point now that it was time to talk to her, or at least tried to reason with Faith.  She had tried to give her the benefit of the doubt before, that she did not know Dan's friends well enough to be hanging out with them over lunch, but the argument with Dan on that terrible day had made it all too clear that Faith did not want anything to do with any of them.

As well as her being capable of attacking someone...

'Think of Dan, and all she's done... hurting him, making him feel afraid, and here she is, banging on the door of his office... this can't continue... it has to stop...'

Listening as hard as she can, the sound of Faith's footsteps pacing around the parking lot, followed by her voice screaming down the phone, making her skin prickle, "You fucking bastard, where the fuck are you?  I don't give a flying fuck about your loser band, just get to your office before I start smashing windows... oh, really? I'd like to see you try... you stole my whiskey and I want it back, I've earned it after the week I've put down and you fucking stole it from me, it's mine, you hear me?!  Get your ass over here and stop saying you're sorry, just get here now!"

She chances a look around the car she is hiding behind, watching quietly as Faith hangs up the phone, resting the screen against her forehead, clenching the device so hard that her knuckles turn white.

"Such a stupid fucking loser... when I get my hands on him..."

'Enough... enough...'

With no hesitation, despite the amount of fear clutching at her heart, she straightens up from her hiding spot, taking in a deep breath and squaring her shoulders, calling on the strength of all the heroines and leading ladies in films, videos games and books whom she admired to will herself to even take a step forward.

Always for him...

"Faith!" she calls out in a loud voice.

The other women halts in her pacing, then turns around quite slowly, and she meets those eyes for the first time since their initial meeting all that time ago.

Who knew that a single encounter would ever have created such an enmity? 

They regard each other in silence across the wide parking area, neither making a move to advance or retreat.

"Well, well, if it isn't little Miss Delivery Girl come to play." There is no trace of humour in Faith's voice.

Despite this insult, she does not look away, even though she wanted to not look into those eyes that held nothing but contempt.

Trusting her feet to carry her, she begins to walk towards Faith, heart thundering in her ears, palms slick with sweat.  As soon as she is close enough to be seen to be taking a stand, she speaks again in the same tone, "Fancy seeing you here, Faith, and without an appointment. Don't you know that you can just knock on the door, and not bang on it?"

Faith does not even smirk. "This is none of your business... I am here for my boyfriend."

The way she uses the possessive adjective makes her stomach turn.

She lifts her chin slightly in a show of defiance, "He is not here."

Faith makes an expression that is an inch close to disgust, "I know that, you idiot... but he will be soon because he knows what's good for him... so why don't you just get lost and let the grown ups talk?"

Maybe if she stalled for long enough, someone would arrive and support her... maybe she could try and call someone, but after only a second's thought, calling for help was out of the question.  She had to try this alone, or leave Dan to his fate.

"No... I am asking you to leave because you are on private property, people are trying to do their work, and... and you're not welcome here, you're making a spectacle of yourself, so go away right now, Faith.  I meant it."

Unfortunately, her voice becomes increasingly plaintive and quiet, and not inspiring anyone to quit the area.  For once, she was speaking her mind with Faith and hoping she had not made a serious mistake in provoking her. Her mouth appeared to be speaking faster than her brain can process the words she wanted to say, and this would more than likely be dangerous.

Faith's eyes widen and her smirk is quite unpleasant, "Oh really? Look at the errand girl talking so tough. You're not fooling anyone.  You're so scared, I can see it in your eyes and how much you're shaking.  So you'd better take a walk right now, because I am taking /my/ partner back home with me where he belongs, you pathetic bitch."

Lowering her head, she whispers with the most conviction she can muster, "No..."

Mouth dropping open, momentarily stunned, Faith hisses, "What the fuck did you just say to me?"

"You heard me.  I said no."

Faith approaches her, smirk sardonic and without an ounce of pity.  "Oh yeah?  What you are going to do about it?"

She reaches forward and pushes her left shoulder quite hard that makes her body turn in that direction.  She keeps her gaze lowered, does not make a move to retreat.

"What you are going to do?"

Another shove to her right shoulder.

"What are you doing to do, you fucking whore?"

A huge shove that almost sends her stumbling back, and she just about manages not to fall, her trainers giving some traction. 

More than likely not used to being defied like this, Faith lifts her hand and swiftly backhands her, making her head snap to one side, cheek smarting terribly as her eyes well up with tears.

"Fucking move, you stupid bitch!"  Another swift backhand that turns her head sharply in the other direction, yet she does not make a sound or any indication that it hurt.  Her lip stings as she tastes blood, but she still does not move.  The next blow swiftly comes to her mid-section and she bends double with a low groan, hearing Faith let out a sharp bark of triumphant laughter, but she lifts herself up with a struggle, chest heaving and shaking her head at Faith as she slaps her again, and this time, she stumbles backwards, legs shaking and acute pain blossoming from every blow landed.

One more hit for me... one less hit for Danny... more pain for me... less suffering for him... let it come down... let it come...

Another swift punch that connects with her chest, and her legs buckle as she drops to her knees.

"Stay down, you little bitch.  Stay down!"

It would have been easier to just accept defeat, to think she was not strong enough, or beautiful enough, or good enough...

Enough... enough...

Bracing her palms against the tarmac, breathing deeply into her ribs, a single drop of blood falling into the tarmac cregs below, grit digging into her palms, she pushes herself back up, standing upright on unsteady legs, meeting Faith's eyes and seeing nothing but rage.

Faith wipes the corner of her mouth, her expression almost predatory, "You should have given up. You aren't going to win against me. I always win, I always get what I want."

Facing her aggressor squarely, as defiant as one could be after being beaten, she shakes her head once again.

"No... not today.  You... you are not taking him anywhere. You are not going to hurt him anymore, and I won't stop... I will not stop protecting him, so come on... you can do your worst to me when I've done nothing to you.  He chose you... he wanted to be with, to help you.  He told me that we couldn't be friends anymore, and you... you still treat him so badly.  So if you want to punish me for that, go ahead.  Just leave him alone... leave him alone..."

Her arms are outstretched either side, inviting Faith to attack again.

"I am not here to take him away or play games.  I am here to talk.  But if you want to fight, if that's the only way you even know how to communicate with anyone... then I accept that.  Just leave him alone... leave him be... if you can't do anything else... just leave Danny alone."

Now she was pleading, reaching out one last time to this woman who seemed to be beyond listening.  There had to be something in there.  

Faith's eyes become misty for a moment after she delivers that speech, as if this was the first time anyone had broken through to her or even spoken such truth to her.

Seized with some mad hope that she had somehow reached her, that hope is quickly dashed as Faith laughs loudly, taking in a deep breath after pushing her hair back, the old cruelty returning front and centre.

"Give me a break about laying off him.  'Leave him alone, leave him alone', do you even know how pathetic you sound?"

The whiny imitation and laughing at her.  She can already feel her lower lip trembling and her cheeks growing hot with shame.  This was the bullying tactic she had seen all too often, and it was succeeding.  

"You're telling me to leave him alone.  But guess what, little girl?  He's a man, he should be able to take it from a woman. I know what's best for him, he needs me and only me because I know him inside out, and he needs to toughen up or be taught another lesson about respect.  But I am going to start with you, instead..."

Faith reaches out and grabs a handful of her hair, tugging upwards quite hard, making her yelp in pain. "Get over here, you little whore."

Dragging her around the corner of the office building, out of sight of any possible security cameras, she forces her up against the wall with a hand around her throat.

"You'd better start respecting me, or that pathetic bunch of gamer losers inside aren't going to have their coffees brought to their desks for a very long time."

Her other hand joins in squeezing quite hard and her vision goes white as she is gripped in a panic that Faith could actually kill her without a second thought.

She scratches desperately at Faith's arms, trying to pry her fingers away from her throat even as Faith presses her thumbs against her windpipe, pulling her away from the wall to only bang her head against the bricks, the pain sharp and hot as she whines in pain.  

Faith's eyes are cold and unforgiving, the intent crystal clear.

 

Eyes streaming, throat tight, and lungs aching from trying to gasp in air, all she can do is pull at Faith's hands to try and ease up the pressure but to no avail. 

 

There is the faint sound of an engine from nearby, the hold around her throat momentarily slackens and she coughs sharply, trying to breathe in precious lungfuls of air as a car pulls into the parking lot.

'Please... don't let it be Dan... don't let it be him...'

Looking over her shoulder, Faith's smile is simultaneously full of rage and delight, "Well then... look who decided to show up. He's so well trained like a good boyfriend should be."

When she turns back, the hatred in her eyes is venomous and she had never felt more frightened in her entire life, "Now... if I even see you following me, smell your stench or hear your stupid voice calling out for him, he will know pain the likes you can't even imagine.  So don't get any ideas about being a brave hero or going for help.  No one will ever believe you.  Women don't abuse big strong men, so I can do whatever I want.  You're nothing, and you will never see him again after I'm done with him.  You won't be bringing around hard drives to my apartment anymore, and I won't have to hear your pathetic little voice again, telling me what to do or acting so sweet.  I can see right through your sly act, you pathetic slut.  So think about that while you're lying down on the ground where you belong, and count yourself lucky that I didn't crack your fucking head open and rip out your vocal chords.  So /stay down/."

She drags her from the wall, her legs almost giving way, and in one swift practiced move, she throws her down to the ground and she lands on her back with a resounding crack, her only view being the apex of the office building and the clear blue sky above.

Unmoving except for the shallow rising and falling of her chest, it was almost easier to pretend that the life had been beaten from her body, to make Faith believe that she had won when it was not such a stretch of the imagination.

What was holding her down was not gravity pulling her to the centre of the Earth, but rather the overwhelming failure pressing down, down, down, making it near impossible to rise again.

Hearing the sound of her boots walking away, only then does she trust herself to move despite her body protesting, turning over onto her side, clutching her ribs and gritting her teeth.

Watching from afar, trembling with shock and fright, she can hear Faith's voice carry all the way across the parking lot as she stalks towards the car, with Dan's voice barely audible as he tries to talk to her, but Faith is beyond listening as she throws open the passenger door after kicking the front left tyre several times and sits in while flinging curses at Dan as he hangs his head, barely reacting to her tirade.

It is only when Faith shuts her door does he look up, and even across the short distance, she wants to call out for him in warning, to make some kind of sign.

Desperately, she reaches one hand out, finding purchase on the ground to try and drag herself out into the open towards him, gasping brokenly.

Dan is staring at the office building, not at her at all, almost as if in a trance.

Time stand stills, almost infinitely stretched taut...

 

And then the spell was broken.

Dan moves back towards the car, and her heart seizes with terror that he was actually about to drive away as he shuts the driver's door without a word to Faith who was still sitting in the car. 

With a deft flick of his wrist, he has pressed the button on the keys, and with a cheery beep, all the car doors locked.

Dan had locked Faith in the car.

Oh...

He does not look back as Faith visibly reacts, who begins banging against the side window and trying to wrench the door open, her wordless screaming muffled behind the windows while the car rocks from side to side as she kicks and pounds at the door, more than likely screaming at Dan and telling him that he was going to die.

Yet he does not even look back, striding away with more purpose than she had ever seen, the car keys safely in his jeans pocket, the change in him both alarming and a relief.

It is only when he reaches the door, fumbling for his own keys to the office does he look to his left and catches sight of her.

The fallen soldier, stalwart in devotion, laying on the ground.  What an epitaph that would be.

She barely manages a whisper of his name when Dan has immediately dropped to his knees beside her, taking hold of her shoulders and coaxing her to lean back against the wall, dipping his head to try and look in her eyes, smoothing his hands over her face, pressing his hands to her chest, her abdomen, checking her over for injuries, and she can barely speak, overcome with relief that he was safe, pressing a hand to the back of her head, pulling it away to check for any blood.

Her hand is shaking, but there is no more blood.  

Dan's face is close, she can feel the motion of each and every inhale, every exhale, puffing against her forehead, and the warm colour of his irises.  This would be her version of Heaven if it weren't for the ordeal that had just occurred.

"I'm fine... I'm okay... Dan, I'm okay..."

Dan gives her a sharp look that is immediately softened as he tucks her hair behind her ears, and it breaks her heart to see him so distressed, "God... your'e clearly not... fuck, what did she do to you?" 

Coughing sharply, she takes several deep breaths, while trying to pull the collar of her jacket around her neck so he could not see the angry red marks of the chokehold, "I couldn't let her hurt you anymore... she was going to break down the door to the office... I couldn't let her..."

She manages to look him levelly in the eye and ask the pertinent question of the hour, "Dan... did you just... ?"

"Did I just lock my girlfriend with the anger management issues in my car?  Yeah... either it's me deciding to be brave or just making a big fucking mistake."

She was not in a position to offer him clarity right now, so all she can do is look at him with doe eyes and blood congealing on her lower lip.  

"What will you do?"

Dan appears lost in thought, not taking his hands away from her, "Honestly... I've no clue.  I just... I want to get far away from her right now... and I've been running alone for too long..." 

Feeling quite weary, she rests her forehead against his shoulder, allowing herself to lean against him and give into this feeling of vulnerability along with him.

"Will you help me?"

Always for you...

"Anything you need..."

He manages to ease her back into standing, keeping a steady arm around her shoulders, neither looking back at the car or their mutual tormentor, only at the office door as he lets them in and they head indoors to the safety of the Grump space.

Whatever was to happen, they would face it together, living moment by moment. This was all she needed to know while he was holding her this way.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Staring down at the etches and whorls in the timber floor, sitting the couch in the streaming area of the office, surrounded by cushions and toys that would have been a haven any other day, having not spoken a word since she and Dan had taken refuge in the Grump space.

Dan had locked his abusive partner in his car, and now they were here, both having suffered at the hands of a jealous woman consumed with rage.  Life was strange, so very strange, and someone had tried to strangle her.  Someone had wanted to kill her...

She gives a start of fright as Dan kneels beside her just to the right, touching her shoulder lightly.  When she allows herself to meet his eyes, she cannot bear his hurt look.

"Are you okay?  I didn't meant to scare you..."

When she tries to speak, a sharp cough comes out instead and she puts a hand to her throat, swallowing thickly before trying to speak again in a pained whisper, "It's fine... it's okay, Danny... it wasn't you... I'm just a bit jumpy, I was miles away."

Managing to inhale quite deeply, some measure of calm returns, her throat still feeling quite tight.  The vague fear lingering in the back of her mind was that her vocal cords were bleeding, not even knowing if that injury were possible.

The intense gaze that Dan casts her way would have made her blush on any other day, but she only feels numb, still not close to processing all that had happened.  dDan was holding a washcloth and had placed a glass of water on the table in front of her.  How familiar this scene appeared, in a far more innocent time.

"Your lip is bleeding." She raises a hand to her mouth, and sure enough when she brings her fingertips away, there it is, plain as day.

"Does it hurt?"

"A little... it's fine."  The cut had stopped stinging, but she was sure that it looked fairly bad with all the blood, as well as any marks on her neck from where Faith had dug her fingers in. It was not fine, not in the least, but perhaps the truth would begin in the lies she was telling to make things feel alright, or even close to normal, again.

"Will I... ?"  He makes a rather awkward gesture towards her with the cloth, and she nods again.  Dan sits up on the couch beside her, she turns to face him, and with a careful but clumsy manner, he begins to dab at her lip, his brow furrowing as she winces when he presses slightly too hard.  When he had cleaned most of the blood away, she reaches for the glass to take a small drink of water, unable to keep from whimpering as the cool liquid makes her throat contract.  She does not look at Dan until she wills the pain away gradually.

They sit in silence for a few moments as he presses the cloth to her brow and her temple, and she leans her head into his hand, wanting more, craving this simple contact, while at the same time wanting to run away, to never have to face into such torture ever again.

"So... this is a crappy situation... the worst, actually."

'You're telling me...'  She does not voice this remark, only looking to one side and reaching for one of the first toys her hand touches, pulling it into her lap.  It is the large blue whale toy that had featured in a previous t-shirt commercial and had been one of Audrey Wecht's favourites on a recent livestream.  Thinking of the little girl now made her eyes well up with tears, and she is grateful at least for the washcloth and Dan's ministrations keeping him occupied for if he asked her is she was okay, she would not be able to answer without crying.

"It's not ideal, I can't leave her locked in there forever.  The window's open a crack, and if she hasn't already broken the glass or done damage..."

He looks stricken momentarily and his head whips back around to the entrance door where they had staggered through minutes before, his breathing shallow.

"Don't... don't..."  It is all she can manage, words failing her.

Letting out a huffed sigh, putting a hand to his forehead, he breathes in and exhales slowly. "She needs help, and I can't help her.  I tried doing what she wanted, I did everything she asked and it's still not enough. I can't take this anymore and I feel as if I'm abandoning her, but look at what she's done..."

There is nothing she can say that can help him out of this quandary, so all she does is keep her hands on the blue whale, eyes downcast.

"I have to talk to her. Convince her to end it. Shit... I have to talk to her..."

'No... no... no...' 

Still she cannot bring herself to speak as Dan takes hold of her arms, giving the faintest squeeze and she somehow manages to lift her head to brave looking him in the eye.

"Stay in here.  Don't come outside.  This is between me and her.  You've been caught in the middle and it's not fair.  I didn't mean for any of this to happen, but I have to finish this, it's me she wants.  Stay here..."

Without even waiting for a response, he has stood up, squared his shoulders without a second look, and is striding towards the exit.

Her expression blank, vision swimming, the pain of yet another separation from him shoots straight to her heart, before she says in a whisper, "Why... why do you leave me?"

When Dan does not stop, she says this even louder, yet still plaintive, "Why are you always leaving me, Danny?"

In the empty space of the office, somehow her voice carries a greater distance and Dan is able to hear it, almost in the motion of opening the back door to leave.  He turns slowly back around, a questioning look on his face.

"What do you mean?  I don't... I'm not leaving you, I'm coming back, you know that I have to do this.  I am ending this toxic fucking relationship, I'm trying to protect you, you're not making sense."

His oblivious bewilderment makes her want to scream, if she could even make that noise.

It was time to speak her mind, while she still had the strength to even attempt to confront the imposed distance between them, and for the first time, she braves speaking her mind, "Ever since this started, ever since you chose to stay with her, you've been so... so cold, and you never talk to me while I am worrying myself sick about what you are being put through.  You walk away and you don't even look at me the same way anymore.  Now you're doing it again now, just leaving me here, and I can't stand it anymore, so why do you leave me like this?  Why, Dan?"

Dan lifts his arms and brings them back down to his sides in a defeated stance. "Because... because it's easier this way. It has to be this way before anyone else gets hurt."

In a petulant tone, "Easier for who, exactly?"

Dan reaches both hands into his hair, visibly tugging on the strands, his eyes shut tight, "Don't do this to me, I can't... I can't do this right now, I just need to think..."

Realising just how selfish she was being, she takes in a deep breath, "Okay... okay. I'm just... I'm in shock and my head's a mess, but I need you to talk to me, please.  I need to know what you are thinking, what you are planning to do because this is serious.  Please... please don't block me out anymore.  We can't be strangers anymore, we have to talk.  Just say what you're feeling... say anything.  Please, Dan, please..."

She bends double, breathing becoming strained as her chest constricts painfully.  "Please... please..."

Dan's choked swallow is audible even from here as he visibly plucks up the courage to talk to her, "I have to give her the chance to make amends after what she did today.  I'll talk to her, try to calm things down.  If she doesn't want to change, if she can't give up the drinking to excess or being violent, I have to end it.  It all started with me ending one friendship.  What's to stop her making me quit Grumps, leave NSP, stop making music altogether?  I can't... I have to end it..."

Whispering around the lump in her throat at the though of him not being able to do what he loved, "She won't like that..."

"No, she won't.  She always gets her way, has whatever she wants, and when it doesn't go to plan, she reacts really badly.  Understatement of the year, but there we are.  It's the risk I have to take.  Listen... I know this isn't ideal, but you have to trust me on this.  I am going to fix this mess, I am ending it, and I've been a fucking idiot not to realise it sooner."

Seized with a frantic panic, she says quite quickly, "Don't go alone... don't be alone with her, let someone come with you.  Call the police, call one of the others, have someone there with you."

She was close to screaming that last phrase, and he almost backs away from her, visibly alarmed, but even then, he appears to consider this proposal for a moment.  "Maybe... I could call Brian or Brent, ask them to meet me at my apartment, or to come here to the office, just make up some excuse to have them there... like, unless she wants to actually hurt me in front of someone, like if she's that fucking shameless, it will be two against one... it should be okay."

Her stomach lurches, but since she was struggling to come up with any other alternative to what he was suggesting, it was the best plan to be had at the moment. 

"Okay..."

"Okay?  You don't sound very sure."  Asking that he be honest meant she had to be as well.

"Yes.  It's the only way to move forward right now."

Dan closes his eyes, and for a moment, she believed he had forgotten her, "I'd... I'd better do this."

"Yeah..."

Hugging the blue whale close to her chest, never before had she felt like a child again, terrified of the world and all that lived in it. 

Dan has turned back to face the door, and he suddenly lets out a choked sob.  "I... I can't... I don't... I don't... I don't want to go... I'm so fucking scared..."

Slowly, she rises to her feet.  "Danny..."

"I'm... I don't want to go near her... and you tried to help me, you were there for me, and I pushed you away.  She forced me to say all that bullshit to you before and I didn't mean any of it and I hurt you when I didn't want to do it.  I'm so fucking stupid..."

She is already walking towards him without hesitation, wanting nothing more than to shelter him from the cruelty that he had endured all this time.

"Dan... look at me, please?"

He turns back to her, looking more frightened that she had ever seen him. 

"It's going to be okay."

"Really?"

There was no excuse for lying, especially not now.

"I... I don't know.  I'm just saying words that you want to hear right now.  But we have to believe in something.  Otherwise... what else is there?"

It would have been easy to give into despair, but there was something to hold onto, even if it was the frailest hope.

Dan bows his head, his curls falling over his brow, his voice soft and low, "I can just stay here with you, where it's safe.  It's always safe with you... she can just stay in that car on her own, I don't care..."

At any other time in her life, this would have been the most wondrous compliment, given how lonely she had been, how she yearned for him to think of her as much as she thought of him.  Her smile is tremulous, for that sounded like the most heavenly feeling on Earth and the greatest temptation to ever be envisioned.  But then it was running away again, avoiding the problem, when they could be so much stronger.

"Danny... please listen.  I'd be weak and a coward if I convinced you to stay.  Be brave, I know you can."

"You give me too much credit... and I'd rather she hit me first rather than touch you ever again."

Heaving a hitched sigh, visibly gathering himself, he mumbles, "I'll... I'll text Brian now... before I don't have the courage anymore."

Taking out his phone, fingers shaking as he types out a text message to Brian, and she knows that the timing was crucial now, for Faith had surely either given up and was still sitting in the car plotting retribution or had dismantle the inside of the car to make her escape.

Reaching up, she brackets his hand in both of hers so he would not drop his phone, his trembling is so intense now as he presses the 'Send' button, and they both stare down at the phone in tense silence, awaiting Brian's response which arrives quite swiftly, much to her relief.

"He'll be back here soon, he was only going to the store to get more La Croix water.  I hope I didn't sound weird in my text."

"I'm sure it was fine."

Dan's eyes flick upwards to meet hers, and she cannot bear to look away.

"You're saying all the right things to me.  How do you know what to say?"

"I don't.  I really don't... and I want to be honest right now.  I don't want to let you go... but you have to..."

She remembers that she had been holding his hand, and she carefully releases him, hoping that she did not give off the impression of being overly attached.

Dan's smile is shaky, but it is there. "Yeah... be safe... that's all I want for you."

"I will be, as long as I'm here..."

It is with the strongest reluctance that she steps back from him, being the one to move away first, not breaking the eye contact between them that is surely the most intimate exchange they have had all this time.

Expecting him to leave, she braces herself for the severing of this tenuous connection, but when Dan does not turn back to the door, it was with a feeling of alarm that she thought he had changed his mind again, that he would stay hidden from a person who could take away his life.

Almost in slow motion, Dan takes two steps towards her, reaches out his left hand, fingers brushing along her cheek, before sliding his hand along her neck, skimming through her hair to the back of her head, gently holding her in place as he leans down to touch his forehead against hers, his breath gusting across her face as he shuts his eyes tightly, and it is all she can do not to faint.

Here and now was all that mattered.  She reaches up to curl her fingers in a gentle hold onto his wrist, to feel the thumping of his pulse, to know that he was here, vibrant, warm, and beautifully alive. Every gesture was so intense now, full of unspoken words, charged with present danger.  It would have been almost a thrill were it not for the fact that it was so real and frightening.

"Give me strength... please, sugar sprinkles..."

No matter what, she would never be able to refuse him anything, not after today.  "Danny... you have so many reasons to live, to come through this.  Remember them and hold on to them... remember that for me?"

The whisper of her name is like a reverent prayer, and at that moment, a text message breaks through the shared reverie, where Brian has announced his arrival outside the office, followed by another enquiry, 'You know there's a woman sitting in your car right?'

"I'd better go."

"Yes... be brave, now... be brave..."

When he lifts his head away, she does not open her eyes, for if she had to drink him in, then she would never be able to let him go.  His hand has smoothed through her hair, the strands falling back against the side of her neck, and all she can hear are his footsteps followed by the closing of the door.

Almost of out instinct, reaching out into thin air to grasp for the man she adored when he was surely out of reach, it is the most unimaginable agony, as a tear slips down her cheek from beneath her closed eyelids.

Now every check of her phone, every minute moving forward on the clock, every breath and heartbeat punctuated her praying to whatever saints existed to bring him back safely, before she curled up on the sofa, utterly exhausted, holding onto the blue whale, allowing her body to succumb to sleep, though her waking dreams were plagued by forceful hands pressed down on her throat, squeezing the life from her, and the distant calling of her name.

 

One hour later...

 

The back door swings open and she jerks awake in fright, clinging to the blue whale for dear life.

"... I don't want to hear it, Dan, I swear to God..."

Brian's voice carries through the empty space, and he was the most angry that she had ever seen.  It is not a pleasant sight.

Dan steps through the door shortly after, his eyes red, but he is not injured from what she can tell, and neither is Brian.  The fact that they were both still standing was the greatest relief.

No doubt that Dan had divulged his secret to Brian, given that the woman who had been emotionally and physically abusing him had come to the office and had been locked in a car following an attack on a co-worker, and now he was bearing the brunt of his friend's anger.  Yet another battle to fight, now...

Dan begins tentatively, "Brian..."

"Don't... just don't. Give me just one single minute here, because I am so close to losing it and I might say something I'll regret.  Just... I'm not mad at you, I'm trying to process what's happened and it makes it look like I'm mad.  You're my friend, but fucking hell, Dan... if it was that bad, you could've talked to me, to any of us!  You kept this to yourself, the worst thing that could ever happen to a person, and you didn't even trust us!  Did you think we'd judge you?  What were you thinking?!"

Dan looks so small, visibly shamed, that it breaks her heart, but she knew that he had to hear this, "I was scared... I couldn't... it's no excuse, but I was scared..."

Brian temporarily softens, though his eyes are still blazing, "Fine, you were scared, but she hadn't cut out your tongue because I hear you talking and singing all the damn time, or she hadn't chained you up in your apartment.  You could have said something.  Anything.  If you were suffering... you should have come to me, dude."

Those last few words are tinged with hurt, and Dan's brow furrows, his voice choked with emotion, "I know, Brian, but I was ashamed.  It was the worst thing to experience, that I was being hit by my own girlfriend.  I tried talking about it... I confided in her, and then Faith told me choose after she came to my apartment, and I had to let her go, and..."

Brian lifts a hand, his voice dangerously soft, "Don't even talk about her like she's not here."

When Brian turns to her, she is petrified that she would be next to be shouted at, but he gives her a look that is more compassionate than angry, before whipping his head back round to face Dan once again, "You confided in her.  You told me that.  You gave her a fucking burden to bear and ran away back to misery.  You had no right to do that to her.  This polite girl who works hard in this office, who hasn't a bad word to say about anything, who gets along with everyone, who does her work and happens to be a decent person on top of it, she had to be assaulted and choked for you to finally wake up.  You've some fucking nerve."

Her cheeks flush with shame at Brian's tirade, and she would choose her moment to protest because she could not bear it if Brian turned his anger on her.  She had taken on his secret on her own, but then she had leaned on Barry, not having the strength to go it completely alone.  It had been a vicious circle of emotional pressure, and she was not proud of having kept it from Brian and Arin, most of all.

But Brian was not finished, "Imagine if she put you in hospital?  Or worse?  What if she had actually fatally injured either of you?  None of us would have been able to help you!" 

"I know... I know, Bri... I'm sorry... I'm so sorry."

Brian's sigh is a rush of breath as he presses his fingers to the centre of his eyebrows, then scrubbing a hand through his hair, "I know you're sorry.  You're not that big of an idiot.  Don't apologise, just don't. Just... just stay here, where you're safe with people who care about you, and thank God you've got friends who watch your back because I don't know what the hell would have happened, and I've never been so close to hitting out at a woman my entire life."

After taking several deep breaths, he approaches Dan slowly, reaching out to put his hands firmly on his shoulders, "You had nothing to be ashamed about.  This isn't about a woman hitting a man.  It's a person abusing another person and making them feel afraid.  You are strong enough, you are better than that, and I'm just glad you reached out to someone, even if it wasn't me.  That's all.  It could have been much worse. I'll thank whatever God exists for that."

"...She deserves better..."

It is at this phrase that Dan meets her eyes, the guilt laid bare.

"Hey, honey? How are you doing?"

A simple question, but when she opens her mouth, only a tiny whimper escapes, then the words tumble out unheeded, "I just... I want to cuddle this whale for longer, because it is soft and comfortable... because it's... this is Audrey's whale.  I was watching the Dream Daddy stream that night and she just kept hugging it and she sang that song from Moana that was the most precious thing I have ever seen, and... and I'm afraid I'll get blood or tears on it and... and then she won't like it anymore and I've ruined enough things... I want her to be happy with you when she comes here and plays games because... because she... she's just the most wonderful little girl... and I just want her to be happy here... I don't want to upset her... I don't want to ever frighten Audrey, or make her want to hide or make her cry... I... I..."

Before she can even say another word, the sobbing begins anew, shoulders shuddering with every breath she takes, the shock setting in that on this day, there was the slightest possibility that she would not breathe again, and now all she can think of is Audrey smiling and hugging her blue whale, of Brian smiling with pride as his daughter created a character for Dream Daddy, followed by the crushing thought that she could ever frighten her.  Her fixation on this was an utter mystery, but it could be put down to shock after being attacked, or of simply wanting to protect Audrey from any harm when she had failed in protecting Dan all this time.

Brian immediately moves towards her, pushing aside the rest of the cushions any toys, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and bringing her close for a tight hug, rocking her gently and shushing her softly, "Hey, hey... where's all this coming from?  Don't be upset, come on.  Audrey really likes you a lot, you know that.  Come on, come on, I know you'd never frighten her.  She's three, and the world is a huge place where everyone is so much taller than her.  You're kind to her, and that is all I want whenever she comes to visit.  I'll bring her around again someday and you can do some drawing with her.  She really enjoyed bringing her crayons last time, how does that sound?"

She gulps several times and manages to nod, already soaking his t-shirt with her tears, but Brian does not move away or complain.  He lowers his voice to a soft whisper, "Hey... please take care of him, alright?  He needs stability, now more than ever.  He has me and Arin for work and creativity, he has all of us here at Grumps, but he needs someone to talk to who can understand and help him outside of work, just for normality.  You've been that support all along, but he needs it even more now.  Can you do that for me, honey?"

Another nod and Brian wordlessly rests his cheek in her hair, still rocking her gently, and at last, the feeling of safety has returned.

She opens her eyes, blinking several times as she looks over Brian's shoulder, seeing Dan standing to one side, all forlorn.  He did not have to voice the guilt that was written all over his face, but she wanted desperately to put all of that fear to rest once and for all.

Wordlessly reaching out her hand towards him, fingers shaking, the invitation undeniable, he almost runs towards her and Brian, stumbling as he drops down onto the sofa beside her, taking her hand and squeezing so hard, whispering her name, leaning forward to press his lips to her forehead.

Weakly, she manages to pull him in closer, and without hesitation, he has wrapped his arms around both her and Brian, his trembling intensifying and he gives into crying, holding her so tight as if he will never let go.  It would have been the most wonderful feeling in the world were it not for the ordeal they had just suffered, what it cost Dan to be able to have looked an abuser in the eye and to tell her that he was leaving for good.

No one had to tell him what it had taken to even consider leaving.

Brian is silent now, with no more words to offer, though she can hear a catch in his breathing as Dan whimpers that he is sorry over and over, punctuated by wordless sobs, each comforting each other for so many different reasons. 

For all she knew, that she did not want to be apart from him ever again, but that would be for another day.  

There was a great deal left to be said, but for now, the quiet stillness spoke volumes.

 

I've been looking for that something

Found it in your eyes

Took me by surprise

 

Do you feel that fire?

It's called desire

Brings me to my knees

Help me Lord, please

 

Say what you're feeling

Say how you feel

Say this has meaning

(You must mean it)

Say this is real

 

This is real

This is real...

Chapter Text

It's funny how things, they change

The clouds they part, rearrange for me

Faces of strangers and I have no familiars to help me see

Where is home?

I want you to know

 

That I wish you were here

I wish you were here...

 


"Honestly... whoever conceived the notion of due diligence deserves to have their thumbs screwed to the sticking place..."

Her muttered complaint does not reach the ears of the others in the office, and for that she is grateful. While her infrequent frustrations with the law could be quite the force to be reckoned with, it would not help anyone to hear about it what with the peaceful ambiance around the office today, which was a rareity in itself given the exuberance of her co-workers.

Not that she would ever complain, but silence was golden, after all.

She takes a moment to close her eyes and bask in the peacefulness that had been part of the normal routine in the office for the last week.

Being in the frame of open-mindedness, Dan had taken the crucial decision to tell Arin about what had been happening to him, not less than a day after calling it off with Faith following the dramatic altercation and revealing his secret to Brian.

Safe to say, it did not go well.

There was a great deal more shouting that what had transpired with Brian, who had been quite restrained in his reactions.

Keeping her head bowed low over her notes, mouth dry and heart thumping, the argument continues between the two men in the other room and she catches the words 'liar', 'trust' and 'sorry'.

When the door to the recording room burst open, she immediately springs to her feet, backing up and away from the workbench immediately, fully prepared to be raked across the coals for not saying a word to anyone in the office either. By now, her injuries had almost completely healed, with the help of warm tea to soothe her throat and arnica gel to help her bruises to fade. The pain and shock still lingered though, where she was quite jumpy when a door slammed loudly or someone in the street close to the vicinity of the office or her own apartment shouted loudly, but it was a process that she was working through by herself that appeared to be gradually working.

At the sight of Arin, eyes red and cheeks flushed, her heart sank. She had never seen Arin so upset as he staggers across the room, clutching at this head, shouting, "Just fuck off and leave me alone right now! Just fucking leave me alone, don't talk to me, just leave me alone!"

Like a quiet spectre, Suzy emerges from her workspace, visibly bewildered at the commotion, only having the chance to murmur her husbands's name, as Dan follows several feet behind his friend, pleading with him to come back.

As she approaches Arin, he blindly clings to her, and mutters about what he had just been told, and the colour drains from Suzy's face. All she can do is look on as a concerned observer, not wanting to interfere in any way, given how long these three people had known each other, for far longer than she had been employed.

As Dan approaches close behind, Arin whirls around, and for a tense moment, there was the possibility that he could have shoved Dan away, but he simply raises his hands helplessly as Suzy meets Dan's eyes with nothing but sorrow and even a slight hint of betrayal.

"You're sorry? /You're sorry?/ You hide this shit from everyone, you keep being abused and hurt and treated like dirt, and you're sorry?!"

Dan is noteably calmer than yesterday, clearly more at peace, yet the regret in his eyes could not be ignored. Suzy's hands are shaking even as she holds onto Arin's arm for support, visibly fighting back tears.

"That's all I can say, Arin. I'm sorry, it was wrong to keep it from all of you... I was ashamed, but it's no excuse. I felt it was only right to tell you now that it's all over and done with. I'm sorry..."

Arin's sigh is drawn out. "I don't know what's more fucked up, that you kept it so well hidden or the fact that someone even wanted to hurt you like that."

He presses his fingers to his closed eyelids, "I'll break her fucking kneecaps..."

"And what would that accomplish?" Dan sounds more like a parental figure than ever before, and she had to bring herself to faintly smile, even from her observer's position.

"It would make me feel better."

A quiet interjection from behind Arin, "Babe... you are not going to jail, even for defending Dan."

Suzy's voice is soft, but firm, leaving no room for argument.

A slight pause, before Suzy's next statement rings clear, "I'll do it myself first and find a great place to hide the body."

The morbid statement coming from the softly spoken Suzy was quite a paradox. Dan lets out a sharp shout of laughter, bending double and Arin manages to weakly chuckle as he turns back to his wife and after meeting her eyes with a tremulous smile, hugs Suzy tight. He manages to awkwardly step round so he can look Dan in the eyes, offering him a small smile.

"I'm sorry, Arin. I really am." The tremor in Dan's voice cannot be disguised, and at this point, she has to turn away, covering her mouth to smother any unexpected sounds that may escape from her.

"I know... I know, dude. Just don't keep that kind of thing to yourself anymore, alright?"

"I won't, I promise. Thank you." With a shaky smile, he turns to leave.

"Hey... where do you think you're going? Get over here..."

Arin had reached out his free arm and Dan approaches him and Suzy, managing to wrap his arms around them both as Suzy whispers, "We're here for you, okay?"

Giving them much needed privacy, she swiftly leaves the main office workspace, ducking into the storage area shelves a short walk away, sinking down until she is sitting back on her heels, leaning against the wall so she can silently cry her eyes out, the sight of the three friends embracing becoming all too much for her.

How could anyone bear to leave such a space ever again, where so many others supported each other? At least she had so many more reasons to stay.

Inhaling a deep breath, back in the present, she chooses to take a break for a few minutes, putting down her pen and organising her work into a presentable order on the table, making a notation list for the afternoon, before stepping away from the workbench area, stretching with her hands in the small of her back.

Following a perusary scan of the office space, she spots a large beanbag free near the video game shelf and she unceremoniously drops down into it, sagging deeply into the cushion and wriggling to make a comfortable impression, placing her hands on her belly with her eyes gently closed, calling on a familair meditation technique to assist this relaxation.

Taking a moment to half open her eyes, she puts in her earphones and browses her music library, choosing a cover of 'Don't Stop Believing' by the Vitamin String Quartet.

Tipping her head back to rest, she unconsciously hums along with the verses and chorus, slipping into a peaceful half doze.

In a pause between songs on the curated playlist, a shadow passes over her and dims the artificial light above her. Almost in a half doze, she frowns, opening her eyes and looking up with a quiet yelp, sees Dan towering over her with his head tilted in curiousity.

"Hey there."

If he were down at her level, she very nearly would have smacked his arm in retaliation.

"Good grief, Dan, you scared me!"

She does let out an exasperated laugh soon after, so as not to worry him as to having caused her actual fright.

His grin is equal parts mischievious and apologetic. "Sorry. I didn't mean to disturb you."

Her sigh is one of content. "No, not at all. I'm of a firmer constitution than that. How are you doing?" She attempts to sit up straighter, or as best as one could while sitting in a beanbag that tended to shift each time she moved.

"Good, thank you. Just done Grumping for now, taking a quick breather. You chilling out here?"

Already she can hear the laughter in his voice as she squirms about in the beanbag in a rather ungraceful manner.

"Just for a while, it's been a busy morning, but I am certainly not complaining. Though serious question for you while I have you here, Mr. Avidan... is it physically possible for someone's brains to be scrambled from too much reading?"

Dan chuckles, reaching down to pat her head a few times, fingers gently twisting into the loose strands freed from her improved loose bun, "Hmm... my diagnosis is... someone has very nice hair."

She resists the urge to nuzzle up into his hand like a cat, choosing instead to scrunch her face up at his flattery.

"Da-an..." Feeling quite shy, she draws his name out an extra syllable, already beginning to blush under his attention.

Dan lifts his hand away with a charming smile, "But I'll need a second opinion, so I'll have to defer to the one with the PhD for that question."

"Indeed. Someone with a PhD knows everything." With one eye screwed up in thought, albeit in a comical fashion when connected with Ninja Sex Party, she voices a random thought, "Will Danny Sexbang ever become a doctor?"

"A love doctor, most likely. Now there's an idea..." He taps his chin with his finger, and she makes one last attempt to sit up in the beanbag, but gives up for now.

"Here, I'll come down to your level," Dan says with a gallant bow and proceeds to flop down beside her, already sliding in quite close and she gets a very vivid flashback to being beside him on the sofa all that time ago, but she pushes down those romantic thoughts for now. Already she could tell that he was in a good mood, and it is a source of great relief for her, knowing that he was back to his positive self again.

"You are rather graceful, did you know that?" Humour was becoming better cover for her with steady practice.

"Like a graceful gazelle?" He tries to get comfortable in turn, but is also having some trouble, so opts to lean up on his elbows beside her, crossing his legs at his ankles and tilting his head in a comical fashion.

"Certainly."

"Glad we are in agreement. So what are you listening to?"

"The Vitamin String Quartet. They are a four piece string band who do classical covers of pop and contemporary songs. They have been a staple of my revision playlists for years."

"A classical cover band, that sounds awesome. You don't mind if... ?" He gestures to her headphones.

"No, of course not." She hands them over to him while scrolling through the playlist on her phone. "Alright... let's see... what is a good one that I can play in order to convert you?"

He feigns alarm. "Does this band have a cult following?"

"The Deity of VSQ, yes," she says with a rather serious expression, and his innocent wonder makes her giggle.

She settles on choosing 'Rolling in the Deep', and presses play, watching him expectantly. His head nods slightly in time, sings the chorus under his breath, and by the time the song is halfway through, his eyes are gleaming with a wide smile. A memory comes to her of him and Arin making up hilarious lyrics to the song about rolling on the seabed and meeting all manner of fish, so she smiles to herself as well.

"Wow, this is seriously cool. It just proves that music is music, and it has its own magic, no matter the medium."

She nods several time in agreement, "It's a lot of fun to hear a well known song being broken down to the sum of its parts and reworked for another genre."

"Totally. Hey, please play another one." He attempts puppy dog eyes and she chuckles. She chooses 'How to Save a Life' and after the music begins, he takes out the right earphone and offers it to her so she could listen as well.

Well... this was interesting. She and Dan were sharing headphones like it was an ordinary thing to do. Because they were friends. This is what friends did together.

She allows the song to finish and move onto the next one, allowing herself to rest back on the beanbag, chancing a look at Dan's profile as he listens, the great part of her amusement being him trying to find out what song it was on his own.

"Is that... that's Lady GaGa? That's that... oh God, what's the name... Lovegame song, right?"

"It is. Someone in the YouTube comments said that it belonged in a spy movie soundtrack."

"So awesome... I need to download some of this for when we go on the road. I've discovered a new thing, thank you, sugar sprinkles."

He turns to look at her with a bright smile, and she can't help but flush with pleasure.

The quiet moment stretches that bit longer as he just looks at her quietly, and given the close proximity, she sincerely hoped that her feelings would not be given away

"Hey, Daniel Avidaniel, you're needed in the next room!" Arin's voice boomed loud and clear across the office, and the moment is gently broken as Dan turns his head away and makes an audible 'Awww' sound, mimicking a whining child's voice, "But Arin, I wanna listen to cool music with sugar sprinkles!"

"Don't make me come out there!" Arin puts on a high pitched motherly voice.

Dan's grimace makes her giggle anew, and she was somewhat grateful for the interruption this time. "I've been summoned, it would seem."

"Yeah. But it's okay, we can listen to music another time."

Dan sticks out his lower lip, fully playing the role of petulant child.

"Why are you the mature one?"

"Because I just am, so off you go, Mr. Not-So-Grump." She lightly pats his shoulder, taking back the second earphone and winding the cord around her phone several times, opting to have a quick nap before returning to work.

He huffs a dramatic sigh as his attempt to get up smoothly from the beanbag doesn't quite go to plan, and before she is on the verge of giggling, he leans down and pushes the bean bag in around her more, making her sink down that bit more between the two folds, and she can't help squeaking in protest.

"There we are, now you are a sushi roll."

She stays quite still with her arms by her sides, looking around quite bemused. "Now I can cross this off the bucket list, as long as no one eats me up or puts another cushion on top of me."

Dan grins. "A burger, then. A very sweet looking sushi burger."

When their eyes meet as he says this, his expression becomes slightly serious and she can't help the warmth that pools in her belly.

"I'd better go."

"Yeah."

He leans down and taps her nose with a fond smile. "Stay awesome, sugar sprinkles." There is a long beat where he is looking deep into her eyes, and she would almost have leaned up to kiss him had she not been tucked in so comfortably, but he is then gone, humming quietly to himself, looking back at her once again over his shoulder before going into the recording room.

She is left on the beanbag, her heart beating that bit quicker, because this was yet one more interaction that would forever solidify her hopeless devotion.

Reaching for her phone, she lifts it above her head and takes a quick photo of herself, posting it to Instagram with the caption, "Living that sushi life here in the Grump space."

After returning to her work, an hour passes after posting that selfie, when she checks her notifications and one in particular catches her eye, that 'danny__avidan', had liked her post.

That simple notifcation makes her heart flutter, almost the equivalent of being passed a note in school.

Still, living in hope was not as painful as before. It was more of a sweet pain that still lingered, but she could bear it this time, but having no idea for just how long.


The days went by, with the odd photograph or selfie on Instagram getting a like from Dan and even a tweet or two being liked by the NSP Twitter account, the latter being Brian certainly, and as tempted as she was to read into what Dan was doing, she chose to let it lie.

He was back to his old self after several weeks, doing his vocal warm ups, planning future skits with Arin and having songwriting sessions with Brian, all the while being his calm self, and whenever they encountered each other, if he was in an affectionate mood, he would always give her a light hug just like in the early days of getting to know him, and she allowed herself to remain in love with him, even in this time of peace.

As prepared she was to remain a close friend of sorts, it was all about to change very quickly with time.

One evening, as she was catching up on a novel that she had been given a gift of by her mother at Christmas, her phone vibrates with a text message.

'Hi.'

It was Dan.

While it wasn't terribly late, it was still a pleasant surprise to read a message from him.

She takes her time to compose a reply, not wanting to appear to eager at first blush, 'Hello Dan. How are you?'

'Good, thank you, can't complain. What are you up to?'

'Just reading a book.'

'What kind of book?'

'It's called 'The Blind Assassin' by Margaret Atwood, same author who wrote The Handmaid's Tale.'

'Oh yeah that's an awesome book. Ever see the show?'

'No, though it's on my to watch list. I have too many books to read, I think I'll finish my list first before starting on one too many shows.'

'First world problems? ;('

She smiles to herself at his use of that particular text emoji, 'Something like that.'

A pause when he doesn't text back.

'Are you doing okay?'

'yeah, I'm fine.'

'Are you sure?'

'Yes. I'm okay.'

Another pause.

'You tired?'

'A little. Busy day but that's not a complaint.'

'You work so hard, you deserve rest.'

'So do you.'

A beat.

'Can we talk?'

Tilting her head in confusion, she writes back, 'We are talking, or texting.'

'I mean talk to each other, like on the phone?'

Before she can reply, Dan texts again, 'I would like to hear your voice.'

'Is that okay?'

The screen suddenly appears so much brighter as she blinks several times, letting his question sink in before replying, 'Of course.'

'Hold on, I'll call you right now, just a sec.'

Holding her phone as if it were some precious artifact, she puts her book to one side, and for some unknown reason, fixes her hair and pulls her cardigan around her shoulders, despite the fact that they were speaking on the phone rather than FaceTiming or something to that degree.

Her phone rings cheerily, and taking a deep breath, she answers, "Hello."

"Hey."

"And how are you doing this evening, Mr. Avidan?" Her tone of voice is light and breezy, a subtle cover-up to her nerves.

"I'm doing good. Much better now. Texting is fun, but I still like actually talking to people, you know?"

"Can't say I disagree. But emojis are still the best."

"They are, they're really cool."

A slight pause.

"But you are doing okay, Dan?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. I am doing better, really, it's taking its sweet time, but I'm fine."

"Good."

"How about you?"

"Better, as well."

"That's great."

Another pause.

She puts a hand over her eyes, letting out a chuckle.

"What? What's funny?" She could almost imagine him being confused, which makes her laugh again.

"Nothing, it's just... I don't know what else to talk about."

"Really?"

"Yeah. And that's the point of a conversation, isn't it? That you actually talk, and not be awkward about it." She is grateful that they are not face to face at this particular moment, for her cheeks were becoming alarmingly hot for even admitting that.

"We don't have to talk about mysteries of the universe or anything. We can... actually, I don't know, either." Dan's laugh sounds free and bright, and she can't help but smile.

"So... how's the weather were you are?" She can't keep the smile out of her voice.

She is prepared for him to be confused, but he appears to catch on, "Oh, you know, it's... dark outside and there are cars and street cats and light poles and... stuff."

"Stuff, that sounds interesting. It's dark where I am as well, I was trying to watch for a shooting star earlier."

"Oh yeah?" There is a rustling at the other end of the phone, and the picture conjured up in her mind is of him either lying down on a sofa or in his bed, which makes her blush all the more.

"I've never been able to see one. Have you ever seen one, or wished on one?"

"Not since I was a kid. Avi used to take me and Dana out to the outskirts of Jersey when there were meteor showers happening, and I'd always try to find a comet that landed in the ground, but had to settle for watching them fall from the sky. I used to make all kinds of stupid wishes, like wanting a stegosaurus or becoming the best baseball player in the world."

"That's not stupid. You wanted things and wished for them. I used to wish for a pony or for the Spice Girls to come to my birthday party, but no chance of those things happening. The innocence of youth."

"Yeah. But maybe you will get a pony someday, and I think the Spice Girls are still singing together, right?"

"I think so. Maybe in another thirty years, they can resurrect dinosaurs from fossils and you'll have your stegosaurus."

Dan's gasp is quite loud. "Oh, could you imagine? I want to race you and your pony against my stegosaurus, and I know who would win."

His voice has a teasing cadence to it, and she swiftly replies, "What if I had a unicorn instead?"

Dan mutters, "Cheater."

She giggles, and suddenly, her heart seizes with a tender ache that makes her stop short.

When she does not say anything more, Dan quietly asks, "Hey... are you alright?"

Just imagining him beside her, looking into her eyes as they talk about shooting stars and mythical creatures, it was almost too much to bear, almost physically painful.

Closing her eyes tight, her brow furrows and she presses her lips together as a quiet sob threatens to escape her, "I... I really wish you were here."

Only the sound of Dan's breathing at the other end of the line.

"Dan?"

"Yeah?"

"I hope... I hope that wasn't out of line for me to say..."

"No. No, of course not."

She swallows thickly, deciding that it was about time to be completely honest with him, which was somehow easier over the phone rather than in person, even after they had found common ground and were working back to being friends again, "I've missed you... missed you so much. I felt so helpless, seeing you suffer and I felt like I was doing nothing to help you. You don't know how much that hurt."

Dan's sigh is hitched and she does not know if he is just as emotional as she is right now, "I've missed you, and I don't know how many times I've thought that. I didn't make anything better by being the biggest idiot in the world, by being such an asshole to you."

Her laugh is tearful, and she sniffs loudly, her tears trailing down to seep into her hair by her temples.

"Sssshhh... don't cry, sugar sprinkles."

His gentle plea only makes her want to cry all the more.

"I'm sorry.  You move me, that's all, and it's not a bad thing."

"Really?"

"Yes."

There is another rustle on the line, as if he was shifting once again and she cannot stop herself picturing the lines of his body stretched out, looking into her eyes as she talks to her, even carding his fingers in her hair, but she settles instead for the golden cadence of his voice, "It's just... I don't ever want to hurt you again, or be the reason that you cry. What I did was wrong, to push you away. I shouldn't have done any of it. I don't... I don't want to bring her up anymore. She's gone and she should stay gone. But sometimes... I keep waking up and thinking she's back. It's the most ridiculous fucking fear and I can't... like, I can't stop thinking about it sometimes and that's why I wanted to call you, to talk to you because you're always such a soothing presence and you're so easy to talk to. I feel like... like I can tell you anything."

"Really?"

"Yeah. I trust you, like really trust you, and I've been leaning on you so much, without giving a second thought to how you are feeling."

To hear him admit this almost provokes another spell of sobbing, and all she can say is, "Dan..."

"Please... I need to tell you this. I can't hide it anymore. I've been using you, and it's not right. I want to be able to spend time with you, not because I'm feeling sad and need someone's shoulder to cry on. I want to be that person who makes you smile, rather than the one who makes you cry, and I want to do better for you."

 "You are doing better, Danny.  Thank you... thank you for saying that."

"I'll do better for you, I promise."

A hitched sigh that fills her empty bedroom, the longing becoming overwhelming.

"Dan...say my name, please?"

"Why?"

"Just so I know you're still there. That this connection is still there. I just need it, please?"

When he says her name in a low whisper, her body reacts in a completely sensual manner that is unexpected, and it's all she can do not to blissfully sigh. How she loved him and wanted to tell him, but the time just wasn't right. He still had a great deal to work through on his own, and so did she. Timing was clearly not a strongsuit here, but she was willing to wait that bit longer.

"I'm here... I'm here, sweetheart. Maybe not physically, but spiritually. I hope that's enough for tonight."

"Yes... more than enough, Danny. I've really loved talking to you."

"Right back at you, sweetheart. Rest now... I'll still be here until you fall asleep. Just sleep now... lay your phone down on the pillow by your ear, don't hold it up anymore, and get under the covers where you are warm."

Rubbing her eyes, she quietly obeys, pulling the duvet up close to her chin and turning over to rest on her left side, pressing the speaker phone button on her screen.

"Are you comfortable?" His voice fills the room and it is the closest to having him physically there, and the covers serve as a replacement for him having his arms around her.

"Yes, very.  But promise me that you won't stay awake for too long.  You have so much else to be doing... than talking some poor girl to sleep..."

Even as she is saying this, her eyes have begun to close and her body is succumbing to rest after resisting for the last while, wanting to stay awake and talk to him.  His chuckle is soft, "Sssshhh... I'm not going anywhere.  Just sleep, sweetheart. I'm right here... let me sing you to sleep.. let me do that for you.  Let me start making it all up to you."

A moment after he says this, before she can even interject that he did not have to make anything up to her, he has begun to sing gently a soft lullaby that coaxes her closer to slumber, only catching fragments as she begins to drift off slowly, breathing deepening and body unwinding, not being able to place the melody, but only knowing that his voice was the most beautiful sound on Earth.

She would wake in the morning without him there, but not feel in anyway sorrowful, touching her fingers to her lips, allowing herself to fall into a happy imagining of having him resting beside her, before she would face the world, brighter and filled with that much more hope, with the surest certainty that she loved him.

 

How I wish, how I wish you were here


We're just two lost souls

Swimming in a fish bowl

Year after year


Running over the same old ground

What have we found?


The same old fears


Wish you were here...

Chapter Text

The working day was slowly winding down in the office, with a few members of the crew still hanging around, drinking hot and cold beverages or having paperball throwing competitions.

Meanwhile, she was in her own world on a much needed break from writing up contracts, listening to music on shuffle, completely oblivious to what was happening all around, with her quiet singing often becoming a bit louder on the choruses or verses that she knew quite well, given that she was wearing earphones and was not aware how loud she was actually projecting.

When a song from NSPs 'Under the Covers' album comes on, she immediately starts to smile, knowing that it was a treasured collaboration with Tupperware Remix Party, a retro funk cover of 'We Close Our Eyes'.

Before too long, her feet are tapping along to the drum beat and her head is nodding in time.  As the song plays on, she actually starts to shimmy her shoulders, completely unaware if anyone is watching her, for then she would immediately stop, not being quite as confident about dancing in the office as she had been singing karaoke all that time ago.  But today, she was feeling quite content and the humming turns into singing, and unbeknownst to her, the person who was happened singing on that very song was within earshot and those ears immediately perked up.

She had started taking modern dance classes as a way of blowing off steam in the evenings, and while she was not the most co-ordinated person, it was still a great deal of fun as well as being a boost to her fitness.

Getting up from the workbench, slipping her phone in her pocket, she starts to mime an impromptu dance routine, taking moves from various routines that she could recall, including a turn with a fancy hip movement that had taken many weeks to master in class.  If her teacher could see her now...

As she gets more into the dance, her hips moving more and more, she spots a tall figure out of the corner of her eye, realising that it was Dan approaching, turns around quite fast to face him, immediately halting, offering him an embarrassed smile and a wave, taking out her earphones.

"Hey."

"Hi."

He tips his chin up with a charming smile, "You listening to our record? I recognised the lyrics."

She really had been singing that loud after all.  She nods, "Yeah, it came up on my shuffle just now, and seeing as it's the end of the day, I felt like a bit of a dance. It's actually one of my favourite songs. When you and Brian are working with TWRP, it's always so special."

Dan visibily flushes with pleasure, "Oh, stop."

"I can't because it's the truth."

He shrugs with a smile, accepting the compliment, "Okay, then. I'll be sure to pass it along to the guys when I see them next.  Turn it up, I haven't heard it in a while." 

She obliges, taking the earphone cord out, presses play on her phone screen and turns the volume up just as the bass solo begins, and Dan immediately grins, clapping his hands, "Oh damn, Meouch, that bass makes me want to yell, it's so fucking awesome."

She giggles at his enthusiasm, "He's amazing. Has he ever taught you things to play?"

Dan clears his throat with a shy look, "He's tried, but I'm still learning.  I'll leave the bass playing to the cosmic cat-monster."

She is just about to compliment Doctor Sung's keyboard playing when Dan's own voice breaks through again and the man himself shakes his head with a smile, not being able to resist the opportunity to sing along, making a wave cresting motion with his left hand at the 'rollercoaster ride' lyric.  All she can do is look on with a fond expression, quite possibly being the human realisation of the heart-eyes emoji, before he catches her eye, then without missing a beat, he is singing in earnest to her, doing the bouncy step that is his signature move and all she can do is watch and smile brightly, not reading too much into the lyrics since they were just having a fun time today.

And if you love me

And if you really try

To make the seconds count

Then we can close our eyes

When the chorus starts again, he says over the music, "You were doing a dance step earlier. You wanna do that again? It looked really awesome."

She puts her hands to her face, the first instinct to laugh it off, but she is compelled to comply and does her best to remember what it was, doing the fancy turn that has him in fits of jubilant laughter, before he starts jumping around like in his Instagram videos and her self consciousness fades into the background, concentrating on having this moment with him.

When Doctor Sung's voice comes in and the music breaks down to a more slow tempo with Haave Hogan's syncopated drum beats, Dan has moved closer and is stepping around her as if subtly showing off his moves for her, before offering his hand in a gallant manner.

Tilting her head, she makes a little curtsey and when she takes his hand, he wastes no time in lifting her arm and spinning her around, taking her completely by surprise, before he catches her in a light waltz hold, still singing the words to the song even as he sways with her and she lowers her eyes with a quiet laugh, still feeling quite shy but manages to keep up with him, grateful at least for those dance classes improving her footwork.

When she does chance a look up at him, she could have blushed at the intense expression he was casting her way.  More than likely, this was what his fans dreamed of, to be serenaded by Dan Avidan, so she was not about to take this for granted.

When they have done a few turns around the floor, she gently breaks away, all at once emboldened by the music and the electric atmosphere, stepping around him in a small circle, running her hand up his left arm, across his shoulders and down his right arm in a barely there touch, finishing up in front with her back to him, looking up and over her shoulder with an almost coy expression.

His eyes flash with mischief and in an instant, he has leaned down and wrapped his arms around her waist, whispering in her ear, "Gotcha, sweetheart."

All she can do is laugh and place her hands over his arms as he starts to sway with her again, the motion almost hypnotic, before he runs his hands down down her arms, moving to lightly circle her hips, coaxing her to move to the drum beat in time with him.

This could have been a scene in a night-club, with two people who may be attracted to each other getting up close and personal, but this was just a man and a woman who were friends dancing together.

Or at least that was what she told herself as she dares to lean back against his chest, skirting the boundary that lay between friendship and intimacy and what could be deemed appropriate in the office.

He is still singing to her all the while, the timbre of his voice stirring and giving her butterflies.  He gently turns her around and back to face him, and she rests her hands on his shoulders to steady herself, her head swimming with dizziness as well as sensation of being close to him in this way, only inches between them even as he rests his hands on her lower back, still swaying gently and she could not look away if she tried.

The world has turned around again

In a move that is both fluid and perfectly timed to the last note of the song, he has leaned to one side and dips her smoothly without any hesitation. Thankfully, she has enough sense to react and lean back, holding on with one arm around his neck, the other resting on his chest as he easily supports her behind her back.

There is silence except for their slightly laboured breathing, and even under the fall of his curls, there is no mistaking the look in his eyes, that a shift had just occurred and it was all she could do not to melt away.

Dan licks his lips and clears his throat, "You're an awesome dancer."  As he speaks, there is a raspiness to his voice that has all her nerve endings tingling.

She replies softly, "Thank you. You're a great dancer, too."

He smiles, but then is quietly serious again, and she could have sworn that he was looking at her mouth and was about to lean in closer, when a person clearing their throat from the corner breaks the moment and almost as if they were starring in a fifties romantic comedy, they both turn their heads towards the interloper at the exact same time, seeing that it was Matt, who was resting his chin on his hands with wide eyes and a dreamy smile.

"Please, don't mind me. Go ahead and just kiss, already."

Slowly turning back to look at Dan, she can already see murder in his eyes as he swiftly straightens up and brings her back up with him to standing, her hair happening to flip back up from where it had been hanging down, adding to her deeper breathing and flushed cheeks, she may as well have been a teenager caught making out with the school heart-throb.

Dan points an accusatory finger, "Just how long have you been there?"

Matt shoots him a finger gun in return, "Long enough. My phone was charging so that a missed opportunity, but I'll tweet about it later. Dan Avidan dances with a woman, shock, horror."

She shoots Matt a withering look, and as she glances at her phone just in time as the song 'Pour Some Sugar on Me' is about to play.  In a flash, she hurriedly presses the pause button on her phone, giving Dan a frozen smile when he turns to look at her with curiousity.

"Matt Watson, do you have no shame?"  She adopts a motherly tone and the younger man shrugs.

"Nope."

Dan parries back to him, "Dude, how would you like it if I just prowled around watching you making out or dancing with /your/ girlfriend."

Matt appears to ponder this, before stating, "Eh, she'd be fine with it. The views, man, the views."

She groans in exasperation. "You are too much..."

Dan's smirk is quite charming, despite his brimming tetchiness, "Don't you have stuff to do in the other room?"

"No, I'm fine, everything's edited and done for today."

"Good, then go into the other room and edit nothing."

"Okay!"  Matt gives a proud salute and wanders off, mumbling what sounded like 'Dan and his girlfriend, sitting in a tree...'

Dan turns back to her with a sincere apologetic expression.  "Sorry about that."

She tucks her hair behind her ears after smoothing it down after being rumpled, "It's okay.  You weren't the one doing the teasing, that was Mr. Comedy over there."

They share a quiet laugh, and now the silence descends again.

"So..."

"So..."

What could she say to him after a moment like that?  Had it been wishful thinking to even consider that he was in any way attracted to her, that he was just dancing with a friend and being kind?

She settles for polite friendliness, "Thank you for the dance.  It was really fun."

Dan's smile is gentle, "You're welcome, sugar sprinkles.  Yeah, I had fun too."  He runs a hand through his hair, chuckling again and she asks, "What is it?"

"I was just thinking, that this is yet another thing I have to thank TWRP for."

"What's that?"

He dips his head, almost boyish in his expression, "Getting to dance with an amazing girl."

She blinks several times, not quite believing what she heard.  Maybe he was just being nice.  Maybe he was just being Dan, because he could not be flirting with her right now.

She takes it in with a shy expression, before asking a questions that would surely test the waters and uncover if he even felt that way, "Maybe we can dance together again sometime?"

The look in his eyes is quite eager, "Yeah. I'd really, really like that, sugar sprinkles."

Was that still classed as wishful thinking?

"Me too. I... I should be getting home."

"Yeah, I have stuff to do as well."

Yet neither made a move to leave just yet, so she decides to take that step, and says quietly, "See you?"

"See you."

She makes a happy sigh and turns to leave, gathering up her notepad and bag, walking towards the door, recalling a random article in a teen magazine she read years ago as an impressionable sixteen year old that if a person was still looking at you after a count of ten, that meant that they liked you.

Sure enough, after counting to ten upon reaching the door, she permits herself to turn around, and sure enough, Dan was still standing there, looking back at her.

The connection sparks and floods for just the briefest moment, the temptation to just run back into his arms a surely strong one, but all she does is give him a small wave, before walking out the door, allowing herself to breathe again.

 

 

Coming home that evening, everything was completely normal.  Dinner was chicken with rice, vegetables and wholemeal bread, with a pot of chamomile tea to drink while she read her book.

It was when she was getting ready for bed, removing the traces of makeup that had escaped her foam cleanser, that her heart began to seize with a tender ache and she had to take a moment to calm herself, placing a hand on her chest and leaning against her vanity table.

Now that her body and mind were on their way to succumbing to sleep, without anything else to focus on, all she could think about was Dan, and how they danced together, how close enough to perfect it came.

It was becoming almost torturous to be in this limbo of lovers and friends, not quite knowing what to call their relationship.  She knew he wasn't doing it on purpose, to be so kind and wonderful to her when she wanted so much more.  He would not be intentionally cruel on purpose after everything that had happened, but there was no escaping the look in his eyes when he dipped her after that song ended today, when that moment was suspended in time. 

Still, it would not give her a feeling of heartbreak.  Instead, she would place it in the box of memories inscribed with his name, even if it was making her feel a strong longing in this moment.

After brushing her hair, she crosses over to the bed and gets in under the covers, switching off the lamp, though instead of dozing off right away, she stares up at the ceiling as the room is shrouded in darkness.

Sure enough, her mind conjured up images of scenarios that did not play out in reality, but instead a sub-conscious game of 'What if?'

What if they were alone?  What if he had held her for longer?  What if he had moved closer?  What if they actually kissed?

Now the memories of him touching her have a more sensual undertone, seen through the lens of an affection-deprived woman.  It wasn't his intention to be seductive like Danny Sexbang, that dance was purely Dan himself dancing with his friend.

Then why did it make her tremble so much when remembering?

Closing her eyes, with the intention to sleep pushed to the back of her mind for now, one hand sneaks beneath the duvet, bunching up her pajama top, trailing her fingers lightly across her skin, before closing over her left breast where her heart has begun to beat that bit faster, and she makes a low sound, biting her lip and pressing her head back into the pillows.

It had been many weeks since she had touched herself, or given herself any sort of pleasure outside of making flavoured tea or a drawing a hot bath.  Maybe that was why she felt like Dan's attention towards her today was somehow so charged.  The way he had looked at her as they danced, and the strength of his hands when he held her hips...

She began to imagine him touching her in a not so innocent fashion, tugging her hair, kissing her neck, undressing her, touching her skin with his hands and his lips setting her nerve endings on fire.

Shifting on the bed, her hand moves lower, pushing down the waistband of her pajama bottoms, impatiently kicking them off as they tangle around her ankles, pushing the covers down towards the end of the bed, inhaling deeply at the cooler air in the room, bending her knees and reaching down to feel for that secret part of herself as her free hand curls around the pillow close to her head, gripping and releasing as the sensations gently crested over and over.

This was in reality the first time she had ever fantasised about Dan to such a degree outside of thinking about what he was doing, hoping that he was safe, or even pining after him when they were apart, and she felt no shame.  It was all his doing, being so kind and sweet, hugging her at the end of a long day, dancing with her, leaning on her all this time.  She was entitled to be mildly selfish, and this was her secret, as she smiles to herself in the dark even as she increases the tempo of her secret pleasuring.

It felt almost liberating to admit to herself that she wanted him.  Truthfully, she wanted to kiss him so badly, just to kiss that mouth that always said such beautiful, inspiring words, sang with a heavenly voice, said her name like he was eating honey. S he wanted to know how those lips tasted, because she was starving for him.

It does not take long to work herself up into a pleasureable haze, as a gentle spike of sensation makes her turn her head to one side with a low, keening sound, "Yes... yes... oh, God... yeah... feels so good... please... oh, Dan..."

Her imagination is in complete clear focus and alive with sensation: Dan being the one touching her, and after a tantalising motion of delicious friction with his fingers to join in with his tongue, with his hair brushing her thighs as he writes a love song between her legs.

Her sounds are becoming louder and desperate, fingers slick with her own arousal, pulse thumping loudly in her ears, blushing at the thought of Dan watching her come undone, watching her as he gives her such pleasure, knowing exactly what she needed.

"Dan... Dan... oh... oh, God... yes... yes... Danny... /Danny/!"

Her orgasm is intense, pulsing heat blossoming from her centre, lifting her hips from the bed, still moving her fingers with increased pressure, drawing out her pleasure for longer, her wordless cries quite loud, mingled with his name.

Breathing hard, easing back down onto the bed, she trembles with the soft aftershocks that make her want to purr, lazily reaching down to tug the covers back up over her bare legs, turning over onto her side with a hitched sigh, coming down from the endorphin-induced high with her body tingling all over, the image of Dan making love to her still so vivid. She wanted him here with her, but it was becoming easier to be content with the fact that he was safe from hate and from harm, that he wanted her in his life, in whichever capacity he would choose. As long as they were not strangers, then that would make her happy. For now, at least.

Chapter Text

"So I basically rescued the deal single handedly by getting the corporate partners back into the room, and got a promotion in the process because I earned them about twenty million in the investment deal, which is something because I'm only my boss's godson, after all, and he doesn't play favourites, not even with his own family.  He's been a tight ass ever since I was little, so it's been a real uphill battle to be noticed, but it's paying dividends now, much like my shares in Alantra Incorporated..."

When Jeremy pauses to take a large swallow of his drink, she manages to smile slightly after encouraging her facial muscles to move.  This was the closest thing to pure torture one could encounter in this city, especially with big-shot lawyers talking up a big game that was all a concocted delusion of grandeur.

'If I have to hear another story about your so-called illustrious career, Jeremy...'

"But there I am, yacking away as usual. I just never get the chance to tell anyone a single achievement since they are so far up their own asses. How was your day?"

Goodness, he actually remembered to ask...

"Pretty good.  There were some forms that needed signing today by Brent Lilley, the company manager, a few memos to type up, there were some recordings and editing done for the Game Grumps show and the Grumpcade slot.  I collected a new delivery of fan letters, gifts, and games from the P.O. box, so a quiet day."

Jeremy snickers. "Look at you, living large with the rich and famous 'gamers', and you haven't even been given a cut of their millions yet."

The inevitable return to talk of money gave her a stab of annoyance, but she bears down as much as she could, yet could not resist a slight jab aimed at a person who did not even know the industry that she worked in, "Spoken like a true casual."

The comment comes out more kind than she would have hoped, since it still irked her that there was still a perception that YouTubers were incredibly well off, when they worked hard each day to produce content for their fans.  Having grown so close to each of the Game Grumps, as well as their friends and colleagues, it was part of her nature now to be more protective of them, resisting the urge to launch into a diatribe of how much the pay gap was between millions of views and what was actually produced in terms of monetisation, resigning herself instead to that one salient remark.

"Hey, if ever you get jaded, I can always get you a position in my office. You'd be a great asset, I'm sure. I mean, just look at you. Since coming to California, you've been looking great."

"Wow... I sure felt like you appreciated my legal skills for a moment, Jeremy."

"Oh, come on, what do you expect when you rock up looking like a model."

To be fair, she had made an effort since she hardly went to fancy upmarket places anymore.  A little more makeup, her hair gently curled, high heels rather than flats or Converse shoes.  Her dress was one she had brought from home, black with a fuschia floral pattern that she had been saving for a special occasion.

Exchanging pleasantries with a professional climber like Jeremy was not how she had imagined spending this evening but she had wanted some form of company after the busy week of crunch time preparing for the next live tour. She was not particularly enthralled by this scene anymore and since working with the Grumps, takeaway and beer or an evening in a karaoke bar was a much better way to spend her time.

Or wearing this dress so someone else could admire her...

Here she was wearing a constructed mask built up over years of dealing with peers in the legal profession, and she still found it a tough sell to network effectively without the sensation that she was selling her soul.

While this impromptu catch-up was not high on her list on how to spend a free evening, it was a small comfort to remain in touch with the legal world, despite the unpleasant conduit of a career climber like Jeremy, whose focus was always on money and the company bottom line rather than giving a notion to helping people.

While she is engaged in this brief reverie, Jeremy chooses to fill the silence with the wheedling timbre of his own voice, so all she can do is compose her face into a neutral expression of feigned interest.

Her phone begins to vibrate and trill loudly with a phonecall, and she does not even look at the screen to see the caller identification, grateful to whoever it was for granting her a reprieve from this form of torture.

"Excuse me, I have to take this," she says with a forced smile, and she swiftly takes her phone, turning the stool around in a fluid motion so her back was to the bar and her so-called companion, answering with a quiet, "Hello."

"Hey, it's me. Are you busy?"  It was Brent, cutting straight to the chase, and she had become rather used to his no nonsense attitude.

"I wouldn't say so, I'm having a drink with an old university acquaintance in town.  Or rather, sitting here and listening to him go on and on.  What do you need?"

"Could you come back to the office for an hour, please? I just need a fresh pair of eyes on the papers we got in from the organisers at the venues.  Arin has a few questions about some of the sections of the contract that are too much legal jargon for me to condense down.  I hate calling you in on your evening off, but it's coming close to the time and we need to all be on the same page."

"It would be my very great pleasure.  You may have just saved me a headache."

"Hey, anything for the legal eagle.  How long will you be?"

"Give me forty minutes, I'll jump in a taxi.  See you soon."

"Later."

She hangs up the call and looks over her shoulder in an almost coy and apologetic manner, putting on a real show for her own sanity.

"Duty calls, Jeremy.  I've got to go."

"At this hour? Can't someone else less gorgeaus go instead? Have another drink with me." He raises his glass of beer, the contents sloshing about as he regards her with a look bordering lascivious.

The compassion well was surely running dry at this stage, but she manages the most flirtatious smile she can muster, putting a hand on his shoulder to steady him, "Alright... home truth time, and read my lips so you can understand clearly. You still are not charming, Jeremy.  It really is not your strong suit.  Just work on being decent in your job, making all the money that you can without breaching regulations and making dad proud, then you'll do just fine.  You don't have to posture, you don't have to put on this bravado, you have enough of that left over from college. It really is not attractive. Do you want my advice?  Just get over yourself."

With a firm pat on his shoulder, she hops down from the stool, picking up her coat and bag, walks away without a backward glance, leaving the man dumbstruck, walking out into the cold night air, hailing a cab with a lighter mind and a clear focus.

 

Forty minutes later...

She keys in the security code and enters the office, her high heels making a distinctive clacking noise across the floor, and she calls out a greeting, voice echoing in the empty office.

Brent comes out from beyond the workspace in the corner, regarding her with surprise followed by relief that she had arrived.  "Hey, thanks for coming in. You look great."

"Thanks, Brent. I am a bit over-dressed for the Grump space, but I'd rather be here looking things through rather than running home to change."

"I appreciate that, and you getting here so fast. I hope I didn't take you away from anything important."

Her laugh is free, making no effort to hide her relief, "You did me a favour.  I was about to start hitting the harder liquor.  So what's going on, boss?"

She slips off her long black jacket, putting it over the back of the chair along with her handbag, twisting her hair over her left shoulder, inwardly sighing that she did not bring a comb to clip it out of the way.

"We have some venue contracts for review.  Arin is just finishing up some emails there.  You want to read over these, see if anything jumps out that we should re-examine?"

She nods and walks around the workbench, gathering the pages together. "I can make some notes on the side here.  These are copies?"

"Scanned on, for now, the rest will be sent on by courier tomorrow once the last few details are ironed out."

"Great.  I'll just make a few notes and highlight anything that we should discuss, and break it down for Arin's benefit.  It might even help us to go back to basics with these anyway.  You know me and my writing, it's like a code in itself."

They share a quiet laugh, and she resumes scanning the pages.  "If we don't get answers tonight, we can always have a conference call with any of the managers who have queries."

Brent checks his phone, nodding in agreement, "No problem.  I just hope we don't have to re-negotiate.  The dates are booked and we can't lose out on tickets."

Nodding, she murmurs, "If nothing at all, we'll do it for the lovelies."

She rests her elbows on the table as she reads, lifting her right leg up and rotating her ankle a few times, already wanting to be out of these shoes.

"Come join us in the meeting room, this shouldn't take too long."

She nods, underlining words and writing in the margins, following behind Brent with her eyes still downcast, reading the various sections and getting a picture in her mind of the main areas of note.

Brent opens the door and steps to one side to allow her to enter the lounge area that was the default meeting area, she does not look up straight away, but when she hears another person say a quiet 'Oh', only then does she look up, expecting it to be Arin, only it wasn't.

It was Dan.

Oh...

A long pause before either speak, and already, she feels herself holding her stomach in, pushing her shoulders back to appear taller, more confident, more... appealing?

"Hi..." She trusts her voice to not sound too nervous, for wanting to look perfect for him had been a cruel matter before when they were not speaking.

He clears his throat a few times before answering, "Hey."

Another long beat.

Brent is none the wiser, already sprawling out on a sofa in the corner, reading through emails on his phone.

Dan has stood up mere seconds after she had entered, looking quite awestruck, and she tilts her head, sking "How are you?"

"I'm good, thanks.  How about you?"

"Good as well, thank you."

Before he can say anything else, Arin has walked in and also is halted in his tracks by her outfit.  All she can do is cover her face with the pages, close to complete embarrassement.

"Wow... you look amazing, dude."

She waves a hand, playing the self-effacing card to cover up any lingering shyness, "Thanks, Arin.  Evening off, all dressed up and nowhere to go.  Well... technically, I'm here, so..."

Arin chuckles, and she manages to laugh as well, all traces of self consciousness fading away, "Also, I have had a glass of wine, it tends to lead me to attempt to make a joke."

"Was that a joke?"  Brent quips absentmindedly.

Arin continues on, nonplussed, "Cool, okay.  Sorry to have taken you from your evening..."

She crosses the room to the sofa and takes a seat, sighing as the weight is taken off her feet. "It's fine, it was a dull evening, anyway."

Leaning down to remove one shoe, then the other, she arranges herself in a casual manner with her legs tucked up beneath her and one elbow resting on the armrest, pen poised to take notes.  Meanwhile, Dan has sat back down, but he leans forward slightly to look around as Arin sits beside him, as if trying to catch another glimpse of her.

Unaware for now, she brushes her hair back behind one ear, willing the heat down from her cheeks.

Brent puts his phone down, claps his hands together once and starts into an explanation of the recent contract negotiations for the live shows, and Arin chimes in with a few questions here and there about the more densely worded paragraphs of the contacts, and she has to admire his growing business acumen and desire to learn more about this more complicated side of putting on live shows.

All the while, she could feel Dan's eyes on her and it made up entirely for the dull interaction back at the bar.  He appeared content to just listen, and she dutifully takes note of everything they are discussing in case it is brought up again later on, highlighting any important issues that should be raised before the show would go on the road.

The meeting is brief, just as Brent predicted, as there were no major problems outstanding and all was in hand. Brent and Arin walk out together, already proposing lofty titles for their proposed touring company, and she makes her way to the workbench, looking over her writing to ensure that it did not resemble a cluster of hieroglyphs, but actual words on the page.

The footsteps that come up behind her stop just a few feet away, and she glances over her shoulder in what could be a coquettish manner, but is entirely innocent.

Dan stands in the centre of the office, looking momentarily like a lost child, though his smile becomes more relaxed as soon as their eyes meet.

"Hey.  Everything alright, Dan?"

He nods, exhaling gently, "Yeah, yeah, of course. I'm just glad I didn't fall asleep in there, what with all the riveting discussion."

She shoots him a look with an eyebrow raised, but she chuckles soon after. "I'll admit it's a bit dry, but it's all part of the behind the scenes glamour."

"Oh, of course."

A pause.

Dan takes a deep breath in, before saying quite fast, "I just wanted to say, before it gets too late to actually say it, that you look amazing.  Actually, you look stunning."

She had almost forgotten that she was wearing a nice dress, and she softly replies, "Thank you."

He runs a hand through his hair, looking every inch like an awkward teenager. "You were out tonight?"

"Yes, just some drinks with a friend. It wasn't terribly exciting and I use the term 'friend' lightly."  Choosing not to specify whether it was a man or a woman, she was not in the mood for making anyone jealous.  Not that that was ever in her mind to begin with.

"Then Brent decided that he couldn't do without you for even an hour."  The friendly quip is more in character for him, and she allows herself to smile.

"That's it, I was summoned at a moment's notice, but I am happy to do it."

"That's good."  He approaches the workbench and leans against the edge beside her, just close enough that their arms brush lightly.  The fact that he had not walked away from the conversation was some measure of comfort, even after recent unpleasant matters being resolved at last, so she takes this chance to talk with him like a colleague, or at least try to.

Given the most recent interaction involving a close dance, no one would blame her for the increased heart-rate whenever he was close by.

She switches to professional mode, all at once wanting to impress him, "So I guess that because we have new management in a few places where the live shows are taking place, it's a case of reaching out and establishing the relationship, to make sure that everyone is happy and ensuring that there are no surprises hiding in the contracts either."

"Sounds easy enough. We are nothing if not diplomatic."

"That's the spirit. One can only hope, and Brent is hopeful of a positive path forward too."

Dan nods and is quiet again, though the silence is not uncomfortable as she leans forward to try and catch his eyes again, "Do you have anything you'd like to ask me?"

"What about?" He looks bewildered, almost as if the context of their conversation had somehow subtly switched to personal without his knowing.

She decides to throw him a lifeline, "About these contracts? Anything on your mind?"

The relief on his face is rather endearing. "Oh. Oh, no, no, I think I'm okay. Though I'm a borderline genius, these things make my head hurt whenever I try to read them. So many... words." He trails off with an embarrassed chuckle, brushing an errant curl out of his eyes.

She smiles back, recalling how daunting it was to encounter contractual principles for the first time in her law classes, "It's not the lightest of reading material, I grant you, but it's really quite simple."

She assumes the position of an orator and starts flipping the pages as she speaks, "In this section, you have the managerial responsbility, a section on health and safety, public liability insurance, security measures, lighting and rigging for safety, and..."

Dan covers his ears with a comical grimace, "Okay, okay, I give, I give, I know nothing!" But he is laughing freely and she trusts herself to laugh with him, riding the wave of shared amusement.

"Someday, I'll give you a tutorial on legal contracts 101."

"Just give me fair warning and I'll stock up on tea, bagels, and a will to continue."

Testing the waters once again, she gives him a friendly nudge, and when his smile does not diminish, she finally sense that things may be slowly getting back on track to normal. Or however they chose to describe their lives together.

"I will take that as a yes, then." She gives a pleased nod and gathers her papers once more, "I should be going."

"Yeah..."

Loathe as she was to leave him, she retrieves her jacket and slips it on, sliding her fingers along the back of her neck to flick her hair up and over the back of the collar, finding her handbag and giving him one last smile, she says quietly, "See you tomorrow."

Before she can vanish entirely, he says her name quietly and she turns back straight away as if pulled by an invisible line.

Always for him...


Face to face
And heart to heart
We're so close
Yet so far apart

I close my eyes, I look away
That's just because I'm not okay

But I hold on
I stay strong
Wondering if we still belong...


"Yes, Dan?"

He doesn't answer, head bowed, still leaning against the workbench, scuffing the floor with his right heel.

"Is there something else you need?" she gently prompts.

Only then does he look up at her with a soulful expression that would melt even a heart of ice.

"I just wanted to say that... that after everything that's happened, I hope we can be friends again. I really... I really want that."

Her stomach twists into a knot. It was the last thing she wanted them to be, but to be in any kind of relationship with him, to even be thought of by him, was much better than the alternative of being banished from his company.

"Yes... yes, of course we can."

Dan averts his eyes once again, almost a shameful motion, rubbing the back of his neck.  "I'm still feeling so guilty about everything, and I meant what I said on the phone that night.  I want to make things better, that I want to make it up to you."

Her brow creases and she swallows thickly at this admission. "I know... I know, Dan, and it's okay.  I... I do forgive you.  I haven't quite forgotten yet, but that's okay... these things take time, and it's all fine.  So please don't feel bad anymore, okay?"

After a moment of intense eye contact, he extends his hand, head tilted and brown eyes glimmering.  "Friends?"

She approaches him withoutout hesistation, stopping to just within arm's reach, and takes his hand, giving it a gentle shake.  "Friends."

When Dan does not let go of her hand, already she knows that they were beginning down that same road again, when he was needing her for emotional support, and her giving in because she was just so in love with him and it somehow made it alright.

"I want to do better..." he murmurs, looking down at her hand as if he were holding something he had thought he had lost forever, running his thumb across her knuckles.

Her voice a quiet whisper, "I know you do..."

Dan lifts his head and gives her another lingering look, his fingers moving to brush her wrist, tracing along her pulse point, her nerve endings tingling with the contact, but with one single blink, he is frowning and mutters an expletive under his breath.

"Jesus... I'm doing it again."

She manages to find her voice, "Doing what?"

He gently releases her hand, dropping his arm to his side, huffing a sigh.  "Leaning on you emotionally.  I can't keep doing that.  It's selfish and I don't even know I'm doing it half the time.  Seriously..." He appears angry with himself, visibly clenching his jaw.

Deciding to be entirely honest now that they were skirting that sensitive topic, she says quietly, "I do it as well, Dan.  I lean on you in my own way, too.  You never heard me ask you to leave or tell you how it made me feel either.  But I think we need to talk somewhere outside of work, where we can be honest, no hiding or tiptoing around the issue.  Can we do that?"

"Yes..."

"Okay.  We need to be open with each other, and I don't want to be worrying about annoying you, or making you angry, or pushing too far or saying the wrong thing..."

"You never do any of those things."

She swallows thickly past the lump in her throat, cheeks feeling warm again, "I hope I don't.  I just... we need to move past the negative stuff, to actually be friends and not worry, you know?"

Dan's eyes widen slightly, as if experiencing a revelation, "Yeah.  Like the other day, when we were dancing together, I mean, that was a lot of fun.  We weren't worrying about the crappy stuff then and it felt so fucking freeing."

She chuckles at his phrasing, "That's all there is to it.  We just need to remember how to be friends again.  We can try together, okay?"

Dan barely nods, before mumbling, "Can I buy you dinner?"

Barely having enough time to process this, a wave of surprise washes over her as her knees buckle slightly, "Dinner?"

Dan once again has that intense look that she cannot look away from, "Yeah. I can bring you somewhere, just so we can talk and chill, you know?  I know it won't fix everything, but I want to make a real fresh start.  Does that sound okay?"

It was like being shot off into the atmosphere on a set flight course to planet romance, but she manages to say quite calmly, but with a beaming smile, "Yes.  Yes, that sounds okay.  More than okay."

Even before she had finished her sentence, Dan has risen from his seated posture and is almost hopping from one foot to the other, at once alive with energy, "Can we go right now?"

"Right now?"  She tilts her head, slightly bewildered.

"Yeah, because I've been keeping you waiting long enough..."

Without even waiting for her to respond in the affirmative or the negative, he has taken her hand lightly in his and begun bounding towards the back door, leading her along behind him and she is grateful that these high heels have been broken in for she surely would have tripped over her own feet, the arm holding her handbag flung out behind her in a comical fashion.

As soon as they are outside, he does not stop or even offer any hint as to where he was going, so she had to put the brakes on for just a moment, managing to come to a halt, taking his hand in both of hers and trying to pull him back towards her, almost skidding behind him.

"Dan!" she says laughingly, but he seems singularly focused on leading her into the night.

Only when she says his name a second time does he halt and turn back to her, curls in a wide halo around his head, with a slightly manic look in his eyes.

She is momentarily struck speechless, but takes this moment to collect herself even as they regard each other.

"Yeah?"  He sounds breathless, given the speed at which he had been moving and the haste to take her outside.

Gently squeezing his hand, she looks into his eyes warmly, "Hey... just slow down, take a breath."

Immediately, his shoulders drop a fraction and the hold on her hand loosens, his thumb continuing the light caress from earlier, regaining some sense and breathing deeply just as she requested.

"Okay... I'm sorry, I just went off like a shot without even thinking."

He glances down to their joined hands, "Did I hurt your arm?"

He looks momentarily panicked, but she answers quickly, "No, I'm fine.  Are you alright now?"

Another nod and it appears that the aura of calm had returned, "Yeah, I am now.  I guess I was just in a huge rush to want to make things up to you, I got a bit excited."

He almost appears bashful and she smiles.

"It's okay.  It was like going off on an adventure."

He smiles wider, "An adventure? I like the sound of that..."

Her smile is shy as she dips her head demurely.

"So where will we go?"

He considers for a moment, "First... somewhere where there is food."

"Yeah, I am pretty hungry.  Do you mind if I just change my shoes?  I think I've reached my limit with these."

"Sure, go ahead."

He lets go of her hand and she reaches into her handbag to take out a pair of black low heeled pumps, doing her best not to hop around too much on one foot as she changes and avoiding stepping on the tarmac ground of the parking lot.

Now with the few inches off her height gone, she looks up at him from her usual vantage point, not making a habit of wearing high shoes to work, and he tilts his head at her, also quite surprised.

"Man... those were some high heels," he murmurs in wonder.

Feeling quite playful now, she cups one hand over her mouth and says loudly, "Can you hear me up there... there... there?"  She does her best imitation of an echo to lighten the mood and he grins, playing along as he screws up one eye, "What?  Did someone quite short in size call to me from down there?  This height is too great for me to comprehend anyone below the height of five foot six inches."

Smiling out the side of her mouth, she lightly pushes his shoulder, and he laughs freely.

"I know a good late night diner in the city.  Brian and I go there sometimes after songwriting sessions."

"Sounds great.  Lead the way, sir."

Dan smiles, gesturing with his left arm to his car and they walk over together.  Dan opens the passenger door for her and she sits in, smoothing down her dress and getting her seatbelt on.

As he gets into the driver's seat, Dan looks across to her and she turns her head to look back at him.  There is an eagerness to his expression that is quite possible the sweetest sight she had ever seen.

"Ready?"

"I'm ready."

"Okay."  With that word, he starts the car and pulls out of the parking lot, beginning the drive towards the city.


How long do I fantasize
Make believe that it's still alive
Imagine that I am good enough
And we can choose the ones we love?

 

The meal had been delicious, with the diner being gently packed, and the waiter had shown them to a quiet corner to a table by the window, evidently recognising Dan from a previous occasion.  She decides to save the question about his being recognised around Los Angeles for another occasion, for tonight was all about starting afresh.

The conversation had been light, talking about what Dan was doing with NSP, the live Game Grumps shows coming up, and then they had moved on to the more unfortunate experiences of being a YouTuber.

"... and it took three lots of shampoo to get that gunk out of my hair. It was a food fueled nightmare and I've never been able to go near mushrooms without a sense of impending doom."

She manages not to laugh at this unfortunate tale, instead giving him a sympathetic smile, "Your poor hair, and poor you. That was surely the worst run of luck that has ever befallen a human being.  It was honestly the recipe for upside down cake or some other concoction."

"I know, right?!  Why did it have to be me?  I was always nice to Rhett and Link, I dressed up in a purple lycra suit for them, stuffed objects in my sleeves, handled a real, floppy fish, what more could they want?"

"You're too nice, that's your problem."

Dan huffs good naturedly, crossing his arms with a smile, "No more Mr. Not So Grump.  My vengeance will be swift and it will be soon.  You're a witness to it," to which she responds with a quiet laugh.

He nods towards her, "How about you?"

"What about me?"

"Have the guys ever subjected you to cruel and unusual stunts in the pursuit of views at work?  Are there secret mortifying videos that haven't reached human eyes?"

At first, she shrugs and plays the nonchalent card, but then relents, "Well, apart from the 'Don't Laugh' challenge where I had a mouthful of water and they tried to make me laugh, that's it, really.  I am not quite prepared to become a meme yet.  The choices on those punishment wheels during the livestreams are cruel and unusual, for example, so I'll give myself another few months before I sit in the streaming area and undertake one of those."

Dan grins, "Believe me, you wouldn't be the first to want to pass on that punishment wheel, especially with Brian behind the last one.  Oh yeah, I remember that challenge.  I think I just caught the tail end of it that one time. What was it that made you lose it in the end?"

Now she is blushing again, for it related directly to him on account of the story that he had once told on an episode of Game Grumps that never failed to make her laugh, "Oh, I can't remember?"

"Really now?"  He raises an eyebrow with a charming smirk and she gives in, deciding to play the honesty card since they were being open with each other, "Actually, I do.  Arin told a story about how he was stuck in his car without any fuel in the middle of nowhere, how he heard noises of scratching in the night, then he goes out to check in the morning, and man door hand hook car door..."

She barely manages to get through the sentence before she starts giggling and Dan's eyes light up in realisation, before bending double with supressed laughter as she goes on until the final few choice words where he cannot hold it in and bursts out laughing.

"Oh my God, are you serious?!"

"Quite serious.  I spat water out of my mouth like a water Pokemon, all over the floor, and everybody loved it.  Arin and Ryan were huge fans, seeing the paralegal with water dribbling down her chin, all because someone on the internet retold a story of the hook handed man leaving his hook behind and making it sound like they passed out on the publish button."

Dan laughs harder, "Jesus, my stomach.  I freaking love that story, I thought I was going to die laughing when I read it the first time."

She points an accustory finger at him, still chuckling, "And that is all down to you, sir. I could barely breathe watching that episode, as well as the famous 'Then who was phone?!'"

Dan is wheezing at this stage, holding up a hand to her, tears in his eyes as he tries to stop laughing and draw breath, "Stop, please stop, I can't!"

Sincerely, she giggles, "I'm not saying it anymore, I promise!"

Dan leans back against the side of the booth, a hand on his chest, breathing heavily with a huge smile, "Wow... I'd pay to see that again, and actually be the one to make you laugh.  Does that make me the winner if I do that?"

She considers this for a moment, "The one who doesn't laugh is technically the winner.  If you were taking part, it would be over far too soon for me, and for anyone else who has the water in their mouths.  You are a master of comedy."

Dan pretends to preen, flicking his hair back, "Why, thank you."

"Officially, in terms of music and comedy prowess, out of the other members of NSP, I would put you in joint first place with Brian."

She says this with a deadpan expression that makes him crack up again, before he leans forward with his chin on his hands and an innocent pout, "What about Starbomb?"

"Still the same case, but with Arin too."

He narrows his eyes, "We can't all be your favourite."

"Who says?"  she lightly parries back with a slightly teasing smile.

"The god who decides favourites, so choose, lady!"

Throwing her hands up with a wide smile, "Alright, Mr. Avidan, you've convinced me.  My favourite is..."

Dan drums on the table lightly with his hands as she takes a long moment before announcing her choice.

"Ninja Brian."

"No!"  He momentarily looks stricken.

"Actually, I've given it some thought, and it has to be the musical comedy stylings of... Egoraptor Jones."

His hand is on his chest, face twisted in a comical grimace, "Sugar sprinkles... you're tearing me apart."

She giggles, "Alright.  Here, give me your hands..."

She places her hands on the table and he reaches across and lays his palms on hers, giving her a quiet look of warning.

"I do solemnly swear, on the future of musical comedy, the galaxies and planets in this entire universe, and all that is good and rocking, that Danny Sexbang is my favourite band member in NSP, Starbomb and beyond, so help me God."

Dan nods several times with the brightest smile possible, "That's what I like to hear."

Just as he is about to take his hands away, she keeps a gentle hold, giving him a mischievious look, "With one amendment to the declaration, that you will always be tied for first place with all of Tupperware Remix Party as the groove crusaders of Canada and space."

Dan drops his head on the table with a loud groan, "You're killing me here."

She tilts her head with a secret victorious smile, cautiously reaching out to pat his head, "Pat, pat.  Poor Dan..."

He barely responds, only with a low, affronted grunt.

"You're my favourite Grump. How about that?"

With a muffled voice, speaking directly into the table surface, "Really?  What about everyone else?"

"They are collectively all in second."

"No exceptions?"

"None."

"Promise?"

She crosses her heart, "I promise."

Dan lifts his head, curls tumbling over his brow, "You have a slightly sadistic streak in you, have you noticed?"

She feigns shock, before relenting with a self-deprecating laugh, "I've been hanging out with Matt, Ryan and Ross for too long.  They're influencing my character, and I'm not quite sure how to feel about it."

"Don't worry, you'll always be much sweeter than those mongrels."  He gives her a reassuring wink and a girlish giggle bubbles up before she can quell it.

"That's a weight off my mind. Thank you."

They go quiet and he gives her a gentle look that makes her feel shy again.  "Can I tell you something?"

"Yes, of course."

"You know I'm laughing everyday when doing Grumps with Arin, adding years to my life, writing ridiculous songs with Brian, and when I'm hanging out with my friends and family too, but I can't remember laughing outside of work for a while, and I really needed to especially after all that happened, so I just wanted to let you know that.  So thank you."

The reason for his not laughing goes unspoken and she does not offer any remark apart from a shaky smile, blinking against the sudden sting of tears.

He frowns, at once noticing the change and is immediately concerned, "Are you okay?  Did I say something wrong?"

"No, I'm fine.  It's happiness, I promise.  I'm just glad you're able to smile again.  That means a lot"

Dan tilts his head to one side, genuinely touched, about to say something more, but the waiter returns with the bill and the moment is broken for now.  After paying, they walk out into the night air once more.

As they approach his car again, she is walking slightly ahead, and just as she reaches the door, she feels the gentle press of his hand against the small of her back and that simple motion sets her nerve endings tingling, keeping her eyes demurely averted as he opens the door for her and she sits in.

The drive back to her apartment is taken up in a comfortable silence, and she cannot help but sneak a look at his profile while he is driving, while wondering, much to her internal chagrin, if this could truly be counted as a date, or two friends hanging out together after finding each other again.

The ball was in his court at this moment, since he had taken the lead since the start of this evening, quite literally.

Waiting in a short line of traffic at a red traffic light, he fiddles with the power button for the radio, turning the dial left and right to find a particular station, settling on a late night classic rock show, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel and nodding his head in time to the beat.

She had been watching him quietly for one second too long and he turns his head to look at her as well, and the frisson of energy that floods between them is quite unexpected.

Dan swallows, already reaching out for her hand where it is resting on her left leg, but pausing to lift it away, only brushing the back of her hand with his index finger, "I don't want to lean on you anymore... I don't want to keep doing that."

She sighs, but not in annoyance, "You feel that it's a real problem?"

"Yeah.  I feel guilty about it."

The cars in front move forward a few inches, and this break in the conversation gives her a chance to gather her thoughts as he inches forward, the music offering some background noise. 

When the car comes to a halt once more, he once again turns to look at her with a wide eyed expression similar to back at the office.

Her voice is calm and gentle, "Okay, then let's talk it through right now as we're sitting here.  Do you want to hold my hand, Danny?"

"Yes..."

"Do you feel sad?"

"No, I'm... right now I'm content."

"Now you can ask me how it makes me feel?"

At first he blinks in confusion, but asks anyway, "How does that make you feel?"

"I'd like to hold your hand, too, and it would make me content, as well."

Almost in a trance, Dan reaches out and gently takes her hand, squeezing gently and the flutter of butterflies in her belly intensifies.

She raises her eyebrows with a gentle smile, "See how easy that was?  So let's be clear, with no avoidance of doubt: it's not leaning on me when you are not feeling sad, and when I want to hold your hand as well, and when we are able to talk just like this."

After a moment of intense eye contact, Dan rests back against the headrest, shutting his eyes with an embarassed chuckle, "Man... you had to spell it out for me, and it was just so easy as that.  I'm such a guy..."

She shakes her head, "Don't worry.  Maybe I needed to figure it out as well.  Now we both know, and it's okay."

Dan turns his head to look at her, appearing to want to say something more, but the traffic light changes to green and he drives on after releasing her hand again, but once he has navigated back onto a longer stretch of road, he has taken her hand again, toying with her fingertips.

For a gesture so innocent, it is the most sensual contact that she has ever had with him, knowing that they were open for the first time, and that the feeling of connection was mutual between them now.  For now, she couldn't bring herself to tell him everything that she was feeling, for the evening had been so perfect, it would not do to make it more complicated, or to even imagine it could be more.

 

 

Keeping secrets safe
Every move we make
Seems like no one's letting go
And it's such a shame
'Cause if you feel the same
How am I supposed to know?

 

About twenty minutes later, they arrive in front of the apartment complex where she lives and he switches the engine off, the car descending into silence, where they sit for a long moment.

"Here we are."

She nods, "Home, sweet home."

Before she can even formulate a casual way of thanking him and wishing him goodnight, to make a quick clean break before she said something overly sentimental, he has opened his door and gotten out, walking around to her side and opening her door, offering his hand in a charming, gallant fashion, "My lady."

Putting a hand to her face, painting the picture of the blushing maiden, she reaches out and takes his hand, allowing him to help her out of the car after she has gathered up her handbag, slipping it over her shoulder.

Standing on the sidewalk, the short path to the front entrance seems like so many miles away.  Dan still has a light hold on her hand and gently swings their joined hands in a casual manner.

"So..."

"So..."

She chances a look up at him, vaguely thinking that she should have changed back into the higher heeled shoes just so she did not feel so small, not that it was intimidating, but the sight of him towering over her was no longer a joke.

He appears to be lost in thought, that boyish awkwardness returning, so she speaks up quietly, "I had a really great time tonight.  Thank you."

"Yeah, me too, and you're more than welcome."

"I'm really glad I made you laugh, though without you having taken a drink of water first, which would have been unfortunate."

Dan grins, "That you did."

He chuckles, before saying with a hint of quiet seriousness, "I'd really like... I mean, if we have the time or something, but I'd really like to do this again sometime, I mean if you want to?  I know Arin and I will be on tour for the next two weeks, but maybe sometime after I'm back again?"

She is almost on the cusp of saying 'Yes' even before he had finished, but she holds herself back, not wanting to appear overly eager despite wanting to dance for joy, before nodding and saying, "Yes. I'd like that very much.  We should spend more time together, absolutely."

Dan's relief is endearing, as if he had doubted that her answer would be positive, "Great.  Awesome.  It'll be something to look forward to, I mean, not that there isn't plenty to look forward to every day, but you know..."

He awkwardly mumbles to a dead end, but she says gently, "I know. I'll look forward to it, too."

A pause.

"I'd better head inside."

"Yeah."

Yet she still does not make a move to walk away.  Instead, she makes the decision to take a chance now that she was feeling brave enough, knowing that they were making that fresh start, and after being able to talk so openly, to be able to laugh together, was a healing balm to all the hurt from before.

But she had to know if they could be in anyway close again, rather than living in blind hope and unknowing of how he felt.

Moving one step closer, she gazes up at him in total quiet, before reaching up to lightly brush her fingertips along his cheek with her free hand, carefully pushing back the longer curls framing his face, stretching up on tiptoe and pressing a gentle lingering kiss to his cheek.

She hears Dan inhale close to her ear, leaning into her, before he lays his hand on the small of her back, mirroring his gesture from before.

'He smells like warm honey and stardust...'

As soon as she pulls back and lowers down, meeting his eyes once more, the look on his face is all at once wanting and tender, and he dips his head to one side, pressing his face that bit more against her palm with a hitched sigh.

Emboldened by this reaction, she lightly strokes her hand down his face, and he immediately shuts his eyes, reaching up to circle his fingers around her wrist to gently keep her in place.

This was familiar and new all at once, back to a time when she was brave enough to admit to herself that she loved him, when he had confided in her about being in emotional turmoil, had fallen asleep beside her on a sofa, and the curves and angles of his face had not changed, that he was still so beautiful.

"You always make everything better again," he murmurs.

Her heart seizes with a tender ache as his eyes flutter open, and for a single heartbeat, the temptation to kiss him was close to overpowering.

"You mean the world to me, Danny.  You know that, right?"

He manages a single nod, still pillowing his cheek against her hand, not appearing to want to move away yet.

Not wanting the night to end, she knew that it had to, or else they would be standing on the path all night, "We'd... we had better say goodnight now."

"Yeah..." He doesn't sound convinced, though he allows his hand to drop from her wrist and makes a small step backwards, the corners of his mouth downturned.

"Hey... it's only until the next time," she says with a subtle hint of feminine wiles.

His eyes light up at this and he stands that bit taller, a smile on his face, "Okay."

"Okay."

Heaving one last deep breath, he presses a kiss to her palm, whispering, "Goodnight, sugar sprinkles."

This was becoming addictive, every touch and gesture simmering with a new tension, knowing that it was not wishful thinking all in her head, that there was emotion coming from his side, that he actually wanted to spend time with her.

"Goodnight, Danny."

With great reluctance, they slowly stand apart from each other, with her stepping back, unable to turn away from him just yet, as he leans back against the door of his car, hands in his pockets, watching her quietly.

Without thinking, only being completely sincere, she says softly, "Have deep and amazing dreams, starman."

At this, he blinks several times with a bemused smile, snapping out of his dreamy mood, "Starman?"

She shrugs with a shy look, not quite believing she had just called him that, but she could not take it back now, quietly hoping that he would not be embarrassed by it.

He looks up at the sky, mouthing the name under his breath, before he smiles slowly, "Yeah... I like it.  It's very cool.  Please keep calling me that."

"I will, if you'd like me to."

"I would, very much.  Have sweet dreams."

"See you tomorrow, Danny."

With that final word, she manages to turn away, just about able to contain her delight, walking up to the front door, chancing a look back at him, not even having remembered to count to ten, but he is still looking after her.

She gives a small wave and he waves back, and she lets herself into the complex foyer, not looking back again for she would surely run into his arms and never be able to let him go.

 

Later on, after she has washed her face, hung up the dress, and crept under the covers, allowing her body to settle down into restfulness, before she drifts off, her phone beeps with a text message.

Reaching out to her bedside table, she sees it's from Dan, and it is several lines of star emojis followed by the words 'Id give you all the stars from the sky as a present but i hope these will do before i get my own star-gathering spaceship to go on space quests.  goodnight, sweets. <3'

Overcome with adoration, she blushes as she presses a kiss to the phone screen, typing back a reply, 'They are beautiful, thank you. this is why you are the starman. we should go to see phleebut and monolith burger sometime on your ship, captain danny. goodnight. <3'  

Truth be told, she would miss him when he and Arin would be on tour, but at least she had the memory of this evening to sustain her.

She could wait a little bit longer, for he was worth it.

 

Will we ever say the words we're feeling
Reach down underneath and tear down all the walls?
Will we ever have a happy ending
Or will we forever only be pretending?

 

Chapter Text

Missing someone made the days pass more slowly. That was the conclusion she had come to during the two painstaking weeks of the live show tour, when she would often be staring into space for extended periods, only to find that the clock had only moved forward ten or fifteen minutes.

It appeared that the absence of Arin and Dan was indeed affecting all those around her, with passing remarks that it was often too quiet, but then the monotony would be broken up with music listening sessions or YouTube challenges for fun.

Still, she did not permit herself to pine so strongly for him. Those days were behind her, and it was time to move forward with a new purpose, especially since the quiet reconciliation on that almost perfect night.

On days when there was truly not many tasks to be done and there was little to occupy her time apart from writing notes on her legal pad or listening to music, Barry, Matt and Ryan sensed her melancholy when she was not as willing to join in the office japes or even to take part in videos for Instagram, and did the gentlemanly decent gesture of bringing her out for lunches and after work beers, which she greatly appreciated, for sitting at home alone was not high on her list of activities to while away the evenings.

While she and Barry had not openly talked about the previous unpleasantness too often, given that it was not the best topic of conversation to have between friends, the only action he took was bringing his laptop close to her own workspace where he could keep his eyes fully on her, the silent gesture touching her heart.

He even ventured over one Friday with his ukulele to serenade her with some quiet chords, and when she requests a lesson, he is happy to oblige, though he ends up covering his face in exasperation as she cautiously plucks the strings, producing dissonant notes that could have featured in a Spongebob Squarepants episode.

She had carefully observed Barry's own interactions with Dan all the while in between recording sessions and long stretches of editing in the days following the fateful break-up, and the two men appeared to be back to being close comrades again, humourously ribbing each other with witty comebacks, to her immense relief.

In choice moments, her mind would wander to the last evening that she had spent with Dan, when she had worn a nice dress that had been complimented on, he had taken her out to a restaurant, and they had been laughing together like old friends.

But she could not forget the look in his eyes when they said goodnight. It would often play into her lonely fantasies where she was unable to discern what had actually happened and what she was prone to dreaming up on her own.

The fact remained that she had to know what he wanted, or else it was living in that vain hope, that indistinguishable limbo between friendship and intimacy.

She would have that courage to ask him as soon as he came back. Or perhaps the day after when he had some rest, or the day after that, but soon.

 

Three days later...

Waking from a brief nap in one of the unoccupied recording rooms, the sound that reaches her ears and rousing her is a jubilant cheer followed by a cacophany of exuberant shouts.

Mumbling about flying stacks of paper and smiling burgers that had infiltrated her dreams, rubbing the sleep from her eyes and fixing her hair into a presentable style, having never mastered the enviable bedhead look, she rises from the sofa, stretching her spine with a yawn, walking to the door and peering out into the main area of the office to find a gaggle of the staff, including Matt, Ryan, Ross and Suzy gathered around two people in the middle, one who is high fiving and the other giving big hugs.

Her brain is still rather sleep deprived so she does not recognise who it is right away, taking a few steps forward to try and see who could be receiving such a welcome, but as soon as there is a break in the crowd, she realises with mounting joy, that it is Arin and Dan, returned from the live tour.

Instantly, a smile spreads across her face and a breathless laugh leaves her as she looks on from her corner, quite content to let the two men have their moments of adulation with their close friends.

With his arms still wrapped around Suzy, nuzzling his nose into her hair, Arin lifts his head, spots her and waves, "Hey! Great to see you!"

She manages a shy wave back, and only when she blinks once does she see Dan emerge from the sea of hugs, almost prancing with happiness, and once their eyes meet, she cannot even think to move.

Had it truly been two and a half weeks since he left? It had truly felt like an age, even with the intermittent texts from him telling her about the tour, describing the sights of the cities he had visited and the late night likes to her Instagram posts after the shows had concluded, with her replies telling him in no uncertain terms to sleep, to rest and not waste time talking with her, but his reply would always be that talking to her made him happy, so she fondly acquiesced by not telling him off anymore.

Giving him the same wave she gave to Arin, he shakes his head with a bright smile, saying quite softly over the din of chatter, beckoning with both hands, "Get over here, sweetheart."

She dips her head, not able to resist that one command, beginning to wander over towards him, but not before long, Dan has bounded across the room to meet her, since she was clearly not moving fast enough for his liking, and he has ducked down to wrap his arms around her waist and hoist her off her feet into a full-on bearhug.

Her yelp of surprise is loud and unrestrained and all she can do his hang on around his neck as he spins around in a circle first one way, then the other, holding her tight against his chest, his hair obscuring her vision and his laugh joyous, ringing in her ears.

She lets out a girlish giggle, his name a rising octave, doing her best to not kick her legs in case she accidentally hit his shins, hugging him back with just as much enthusiasm.

After several seconds, he gently lowers her back down onto the ground and she holds onto him a bit tighter, still quite dizzy, resting her cheek against his shoulder and letting out a hitched, happy exhale.

Thankfully, no one cracks a joke about taking an incriminating photo or starts playing romantic music as they stand there quite still, and she hears him whisper, "God, I've missed you, so much."

The one who was entirely in love decides to be completely honest, "I missed you too, Danny."

He hugs her a fraction tighter, the warmth of a kiss pressed to the top of her head, before he steps back to look at her, holding her gently by her shoulders, and as she looks up at him, the dizziness immediately abating, doing her best to not blush, his expression is slack and warm, though his eyes are tired.

"Hey, you."

"Hello, sugar sprinkles."

His eyes flick upwards to her hair, tilting his head, "Were you sleeping just now?"

"No..." She plays innocent, even with a higher tone of voice like a child, but the knowing smile is too strong, so she nods instead.

"I know the feeling. Power naps were lifesavers on the tours."

She giggles a touch too loudly, clearing her throat, "So are you glad to be back?"

He nods, "Feels like forever, but the tour was amazing, like always. Meeting the lovelies, playing some games, answering interesting questions, and getting to see places we've never been before. It was such a blast."

"You and Arin made a lot of dreams come true, for certain."

He appears bashful, tipping his head downwards, "Oh, stop."

"I can't because it's the truth."

A small beat.

"Are you busy right now?"

"Not really, it's been a quiet day, Brent insisted that I take it easy following all the pre-tour work."

He does not step away, though his expression softens into something that is quite shy, "Do you want to do something later? I want to catch up, hear about all what you've been doing."

Her smile is bright, "That would be really lovely. Though I'm sure it's not half as exciting as what you've been doing."

He raises an eyebrow, still smiling, tipping her lightly under the chin with his index finger, "Hey, I always love hearing you talk about stuff. Are you still up for teaching me about contracts and legal stuff like you said that time?"

She is genuinely surprised at this, believing it to have been a throwaway joke on that particular evening, "I am, though I'd rather wait for a day when your poor brain isn't burned out from performing and travelling to even attempt it."

"Plenty of tea, then. Let me work on some stuff now and we can go somewhere later?"

"Sure."

Another beat.

"It's really good to see you."

"You too. You've no idea..."

He pulls her into another tight hug and she hides her face in his chest, feeling so very safe.

When they break apart from each other, he gazes down at her before brushing a light peck to her forehead, murmuring, "See you later..."

With one last squeeze of her hands, he is gone to join Arin in the other room, the rest of the staff milling about and returning to their desks after the return.

She remains standing in that one spot, quite overcome with that warmth that she had felt from the first moment they had met.

 

A few hours later...

After leaving the office and sitting into his car, before she can even ask what they were doing for the evening, Dan solemnly asks her to keep her eyes closed until they have reached the destination.

She gives him a suspicious look, tapping her foot where it is resting in the well of the front seat.

"Please humour me, I've just gotten off a live show tour and I'd really like to make this a surprise, please?"

Before he can even engage the puppy dog eyes, she has placed her palms over her eyes with a sigh tinged with fondness.

"No peeking, you promise?"

"I promise."

"Great, now we're off on a magical mystery tour of wonder, all aboard!"

A pause, before she intones in a deadpan voice, "Dan... you can be quite strange sometimes."

She hears him chuckle, "You've only just realised this, sugar sprinkles? I mean, look at where we work and the dudes we hang around with. The weirdness has been embraced."

"Well, maybe I did a while ago after seeing all of NSP's videos and enough Game Grumps playthroughs. Normal is overrated..."

"I want that on a T-shirt, please."

"I'll get in touch with the team at the Yetee."

He switches on the radio a few minutes after, humming along to the music.

A memory comes to her of childhood roadtrips with her father, and she decides to ask a time-honoured question, "Are we there yet?"

She hears him sigh loudly, "Not yet. And before you ask in thirty seconds, we are still not there yet and we won't be there yet in ten minutes, so we are not there yet."

He almost sounds like a pleasantly exasperated parent and it makes her heart almost want to burst.

She has to pout at his killjoy attitude, "Foiled. I wanted to make the time pass quicker by asking it over and over again."

"That's not how that works. Believe me, I tried. It only makes the blood pressure rise in the parent behind the wheel."

"Well then, I've been lied to..."

A pause.

Her palms are beginning to become more warm and sweaty, so she lowers them down, saying as she does it, "My eyes are still closed, my eyes are still closed, I am not opening my eyes."

Dan chuckles, "Don't worry, I trust you. Though maybe I should have brought a scarf as a blindfold..."

She turns her head towards him, eyes still shut, "Oh yes, that would not be suspect at all to anyone passing by. All that would be missing is a sign saying 'Help me'."

All of a sudden, there is the tap of a finger to her nose and she darts back and away, clumsily sitting back in her seat with a yelp, "Oh my God, don't do that, seriously!"

Dan's laughter is triumphant, "I'm sorry, I couldn't help it, it was just too perfect a chance to miss. I won't do it again."

She takes several deep breaths, her heart pounding, more surprised than frightened, "Are you some kind of sadist? This is just like the VR headset japery with Arin and Resident Evil 7."

"Oh, that was awesome. I did feel bad when he was literally closed off from the real world and confronted by such gross, horrible images, but it was just so funny to hear him screaming with terror, and you know how the

fans love to torture us, or watch us torture ourselves."

After carefully noting that they were stopped in traffic, she stretches her hand to one side, waving her hand until she was touching his face and his hair, moving down to his shoulder and his chest, trying to find a place to tickle

him as he tries to squirm away, "No! Get away! Stop, that tickles! No, stop! Oh God, that really tickles, no!! No, no, the lights are changing!!"

She immediately halts, sitting back in her seat with a breathless laugh, "Now you see what it's like."

"Mean." She can hear the smile in his voice, so thankfully she had not pushed things too far.

The rest of the drive continues in companiable silence with the radio being a pleasant soundtrack, the road becoming more winding and dimly light, as much as she could tell behind her closed eyelids. If this was not such an exciting adventure and had she not missed him so much, she may have dropped off to sleep accidentally, but the thought of sleep is far from her mind.

When the car comes to a stop and the engine is switched off, she hears Dan say gently, "We're here."

"Can I open my eyes now?"

"Not yet, let me help you out first."

She listens as he opens his door and the sounds of his climbing out, straining to hear his footsteps walking around to her side, where he opens the door.

"Here, if you reach out just to your right, take my hand. Just watch your step."

She does as he asks, allowing him to help her out of the car, the ground beneath her feels like earth and grass, the air smells fresh and clean.

"This is the best version of a trust exercise that I've ever been a part of, just so you know."

She hears Dan's gentle laugh, "I'm glad you feel that way. Just keep a hold of my hand, the ground is pretty even, but just watch your step."

While he guides her a few feet away from the car, he has his other hand in the small of her back, keeping a gentle hold on her.

They come to a stop and he squeezes her hand lightly, "Okay... you can open your eyes... now."

When she opens her eyes, blinking to adjust to the darkness, does she see that they are parked high atop one of the bluffs overlooking the city, and the lights of Los Angeles are twinkling brightly in a vast, glittering canvas in the valley below.

Stunned, all she can say is, "Oh... wow."

Almost sounding bashful, she hears Dan whisper, "Do you like it?"

"Dan... this is just... what an amazing view. I've never seen the city this high up before. It's beautiful."

He gently releases her hand as she takes in the scenery around them, "I come here sometimes when I need to think, or if I need a change of scenery when writing songs. It's pretty peaceful, I haven't seen that many others come up here."

She takes a look at the rest of the clearing, and there are only other smaller rock formations and some trees nearby. The road leading up to the hill is dusty, but does not appear to be frequently used.

"It's like a private vantage point."

Dan visibly puffs up his chest, "And I found it all on my own."

"Really?"

He huffs a sigh with an embarassed grin, "No, I think Brooke might have told me once. She was saying if I wanted a place to meditate or just think about dick jokes and awesome things in general, this was the place to come to."

"Friends tell friends about thinking spots," she says with a smile.

Dan smiles back. "We can have a seat either on the grass or on the hood of the car, whichever you like."

"On the grass, we can look up at the stars as well."

He gestures with one arm grandly and she makes a curtsey, treading carefully along the grassy area, coming to just a few feet from the edge of the overlook, sitting down and resting back on her hands as Dan sits down beside her.

"I think I heard my knees creak. I am getting so old."

She reaches across to pat his arm lightly, "You don't look a day older than ten, sir."

"Is that why I never hit my growth spurt?"

They giggle together, until falling quiet as the view below is spread out like a magic carpet, alive with colour.

"I feel like I can touch the city lights from here, and hold them in my hand." She reaches out and makes that gesture as if wanting to catch the dozens of lights sparkling below them.

Dan's smile is warm, "I used to feel that way about the stars, and the moon, too. But then I discovered that all the planets are millions of miles away and my child hands were too small to hold them."

"The beginning of your own space quest, someday."

"Maybe."

She draws her knees up to her chest, hugging her arms around them. "So tell me about the tour, it looked amazing from the fan posts online. They all looked so happy to be there."

"Believe me, so were we. I mean, the atmosphere at each venue was just electric and positive, it was like nothing else. The fans were awesome too, and some were a bit nervous before coming up onto the stage, I was afraid a few would start crying, but as soon as they were playing the games and heard Arin doing some of his many impressions and got the crowd behind them, then they were fine."

"That's really wonderful. Did you by any chance have any strange questions during the Q and A's? The lovelies are amazing, but they can be quite... unusual from the postings I see on the reddit page."

Dan chuckles, "They're awesome for the memes, that's for sure. No, it was nothing that we couldn't handle. You always get the occasional weird questions about what we wear to bed or who would we think is more likely to be president of space, but it was all great fun. So many people wanted to do music or animation because of Arin and I, so that was really cool to hear those stories. That part never gets old."

She nods in agreement, "I think if I ever met any one of my heroes, like the lovelies who get to meet you and Arin, I think I would lose my mind."

"Oh yeah? Who would be your hero that you'd want to hang out with, present company excluded." He tips his head to his side in an innocent fashion as she pushes his shoulder lightly, "Is your head feeling bigger right now?

Maybe Tori Amos, or J.K. Rowling, or Zoe Keating..."

"All really awesome people. I haven't heard of that last person, who is that?"

"Oh, she's an avant-cellist, she composes for the cello in layers of music that overlap and harmonise together, it's really awesome. She had this amazing hair and just a wonderful way of looking at the world and how she sees music in all the different wavelengths and how it can represent different streams of nature. I'd love to sit down with her and talk about how she makes music and what it means to be an avant-cellist."

Dan had been watching her all the time as she was speaking, his gaze soft, "That's awesome. I suppose since you listen to that cool Vitamin String Quartet, you'd be into classical stuff."

"The cello is a beautiful instrument, I wish I'd learned to play but for a few years, it was still quite a bit larger than me."

Dan lets out a chuckle, "That would make it hard to do that bowing stuff."

"You know it, so it was the piano after encouragement from my parents."

"You learned piano? I never knew that."

Her cheeks warm up slightly, doing her best to sound humble and not a show-off, "For a few years, until I was about fifteen. I did enjoy it, but then exams sort of took over my life when I decided to go for my law degree, I couldn't practice as much as was required to pass the grades so it wasn't fair to keep paying for so many classes. I kept singing in university choirs and on my own, so music never really vacated my life."

Dan appears to be genuinely impressed, "That sounds awesome. Maybe you could break out a tune someday, I'll get Brian to bring in his keytar and we can jam out."

She lets out an embarrassed groan, hiding her face behind her hands, "Oh goodness... you would have to give me a very good reason to even attempt such a thing, especially in front of the man who is a master keyboard player."

"How about a year's supply of vanilla chai tea?"

She peers from a crack between her fingers, "Maybe..."

He looks up to the sky, squeezing his eyes shut as he thinks, "I got it! I could get Matt and Ryan to stop pestering you for four months, so long as they keep distorting my face into various monstrosities on the channel. Sound like an even trade?"

"I'll think about it, sir."

"That's all I ask."

Dan slowly leans back until he is lying down on the grass, both arms outstretched either side of his body, palms upturned to the sky, eyes closed as he exhales slowly. She shyly glances at him, watching the rising and falling of his chest, his features relaxed.

Still with his eyes shut, "Lay down with me. I mean... if you'd like to, and I'd like to hold your hand, not because I am feeling sad or lonely, but because I want to know you're there."

She dips her head demurely, still not able to refuse him this one gesture, before lying down beside him and reaching for his hand, holding it lightly as if she was shaking hands with someone in a polite business setting.

Dan was having none of it, gently interlacing their fingers together and squeezing her hand. "There you are..."

She squeezes back, immediately feeling that warm, tender connection that she had sorely missed while they had been apart.

They lay in silence, the far off sounds of the city echoing up through the valley, the odd cricket chirping and the rumble of planes landing and taking off from the airport sounding so far away.

When he exhales another sigh, she turns her head towards him, unable to keep her eyes off him for very long.

"This feels like a retreat, it's so peaceful."

"I know, isn't it great? I'll never stop loving the city and all it's given me, but escaping it for a while is pretty awesome too, and seeing other places like we did on the tour."

"Yeah. I'm glad it all went well. You and Arin worked so hard, as well as Brent and all the crew."

Dan smiles that bit more, "Yeah, it was worth it. We got great welcomes and the managers were happy and all the fans, too. It's really something to go on stage and actually see the fans who watch your videos each day, who write to you and say that you've saved their lives, it's the most amazing thing."

Quietly and with complete sincerity, "You know we are all so proud of you. I'm proud of all of you, as cliched as that sounds."

Dan opens his eyes, turning his head towards her, "Thank you, and just so you know, we're proud of you too."

The compliment is unexpected, and she is grateful for the evening dusk masking her face so he would not see her blush, "I really appreciate it, but I didn't do anything special."

His face becomes slightly serious, "You helped with the legal side, worked out details, made sure that the managers were in the loop, and kept us covered when we needed it, as well as being generally amazing. We need good people behind us to keep us sane, to get all those details right, and all of it matters. So I am going to be proud of you and that's that."

She is unable to speak for a moment past the lump in her throat, relenting, "Okay. I believe you..."

Dan shuffles a bit closer to her side, not taking his eyes off her and the shift in the mood is almost palpable.

"You are worth so much. Please don't forget that."

"I'll do my best."

A moment of intense eye contact where he is holding her hand a fraction tighter, that is swiftly broken by a gentle gust of wind rustling through the clearing and an involuntary shiver runs through her.

Dan says quietly with immediate concern, "Are you cold?"

"A little bit, but this view is beautiful, I'll be fine."

"We can still look out from inside the car. I don't want you getting sick."

"Okay. This is your thinking spot, I'll happily agree."

He reaches up and taps her nose with a silly expression, and before she can retaliate, he rolls back over and pushes himself up into standing, brushing his jeans free of grass before offering his hand to help her up into standing beside him.

She takes a moment to look out over the valley again, once again entranced by the view, just as Dan steps away towards the car and she follows him, looking down at her own feet to make sure she did not step on an overgrown root or deep impression, making her way over to the passenger side and opening the door.

Only when she looks up does she realise that Dan was not sitting in the drivers seat, rather that he had moved to the backseat door of the drivers side.

Bewildered, she ducks down slightly to look through the window and sees Dan looking back at her with a slightly confused expression as well, before tilting his head and tipping his chin up slightly in a gesture asking her to come over.

A long pause as they regard each other, and for some reason, her heartbeat begins to pick up as she makes her away around the back of the car, dipping her head round the side to look at him shyly.

He smiles back at her, opening the door to the backseat of the car, worrying his lower lip between his teeth, not taking his eyes off her.

She steps up to the door, saying a quiet 'Thank you' before sitting in, moving all the way over to the opposite side on the seat, taking a deep, shaky breath.

This was a thinking spot, not lovers' point. Surely not...

Dan sits in just a moment after, reaching back to shut the door behind him, and when he turns back to her, she is suddenly quite aware of the more confined space, of just how close he was, and as he moves towards her, her nerves are tingling with this sudden shift, and she does her even best to keep breathing slowly while hoping that Dan does not pick up on this and that they could just sit together and be friendly.

Like friends tended to be friendly...

"Here... give me your hands."

She obliges, watching him with doe eyes as he gently rubs her hands with his palms, first the left, then the right, concentrating all his attention on creating that subtle friction to create warmth and it is enough to make her shudder pleasantly.

After several second, he stops and they end up just holding hands, their fingers interweaving together, and to her internal detriment, she realised that she had missed him so much and being so close in this smaller space was inspiring all sorts of feelings to rise to the surface again.

The silence is thick, but not uncomfortable, and when Dan lifts his head, she feels a wave of dizziness wash over her at the look in his eyes.

"I've... I've been touching you a lot tonight. It's still okay?"

Why did he have to be so caring?

"Yes. Yes, it's all fine. If it weren't, then you would know, I'd tell you."

She says this very gently, not wanting to come across as annoyed, and his shoulders ease down just a fraction.

"Okay."

"Okay."

He dips his head, almost in contemplation, before saying quietly, "I want to say something. Would that be alright?"

She nods just once, quite certain that if he asked her to climb the nearest tree then she would do it if it made him happy.

Dan looks down at their joined hands, as if searching for the words he wanted to say, and she does not prompt him to continue, for she did not trust her voice at this moment.

"I've been thinking about this a lot, turning it over and over in my head while I was on the road and after the shows were done at night, every time I'd send you a message and just be waiting for you to reply, that I just wanted to say it now, before I blow that chance forever. You said before, on that awful day when I ended it with... her. When you were hurting and shaking and you... you said about me always leaving."

The memory returns, sharp and sudden with startling clarity. She swallows thickly, quite embarrassed that he was bringing it up, for she had long suppressed that memory and did not want to dwell on it again.

"Dan, I was in shock, I was upset, I didn't know what I was saying."

Dan shakes his head, "But it's true, isn't it? I have been doing that, walking away without even thinking that it was hurting you too. I was just so caught up with my own shit, it was consuming me, and it wasn't right. It was selfish and it was wrong after all the nice things you've done for me, for being there when I needed someone to talk to, to lean on. When you saved me from making the biggest mistake of my life and making me realise what I had lost and what I could have lost if I had stayed."

His words were close to breaking her heart, she had to convince him to stop before she would start to cry, "Danny..."

His eyes are glimmering as he whispers, "Hear me out, please just let me. I want to tell you this, because it's all that matters to me right now, and I've been doing you wrong for a long time, and I want to make it right, like I promised, and I can't think of any other way than to undo those awful things I said to you."

He releases her hands, and moves to gently take hold of her upper arms, squeezing gently, and all she can do is look back at him with wide eyes, entirely entranced, "What I mean is, being completely, totally honest... is that I don't want to leave you anymore, baby..."

Her bloodstream courses with pulsing warmth at his use of such an endearment. 'Sugar sprinkles' was just as wonderful a name for him to bestow upon her, but could also be classed as just a friendly nickname, like 'Big Cat' or 'Markymoo'. But this was something entirely different, and even more intimate.

She struggles to speak for a moment, "What do you mean, Dan? We... I mean, you have to go home, don't you? I... what do you mean?"

It's an entirely innocent question, though the implication of what he has just said almost makes her want to faint, and she did not even want to imagine what he meant in the likelihood that she was entirely wrong, that all the wishful thinking in the time they had been apart had somehow invaded reality. It would not be the first time in her life to have misread any sort of signal.

Dan's eyes flit back and forth over her face, almost as if he was reading from an open book, "I mean that I don't want us to be apart anymore. That this right here between us is what matters to me, that it's all I want, and it's been in front of me this whole time. You've been right in front of me, being so kind and sweet, just being there when I needed you, and I took you for granted. I don't want to do that ever again, and..."

He pauses for a moment, before saying quite softly, "You know what? I think I'd rather show you what I mean, and how I'm feeling, because I'm not usually the best when it comes to words, at least when I'm not doing music and making the sweet jams that people enjoy... so I think I'll just stop talking now..."

Before she can even ask him what he meant, Dan's expression becomes quite intent as he leans closer, nudging his forehead against hers, his curls ticking her temples, making her close her eyes.

He murmurs her name, a low, quiet intonation, before he gently presses his lips to hers in a soft, lingering kiss.

At that simple, tender contact, all her senses instantly come alive with him, and the thrumming mantra in her head repeats 'Yes... yes, love... yes...'

Trembling, she reaches to hold onto his arms, curling her fingers in the material of his jacket, hitching a sigh, heart knocking in her chest and tipping her head up to shyly kiss him back.

No sooner than when the kiss naturally breaks, he tilts his head and kisses her once again, just as gently, sliding his hands up her neck to cradle her head, keeping her close, the grazing of his stubble against her skin the most pleasing contrast to the warmth and softness of his mouth.

She feels the warm flicker of his tongue lightly tracing her lower lip, before darting away again, the soft gust of his breathing blowing across her cheek becoming that bit faster, and she willingly opens up for him, it being so long since anyone had kissed her, let alone in such a romantic fashion.

When his tongue finds hers, working together in a hot, wet slide, he makes a low sound in his chest and the kiss immediately evolves to being more urgent, more hungry, and she is swept away on this current, unable to resist for a moment longer, all of the feelings she had kept secret, hidden away in her heart finally making their way to the surface, with the taste of him being so intoxicating.

In her movement of hugging him closer, of wanting to touch him more, she takes hold of the collar of his jacket, prompting him to making a hum that vibrates against her lips as he clumsily shrugs off his jacket with a measure of impatience, not pulling back from kissing her, flinging it to one side in the well of the backseat, immediately reaching for her again to pull her close, taking hold of the lapels of her own jacket, sliding it off her shoulders.

As he tugs the material down her arms, her hands become momentarily trapped in the sleeves and she shrugs her shoulders to try and free herself, Dan subtly takes advantage while she is in such a restricted position to press gentle kisses to her neck, grazing her collarbone with his teeth and she makes a hitched whine, her head lolling back.

It was becoming increasingly warm in the back of the car, but the thought of stopping or even attempting to move away from him did not even cross her mind as Dan pulls her free of her jacket, hugging her closer to his chest, shifting until he is sitting back against the seat, taking her with him so she is sitting across his lap, leaning up to her for another kiss, gently biting down on her lower lip, soothing the bite with a tender swipe of his tongue.

Pulse thundering in her ears, she loops her arms around his neck, skimming the length of his hair, before twisting her fingers in the soft strands, ruffling and lightly tugging, unable to help smiling against his mouth as he purrs in approval.

The need for air becomes too strong to ignore, as she gently cups his cheek and draws back, brushing his lips one last time before lifting her head, eyes fluttering open to gaze at him.

Dan's eyes open to meet hers, his pupils dilated, expression eager and soft with a rosy flush on his cheeks, noticeable even in the fading light of dusk.

A moment where only their breathing fills the silence, before Dan murmurs as he strokes her hair behind her ears, cupping her face in his hands, almost in wonder, "Wow... your eyes are like gemstones."

Her smile is shy, and all she can do is let out a breathless laugh as he nuzzles his nose against her, leaning their foreheads together as he breathes deeply.

The fact that she was causing this reaction in him was quite possibly the most heady feeling.

"Danny..."

He sighs gently, "Hearing you say my name, I can't even describe it. Having you so close... you've no idea how good this is."

"I might have a fair idea. I'm right here with you." Her tone is lightly teasing even as she kisses the corner of his mouth lightly and he turns his head to catch her lips in a soft kiss, stroking his fingers into her hair.

She responds just as gently, breaking the kiss to take his right hand and places it on her chest, directly over her heart, the heat of his fingers radiating through the material to her skin.

"Do you feel that, Dan?"

He gazes downwards, almost mesmerised by the sight. "Yeah..."

"That is my heart, and it's beating for you. It's for you, it's always been for you."

She presses his hand that bit more firmly, voice trembling with emotion, "You've been so open with me, told me so much. I want to tell you something as well. Everything that I do, if it's through work or in my personal life, it's always to make myself wonderful for you, to have you look at me the way you are right now. Ever since we met, I've wanted to be a better person, to be deserving of your friendship and to be thought of by you. I wanted you, wanted to be close to you, even when you were with someone else, and that was selfish. I never stopped thinking about you, I didn't stop wanting us to be close again. I never gave up..."

Overcome with tenderness, she leans forward and hugs him tightly, burying her face in the crook of his neck to hide her sudden tears, "I never gave up on you, Danny. I will never give up on you. You know that, right?"

At her emotive confession, she feels Dan hug her back in return, before he raspily whispers in her ear after choking back a sob, "Your voicemail... the one you left me on that fucking awful day... I listened to it, and I kept it."

The realisation washes over her and she can barely speak, "Oh... oh my God... did you really?"

"Yes. When there were horrible days that I felt like I couldn't take it anymore, when she was being especially cruel, telling me lies to make me feel like a failure, calling my friends names, threatening to break the frames with my Last Unicorn cells or my Rush albums, I'd hide away in my room or the bathroom or sit in my car where there was no noise or shouting, and just listen to your voice. I'd hear you saying that you would always be there, and I'd have hope that it would be okay, even after I hurt you and said those horrible things, that you still wanted to help me, and I wanted you there with me..."

She hugs him that bit tighter as Dan makes a low sound, his hands reach up to tangle in her hair as he brings her level with him before clumsily kissing her as he breathlessly whispers the words into her mouth, a hint of desperation returning, "You know me and voicemails... I couldn't do it, not when it meant so much."

She lets out a tearful laugh, "But it wasn't something sweet and endearing like something your dad would leave you... I really thought you would delete it."

He shakes his head several times, "It was the last thing connecting us... how could I let that go? I made the fucking stupid mistake of walking away and it was all I had left of you. I was so wrong to leave you... I was so wrong, so wrong... please forgive me... forgive me, baby, please."

She returns his kisses, overcome at once, tilting her head left and right, drinking him in as warm tears slide down her cheeks, sighing shakily as he tenderly strokes them away, dotting featherly light kisses across her face, pressing the remaining liquid flood into non-existence.

Every touch, every caress, every one of his kisses setting her nerve endings tingling, like he was pouring vibrant colour into the parts of herself that had only existed in stark black and white.

She could have happily spent the night in his arms, in his car, in his bed, anywhere as long as it was with him, but she knew that it would not do any good to rush things. They had come so far together in one evening, and while his kisses were as sweet as holy wine, it was now completely dark outside the car, the lights of the city below even more bright.

Nuzzling his ear, she gently whispers, "Danny... I think we should head back?"

Dan moans quietly, sneaking his hands beneath her T-shirt to trace patterns on her skin, "Just a few more minutes..."

She arches into his touch almost catlike, "Mmmm... you're using a distraction technique that is effective and quite unfair..."

"Am not..." There is a hidden note of mirth in his voice as he dips his head to nestle his head on her chest, his curls tossed in her face, burrowing into the soft flesh, breathing hotly against her skin.

She hitches a sigh, lightly squeezing the muscles in his shoulders, winding her fingers around the longer curls framing his face and tipping his head up to look at her, summoning all the feminine wiles that she can in order to persuade him, "We've come so far tonight, and I've loved every second. How about we think of this as the first of many nights to come, handsome?"

"Many?" Dan appears to be quite enthralled with the idea, but her low self esteem swiftly comes knocking when she mumbles, "I mean, if you want to spend them with me, because I know you like your space and your quiet and it's okay to want to be alone if you want to work on your music and..."

She is halted mid-sentence by Dan leaning in and gently kissing her, deepening it sensually and any rational thought flies away as she ruffles his hair, pressing herself closer to him, being swept away by all the sensations.

He gently catches her lower lip as he pulls back with a shy, charming smile, "I don't want to be alone in an empty room with my thoughts for company. I would rather start getting to know you, and spending more time with you, beautiful."

With one last longing look, he says, after darting a look at her lips one last time, though not without a hint of disappointment, "I'd better take you home."

 

Forty minutes later...

They pull up in front of her apartment after a quiet, peaceful drive back.

She briefly wonders as they sit together after he switches the engine off about asking him inside so they could talk more, using words and perhaps not so many words, but that would be skirting potentially risky territory where only fools rushed in.

Dan breaks the gentle silence, "I had a really beautiful time tonight."

"Me, too. Thank you for showing me your thinking spot."

"Well, it's safe to say it's not just for thinking anymore..." He gives her a look with a flirtatious smirk that has her giggling and blushing all over again.

"Da-an..."

"I'm sorry, I couldn't help it."

A pause where they regard each other quietly.

"You'll be in the office tomorrow?"

"For a few hours, just so Arin and I can see where we are with recording."

"I'll be there too. Well, of course I will be, I work there as well..."

She mumbles to a dead end as Dan chuckles while she crosses her arms and pouts, embarrassed at her lack of a vocabulary, hearing Dan unbuckle his seatbelt, before he reaches across and pulls her into a hug, pressing a kiss to the top of her head.

"You are adorable, and smart, and funny, and seriously, I could kiss you all night and I really, really want to..."

"But you need to rest, starman. Trust me... I want to do nothing but kiss you all night, too."

Dan hugs her a bit tighter and she nuzzles into the crook of his neck, breathing in his scent and heaving a contented sigh.

"We'd better say goodnight."

"Yeah..."

She lifts her head, meeting his eyes with his arms still around her, and already she can see the sadness returning.

Framing his face in her hands, she draws him closer to her, looking into his eyes all the while, "Hey, it's okay. Many more nights, remember?"

He manages a nod and a tremulous smile, patently doing his best to be strong, the sight close to breaking her heart.

"Come here, handsome..."

She leans in and kisses him gently, tilting her head to deepen it slowly, encouraged by Dan's low sounds as he cups her neck and keeps her in place.

After a long moment, she draws back and admits quietly with a shy expression, "I'm making it difficult to say goodnight, aren't I?"

Dan's smile is quite knowing as he turns his head to press a kiss to her palm, "You won't hear me complain anytime soon if you keep doing that, believe me."

She smiles shyly, "Dream of me tonight?"

"You know I will, and I'll dream about you."

Leaning in for one last soft kiss to his cheek, she whispers, "Goodnight, Dan."

"Goodnight..."

It takes all of her will to let their hands part, to step out of the car and shut the door behind her, all the time wanting nothing more than to stay with him for longer, but more than likely, they would be kissing each other 'Good morning' if she had her way.

'Many more nights... many more...'

Once again, she counts to ten with every step she took towards the entrance door, before looking back to see if he had pulled away yet.

His car was still parked, and she saw that he had actually gotten out and was standing there silhouetted in the lamplight, gazing back at her quietly.,

Her heart jumps in surprise, when she believed momentarily that he would actually follow her, but all he does is offer her a wave and feeling so incredibly in love, she blows him a kiss, which he swiftly catches in his left hand and presses to his mouth, almost beginning to swoon at the motion before he ducks back into the car, giving her one last wave before driving away.

Shaking her head with a fond, lovelorn smile, she waves after him before heading inside and making her way upstairs to her apartment, where she would spend the rest of the evening dancing about in a dizzy, romance-fuelled haze, still not believing that beautiful evening had happened.

Life was no longer existing in black and white, and her disguise perfected for the world no longer in place.

Chapter Text

Being in love had the innate power of making the world seem that bit brighter.

That was the conclusion she came to as she dressed for work, applying just a touch of mascara and a swipe of lipgloss, making more of an effort with her makeup, knowing that in just a short time, she would be seeing Dan again.

Choosing her outfit had very nearly developed into a headache when she could not decide on a dress or trousers, wanting to make an effort without obviously appearing to have made an effort, instead deciding on her usual tailored trousers and a new cream blouse with a fancy bow that she had purchased on impulse the week before.

Looking at herself in the mirror, she couldn't help but smile that bit more, her cheeks glowing and her eyes glimmering in the morning light.

Ever since waking up, she had not stopped sighing with happiness, her heart had not stopped aching each time she thought about him and that perfect evening in his car overlooking Los Angeles where he had told her that he wanted to spend time with her.

She could still taste his kisses and remember the sounds he made even now, and if anyone caught her smiling to herself, it was more than likely that she was reliving their first kiss all over again in beautiful, vivid detail.

The thought at the back of her mind, coming to the surface in the light of day after sleeping on it, was that Dan had not specifically said that they were actually together, only that he did not want to be apart from her anymore.

Being quite hopeless when it came to context clues or the inner workings of relationships, she had no idea if that even meant that things would change between them, whether they would co-exist the way they always did at work, only perhaps there being more kissing and touching or the odd dinner date.

Were they even 'together' in a relationship sense?

Calling a halt to that train of thought, she inhales and exhales several times,willing her mind to calm down and not go into an overdrive of anxiety. She had dreamed of being close to Dan again, of being seen by him, to be thought of by him. He was getting better at expressing himself, that he didn't want to lean on her in the way that he used to and wanted to be close to her, so that had to count for something. It did count, because he was trying, and her self-esteem wasn't going to spoil it.

Putting a label on what they had would make the magic disappear, as well as her constant worrying and over-analyzing, so she resolved to take it one day at a time, to live moment by moment for him.

 

The day could not get started soon enough.

 

On arriving at the office, she is darting looks all around as she makes her way to the open work area, coffee mug in hand, looking to discover if he is in the building yet, goosebumps rising on her arms and her heart jumping each time she peeked around a corner.

Not that she was nervous to see him, that awkwardness long disappeared since they had reconciled, only that she really wanted to, especially after last night.

She gets down to work after answering a few work emails and touching base with Brent, adding a smiley face adding her name, which prompted Brent to say 'Someone is extra cheery today. ;)'

She can't help but smile even more, covering her eyes with one hand, shaking with quiet laughter.

 

It is just after ten o'clock, and she is reading over notes at her workstation, lost in thought for the moment, until she hears a very distinct voice singing a tune that she cannot place, but in an instant, without even hearing his footsteps or seeing his face, she knows without any doubt who it was.

She takes a deep breath, tucking her hair behind her ears, straightening the bow on her blouse, crossing and uncrossing her legs, turning in her chair and waiting expectantly for him to appear, doing her level best not to fidget or appear overly alert, while her heart thumps loudly in her ears.

Here he comes, here he comes, oh goodness, here he comes...

When he walks around the corner, drinking from a takeaway cup, he lowers it down from his lips and stops for a moment on seeing her, almost taking a step back in surprise, the smile on his face so warm that she is instantly consumed and brought back to the joyous realisation that he wanted actually spend time with her.

She manages to smile back shyly, blinking several times as tears fill her eyes, but for once, they are of joy, and not of sorrow.

He deftly throws the cup into a bin nearby, taking a few steps towards her, reaching out his left hand, and not unlike a magnet, she is standing from her seat and drawn across the room to meet him, not looking away despite the intense look he is casting at her that would have set her cheeks aflame any other day, taking his hand and feeling him squeeze gently.

Suspended in that moment, she hopes deep down that this feeling would never go away.

He doesn't say a word in greeting, only begins to lean down towards her just as she inclines her head up towards him, eyes fluttering closed, when a door opening and shutting nearby causes him to turn his head sharply, his curls whipping round and she ducks back slightly to avoid having a brush with the fluff.

Appearing to have changed his mind on their impromptu tete a tete, Dan starts to move away from the main office area, tugging her along behind him, more than likely searching for a more private location for them. She manages to smother a giggle by covering her mouth with her hand, the sudden thrill making her heartbeat quicken.

Not that it would be so awful to be seen by one of their more discrete co-workers, but if it was Matt or Ryan, then the gossip hub would be buzzing by lunch-time, and they would not have a moment's peace from that time onward, so this brief period of sneaking around the office would be perfectly reasonable.

It had not crossed her mind whether they would be making their relationship known to the others, since she was in the precious heady days of being in love, so that would be for another day.

They approach one of the meditation rooms, and with one more cursory look around to see if anyone was hanging around, Dan has opened the door and they slip inside together.

Once the door is shut and she manages to get her bearings, just about to compare them to a pair of reckless teenagers, Dan has already leaned down to wrap his arms around her in a tight hug, whispering her name lowly, huffing a sigh close to her ear and nuzzling his nose into her hair.

All her thoughts immediately focus on the wonderful man who held her completely spellbound as she slides her arms around his waist, lightly rubbing his back, and whispering breathlessly, "Good morning, Danny."

He whispers back, his voice low and raspy, "Good morning to you. God... it's so good to see you."

Never before had she felt so safe and so cared for. She lets out a happy sigh, leaning into him that bit more, not being close enough for her liking, before saying quietly, "I am pretty sure I dreamed about you last night?"

"Yeah?" He begins to lightly sway them from side to side, and once again she is rocketed off to planet romance.

She nods, turning her face more into his chest, "Mmhmm. But I just can't seem to remember what it was about..."

"Like all good dreams." She can hear the smile in his voice and she laughs shyly.

"Just to say that... even if I can't remember my dream from last night, you're far better than any dream I've ever had..."

At this point in time, she is grateful that he is hugging her so tightly so her face could not be seen, for she was blushing so hard for saying such a thing so openly.

When he doesn't respond right away, she mumbles, "I tend to say things without thinking sometimes... it's a habit and I..."

Before she can even continue to babble in a typical self-deprecating manner or even apologise for being so awkward, Dan has loosened his hug on her slightly and has leaned down to catch her lips in a slightly clumsy kiss, trailing his hands up her arms to cradle her head close, pulling back to tilt his head the opposite way and kiss her again in that soft, sensual manner that made all her rational thoughts fly away.

Stretching up on tiptoe, she loops her arms around his neck, unable to resist twirling the legnths of his curls around her fingers, kissing him back with shy eagerness, unable to keep from smiling against his mouth.

Dan pulls back a few inches, whispering against her lips, his voice quiet with wonder, "I like hearing you say things like that... it's adorable, so please don't apologise for it. You are so sweet, it makes my heart hurt and I couldn't stop thinking about you last night... and also your lips taste like strawberries..."

He kisses her again, deepening it gently and liquid warmth pools in her belly, making her sigh against his mouth.

When he starts to kiss her nose and her cheeks, she cannot help but let out a breathless laugh, before reality surely comes creeping back, "Danny?"

"Yeah?" He has managed to navigate to her neck, mumbling close to her ear and the tingles intensify ever more.

She had to ask the question, even if it meant breaking the romantic mood, "Will we... I mean, not that I am not enjoying this, it's really lovely, but... we won't be making a habit of this? At work, I mean?"

Dan raises his head to meet her eyes, heaving a gentle sigh, more fond than annoyed, much to her relief, "Always so sensible."

She smiles at him innocently, "It's part of my job description. Or at least, I think it is..."

He chuckles as he tucks her hair behind one ear, tracing her cheek with his fingertip, "Today is an exception, I think, because last night was so wonderful and I want it to go on for as long as possible, that feeling of being able to hold you and kiss you like this after holding myself back for so long, so... I think we are entitled to a bit of making out, if you catch my drift."

He waggles his eyebrows in a suggestive fashion and she has to smile, "I think I do. You're a skilled negotiator, sir."

When he bends his head to kiss her neck again, she mumbles, "As thrilling as this is, I just don't want to be sneaking around or anything. I don't want it to be that we are hiding away..."

Dan makes an affirmative hum, low and vibrating with warmth, "Believe me, I want to tell the whole world that you're with me, and how awesome you are. I don't want to keep secrets anymore, all that crap isn't good for anyone. I just need a little prep time for the ribbing I'll get from the SuperMega dudes, who are just so outrageously funny..."

"Hey, don't be mean, you know the editing power they hold."

Dan physically shudders, "Don't I know it."

Hugging him around his waist once again, she rests her chin on his chest, needing to broach the subject just one more time before they left it for now, "So... this might be classed as employee fraternisation..."

"The best kind, I'm sure you'll agree."

Her eyes narrow and he smiles innocently, "I mean... I haven't seen anyone talk about dating in the workplace or if it's frowned upon or anything. I know that at least four of our friends are married and work together in a way, but I just mean that when we tell the others, and there honestly is no rush at all, but Arin, Suzy and Barry will be fine, won't they?"

"Of course. They love you to pieces." He tips her under the chin in reassurance and she smiles even more, "And Ross, too? I mean, if the poor guy ever takes a break from all the hard work on Gameoverse."

"Ross is an Australian tool but he loves you and is always sad that you never mastered Flash animation."

She hangs her head in mock shame, her thoughts turning to the one with the PhD most of all, she quietly asks, "And Brian?"

Dan regards her quietly with a smile, "You know, he doesn't really get emotional that way. I'll know it when we drive to a recording studio someday, and he'll just randomly say before he records a sick piano solo in the booth, 'Hey, I'm super happy for you, dude', then just carry on like the snarky douche that he is, then show me the four thousandth cute thing that Audrey has done and we'll never talk about it again."

She smiles up at him fondly as he continues, "Then he will approach you one day in work with a mug full of the strongest, most sugary coffee in the world and he tell you that you are so special and that he is happy for you, then when you drink it you won't be able to sleep for three days because he's a douchebag."

She lightly smacks his arm, rather awkwardly since he still had his arms around her, "He would not do that."

"You'll see. It will happen, and I'll know it when you disappear through the ceiling like the 'Rocket Woman'."

She rests her forehead against his shoulder as she tries not to laugh too loudly, and he nuzzles close to her, his chuckle quite free.

"As long as you're happy, starman..."

"I am, believe me. I can't stop smiling."

A beat.

"Are you happy?"

Reaching up, she cups his face, stroking his cheeks with her thumbs, "Can you tell?"

His eyes go quite wide and he almost resembles a newborn deer, "Well... you know how bad I am at picking up on context clues and all that stuff without someone actually saying it to me, so I don't..."

Before he can even finish that thought, she has leaned up to kiss him lightly, pecking his lips several times, pulling back to whisper, "How about now?"

When she leans in close again, he makes a low groan as he wraps his arms around her waist, kissing her again and almost lifting her off her feet, beginning a gradual backing up towards the sofa behind them.

A switch is flicked in her mind about where they currently are, that they were at work, and she manages to murmur, "Let's... let's not get carried away, handsome..."

His voice a low rumble, "Why not? Don't you like me kissing you?" He gently bites down on her lower lip to affirm his point and her heart almost stops, as he appears to be in full flirtation mode with a singular focus on seducing her,

"You know I do... but I don't want... I don't want you to be delayed before recording... you're so busy, and I don't want to get in the way of that..."

At this admission, he lowers her back down onto her feet, tilting his head to one side, "I have some time, and I want to spend it with you. Though I do want to beat the high score on one of the cabinet games, so maybe I can do that instead."

She gives him a perturbed look, still smiling, "Now you're just teasing me."

"You know it."

He raises his eyebrow with a charming smile and she huffs a sigh, relenting, "Well... I suppose we can sit down for a few minutes..."

Dan makes an affirmative noise, already kissing her neck again and she hunches her shoulders up as his warm breath and stubble tickle her, allowing him to turn her completely around and take her hand to lead her to the sofa.

Dan sits down first, looking up at her with a kind of sweet eagerness that makes her heart melt, keeping a hold on her hand as she joins him, kneeling us beside him as he hugs her tight to his chest, leaning in for another kiss just as Dan begins to card his fingers through the strands, trailing down the entire length, twisting them around his fingers to keep her gently in place as she squeezes his shoulders with tender urgency.

Dan dips his head lower to kiss the exposed skin revealed by the opening of her blouse after untying the bow clumsily, burrowing into her chest and she tips her head back with quite a loud, needy sound, clutching the back of his head and tugging his hair in encouragement.

They truly were getting carried away now, which was what she had attempted to avoid at work, but all reason had fled for now.

Suddenly, reality interjects as Dan's phone makes a loud alert noise, vibrating in his pocket and he makes a muffled groan which vibrates against her chest, followed by tipping his head back against the sofa with an even louder groan.

"God... damnit..."

All she can do is giggle breathlessly, still brushing her fingers through his hair as he reluctantly reaches for his phone and while he is reading the message on the screen, she takes this opportunity to lean in close to nuzzle his neck and attempt to be a flirtatious distraction, telling him in a hushed whisper just how handsome and wonderful he was.

It appears to have the desired effect for Dan's cheeks are glowing and his breathing is deep and laboured as he runs his hand up and down her side, warming through the material to her skin.

"Arin's here... we will be recording soon... have to choose a game... mmmm... I have to go, baby..."

She puts on a sultry whisper, "Do you have to?"

He huffs a laugh, "Now who's the eager one?"

She giggles softly, kissing his cheek one last time before moving to the far end of the couch, straightening her blouse, retying the bow, heart still thumping quite fast.

As she attempts to put her hair up into a bun to appear more presentable, she feels Dan's eyes on her and turns to look at him, slightly bemused.

He has one arm draped across the back of the sofa as he half reclines against the opposite arm, a lazy smile on his face as his eyes flit up and down, meeting her eyes again and already she begins to blush again.

"Dan?"

"Hmmm?"

"Are you alright? You're just... gazing at me. Not that I mind, but..."

"I can't help it. You're so beautiful..."

She gives up on her hair for now, moving over one cushion towards him before curling into his side with her head on his shoulder, lightly resting her hand on his chest, looking up at him under her lashes, "Am I?"

"You are. You are beautiful, and smart, and kind, and you make me smile."

"I feel beautiful when I'm with you. Is that a vain thing to say?"

"No, because it's the truth, because you are."

He leans down to kiss her lightly, resting his forehead against hers with a hitched exhale, loosely wrapping his arms back around her.

She strokes back his curls from his face, stroking her hand down his cheek, saying quietly, "We should get back to work."

"Yeah."

She sighs, leaning her head against his shoulder and hugging his neck, feeling him hug her tighter in response.

A pause when neither of them move.

"Baby?"

"Yes?"

"In order to get back to work,you have to, you know... stop hugging me."

She makes a huffy, whiny noise, "I'm not letting you go first, you let go."

"No, you let go."

"No, you."

"You!"

She sits back to meet his eyes with a chagrined smile, "Starman, are we having our first argument?"

"No."

Looking to the ceiling, she manages to laugh in an exasperated manner, before switching back to persuasion mode, "Okay, I propose that we can do this. I count to three and we both let go at the same time, sound fair?"

"Alright."

"So on the count of three. One, two..."

"So on three or after three?"

She grumbles, "That joke still isn't funny, you know."

"I think it's hilarious."

"Shush. One... two... three!"

When he does not let go, she repeats "Three!"

"Oh, I thought you meant ten."

"/Da-an/..."

With great reluctance, he allows his arms to drop from around her and as she takes the chance to stand up, he playfully makes to grab her again but she darts out of the way just in time.

"Think fast, Danny Sexbang."

"Mean..."

He crosses his arms, pouting comically while turning his head dramatically, causing her to smile even more.

Shaking her head, she reaches out both her hands, lightly beckoning for him to take them. He glances towards her out of the corner of his eye, taking a moment before he complies, though still refusing to meet her eyes.

"Danny... don't you know?"

At this, he immediately perks up with a knowing smile, "Don't I know what? That you're pandering to me with my own song lyrics?"

She lightly swings their hands, saying quite sincerely, "Danny, don't you know that there will be so many more days like this? And that you are a star tonight?"

His smile is tremulous and he squeezes her hands, "I know that now. I won't forget, I promise."

"I know you won't."

He heaves one last sigh, "Back to work?"

She nods as he gets to his feet, his expression quite regretful as they walk to the door, but before he opens it so they can re-enter the office, she halts him by gently squeezing his hand and he turns back to regard her quietly.

She does not say a word, only steps up close to him, stretches up on tiptoe and leans up to gently kiss him, resting her hand on his chest over his heart.

As she pulls back, Dan follows her, his lips slightly parted and eyes still shut.

She whispers, "Would you like some more tea?"

He answers quite slowly once his eyes flutter open, "Um... yes, please?"

She chuckles, "I was actually going to give you a choice just there, between a cup of tea and one last kiss."

He raises an eyebrow, smirking in a charming way, "Oh, yeah?"

"Yes. I thought you'd probably prefer the kiss and then you'd be without tea, and we couldn't have that now, could we?"

She adopts a lightly teasing tone and he smiles back, clearly pleased, "No, we couldn't."

All she does is look up at him with nothing but adoration in her eyes. He smiles that bit more, his cheeks beginning to flush again, "Now you're the one giving me that look."

"I'm gazing at you. You don't mind? Because I can go make your tea, and..."

Dan gently takes hold of her chin, caressing her skin with his thumb, "I don't mind at all. It's nice. You're so nice..."

She swallows thickly, the feeling of having his complete attention intoxicating, "Nice is good? It's not... boring?"

Of course, her self esteem had to announce itself, and she had been doing so well.

Dan doesn't miss a beat, tilting her chin up that bit more so he can look deep into her eyes, "Not at all. After everything that's happened, all that negativity, all that bullshit, I could use more niceness in my life. And you are not boring..."

He leans in and pecks her lips gently, whispering in between kisses, "Not... at... all, sweetheart..."

She makes a whimpered moan, so overwhelmed with wanting, all of the negative thoughts and doubts evaporating in an instant.

As he pulls away one last time, she takes hold of his hand, interlacing their fingers, dipping her head to press a lingering kiss to his knuckles, one, twice, looking up at him with doe eyes, summoning forth those feminine wiles again.

It was getting harder and harder to leave with every passing second, but she couldn't help it. Besides, he was the one giving her these sweet kisses and telling her things that lifted her spirits.

How could anyone ever think to leave him? Yet they had work to do, and a fanbase to create for.

"I'll go make your tea now."

"Sure. Thank you. I'll be in the recording room."

"Okay. See you."

"See you later..."

He pauses a moment, looking for all intents and purposes like he was going to kiss her again, but all he does is murmur her name tenderly, tucking her hair behind her ear, stroking the backs of his fingers along her cheek, before opening the door and stepping out into the office, closing the door behind him with a gentle click.

She rests back against the wall for a moment, eyes closed, raising her hand to touch her lips, unable to keep from smiling.

Waiting twenty seconds until she was certain that Dan was a good distance away, she exits the room, walking quite casually and doing her best to not appear too dazed or like a person who had been kissing a tall, attractive man only minutes before.

She makes her way to the kitchen, giving a greeting to Tucker as he wanders in with a hard-drive and a camera, putting the kettle on and making a fresh cup of green tea, adding a teaspoon of honey.

All the while, she hums to herself a song from 'Sense and Sensibility' that Marianne Dashwood played on the piano while Colonel Brandon looked on from the back of the room, continuing to break into singing the lyrics as she walks through the office to the recording room, tapping lightly on the door and going in.

Arin is in the middle of reading a post from the Game Grumps subreddit and Dan is already laughing merrily. She quietly approaches and sets the mug of tea down in front of Dan, and as their eyes meet, he is mid laugh and smiling widely.

She smiles back, before Arin says quite loudly, "How's it goin', dude?"

Bemused, she tilts her head, "It's going... good, thank you? Are they still making that House Party joke?"

"You know the fans and their memes, it never ends," Arin quips good naturedly.

She chuckles, shaking her head, "You guys okay for everything?"

"Yeah, dude, all good."

Dan nods, "All fine here, thanks."

"Okay, I'll be outside if you want anything. Good luck with your recording."

Dan gives her a subtle wink as Arin lifts his hand towards her, palm facing outwards, and after a brief moment of confusion, she gets the message and gives him a gentle high five.

In a deadpan voice, Arin remarks, "You high five like a girl."

Without thinking of making a retort, she says in quite an innocent voice, "But I am a girl."

Dan lets out a loud snort of laughter, leaning to one side against the arm of the sofa, causing Arin to throw him a look that is quite confused.

Before anything else was said, or before she incriminated herself or Dan any further, she says quite quickly, "I'll just be going now, got a lot to catch up on, the kettle's boiled and I am making some more tea, bye."

She would have almost made a curtsey but she is beginning to blush, so all she does is dart out of the room, making her escape in as dignified a fashion as possible and close the door behind her, hearing Arin asking Dan if he was alright, whether the comedy levels in the office were too high for him to handle.

Whether it was pride at having made Dan laugh or embarrassment for having made such a silly joke, she was not certain, but she dissolves into nervous laughter as soon as she reaches her desk, taking a moment to compose herself and settle back into her own work with renewed energy.

Throughout the rest of the day, she cannot help but slip into vivid daydreams of being close to Dan again, remembering how he spoke to her, the way he looked at her and how gentle his kisses were.

Being in love was making everything brighter again.

Chapter Text

The next few days pass by in a relatively normal fashion with plenty of work to keep her occupied and motivated, pleasantly punctuated by Dan's clandestine shows of affection, where he would hug her from behind while she made tea in the kitchen or lean down to kiss her cheek while she was reading at her workspace as he was walking by, and no one had noticed just yet.

It was a risky business, given the large pool of staff and the propensity for people to just hang around the open areas during break-times, but for the moment, nothing had been said about them, so it was wise to play it safe, and with the ever present spoken promise that they were not hiding their relationship from anyone.

 

One week later...

While she is working on a portfolio for the next legal department update, a text comes through from Dan, 'You want to grab dinner later? xoxoxo'

She smiles at the amount of letters he was using, texting back, 'I'd love to. I'm good to wait until you and Arin are finished Grumping. Would you like some tea? xoxo'

'No thanks, Id rather have some sweet kisses from you instead so green tea wont cut it.'

What follows is several lines of red heart and star emojis followed by one emoji blowing a kiss.

Blushing, she sends back several pink hearts and stars, 'You really know how to flatter a girl by telling her that she is better than tea. I'll see you later, starman. xxxx'

Settling back to work, she checks her phone intermittently for any sign of Dan letting her know that he was finished.

Several hours pass and the tiredness begins to set in, her body beginning to succumb to the mild exhaustion. Once nine o'clock has passed, and on her fourth cup of tea, her head begins to drop towards her notepad as she mumbles to no one in particular, "Just a quick powernap, just a little sleep... won't be long..."

Making a pillow with her arms, returning to a familiar pose from her schooldays when the teacher wanted the class to be that bit quieter, she rests her forehead on her upper arm, huffing a sleepy sigh.

 

10: 15 pm

Walking out of the recording room, Dan is about ready to collapse into his bed, turning back to Arin has he puts on his Grubba voice talking about the way his character in the game would not stop glitching, and just as he is about to guffaw with laughter, he catches sight of the sleeping girl at the workbench, head resting on her arms and a pile of papers.

"Oh... shit."

Arin peers around his friend and notices her too, and instantly puts two and two together.

"Well..."

Dan slowly turns his head to look at Arin with an expression devoid of humour, "Before you say anything..."

Arin raises his hands, "Dude, you won't hear me say a thing, other than 'About freaking time'."

Confused, all Dan can do is blurt out, "What?"

Arin gives his friend the softest, most patient look in the world, shaking his head, "Listen, man... I know we are busy and don't get to chat about our personal lives too often even in all the time we spend talking about farts and crappy gameplay controls, but I tend to notice when you are smiling at your phone more often than usual, and I know it's not because you've looked up misspelled food for the hundredth time."

"Oh, ha ha," Dan says quite quietly, still glancing over at the workbench where the sleeping girl still has not stirred.

Arin continues on, looking rather pleased with himself, "I also happen to know that liking a person's Instagram posts and them liking you back more than a dozen times is a sign that things are fairly serious."

Dan immediately gapes in shock, saying in a shouted whisper, "What?! How did you even know that?"

Arin shrugs in the most casual fashion, much to his friend's chagrin, "So apparently, and I might be totally wrong, but when famous or verified people like someone else's picture on Instagram, the name shows up under the photo, followed by whatever the number of people have liked it, and your name has appeared on many of her selfies in the last month."

Dan is dumbfounded, muttering, "I hate social media."

Arin beams at his friends discomfort, "And it was actually Suzy who noticed since she's on Instagram a lot more than I am."

"Suzy knows?!" He just about manages to stage whisper with incredulity rather than yell, which was the far more tempting option, were it not for the sleeping person nearby, though it was becoming increasingly more difficult.

"She's the smart one, of course she does."

"Now I double hate social media."

"Then delete your Insta, no one will weep about it."

Clearly not amused, Dan summons all his patience, "Do you think you could turn off the comedy faucet for just a hot second, because I am the biggest jerk in the world for working too late, leaving someone I like a lot to fall asleep and making us miss out on our dinner plans, so some slack would be appreciated, please dude."

Arin relents with a smile, "Alright. Look, I am sure she'll understand. She works here too and she knows our crazy hours, so it's no big deal."

Dan runs a hand through his hair, patently not convinced. The girl makes a sound, turning her head the other way and immediately, Dan's heart aches as well as the lump in his throat.

Still gazing over at her, he mumbles, "I don't want to screw this up, Arin. Not after the way I treated her. It has to be different now, and I can't take her for granted. I was such an asshole to herm and I probably deserve to get kicked in the nuts by tiny children wearing clogs because I let her down..."

Arin regards Dan quietly, almost contemplating, "You really like her? This has you really broken up."

"Yeah... yeah, I do. Sometimes I really like her, and then other days, when she smiles at me in that sweet way, it makes me all... you know, and it's the best feeling in the world."

Arin smiles that bit more, knowing exactly what he meant, having experienced such moments with Suzy, saying with characteristic softness, "Look... just take it slowly. Don't go for huge gestures that you can't possibly replicate, even if you mean them, because you can't keep all that up forever and she wants to know the real you. Just take it a day at a time, enjoy spending time together and it'll all just fall into place. She's awesome, and you are awesome, so be awesome together, yeah?"

Dan is quite stunned at this admission, as well as the timely relationship advice, "You think I'm awesome?"

"You know I think you're awesome, and I just want you to be happy, Dan. That's what I want, what we all want. You were treated like shit and you didn't deserve one bit of it and you deserve all the happiness in the fucking world."

"Shit, Arin, don't make me cry right now... you'll make my mascara run..." Dan has turned his head and is blinking quite fast, genuinely close to tears.

Arin smothers a fond laugh, "Oh, come here, you big dummy..."

The two men hug quite tightly, before Dan murmurs, "I'd better awaken the sleeping beauty and prepare to be yelled at..."

Arin says quite patiently, "She won't yell at you. But let me know if she drools in her sleep, I want to take a photo to use as blackmail material."

Dan shoots him a look of 'Don't you dare'.

"Alright, just tell me tomorrow if she snores."

"No."

"How about if she sleep talks?"

"Arin... I am going to count to three..."

"And then you're going to kiss her? Because I want to see that."

"I swear to God, I will bodyslam you, just one slow bodyslam because I am so tired..."

"Fine, I'm leaving. Take it easy, bud."

"You too. Give the cats extra cuddles from me."

"No can do, they get cuddled enough, but I'll let Suzy know that you wanted them to have extra."

"Thanks, man."

With a final wave, Arin leaves the space, quietly shutting the door behind him as Dan approaches the workbench, stepping close to the sleeping girl, reaching out to touch her hair, tucking errant strands behind her ear and smoothing down the back of her head, whispering her name gently.

She makes a sleepy sound, breathing in and out deeply, but her eyes do not open.

"Hey... hey, baby... wake up... wake up, sugar sprinkles, it's me..."

Still no response to show she is awake, so he leans down to gently press a kiss to her nose and the corner of her mouth. Her lips curve into a smile instantly as her back arches, her arms stretch out as she makes a sleepy groan and her eyes flutter open.

"Mmmmm... hey, Danny..." There is a lull to her voice on the second syllable of his name, and she notices him smile that bit more.

"Hello, bright eyes."

Still half asleep, she rubs her eyes and lifts her head with a loud yawn, covering her mouth with one hand, "What time is it?"

"It's after ten. We just finished recording, went on far longer than we thought it would. Shocking, I know."

"My powernap went on longer than I thought as well." She lifts her arms above her head in a stretch, before leaning into him for a hug.

He hugs her back, nuzzling his nose into her hair, mumbling, "I'm sorry it went on for so long, I know we were going to get dinner after."

Surrounded by warmth and still rather sleepy, truth be told she had almost forgotten about their plans, "Hmm? Oh no, it's fine. I needed a rest and you had work to do. It's not like you went to a bowling alley and stood me up or anything like that."

"But still..."

She leans back to look at him, "Hey... please don't feel guilty. Please, Dan? I'm not upset. It's all fine..."

She very nearly makes the analogy that it wasn't their anniversary or any other romantic holiday that needed to be celebrated on this night, but she holds herself back, not quite knowing if they had arrived at such a long-term prospect just yet.

Dan whispers with sincerity, "It won't happen again."

Her smile is fond, but she gently admonishes him, "You don't know what could happen tomorrow, let alone in any sort of future. Tell you what, how about this? Let's make a deal here now, that if ever you think you'll be working late or that we won't be able to make dinner, we can make a special effort for lunch and during the day instead. That way we can still spend time together and then I can head home if I need an early night, okay?"

Dan considers this, quite dumbfounded, "Wow. That might actually work. I mean... there's every chance I'll miss lunch as well..."

"Then we can figure it out together, okay?"

"Okay."

"It's a deal."

"Deal."

Rather than shaking his hand, she leans up and gently kisses his lips, hearing his audible sigh as he visibly relaxes.

Even though she wanted to spend time with him, it had been a long day and her body was already feeling quite tired, "Well, I'd better head home. There is being a night-owl and there is burning the midnight oil." She puts her notes and pages in order, reaching for her phone and bag to retrieve her car keys.

Immediately, Dan says quite firmly, "Hey, you're not driving home this late. You've just woken up from a long nap."

"Dan, I'll be fine, honestly. You worry so much..."

But as soon as she stands up, a wave of dizziness overcomes her and she holds onto his arm for support. "Oh... okay, that was unexpected."

Dan gives her a knowing look. "Right, you're coming in my car."

"But my apartment is so much further away and you've been recording all day and are tired too."

"Then let's compromise. How about you stay over tonight?"

Her mouth drops open momentarily, before she asks a rather obvious question, "Stay over? At your apartment?"

"Yes, as opposed to my mushroom castle." He smirks at her and she crosses her arms in a huff.

"If it's okay, I don't want to be intruding..."

Dan shakes his head, "It's not intruding if I've invited you, pretty sure that's how it works."

The teasing tone of voice makes her blush as she smiles shyly, just about keeping her composure even in her tired state of mind, the thought of being in Dan's apartment was making her feel quite lightheaded.

"Shall we?" Dan offers his hand and she takes it with a nod, and the gentle squeeze of her hand is all the comfort she needs.

 

Forty minutes later...

The drive to Dan's apartment is peaceful, where she had succeeded in dropping off into a light doze mere minutes after doing up her seatbelt.

It is only when Dan lightly shakes her awake does she wake and realise they have arrived at the complex and together they head inside.

Reaching his door after following him all the way, she is gripped in a fugue of mild panic, recalling the very last time she had been here, when Faith had turned her away, when the rift between them had swiftly followed, but she takes several breaths and focuses on the man beside her who was searching for his keys to let them in.

She was welcome here. She was not uninvited. He wanted her there with him...

Swinging the door open, Dan gestures with his hand for her to enter and she crosses the threshold into his apartment.

Wanting to fill the silence, as well as ignore the niggling voice of panic and doubt in her head, she says quite simply, "Wow, your place is really nice."

"Thanks, I like it. I'm close to getting a house soon now that NSP are doing so well with album sales and concerts, but that's years down the road. Have a seat, I'll get you something to drink."

"Oh, I'm fine, really."

"You're my guest, I have to entertain you."

She dips her head with a smile, sitting down on his sofa after setting her bag to one side.

Being here in the place he called home was a huge step that she was not sure they would take so soon, but as was the case the day after the evening on the hillside bluffs, it would not do to be overanalytical.

"I've got some tea, or water, or a soda?"

"Tea would be lovely, thank you."

"You take milk and sugar?"

"Yes, please."

"Though I won't add too much sugar, you're sweet enough..."

His sentence trails off, followed by a dull thump, sounding vaguely like a person who had planted their forehead against a fridge door. "I am so sorry I just said that..."

She blushes immediately, calling out with a smile in her voice, "It's okay. It's rather flattering, actually."

"That line finally worked, then. It will be the last terrible pickup line I ever say, I promise."

Smiling to herself, she turns around on the sofa to regard him as he brings in a mug of tea, "I'll hold you to that, starman."

He sets the mug in front of her on the coffee table and takes a seat on the sofa as well, moving in close beside her, and the close proximity makes her heart skip a beat.

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

Reaching for the mug, she takes a sip after blowing on the steam for a moment, "This is nice."

"Thanks. If this comedy music career doesn't work out, at least I could be an awesome tea-maker somewhere."

"Like a barista?"

"Only much, much cooler." He winks at her and she cannot help but laugh, meeting his eyes with a smile.

"Here, sit back with me."

Nodding, wanting nothing more than to cuddle up to him after the long day, she shifts back gingerly, keeping the mug level as she manages to curl into his side, her head resting back against his shoulder, able to sip from it quite comfortably

"I missed you today."

"Me, too. I had so much paperwork to do and some background research on some potential partner contracts, but those emojis you sent perked me right up."

Dan chuckles, kissing the top of her head, "I do like using them, but I may always default to that winky frown."

"It is a funny one. I do like the one with the woman waving, and all the animal ones."

"They should invent a stegosaurus one."

She smiles widely, "Now that would be your new go-to emoji."

"You know it."

Drinking some more of her tea, she admits rather quietly, "I... I don't have anything else to say about my day, that doesn't sound trivial or dull or the least bit exciting."

Dan rests his cheek on top of her head, and she feels his lightly nuzzle against her hair, "Hey, you know I like to hear you talk about your work, but it's okay, we don't have to talk all the time."

"Really?"

Dan does not sound impatient or annoyed, much to her utter relief, "Yes, really. We can just sit in the silence. It's not a bad thing for there to be quiet, sometimes."

Deciding to be open with him, she admits, "It's funny, but I've always felt the need to fill a silence, because it usually ended up being tense or awkward and I end up rambling or saying something foolish or overthinking..."

She takes a long swallow of tea to halt her own flow, hearing the pleasant vibrating of Dan's laughter in his chest.

It would have been the first instict to immediately apologise, but instead she tuns her head against more his shoulder, murmuring, "Bad habit. I need to break it, the overthinking part."

She closes her eyes as Dan runs a hand down the back of her head, smoothing her hair and carding his fingers through the strands to gently massage her scalp, "Do you feel like you need quiet sometimes?"

She does not reply straight away, the feeling of his fingers making her nerve endings tingle, "Mmhmm... my mind is busy, the quiet does help... and the head massage, too."

"Oh, that helps too? I was just about to stop..."

Turning her head slightly up and towards him, she puts on the best doe eyes she can muster and he chuckles, "That face... I can't say no to it."

"Then I will employ it more often."

Dan leans in and gently kisses her nose, "You are so, so sweet..."

"Not too sweet?"

"You could never be too sweet, baby."

Returning her head to his shoulder as he resumes the gentle head massage, tapping her fingers on the side of her mug, she voices a thought that had been at the back of her mind for a long time, that more than likely was down to being so relaxed was coming to light, "I want to say something, if that's okay."

"Of course it is. What's on your mind?"

She plucks up the courage to do just that, to speak her mind and not be afraid of saying too much, "When you first called me 'sugar sprinkles' that first time, when you said I was sweet... the only thought in my head was that I wanted to be yours, instead. I know that was selfish, yet I felt it so strongly, but I couldn't say anything. It wasn't fair on you because of everything that happened, and I don't want to bring any of that up now. But it was something I felt and that haunted me, and since we are closer now, I want to be open with you now. I hope I haven't disappointed you..."

Dan does not halt in the motion of stroking her hair, but is quiet for a moment and she is fearful that she said too much, drinking more tea so she could focus on that rather than rambling on again.

After several seconds, Dan has covered her hand while she is holding the mug, guiding her to set it down in front of them on the coffee table, before leaning back and bringing her close to his side, hugging her that bit tighter.

"You can always talk to me, okay? You don't have to be afraid of saying too much, I'd rather you say what's on your mind, rather than bottling it up because it won't do you any good to hold all that inside you like that. I might not have the answers, and we can figure it out, but only if you tell me. And believe me, that you are the one I want. You really are, and I could never be disappointed in you..."

Overcome with sudden emotion, she wraps her arms around his middle and hugs him tightly, heaving a contented sigh against his chest as he kisses the top of her head, cuddling her closer, trailing his fingers up and down her arm, .

After several minutes of sitting together on the couch in peaceful silence, she hears Dan whisper, "Are you tired?"

Stifling a yawn, she admits, "Yes."

"Yeah, me too. We should get some sleep. You can take the bed."

Lifting her head, she pushes against his chest to come into a more upright sitting position, about to decline quite politely, "Dan..."

He appears to have pre-empted her refusing, for he cuts across her quite quickly, "No, I insist. You're my guest and you are to be comfortable. My place, my rules."

Before she can open her mouth to argue, he has pressed his index finger gently to her lips and all she can do is give him a perturbed look, folding her arms.

As soon as he lowers his finger, she observes, "You've been working on your persuasion tactics, sir."

Dan looks quite pleased, pushing his hair back as if pretending to preen. "It's super effective?"

"Yes..."

"Good. Now off you go. You can take one of my shirts if you want, I forgot that you didn't bring anything to sleep in."

"Thank you."

She picks up her mug, drains the remaining tea and before she can even think of taking the mug to the kitchen to wash, Dan has said, "I'll take care of that, you go on to bed."

Sighing fondly, she asks quite plainly, "Am I to do anything while staying over with you?"

Dan shuts one eye in thought, before saying quite simply, "No."

When she begins to huff, he continues, "I see you cleaning up after people who aren't you at the office all the time, who are messy mongrels and should tidy their own mess, and this is your time to relax."

"Fair point... thank you. Is it just there?"

Dan nods in the direction of the half closed door, "Yeah, go ahead. Let me know if you need anything."

"I will, thank you. I'm just going to wash my face first."

"Sure thing, bathroom's just to the right of the bedroom."

"Thank you."

She makes her way to the bathroom, pushing down any lingering nerves, washing the remaining traces of makeup off and taking a quick rinse of mouthwash.

Peering out of the bathroom, she sees that Dan has left the sofa, and a running of water in the kitchen just drowning out his quiet singing which sounded rather like the Def Lepprad song, 'Photograph' .

Walking towards his bedroom, the romantic thoughts become so overwhelmingly strong, but she mananges to retain her senses enough to step inside and close the door behind her.

Taking in the space around her, she sees the cells from The Last Unicorn and the Rush albums that Suzy framed for him years ago, recalling them from an older Instagram video he had posted a few years ago.

When her eyes land on Dan's bed, it is indeed quite comically large as she fights the urge to laugh, followed swiftly by the image of him lying asleep, covered with blankets and looking so beautiful.

She wanders over to his wardrobe, searching for one of his t-shirts to wear to bed, not being able to help herself running her hands across the soft fabric, recalling live video segments where he had worn a particular design with fondness.

Eventually, she comes across one of the many shirts themed around The Last Unicorn, a powder blue one he had worn in a Ten Minute Power Hour video and chooses that one, humming the movie's theme song to herself.

As she undresses, the fact that she was going to be without her clothes in Dan's bedroom of all places makes her legs tremble, and her skin tingles with goosebumps as she pulls the shirt over and down her body, fitting her like a dress as she stands in front of the mirror, smoothing the material down her front.

Not quite ready to be quite so underdressed, even for sleeping, she finds a pair of clean boxer shorts to complete her outfit, murmuring to herself, "These are just clothes. Dan's clothes. I am wearing Dan's clothes... in his bedroom... and he is next door, on the sofa... okay, then... you can handle this. You've got this..."

A gentle tap on the door, and Dan inquires through the closed door, breaking her reverie, "Hey, you alright?"

Her heart jumps, and she pads to the door, opening it to find Dan framed in the doorway, the product of all lonely fantasies come to life, as her heart begins that rapid thumping in her chest.

"I just wanted to check if you were..."

His eyes drift downwards as he trails off mid-sentence, taking in what she was wearing with a great interest, "You're... wearing my shirt."

Unconsciously, she fiddles with the hem of the shirt that hung just a few inches above her knees, "Yes..."

"I know I said you could wear one, and it's totally fine, but I hope you don't mind me saying, but it looks really good on you. I don't think you realise just how... just how gorgeaus you look right now. Like, seriously gorgeaus."

She cannot help but blush, reaching up to ruffle his hair affectionately, smiling more as he dips his head to nudge against her hand like a cat as he leans down towards her, reaching to place one hand on her hip and draw her closer towards him, and the other above her head as he leans against the door.

"And it's a Last Unicorn one, too. You have good taste..."

She had only been half listening to him as he says this, instead choosing to state quite plainly, "I'd like us to share the bed."

The words have left her mouth before she even realises what she has uttered, despite it being the honest truth.

Dan lifts his head back up again, blinking several times. "Yeah?"

There was no turning back now, so she decided to take the plunge while twirling and releasing her fingers in his hair, using her own persuasion skills, "Yes... please. I think I'd feel... quite small in such a comically large bed, and your couch is too small for it to be comfortable to sleep on since you are quite tall, so... with all that in mind, that's the feasible solution."

Dan smiles that bit more, reaching down to take her hand, squeezing affectionately, "Well, I can't disagree with that. How are you always so right about everything?"

All she does is offer an innocent smile, before he takes her hand, leading her over to the bed and allows her to sit on the edge of the mattress, as she does her utmost to not appear nervous.

He steps away and walks behind her to the other side of the bed and she remains quite still, not looking over her shoulder or even lying down just yet, occupying herself by gathering her hair over her right shoulder, braiding it slowly despite not having a hair-tie to hand.

The rustle of clothing, the undoing of a belt and the sound of a zip being lowered behind her is quite loud in the room over the thumping of her pulse in her ears, and then the mattress sinks behind her, before she hears Dan saying her name tenderly.

She dips her head, turning to her left and regards him quietly as he stretches his arm out to pat the space in the bed beside him where he is lying in his bed, "Join me?"

He has the covers pulled up to just below his waist, and he happened to not be wearing a shirt anymore. Given the high temperatures experienced everyday in California, it should not have come as a surprise that he would sleep without a shirt, yet her brain decided to repeat that over and over, as well as the undeniable fact that she could not stop staring at his chest.

"Will I turn out the lamp?"

"No, not yet. I want to look at you some more..."

He shoots her a charming look and she shakes her head with a smile, "You're so silly."

"But you still like me?"

"Yes. Very much."

Dan does not quite beckon to her, only lifts his head in a subtle 'come hither' gesture, and willing the heat down from her cheeks, she lifts the blankets and slides into bed, moving across until she was lying right beside Dan, just where he wanted her to be.

All she can do is gaze at him across the pillow, before he breaks the gentle silence, "Hey."

"Hi."

Dan lifts his hand to tuck her hair behind her ear, tracing her jaw with his thumb, voice filled with wonder, "So you're here in my bed, wearing my shirt, looking so, so beautiful, and everything coming out of my mouth is so ridiculously cliched because I'm so happy so you hope you don't mind my stupid rambling."

He gives her the most bashful smile and her heart melts all the more, "I don't mind it at all. It's sweet when you do that."

"Really?"

She nods, "Yes. I just want you to know that I'm happy, too."

Dan exhales quite dramatically, chuckling, "Good. I was worried there, but then I looked into your gemstone eyes and I knew it was true."

Genuinely touched by this, she takes hold of his wrist, pressing his palm closer to her cheek, feeling his pulse thump strongly against her fingers, "I just realised something, Dan..."

"What's that?"

"This is the second time we've fallen asleep together, but this time, it's far more comfortable..."

"And I haven't been a blubbering mess, either."

Dan's quip is light, but the implication behind it almost makes her eyes sting, but she manages to smile, not allowing any negative memory to come through.

"Yes. It's much better now."

Loathe as she was to dwell on the more painful memories, that day when he had confided in her had been the turning point, in more ways than one.

Dan continues in a near whisper, shifting closer, his knees lightly nudging hers, "You know, you really helped me that day. It seems like forever ago, but I still remember it. I can't believe I let myself walk away from you. I could've just stayed in your arms because it was the best feeling. I should've stayed with you."

She frowns at the regret in his voice, moving closer, sliding a hand up his neck to stroke through his hair, "Don't think about that now. We're here together, and it's still the best feeling, right?"

Dan's eyes glimmer in the lamplight as he leans in to kiss her forehead, dotting featherly light kisses across her face, murmuring her name softly, brushing his nose up and down against hers, his curls tickling her cheeks, "You want to be my little spoon?"

She chuckles sleepily, "I would love to be your little spoon."

He hugs her tightly once again before releasing her so she can turn over onto her side, she fluffs up the pillow and lays her head down just as Dan moves up behind her, sliding his arm snugly around her waist, palm pressing against her belly, hugging her to his chest as their legs tangle easily together under the covers.

Before they become too cuddled up together, she leans forward, reaching towards the bedside lamp, turning it off and the room is enveloped in darkness.

Moving back into her previous position, she rests her hand on his, interlacing their fingers together, hitching a sigh as he presses a gentle kiss to her neck, leaning back against him, completely surrounded by the warmth of the blankets and the gentle heat of Dan's body as he rests his head in the crook of her neck, his breathing a gentle rush by her ear.

"Goodnight, sweetheart."

"Goodnight, Dan."

As she drifts off to sleep, he has begun a light humming of a song that she cannot place, but it did not even matter. It was a lullaby sung in his golden voice that lulls her to sleep, and the most amazing, deep dreams she could ever have imagined.