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One More Time With Feeling (or, Charlie Brooker and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day)

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Art by inevitableentresol. Leave comments on the art here.

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile. He gropes on the bedside table, finds it, and then lifts it to his ear and thumbs to answer, grunting a greeting.

"Hello, Mr. Brooker," says a cheery female voice. "This is just a reminder that your call for recording is at five this evening." Charlie grunts again, but it must get the message across, because the voice says, "Great. Have a nice day."

He thumbs the phone off, not really caring if the girl is finished, and tosses it in the direction of the bedside table. It catches the corner with a thump, skids off onto the floor with the sound of cracking plastic. Charlie musters up the energy to curse. He considers pulling the pillow over his head and going back to sleep, but eventually he shoves back the duvet and climbs out of the bed. Something sharp stabs into the bottom of his foot.

"Ow! Fucking, shit-licking, arse-wobbling—" It hurts too much for him to keep thinking up decent curses, so he just hops on his good foot for a moment, then flops back onto the bed and lifts up the damaged one so he can see what he's done to it.

There's a shard of broken mobile phone sticking out of him. "Fuck," Charlie says. He grabs it between his thumb and forefinger, then gingerly tugs, unleashing a fresh wave of pain that makes tears spring to his eyes. He blinks them away.

"Come on, you whiny little baby," he mutters, and then steels himself, and yanks, hard. The plastic comes out of his foot, along with what feels like a significant chunk of flesh. Charlie gives an incoherent bellow of pain, squeezing his eyes shut.

When he can look again he sees that he's bleeding a little. He lobs the piece of plastic towards the rubbish bin (and misses), then hobbles carefully across the floor to the toilet in search of some bandages, avoiding a few other evil shards of plastic along the way.

It's a bit tricky to rinse the cut in the sink, and he nearly loses his balance and cracks his head open on the wall, but eventually he gets his foot up on the counter and splashes water into it until the blood is washed away. Then he rifles through the medicine cabinet and finds a bandage, peels back the paper from the sticky edges and squishes it on.

When he closes the medicine cabinet again he's abruptly confronted with the sight of his own face, and grimaces. "Fuck off," he tells himself.

Charlie hobbles back into the bedroom, squats down to gather up the bits of his phone that he can find. He dumps the smaller bits into the bin and then prods at what remains of the phone. It's resolutely dead, and he sighs before flipping it over to pop out the SIM card. I'll have to get another one on the way to the office. He sets the SIM card onto the dusty pile of books on the bedside table and throws the phone out with everything else.

In the kitchen he sticks two pieces of bread in the toaster, then starts the coffee maker. Then stops the coffee maker, and puts the actual coffee in it, and then starts it again, cursing when he spills coffee grounds on the floor. I'll clean up later, he thinks. He opens the fridge, stares blearily inside for a long moment, and then remembers that he's out of milk. Fuck.

Charlie closes the fridge door and rests his forehead against it for a moment, the metal cool against his overheated skin. The toaster dings, but the toast doesn't pop all the way up, and Charlie burns his fingers trying to get it out. He sticks them in his mouth and fumbles, left-handed, for a butter knife, then uses that to pry the toast out.

Toast finally achieved, he hobbles through to the sofa and flicks on the television while his laptop boots up.

"—Brown's environmental policies have come under attack as governments from around the world meet in Copenhagen to negotiate a new deal on climate change—"

Click.

"—said that the death was 'a stark reminder of the daily threat our troops face' and that it was 'a sad milestone.' Cameron has just returned from—"

Click.

"—controversy about a new BBC drama focusing on Steve Wright, the Suffolk Strangler. The mother of one of the victims said—"

Click.

"—lowering the inheritance tax is no longer a priority—"

Click.

"—the world cup—"

Charlie thumbs the power button and tosses the remote onto the sofa in disgust. Everything is shit, he thinks. It's not just the news, or his broken phone, or his foot, or the lack of milk. It's just... everything. Here he is, thirty-eight years old and single with nothing in particular to recommend himself. His flat is basically a tip. He's got work enough – a new series of one show coming up and another show to be pitched this afternoon, columns to be written, and his recording tonight as well – but it all seems deadly boring. There's nothing fun about it anymore. He'd chuck it all in and go do something else, except that he's hard-pressed to think of anything that would be fun, at this point. Everything just seems a bit shit.

In his inbox he has two new messages – one from Al, reminding him of their meeting this afternoon, and one from Aisleyne, that just says, "Get out into the sunshine, you wanker. :)" He deletes both, and gets up again to retrieve his coffee.

He dumps in extra sugar and drinks it black while surfing the usual array of gaming sites and scrolling through his Twitter feed. There's nothing particularly interesting there, but as usual he loses track of time, and when he catches sight of the clock in the corner of his laptop he curses and jumps up.

He rushes through his shower, sparing a moment to moan over the now sopping wet bandage on his foot, and then gets dressed without bothering to do anything with his hair other than rake his fingers through it.

Outside, he fumbles the front door shut and locks it, then starts down the street towards the Tube station, still limping a little but trying to hurry. The wet bandage squishes into his sock and he grimaces. Fucking brilliant.

There are people milling around everywhere, typical of London on a Monday afternoon, and Charlie dodges between them without really paying much attention other than to think, Fucking tourists. A few minutes later he's at the station and his foot aches as he clumps down the steps.

The train takes forever to arrive. It's full, and he has to squeeze in next to a woman with sweat stains and really unpleasant body odor. By the time he gets off he thinks maybe all his smell receptors have been burned away by the sheer evil of her scent. He hobbles out of the tube and into the building, dredging up a grimace-smile for the security guard, and then takes the lift up to the third floor, already dreading what Al is going to say.

Maybe, Charlie decides, it would be better if he just preempts any attempt at castigation. That generally works.

"Right," he announces, stumbling into Al's office. "I'm a shitting cunt, but you're an arse-licking moron, so we'll call it even."

Al looks up, and so does the person sitting across from him, a very uptight-looking man in a suit.

Shit, bollocks, wank, Charlie thinks.

-----

Uptight Man turns out to be someone from Radio 4 wanting to talk about So Wrong It's Right, Charlie's so-far abortive attempt at radio comedy. Apparently Ken (it fucking figures he'd be named Ken, Charlie thinks) has come round to talk about running it, albeit with some concerns about Charlie's tendency towards foul speech and pretend masturbation.

Al does his best to salvage the meeting after Charlie's entrance, and Charlie smiles and makes all the right promises for almost two fucking hours, but in the end Ken shakes his hand with a disdainful sniff as he leaves, and Charlie knows it's never going to happen.

Al rounds on him the moment Ken is out of earshot. "What the fuck is wrong with you, Charlie?" he hisses. "It's like you don't even understand the concept of being civilized. You think I wanted to be left alone with that prick for twenty minutes, trying to convince him you can be relied on?"

Charlie opens his mouth to protest, but Al doesn't even let him get a word in edgewise.

"And then you come in here and run your fucking mouth like you're a fucking schoolboy. Hee hee hee poo, hee hee hee piss and cock." Al's impression of him is depressingly accurate.

"You could have warned me!" Charlie says.

"If I'd known!" Al shouts. "I've been trying for months to get them to take a second look at this thing, and then today he just calls me up, says he hopes we can make time in our busy schedule. What was I supposed to say? And I left you a fucking voicemail! Even an hour should have been enough warning for you not to come waltzing in here like a cock."

Charlie remembers abruptly what had become of his phone. "Ah," he says, and then swipes a hand over his face. "Look, I'm sorry," he says.

"Whatever," says Al. "Nothing to be done about it now. Just... get out of my fucking sight, okay?"

"Fuck you," Charlie says. "Fuck you," and then he leaves before he says anything else, because he knows he'll regret it. They've been having fights more often over the past few months, the kind where Al tells him he's a useless man-child and he retorts that Al is a joyless sellout. Sometimes when they aren't right in the middle of shouting at each other Charlie can admit that Al probably has a point, but that doesn't seem to help in the heat of the moment. In fact, it almost makes it worse.

The train back is empty, which is just as well, because if he has to see another human being right now Charlie thinks he might actually snap. He sits on the edge of the seat and puts his head in his hands. "Fuck," he says softly.

On the way up to his door he steps in dog shit.

Wiping it off requires balancing on his wounded foot, and it's painful enough that eventually he just gives up and takes his shoe off entirely, limping into the house and tossing the be-shitted one into the sink, feeling coffee grounds from the kitchen floor stick to the underside of his sock.

He knows he probably ought to make some attempt to write a column, but right now he's so depressed it would probably just be, "This week, Charlie recommends that you turn the oven on and stick your head inside and then bash yourself with the door until everything goes away." And his editor's already rejected that column three times.

Instead he cleans his foot and re-bandages it, then wipes dog shit off his shoe, then makes some pot noodle and eats it while sitting on the sofa, staring emptily at an episode of Countdown.

In an hour, I'm going to have to be funny, he thinks. He doesn't know if he can manage it.

Ultimately, for lack of a better idea, he scoops up the SIM card from the bedside table and goes out, still limping slightly, to buy a new phone. He's been toying with the idea of buying an iPhone, but after a half hour of staring blindly at the options he just gets the same model as his old phone and slots the card in. He can let it charge while they're recording, and then listen to the message from Al, and then stab himself in the eye with the prongs of the charger. That will make for a lovely evening.

Once he's got the phone he trundles out to the studio for the recording, arriving just before 5. He gets through security and slips into the green room, finding Carr and Ross already there, conversing with heads together. Charlie's thankful he'd been given advance warning of who the other guests would be, rather than discovering Ross just now, though it's not exactly a list packed with people he would have chosen himself. David Mitchell yes, Claudia Winkleman maybe. Rob Brydon no, Jonathan Ross no, Russell Brand oh fuck no. And Carr, of course, but he's a given.

Charlie had already committed by the time they'd got Brand on board, so here he is, walking into a studio containing a significant percentage of the country's loud-mouthed wankers.

He can't quite decide if he thinks the production staff are actually hoping for a second national television scandal, sticking Ross and Brand on a team together. Maybe they just want to get tonight's show into the papers. It wouldn't be the first time a Channel 4 show decided to aim for infamy rather than quality.

If Charlie actually had anything in the way of a decent reputation, he'd probably be horrified at the imminent prospect of losing it. As it is, he just feels resigned to a long night.

Claudia is here as well, though she's off in the corner saying something quiet into her phone and so isn't particularly useful in mitigating the company of the other two. Charlie nods a weary greeting to the room at large.

"Heyyyy," Ross says, in that excessively faux-jovial way he has that makes Charlie want to vomit into his eyeballs. "You look like shit. You okay?"

"I always look like this," Charlie says, and walks out again.

Eventually he finds a runner who directs him to makeup, and he slots himself into a seat, trying not to think about anything but going where he's told. The makeup girl is blessedly professional, and Charlie gives her a thin-lipped smile as she tips his head sideways and gets to work without trying to chat.

She's almost finished with him when David comes into the room and flops down into the next chair, looking like he'd really like to murder someone with the power of his brain. And gorgeous, of course, but that sort of goes without saying, like describing the sky as overcast and blue.

"Hi," Charlie says, letting his eyes flicker over the gloss of David's hair, the tight, prissy turn of his mouth.

David glances at him. "Oh. Hi." It's perfunctory, dismissive. Charlie feels a hot flush of shame and anger.

There's no need to rub it in that he thinks I'm completely second-rate.

To be fair, Charlie thinks he's second-rate, too, especially compared to David. They've guested on each other's shows before, run into each other at a number of television-related parties (some weirder than others), so they're at least on a first name basis. But every time they've met, Charlie's come away feeling both exhilarated and like a complete moron.

Still. Gloomily Charlie decides he's better off shutting up at this point, lest David eviscerate any attempt at conversation with a single sentence and leave him even more demoralized than he is already. Plenty of time for that when we're on camera.

They sit in decidedly uncomfortable silence. Thankfully, the makeup girl soon tells Charlie he's done, and he gets up hastily, wincing as he steps hard on his injured foot. He makes his way out to the green room, relieved to discover Brydon has turned up as well as Brand. Charlie nods to them all with as much cordiality as he can muster. He grabs a bottle of water from the table and takes a drink, wishing for once it were something stronger. Wouldn't mind drinking myself into oblivion, at this point.

David slinks into the green room a few minutes later, standing off to one side and looking like a bulldog at a poodle awards banquet. Ross catches sight of him and says something to Brand, who tosses his head and gives one of his trademarked high-pitched giggles.

This, Charlie thinks, is going to be a fucking nightmare.

As it turns out, he's right.

-----

Things start to go wrong almost from the beginning.

"As is tradition on this show, I hope you've come up with funny pub quiz team names," Carr says, looking in their direction.

Oh, shit, Charlie thinks. Beside him, he can feel David go rigid. Possibly thinking about this in advance would have been wise.

"Anything?" Carr asks.

David, of course, being a clever dick, recovers quickly. "Media Whores," he suggests with bright sharpness, and Charlie winces before he can stop himself.

Fucker, he thinks, but the audience is laughing, and he's got no choice but to go with it.

"I wanted to be 'Media Call Girls,'" he drawls. "But Mitchell said we weren't paid enough."

"That's probably accurate," Carr says. "Really, the only person paid that much on the stage right now is Jonathan. I'm afraid you two are only at the level of media streetwalkers."

Ross preens, and Charlie feels his fingernails dig into his palm.

"I'm sure with industrious study we might one day be able to reach Jonathan's level of whoredom," David says dryly, and the audience sucks in its collective breath. Charlie has to suppress the abrupt urge to cackle nervously.

Thankfully Carr seems to think better of following up on that comment, and he turns to Brydon and Claudia, who are both looking too cheerful and bright-eyed to be believed. Charlie makes himself relax his fist.

"'Media Whores?'" he mutters, low enough that the microphones won't pick it up. "Thanks ever so."

David gives him a sharp look. "I thought it was depressingly appropriate," he mutters back. "Can we just do this?"

"Fine," Charlie says, and smiles at the camera so hard he almost makes himself sick.

-----

Things go even more to shit when they get to question five. Charlie has spent the first couple of questions concentrating on trying not to look like a complete idiot and mostly managing it, but then there's Jon Snow saying something about muffins and he has no idea what the answer's supposed to be.

"Any idea?" he murmurs.

David gives him a scathing look. "It's popular music," he says. "I'm not required to know this sort of thing."

"Oh, yes, and I'm Simon fucking Cowell, am I?" Charlie says.

"I knew I'd seen you somewhere before," David drawls.

Charlie snarls at him and then writes down 'that song that makes me want to gouge out my eardrums with the sharpened fragment of a shattered Pixies album.' It's a statement that has probably an eighty percent chance of being true no matter what the song is.

After that it's a bloodbath. Ross and Brand take great delight in mocking them for not knowing Poker Face, and after a split second's hesitation, Charlie throws David to the wolves by declaring that he, at least, has a CD collection larger than two.

"See," says Ross. "Even Brooker knows how to get his groove on. Which is why he's probably managed to get laid this century. Come on, David, shake that thing!"

Ross' demonstration of 'shaking that thing' is horrifying enough that Charlie thinks he might go blind, so he turns his attention to baiting David instead – it may be petty and juvenile, but Charlie thinks it'd probably be funny as hell to watch David try to dance, especially now that his face has gone so red. "Come on," he says. "If I can do it, so can you."

"No!" David says, and he seems genuinely angry for a moment before he manages to regain control. "Look, I'm supposed to be here to raise the tone, not help turn Channel Four into the fucking Eurovision Song Contest."

This gets a laugh, and Carr takes the opportunity to move on. Charlie takes a swig of water as, beside him, David sits back tensely in his chair.

"I don't know why I thought you'd be less of a bully than Jonathan," David hisses.

"Clearly you're giving me credit for being something other than a total shitweasel," Charlie says, capping the water bottle. "Which I'm sure is a mistake you won't make twice." There's a small voice in the back of his head telling him he ought to be nicer, reminding him that David's obviously been having a truly awful day, but he shunts the guilty feelings off to one side with the ease of long practice. He's a bastard down to the bone, and it's better if he doesn't pretend to be otherwise. Funnier, too.

By the time they get to the question about Robert Webb's Flashdance performance David is clearly annoyed, and he ends up snatching the electronic pen out of Charlie's hand and scribbling down the answer so forcefully that Charlie's almost worried he'll break it.

"Know the answer to this one, do you?" Charlie says, because he kind of can't resist digging in and being an arsehole.

David sneers at him. "Yes, yes," he says, and then, under his breath, "as if he'd let me fucking forget about it."

Oh, really? Charlie thinks, but he doesn't get a chance to say anything about it before they move on to the answers, at which point Ross gets there first.

"I do hope you got this one, David," Ross says, "because otherwise I suspect that you will be doing whatever is the comedy partnership equivalent of sleeping on the sofa tonight."

David rolls his eyes. "What, writing comedy on the sofa?" he says. "I'm not entirely clear on the intricacies of your metaphor, Jonathan, but I'm beginning to suspect it's a bit shit." This, at least, gets a laugh from the audience, although Charlie can tell that they've picked up on the undercurrent of real hostility. "I do hope you managed to get it," David says, suddenly sickly sweet in a way that makes alarm bells start going off in the back of Charlie's head. "Given that you've had fuck all else to do this year but sit around and watch other people being entertaining on television."

"O-kay," says Carr. "Moving on."

After that the mood never really recovers. The dancing thing comes up several more times and Charlie tries to say as little as possible, but eventually David gets tired of his lack of support and turns on him too, starts making smarmy remarks about Charlie not knowing all the answers when he's supposed to be some sort of media critic. That, combined with the presence of Ross and Brand (and Brydon, who's normally just annoying and not very funny but who appears to be reaching new heights of un-funniness tonight), makes the whole evening a perfectly shit culmination to a shit day.

In the end Claudia and Brydon take the win and the lion's share of the laughs for the evening. Charlie's just grateful that no one's said anything scandalous enough to kick-start a campaign by the Daily Mail. Probably.

When it's over Carr suggests they go for drinks in a pub across the road, but Charlie honestly thinks if he has to spend one more second in the company of that arsehole Brand he might go on a killing spree, so he just shakes his head without saying anything. Carr shrugs and turns away. Across the green room Charlie sees David sneaking out the other door.

Outside it's raining, light but cold. Charlie shivers and pulls his jacket tighter around his shoulders. He hails a cab, too exhausted and depressed to think about taking the Tube. The cab drops him off in front of his flat and he pays, then hobbles inside.

When he takes the bandage off he finds that the bleeding has stopped, and the swelling of the cut has gone down so that now there's just a thin line scored across the bottom of his foot. Charlie throws the bandage in the bin and climbs into bed, sliding beneath the rumpled heap of his duvet with a heavy sigh.

Christ, he thinks. I wish I could start today over.

Chapter Text

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile. He gropes on the bedside table, finds it, and then lifts it to his ear and thumbs to answer, grunting a greeting.

"Hello, Mr. Brooker," says a cheery female voice. "This is just a reminder that your call for recording is at five this evening."

"We've done this," Charlie mumbles.

"Sorry?"

"We've done this," he says more clearly, scrubbing his hand over his face. "You're a day behind."

"Um," the voice says. "I don't… understand."

"It's Tuesday, check your fucking calendar," Charlie says. "Do you really not remember having this conversation yesterday?"

"I'm afraid I don't." The girl sounds utterly baffled.

"Then you might want to get that looked at," he says, rolling his eyes. "Because you having a brain tumor would really put a damper on that recording, if we hadn't already done it." That doesn't even make any sense, really, because it's too early in the fucking morning, but the girl starts to sputter, and Charlie decides he can't be bothered arguing any longer. "Well, whatever," he says, and hangs up. He tosses the phone in the direction of the bedside table. It catches the corner with a thump, skids off onto the floor with the sound of cracking plastic. Charlie curses. "Two in as many days? You're supposed to have superior hand-eye coordination, you fuckwit."

He swings his legs out of the bed, but just before his feet hit the floor he freezes and looks down. Sure enough, there's another shard of broken plastic right where his foot would probably have gone. He nudges it out of the way with his big toe. "See? I am capable of learning from my mistakes." It's not a particularly comforting thought, given that he's going to have to spend another seventy five bloody pounds for a phone.

At least his foot feels better today. Surely that's something.

Charlie slides off the bed into the cleared space, then crouches to pick up the pieces of plastic and dumps them in the bin. He gives the biggest piece a look of disgust, prods at it for a few minutes in the hopes that it might magically turn itself on, then pulls out the SIM card and flips it up onto the bedside table. Then he climbs back to his feet with a groan, knees creaking, and goes into the kitchen.

In the kitchen he sticks two pieces of bread in the toaster, then starts the coffee maker, cursing when he spills coffee grounds on the floor. Just more to add to the mess, he thinks. Christ, I'm a fucking pig. He can't be bothered to clean it up, though.

He opens the fridge, stares blearily inside for a long moment. And I'm still out of milk. Buggering fuck!

Charlie slams the fridge door shut and scrubs his hands over his face. The toaster dings but the toast doesn't pop all the way up, and as Charlie reaches for it the hot metal burns his fingertips. "Motherfucker!" Charlie says, and sticks his fingers in his mouth. He fumbles left-handed for a butter knife, using it to pry the toast free and then butter the slices sloppily before dropping them onto a plate.

Toast finally achieved, he wanders into the living room and thumps down on the sofa, flicking on the television while his laptop boots up.

"—Brown's environmental policies have come under attack as governments from around the world meet in Copenhagen to negotiate a new deal on climate change—"

Hardly news. Click.

"—said that the death was 'a stark reminder of the daily threat our troops face' and that it was 'a sad milestone.' Cameron has just returned from—"

Blah blah, oh, yes, let's give that cunt Cameron even more airtime for his platitudes. Click.

"—controversy about a new BBC drama focusing on Steve Wright, the Suffolk Strangler. The mother of one of the victims said—"

Still holding the remote, Charlie scratches his head. Are they still on about this? Click.

"—inheritance tax is no longer a priority to this administration—"

Click.

"—planned to take place in the summer of 2010, the world's largest single sporting event—"

Charlie thumbs the power button to turn the television off, feeling unnerved for reasons he can't quite articulate.

In his inbox he has two new messages – one from Al and one from Aisleyne. Charlie opens Aisleyne's first, but it just says "Get out into the sunshine, you wanker. :)" as if telling him two days in a row is going to make him more inclined to do it. He hits delete. He opens the one from Al hesitantly, half expecting a lengthy textual bollocking, but instead it's the same as yesterday's email: "Meeting at one this afternoon. If you forget, I'll spend that hour telling Mike you have a kink for ferrets." Charlie frowns; if this is supposed to be some sort of bitchy self-referential mindfuck as punishment for yesterday, it's too cerebral for him to make sense of. They don't even have a meeting scheduled for today.

Still, he checks his calendar to make sure, and there's the meeting, listed for one o'clock, Monday, 7 December, 2009.

Wait, Charlie thinks. That's still yesterday. He flicks over to Tuesday the 8th and the calendar's blank, as it should be, but the program has marked it as "tomorrow." Maybe something's wrong with his computer's clock. He flicks the cursor down to the lower right corner, and sure enough, it says, "Monday, 7 December, 2009."

Charlie growls, and gets up again to retrieve his coffee. He dumps in extra sugar and stirs half-heartedly, then goes back to the sofa and googles 'update computer clock windows.' He spends twenty minutes trying different solutions but nothing seems to work, or it says it's working but then nothing changes, and eventually he just gives up, muttering, "Stupid piece of shit." Probably it will sort itself out tomorrow, or if it doesn't, at least he'll hopefully have more patience then.

He pulls up the usual array of gaming sites. Nothing new, nothing new, nothing new.

Charlie shivers a little, rubbing his palms over his arms to warm them with friction. Okay, weird. He opens up TweetDeck and everything's the same there, too – all things he skimmed over yesterday, but labeled 'about 1 hour ago via web' and '14 minutes ago via Tweetie.'

Guess it's Blog Like Yesterday Day or something, Charlie thinks, but he's not entirely convinced. He clicks to the BBC website, to the Guardian, to CNN. Everything says 7 December. He googles 'today's date' and clicks through to a site that informs him it is 'Monday, 7 December, 2009' in 18 point Arial.

Okay, fuck, this is officially fucking weird.

Maybe he'd dreamed it, conjured up the whole hellish vision of the day as a manifestation of his deep self-loathing. Or maybe he'd just dreamed something amorphous about Al and dog shit and recording sessions, and now his mind is filling in the blanks. Though that doesn't quite explain why he has such a distinct memory of Jonathan Ross wearing fake glasses. Still, that has to be it. It's not like prophetic dreams actually happen.

Charlie gets so distracted turning the whole thing over in his head that he loses track of time, and when he looks down at the clock in the corner of the laptop one last time he curses and jumps up.

Shit, if it really is Monday, I'm going to be late.

He hurries through his shower and gets dressed without bothering to do anything with his hair other than rake his fingers through it. Stumbling outside he locks the door, fumbling the key a little, then starts down the street towards the Tube station. There are people milling around everywhere, and Charlie dodges between them without really paying much attention. A few minutes later he's at the station.

The train takes forever to arrive. It's full, and Charlie only takes one step towards it before he sees the woman with the sweat stains. He takes a step back, involuntarily, and then has to conjure up a fake, matey smile when she looks at him. Before he can decide whether to get on or not, the doors close in his face.

The next train is less full, but now he's even later than he had been yesterday. Or in his dream. Or… whatever it had been. He doesn't know.

This time he rushes into the building, ignoring the security guard entirely. He jogs up the stairs to Al's office, not wanting to wait for the lift, but as soon as he reaches the door he stops, a little wary. Fuck off, he tells himself. Stop being paranoid. No need to develop any more neurotic habits.

He knocks, and sticks his head in. Al gives him a wide-eyed look, and the man sitting across from him turns. Charlie bites the inside of his cheek, hard, fighting back the urge to panic, to just run and run until he can get out, because he knows that can't possibly help. Madness isn't the sort of thing you can run from.

"Hi," he says, slowly. "Sorry I'm late. Had some trouble with traffic and, well—"

"Not a problem," says Al, with his biggest fake smile. "Charlie, this is Ken from Radio 4…"

Charlie manages to keep himself together through the meeting. Mainly he doesn't say much, though his thoughts are a terrified whirl. Coincidence. Just coincidence and a creepy dream, has to be. It's confirmation bias; it happens to everyone.

Al picks up the slack with admirable verve, but Ken the uptight dickface doesn't seem impressed by either of them, and in the end he leaves without committing to anything, giving Charlie a dead fish handshake as he goes.

Once he's gone, Al lets out a slow breath. "Fuck, that was… fuck. Thanks a fucking lot for helping me out there. You really sold it. And you couldn't have been on time? I left you a voicemail." His mouth is twisted into a thin, sarcastic line.

"Yeah," Charlie says, not really listening. His pounding heart is beginning to calm down a little now that the direct evidence of his insanity is out of sight. "Yeah, I know, I'm a cock. Al…" He stops, opening his mouth and shutting it again several times in succession.

"What?" Al says finally, and Charlie shakes himself out of his daze.

"Nothing," he says. "It's… nothing. Look, either we'll get it or we won't." He tries to make it sound comforting.

"Thank you, Zen Master Brooker," says Al. "Fuck off, would you?"

Charlie looks at him for a moment. Al is actually properly angry, Charlie can see that, but he doesn't seem to have the ability to respond to it. Instead he's just numb. "Yeah," he says. "Yeah, I'm… yeah. Fucking off now."

The train back is empty and Charlie sits staring at the blackness of the tunnel until his stop arrives. He walks slowly back to his flat, still not letting himself think, not really.

On the way up to his door he steps in dog shit.

Charlie stops and looks down at his foot. Then he starts to laugh, bright hysterical sobs of laughter that he can't seem to choke back. He stumbles into his flat, kicks the door shut, and then doesn't even make it down the stairs, just drops onto the top step and puts his head in his hands and laughs until he he's gasping, sucking great breaths of air that don't seem to make it to his lungs. When he finally calms enough to breathe evenly, he feels wrung out. Like a teenage boy's wank sock, he thinks, and then immediately wishes he hadn't.

After another few minutes he climbs to his feet. Pretend everything is normal, he tells himself. Surely reality will catch up.

Then he sniffs and looks down at his shoe. Well, dog shit's normal enough.

Charlie pulls off his shoe and goes down the stairs to dump it into the kitchen sink. Tiny granules of coffee crunch underfoot, catching on his exposed sock, so he stops and digs under the counter for the dustpan, sweeps them all up. He washes off his shoe, then boils some water and has pot noodle, eating it in front of the television while watching Countdown. It's the same show as yesterday but that doesn't really help him get any better at playing along. Then he goes out to the corner store and buys milk, taking care to step exaggeratedly around the dog shit on his way back, in case anyone is watching.

After that he flips channels for a while, catching the last half of an episode of Antiques Roadshow, and then heads out to the studio for the recording, arriving just before 5. He gets through security and slips into the green room of the studio, finding Carr and Ross already there, Claudia in the corner talking quietly into her phone.

"Heyyyy," Ross says, with the same intonation as yesterday. "You look like shit. You okay?"

Charlie opens his mouth to say something snide, then closes it again. "Yeah," he says finally. "Yeah, fine." He shrugs. "You?" He lets the question encompass Carr as well.

"Oh, you know," says Ross, and goes off into a disgustingly lovey anecdote about Robbie Williams. Charlie tries to smile and not grind his teeth too much. He doesn't particularly want to make conversation, but he'd rather be thinking about how fucking annoying Ross is than about the rest of the waking nightmare of today. Or just nightmare. Whatever it is.

The conversation goes on for a while, with Charlie's contribution being mostly fake smiles and the occasional grunt. Eventually Brand turns up, and Brydon, and then someone comes along and mercifully ends things by directing them all to makeup. Charlie slots himself in beside David who's already there, looking just as disgruntled as he had the day before.

"Hi," Charlie says. David flicks his eyes over but otherwise doesn't move, just makes a little noise of acknowledgment, which is probably smart given that the makeup girl has a sharp object quite near his eyeball. When she's finished she steps back, nodding, and David blinks rapidly, scrunching up his shoulders and relaxing them.

"Ugh," he mutters.

"Getting makeup done always makes me go cross-eyed," Charlie says. "Well, more cross-eyed than my usual cretinous stare, anyway."

He's hoping for a laugh there, but David just mutters, "Yeah," and gets up. Charlie can feel himself flush.

Could've lived without doing this bit twice.

The actual recording goes slightly better than the one he remembers; though David's still clearly in a pissy mood, Charlie's too weirded out to egg on their tormentors, and after a while even the audience seems to get bored with the ceaseless harangues from Brand and Ross. Claudia and Brydon turn out to be the stars of the show again, the two of them being good-naturedly ridiculous and generally keeping the audience's spirits up.

After the show Carr invites everyone out for a drink, but Charlie decides adding alcohol to the existing clusterfuck of his brain is probably a bad idea, so he begs off with a flimsy excuse. David says, "No. Thanks." The words are sharp enough to cut glass. Carr shrugs and turns away from them both.

Outside it's raining, light but cold. Charlie shivers and pulls his jacket tighter around his shoulders. He hails a cab; the driver looks familiar, but if he's the same guy, he's as blessedly disinclined to chatter as he had been the day before. Even if it hadn't actually been the day before. The cab drops Charlie off in front of his flat; he tips heavily, just in case.

Everything inside the flat looks as it should – shoe on the draining board, milk in the fridge, coffee grounds in the bin. Charlie decides that if he is going mad, he can always sort it out later, and gets into bed.

After a moment he leans down and picks two pieces of his broken phone out of the bin, then lays them on the bedside table, one lengthwise across the other. Right, he thinks. There's no way I'll be able to miss that in the morning. He turns off the light, but it still takes him a long time to fall asleep.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile. He gropes on the bedside table for a moment until he finds it, then sits up sharply, holding the undamaged phone out in front of him like it's radioactive.

"What the fuck?" he says. After a long moment he thumbs to answer, lifting the phone to his ear.

"Hello?"

"Hello, Mr. Brooker," says the familiar cheery female voice. "This is just a reminder that your call for recording is at five this evening."

"Right," Charlie says. "If I'm being Punk'd, I am going to flip my shit."

"Sorry?" says the voice.

"And I'll never sign a release for it, not in a million fucking years. I just want that to go on the record."

"Um," says the voice. "I think I might have the wrong number."

Charlie snorts and hangs up. He starts to toss his phone back onto the bedside table, then pauses and looks at the display. 7 December. He sets the phone down on the bedside table with exaggerated care and gets up.

In the kitchen he scopes out the relevant indicators. Coffee grounds in the bin? No. Milk in the fridge? Nope. He's already spotted his shoes lying in a tangled heap by the door.

Ignoring the temptation of coffee Charlie opens his laptop and switches on the television. The computer screen shows '7 December' and his emails are the same as yesterday. After a moment he replies to Aisleyne's "Get out into the sunshine, you wanker. :)" with a question: "Are you fucking with me?" Then he adds, beneath it, "If I've done something to deserve this I sincerely apologise."

While he's typing, a news anchor has been droning on in the background about the subjects Charlie remembers, but when he hears the exact same phrase as yesterday – "...Brown's environmental policies have come under attack as governments from around the world meet in Copenhagen to negotiate a new deal on climate change..." – Charlie's head snaps up, and he gives the screen a look of utter disbelief.

Okay, he thinks, that could be faked. I mean, it'd take a fuck of a lot of work, feeding news just into my flat, but it could be done.

He throws on some clothes and goes out, leaving his phone on the bedside table. At the corner shop, all the papers say "7 December"; so does the readout on the clock sign above the bank two streets over. So does the date on a sign outside a church, right above an announcement that children aged eight to eleven can sign up for the 'Fun Club.'

After that Charlie accosts a random man on the street. "Oi!" The man looks decidedly taken aback, but stands still long enough for Charlie to talk to him. He mustn't be from here. "What's the date?"

"Er," says the man, taking a step back. "It's December the seventh, mate."

"Right," Charlie says, and then, absently, "Thanks."

He wanders around the city at random for a while, looking at newsstands and television displays, any place he can find with the date. It's all consistent – everywhere says "7 December" – and after a couple of hours it finally sinks in that this simply can't be a prank. There's not enough money in the world to make this happen on such a scale, let alone happen two days in a row.

Which leaves Charlie with three possible conclusions – he's dreaming, he's mad, or this is actually December the seventh. Again.

-----

Once that's settled, Charlie feels strangely more comfortable with things. If he's dreaming or mad, then what happens next is out of his control, so why worry about it? And if he's actually reliving today, well, whatever's making that happen is out of his control, too.

Charlie buys a sandwich and eats it while staring at nothing in particular, then makes his way home and flips on the television. If someone else is having the same experience he's having, he wants to hear about it. He's got an email from Aisleyne that says, "What, I can't just be tired of your albino pallor?" Which could be a sly brush off, if he hadn't just decided that this wasn't a prank.

The time to leave to meet Al comes and goes. Charlie is too caught up in cataloging the ways today is exactly like yesterday to notice, and when he finally realizes that it's well past one, all he can do is shrug. If he's mad, or dreaming, then pissing Al off won't matter. And if this is really December the seventh again, then Charlie thinks there's a pretty damn good chance Al won't remember it in the morning anyway. Neither will the people from Channel 4, come to think of it, which means he doesn't have to bother about tonight's recording either.

Eventually, after a day's worth of very familiar television, a creeping fear begins to settle in as Charlie's brain decides it probably ought to worry about the whole madness thing. If he's mad in one particular way, there's no telling what other ways he might go mad next. Imagining he's reliving one day is fairly harmless, he supposes, but the next thing might not be. What if he starts to imagine he's covered in spiders, or that he can only breathe underwater?

Once he's conjured up the mental image of being covered in spiders, it takes Charlie a good half an hour to talk himself down again. If I was going to get spiders, I'd have got spiders already, he tells himself firmly. I mean, it's not exactly typical of my subconscious to hold back on the terrifying stuff.

Maybe... maybe he's been too hasty in concluding that this whole thing can't be a prank. It'd certainly be a hell of a lot easier to deal with if it was. What I ought to do is test it, he thinks. Test it with something nobody could change.

After a moment he gets up, turning off the news as he goes into the bedroom. On the bedside table his phone is flashing; when Charlie looks, he discovers he's got five voicemails from Al, three from someone at Channel 4, and a slew of progressively more foul text messages, all of which he deletes. They'll have got someone to fill in for him at the recording last minute, surely. If this is even real.

He drops the phone on the bed and goes into the toilet. When he catches sight of himself in the mirror he sneers, and then reaches for the electric razor. He's been letting his hair get shaggy over the last couple of years, but it'll be no trouble to go shaved for a while.

When all his hair is gone down to stubble he thinks, Right, that should do it.

Chapter Text

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile. He gropes on the bedside table for a moment until he finds it, then blinks and thumbs to answer. "Hello?"

"Hello, Mr. Brooker. This is just a reminder that your call for recording is at five this evening."

"Right," Charlie says slowly. "Thanks."

"Great. Have a nice day."

Charlie thumbs off the phone and sets it down on the bed. He reaches up and runs one hand through his hair – his full head of hair, in fact. Then he shoves the covers back and goes to look at himself in the mirror. It's definitely all still there, and looking as much like a hedge in a hurricane as ever.

"Fuck," he says, and sits down on the closed lid of the toilet.

What would happen if he told someone about this? If he told Aisleyne, or Al? They'd just laugh, surely. Sometimes it seems like all they do is laugh at him, and not in the good way. Hell, what if he turned up at the recording tonight and told David? He can't imagine that would go much better; David already thinks he's a complete idiot, incapable of forming complete sentences or being seen in public without dribbling.

Charlie's brain, always prepared for an opportunity to be masochistic, offers up a mental image of how that conversation would go. It's mildly entertaining right up until David calls the men in white coats who strap him into a straightjacket and haul him away to be locked up in a padded room forever and ever.

Charlie sags back against the cold ceramic of the toilet. He's breathing hard just thinking about being trapped like that. No, he thinks. I can't tell. I can't tell anyone.

He turns off his phone and spends the rest of the morning eating pot noodle, looking things up on the internet, and scaring the bejesus out of himself.

He starts with Wikipedia, but it doesn't have anything useful and he quickly abandons it in favor of surfing the more batshit areas of the web, collecting various theories and accounts from the one or two people he can find who seem to think their lives are actually repeating. None of it is particularly believable, actually, but the worst ones are the sites that try to tell him that what he needs is "self-actualization" or "inner peace." Because really, Charlie achieving inner peace is about as likely as a whale shitting a pineapple, and the possibility that he might find "self-actualization" seems remotely more plausible only because he doesn't actually know what it means.

Eventually, when the lack of caffeine is beginning to get to him and his shoulders are so knotted from hunching over the computer that he can't fully straighten up, Charlie shuts the laptop with a mixture of disgust and terror. He's read about reincarnation, about time loops, about mysterious machines in government warehouses that send out psychic rays, about alien psychology experiments. Some of it was clearly intended as fiction and other bits as fact, but either way, he isn't convinced by any of it.

But he's also read about near-death experiences, about the hallucinations of coma patients, about schizophrenia. Those, frighteningly, were a lot more convincing.

For a long moment he looks at his reflection in the screen of the television. Whatever madness might look like, he doesn't seem to be showing it. The trouble is, what the hell is he supposed to do now? Knowing that you're insane is all well and good, Charlie decides, but this doesn't appear to be the fun kind of insanity, where you believe you're Jesus or that bright sparkly faeries have come to drag you off to happy land. This is a horribly mundane insanity, a chartered-accountancy kind of insanity. Sure, it means he doesn't have to worry about finishing that overdue script, but right now he can't actually think of anything better to do.

He checks the clock and realizes that he can still make it to this evening's recording if he leaves now. After a moment he shrugs, wincing at the movement of tight shoulder muscles, and gets up. He throws on something he doesn't mind being seen in and grabs his phone before heading out to TV Centre, arriving in the green room just before 5.

"Heyyyy," says Ross.

"I know, I look like shit," Charlie says, sharply enough that Claudia looks over at them from where she's having her phone conversation.

"Hey, I wasn't going to say it," says Ross, holding up his hands in a gesture of surrender. Charlie gives him a thin-lipped smile at the lie and dodges past him and Carr. He can feel their gazes on his back as he slips out the other door into the hallway.

He's sitting in makeup when David slinks in, a familiar sullenness on his face. Charlie decides not to speak first, and is rewarded for this experiment when, after about five minutes, his makeup job is finished and the girl moves on to working on David. As soon as she moves into his line of sight, David seems to come out of his funk and realize that he's not actually the only person in the room.

"Oh," he says, blinking and sitting up a little. The makeup girl grabs hold of his chin and he goes still again, but in a way that indicates he's paying attention to his surroundings as opposed to just sulking. "Hello, Charlie," David says.

"Hi," Charlie says evenly, and nothing else. After a moment David's face closes up again, and Charlie feels a little pang of disappointment. He shakes it off.

Doesn't matter. He was probably just going to say that I look like shit, too.

He gets up, just as Carr and the others are being herded in by a harassed-looking runner. Charlie escapes to the green room and downs half a bottle of water, feeling oddly nervous about the prospect of filming despite the fact that he's done it several times already. David joins him after a moment, the scowl firmly fixed back on his face.

"I was thinking," Charlie says, when the length of the silence between them begins to approach epic levels of awkwardness. "We should come up with a team name, or something. Don't they usually do that on this show?"

"Oh, right," David says, starting. "Um..." He gives a bitter little laugh. "What do you think of Media Whores?"

"As a name, or in general?" Charlie says without thinking, and then winces internally.

David snorts. "As a name. I don't think I need any more opinions on the concept in general, thanks."

There's a story there, Charlie's pretty sure. "Yeah, all right," he says. But just as he opens his mouth to see if he can weasel out David's issue, the door bangs open and Claudia comes back in.

"Hello boys," she says cheerily. "How are you?"

"Oh, fine, thanks," David says, not terribly convincingly.

Charlie supposes his own answer of "Dandy" isn't much better.

"And you?" David continues.

"Fine, fine," Claudia says. "Looking forward to tonight. Rob and I have been chatting over email, talking out our strategy and team names and all that. I think he wants to go for a strange sort of newlyweds thing, god, who even knows what goes on in his brain sometimes?" She makes a vague flapping gesture with one hand. "But I'll probably just go with it."

"Often the best course of action, with Rob," David says. "At least he didn't want you to be the Two Ronnies, just so he could—" He scrunches up his face, bares his teeth in a somewhat alarming expression that Charlie realizes, after a moment, is supposed to be an impression of Rob doing an impression of Ronnie Corbett.

"Don't think he didn't suggest it," Claudia says darkly. She and David share an exasperated look, and Charlie feels desperately out of place. "Anyway, I've got to, y'know," Claudia says, holding up her phone and giving it a cheery little waggle. "See you again in a few." She grins and slips out into the hallway.

"Should we have been discussing our strategy in advance, then?" Charlie drawls, mostly just to keep them from going back to embarrassing silence.

"I feel fairly sure that our strategy can be summed up as 'answering the questions when asked,'" David says, "but feel free to let me know if you've got some sort of advanced tactics that I should be aware of."

It occurs to Charlie that he sort of does have some advanced tactics, in that he's pretty sure he knows all the answers already. But it doesn't seem like a good idea to mention that.

-----

Filming the show for the third time is both more and less annoying than he'd expected. On the one hand, he's at least grateful to know most of the answers now. On the other hand, being tormented about his dancing ability wasn't exactly fun the first time around. Added to that is the fact that he keeps zoning out in the middle of questions, wondering if anyone else out there is experiencing what he's experiencing, scanning the faces of the audience for any sign of something unusual, and then David has to keep elbowing him to get him back on track. Charlie's side is beginning to ache a little.

Because that's the most interesting part of this whole thing, being able to watch the same events unfold that he's seen twice before, word for word, gesture for gesture. He doesn't remember it all, of course, because he's not some kind of savant, but he remembers enough to know what he's seeing and hearing, to know that it matches.

It's frankly fucking weird, is what it is. "Does any of this seem familiar to you?" he asks David during a brief lull in the dancing discussion.

"In that Brand's jokes never get any funnier?" David snarls under his breath, and Charlie is startled back to remembering that David's hearing all of this for the first time, that he's a person, and not just a character in this surrealistic play that's being put on for Charlie's benefit. Probably.

Charlie's crap at reading people, always has been, but since he's watching this interaction for the third time he's got a chance to really look at what's happening instead of just reacting. And now that he's looking, he can see David's shoulders, tensed up higher than normal, the two spots of red on his cheeks as he struggles not to blush full on, the way his fingers have gone white as they clench around the stylus.

He's genuinely upset, Charlie thinks. It's weird – an hour ago David was tight-lipped and self-absorbed and scowling, and so all of this ought to just be more of the same. But there's something different about the way he's reacting now, something that's not just prissiness and pique. Like it's really getting under his skin, even though the others are just joking around.

While Charlie's still pondering this revelation, Jimmy appears to get some instruction from the director to move on already, and he redirects everyone to the next question. Charlie lets himself look at David sideways, out of the corner of his eye, and he realizes that David's hand is actually shaking a little.

Jesus, Charlie thinks, and suddenly he can't just skate by, keeping himself from the worst of the mocking. It just doesn't seem right. He runs through a couple of things he might say but discards each of them after a moment as either ineffective or awkward or both. Finally, he offers, "He's a cunt," quietly but meaning it, and David looks at him sharply.

"Well, yes," David says. "But I don't think we can put that as the answer."

Charlie realizes he's about three questions behind now. "Oh, um. It's, DVDs, I think."

David snorts and scribbles down 'DVDs,' but then looks at Charlie with something like concern. "Charlie... are you okay? You just seem a bit out of it."

For a moment Charlie thinks about telling the truth, the whole insane truth – even opens his mouth with the words all poised on his tongue – but then he remembers that telling the truth has a distinct possibility of ending in a straightjacket. Instead he says, a bit lamely, "Yeah. Yeah, I'm okay. Just... it's been a weird day." David's still looking at him, so he just shrugs.

"If you two gentlemen would like to have some alone time," says Carr acidly, and both of them startle.

"We've written an answer!" Charlie says. "And not one that involves a drawing of a cock, either." But he can practically feel David going red next to him, clamming up, and he hates Carr for it.

They get through the rest of the recording with minimal injuries to dignity. Charlie tries to keep up with the actual questions being asked, but they still get a bunch of the answers wrong, and David is torn between looking pissy one moment, and in the next looking like he's afraid Charlie's going to wander off.

By the time they're done, Charlie is feeling bewildered and exhausted, and more than a little irritated at his own decision to turn up tonight, since it doesn't really matter anyway. The cameras go off, and they all trudge off stage into the green room, looking a bit worn around the edges, though Claudia is grinning wildly at being on the winning team.

"Drinks?" says Carr, fanning himself with the edge of his jacket. "Don't know about you, but I could use one."

Charlie feels like he could use one, too, or maybe ten. "Sure," he says, and then, realizing what he's just let himself in for, reaches over and latches onto David's arm.

"I don't think so," David says. "I have a pressing appointment with a frozen Tesco's pizza."

"No, come on, I need you," Charlie says, without really thinking about it.

David goes pink. "Ah—"

"I need a drink, and someone sane for company," Charlie clarifies, realizing what he's just said.

"Ah," David says again, but sounding rather disappointed now, as if Charlie has just presented him with a polished turd as a Christmas present.

Charlie doesn't exactly know what to say to that, so he doesn't say anything, but he doesn't let go of David's arm. Carr is looking between them, eyebrows raised.

After a moment, David gives in. "Yes, yes, all right."

-----

Claudia, having more sense than all of the rest of them combined, pleads children and fucks off quickly, but everyone else gathers in the pub across the road, slumped in uncomfortable wooden chairs around a plastic-topped table. Carr buys the first round and Wossy buys the second, and with the combination of exhaustion and beer, it doesn't take long for any of them to get very, very drunk.

It's nearing on midnight now, and Charlie's been drinking steadily since they got in. Usually he wouldn't like being this out of control, like his brain is on a roundabout in a darkened playground, but at this point he'd rather happily just let his brain go romping off somewhere for a few hours in the hopes that his fucking insane life will go back to normal.

"What would you do if there was no tomorrow?" he asks, when they hit a lull in the conversation.

"What, like, the world's going to end?" Carr asks.

"No, no, no, no," Charlie says, hands waving furiously. He almost knocks over his pint, but catches it with a lucky save at the last second, only sloshing a little over the rim. "Like, if it was never gonna end. If every day was the same fucking day and you were trapped and you couldn't fucking get out, and nothing you did mattered."

"My life is like that," David mutters. His chair is jammed in between Charlie's and Carr's.

Ross rolls his eyes. "If you're trying to make us all as pathetically depressed as you, it's working," he says. Brand giggles into Ross's shoulder.

"Hey now," says Brydon. "I think we ought to make it our mission to give David here something to live for. All of us working together, we could probably find him a girlfriend."

"Thanks ever so," David says acidly. "But I prefer my dates without seven kinds of venereal disease, actually."

Brand sits up sharply, opening his mouth.

"I know what I'd do," Carr says, interrupting the argument. "If there was no tomorrow." The rest of the table turns to look at him. He leans back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest and raising his eyebrow. Charlie dimly realizes this is supposed to look cool. "I'd just spend all my time gettin' pissed and gettin' lots of poon tang."

Right, Charlie thinks sarcastically. Because sex is just that easy. At least Carr's honest about what he wants, though.

But then Brand says, "Come on, Jimbo. A situation like what Brooker there's describing calls for imagination, for letting your inner self fly free of the stifling shackles of normal society." He waves his hands in the air in a motion that's more 'swarm of undead rapist butterflies' than 'happy flight of imagination.'

"What can I say? My inner self is a very simple soul," Carr says. Ross chokes, and Charlie exchanges an involuntary look with David.

"Jimmy," Brand sighs. He rubs his hand over his cheek. "There has to be something else. Think about what you've always wanted to do, things you've thought but never said. Imagine you could do anything you wanted. Think about what kind of person you'd be."

Charlie takes another sip of his pint and thinks about it. The trouble is, he'd probably be kind of a shit.

-----

By the time the pub closes Charlie's had enough to drink that he's not quite steady on his feet, but there are ideas whirling around in his head, mad ones. Which is all right, really, since he's mad now. And the others are even worse off, if that's possible, and when Charlie gets a wonderful terrible idea and wobblingly leads the group back to the studio, they all follow behind him through the drizzle like a trail of obedient ducklings. Brand and Ross have their arms slung about each other's shoulders. They might even be singing a little.

The security guard at the main reception desk raises a sober eyebrow at them.

"Listen, mate," Charlie begins, grasping for a decent way to blag them all in. It's too damn bad Ross got fired and doesn't have his pass any more. "I've... I've... left my wallet, see? And, y'know, these arseholes had to buy me drinks all night, and, and..." He loses the plot for a moment, then drags himself back on track, "and I'm sure I know right where it is, won't be more'n fifteen minutes, yeah?" The guard gives him an unconvinced look, and Charlie says, "Okay, Wossy and Rusty here are cunts, yeah, but Dave's sensible. He won't let the rest of us anywhere near a telephone or anything, I promise."

"Oi!" says Ross, but the guard cracks a smile.

"All right, mate," he says, gesturing with his head to indicate they can go in. "More than fifteen minutes and I'll send someone looking, mind you."

"Brilliant," says Charlie, beaming. "Can't thank you enough. C'mon, gentlemen."

He knows where he's going. Brydon and Ross are arguing about something behind him, but Charlie tunes them out, no longer caring if they follow. He finds the right studio foyer, empty and ragged-looking, like the hallway of a Manchester comprehensive. Beside the double doors leading into the studio there's a paper sign that says 'Countdown.'

Charlie wonders if they'll be locked, but no. Apparently having a gullible person at the front desk is considered security enough. He pulls the door open a few inches and peers inside. Empty. Excellent.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" David asks, sounding marginally more sober than he had been.

"No," Charlie says. "Doesn't matter." He yanks the door open and goes in, turning on the lights as he passes the switches.

The set is modern and blue and curving, and looks rather like Picasso vomited on it. Charlie sneers drunkenly at the giant clock and hitches himself up onto one of the desks, laying back with his arms folded under his head and one ankle crossed over the other. Far above him there is a forest of lights hanging from the studio ceiling.

"You know what'd be brilliant?" he asks David, who's followed him over. Ross and Brydon are standing in the doorway, still arguing, and Brand is doing something with the dictionary that Charlie resolutely does not want to know about.

"What?" David asks warily.

"Fucking Carol Vorderman on this desk," Charlie says. David chokes, then starts to cough. "I mean," Charlie continues, "all those years, she must have sneaked in here and done it at least once."

"D'you think?" David says, his voice pitched higher than normal.

"Oh, yeah. When I was thirteen that's pretty much what I thought about whenever I watched the show. Blue Peter, too. Some of them must've fucked in that garden, that's all I'm saying." He thinks for a minute. "Wonder if Konnie did. Y'know, Konnie Huq? She's fit. Did a thing with me last year. A filming thing, I mean. Though I wouldn't mind if it wasn't a filming thing. Been thinking about asking her out, actually."

David makes a small noise.

"Way out of my league, 'course," Charlie says. He's aware that he's rambling but can't seem to make himself stop. "I s'pose it doesn't matter now. Not going to get the chance anyway. Stuck here."

"Stuck how?" David asks. "Charlie, what the fuck are we even doing here?"

Charlie ignores him, suddenly energized by a new idea. "If we did do a thing, it could be a filming thing and a fucking thing. For the show. Like, 'Today, kids, we're going to show you how to make a condom from sticky-backed plastic!'" He sits up. "I need a camera. Can't mock-wank without a camera."

There's one on a wheeled tripod nearby. Charlie stumbles over to it and hooks his fingers around two of the waist-high knobs that control the camera's height. He scuttles backwards, feet screeching on the floor as he tries to wrestle the thing into place in front of the desk.

From near the door, Brydon says, "I'm not sure you're meant to pull—" But before he can finish the sentence one of the tripod wheels sticks, or maybe catches on some faintly uneven floor section, or something, and the whole thing overbalances, tipping forwards.

"Oops," Charlie says, giggling, looking up at the scratched metal corners of the camera falling towards him, and then everything goes black.

Chapter Text

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile. He winces, anticipating the spike of pain as the noise jabs into his sensitive, hungover brain... but there's nothing. He blinks, and everything comes rushing back.

The mobile sounds again, and he grabs at it, hands shaking. "Hello?"

"Hello, Mr. Brooker," says the now-familiar voice. "This is just a reminder that your call for recording is at five this evening."

"Right," Charlie says. "Right." He knows he sounds like a twat, but really, even if he is insane right now, that camera falling on him should have left him in considerable pain. Not to mention the fact that he'd destroyed a serious piece of Channel 4 property. By all rights, he ought to be in jail. "Remind me what the date is today?"

"It's December the seventh," says the voice.

"Right," Charlie says again. "That's what I thought. Okay, thank you."

"Bye!" says the voice. Charlie hangs up.

He gets out of bed, still holding his phone, and goes to the front door. When he opens it, the man walking past on the pavement glances at Charlie's boxers (black, with the Atari logo and "GAME OVER" written across the front), grimaces, and looks away quickly.

"'Scuse me," Charlie says quickly. "You haven't seen any, erm, any police in the area this morning, have you?"

"Er," says the man. "No?"

"Right," Charlie says. "Thanks." He closes the door and stands staring down at his phone for a long moment. Finally a smile begins to stretch across his face. "I can do what I want," he says. "I can do whatever I fucking want."

Thirty minutes later he's minimally clothed and sitting down to an immense, greasy breakfast at his favorite café down the road: bacon, sausages, four eggs, mushrooms, and tomatoes, complete with a couple of slices of fried bread and a pot of tea to top it all off. By the time he's finished his stomach feels like it's grown three sizes and he has to loosen his belt by a notch. Still, the only reason he doesn't follow breakfast up with a couple of donuts is that he thinks it might make him actually rupture something. Besides, he can have some tomorrow.

After taking his time with breakfast he wanders around for a while, letting his mouth run wild as he goes along the pavement, saying all the things he normally thinks but keeps to himself. "You know, with your pants hanging out of your trousers like that, you look like a five year-old who's forgotten how to dress himself," he says to one teenager, and then, "Wow, you're really ugly," to a woman coming at him on the pavement. "That is fucking amazing." She huffs and pushes past him.

After that he stops to talk to a preteen girl with braces and a Lee Ryan tee-shirt. "Blue are shit," he says, "and that guy's the shittest, you know. When you grow up you're going to be really fucking embarrassed about it all. Well, if you were going to grow up, anyway."

A man looms up beside him, and Charlie realizes it's the girl's father. "Is that a threat?" the man asks. He's easily 6'4" and built like a tank. "Are you threatening my little girl?"

"Just a fact," Charlie says. "But if it'll make you feel better you can hit me. It won't matter. I'm invulnerable."

The guy's expression turns suddenly pitying, and he pulls the girl away, shaking his head and muttering something about nutters. Charlie just grins and keeps walking.

He hasn't tired of this game by the time he'd need to leave for Al's meeting, but he figures there's plenty of potential for entertainment there. Ken, for one, strikes him as a man who could inspire an almost endless fountain of vitriol.

And indeed it proves to be so. He walks into Al's office on time with a smile on his face, and his opening gambit is greeted with a gratifyingly horrified silence from both Ken and Al. "Ken, it is absolutely fantastic to see you, you useless, shit-licking bastard! Why, I was just saying to myself the other day that what the world really needed was another arse-nuzzling bureaucrat who's dedicated his life to squeezing all the entertainment out of any possibly interesting idea and sanitizing every word broadcast, thus ensuring the tyranny of the conservative majority and destroying all that might make this country great. And here you are!"

"Hang on," Al says, words sputtering to his lips after a frozen second. "Hang on, Charlie, you can't just—"

"Can't I?" Charlie asks. "What's to stop me – you? No. A sense of kindness or decorum? Haven't got one. The fact that we're not going to get a contract out of this meeting? Well, I hate to break it to you, Al, but we were never going to get a contract out of this, not from Ken. And you know why? Because Ken has no fucking sense of humor. When you say, 'A duck walked into a bar,' Ken is the kind of person that would go, 'How did the duck get into the bar? Did someone open the door for it? Is anyone going to do something about this duck in the bar?' If you say, 'There once was a man from Nantucket,' Ken will say, 'The Nantucket in Massachusetts, or the one that's an island in the Pacific?' Okay? So it doesn't matter what the fuck I say."

Ken's mouth is open, like he might want to protest this assessment of his character, but Charlie just keeps talking.

"And I know, Ken, that you're going to say, 'Of course I have a sense of humor! How do you think I got this job commissioning radio programs for the BBC?' Well, let me tell you, that means fucking nothing. The BBC is full of fucking humorless twats, people who think wearing a suit makes them powerful—" He gives Ken's suit a disdainful glance. "—people who listen to good comedy with this expression on their face like they're shitting an endless series of porcupines out of their unlubricated sphincters, and then they give the closest thing they can manage to a smile and go away and crush people's dreams. And then they take the arseload of money they could have spent on something interesting and instead they make Noel's House Party."

He takes a deep breath. "Well, fuck you, Ken, and fuck all your friends, and your boss, and your whole department, and your endless succession of canned-laughter bullshit. Fuck you."

There's a moment of silence. Al looks shell-shocked and hasn't even tried to say anything since his first feeble interjection.

Charlie feels like he's just experienced an immense catharsis. He savors it, briefly. Then he says, "Actually, you know what, Al? You were right. I do tend to go for the schoolboy humor. Not very creative. I'll do better tomorrow."

As he sweeps out, he can hear Ken say, very faintly, "Was that supposed to be satire?" and it's all Charlie can do not to injure himself laughing.

That was so fucking brilliant, Charlie thinks, grinning. Who else can I get? He ponders for a moment, thinking of people he'd like to insult. I could make a list, do it alphabetically. But the more he thinks about this, the more he realizes there are some people he wants to insult more than others, some people more deserving. Some of them a lot more deserving.

Russell fucking Brand, he thinks. And the other one, Ross. Oh, yes. There are others, too, of course, but he'd have to track them down. Right now he's riding the high of shooting off his mouth and he doesn't want to wait. At least he knows where Ross and Brand are going to be tonight.

The wait until five is only made bearable by another pass through the streets insulting people, and then a stop in his favorite bakery to gorge himself on cake. He's feeling almost mellow by the time he climbs out of the cab in front of the studio.

He overtips the driver in a flush of anticipation and saunters into the building. He's running a little later today than his first few go-rounds, so when he finds Ross and Brand and Carr gabbling in the green room David is there, too, standing at the edge of the conversational clump but looking like he'd rather be somewhere, anywhere else.

"Hello, you pile of worthless cunts!" Charlie says cheerfully. "And David. Though to be honest, I think you're a bit of a cunt as well." This turns out to be an excellent way to get everyone's attention; Ross' eyes go wide, and Carr laughs in that way he has that makes him sound like a donkey with a nervous condition.

"Brand, has anyone ever told you you're about as funny as a seven year old leper?" Charlie had decided to start with Brand simply because he was arguably the easiest to criticize, and it's an almost orgasmic pleasure to rattle off the spiel he's been refining all afternoon. "I'd rather gouge out my own eardrums than listen to you talk for more than thirty seconds, and I feel almost certain that the reason your girlfriend kissed a girl – and liked it – was because you've got all the sexual potency of a dried stick."

Their gaping faces are as fantastic to see as he'd imagined, so he switches to Ross before anyone can recover enough voice to interject. "And you, Wossy, you know, I'd really like to know whose arse you licked at the BBC to get paid to sit around and ask people questions like, 'If you were an ice lolly, what flavor would you be?' The last time I watched your show I wished I'd been in the studio, because then at least there I'd've had a chance at drowning in your spit rather than dying of boredom."

"Now hang on—" Ross sputters, "Just wait a fucking minute—" But Charlie's on a roll now, and he turns to Carr and plows onwards, talking over the protest.

"And you're a fat arsehole," he says. "A greasy little shitstain who spent so long as a virgin that he thinks rape jokes and puns are the height of comedy. Your laugh sounds like a dying moose and looking at you makes me want to vomit."

Just for good measure he turns to David as well; David's eyes are bulging a little, but there's a hint of a smile on his face and he stands his ground without trying to stop Charlie's tirade, for which Charlie has to give him credit.

"I haven't prepared anything for you, since you're not actually as much of a raging twat as these three," Charlie admits. "But you're self-involved and a terrible snob, which is annoying." He looks back at the others, who are now beginning to look a faintly more worried than outraged. "Is Brydon around? Because I did want to mention to him that he's a tedious, un-funny old prick."

"Charlie, look, are you all right, mate?" Ross ventures.

"Don't call me 'mate,'" Charlie says with a smile. "I fucking hate you."

"Oookay," Carr says, putting a hand on Ross' arm. "I think we're going to go away now. You should... you should take the night off." He drags Ross away before he can say anything else, and, with a wide-eyed backwards glance, Brand follows. David takes a step towards them, then hesitates, and the door swings shut behind him.

"Christ, that was satisfying," Charlie says, still riding the high of actually getting to say all the things he's been bottling up for what feels like forever.

"I can't believe you're not worried about what that's going to do to your career," David says.

"I don't worry about anything anymore," Charlie says. "Or anyone. I just do what I want."

David tilts his head to one side, considering, and then after a moment he says, "It is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness." He pauses, then gives a little shrug and says, "I've been reading up on A Christmas Carol. Purely for television purposes, I assure you. But it's that time of year, isn't it?"

Now it's Charlie's turn to boggle. He'd never have thought David the type to quote Dickens; it seems a bit too sentimental somehow. But then again, are they really anything more than casual acquaintances? Maybe he just doesn't know David very well at all. The moment draws out, taut, as Charlie tries to think of something to say; it's more difficult than he would have expected given David's piercing gaze. Finally he offers, "There once was a man from Nantucket…"

David sighs and looks away. Charlie feels simultaneously relieved and disappointed.

"C'mon, Mitchell," he says. "You have to admit the look on Wossy's face was funny."

"Funny," David says, disbelieving. "You really do have a death wish."

"No," Charlie says. "The opposite. I have a life wish. I'm just trying to enjoy myself, take pleasure in the little things. Don't you ever want to cut loose and go wild?"

"I wouldn't even know what it means to go wild," David says.

"Yeah, well," Charlie says. "I didn't either, not until today. I know you won't believe me, but we can do anything we want today and it won't matter. Absolutely no consequences. Complete and total freedom."

David gives a little huff of breath. "Right. And how do we manage that?"

"You leave that to me," Charlie says, and then, on impulse, "Come on, let's ditch this fucking gig and go for a drink. This show's going to be shit anyway."

"I think I'll take my chances with Brand," David says, making a pained face. "I have this irrational aversion to being totally blacklisted."

Charlie shrugs. "Suit yourself." He claps David on the shoulder and heads for the door.

Just as he's pulling it open, David says, "Charlie."

He turns. "Yeah?"

David starts to say something, then stops, and when he finally does speak it's not what Charlie's expecting.

"Do you really hate Brand so much?"

"Well, yeah," Charlie says. "Don't you?"

David laughs a little. "Yes. But I'm not sure I hate him enough to just say damn the consequences."

Charlie smirks. "That's the part you don't realize, Mitchell. There are no consequences. I could go and tell him off again, if I wanted to, and it wouldn't make a rat's testicle's worth of difference." He pauses, another thought suddenly presenting itself. "Although," he says, "There are definitely people I hate more than Brand, as it happens. And the night is young." He gives David a delighted grin. "Listen, you really don't have to hang around here, not if you don't want. It won't matter, David. It won't even have happened."

"What?" David says, looking more than a little bewildered. "Charlie..."

But Charlie just shakes his head. "Look, I'll see you tomorrow."

"Charlie, you're not making any fucking sense," David says, but by that point Charlie is gone.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

It only takes an hour of calling around to figure out where he needs to be, and then another hour to get there and lie, wheedle, and bribe his way into the studio. There are lights on, crew everywhere even if there's no audience, and Charlie has a brief moment of paralyzing stage fright as he steps from the shadows of the wings onto the bright stage.

Piers Morgan looks up as Charlie approaches, gives him a look of faint confusion. The wrinkle of his brow says, 'You are vaguely familiar to me, peasant, but clearly not worth the mental energy required to divine precisely why.'

The part where Charlie punches Morgan in the middle of his smug fucking face is pretty much guaranteed to make him more memorable, though.

Charlie spends the afternoon in a cell, nursing his bruised knuckles in the company of a man named Benny who smells like rubbing alcohol, but every time he thinks of Morgan's frightened expression he grins, and knows it was worth it.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile. Without bothering to answer he tucks his hands behind his head and goes through his mental shit list. So far he's insulted or assaulted nearly sixty people over the past thirty two days (all of them December the seventh), the highlights being Piers Morgan, Boris Johnson, Jedward, three people who he caught evangelizing about Apple products to strangers in cafés, Jamie Oliver, Jan Moir, the BBC Director General, and that guy from Coldplay. He's taken to calling himself Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, and though the reference hasn't stopped being amusing yet, he's decided to take today off from hurling invective at shitheads and do something else.

It's amazing how liberating it feels to know he doesn't have to regret taking a day off – doesn't have to regret anything, not anymore. He'd almost got used to the ever-present weight of knowing that every day was one fewer chance to do all the things he'd meant to do, one step closer to death. But now he doesn't have just regular old days – he has every December the seventh he could ever want.

So: breakfast first, a full English and maybe a donut or two, and then, hmm. What would be entertaining?

Maybe he'll play a game.

----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile. Ignoring it, he rolls out of bed and stumbles into the living room, flicking on the Xbox with his toe and fumbling Modern Warfare 2 out of its box. Once the disc is loading he grabs the controller and flops down onto the sofa.

"Right. Death to the enemy!"

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile and stumbles into the living room without answering it, flicking on the Xbox with his toe and fumbling Grand Theft Auto IV out of its box. He's determined to see how much he can get through before the day restarts.

He pauses at eleven to order pizza, and then again to answer the door when the pizza arrives. The delivery guy raises an eyebrow at Charlie's sweaty, unshaven, semi-clothed state, but Charlie just shoves the cash at him and closes the door in his face.

Back on the sofa, he drops the box on the coffee table, shoves a piece of pizza into his mouth and unpauses the game.

By five something in the morning he's almost finished the game, barreling through the last obstacles with exhausted concentration. "C'mon," he mumbles, "c'mon, c'mon you stupid cunt, just—" and then, just as he's shooting a cab driver in the face, he blinks, and then his mobile goes off, and he sits up in bed, cursing.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile but doesn't stumble out of bed immediately. He wants to do something other than games today, having gone through almost his entire collection in the past couple of go-rounds of December the seventh. He even thinks he might actually want to see the sun, for a bit, though probably about five minutes of it will do the job.

On the other hand, that will involve putting on trousers. Hmm.

In the end he decides that a nice big breakfast is worth the effort, and gets up. Although he's not technically any dirtier than he had been 14 days ago, somehow having spent those days on the sofa eating pizza means that he feels like he needs a shower.

Clean and dressed, he saunters down the street for breakfast. After the meal, he decides to wander a little; he's lived in Clapham for years now but he still doesn't know it all that well, just his well-worn routes and the usual shops. Maybe he'll find something interesting, and anyway, it's not like he hasn't got the time to spend.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

Bored, bored, bored. It's something of a shock to realize that he actually has no idea what to do with himself. He's insulted everyone on his mental shit list and even a few people that he only finds mildly annoying, just because he could. He's played every FPS game he could get his hands on, and beat every level of New Super Mario Brothers for the Wii, three times. He's read everything on his "to read" shelf, and a few other books he's been meaning to get around to besides. He's watched the entire run of available Doctor Who from beginning to end.

He's watched a truly staggering amount of internet porn, too.

The trouble is that he doesn't actually have that many hobbies, other than TV and video games, though up until now that had been plenty to be getting on with. Periodically he's tried to get himself interested in something like history, but it never takes. Looking at old pots has yet to spark even so much as a twitch of mild interest for him, and that's unlikely to change even now that the past has ceased getting bigger.

Maybe what he needs is to get laid.

-----

It's surprisingly easy, once he makes use of the tools at his disposal. He starts by scoping out the fans standing outside the Big Fat Quiz recording, figuring that at least a few of them are likely to know who he is. Luckily for his ego, he's right, and over the next few repeats of the day he chats each of them up, learning key details about them and trying out different approaches. He crashes and burns a few times, but given that none of them remember it for more than a few hours, he manages to shed the cringing anxiety that has previously plagued his every attempt at casual sex.

Ten days later he's fucking a twenty-two year old girl against a wall in an alley. Her name is Lily, she's a student at the University of Westminster, she owns all of Charlie's books, and she thinks Russell Brand is a tremendous tosser, which is definitely a plus. And she's a kinky fuck who wanted to have sex in an alley, which, come to think of it, is probably the only qualification she needed to get the position.

Heh, Charlie thinks. Position.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile and stares up at the ceiling, eyes tracing the shape of the overhead lamp that, by now, is as familiar as the sight of his own gurning face in the mirror. Maybe— maybe he doesn't want to fuck someone today.

Last night he'd brought Nicole home with him, just one more pretty, young fan in a series of pretty, young fans – Lily; Tom; Anna; Sam (female); Sam (male); Eric (who'd made a noise when fucking him that was almost but not quite like the sound of a pig on fire). Nicole's eyes had been wide and dark and nervous as she'd sucked him off inexpertly, kneeling by the side of the bed. Charlie had told himself she wasn't too young – and she was seventeen, he'd made sure of that – and that she'd consented. Enthusiastically. He'd told himself that someone had to be her first, and it might as well be him rather than some spotty twat in the backseat of his mum's VW Golf. He'd told himself she wouldn't remember it in the morning anyway – that it wouldn't even have happened in the morning.

But he'd still felt like an arsehole.

So maybe... maybe he's done with that for a while. He'd been getting bored of it, anyway. Maybe getting laid isn't what he needs.

Maybe he'll rob a bank.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile and frowns. Okay, yes, his first attempt at bank robbery had been a bit shit. The moment when the teller actually laughed in his face had been particularly demoralizing – to be honest, he ought to have given his makeshift weapon more than a half hour for the glue to dry. At least they hadn't shot at him. Although, given that he'd woken without injury after breaking into the Countdown studio, he's not particularly worried about being shot, either.

Tomorrow: take two. At least he's got all the time in the world to get it right.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile. Today: bank robbery take three. This time he thinks he'll make some fake explosives to strap to his chest and see if that's any more convincing than his last two attempts.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile. This time: real explosives.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile with a smug grin on his face. Yesterday he'd succeeded in bank robbery at last, thanks to half a ton of TNT, six containers of expansive demolition grout, a soldering iron, handcuffs, and a large potted ficus. In the end he'd slipped away with a duffel bag filled more than a hundred thousand dollars. Of course, it's all gone now, back where it belongs, but that isn't the point. The point is that he'd got away with it, which makes him an incredible badass. Even if it had taken fifty or so attempts.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile. Bored again, he thinks. He gropes on the bedside table for the phone, thumbing at the screen to ignore the call. There's got to be someone who can entertain me. He scrolls through his address book, considering a few names, then settles on one and pokes the screen again to dial.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

Chapter Text

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile and goes through his address book again. He's already spent a couple of months talking to Chris, Aisleyne, Gia, Brian, Tim, and Al in turn, all of whom had provided enough entertainment for a while. The trouble is that he knows all of them pretty well already, and after a few rounds all their conversations start circling back to the same few topics. They're all good friends, but there's nothing new there, nothing exciting or interesting. None of them has what he's looking for.

He doesn't even know what he's looking for.

Konnie, maybe – except no, she's not it, either. Yeah she's gorgeous and funny, but she's so far out of his league at this point that he's pretty sure there's no way to get anywhere if she isn't going to remember his efforts. He could try – could learn all about her, could figure out how to be her perfect man – but somehow that idea doesn't appeal at the moment. Maybe later.

Maybe he should get a cat. At least if it survives the first day with him, he'll know it will survive all the successive days.

His mind keeps going back to that moment in the green room, god knows how many repetitions ago, the moment when David had quoted Dickens at him. He keeps turning that moment over in his head, trying to understand it. David doesn't exactly come across like a quotation kind of guy; he comes across, in fact, as someone who's too anal to be sentimental about anything at all. But now Charlie wonders if maybe there's something else there, some hidden depths. Very hidden.

It's a puzzle he'd like to solve, getting inside David's head. And it's not as if he doesn't have the time.

-----

That evening he heads out to the studio; it's been something like two hundred and fifty repetitions (more or less – Charlie's long since stopped counting) of December the seventh since the last time he bothered turning up for the recording, and he almost can't even remember where he's supposed to go. But after a couple of wrong turns he finds the right hallway and follows it down to the green room, where he finds Ross and Carr chatting about something about something inane. Charlie gives them a brief wave but sidles past before either of them can speak, headed for makeup.

He settles in a chair and lets the makeup girl do her thing, keeping one eye on the door, and is rewarded for his patience when David slinks in a few minutes later, looking sullen. Charlie decides not to speak first; he can't quite remember the sequence of this, though he knows that David is tight-lipped. When his makeup is finished, the girl steps over in front of David, and as soon as she moves into his line of sight, David seems to come out of his funk and realize that he's not actually the only person in the room.

"Oh," he says, blinking and sitting up a little. "Sorry, Marcia, I was—"

The makeup girl – whose name is Marcia, apparently – just laughs and grabs hold of his chin. "It's fine. Stay like that, please." David goes still again at the touch, but in a way that indicates he's paying attention to his surroundings as opposed to just sulking. "Hello, Charlie," David says, the words a little muffled by the fact that he's trying not to move too much.

"Hey," Charlie says. He remembers this now – remembers mainly that he hasn't a clue what David's been thinking about. "Ready to fight for our rightful place as winners of a competition that neither of us can give a toss about?"

"Champing at the bit," David says dryly.

"We should pitch that as a reality series," he says. "There's bound to be some sort of ironic way to do a competition to come up with the most boring competition. Actually, I know the perfect commissioning editor. Al and I had a meeting with this idiot today." He ends up telling David all about today's meeting, about how after two minutes of loaded questions he'd started replying to everything with a question of his own, very sincerely.

Eventually, Marcia finishes with David's makeup, but since no one else seems to have bothered to turn up yet, David just turns sideways in his chair and keeps listening, even unwinding enough to laugh a little when Charlie starts describing the way Ken's eyebrows looked like someone had scribbled them on with a sharpie.

"And then finally Al said, 'Ken, look, I'm sorry about this shithead, would you please just—'"

"Wait, Ken?" David says. "Was this Ken Hughes?"

"Yeah, it was," Charlie says, surprised. "Shit, don't tell me I've been slagging off your cousin or something."

David snorts. "No, no. I've just worked with him. Well, I say worked. He didn't want to commit to another series of our radio sketch show." He falls silent then, staring off into the distance as if something he's just said has led him to an unpleasant thought. "Just as well, really," he mutters.

"Mmm?" Charlie prompts.

David doesn't take the bait, though, and just shakes himself before meeting Charlie's eyes. "Glad you gave him hell," he says with a determined smile, but the amusement has gone out of the room entirely.

Charlie decides that's probably as much as he's going to get, at the moment. "If ever anyone deserved it, it's him," he agrees. Before he can say anything else, the door opens and Brand and Brydon come in, chivvied along by a harried-looking runner. "C'mon," Charlie says, standing up. "Let's get out of Marcia's way."

Marcia gives him a grateful look as they go out, and Charlie feels mildly guilty at the knowledge that he hasn't bothered to learn her name in any of the repetitions up to this one. In the hallway, David opens his mouth as if to say something, then shuts it again. Charlie scrambles for a new conversational gambit.

"We should have a team name," he says.

"Shit," says David. "Yes, we should. Er..."

"D'you think 'I'd Rather Gouge My Eardrums Out With a Pencil Than Listen to Russell Brand Speaking For Even One Nanosecond' is too long?"

David snorts, looking faintly-amused despite himself. "It's a bit of a failure in terms of pithy acronym quality," he says. "On the other hand, the imagery is very evocative."

"You know me," Charlie says. "Evocative is my middle name."

"Not Danger?"

"Oh, definitely not," Charlie says. "Unless it's hyphenated into Runs-Away-From-Danger." It occurs to him that this isn't quite true, given how much time he'd spent learning how to rob a bank, but he supposes he can't exactly tell David that. "They could call me Danger for short, though."

"That might be officially the most misleading nickname of all time."

"Maybe we should go for most misleading team name," Charlie suggests. "I'd Rather Be Tango-ing?"

David gives him a flat look. Charlie shrugs. "Misleading, I said."

"There's misleading, and there's giving the impression that I might actually dance on television."

"You haven't danced on Peep Show?" Charlie isn't entirely sure why he's pursuing this line of conversation – it isn't as if he hasn't already had evidence of David's steadfast refusal to entertain the idea of doing anything approaching dancing. But there's something about David's disdain that makes Charlie want to fluster him, makes Charlie want to find all of his emotional buttons and then press them all at once. He can sort of see why Ross and Brand hadn't been able to let it go about the dancing, actually. But at least David looks like he's intentionally participating in the conversation, rather than merely enduring it, so Charlie figures he doesn't have to eviscerate himself for discovering a similarity to Russell Brand besides breathing air.

"Mark danced on Peep Show. I, on the other hand, do not dance." If David's nose were any further in the air, he'd probably need an oxygen mask.

"All right, all right," says Charlie. "Jesus, Mitchell, it's not like I'm asking you to have sex with a pig on stage or something."

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

The next hundred or so December the sevenths blur into each other. Charlie amuses himself by suggesting increasingly more absurd team names – "How about Punching Piers Morgan in His Smug Fucking Face?" and "Let's be Dancing Queens. Oh, come on, Mitchell, it's irony for fuck's sake, you don't have to look at me like that." and "I think we should call ourselves Jimmy Carr's Laugh." and "How about Chas & Dave? We're going to win this quiz, rabbit rabbit. Wow, Mitchell, I don't think I've ever seen you look that horrified."

And slowly, slowly, he finds himself learning more about David. David is remarkably close-mouthed about himself for some reason, but Charlie has all the time in the world to weasel out little tidbits of information: That David went through a period of really, earnestly attempting to care about music, and no matter what he tried, it didn't take. That he and his brother have a cordially distant relationship. That he knows rather a lot of Star Trek trivia, and almost as much about the castles of Britain. That he's been walking around Kilburn as a cure for his back pain. That he doesn't have an opinion about any of the academic theories of comedy.

That he talks about Robert Webb surprisingly little. Charlie would have thought there was some sort of unspoken rule of double acts that you had to live in each other's pockets all the time, for comedy development purposes or something, but David doesn't mention Robert much and seems uncomfortable when others do. Even the question about Robert's Flashdance performance never fails to get a scowl and a snide comment. Charlie's beginning to wonder if they're even really friends.

The dawning realizations don't stop with David. Charlie's spent so much time in the green room that he can't help but learn a little more about the others, too. That Carr has a weird relationship with religion, that Brydon will talk endlessly about his kids given half a chance, that Ross is secretly writing a comic. After a while he can't keep thinking of them all as Ross and Brand and Brydon and Carr in his head, and they become Jonathan and Russell and Rob and Jimmy in addition to Claudia and David. After a while, even Russell Brand begins to seem like marginally less of a dick, begins to seem like he's as helplessly caught in this thing as Charlie is, but without the benefit of even knowing what stupid shit is going to come out of his mouth.

-----

"We should have a team name."

"Shit," says David. "Yes, we should. Er..."

It's been about a hundred and fifty times through December the seventh on what Charlie has decided to call his fact finding mission, and he's running out of ridiculous team names to suggest. He could just repeat a suggestion, of course, but where's the challenge in that?

On a whim, he says, "How about The Moral Minority?" Only because he knows that this is what Russell and Jonathan are going to suggest, and surely they'll get at least a little humor out of poaching the other team's name.

David gives him a confused look. "Er, in what sense?" he says.

"Oh, I dunno," Charlie says. "I just fancied it. Or... Jedward."

"You want me to go in front of a camera and say that our team name is Jedward?"

"Why not?"

David sputters. "Why not?"

"Well? Don't try and tell me that it's antithetical to your personal branding to admit you've heard of Jedward."

"I don't have personal branding," David says. "I'm only about two thirds as much of a wanker as would be required for that. But I do have some mild Jedward-related scruples, I think."

"Has anyone ever told you you're no fun?" Charlie asks.

"Only every day of my life."

Charlie rolls his eyes. "Lighten up, Mitchell!" he says. "Look, I promise you, if we go out there and say our team name is Jedward, we will get a laugh."

"I bet I could get a bigger one by slipping on a banana peel and falling into an open manhole, and it'd be less painful," David says, but Charlie can already tell that means he's giving in.

-----

"You stole our bloody team name!" Russell shouts.

"I—" David says. "What?" Charlie just smirks.

"We were going to be Jedward," says Russell. "I was looking forward to it, you know. Roleplaying and everything."

"Oh, well," David says hurriedly. "You know, out of the goodness of my heart, I've decided you can have it. No need to thank me. I'm just a kind and giving soul." Charlie snorts, and David gives him a mock wounded look that is really absolutely adorable.

"You'd better have a backup plan, in that case," Jimmy says.

David gives him a look. "Of course we have a backup plan," he says, and then, "Shit, Charlie, what was our backup plan?" This gets a laugh.

"The Moral Minority," Charlie declaims. He makes sure he's watching Jonathan's face while he says it; after doing this bloody recording so many times, he's got to take his amusement value where he can get it.

"That's—" Jonathan looks almost speechless. "You can't steal both our team names! That's it. Russell and I are going on strike."

"Are we? I mean, we are!" says Russell.

"You can't go on strike," says Jimmy. "This is Channel 4!"

"You're only saying that because you've been brainwashed by the capitalist establishment," says Russell. "Don't try and stifle our rights!"

"I'm only saying," Jimmy says, "that if I had to make a list of people I didn't want in charge of some sort of justice movement, you and Jonathan would probably be quite near the top."

"I take offense to that statement," says Russell.

"Don't worry, boys," Jimmy says. "You come a distant second to Osama Bin Laden."

"Oh, well, all's right with the world, then," says Jonathan sarcastically.

"So what are you going to do then, boys? We still have yet to even get to the issue of Rob and Claudia's team name, unless you want to call yourselves Jedward, too."

"No, no, no," Claudia says, with a little emphatic giggle. "Well, I thought we were going to be Rob and Claud, but..."

"Since this show is one of the longest on television," says Rob, "it's like Claudia and I are starting out on life's journey together. So I thought it would be lovely to call ourselves The Newlyweds."

"Ah," says Jimmy, his gaze flicking from Claudia to Rob and back. "How nice."

"I'll go with Newlyweds," says Claudia. "It seems cozy."

"I suppose I should be grateful that wasn't one of your suggestions for us," David says to Charlie under his breath.

"Don't tempt me," Charlie says, already thinking of the next go 'round.

"What?" David says, but before Charlie can think of something to say in response, Jonathan interrupts again.

"Maybe we should switch teams. Russell and Charlie have the right hair, so they can be Jedward, and David and I can be The Moral Minority."

"Absolutely not!" says Charlie. If he's going to sit through this epic farce of a recording again, he's damned well going to do it next to David, or otherwise what's the point?

"I don't think that's a good idea," says David.

"You Judas," says Russell to Jonathan. He puts his hands over his heart in an exaggerated gesture. "Jonathan, I thought you loved me!"

"I do love you, darling, but I haven't got the hair to match you."

Charlie meets David's gaze and contemplates making a similar announcement, just to see how David would react.

"The names don't really work, though, do they?" says Claudia. "Not like Jedward. I mean, Russell and Charlie could be Rarlie, or Chussell. Neither of which sounds very good."

"But if we keep me and Russell together we get Jussell, which isn't much better," Jonathan points out.

"Or you could be Ronathan, which sounds a bit like a rejected member of Scooby Doo's gang," says Rob, and then launches into an entirely predictable impression of Scooby Doo saying 'Ronathan' about six times in a row.

"We would have won this quiz if it weren't for you meddling kids!" says Russell, sounding delighted with himself.

"Okay, executive fiat from me," says Jimmy, "and also from the director who's beginning to sound a little shrill in my ear right now. Teams as they are, Russell and Jonathan, you get to be The Moral Minority, and Charlie and David, you get to be Jedward."

"All right, fine," says Jonathan. David gives Charlie a betrayed look but doesn't protest.

"Right," says Jimmy. "Let's get started."

-----

"Did you know they were going to call themselves that?" David says under his breath. They've just managed to scribble down an answer to the first question of the night, but it appears that David isn't quite ready to let go of the whole team name situation.

"Yeah," says Charlie. "That's kind of why I made us go for it."

"How? Some sort of conspiracy?" David mutters. "Because I just thought you might like to know that getting involved in things with Jonathan can sometimes lead to a sticky end."

Charlie snorts. "It's not a conspiracy," he says, and then, on a whim, "I've just developed unexpected psychic powers."

David rolls his eyes. "Right."

"What, you don't believe me?" It's not that he's ever had trouble doing mischievous faux-innocent, but he's gotten a lot better at it lately.

"I'd find it more convincing if you'd used your psychic powers to make millions and fuck off to Tahiti, I think."

"Gentlemen, is there something you'd like to share with the rest of the class," says Jimmy pointedly, making an expansive gesture at the audience, "or can we continue?"

"Oh, by all means," says Charlie. "Do go on." An idea is beginning to form in his head. After the next question, he whispers, "A fiver says Jonathan and Russell have actually attempted to draw an airplane for that first one."

David sighs. "No they haven't."

"A fiver, then."

"I'm not betting with you," David hisses. "Now do you know the answer or don't you?"

"Oh, yeah, yeah. It's Poker Face. When you hear it, you'll have heard it."

"Of course I'll have heard it when I hear it. That's basically how verbs work," David says, but he writes it down.

When they get to the answers and the terrible airplane drawing is revealed, Charlie gives David a pointed look.

"Oh, come on," David says. "Anyone could've predicted that. It's Russell and Jonathan, they're secretly six years old, they draw things. I mean, I'm surprised it wasn't a crashing airplane with a penis on it, but, you know."

Charlie suppresses a sigh. They get through the rest of the round, and the obligatory being berated about dancing – though at least by having identified the song they manage to escape the worst of it – and the obligatory small man in a box impression. Then Charlie tries again.

"All right, how about this one? A fiver says this time they've both written 'dead fly' for this."

"Okay, fine," says David, a little exasperated. "If you're that desperate to prove something that isn't even real."

Charlie takes the electronic pen out of his hand and writes, "I bet David five pounds that both the other teams will have written 'dead fly.'"

David sniffs and steals the pen back.

"Okay," says Jimmy, "I wanted to know what Barack Obama bought Gordon Brown, in exchange for a beautiful antique pen holder."

"Now this is the first one where we don't genuinely know the answer," says Rob. "We've gone for a very amusing answer instead. We've written 'dead fly.'" He sounds disturbingly proud. Meanwhile, the audience can see all the revealed answers at once and some of them are beginning to murmur amongst themselves. "In a callback to the earlier round," Rob continues. "Which I'm sure will have the audience in stitches."

"It probably would have, mate," says Russell, "except that it was our joke, too."

"What?" says Rob.

"I notice you have, in brackets, you have something else."

"Yes, 'DVDs,' because we want the points as well as the joke," says Russell.

"And Charlie and David, have you gone for 'dead fly' as well?" asks Jimmy. "You've gone for... what does that say?"

"It says, 'I bet David five pounds that both the other teams will have written dead fly.'" says Charlie. "And I've won, so pay up."

"How the fuck did you do that?" David asks. He starts looking under the top edge of the desk, and then around behind their chairs. "Have you got fucking mirrors or something?"

"Nope," Charlie says, giving him a shit-eating grin.

"Seriously, Charlie," says Jimmy, "either that is some impressive divination or that really was a predictable fucking joke. And I know which one of those options I'd bank on."

"I beg your pardon," says Rob huffily.

"I have actually developed psychic powers," Charlie says, this time loud enough to be heard by not just David but the others and the audience as well.

David looks at him, clearly unimpressed. "You have developed an astounding power to be absolutely full of shit," he says.

"Well, you don't get a point for that, but, er," says Jimmy, "probably true? Moving on."

This time Charlie lets it go for a couple more rounds, past Peter Andre, into the television round before he tries again. Not because he couldn't predict any of the answers but because none of them are unique enough to have the impact he's looking for.

"You saw the big balls from BBC's highbrow current affairs show Total Wipeout," says Jimmy. "Can you name two other challenges featured on the series?"

"Ooooh, do they have official names?" asks Claudia.

"They do have official names, and they all sound like things you might do in a bedroom."

"Shit, do you actually know this?" David mutters. He picks up the electronic pen, running his fingers over it in an unconsciously nervous gesture. "Because honestly I haven't got a clue."

"Want to know what they've written this time?" Charlie murmurs.

"Are you still on about that?" David asks. He sets the pen down with a click and turns to look down his nose at Charlie, all huffy annoyance, and suddenly Charlie thinks, God, I want him so much right now.

It shouldn't be a surprise. He's just spent the last god knows how many days (weeks? months?) trying to get inside David's head, trying to make David his friend, and he already knows that he finds David attractive – mainly because of course he does, because David is delectable by any sort of objective standard known to humanity – but somehow suddenly Charlie is having the realization that he's attracted to David.

It's somehow an entirely new sort of realization despite being one that uses almost exactly the same words as the thing that he already knew. He wants David, wants to do all sorts of dirty things to him – wants to rub himself all over that pale skin, wants to get David's cock in his mouth, wants to finger him open for hours and hours until David's gasping and shuddering. He wants horrifyingly clean things, too – wants to make him laugh, wants to sit on the sofa and watch stupid shit together on a Saturday afternoon, wants to have in-jokes with him. Wants to make him smile the kind of smile that isn't about funny but is about happiness.

In short, he's fucked. Not just because David is magnificently unlikely to return his interest, but also because even if David were by some miracle interested, Charlie still would only ever have one day with him.

"C'mon," Charlie says, his mouth moving on autopilot while his brain begins to spin in the slow death spiral of panic. "You don't think I can do it?"

David snorts. "Of course I don't. Go on, then. Make me believe you."

Because Charlie can't ever leave well enough alone, he picks up the pen and writes, "If Jonathan and Russell have written 'tidal wave' and 'punchface,' David owes me a snog."

David coughs. "Are you sure you want to commit to that in front of the audience?" he mutters. "I mean..." He pauses, then clearly thinks better of whatever he'd been about to say, and shakes his head.

Charlie isn't sure he wants to commit to it at all – is, in fact, staring at his own hand in existential horror and thinking, Now look what you've done! – but he's genetically incapable of backing down from situations like these, even when heralded with clear omens of doom, and so he says, "Chicken?"

"I was not brought on this show to play gay chicken," David hisses. "That was not in the briefing."

Before Charlie can think of how to answer that – because what is he going to say, 'I'm not playing chicken, I just want to get my tongue in your mouth'? – Jimmy says, "Have you all got answers for this one? Charlie and David, you're looking a bit heated over there."

Not as heated as I'd like to be, Charlie thinks, and then rolls his eyes at himself. "We've got something," he says.

"Good, good," Jimmy says. "All right, let's see what you've got."

The reveal of the answers get a collective sucked in breath from the audience.

"That's... interesting," Jimmy says. "All right. Jonathan, Russell. Let's look at your answer."

The screen says, in Jonathan's careless handwriting, 'TIDAL WAVE' and, under that, 'PUNCHFACE.'

"This is a fix," David says flatly.

"It isn't!" Charlie insists. Perhaps he ought to be offended that David thinks he'd cheat for this. Then again, he is cheating for this. Just not in the way David's thinking.

"No way," says Jonathan. "If it is, I'm not in on it."

David looks at Russell, and Charlie scoffs. "You think I called up Russell Brand and worked this out – without knowing the questions in advance – just to fuck with your head?"

"I wouldn't put it past you," David says, but Russell is shaking his head.

"Nah, mate, I didn't know a thing about it. Wish I had done, though!"

When David turns back to him, Charlie shrugs. "It's not a fix," he says.

"I want to know how the fuck you knew it would happen, then!" David says.

"Psychic powers," Charlie says, wiggling his fingers in a vaguely mystical gesture. David actually growls at him.

"For the love of— you don't have psychic powers, Charlie!"

"Have they or have they not written the thing I said?" Charlie asks reasonably, knowing his very reasonableness will make David even more incensed.

"Well, yes they have, but—"

"And therefore I have psychic powers and you owe me a snog, it's that simple."

"I don't bloody well owe you anything!" David says. "I didn't agree to that, and I'm hardly going to—"

"C'mon, David," Jimmy says. "I think I can speak for all of us when I say we want to see you snog Charlie on national television."

The audience cheers in response to this, and David turns to give them all a betrayed look. "Don't you start encouraging them!" he says. "This is just blatant pandering to a niche demographic. Extremely niche," he adds darkly.

"Yes?" says Jimmy. "And? I mean, I know this isn't the BBC, but it's still worth making television for the minority audience that, by the way, probably isn't nearly as much of a minority as you think it is." This gets a huge laugh and another cheer, mainly from the second row of the audience. "See?"

"Come along, David," says Rob. "The sooner begun, the sooner done, that's what I always say."

"Yeah, c'mon, Davey," says Jonathan.

David seems to be gaping in stunned disbelief at the way they've all turned on him – Charlie would feel bad about it if David wasn't so gorgeous like this, the color high on his cheeks.

"Don't be a welsher," Charlie says slyly. David rounds on him, eyes bright with fury, and before Charlie realizes what's happening David grabs the lapels of his jacket, reels him in, and kisses him. It's rough, almost violent, but David's mouth is warm and sweet even like this, and Charlie groans, leaning forward, ignoring the laughter of the audience and Jonathan wolf whistling. David doesn't let him deepen the kiss, though, just shoves him back into his seat with surprising strength.

"Satisfied?" David snarls.

"No," Charlie says, a little breathless. "But that's probably as good as I'm going to get in front of the cameras." Who knows what the audience will make of that. David's expression goes from angry to baffled.

It occurs to Charlie that maybe he's being just as much of an arsehole as Jonathan usually is, with all his gibes about David's virginity. Except if anyone's being humiliated here, it's him, not David. Still. Charlie opens his mouth to say something, he doesn't know what, but then Jimmy says, "Apparently we're not going to be able to broadcast any of that." Charlie looks up at him, sees that he's got his head cocked, obviously listening to someone's voice in his earpiece. "And we're going to rewind to the beginning of this round, and if that happens again you're... sorry, what? They're 'so unbelievably fucking fired'? Okay, I'll relay that message, Mick, yes, absolutely."

Jonathan starts to laugh, a bit nervously. Charlie just shrugs.

He lets the rest of the recording go by without harassing David further – in part because he can tell that David's reached the edge of his temper, and in part because there's part of his brain trying to memorize the moment of that kiss. The way David smelled clean up close, not like anything in particular except maybe the makeup that they're all caked with. The crooked slant of his mouth, the warmth of him.

After the recording is finished David leaves without speaking to anyone. Charlie goes for a drink with the others and lets them rib him about the kiss and his psychic powers and whatever else they can think of. Eventually they get tired of it and the conversation turns to other things. Charlie listens to it go on around him and thinks about David's irritability, the tight set of his shoulders when he'd come in to makeup at the beginning of the evening, the way he hadn't seemed to get that Charlie wasn't trying to embarrass him – or, okay, wasn't only trying to embarrass him.

When the pub closes he takes a cab home and lies in bed, still thinking about it.

The clock ticks over.

Chapter Text

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

The problem is, he doesn't know what David's problem is. There's obviously something wrong, beyond mere standoffishness, because he's spent time with David before and while they're not friends, trying to have a conversation has at least been marginally easier than pushing water uphill. Some part of him thinks it must have to do with Webb, given David's reluctance to discuss him, but he doesn't have any clear idea beyond that.

He'll just have to dig a little deeper.

The green room is depressingly familiar by now. Charlie, not having bothered to try buttering David up while they were in makeup today, is watching him out of the corner of his eye as they both sulk at the edges of the group. It's been so long since the first time they did this that he kind of wants not to interfere much – wants just to remind himself of what David's like, unfiltered. Pretty fucking morose, is what he's getting so far. Not any less gorgeous for that, but still.

Jonathan is telling the anecdote about Robbie Williams – David doesn't seem entertained even though he's hearing it for the first time. Charlie, who could probably recite the fucking thing word for word, at least has an excuse for scowling through it.

"You don't seem prostrate with laughter," he mutters, just loud enough for David to hear.

David gives him an unimpressed look. "I'd really rather be punching myself in the eyeball, but I suspect that would mean I wouldn't get paid for tonight," he says, a little louder.

Too loud, as it turns out, because Jonathan stops mid-sentence and says, "Oi, what's that supposed to mean?"

David shuts his mouth with a snap. His face goes red, and after a moment he shakes his head sharply and says, "That wasn't directed at you, Jonathan. Just..."

"Oh, fine," Jonathan says, laughing it off with only a little bit of ill grace. When he goes back to the story, David gives Charlie a glare. Charlie lifts his hands a little in the universal gesture of 'hey, that was your own fucking fault.' David presses his lips together and goes back to saying nothing.

That night the recording goes as badly as their first one. Worse, even, because Jonathan doesn't seem inclined to let up about the dancing thing or David's sex life, probably in retaliation. David snipes right back, too outraged to pull his punches.

Charlie thinks he ought not to find David so attractive when he's calling Jonathan a glorified peeping tom, but there's a blush high on his cheekbones, rosy in the studio lights, dusting down over his neck into the V of his purple shirt. His eyes have gone darker than ever, somehow, almost too intense for Charlie to look at. The fingers of one hand are curled into a fist on the desk and his teeth are a neat white gleam as he sneers and asks whether Jonathan's actually a fan of music or whether they knew the answer because Russell's fucked Lady Gaga's granddaughter, too.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," says Jimmy over the shocked gasp of the audience. "Let's keep this to what we can broadcast, all right?"

David rolls his eyes, a gesture that somehow Charlie always finds surprising even though he's seen David do it more times than he can count. "All right," he says.

They all turn and look at Jonathan. His mouth has curled up like he's eaten something sour, but he gives Jimmy a tense nod. "Fine," he says.

They get through the rest of the recording without actual bloodshed, but once they're backstage the gloves come off.

"You jumped up little BBC2 shit—" starts Jonathan.

"At least I can still get work with the BBC—"

"Doing what, someone else's sitcom?"

Charlie can see David wince a little at that, a tiny flicker of motion that probably no one else will have caught. But he recovers quickly.

"Well it's better than telling luvvie anecdotes about D-list celebrities for the rest of my fucking life."

"All right, all right," says Claudia. "Enough, boys. This isn't Jeremy Kyle, you know."

Russell puts a hand on Jonathan's arm and tugs him away to the far corner of the room. Charlie rolls his eyes and doesn't bother doing the same for David – they're not going to have a fist fight, for fuck's sake. But he does wonder why David isn't backing down. "Why are you being such an enormous bellend today?" he asks, just curious, not accusatory – because honestly, he's lost the ability to be shocked by most things that aren't directed at him personally, and even a good portion of the things that are.

"It's my natural response to being faced with such an enormous cunt," David shoots back.

Charlie can hear Jimmy cackle with laughter, and then, "Oh, come on, Jonathan, you have to admit that was good," he says.

"Jimmy, I feel certain this is a phrase you've heard more than once in your life," says Russell, "but you're not helping."

"C'mon," Charlie says to David. "Let's get out of here, all right?" Maybe if he can get David alone he can get an honest answer out of him.

"Fuck off, Charlie," David says, and storms out.

-----

It takes Charlie a couple of weeks of this – and a massive expenditure of effort in sounding sympathetic – to shape the day into something where David comes out for drinks with the rest of them after the recording. The trick of it seems to be deflecting the bit about the dancing, which is clearly touching a nerve. It must be related to Webb, too, because the more harassment David takes about dancing, the more bitter he is when it comes to the Flashdance question. Charlie tries sidestepping the dancing entirely by magically knowing the answer to the question, but Jonathan keeps coming back to it in a way that makes Charlie suspect it's a line of discussion he's prepared in advance. He tries defending David outright, which gets him a glare, an elbow in the ribs, and a muttered 'I'm not a fucking damsel in distress, you know.' (The delightful mental image of David in a tower like Rapunzel, his glossy hair trailing down out of the window for Charlie to climb, is something that sustains Charlie through another week of being glared at by all concerned.)

He finally finds success by – what else? – making himself look like an idiot, too, by admitting that he has no more talent or inclination for dancing than David does and refusing to be budged from that. The solidarity somehow moves the whole thing from depressing to at least vaguely amusing, and Charlie never tires of seeing the way David's eyes flash with exaggerated outrage or the way that, when they move on to the next question, he meets Charlie's gaze and the two of them share a look of understanding.

Once he's managed to get David into the pub consistently, Charlie discovers that he can't have any sort of sensible conversation if the others are there. Which is hardly surprising, considering that one of them is Russell fucking Brand. Oh, some of it is enjoyable enough – Jonathan's fervent opinions on Alan Moore, for one – but it isn't getting him anywhere.

And he's getting genuinely quite tired of Jimmy's stupid laugh now.

Still, he's learning more about David every day. Not just little factoids, though there are plenty of those. But he's learning about the way David looks when he's loose with drink, just slightly unwound. About the way he slumps forward against the table, elbows on the edge, listening intently. About the way he laughs, sometimes really laughs, with his mouth wide open and his head thrown back like he can't help himself. It isn't even remotely suave or cool or even attractive, really, and yet Charlie can't stop digging for it, can't stop trying to perfect his delivery of the few lines he knows will get that reaction every single time.

Sometimes he almost forgets why he's there and just stays at the table talking bullshit until closing time. Then when they're out on the sidewalk, standing in the drizzle and trying to find too many cabs all at once, it all comes rushing back to him, and he goes home feeling tired and depressed and yet somehow more determined than ever.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

The trouble is, Charlie used to be able to get himself off just fine with porn, or with someone from the mental portfolio of attractive people which he'd compiled through the industrious study over the last couple of years. But lately all his cock wants him to think about is David: pink-cheeked and tousled and shy, looking up at Charlie from under his eyelashes as Charlie's fingers start unfastening the buttons of his shirt; or maybe unexpectedly aggressive, pushing Charlie back against the sofa cushions and leaning in to whisper something filthy in his ear, some cleverly pornographic line; or gasping and desperate as Charlie mouths at one of his nipples, licks it, blows a thin stream of air across it until it peaks; or David half-knelt above him, sinking down on Charlie's cock, dark-eyed and covered in the marks of Charlie's kisses; or David's mouth parted in a round O as he kneels at the foot of the bed.

And, worse, he's starting to spend less time thinking about actual sex and more time thinking about how nice it would be to wake up together, about whether David's feet would be cold where they pressed against his shins. About going out to see films together, and they wouldn't snog in the back of the threatre because David would be too self-conscious, but he'd let Charlie put an arm around his shoulders. About getting a cat, and David would probably sniff at the idea and say, "Charlie, we're not even qualified to look after ourselves, frankly," and then they'd find an abandoned kitten somewhere and David would barely last two minutes before succumbing to undignified affection. About writing, sat together on the sofa each with their own laptop and occasionally exchanging fond glances when one thought the other wasn't looking.

It's frankly embarrassing, is what it is. Depressing, too, because at least with the sex there's a minuscule possibility that David might suffer a personality-changing head injury and immediately decide that sex with Charlie would be a brilliant idea. But everything else is just... impossible.

Whenever Charlie catches himself thinking about those 'some day' plans, he very firmly makes himself start thinking about sex instead.

Which means he spends a lot of time thinking about sex.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

This time around he's tried priming the attempt with a quick word to the others before they'd left the building. When they get into the pub Charlie buys two pints, and gestures with his head towards a booth in the back corner. David gives the others a look, but Rob waves them off with a smile, and a moment later David is following Charlie across the room, looking somewhat bemused.

"Did you want to talk about something?" he asks gamely.

Charlie scoots a little further into the booth and nudges David's pint towards him across the table. He's careful not to push too hard, though – yesterday he'd done that at the bar and the beer had gone all over the place, which hadn't exactly started them off on the right foot, conversationally. "Yeah," he says. "Are you all right?"

"Er," David says, obviously trying to look like he doesn't understand what Charlie's getting at, but failing miserably. "Fine?"

"You came into the studio looking like a horse in a glue factory," Charlie says. "That isn't fine, not even by British standards."

David snorts. "Maybe not. But it isn't important."

"I'm— Look, David, we're friends, yeah?"

A complicated expression passes over David's face. "Of course," he says.

"So..." Charlie considers and discards several angles, then finally says, "So let me help. Please?"

David looks down at his pint for a long moment. "Rob and I had a fight," he says finally. "Webb, I mean."

Charlie tilts his head to one side, surprised despite himself that his conversational gambit actually seems to have worked. "Thought you guys didn't fight."

"We don't, usually," David says. "And every time we do, I remember why. We're too close, and it... it fucks everything up when we get too honest with each other."

Charlie wonders what 'too close' might mean. "What was it about?" he asks.

"He thinks I'm turning into a media whore," David says, and then, as if this has opened some sort of emotional flood gates, "His words. All these panel shows, and... I don't know. I like doing these stupid things. I have fun, usually. I even had fun tonight, despite—" He jerks his head at Jonathan and Russell, still at the bar, then huffs out a little bitter laugh. "And then after 'media whore' it got personal, and I... it's not like I didn't already know I was going to die loveless and alone," he says, clearly trying to sound flippant and missing it by a mile, "but …"

"The fuck you are," Charlie says, outraged, and David smiles a little, obviously surprised.

"I am, though," he says, "and I'm mostly okay with it. But that doesn't mean I want to hear it from the mouth of Mister Happy Family Man."

Charlie finds himself a little unnerved at the depth of his reaction to this. It's not as if he hasn't said unforgivable things to his friends at times, but even so, 'you're going to die loveless and alone' is a pretty fucking low blow. "That's bullshit," he says. "I mean, there's nothing wrong with you, David. Isn't there someone that's caught your eye?"

"Well, I— I'm—" David says. He stops, flickering a gaze up over Charlie's face and then down again to the surface of the table. When he starts again, there's something different to the set of his shoulders. "There's— Yes, I suppose. I have no idea why I'm telling you this. Please don't tell anyone. But there is someone."

Charlie's heart sinks. He'd thought that he wanted to know this, but now... He makes an inquiring noise, not trusting himself to actually use words lest something grotesque come out.

"And we— I thought maybe there was something there? That she, that we made a connection? But she's seeing someone else at the moment and we haven't really seen each other that many times since then, so I suppose... oh, Christ, I don't fucking know. How the fuck do people do this?"

"I have no idea," Charlie says honestly. David pushes his pint aside and then rubs a hand over his eyes for a long moment. Charlie just watches him, some part of him aching to reach out. "Who is it?" he asks quietly. "Someone I know?"

"It's, er," David says. "Victoria Coren."

"Ah," says Charlie. Well, fuck, he thinks. How the hell can I compete with that?

He'd be hard pressed to think of two people more different, physically. Vicky is blond and beautiful and smiling and, crucially, has tits. Charlie has hair the color of wet sandpaper, a face like four drunk weasels under a leather jacket, and nothing in particular to recommend himself to potential mates except the fact that he's retained all his limbs. About the only thing they have in common is a tendency towards sarcasm, but David could get that from basically any of the comedy twats he's surrounded with so it's hardly worth mentioning.

The worst thing about Vicky is that Charlie actually likes her.

David is looking at him as if daring him to comment, but Charlie just nods vaguely and says, "Does Robert know about that?"

David sighs. "No, no. So it isn't as if he's purposefully being a cunt about the whole thing, but it's just... things are just a bit shit right now."

"Yeah," Charlie says. "Yeah." He reaches for his glass, then tips the edge over to thump gently against the rim of David's glass. "To things being shit," he says.

David huffs out a laugh. "To things being shit," he agrees.

-----

They get absolutely rat-arsed after that, following the ale with the whiskey that Jimmy brings over when he gets bored of side-eying them from the bar. The others aren't far behind him, and before long Jonathan is egging everyone on to do shots of tequila until suddenly it's closing time and they stumble out onto the sidewalk. It's still drizzling a little. Jonathan has Russell's arm draped over his shoulders, though the two of them together aren't really any more graceful than they would be separately. Rob and Jimmy are arguing about something involving cheese spread; Charlie really doesn't want to know the details.

David looks at home here in the crisp night air, half-lit from angles by street lamps and bits of neon and the arrhythmic passing beams of cars. He has his hands stuffed into his pockets, and one elbow nudges slightly against Charlie's side. He's looking at Charlie somewhat furtively out of the corner of his eye. Charlie wants him just like this: a little awkward, with that weary ghost of a smile on his face.

If I'm going to make him want me and not Vicky, Charlie thinks, I had better start learning how. He doesn't have much of an idea of how to start other than just blundering in – and it's not as if it matters if he fucks this up, not really – so he shoves all his awkward misgivings into the back of his brain and reaches out to slide his hands up the slightly damp front of David's jacket, reeling him into a kiss.

For a moment David kisses him back, melts against him so sweetly, but then he stiffens, shoves Charlie violently away.

"David—" Charlie says, reaching for him again, catching the edge of David's sleeve.

"I don't need your fucking pity," David snarls, and then he rips his jacket out from between Charlie's fingers and strides away, leaving Charlie standing on the pavement with the others gaping all around him.

Well, Charlie thinks. Worth a shot.

Chapter Text

It takes him three December the sevenths – three rounds of listening to David's tale of woe and then snagging his phone out of his hands in the ensuing madness, three nights of attempting that kiss and getting just a taste of what he's missing – to memorize Robert's phone number. The next morning, as soon as he's got rid of his usual Channel 4 wake up call, he dials it. The phone rings twice before it's picked up.

"Robert, hi."

"Hi. Er, who is this?" Robert sounds sleep-addled; Charlie is torn between envy – he hasn't slept in past ten oh two since this whole thing started – and a sort of gleeful righteousness at finding someone lazier than himself.

"It's, er, Charlie Brooker?" He briefly considers clarifying this with some sort of statement about where Robert might have heard of him ("that bloke who pretends to wank about things on the telly") but he can't decide if that's either too presumptuous or too humble and ends up just leaving his name hanging in the air like a particularly terrible odor.

"Oh, right." There's a moment of bewildered silence. "And what can I do for you?"

"I just wanted to tell you that you're a tremendous fucking cunt," Charlie says.

"I'm sorry— what?"

"You're a shit," Charlie says, enunciating clearly. "A nasty little talentless arsehole with nothing better to do than tear down someone who's a hell of a lot funnier than you'll ever be, and I hope you die of rabies."

He hangs up, grinning, before Robert has a chance to respond. God, that felt good, he thinks. Before he can even set the phone down, it rings, and when he looks down he sees Robert's number across the display. Nope, he thinks, and hits 'Ignore.'

Now that the vitriol is out of his system, he can actually try accomplishing something. What he wants is for Robert to be less of a cunt to David, since hopefully that will have a sort of happy feelings trickle down effect. All he has to do is make David's life nicer, and the rest will follow.

Surely.

-----

"Robert, hi."

"Hi. Er, who is this?"

"It's Charlie Brooker."

"Oh, right. And what can I do for you?"

"Actually, I'm calling about David." He's decided to try being upfront, just to see what kind of reaction he gets. "He seems kind of stressed lately, and he said you'd had a fight—" Though come to think of it, Charlie isn't entirely sure they've had it, yet. David hadn't been that specific.

"I— what?" Robert says, and then, "You know what? This really isn't your business. I'd appreciate it if you'd butt out."

"Well—"

"Goodbye, Brooker." The click of the call ending is unexpectedly loud.

Charlie takes the phone away from his ear and stares at it for a moment. "Hmm." He sets the phone down on the bedside table with the slow, careful movement he's trained himself into.

He's just pulling on his trousers when the phone rings. Charlie raises an eyebrow at it, then reaches over and picks it up. An unfamiliar number shows on the display – not Robert's, but not one he knows, either.

"Hello?"

"What the fuck did you think you were doing, Charlie?" says David.

Charlie winces. Ah, right. Should've thought of that. Oh, well. "Just now? Putting my trousers on."

David audibly huffs at him. "Was there any point at which I asked you to interfere in my personal business?"

"Nope," Charlie says easily.

"And yet somehow you decided to take the initiative nonetheless."

"I read this book that said it's an essential part of self-actualization."

"Charlie, I feel I can say this with utter sincerity."

"Yeah?"

"Fuck right off."

This time the click isn't entirely surprising.

-----

"Robert, hi."

"Hi. Er, who is this?"

"It's Charlie Brooker. Listen, I'm calling about David."

"What about him?" Robert sounds wary.

"Why the hell are you two fighting?"

"Sorry, what?"

"I said—"

"I heard you," Robert says. "But seriously, what the fuck? You're calling me because—"

"I was just wondering," Charlie says, and then smacks himself in the face. "Okay, that makes me sound like an idiot, but—"

"Yes," Robert says, and then, firmly, "Goodbye, Brooker."

Ten minutes later the phone rings.

"Hi, David."

"What the fuck did you think you were doing, Charlie?"

"Just now? Putting my trousers on." It's almost as amusing as it had been the first time. Almost. David's annoyed huff, however, is easily ten percent more amusing the second time around, though Charlie isn't quite sure why. It's just adorable, basically.

"Was there any point at which I asked you to interfere in my personal business?"

"Nope."

"And yet somehow—"

"I decided to take the initiative?"

David sputters. "Well, yes. I mean. Just."

"Mmm?"

An exasperated sigh. "Fuck off, Charlie. Just... just fuck right off."

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

"Robert, hi."

"Hi. Er, who is this?"

"Charlie Brooker. Can we talk about David?"

"Er, I suppose."

"What's with you two these days?" Charlie asks. "I thought you didn't even fight at all, and now you're calling him a media whore."

"I didn't call him a— Seriously, did he tell you that?"

Yes, I'm definitely earlier than the actual fight, it appears. "Well..."

"Look, I don't know what he fucking told you," says Robert. He breaks off with an incoherent noise, and mutters, "That utter wanker," under his breath before saying, more clearly, "I'm not talking about this with you. Mind your own business, all right?"

This time it's eleven minutes before David calls.

"Hi, David."

"What the fuck did you think you were doing, Charlie?"

"The backstroke?" He makes an exaggerated rimshot noise.

"Do you think this is funny?" David sounds absolutely incensed.

"Actually, yeah."

-----

"And then after 'media whore' it got personal, and I... it's not like I didn't already know I was going to die loveless and alone, but …"

"What time did you have that fight?" Charlie interrupts.

David stalls out with his mouth half open. "Why on earth do you want to know that?"

"Just humor me," Charlie says. "C'mon, David, what time?"

"About eleven thirty?" David offers, sounding bewildered. "Well, that one, anyway. Lately it's seemed like we're fighting practically every day. "

"Okay, good, good."

"What?"

"Oh, no, no, that's not what I— Anyway, go on."

-----

"Robert, hi."

"Hi. Er, who is this?"

"It's Charlie Brooker. I'm calling because, well. I was talking to David, and it seems like you two are having some problems." He's aiming for mildly sympathetic this time, though he's pretty sure that he's just shot past it entirely and landed on 'creepy psychiatrist' instead.

"Some problems?" Robert says incredulously. "Is— What— What? Jesus, I don't even know where to start. First of all, what the fuck are you talking about? Second of all, why the fuck are you calling me to talk about it, whatever it is? Third of all... Third of all, what the fuck in general?"

"I—"

Click.

Twelve minutes this time.

"What the fuck did you think you were doing, Charlie?"

"Oh, well, I thought I was doing your mum. But it could've been your dad. Hard to tell."

That sound is probably David grinding his teeth. It's more adorable than Charlie would have thought teeth grinding could possibly be. Then again, this is David Mitchell. He could probably make vomiting attractive.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

"Robert, hi."

"Hi. Er, who is this?"

"It's Charlie Brooker. Listen, I'm calling about David. What's the deal with you two?"

"In what sense?" Robert asks warily. "And how did you get this number?"

"Stole it out of David's phone. I meant in the sense of why you've been such a dick to him lately, but is there another sense?"

"Wh—" Robert sputters. "Christ, where do you get off— You know what? Get fucked."

Nine minutes.

"Hi, David."

"What the fuck did you think you were doing, Charlie?"

"About sixty-five in a fifty mile an hour zone?"

"I— What?"

No, Charlie thinks, you're right, that didn't quite work.

"You know what? Nevermind," David says hurriedly. "That isn't— I just— Just stay out of my business, all right? For god's sake."

----

"Robert, hi."

"Hi. Er, who is this?"

"It's Charlie Brooker."

"Oh, right. And what can I do for you?"

"I'm sort of calling about David. We've got a recording tonight, you know, the Big Fat Quiz thing, and I was thinking..."

Robert makes a noncommittal noise.

"Maybe you could go easy on him a bit?"

"I— What?" Robert says, sounding baffled and then abruptly outraged. "Go easy on him? I'm not his fucking boss, you know. He's going to work as hard as he works, it's nothing to do with me."

"I don't mean that," Charlie says hurriedly. Christ, this is why I don't try and be sensitive. He's beginning to wonder how he's managed to get this far in life without being equipped with any sort of Dealing Sincerely With Emotions skills whatsoever. "I just mean, try not to make him so depressed he's shitting thunderclouds all over the recording."

"Shitting thunderclouds, is that your idea of a clever metaphor?"

It sounds extremely stupid when he puts it like that.

"I was just hoping to convince you not to be such of an arsehole!"

"Did he tell you to call me?"

"No—" Charlie starts, but Robert clearly isn't listening.

"Told you to call me and, what, lecture me about being nice? As if hearing it from one of his new showbusiness buddies is going to make me think twice about telling him what a fucking twat he is. Just fuck right off, Brooker, both of you. Fuck off."

Fifteen minutes this time.

"Hi, David," Charlie says wearily.

"What the fuck did you think you were doing?"

Charlie sighs. "I don't know."

"You don't know? Well then why did you do it?"

"I'm beginning not to know that, either."

"Fuck you," David says. "We're not friends, Charlie. We're barely even casual acquaintances. And even if we were friends, that wouldn't excuse you sticking your fucking nose into my business."

Charlie has to admit, the words 'We're not friends' do sting a little. "I was just trying to help," he says lamely.

"Have you tried helping other people before?" David asks snidely. "Because if you have, I'm surprised they didn't all go and throw themselves under a train immediately afterwards." He sighs heavily. "Look, we have the thing tonight and let's just be civil, but after that... after that, I don't think I want to talk to you again for a while."

-----

Charlie keeps trying. He stops giving Robert his name, which means that generally David stops calling him up to yell at him afterwards, and that makes it easier. Although if the conversation goes beyond a few angry sentences David sometimes calls anyway, which is weirdly gratifying, because it at least means that Robert recognizes Charlie by his voice alone (or by the particular flavor of his abuse, which is pretty much the same thing).

But none of it is getting him anywhere. The more aggressive Charlie gets with Robert, the more it just seems to make things worse between Robert and David. The more he attempts sympathy, the more Robert calls him an idiot, or a pathetic sycophant, or just hangs up on him immediately without giving Charlie the opportunity to salvage the conversation.

It begins to wear him down, after a while. He's set himself this one task, just this one, to make things better for David, to make David like him, and he can't even do that right. He can't even make a friend, much less make a... whatever it is when you're friends who fuck. A relationship, he supposes one would call it. And no wonder – he's basically like King Midas, except that everything he touches turns to shit instead of gold. Just as heartbreaking, but smellier.

Eventually he gives up, just leaves his phone on the bedside table one morning and sits at the kitchen table, staring down at the whorls of the wood for a few hours and hating himself. It's weird – he can remember what it had felt like, back in those days when he'd turned the television on its side so he didn't even have to sit up to watch it, when he'd eaten pot noodle for days on end (on days when he'd remembered to eat at all), when the whole world had been visible only through a grey cloud. Afterwards, when there was sunlight again, he remembers thinking that he never, ever wanted to feel that way again.

But now the idea of it seems almost welcoming. Numbness would be preferable to this.

And it's never going to end. Never.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

The razor blade really doesn't hurt as much as he'd imagined it might.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

While the bathtub is filling he goes into the kitchen and unplugs the toaster.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

It isn't very difficult to climb off Hornsey Lane Bridge. The council really ought to do something about that.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

He slides the belt out of his drawer and loops it around his neck. Apparently this is supposed to feel pretty great, until he passes out.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

The underground train rumbles swiftly and smoothly into Kilburn station. Charlie can see the driver through the clear perspex of the front window, a bored-looking woman of more or less middle age, brown hair, a little bit dwarfed in her slightly too large jacket. He wonders – in the split second that he has left – if she's the type to panic.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile. He makes no move to pick it up, just closes his eyes again, trying to will back the unexpected sting of tears.

Chapter Text

"Therefore," Charlie concludes, after setting out a six paragraph synopsis of his December the seventh situation, "I am a god." The green room is as grungy as ever, but he's long past noticing it now.

"I'm sorry, what was that again?" says Jimmy.

"I'm a god," Charlie says.

Rob laughs nervously. "You're God?"

"I'm a god. Not the God. At least, I don't think I am. If I was the God, I really don't think I'd choose to live the same day over and over."

"That's reassuring. For a minute there I thought you might be going crazy," says Jimmy sarcastically.

"No, it's true. It's the only explanation. I am a supernatural being."

"Because you survived electrocuting yourself?"

The door in the back opens, and the harried looking runner comes in. Charlie ignores her. "Not just the electrocution! I've been run over, drowned, crushed, stabbed, shot, poisoned, asphyxiated – that one was kind of amazing, actually – frozen, burned—"

"What, really?" says Jonathan, sounding shocked. David looks horrified. Claudia, bless her, is giggling.

"Yeah," Charlie says. "But I always wake up the next day without a scratch. Without even a headache. I'm telling you, I'm immortal!"

"Er," says the runner. "Can we please have you all in makeup?"

"Why are you telling us this?" says David.

"Because the director wants to get started on time?"

"Not you, dearie," says Russell. "Him."

"Because I want you to believe in me," Charlie says, speaking directly to David now.

"You're not a god, Charlie," says Russell. "Take my word for it, I've been there."

Charlie ignores him, keeping his eyes on David's face. David says, "You're really not."

"I could come back if you're not ready," the runner offers.

"How do you know I'm not a god?" Charlie demands.

"Charlie," David says.

"How do you know?"

"Well you haven't turned into a swan and fucked someone yet, for one thing," David snaps.

"You know what, I'll come back," says the runner.

She turns to go, but Charlie says, "Oi, Emma," and she jerks back around.

"Er, what?"

"This is Emma," Charlie says, making an expansive gesture. "She's twenty three. She's from East Yorkshire and her parents are farmers. Her dad wanted her to take over the family business but instead she did media studies at university and then came here to do any old job she could get, hoping to move up, because at least this way she doesn't have to shovel cow shit for a living. She likes knitting and tomato ketchup-flavored crisps, she's bisexual, and she has a massive crush on Jeremy Clarkson."

"Wha—" says Emma. "I do not!"

"Clauds," Charlie says, ignoring Emma entirely as he transfers his attention to his fellow panelists, "you secretly think that Kielty is a bit of a shit, and you worry a lot about making sure that none of your children is the favorite, probably because of some childhood thing that I haven't bothered to learn about." Claudia blinks at him, her mouth gaping open a little.

"Russell," and Russell almost visibly cringes as all eyes in the room turn towards him, "there's not a lot I can say about you that everyone doesn't already know, but you and Peter Andre once snogged in a pub toilet when you were pissed, just because you wanted to see what it was like to kiss a man."

Russell begins to sputter.

"Jonathan, you've got some big secret about your contract with the BBC that even I couldn't pry out of you, but it's probably that you're fucking off to ITV or something like that. Also you've written a comic, which actually I'm rather sad that I won't get the chance to see. One time you woke up your wife by masturbating next to her and she thought there was an earthquake."

Claudia starts giggling again at this, and David's eyes are practically bulging out of his face. "This is some kind of trick," David says.

"Rob, you're doing a thing with Steve Coogan next year and you're worried that his impressions are better than yours. You've just started doing golf lessons with your son because you want to make sure to maintain a close relationship with him. Jimmy, you once qualified as a therapist, which means the mental health of this nation is on thin fucking ice, and you haven't spoken to your father since 2003."

Jimmy sucks in a breath at this, and Charlie tries not to feel too bad about that. Even David's face has gone a bit white. "How the hell do you know all of that?"

"I told you," Charlie says. "And also," he checks his watch, "in ten seconds the other runner's going to come in, Mark's his name, and try and get us to all go to makeup just like Emma did."

"Er," says Emma.

"What, really?" says Jonathan.

"Five, four, three, two—"

The door at the back of the green room comes open with a sort of slick noise. "Er, hi?" says the other runner, looking a little nervous under the scrutiny of the entire cast. "Mick says, can we have everyone in makeup now?"

Charlie gives his best shit-eating grin. "See? I could recite you all the letters and numbers from today's episode of Countdown, too, if you think that'd help."

"Okay, enough," says David. "Let's just... Just..." He looks down at the linoleum for a moment, then up at Charlie's face. "What about me? Do you know everything about me, too?"

"Yeah," Charlie says. "I do. You've been walking around Kilburn because of your back problems. There's a pub on the Belsize Road roundabout with a flat roof and it's horrible and you think it's emblematic of the horribleness of flat roofed pubs in general. The walking has made you lose weight and you hate that you're starting to feel vain about it. Your first word was 'Hoover.' You and Robert are fighting, and this morning he called you a media whore, so you think your partnership might be over. But you don't know why he's being such a dick. You're not close with your brother and you sometimes wonder if that's because you're not capable of being close to anyone, though I think that's bullshit. You're kinder than you'd ever want anyone to know, because you can't shake the feeling that kindness is a little bit emasculating. When you laugh, really lose it and laugh, it's like the sun coming out. And you secretly think you're in love with Vicky even though you barely know her."

"How... how?" David asks.

"Wait, Vicky?" says Claudia. "Like, Vicky Coren, Vicky?"

Charlie gives her a short nod without looking away from David's increasingly reddening face.

"Oh, jeez, David," she says.

David opens his mouth, then shuts it again. When he finally speaks, it's only to say "How?" again, sounding even more bewildered than before.

"I told you. I wake up every day and it's always December the seventh and I can't turn it off. If you still don't believe me, listen—"

"But Charlie—"

"Listen! In about fifteen seconds the director's going to walk in here and take you and everyone away to do the prep and the recording, but you can't let him." Charlie doesn't know why he's suddenly so desperate. It's not as if he hasn't done things like this before, as if he won't be doing it again, just the same, tomorrow. But David's never believed him before. He wants David to believe him. He just wants David to understand him, just one time. "Please believe me," he says. "You've got to believe me."

"I don't..." David says.

Charlie leans in, letting himself cup the side of David's neck and trying not to think about how warm David's skin is beneath his hand. "He's going to say, 'Right, what's the hold up, folks?'"

"I—" says David.

The door opens again. Mick's voice is distinctive. "Right, what's the hold up, folks?"

David meets Charlie's eyes, and Charlie almost cries at the sympathy he sees there. "I suppose anyone would go a bit mental if they had to do this show a hundred times in a row," David says, and then, low and sincere, "Jesus, Charlie."

-----

They skip the recording and wander out into the city. Charlie doesn't know what the others are doing, doesn't care.

"After I got over the shock, it was kind of fun, for the first couple of months. I had anything I wanted. I could do everything I wanted. Except for..." He gives David a rueful look, then tugs him out of the way of a bit of slush as it slides off the roof of a nearby building. David gapes at him, and Charlie shrugs.

"How did this start?" David asks.

"I don't know," Charlie says. "I just woke up. Just like I always do. I used to try to stay up all night sometimes. I thought if I could stay conscious I could figure out what was going on, or at least hang onto something from the day before. But I gave up on that a long time ago."

"It sounds so—"

"Mental?"

David snorts. "Well, yes. But I was going to say... I was going to say lonely."

Charlie flicks his gaze over and meets David's eyes, then shrugs again. "It's not that bad. You get used to it." He's pretty sure he's not fooling anyone.

"Maybe I should spend the rest of the day with you," David says. "As... as an objective witness. Just to see what happens. Is that all right?"

"Yeah," Charlie says. "That'd be all right." He takes a deep breath. "Listen, you want a curry?"

-----

They go back to Charlie's. As they turn the corner onto his block, Charlie nudges David just enough that he steps around the pile of dog shit rather than in it. Inside Charlie toes off his shoes and David does the same. They end up on the sofa. Charlie orders Indian takeaway from a little place he'd discovered a couple of months ago, relative time. While they're waiting for it to arrive Charlie opens a bottle of wine and then, when they get through that one pretty quickly, he opens another. He can remember when he'd bought the wine, back in September (it's been much longer, subjective time), the product of a rather hopeless attempt to be slightly more civilized. At least it's coming in handy now.

They talk about nothing in particular for a while, and then about Jimmy and Jonathan and Russell and the others.

"I have to admit," Charlie says, slumping against the arm of the sofa, "that I kind of started this whole thing thinking, 'What an absolute bunch of twats.' But the more times I've gone 'round, the less I've been able to hang onto that."

"Jimmy's actually quite nice," David says. "Which I have to tell you was a surprise, after I'd seen his stand up."

"Yeah," Charlie says. "Same here. And that laugh. I really thought he'd be a dick. But no, bam, nice fucking guy. Totally punched me right in the expectations." David laughs at that. "Claudia, she's impossible to dislike, which is deeply annoying."

"Yes," David agrees. "Honestly, how dare she be so likable? It's rude, is what it is."

"Yes!" Charlie makes a vaguely emphatic gesture, and then catches himself just before he slops wine over the rim of the glass. "Oops. It's very rude."

"And Jonathan, okay, he's not exactly my style, but he's not so bad, I suppose."

"Do you even have a style?" Charlie says.

David pokes him in the knee. "Sod off, I have a style," he says. "I mean, it's the style of trying basically to have no style, but that counts."

Charlie snorts. "Yeah, all right."

"To return to my point," David says prissily. He takes a rather large sip of wine. "Jonathan. He's not so bad."

"Yeah. At least he fucking cares about things, which is something I can reluctantly get behind."

"And Russell..."

"He's even less my style than Jonathan is yours," Charlie says.

"I'm not sure he's anyone's style except his own," David says. "But he's the style of – do you ever find that words start to sound weird because you've said them too many times? Because 'style' is beginning to do that, a bit."

"Mmm, yeah," Charlie says. "I'm pretty sure 'What's the hold up, folks?' is just a collection of sounds to me at this point."

David gives him a sympathetic look, and Charlie abruptly wishes he hadn't brought it up. He sits up sharply. "Let me show you something."

Two minutes later he's showing David how he can flick a playing card between his fingers like a frisbee, making it sail across the room and land with uncanny accuracy in the bowl of the cowboy hat that he picked up during his last trip to Vegas.

David looks suitably impressed.

"It's not in the wrist so much as in the fingers," Charlie says, sending another one into the hat. "If I wanted to be all fucking zen about it I'd probably tell you, y'know, be the hat. But realistically? It's just having a shit ton of time on your hands."

"I don't think I could ever learn something like that," David says.

"Sure you could," Charlie says. Flick. Flick. "Six months, four or five hours a day. I bet it'd impress Vicky."

David looks deeply uncomfortable at the mention of Vicky. "Is this what you do with eternity?" he says.

"Now you know," says Charlie. "It's like waiting for a bus that never comes. You should see me play Grand Theft Auto."

There's a knock at the door. Charlie gets up to answer it, dropping the last of the cards into the hat on his way to the door. "Hey, Pratosh. £21.35, yeah? Or, wait—" Actually, he has no idea how much the total is. Usually he only orders enough for himself. "Shit, how much?"

"Er," says Pratosh, looking somewhat bewildered. "It's £52.15, guv."

Charlie digs into his wallet and hands him a fistful of cash, then closes the door. He brings everything back to the coffee table and flops back down on the sofa.

David looks a little dubious at just eating out of the containers, but when Charlie says, "Oh, for fuck's sake, you old man. Do you want a plate?" he just shakes his head, and after the first bite of the chicken jaisalmer that Charlie's handed him, he makes a surprised noise of pleasure.

"Wow," he says. "This is really good. I mean, this is my favorite."

"I know," says Charlie, swallowing.

David puts the curry down on the coffee table very carefully. "Listen, Charlie."

"Mmm?"

"How well do we know each other?"

"I told you," Charlie says.

"No, I mean..."

Charlie sits up when he realizes David is kind of squirming. "Yeah?"

"Did we ever... you know?"

Of course not, Charlie thinks. I'm loathsome and disgusting and horrible, and you're lovely. But instead he says, "Did we ever! You were an animal." The look on David's face is totally worth it.

"Wh— I. That is. I'm— Really?"

"You must've got up to a lot at Cambridge." But when he sees that David is actually blushing, he relents. "David. You weren't interested."

David gives him a look that he can't quite interpret. "Oh. All right."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah, of course," David says, not entirely convincingly. "I was just trying to figure out whether I needed to be embarrassed or not. Though I'm pretty sure I'm doomed to be embarrassed anyway."

Hang on, Charlie thinks. That means he's definitely at least potentially interested in men. Doesn't it? No point in asking if we'd had sex, otherwise. He doesn't know whether to be hopeful or depressed about that. Because on the one hand, it means he has a chance. But on the other hand, there is a vast gaping chasm between 'wants to fuck men occasionally' and 'wants to fuck Charlie Brooker.'

By the time he realizes he's thinking furiously about this rather than paying attention, they've spent ten minutes eating in silence. Still, David hasn't said anything, either.

Finally David says, slowly, "Despite the way I talk sometimes, about... about being anal retentive and wanting things to be predictable, I don't think I'd want to know everything that's going to happen. I don't really like to be surprised, but…"

"That's not the worst part," Charlie says, setting down his chicken korma and pushing the little container of rice away from him on the table.

"What's the worst part?"

"The worst part is starting over every day. Tomorrow you won't remember any of this. You'll go back to treating me like a complete arsehole."

"No—"

"It's okay," Charlie says, shrugging. "I am a complete arsehole."

David puts a hand on Charlie's. "No, you're not."

Charlie laughs bitterly, and then regrets it when David pulls his hand back. "Maybe I'm not," Charlie says. "It genuinely doesn't make any difference. I've killed myself so many times I don't even exist anymore. I'm just completely empty."

"Or completely fresh, like a clean slate," David says. He sounds, absurdly, a little envious, and Charlie stifles the urge to hug him.

Instead he says, "If you're going to be this positive all the time I may have to punch you in the face a little."

David snorts, then sits up sharply. "Wait! Have we done this before?"

"Which part?"

"You convincing me to come over, having curry, you displaying your card skills."

"No, this is the first time," Charlie says.

"Well?" David asks.

"Well, what?"

David looks impatient. "How does it feel to be doing something completely new?"

Charlie feels a wave of sudden gratitude that almost knocks him over. He meets David's eyes, tries to put everything he's feeling into his smile.

"Good," he says. "Actually, really good."

-----

After the curry is more or less consumed, Charlie opens another bottle of wine. By the time this one is down to its dregs they're both slumped down against the cushions of the sofa, sometimes talking, sometimes just sitting in silence. Charlie is acutely aware of the way that David's knee is pressed against his own, a point of connection that feels like the only anchor he has left to anything in this weird fucking world.

Maybe if he leaned over now, maybe if he kissed David now, David would let him. But this is too nice. He doesn't want to ruin it.

David says, meditatively, "Sometimes I wish I had a thousand lifetimes. One to be a great historian. One to do nothing but sketch stuff with Rob, to be his friend. One for panel shows. One to read all the books on my bedside table that I never seem to get around to, watch all the telly and films I've missed. One just to take care of all the bullshit stuff – you know, pay the bills, pass my driving test. One to travel all the places I've never been that I think I could stand, like New York, or, fuck, I don't know, somewhere. One to do decent, unselfish things with, because god knows I never get around to doing them the rest of the time. One to get to know... all the people I wish I knew better." He pauses, biting his lip. "Maybe it doesn't have to be a curse, Charlie. It just depends on how you look at it."

Charlie stares at him for a long moment, turning the words over in his head. Then, without quite realizing he's going to do it, he belches. David quirks an eyebrow, and then he belches, too, and then falls into giggles. Charlie grins, watching the way David's face crinkles up when he laughs, the way his cheeks go pink.

Eventually David sobers, and says, "I want you to know, it's been a really nice evening for me."

"Me, too," Charlie says, and he's surprised to find that he means it. Of all the days he's spent, this has been one of the best.

"Maybe if it's not too boring for you," David says, teasing, "we could do it again."

Charlie snorts. "It's possible."

David looks at the clock. "When does it, you know, flip over?"

"Six a.m. Which is fucking unfair, because I don't wake until 10. I don't even get a whole day."

"The cosmos is a bastard," David agrees. He yawns.

"You going, then?" Charlie says, trying to keep his melancholy from being completely obvious.

"Oh, I've nowhere better to be," David says. There's a slightly odd tone to his voice. Charlie half wants to interpret it as a come-on. But he knows he's not that lucky.

"Right," he says. "Let me show you another card trick."

-----

By the time five forty five rolls around they're still sitting together on the sofa, closer now. David's eyes are closed, and his head is lolling over onto Charlie's shoulder. He keeps nodding off, and then catching himself with a snort of breath that Charlie finds absolutely adorable.

"Sorry," David says blurrily.

"It's okay," Charlie says. "You can go to sleep. I promise I won't put your hand in some water to make you piss. Or squirt foam up your nose. Or shave your eyebrows off." He takes a breath. "Wouldn't matter if I did, anyway."

"No, it's all right," David says. "I'm not tired. What were you saying?"

"Well, after Aisleyne stopped hitting me…"

"Mmm hmm," David says, clearly drifting off again. Charlie says random things for a few moments until he's sure David is asleep, then eases himself gently aside, moving David's head until he can get it to lie on a cushion. He lifts David's feet up onto the sofa so that he's stretched out comfortably, and then settles on the floor beside the sofa, just looking at David's peaceful face.

"What I was going to say was… you're pretty much my favorite person I've ever met," he says quietly. "And I don't just mean because I'm predisposed to think of most of humanity as complete arseholes. You're smart, and funny, and brave – how you can do QI without shitting yourself repeatedly I have no idea – and, and... and kind, though you don't give yourself nearly enough credit on that front. All the stuff you've done for Cambridge without any recognition at all, I really admire that."

David makes a small noise, and Charlie brushes his fingers through David's hair, soothing him back to sleep.

"I could never tell you this, but I always thought you were fucking brilliant, even from the first moment we met. And the more I keep living this day, the more I get to know you, the more amazing you are. Sometimes in my dreams – if this genuinely isn't all a horrific cheese-based nightmare anyway – in my dreams I'm not such a colossal fuckup, and you never met Vicky so you might give me a chance, and we might be sick-makingly happy together. We could sit around on Saturday afternoons and watch shit television and bait each other into tweeting about it. I'd learn how to make tea just the way you like it. We'd stick up one of those little note pads for a list of what we need at the shop, and I'd leave you drawings of Russell Brand dying of the plague just to make you laugh." Charlie sighs. "I know I'm a complete bastard who doesn't deserve someone as good as you, but I swear if you ever did want me I'd... Well, I'd probably love you for the rest of my life. Which, for the record, is looking to be quite a long fucking time."

David curls around himself more tightly, and the movement seems to wake him a little.

"Mmm?" he says. "D'you say something?"

"Goodnight, David," Charlie says.

"G'night, Charlie."

Chapter Text

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile. He gropes on the bedside table, finds it, and then lifts it to his ear and thumbs to answer. "Hello?"

"Hello, Mr. Brooker," says the familiar cheery voice. "This is just a reminder that your call for recording is at five this evening."

Oh. Right.

"Thanks," Charlie says wearily, sitting up.

"You're welcome," says the voice. "Have a nice—"

But then Charlie remembers what David had said yesterday, about all the nice things he'd be doing if he had the time. Maybe... maybe it wouldn't hurt to do some of that. Even if it's all just going to disappear. "Wait," he says. "What's your name?"

"Er, it's Caroline."

"Caroline. Nice name. Tell me about yourself?"

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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"Hi. Where would I find the philosophy books?" The girl in the Waterstones uniform gives him a weird look but points him in the right direction. They don't have a great selection – just two narrow shelves of meditation self-help bullshit interspersed with Penguin Classics versions of Plato, but it's as decent a place to start as any, Charlie supposes.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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The tip of the pencil makes a familiar soft scratching noise against the paper. Charlie draws the exaggerated swoop of David's hair across his forehead, the neat line of his nose, the soft curve of his jaw. He's out of practice – drawing had fallen by the wayside a few years ago and he's been meaning to get back to it, and there's no time like the present (literally) – but when he's finished, the end result is... not completely terrible. After a moment he gives cartoon David a stylized thought bubble that reads, "What sort of perversions are you thinking of now, Charlie?"

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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The little bell over the door of the shop jingles as Charlie goes in. There's a teenager behind the counter – young, spotty, disaffected-looking. "Welcome to L'atelier des Chefs how can I help you?" he says, slurring the bits of the sentence together into one long, arguably-French word.

"I'd like a cooking lesson," Charlie says.

"We have openings next month—"

"I'll give you a thousand pounds if you can get me in today."

The kid sits up sharply. "You for real, man?"

"Yeah," Charlie says.

"Hang on a minute, then."

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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"Thus the man who is responsive to artistic stimuli reacts to the reality of dreams as does the philosopher to the reality of existence; he observes closely, and he enjoys his observation: for it is out of these images that he interprets life, out of these processes that he trains himself for life." Charlie reads this last, then pauses to scratch his jaw consideringly. There's no one else in his flat to listen, but sometimes things make more sense if he says them out loud rather than just reading silently. "Well," he says, after a moment, "that's a load of toss, isn't it?"

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Today's cartoon David is blushing a little, looking shyly up from under his eyelashes at cartoon Charlie. Cartoon Charlie has an oblong face and bags under his eyes.

After a moment Charlie draws a sharp line across the whole thing and turns the page over.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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His fifth cooking lesson is more interesting than the others have been, so far. He's just about at the point where he can chop vegetables without thinking too much about what would happen if he accidentally cut his fingers off, for one thing.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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"Tell me, Ken. What exactly are you looking for?"

Ken looks decidedly taken aback. "I was under the impression that you had a particular pitch—"

"We do," Al says tightly.

"Yes, yes," Charlie says. "I mean, yeah, of course we do. It's Al's idea, it's a brilliant idea—" He can see Al's annoyance deflate a little at that. "But Ken, I mean, you're the expert here, right? You know what's going to be right for the BBC. I just want to know what you think we should be aiming for, that's all."

"Well," Ken says, clearing his throat. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt to tell you a little about my radio philosophy."

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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"The thing is," Charlie says, pointing at David over the table with one drunkenly wobbling finger, "the thing is, it's simplistic to say that Germany alone caused the First World War—"

"Of course," David says.

"But blaming Britain for not taking Austria-Hungary seriously enough is just completely—"

"Yes, exactly," says David, nodding furiously.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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"I think I want to write a horror miniseries," says Charlie.

"I thought you wanted to talk about the thing we're actually pitching today," Al says flatly. "Charlie, if you're not into this..."

"No, no," Charlie says hurriedly. "I am, I genuinely am, I promise you. But c'mon, Al, we've got this in the bag already. It's a great concept, we're totally going to get it." He can say that with relative certainty now, and it must bleed through into his voice because Al sits back in his chair, his scowl easing a little.

"You really think so?"

"I do," Charlie says. "I know a bit about the guy we're meeting with, and we can totally sell him on this. It's fine." He meets Al's eyes squarely. "You trust me, yeah?"

"'Course I do," Al says gruffly. "It's just... sometimes it seems like you get these urges to be a complete dickbag, you know? Which is hilarious on telly but less so when it's during the lead up to a project I actually sort of want to do."

Charlie rubs his jaw. He hadn't actually realized that this was what Al was stressed about. "I promise I won't do that today," he says, and if he mentally adds, At least, not during this version of today, well, no one will ever know that but him.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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He pretty much has cartoon David down perfectly now – can sketch him out quickly in whatever situation comes to mind and keep him recognizable – so he's moved on to others: Al's slightly bulging forehead; Aisleyne's big, disapproving eyes; Jimmy with his neat white teeth and his mouth open as he laughs; Jonathan's terrible hair; Russell's even more terrible hair. It's weird how what he knows about them makes his drawings softer, somehow. He'd have thought having all that ammunition would make it easy to be cruel, but instead he finds himself making them look tired or worried, and then he has to go away and do bitchy drawings of people he hasn't met yet, just so he can feel like he hasn't lost his edge.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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"Wow," says the chef, looking a little wide-eyed. "I don't think I've ever seen someone able to make meringues so perfectly on the first try."

Charlie shrugs. "Guess I'm just gifted."

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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"Imagine it's like this, though," Charlie says. He's flicking cards along the stretch of the bar into a pint glass while the others – David and Jimmy and the rest, even Claudia this time, which is rare – stand around him, drinking and murmuring appreciatively every time he manages to make one do a particularly graceful twirl before it drops into the glass.

"Imagine you live the same day over and over again. No matter what you do, when you wake up, it's always December the seventh. You could murder someone like, I dunno, Osama bin Laden or Putin or, or, or—" he waves a hand vaguely. "Jeremy Kyle. And in the morning they'd be back to normal again. Living. Doing all the same shit that made you want to kill them in the first place."

"That doesn't mean it isn't wrong to murder them," David says.

"Except Jeremy Kyle. That'd be fine any time," Jimmy says. Claudia giggles and smacks him on the arm, gently.

"Aha, but what about the opposite?" Charlie says. "What if you know that there's going to be someone hit by a car at some particular time and place? If it only happened once but you knew it was going to happen for some reason, like psychic powers or whatever, you'd try and stop it, wouldn't you?"

"Yes..." David says warily.

"With great power comes great responsibility," Jonathan intones.

"But now suppose we're back to the scenario where the day resets. You still know it's going to happen. Because it happens every day, right? Maybe one day you watched it happen. But you also know, that when the day starts over it'll be back to normal. He'll be alive again. And he'll die again."

"Charlie, man, did you have some special mushrooms back in your dressing room?" says Russell.

"What are you actually trying to say here, Charlie?" David asks bluntly. "Because this seems like it's turning into Hypothetical Question Time."

"I'm just asking, if you know this guy's going to get hit by a car and die every day, do you have to save him every day? He's not going to remember it. It's not even going to have happened. But is there, I dunno, some massive cosmic storehouse of suffering that's you're adding to, incrementally, just by not stopping it? Are you making the universe just the tiniest bit worse every day just by doing nothing?" Charlie runs out of breath and uses that as an excuse to shut up. If that kind of thing is what he's supposed to be doing, then he really doesn't want to think about how many days he's missed so far, or what else is going wrong in the city that he hasn't even discovered yet. This is London, not fucking Berwick-upon-Tweed. If he starts trying to save people from murder and muggings and tripping over the mat in the lavatory and falling face-first onto the edge of the sink, well, he basically won't ever get to do anything else.

But maybe that's what this is for. Maybe that's why this is happening to him.

"I think," David says slowly, with a thoughtful look on his face, "that sometimes all you can do is something. You can't save everyone. If you tried you'd go mad, anyone would. Even Superman had a fucking life, you know? If the day just keeps starting over... I guess I'd say that you don't have to save this guy who's going to die. If it were me, I'd probably save him at least a couple of times. But I'd be doing it for me, not for the universe."

They all go silent at this, considering.

"Whoa, David, that was deep," says Russell finally. Charlie snorts, and then chuckles, and then puts his face in his hands and laughs for a long time.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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It occurs to Charlie to wonder if he's aging. Sure, he can't kill himself, but if he's the only one who remembers every version of the day, maybe that means he's disconnected from the loop, somehow. Maybe he'll be the only one that ages, while the rest of them all stay the same. Maybe one day he'll turn up for the recording and they won't recognize him.

He takes to peering in the bathroom mirror every morning, but so far he can't see any difference.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile. When he's done chatting with Caroline, he hangs up, then looks at the phone consideringly for a moment. Then he dials Robert's number.

"I don't understand you," Charlie says when it's picked up.

"Er, who is this?"

"Oh," Charlie says. He'd forgotten about that. "It's Charlie Brooker."

"Erm, okay. What can I do for you?"

"I just... I don't understand you."

"In what way?" Robert says slowly.

"You've got this guy, this amazing," Charlie struggles for the right words to describe David, and finally plumps for, "this fucking delightful guy, all right, who thinks you're so great that he wants to be platonically married to you in comedy partnership forever and ever amen, and then you just—"

"What?" Robert says, and then, cutting across Charlie's effusions, "Look, if you think he's so great, you can start your own double act, then. I've heard he's looking."

This last is under his breath, probably louder than he'd meant to say it, and Charlie sits up sharply in the bed and thinks, Oh, of course. "You genuinely think that?" he says. "He's not—"

"No?" Robert says. "He's perfectly happy to fuck around doing every panel show that's ever existed, and a few more besides."

"You could do that, too," Charlie points out. "You have done your own projects, I feel reasonably sure, unless I've hallucinated the entirety of 2008."

"I really couldn't," Robert says. "Not least because— why the fuck am I telling you this?"

"Because if you don't I'll just call and ask you again tomorrow. And the next day. And the next." He could mention that Robert won't remember him calling the first time, but why muddle the issue?

Robert snorts, which is the first indication Charlie's had that he's got a sense of humor at all. "I wouldn't put it past you."

"And because I'm crazy about him, and you're the most important person in his life, and I just want to know where you're coming from."

Robert is silent for a long moment. "Look, no one's asking," he says finally. "To be painfully honest, since I guess that's what we're doing here, I don't know if it's that everyone clearly thinks David's funnier or if he's subtly warning them off booking me or what. But he's out doing his own thing and he and I, we're not going to last long."

"That sounds..." Charlie stares up at the ceiling. It hasn't really occurred to him to consider what this whole thing must look like from Robert's point of view. Not until now.

"Pathetic?" Robert says.

Charlie thinks about the expression on David's face, all those days ago when he'd told the truth and David had actually believed him. "I was going to say lonely," he says.

Robert sighs out a breath. "Maybe. Maybe it's just that all comedy partnerships end with people hating each other. Maybe everything just ends. You said you're crazy about him..."

"I am," Charlie says. "I really, really am."

"That's good, I guess. I know he thinks you're brilliant. And he and I were never involved, not like that. So if all of this is just to get my blessing, I guess you have it." Before Charlie can figure out how to respond to that, Robert hangs up.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

-----

"Hello?" Robert says.

"Hi, Robert," Charlie says. "It's Charlie Brooker."

"Oh," Robert says. "Erm, hi. How did you get my—"

"Stole it from David's phone. How are you?"

"Fine?" Robert says, as if he's not entirely sure of the answer. "Confused. But... fine. And you?"

"Oh, I'm all right," Charlie allows. "Listen, the reason I'm calling is that I'll be recording a new series of You Have Been Watching in the spring, and I'd love to have you on. Would you be interested?" All of this is, of course, complete bullshit, because spring isn't going to happen. But if Robert's issue is that David is gadding about doing fifty-seven kinds of panel shows, maybe he'll be a little bit less of a bastard if he's doing one, too.

Robert doesn't say anything for a moment. "Why me?" he asks finally. "I mean, I'm not really on the panel show circuit."

"I love your sketch show, I love Peep Show," Charlie says. "And your Comic Relief thing, that was brilliant. I just want you to come do what you do while talking about shit television."

"What, wear a leotard and dance and talk about shit television?" Robert says. There's something sour underneath the words.

"If that's what you fancy," Charlie says, a little taken aback.

"You know what?" Robert says. "Thanks and all, but no. I don't think it's really my sort of thing."

"You sure?" Charlie says. "I mean, I've had David on..." He knows as soon as it comes out that it's the wrong thing to say.

"Yes, well," Robert says, his voice gone brisk and perfunctory, "I'm sure you could get him again, if you like. Anyway, I've got to get back to work. See you around, Brooker."

There's a click as he hangs up. Charlie stares at the phone for a moment, considering.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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The thing is, he ought to call Vicky. If he's going to choose ways to make the world better, that ought to be the first thing he goes for, just to make David happy.

He could call her up right now. They're sort of friends, or at least friendly enough that he has an in via mutual acquaintances and a few late nights spent in pubs talking about journalism. He could ask her about her tastes, about her current boyfriend, her secret desires. He could make her tell him even those, given enough time. He could make her love David, probably. A lot of investigation and a few well-chosen words and she'd probably fall for him easily enough. How could she not?

But he doesn't call her.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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He's halfway through yet another recording of the Big Fat Quiz when he realizes that he misses David. Even though the man is sat right next to him. He misses the David of three-hundred-ish todays-ago, the one who hadn't minded spending all evening with Charlie eating curry and watching him do card tricks, the one who hadn't thought he was mad. The one who'd understood.

It's frankly fucking appalling to think that here is this person, right in front of his face, who could have been a good friend years ago (actual years ago) if Charlie had ever pulled his head out of his arse.

Who could still be a good friend, if they ever get to spend more than a day together.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

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Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

Chapter Text

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile. He gropes on the bedside table, finds it, and then lifts it to his ear and thumbs to answer. "Hello?" Christ, he's tired today – he knows he technically has the same amount of sleep every day so it isn't actual tiredness, but some days are worse than others. Still, now that he's started talking to Caroline first thing every morning it doesn't seem right to ignore her, even if she won't remember it.

"Hello, Mr. Brooker," says Caroline. "This is just a reminder that your call for recording is at five this evening."

"Thanks," Charlie says. "Hey, what's your name?"

"It's, er, it's Caroline," she says.

"Caroline," Charlie says, trying to sound like this is new information to him. "Is this all you do for a living then? Call up D-listers like me and tell us when to turn up?"

She laughs. "Pretty much. Though I wouldn't call you a D-lister," she says diplomatically. "And I make the coffee, too."

"Sounds thrilling. Are you some sort of intern, then?"

"Yeah," she says. "You know, just hoping to get my foot in the door."

"To do what?"

"Well— You really don't mind me telling you all this?"

"Hey, I asked," Charlie says. He kind of likes that she needs a little encouraging.

"I want to do comedy," she says. "I've had a couple of bits in Newsjack but I haven't really done any other professional work. Not yet, anyway."

"You should send me some sketches you've written, if you have some handy," Charlie says. Caroline makes a high-pitched squealing noise and then stifles it almost immediately. Charlie can't help but smile. For a long she'd just been a voice to him, the symbol of everything that was endless and crushingly banal about this situation he's found himself in. But actually, she's quite sweet.

"That would be really great," she says. "I mean, really. Really great."

He gives her his email address and extracts himself more or less gracefully from the conversation. When the phone clicks off he slumps back against the pillows and rubs a hand over his face. He feels weighed down today, like all the hundreds of December the sevenths he's lived through are layered on top of him, each infinitesimally thin but together thick and stifling. Nothing can hurt him, not now. But nothing can touch him, either.

To stave off the numbness, Charlie picks up his phone and chooses a name from his contact list.

"Mmm?"

"Hey, Ais," he says.

"The fuck are you calling me for at this hour, Brooker?" she says.

"Aisleyne, it's after ten," says Charlie.

"Just," she says darkly. "I don't get civilized until noon, you know that."

"Maybe I like you uncivilized."

"That had better not be a come-on."

Charlie snorts, then sighs. "It's not... Ais..."

"What's wrong?" The grumpiness has dropped out of her voice almost entirely.

"You're a good friend," Charlie says, before he can think too much about how bone-crushingly awkward it is to just say it aloud like that. That it's the seventy-fourth time he's done this, more or less, doesn't seem to make it any easier. "That's all I wanted to say."

"What—"

"Bye, Ais."

He hangs up. And weirdly now he does feel a little better, even though this conversation hasn't been appreciably novel. It's just nice to know that Aisleyne cares.

After a quick shower Charlie makes another phone call.

"Hello?" Robert says.

"Hi, Robert," Charlie says. "It's Charlie Brooker."

"Oh," Robert says. " Erm, hi. How did you get my—"

"Stole it from David's phone. So." Charlie knows by now there's no point trying to loosen him up with small talk. "We're recording a new series of You Have Been Watching in the spring, and I was hoping some direct begging would get you to agree to come on."

Robert is silent for a moment. "Why me?" he asks finally. "I mean, I'm not saying anything yes or no, but I'm not really on the panel show circuit."

"David tells me you're the funniest person he knows," Charlie says. "Has told me that repeatedly, in fact." This is actually true, even if it's far more true now than it had been before this whole thing began. "And I love the sketch show. Surely you can be that good unscripted."

"No pressure," Robert murmurs.

"I promise not to be a bastard," Charlie says. "Well, as much as I can help, anyway. I'm afraid it's a bit compulsory, but not personal. C'mon, do me a favor. As soon as I got the word we were going to get another series I knew I wanted you. And if you won't do it, I'm going to have to get Josie Long on, and she'll make me feel about two inches long, and then I'll have to hide in my dressing room and weep like a little girl, and nobody wants that."

Robert coughs out a laugh. "Two inches long? Interesting little Freudian slip there."

"What?" Charlie says, and then, "Oh, bollocks." It had been a Freudian slip, the first time, but he's kept on saying it because he knows it gets a laugh. Still, he hasn't managed to get Rob to agree in the last two hundred or so days in which he's been guiding this conversation. Time to try something new. "If you don't want to say yes right now, at least let me take you out for a drink sometime soon and I'll keep trying to convince you."

Robert snorts, and then he says, "All right, fine, I'll do it, as long as I can fit it in with the Peep Show schedule." There's a pause, and then he says, very quietly, "Thanks for asking."

He actually said yes! Charlie thinks. After a moment he realizes his mouth is hanging open somewhat stupidly and shuts it with a click. "Thank you," he says sincerely. "And hey, we should still go for drinks sometime. I mean, not television-planning related drinks, just drinks. If you're interested."

"Yeah, all right," says Robert, obviously pleased. "That'd be good." It's the first time in all the December the sevenths that he's actually sounded like he gives a fuck what Charlie thinks.

They exchange information, and Charlie hangs up. I did it, he thinks, with no small amount of surprise. I genuinely fucking did it.

It feels a bit as though a weight has lifted from his shoulders. He's been on this little mission – to get Robert to agree to come on the show and to play up all the nice things that David's said about him in the process – for months now, subjective time, and he'd almost been beginning to think it was genuinely impossible. Of course, there's no guarantee that this will fix anything, not in the long term. But hopefully it will at least have eased some of the tensions of today. Charlie is looking forward to seeing what happens.

Riding high on his success, he treats himself to breakfast at his favorite café, then goes about his day. His current project (after having mastered cooking, card tricks, scuba diving, palming coins, German, French, wolf whistling, that game with the cup and a ball on a string, an unofficial Electrotechnical Services NVQ, and even, after a fit of desperation six hundred odd days ago, knitting) is picking locks, so he heads out to a local hardware supply and buys a couple to practice on. It's not exactly easy, but he's really only started on it, and if he can win Robert over then he knows he can do this, too. He can do anything.

At noon he abandons the effort with a sigh of relief and takes a cab to Al's office. He's early for the meeting, enough that they can work out a plan of attack beforehand (the fact that Al is always surprised when Charlie turns up on time and prepared is really annoying, but he's used to it by now).

By the time Ken arrives Al's looking faintly optimistic, an expression that only grows as Charlie gently takes control of the meeting. He flatters Ken, parrots back some of Ken's 'radio comedy philosophy' in slightly different words, and offhandedly begins to list all the people he's pretty sure he could get to guest on the show. Forty five minutes later Ken is shaking both their hands and So Wrong It's Right has the green light. It's the guest list that had sold it, in the end – because although Charlie's done a bit of the panel show thing he knows he's not exactly a sure deal as a host, and he can hardly blame Ken for not wanting to take a chance on him. But now that Charlie's spent god knows how long doing this he's met a good section of the comedy community, and he's confident enough to suggest a number of people he'd never have even thought of, the first time around.

When Ken leaves Charlie sticks around, talking with Al about his theoretical horror series, the one he's tentatively decided to call Black Mirror. He's got two episodes more or less entirely written and memorized. It isn't as if he's ever going to get to make them, but there's something satisfying about perfecting the scripts anyway.

Eventually they go their separate ways, and Charlie wanders home, stopping at the bookstore on the way. As he turns the corner onto his block he pauses and pulls out a plastic bag that he'd stashed in his pocket, leans down and uses it to scoop up the dog shit. He ties the bag neatly and drops it in the nearest bin.

He eats an early dinner, one hand propped up on the table holding his newly-purchased copy of A Christmas Carol, then makes his way to the studio. By the time he arrives everyone else is there already, and Jonathan is midway through his Robbie Williams story. Charlie sidles in next to David and gives him a little nudge. "Hey."

"Hello," David says quietly. He's actually smiling. Not the polite, careful smile of a man who knows he has to get through the next several hours with an array of comedy personalities, nor the aggressive smile that indicates someone is about to be imminently savaged with angry logic, but a softer, more sincere smile. Charlie hasn't seen David genuinely smile like this in a long time, perhaps not since the night with the curry, but he recognizes it instantly.

"And then he said," Jonathan concludes, "'If you keep doing that, you'd better have a towel handy!'"

The rest of the group breaks into laughter. Charlie doesn't bother joining in, since he's missed the bulk of the story, but he's feeling too good not to smile.

"Jonathan," says Russell, "this is not an apology because I feel I have apologized for the whole thing quite enough already, but I am sorry to have contributed to you not being on telly at the moment and therefore limiting, in some small way, your collection of traumatic celebrity anecdotes."

"Russell, my friend," says Jonathan, "what has this whole thing been if not a traumatic celebrity anecdote in itself?"

"We are all tragic anecdotes in someone else's life," Rob says sanctimoniously.

"Speaking of which," says Jonathan, "hello, Charlie."

"Oh, thanks very much," Charlie says with a smile. He shakes hands all around. "How are you?"

"Oh, good, good," says Jonathan.

"Making good use of your newfound spare time?" Charlie asks. "Or spending most of it wanking and crying?"

Jonathan laughs and clutches a hand to his chest. "Ouch. You bastard. I'll have you know that I'm actually working on a brilliant new project, and it involves neither of those."

"Oh, what is it?" says Rob. "Something for the BBC, or...?"

"It's a comic, yeah?" says Charlie.

"Actually, it's— er. Yes, it's a comic," Jonathan says.

Everyone turns to look at Charlie and he shrugs. "It just makes sense. You're into the whole comics thing. You have more money than god. And you have a lot of free time at the moment." And you told me about it at some length three hundred and fifty five days ago.

"So, what kind of comic is it? Are you doing yourself as a superhero?" asks Jimmy. "Because I have to say, if it doesn't involve traumatic celebrity anecdotes, I'm not sure I'm going to be interested."

"Is it going to be kid-friendly?" says Claudia. "My kids love a good superhero."

Jonathan starts telling them about it, but Charlie isn't really listening. Midway through the second sentence of the explanation David nudges Charlie with his shoulder, then hooks his head sideways, away from the group, in the universal gesture of 'I want to talk to you.' Charlie nods and the two of them edge away from the group into a corner of the green room.

"How are you, then?" Charlie asks. He can't quite make himself stop looking at that smile on David's face, the sweet little upturn of his mouth.

"I'm—" David hesitates, then says, "Good. I'm good. And you?"

"Not too bad," Charlie allows.

"What did you say to Rob?" David blurts. He looks faintly bemused, like he's had a shock, but a good one.

"To... Brydon over there?" Charlie asks, feigning incomprehension.

"No, no," David says impatiently. "Rob, my Rob. He said you called this morning. Said you stole his number out of my phone, which I don't remember happening."

"Ah," Charlie says. "It was a while ago." Technically true, by some metric, at least. "I just wanted to see if I could get him for You Have Been Watching in the spring. I know I should have gone through his agent and all that, but I figured a direct appeal might actually get me somewhere. He's not exactly known for doing the panel show thing."

"No, no," David says, "it was good you called him directly. I think he's got used to saying no, but you were apparently quite persuasive. I guess I just thought... I don't know what I thought, exactly." He scrubs a hand over his chin. "But it's good. I've been trying to get him to do more, without much success. Care to let me in on your secret?" He says this last somewhat jokingly, but Charlie can hear a hint of something else underneath it.

"Not much of a secret," Charlie says. Okay, that's completely a lie, but a necessary one. "Persistence, I guess. Told him if he said no I'd have to badger him repeatedly until he said yes."

"Hmm," David says.

"And flattery," Charlie says. "Can't go wrong there." He pauses. "I'll want to have you on in the spring as well, of course."

"Sometimes I can't tell whether you're being deeply transparent or deeply subtle," David says. "But yes, of course I'll do it."

Charlie laughs. "Hey, I contain multitudes, all right?" David gives him a surprised look at this, and Charlie hurries to change the subject. "So we need to come up with a team name for this thing, yeah?"

"Oh," David says. "Yes, I suppose so. Do you have a suggestion?"

"I was thinking 'Ignorance and Want,'" Charlie says; the Dickens from earlier is still fresh in his mind.

"Seasonally appropriate," David says, nodding a little. "Which of us is which? Might be better if we don't actually specify."

Charlie's pretty sure that the pathetic flutter in his chest means that he's Want and David is Ignorance, but he doesn't particularly want to have to explain why. "Unspecified sounds fine. Erm, go team?" David's mouth twitches into a smile, and Charlie has to bite the inside of his mouth to remind himself not to stare.

"Please don't expect me to fist bump you or anything as vulgar as that," David says. "But, er, yes. To victory."

"Amen," Charlie says.

By the time they rejoin the rest of the group, the conversation has moved on to Russell's current project, some sort of book, and Charlie only has to struggle a little to bite back a comment about infinite monkeys and infinite typewriters.

"Now I'm starting to think I should be undertaking some immensely ambitious enterprise," Jimmy says. "Perhaps I'll stand for my local council." Charlie's heard this before, but he always enjoys seeing the others react, and the next thing Jimmy says is, "Hey, there is absolutely no need to look that horrified, all right?"

"You could do some sort of news commentary show," Rob suggests. "Not a panel show, we've enough of those."

"Not counting yours, of course," says Claudia.

"Of course," Rob says, sticking his nose in the air.

"Actually," Jimmy admits, "I'd kind of like to try doing something live." He scrubs his hands together. "Just for the challenge. I mean, stand up's one thing, but you've got a routine for that at least, and a smaller audience. Live telly could be higher stakes."

"I love the way you're constantly looking for chances to fuck it up in front of as many people as possible," Charlie says. "That's really admirable. Oh, wait, did I say admirable? I meant to say mental."

"Oh, come on," Jimmy says. "You like horror and all that. Just think of live telly as your very own personal horror movie."

"The thing about a horror movie, though, is that no one is actually trying to murder you," Charlie points out. Okay, yeah, he can't actually die anymore, but that doesn't mean he's excited about the idea of being dismembered by a man with a chainsaw and a set of dental instruments.

"Now I really want to come up with a brief for something live, just to coerce you into doing it with me," says Jimmy.

"There's a word for what you are," Charlie says.

"Charming?" Jimmy suggests.

"Satanic?" says Rob.

"Ambitious?" That's Russell.

"Cruel?" That's Jonathan.

"Incorrigible?" That's Claudia.

"Sadistic?" says David.

Charlie taps his nose and points in David's direction."Sadistic was the one I was going for, yeah." He notices that David goes a little flushed in the cheeks at this, which is endearing.

"Oh, well, sadistic, yes," says Jimmy. "I thought you were going to say something insulting."

Before Charlie can think of something to say to that, Emma comes in and sends them all off to makeup. Charlie follows on auto-pilot, too busy thinking about David's flustered expression to do anything but sit where he's told and let Marcia do mysterious things to his face. And by the time he gets around to really focusing again they're seated in front of the audience. At the next desk over, Rob is flirting with the woman who's clipping a microphone to his shirt; Charlie always finds this bit vaguely embarrassing, like watching a newly-single dad hitting on his children's teachers or something, so he tunes it out and turns to David.

"So, we actually intend to win this, yeah?" he says. "I mean, just to be clear. I think we should have some sort of consensus on our overall strategy."

David laughs. "Good point. Yes, this is a quiz! We should do it properly. Also, I suspect that if we lose to those two idiots," he tips his head in the direction of Jonathan and Russell, "I will be quite cross."

"Mmm," Charlie says. "Can't have that."

"You wouldn't like me when I'm angry," David says solemnly, and Charlie bursts out laughing. God, it's weird to have David in such a playful mood, but he likes it. He really likes it.

"What are you two giggling about in the back of the class, then?" calls Rob.

"Your bald spot," Charlie calls back. Rob claps a hand to the back of his head in an exaggerated gesture, sending a wave of laughter through the audience.

"You realize he'll be weeks worrying about it now, right?" David asks.

"What a pity," Charlie drawls.

David sniggers a little. "You're a bastard," he says admiringly. Charlie can't help but preen a little at that.

The crew is efficient, and it only takes another two or three minutes before everyone is kitted out and the opening music rolls. Charlie lets his gaze take in their competitors, trying to remember what it was like before he knew them at all. They all seem so different, so much less boring and horrible. So much more like people. But the nature of all of this means, of course, that they haven't changed. It's only him that's changed.

If he's honest, he doesn't quite know how to feel about that.

"I have a very important question for you," he says abruptly, just loud enough for David to hear him over the music.

"Mmm?"

"D'you think Russell mugged a tramp for that shirt?"

David snorts and then punches Charlie lightly in the arm under the desk. "Don't make me laugh, you idiot, we haven't even started yet!"

It sounds alarmingly like a challenge.

Chapter Text

He keeps up a running string of commentary under his breath as they sit through the introductions and then begin answering the first few questions. David's cheeks go pink at first, but he gets hold of himself relatively quickly and after that it's only the twitch of the corners of his mouth that tells Charlie he's achieving something.

Charlie's having such a nice time murmuring amusing things at David that he almost forgets about the whole dancing thing. Then abruptly Jon Snow is talking about muffins, and Charlie sighs.

"Any idea?" David says.

"I think... I'm not exactly Mister Music, but I think it might be Lady Gaga? Who I haven't heard but I've heard of." He's done this enough that it's more or less convincing when he pretends he has no idea what the answers are. He could just get it right, confidently, but he knows that just ends up with everyone taking the piss out of David alone. At least if he pretends some ignorance they can share the spotlight of dancing shame – it feels kind of romantic by now, as if they're a team against the rest of the world, two rebels who won't be browbeaten into dancing.

Which is a pathetic thing to feel romantic about, but he'll take whatever he can get with David, even if it's entirely in his own mind. Maybe especially if it's in his own mind, because then he'll still get to have it again tomorrow.

"I suppose that's as good a guess as any," David says.

"Want to go with that?"

"Sure, fine."

"These two—" Jimmy starts.

"We haven't got a clue," says David, more voluble than he usually is at this point in the proceedings. "No, I think Charlie has a very vague idea that it might be something he hasn't heard. I'm convinced it's something I haven't heard. But it's difficult for me to select from all the billions of things I haven't heard, which one it is."

"Yeah," says Jimmy, "if it's not on Phil Collins' No Jacket Required you really haven't got much of a chance."

"Well actually," David says, all exaggerated disdain, "you're way behind, because just the other day I was writing in a newspaper how I've also bought Susan Boyle's album." This gets a huge laugh. "I have now bought two albums... and have consequently concluded that music is shit."

Charlie can't help but grin at that. It's odd, he thinks. He's seen differences before – seen the way changing the conversation in the green room makes ripples that eddy through what they do on stage, causing a different word here or there, occasionally a whole changed sentence that he has to stumble and react to in real time. But mostly those things are small, barely noticeable. This – David turning the music thing into an opportunity for self-deprecation, David choosing this of all things to let himself be ragged about – this is something else entirely.

"Well, good luck with that question," Jimmy says.

"That means your entire record collection are the tracks that we put on when we want other people to leave at the end of the party," says Jonathan.

"I think... basically deep down I want myself to leave," David says. The audience gives a little 'aww' in response; Charlie's too far gone to pretend that he isn't sort of doing the same, inside his head. Part of him thinks he can detect a tinge of real mournfulness there, underlying the humor. But David's already laughing at the sympathy. "Brilliant!" he says, giving himself two ironic thumbs up. "Pity!"

They move on to the answers, and eventually the music question comes around again.

"You heard Jon Snow reporting on a popular tune of 2009," Jimmy says. "What was it?"

"Is it that?" Charlie says, indicating their scrawled answer of 'Poker Face.' He might as well put himself straight in the spotlight here. "Is that what it is?"

"Well," Jimmy says.

"Literally I was just guessing, I was just trying to interpret," Charlie says. "I don't listen to... music and sounds and things like that." They've already covered David's music collection tonight, so on the spur of the moment he tilts his head in David's direction. "And he's only got two flippin' records."

"And it's not on either of them," David chimes in.

"Where've you been?" Jonathan asks accusingly. "Where've you been that you don't hear music?"

"Clapham!" Charlie says, which gets a good laugh from the audience and a snort from David.

A survey of the other answers shows that, yes, everyone else in the universe knows this song. The clip plays, and Charlie takes his opportunity to pretend that he's actually just recognized it. "Oh, I've heard this!" he says.

David is nodding, too. "Oh, yeah, I've heard this."

"Oh, you've heard this?" Jimmy says sarcastically.

Rob seems more fascinated by Lady Gaga's fire-shooting corset thing. "I have never in my life seen a woman lactate that violently," he says, when the music's died.

"Did you like it now you've heard it properly?" Jonathan asks.

"No," Charlie says.

"Why not?"

"It's all right," David says, sounding a bit bemused.

"It's—"

"I'm not sorry it's stopped," David says tartly, which gets a round of laughter.

"Do either of you ever dance?" Jonathan asks.

"No," Charlie says.

David also says, "No," but with a laugh in his voice, and suddenly Charlie realizes—

He's still trying to shield David from the worst of this whole humiliating experience. But none of this is going the way it had before. Many of the words are different – but more importantly the whole mood is different, as if the aggressive edge to it all is just missing.

He's almost forgotten what it was like not to be completely in control of the conversation. After a moment he scrambles out an apology. "I'm speaking for you," he says, giving David a nudge with the back of his hand.

David just shakes his head, brushing it off. He tells Jonathan, "No, no, I don't."

"I bet you dance at home... what about if you've just had a— a banging shower, and you hear that, would you just do a little thing with the towel?" Jonathan's mime of the thing with the towel is as horrifying this time around as it has been every other time. Charlie can tell David agrees, because David gives Jonathan a look that says, very clearly, 'I find you frightening.'

"No?" David says.

"Bust a move?"

"I really wouldn't."

"What would you do," Jimmy asks, "if that comes on, and you've stepped out of the—"

"Man, I'll work it," says Jonathan. "I'll do the full—"

"Can we have that again? I'd like to see Jonathan... show us what he can do."

"Oh, no, I can't do it now, I need to be naked," Jonathan says, but when the music starts up again he starts waggling in his seat, waving his arms about.

"D'you think he's having a seizure?" Charlie mutters to David.

David tilts his head as if he's considering the idea. "You'd think it would involve more foaming at the mouth," he mutters back.

"See, you've got to bust the move," Jonathan says, as the music dies for the second time. "But I'd like to see— Come on, now let's see the fellows have a go."

A cheer goes up from the audience. Charlie rolls his eyes. At least this part is the same. "No," he says.

"Come on, let's see a bit!" Jonathan exhorts.

"Okay, let's have some from David and Charlie," Jimmy says.

"No, no, this isn't—" David starts, and then when that seems to make no impression on anyone, "No!" He lifts a finger in the universally snooty gesture of 'oh, pardon me,' which makes Charlie snort. The music starts yet again, but David shakes his head. "Absolutely not."

Charlie can't resist the urge to tease. "You're going first, if we're giving in to this," he says, gesturing. He's rewarded with a glare.

"I refuse," David says.

The music dies away, and Charlie makes a futile attempt to turn the whole thing on Jimmy. "Right, now let's see your—"

But David cuts right through him. "What the fuck makes you think I was going to do that?" David says, and it's so unexpected that Charlie actually cackles. "This isn't the fucking Generation Game!" David's in particularly high form, ranting with the color high in his cheeks. "Fuck off!" he says expansively. "I'm hired to sit here and be sarcastic! Not to dance around like some cunt."

It could have been genuinely angry – in all the previous versions of this moment it was angry. But Charlie knows David well enough by now to be sure that this here – this exaggerated high dudgeon – is at least ninety percent just playing along.

"Like some cunt?" Jimmy says melodramatically. "His name is Jonathan, leave him alone."

"This is actually— The world is full of people, trying to make people who don't want to dance, dance. At weddings and things. 'Go on, have a dance, you want to, really.' No, I really don't want to. I know my own mind, I don't want to."

"David—" Jonathan says, trying to break in.

"And now it's happening to people on television!" David says.

"Charlie, I bet you do dance," Jonathan says.

Charlie has to blink before answering, stumbles over words that he ought to be able to conjure up easily. "No," he says. "No, no, no. I have spent, if you accumulated it, I have probably spent six months of my life being— people trying to drag me onto dance floors. What is fun about it?" He scrambles to come up with a good line that he hasn't already used, or even one that he has, and what comes out is, "I'm like a frightened horse on a frozen lake," which is weird but at least vaguely appropriate.

"I think it's good that them two have found each other now," says Russell. "They would be happy together."

Charlie's heart gives another painful lurch. God, how he wishes that were true.

"The curmudgeons," Jonathan says, nodding a little.

"Maybe we should change the name of our team to The Curmudgeons," David says. "To The People Who Won't Join In."

"Or maybe," Jonathan suggests, "you should change the name of the team to The Men Who Will Dance If They Win."

"Yeeeeees," says Claudia.

"No!" says David.

The audience gives a cheer.

"Oh, there's some popular support for that," Jimmy says, which gets another prolonged cheer.

David catches Charlie's gaze, gives him a look of faintly amused exasperation.

Charlie wants to kiss him rather desperately, takes refuge in sarcasm instead. "What sort of Reich is this you're establishing?"

He feels relived when the director decides they'd better move on and Jimmy continues with the next answer. They finish the round and start the next one, but they're four questions in when they hit Tim Minchin's song about Google Street View and Jonathan circles back to the topic of dancing once again, like a dog with a bone.

"I can't believe you didn't feel the urge to bust a move to that... banging tune," he says. "I was going, and I was looking over and you didn't move, neither of you, you sat there stolid and unhappy."

Charlie can hear David sigh a little at this, but quietly.

"Stewing in your own middle-aged juices," Jonathan continues.

Charlie laughs, a little uncomfortably. "He's genuinely scared about that," he says, trying to come up with something to say and then regretting it almost as soon as the words are out of his mouth. He hadn't actually intended to put the spotlight back on David.

Christ, he thinks, how the hell did I interact with other human beings back when every day was unpredictable like this? Badly, I suppose.

"Seriously, I think you're going to love it," Jonathan says.

"I will not dance on television," David says, but it's a futile statement.

"I'm telling you," Jonathan says, carrying on right over him, "you dance, I'll guarantee you'll lose your virginity this year."

Charlie winces a little inside. It's a lower blow than Jonathan had probably meant. Not because David's actually a virgin – at least, Charlie's pretty sure he isn't – but because he is genuinely single and a bit lonely, because he'd admitted to Charlie (uncountable December the sevenths ago) that he worries he'll be single and lonely forever.

"Because if no one else offers, I'll do it," Jonathan finishes. "I'll take it for you." He looks horribly smug, and Charlie has to clench his fingers into fists to keep from getting up and punching him right in the face.

David looks vaguely uncomfortable at the suggestion, but rallies after a brief hesitation. "You're going to fuck me up the arse, is that what you're saying?" The audience bursts into a scream of laughter, and whatever brief tension the moment had held dissipates.

"Oh, heavens no," Jonathan says, waving his hands in the air with exaggerated disapproval.

"I'm so sorry," David says prissily.

Finally they move on for real, to Rob's 'small man in a box' routine. In the brief break before they start revealing answers David uncaps his bottle of water and puts it to his lips. Charlie finds himself watching David's mouth, jerks his gaze away and blurts, "So, I'm beginning to think Jonathan's a bit obsessed with you. D'you think it's a sexual thing?"

David chokes on his water. When he recovers from the coughing fit he gives Charlie a deeply alarmed look. Charlie stifles a laugh.

"What the fuck makes you say that?" David hisses.

"Well, he has mentioned your arse about six million times already, and we're barely a half hour in," Charlie says. "Maybe he really does want to—" He suddenly realizes that the end of that sentence is going to be 'take your arse virginity' and manages to cut himself off before the words actually come out. "...you know," he finishes lamely.

"Oh, do go on, by all means," David says darkly, but he relents after a moment. "Actually don't. You might tempt someone out there in the universe to actually make it so." He twists the cap back onto the bottle of water and sets it gloomily onto the shelf underneath the desk. "It'd be just my luck to have my only romantic prospect at the moment be Jonathan fucking Ross."

"Not blond enough?" Charlie says, and almost immediately regrets it, especially because he's not actually supposed to know about David's thing for Vicky, not this time around.

David's gone a bit pink in the cheeks, but he says, "More like I can't imagine wanting to have sex with anyone who would have a 'banging' post-shower dance, much less one as horrifying as Jonathan's. Christ, imagine what he'd be like in bed."

Now it's Charlie's turn to have a coughing fit. By the time he's managed to get it under control they're rolling camera again, so he can't do more than glare at David. David gives him a smirk in reply.

-----

They get through the rest of the show with only five or six thousand more dancing references. Charlie rants about Total Wipeout, mainly because he'd turned it on the other day out of sheer desperation for something new to watch and then been so horrified after having spent a half hour watching people get punched in the face repeatedly that he'd had to go and buy a sandwich for a homeless person just to feel slightly less self-hatred.

The segment about Robert Webb's Flashdance performance goes well for once. Even Jonathan describing Robert as "the dancing half of the Mitchell and Webb partnership" does nothing to dull the sly smile on David's face. It makes Charlie feel immensely glad to have persevered with the whole Robert thing. He hadn't really realized just how much that fight had shaped David's whole day, how much weight David had been carrying until now, suddenly, he isn't.

The jokes that Charlie's accustomed to hearing come and go: Russell talks about pornography a lot and accuses Jimmy of being a serial killer. Claudia comments about how Stuart Broad looks like he's ten years old. Jimmy makes a rape joke and Russell and Jonathan walk off the set in faux outrage. Rob does his impression of James Nesbitt, which isn't particularly convincing, and it devolves into a depressingly terrible impressions battle in which Jonathan and Rob both try to do Stallone simultaneously. After that, Rob does Ronnie Corbett, Buddy Holly, and Hugh Grant in quick succession.

"Why the hell did impressions become a thing?" Charlie mutters to David. "I mean, doing one for satire purposes I can understand, but this is literally just making some noises."

"Some people like noises, I'm told," David mutters back. "Isn't that what music is? Just noises that some people like?"

"Do you think Jonathan does impressions right after he gets out of the shower, then?"

David turns a horrified expression in his direction. "Please don't make me have to think about Jonathan naked ever again, all right?"

They move on to David Attenborough's rat-eating plant. Charlie tells a terrible story about the rat trap he'd bought at a pound shop, mainly to distract the audience from the fact that he's spent most of the evening watching David with an indulgent smile on his face.

More jokes come and go – the discussion of all the death threats Russell had got from Americans last year and his ensuing jest about reincarnation (Charlie stopped finding this bit amusing after about the fiftieth time he'd killed himself), the five minutes spent mocking Jimmy's laugh, which devolves into full on animal noises ("You had to tempt fate with that comment about impressions, didn't you?" David says.), Jimmy's New Year's Eve glasses, and Jedward (who almost don't even need any proper jokes).

In between Charlie keeps murmuring things just for David to hear, making guesses about what jokes the other teams will have made (though he's careful not to be right too often). David murmurs back just as much, snide comments that get increasingly more scatological as the night goes on.

It's all in relatively good fun, like they could almost be in the pub, crammed around a booth with the other five idiots all together and talking bollocks just because, rather than under half a million lights in front of a studio audience.

By the time they get to the last few question Charlie knows they're going to win. He ought to feel triumphant about it. He's tired and sweaty and a tiny bit sick of the sound of Russell's voice, and he and David are definitely going to show themselves to be the superior quiz team. But for once he's actually having fun here. For once, he doesn't exactly want it to be over.

"Okay," Jimmy says, "very last question of the quiz. Would be burglars Matthew McNelly and Joey Miller from Iowa were branded Most Useless Criminals due to their unusually crap means of disguise. Can you tell me how they disguised themselves?"

"Any idea?" David says.

"Not really," Charlie says. It's not as if he hasn't had good jokes for this one – he's had a good joke for every question, at some point or other. But he can't seem to summon one up at the moment. Mainly because he's too busy thinking about how things are going to go when they get off stage. They'll all go to the pub, probably, like they all have in so many other versions of this night. That'd be all right. He could sit next to David, if he played his cards right, could prolong the easy pleasure of close conversation for another few hours before he has to head home and sleep and get up and do it all over again.

"Maybe they went to a costume shop and bought a burglar costume," David says. "Like, the traditional thing. That way when the police asked, 'What did they look like?' the witnesses would just have to say, 'Well, they looked like burglars.' This would be their clever plan."

"Ah, yeah, okay," Charlie says. He writes down, 'As burglars?'"

"Okay, what have you all got?" Jimmy says. "Let's have a look."

"We put... they dressed as each other," Russell says. Charlie has a sudden and vivid mental picture of Russell and Jonathan dressing as each other and he can't help but laugh.

"Okay. David, Charlie?"

David says, "We thought, 'as burglars,' like in traditional burglars' outfits." Charlie mimes wearing a burglar's mask, mainly as an excuse to make David look in his direction. "But that wouldn't be nearly as stupid," David continues, tipping his head in Russell and Jonathan's direction, "as... as each other."

"You really leapt up like you genuinely knew that," Charlie says, pointing at Russell. Russell beams back at him in a slightly alarming fashion.

"Okay, Rob and Claudia?"

"We put, 'parted their hair in the opposite direction.'" Rob says.

"I can tell you, you are all wrong," says Jimmy. "They actually... well, what they did, well, have a look, have a look at the disguises." The picture comes up – two idiots with masks drawn on their faces in marker. The audience bursts into giggles. "They... yes, they got a marker pen and painted masks on... and they were caught."

David is shaking his head slowly, an incredulous grin on his face.

"Because it was magic marker," Jonathan says, "and it wouldn't come off, they couldn't wash it off."

"Nothing magic about that," says Russell. "It's horrible."

"Well, without further ado, here are the final scores. You're competing for this magnificent trophy," Jimmy says. "Hang on, hang on." He catches it as it's thrown on from off-stage. "Oof, that's heavier than it looks."

"You know what?" David says quietly. "I wanted to win right up until now."

"What, you don't fancy it?" Charlie says. "It's got, er, ribbons..."

David gives him a flat look.

"Right," Jimmy says, "I can tell you that in last place are Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand." Literally no one but the two of them look even remotely surprised by this, but they get a round of applause anyway. "In second place with twenty-nine points, it's Rob Brydon and Claudia Winkleman. But the winners of the Big Fat Quiz of the Year 2009... it's David Mitchell and Charlie Brooker." Jimmy walks over, carrying the trophy. "Gentlemen."

"Maybe if we look appropriately celebratory, they won't try and make us dance," David mutters, as Jimmy hands it over. Charlie wishes it were that easy, but he knows the others well enough now that he's pretty sure they'll try to make him and David dance no matter what he does. He sets the trophy down on the desk between them with a thump, gives it an awkward pat. David curls a hand around one of the handles and flicks a look at Charlie out of the corner of his eye.

Charlie waves his hands vaguely in the air and says, "Woo," in a distinctly anemic voice. David coughs and kicks him in the ankle.

"Rubbish," he says. It sounds more affectionate than disapproving and Charlie flushes a little.

They shut up long enough to let Jimmy do his closing bit. After that the end music rolls, but not loudly enough to drown him out. "Do you have anything to say?" Jimmy asks.

"Er," Charlie says. He exchanges a look with David.

"No?" David offers.

"No," Charlie says, more firmly.

"Do you have a dance you wanna do?"

"No, I... I'd rather not do a dance," David says, perfectly prim. Charlie presses his lips together to keep from grinning at the disgruntled expression on David's face.

The audience begins to cheer and then clap, all in unison.

"Erm," David says. Charlie shrugs.

"Well, we can do this the easy way or the hard way," Jimmy says.

"Well," David says. He makes no move to get up, even as the cheering intensifies.

"This is... this is society at its ugliest," Charlie says, but now he definitely is grinning, despite himself.

"Yeah, no," David says. "This'll get..." He makes a snipping gesture with his fingers. "No. So..." He addresses the audience directly. "So, no. But thanks for coming!" It's said in the sort of fuck-you-style of cheerfulness that David deploys only rarely. "And, er..." He turns back to Charlie, both eyebrows raised as if to ask, 'Fucking hell, what now?'

Charlie absolutely loses it, a spontaneous laugh bubbling out of him.

David kicks him in the ankle again, hard, then turns back to the audience with a wave. "Bye!" Charlie almost loses it again, but manages to get himself under control just as the music finally ends.

And that's it. It's over.

There's a little bit more harassment about dancing as they come off the stage, but it trails off in the green room as exhaustion finally begins to set in. Jonathan claps David on the back and disappears through the door into the hallway, where dressing rooms and toilets await them. Russell says, "Jonathan, I wanted to ask you..." and follows after. There's a small mass exodus. A moment later, Charlie and David are alone in the green room. David is still carrying the trophy, dangling it at his side like a particularly awkward bag of groceries.

"I can't believe we actually fucking won," David says, and though he's obviously trying to sound cynical there's a hint of genuine amazement in his voice that makes Charlie's heart beat quicker.

"Yeah, well," Charlie says. He scuffs his feet. "Of course we won. Clearly the best team, you and me. Now you'll have a big fucking cup with gay ribbons on it to stand behind your Bafta. Well done."

David giggles, and Charlie looks up, wanting to catch a glimpse of that smile.

Their eyes meet.

David leans in, and before Charlie really registers what's happening David is kissing him, lips warm and faintly chapped.

Charlie would have thought by now that nothing could surprise him. He's been through hundreds, thousands of possible permutations of today, but none of them had ended like this. Even the best day – the day he'd convinced David of the truth and they'd spent the rest of it just eating curry and talking about everything and nothing, a day so wonderful that he hadn't been able to bring himself to repeat it – even that hadn't ended with David's sweet mouth on his. In fact, it had contained rather a depressing amount of David talking about how he was pining for Vicky Coren. So for the first time in a long time, Charlie is caught completely unprepared.

So unprepared, in fact, that he doesn't even kiss back, and then David is pulling away, the light in his eyes dying out. "S-sorry," David says. "Sorry, I just thought—"

Charlie knows he'll get another chance tomorrow, but even so he can't bear to see that look on David's face. He reaches up, grabbing the lapel of David's blazer and pulling him close again for another kiss. David drops the trophy in shock, the metal clanging loudly against the floor.

"Oi," Jimmy hollers from outside the door. "Treat that with fucking respect, you two. I've got to give it to some other poor bastards next year."

David laughs against Charlie's lips, and then they're kissing properly, hot and breathless and desperate. David's tongue curls wetly into Charlie's mouth, eager and firm. Charlie slides his hands up, cups the back of David's head with one palm and lets the other stroke the column of David's throat. He can feel the bob as David swallows, warm skin shivering under his touch.

"Charlie," David groans softly.

Oh, fuck, Charlie thinks. "Yeah?"

"D'you want to—"

The door to the hallway bangs open, and the two of them spring apart just as Claudia sticks her head in. David's face is red and Charlie's sure his own must be, too, because he feels like his skin is basically on fire.

Claudia looks back and forth between them, then grins and makes a 'lips zipped' gesture across her mouth. She looks ridiculously smug. "Jimmy wants to know are you boys coming to the pub, then?"

"Pub," Charlie says stupidly. "Er. Yes?"

David nods. "Five minutes."

Claudia waggles her eyebrows in a way that somehow conveys an absolutely filthy idea about how they might spend those five minutes, then nods. "Chop chop," she says, and closes the door again.

"David—"

"We should—" David isn't looking at him, is wide-eyed and obviously off-balance.

Don't push, Charlie tells himself firmly. So he says, "Pub, yeah? Got to wash all this bullshit off my face, first, though," instead of all the things he'd rather say. Like 'I could almost certainly get you off in five minutes' or 'Can I just get on my knees for you right now?' or 'Come back to mine and bend me over the sofa, please.'

"Er," David says. "Yes." He drags his gaze away from the closed door to meet Charlie's, and whatever he sees there must reassure him somewhat because he steps in close again, a determined look on his face, and reaches up to cup Charlie's face in his hand.

This third kiss is neither as tentative as the first nor as heated as the second. But there's a promise there, in the way that David strokes his thumb against Charlie's cheek. An implication that this could be the start of something, and not just thirty seconds of complete insanity. Charlie can't help but feel a little bittersweet about that, but he tries to match the feeling, kissing David back as lingeringly as he can manage.

Eventually they pull apart again, both breathing heavily. David makes a jerked motion in the direction of the door to the hallway. "Go on," he says, voice unsteady. "See you in a few?"

"Yeah," Charlie says, and goes.

Chapter Text

The splash of cold water on his face is like... well, it's like a splash of cold water, basically.

"What the fuck am I doing?" Charlie whispers, staring at his face in the grubby mirror that hangs above the sink in the dressing room. Because he's taking advantage, there's no denying that. David had kissed him first, sure, but only because Charlie had slowly, patiently gotten him to the point of wanting to. Never mind that he'd told himself he only wanted to be better friends, told himself it was all just a puzzle to be solved, to get under David's skin. He'd still manipulated things, manipulated people – Robert and Jimmy and Jonathan and David himself – by virtue of being able to go back and do today again and again. How can he let anything happen between them, knowing how much of it he'd caused?

He scrubs his face with the towel, chasing the last caked edges of makeup around his hairline. When he looks up again, the view's no better.

"You're a sick fuck, Brooker," he tells himself. He can't stop thinking about all those fans he'd slept with, way back at the beginning of all of this. And the girl, the last one – he can't remember her name, but he can remember that she was just seventeen.

He wants David more than he wanted any of them, but that doesn't make it better. Maybe it makes it worse.

-----

He can barely meet David's eyes as they join the others and tromp across the road to the pub, and when they shove themselves into a booth Charlie makes sure that he's on one side and David on the other. What he's thinking is that it's probably a terrible idea for them to be touching, just at the moment, but of course the whole plan backfires rather spectacularly because now he has to look at David the whole night, the pink flush of his cheeks and the way his lips part around the rim of his pint glass, the pale skin of his neck framed by his lush purple shirt. He's so fucking beautiful.

The conversation wanders, from Jimmy's idle complaints about the length of the recording – longer this year than last year but always a slog, he says – to Claudia's rambling anecdote about taking over for Bruce on Strictly, to Rob's hopes for his own chat show, to Jonathan's dire warnings about running one's own chat show.

Charlie exerts himself to pay attention, to laugh and to be amusing himself in his turn. It's partly a defense mechanism, because if he's being amusing then he doesn't have to think about the way David had touched his face earlier, the way David had kissed him. The way he desperately wants David to kiss him again.

David is relatively quiet at first, but either the conversation or the pint he's drinking must relax him a little, because by the time Jonathan's well and truly into his rant about spineless BBC cunts of various descriptions, David is genuinely giggling. Jonathan finishes with, "—and if that wasn't enough, he said they'd just get fucking Clive Anderson back!" and David cracks and laughs, open-mouthed and awkward.

Something clicks in the back of Charlie's mind. Because this isn't some porno version of David that Charlie's conjured up, or that he's molded David into. It isn't suave and sultry and sophisticated, or even some horrifying, cheesy cliché. It isn't any of the things he's spent long afternoons imagining. It's just David being himself, ungraceful and ridiculous and sincere. It's the way he's always been – even before December the seventh had started circling around itself like a fly around a fresh pile of poo – and Charlie suddenly realizes that just because he's changed the circumstances of tonight doesn't have to mean that he's changed the people themselves, doesn't have to mean that he's changed David. Because he can't change David, not really, can't even predict him with any actual reliability. David is a person, not a trick to be learnt like flicking cards into a hat from fifteen feet away.

So maybe it's okay for Charlie to have made the changes that he has. Maybe things are now as they could always have been, if the situation had been a little bit better.

The lurking sick feeling in the pit of Charlie's stomach slowly begins to dissipate. The conversation moves to up and coming stand up acts, to comedy films, to comedy horror spoofs and then to horror generally. Charlie ends up giving a hasty pitch for Black Mirror, ending with "…so then, yeah, you can see where the pig fucking is going to go, really."

"Oh, god," Rob says, sounding horrified. Claudia's expression indicates she agrees with the sentiment.

"Charlie, mate, you are truly proper weird," Russell says, but admiringly. David is favoring Charlie with a wry, fond expression.

Eventually the conversation winds down. Rob yawns and says something about getting home to his kids, then Claudia does too and after that they're all standing, gathering their coats. Charlie slides out of the booth, shrugging his coat on too, and finds himself standing beside David without consciously having decided to. He probably shouldn't press. But today's been so brilliant that he can't help but take the chance. Fuck it. "Share a cab?" he murmurs. David flicks a glance at him and then nods, once, hurriedly.

"Yeah," David says. "That'd be... good. Efficient." There's a flush raised on his cheeks. Charlie wants to kiss him, and kiss him, and kiss him. He settles for letting his shoulder nudge up against David's, then jerks his head towards the door. They say their goodbyes. David falls into step beside him.

The cabbie they get, Charlie knows, is a big fan of Jimmy's, so he and David end up making small talk about him and trying to top each other with a series of increasingly scurrilous and untrue anecdotes. They pull up in front of Charlie's flat in the middle of David's tale of Jimmy, the chicken costume, and the forty cans of whipped cream, and the cabbie's laughing so hard he has to wipe his eyes before he can take Charlie's cash.

"Still up for a drink?" Charlie says, more of a vague gesture in the direction of an excuse than anything else. "And I have those sketches I wanted to show you."

"Oh, right," David says, a little surprised but covering it well. "Yeah, of course."

"Thanks," Charlie says to the cabbie, and tips him exorbitantly. By the time they get to his front door he's already forgotten about the chicken costume, and the cabbie, and everything in the universe that isn't the press of David's shoulder against his own. He gets the door unlocked, and the two of them inside, without more than the minimum amount of fumbling.

"Do you actually want a drink?" he asks, shrugging off his coat and then reaching for David's. God, he has absolutely no idea how to do this. "Because, I mean, I could do a half hour of awkward small talk, if that would get you in the mood."

David snorts. "That's not actually a prerequisite," he says, letting Charlie take his coat. Charlie hangs both coats on a hook by the door without looking. David jams his hands into his pockets nervously, then takes them out again after a split second. He lifts one hand to rub at the back of his neck. "I, er— I know I sort of just lunged at you back there, but for the record it isn't a particularly new thought. I just never guessed you'd—" He swallows. "Be interested. Erm."

How the hell did I not know about this? Charlie thinks. He'd almost been beginning to think that he knew everything about everything, given the circumstances. But this version of today has already surprised him once or twice. What's one more surprise? "Hey, don't knock the lunge as a maneuver," he says. "I appreciate a good lunge, me. It's basically an art form."

They grin stupidly at each other for a moment. Charlie doesn't quite know what to do next, so he settles for putting a hand on David's arm. "Er," he says, and then, "It's not a new thought for me, either. Really not. I—" Christ. Maybe this will go more smoothly if I don't try to talk. He slides his hand upwards to David's shoulder and then to the warm skin of his neck, thrilling at the touch. When he leans in, David leans in, too.

Oh god yes, Charlie thinks. David's mouth is soft, a little hesitant but no less lovely for that. Charlie lets himself nuzzle the corner of David's lips, keeping the kiss easy and light. David sighs out a breath, warm across Charlie's cheek. Charlie's eyes flutter shut almost involuntarily. It's rather overwhelming to think that he's finally here with David, that he finally has the chance to do all the things he's been imagining for what seems like forever.

Maybe it isn't really happening. Maybe he's actually cracked. Maybe he's dreamt this whole bloody thing, right from the start, and now he's finally getting to the good part. If it's that, it probably means he'll be waking up soon.

Either way, he's damned if he's not going to make the most of it.

David's tongue swipes at Charlie's bottom lip, a hint of a question in the movement. Charlie parts his lips and lets the tip of his own tongue meet David's. It's just a tease at first, but something sparks hot and electric between them at the touch. Charlie deepens the kiss, chasing that feeling as he curls his hand around the back of David's neck and tugs him closer. David's hands go to Charlie's waist, ride up under the hem of his blazer until they're flat against his stomach, only the thin fabric of Charlie's tee shirt separating them.

They're kissing hotly now, all slick sliding tongues and heated breaths. David seems to like it when Charlie sucks on his lip, when Charlie touches his teeth to the round curve of it. His hands flex against Charlie's stomach, fabric twisted under his palms, and Charlie's suddenly, achingly desperate to feel David's hands on his skin.

"David—" It's a wrench to tear his mouth away from David's, an even bigger wrench to open his eyes. David's face is flushed pink, his eyes heavy-lidded, and it's utterly enchanting. Charlie can feel his cock beginning to fill at the sight of him.

"Mm?" David says.

"Sofa?" Charlie manages.

"Y-yes."

They barely manage to make it into the sitting room before they're kissing again, open-mouthed and slick and heated. They half-stumble onto the sofa, Charlie falling back against the arm with David draped nearly on top of him. Charlie groans, arching up into the press of David's body. He gets both hands in David's hair, scrunching it in loose handfuls just to feel the soft strands against his fingers. David moans, almost shockingly loud. One of David's hands is braced against the cushions; the other clutches at Charlie's arm, clinging.

"Yeah?" Charlie says, the word muffled by David's mouth.

"Yes, fuck," says David. The profanity makes Charlie shudder and he tightens his grip, tugging gently. David's head tilts back a little, his mouth slipping from Charlie's as his neck presents itself instead, one long, gorgeous line of creamy skin. Charlie gives in to temptation and kisses down the line of it, letting his lips linger on the hollow just beneath David's jaw, then the curve of his Adam's apple, then the jut of his collarbone. When he's kissed every inch he goes back and does it all again, this time with his tongue, circling and teasing until David is shivering against him, gasping great heaves of breath.

David shifts a little, slipping one knee in between Charlie's so that he's more or less straddling Charlie's leg. The movement presses them even closer together, David's thigh a warm pressure on Charlie's cock. A low rumble of pleasure shudders through him. It's enough to startle him – he can see that things have the potential to move rather quickly from here. And he knows he could be selfish, knows he could just fumble through, taking what he wants. It'd be easy enough to wait until next go-round to work out what will make David happy. But he doesn't want to do that, doesn't want to be a bastard. He wants to get this right the first time.

"David," he murmurs. "Tell me what you like. " He lets himself carry on licking slow circles into the warm skin of David's neck, carry on carding his fingers through David's soft hair, tugging a little with each hand in turn.

"I— ah—" David says. His hand is still clutching Charlie's arm, just this side of too hard, and his cock is thickening against Charlie's leg. "I— Oh, fuck, Charlie."

Charlie bares his teeth and scrapes them just at the underside of David's jaw, oh so gently. He kisses that same spot, rubs it with the tip of his nose, and gets so caught up in nuzzling that it takes him a long moment to realize David hasn't actually answered the question. "Mmm?"

"I— I usually have a lot more alcohol in me before I— oh. Before I start talking about sex. Which isn't to say—"

Charlie kisses a line down David's neck and then bites down on another spot, a little harder this time, catching skin between his teeth gently. He'd like to leave a mark here, just for the pleasure of it – it's not as if it'll matter in the morning anyway. But David doesn't know that, and the spot is one that probably won't be entirely hidden by a shirt. Charlie pauses, makes an inquiring noise that he hopes conveys the question.

David twitches, but he says, "Charlie," and then, when Charlie still hesitates, "D-don't stop, for god's sake," and Charlie figures that's about as good an encouragement as he could hope for. He bites again, seals his mouth to the spot and sucks, feeling warmth bloom under his tongue. David groans, a helpless sort of noise, grinding his hips down against Charlie's in a rough slide that sends a sizzle of pleasure across his nerves. David's grip on Charlie's arm has gone tight and painful.

When Charlie finally tears himself away his breath is coming in harsh pants, as much from the friction of David's hip as from the lack of air. "David," he says, a bit stupidly, "David. Christ. You are so fucking gorgeous."

David pulls away, tips his head down to regard Charlie with a strange expression. He's got his lips pressed tightly together, though the dignity of it is somewhat marred by the wild heap of his hair and the bright flush of his cheeks. Not to mention the bruise that's beginning to form above his collarbone where Charlie's mouth has just been. They look at each other for a long moment. David is quite clearly working himself up to saying something; Charlie discovers that he is holding his breath waiting for it.

"I think," David says prissily, "that I would rather like it if you fucked me."

Charlie blurts out the first thing that comes to mind. "You sure? Because I could give Jonathan Ross a call if you prefer—"

David bursts into laughter, lifts his hand from Charlie's arm just far enough to shove at him. "Bite your tongue," he says. "If this is one of those 'speak of the devil and he shall appear' sort of things, I'm afraid the mood is going to be broken fairly irrecoverably."

"Can't have that," Charlie drawls.

"And so if I have to hear the name 'Jonathan Ross' one more time this evening," David says. "I'm dreadfully afraid that I might, as a result, mildly castrate you."

"How do you feel about the name 'Russell Brand'?" Charlie says, because he's too stupid to know when to quit, but David just shoves him again, still grinning.

"How the fuck do you think I feel about it?" he says, and then, his expression softening from amusement into warm affection, "Charlie. I— look, maybe this is moving a bit quickly. But today has been a frankly astoundingly good day. And for once in my life, I don't want to overthink things. So... take me to bed?"

"Yeah," Charlie says, suddenly breathless. He slides his hands down David's neck to his shoulders, squeezes gently. David's hips are still moving against him, a faint rocking motion that's making his cock twitch in little shivers of pleasure. "Yeah, I can do that."

It takes a moment to untangle themselves, but eventually Charlie gets them as far as the bedroom, flicks on the soft bedside lamp. He half wants to shove David down onto the bed, wants to go to his knees, but before he can get that far David's hands are sliding up his chest, easing the blazer off over his shoulders.

"Can I—" David says.

"Yeah," Charlie says. "Yeah, that's—" He lets the blazer drop to the floor. David tugs Charlie's tee shirt up too, so he pulls it off over his head and lets it fall behind him as well. David's hands go to Charlie's shoulders, his pecs, one thumb tracing the trail of hair down his chest and stomach to the waistband of his jeans. Charlie reaches out and starts unfastening the buttons of David's shirt in turn, working from the bottom up. When he gets the last one undone, David shrugs out of his shirt and blazer all at once, dropping them to the floor. He's a little bit soft looking, pale but for the bright flush that's spreading down from his neck, and Charlie wants nothing more than to put his mouth to every single inch of him. "Can you be naked?" he blurts.

David laughs, a little shakily. "If it's mutual."

They stumble out of their shoes and trousers and pants, abandoning it all in a heap. David has an intent look on his face that leaves Charlie feeling simultaneously aroused and anxious – the anxiety is obviously some sort of residual sex-related panic reaction that Charlie had learned so early in life that he can't un-learn it, even though he pretty much doesn't worry about humiliating himself anymore – but before he can do much more than twitch and stare gawpingly at David's really quite nice cock, flushed red and damp and hard against his stomach, David slides his arms around Charlie's neck and kisses him again, bringing their bodies flush together.

"Jesus," Charlie says, too overcome to know what to focus on. He wraps his arms around David's waist, puts his hands to the hollow of his spine and then, helplessly, to David's arse, pert and soft and absolutely perfect to touch. He squeezes his hands in soft flesh, ruts them together in a slow grind until David groans.

"Charlie," he says, the word pushed into Charlie's mouth like melted toffee. "Charlie, I, I—"

"Yeah?"

"I—Touch me?"

Charlie works a hand between them and curls it around David's cock. It's slick already, dripping precome, and it's a good solid weight against his hand. He rubs his thumb over the soft tip, wets his palm and strokes down a couple of times, just to get the feel of it. He feels a little more centered now just from putting the focus on David, even though his own cock is hard and aching. "If I sucked you off," Charlie murmurs, "could you go again after? I really do want to fuck you."

"Yes," David says, his face flushed brick red, "I, yes, given the incentive, I think that's squarely within the realm of possibility, oh, Jesus—" Charlie gives him a hard, tight stroke, tilting his head down to watch as the puffed tip of David's cock pushes through the round circle of his fingers. "Three times is probably a stretch, h—however," David manages.

"Mmm," Charlie says, still a little mesmerized by the sight. Reluctantly he pulls his hand away, pushes David gently backward onto the bed, and arranges him just so, propped up against the headboard with his legs spread. David lets himself be manhandled obediently, though he breathes out hard and sharp when Charlie joins him on the bed, braced on knees and elbows in the space between David's legs.

The mark on David's neck is coming up rather spectacularly now, and Charlie has to fight the urge to lean up and put his mouth to it again, just to see whether David will arch up into it. Instead he dips his head, curls one hand around David's cock and sucks the tip into his mouth.

"Fuck," David says, "fuck, ah—" He tastes amazing, bitter salt and musk. His hands go to fists in the sheets, and Charlie can feel David's thigh muscles flex as he struggles not to thrust up too hard. "Charlie," David says. "Ah, ah, yes, that's really quite—ah, incredible, fuck. Fuck." Charlie rewards this with a sweet kiss to the head of David's cock, a licked spiral down and down until he's half-breathless from the stretch of his throat. David whines when Charlie draws his tongue up the underside, moans as he gives him one slow, greedy suck and then another.

Charlie probably ought to memorize all these noises for the millions of lonely days undoubtedly yet to come, but it's hard to focus on the abstract when his heart is beating so crazily, when David is trembling beneath his mouth. Charlie can feel his own cock beginning to throb, and there's precome dripping stickily onto his stomach and thighs, and spit and precome all down his chin. And then he lifts his eyes to David's face, finds David's lips parted and swollen from kissing, his cheeks flushed, his eyes wide and dark and wild – and really, how the hell had Charlie even imagined he could care about anything except this exact moment?

He slides his thumb down behind David's balls, rubs over the skin there and then back to the soft, crinkled edge of David's hole. David chokes out a gasp, rocks his hips down like he can get Charlie's fingers inside him by sheer force of will and a half inch of leverage. Charlie gives him another slow suck, lets his thumb trace a slow circle, still carefully teasing and not pressing at all.

"God," David says, and then, "Please, Charlie." He's obviously getting close to the edge, hips making little jerks of movement as if he can't quite help himself. "Please, please." Charlie pushes in, pressing past the ring of muscle with his thumb as David groans. Charlie slides his mouth down, takes David as deep as he can. "Yes," David says, "yes, that's perfect, you're fucking—" and shoves up into Charlie's throat as he comes in one long, shuddering burst.

Eventually David collapses back against the pillows, gasping for breath. Charlie leans back, his mouth slipping off David's softening cock with a slick, obscene noise. He keeps his hand where it is. David says, "Jesus Christ," with feeling, and Charlie puts his mouth to David's thigh and laughs.

"I could give him a call, too," he says, kissing the side of David's knee. "Though I've been told he's not particularly excited about the whole 'fucking men' enterprise."

David kicks at him, but it's uncoordinated and ends up nothing more than a faint tap to Charlie's leg. "I think I'll stick with option one," he says.

Charlie flexes his thumb a little, watches the resulting shiver go all the way up David's body. "Yeah?"

"Yeah."

Sadly, Charlie realizes, he's going to have to move his hand; he can't actually reach the bedside table from here. He knows he's got lube and condoms – because pre-December-the-seventh Charlie had been far more optimistic than realistic about his sex life – but they're buried somewhere in the back of a drawer. "Hold that thought," he says.

When he actually does pull his hand free David sighs, long and slow. "No hurry," he says, sounding a little bit blissed out. "I mean, eventually would be good. Otherwise I might die, and I'm afraid it would be a tragedy of international scope if I died without getting you to fuck me."

Charlie snorts, leaning sideways over him to scramble through the drawer and trying to ignore the throb of his still-aching cock. "Would it?"

"Oh, yes," David assures him solemnly. One of his hands comes up to rest on Charlie's side, slides down over the curve of his arse and then back up again. "I think I'd probably have to alert the United Nations."

"You'd alert them from the grave, would you?" Charlie says, digging past the crumpled napkins and pens and tangled cords and loose shirt buttons.

"If you're expecting my jokes to have internal consistency right now," David says, "you're giving yourself far too little credit."

Charlie grins at that, scrabbling hastily through more bedside drawer detritus. He would do this neatly, but David's hand is on his hip, maybe three inches from his cock, and there's a soft, slick noise that tells him David's wanking himself a little with the other hand, easing himself back to hardness. Most of the contents of the drawer go flying. Fuck it, Charlie thinks. Doesn't matter. It'll be fixed tomorrow. The thought of tomorrow is a lurking horror on par with nuclear war or the return of Mr. Blobby to television, so he shoves it away in favor of concentrating on the crinkle of the condom packet, the cool plastic of the bottle of lube against his palm. As he leans back, David's hand goes to Charlie's stomach and then to his shoulders, drawing Charlie up the bed until they're stretched out, chest to chest. David cups the back of Charlie's neck, teases the skin there with his thumb, and then they're kissing again, sloppy and open-mouthed, while David jacks himself slowly between them.

Charlie tries to unfasten the cap of the lube one-handed, fumbles it, ends up having to break off the kiss to look down and coordinate himself. The lube is cold to the touch so he works it between his fingers for a moment, reaches down and nudges David's legs a little further apart with the back of his wrist, resolutely ignoring the desperate twitch of his own cock at the presence of a hand within four hundred miles of it.

David groans at the first touch of his fingers, groans even more as Charlie starts to tease him open with his fingertips. And now Charlie's glad he's looking down, because there's something appallingly seductive about watching his own clumsy hands against David's pale, soft skin, something a little bit filthy, maybe. It's the same impulse that wants David's hair all mussed and sweat-damp across his forehead instead of neat and tidy, the same impulse that makes Charlie's cock twitch when he sees the bright bruise on David's neck and knows that he put it there. David's persona is so prim that it's heady to have the reality be so different, like this is some secret part of him that's only Charlie's to touch and kiss and know. He slips a fingertip into David's hole, pressing slowly and carefully past the ring of muscle until it's enveloped in soft warmth. David makes a shocked noise; Charlie jerks his gaze back up to David's face and stares unashamedly at him, at his plump, parted lips, the fevered flush of his cheeks.

"All right?"

"Yeah," David says, all breathy and half-choked. His hand falls away from his cock, drops down to clench in the sheet instead. "Yeah, yes. That's. Just—" Charlie presses in a little more, crooks his finger and flails around a bit, gently, until he finds David's prostate. This time the groan David gives makes his whole body shudder. "Fuck. Charlie—"

Charlie has to kiss him again, has to, presses his mouth to David's and licks a sloppy line across his lips. When he catches David's tongue between his teeth David groans and shoves his hips down, fucking himself on Charlie's finger like he's absolutely starving for the touch.

Charlie doesn't let him get away with much, teasing with just the lightest touches and reveling in the way David squirms against him. The sounds David makes are incredible – bitten-off words and moans, heated gasps, a faint whine in the back of his throat that grows louder as Charlie carefully puts the pad of his finger everywhere but David's prostate.

Finally David chokes out, "You unbearable fucking tease, do something," which would be more convincing as an insult if his hand weren't clenched tight on the back of Charlie's neck, holding him close. Charlie relents a little, slides a second finger in next to the first and begins finger-fucking David in earnest. The feeling of David's hole clenched tight around his fingers makes him ache to put his cock there, makes him ache, period. But it's also, paradoxically, too lovely to rush – David's slick heat and shuddered breaths and and his pretty blush spreading all down his pale chest. There are bitten indents on David's bottom lip. Charlie leans in to lick at them with the flat of his tongue.

"God," David says against his mouth, and, "Charlie," and, "Shit, fuck, yes—"

"You filthy-mouthed little man," Charlie murmurs, giving his fingers a twist. David's head rolls back against the pillows and Charlie mouths at his neck, finds the purpling bruise he'd made earlier and gives it a suck just to see what will happen.

David makes a sound that is nearly a sob. "Shit," he says, the word directed up at the ceiling. "I— If you're not going for three times, you'd better hurry."

Charlie's accomplished a hell of a lot today, but he suspects he's probably not lucky enough to manage that on top of everything else. He gropes for the condom with his free hand, then almost immediately drops it as David tilts his head back down and fixes him with a look of wild-eyed desperation. David snatches up the condom, his hands shaking a little as he opens the packet. He rolls the condom down over Charlie's cock. Charlie bites the inside of his cheek, hard, just to keep from going off like a rocket. When he pulls his fingers out of David's arse they make a wet, filthy noise.

"Ah," David says. "How d'you—"

"Just—" Charlie dithers briefly, then rolls them over so that he's half leant against the pillows, pulls David up on top of him. This may or may not be something he's thought about, once or twice, and surely it couldn't hurt to give it a shot.

For a moment it's all elbows and knees, but eventually David gets his hands on Charlie's shoulders, his legs around Charlie's waist. Charlie puts his hands on those two perfect arse cheeks, spreading them open. "Oh, fuck," David says, and sinks down with aching slowness onto Charlie's cock.

"David," Charlie says stupidly. "David."

It's good – far better even than he'd ever imagined, tight and slick and hot. David is taut and still above him, lips parted in a soundless O. Then he starts to move, hips rocking in helpless little circles. Charlie lets himself flex into the motion, fingers digging David's skin to pull him close. David groans roughly, as if the sound has been torn from his throat. "Charlie. God." His cock is thick and flushed, dribbling precome down onto Charlie's stomach.

"This all right?" Charlie says, with some effort.

David grins shakily down at him. "Quite," he huffs out. He's unbearably beautiful like this, sweat-dappled and gleaming in the soft light, hair tousled and clumping together in locks where Charlie's hands have been at it.

Charlie's heart gives a terrifying thump. If he hadn't already been totally fucking gone on David, he's pretty sure this would have done it. "God, you're beautiful," he blurts. Two words into the sentence he realizes how it's going to end and tries to stuff the last word back into his mouth, but it won't go, and after a moment he gives up. What harm can it possibly do to say it, any of it? "You make me crazy, you make me want to just— just—"

"Just w-what?" David lifts up, presses down again so sweetly that Charlie momentarily loses the ability to form thoughts.

His mouth doesn't seem to have any difficulties, however – it's already babbling out a litany of increasingly filthy and anatomically improbable suggestions. "I want to eat you out for fucking hours," Charlie hears himself say, as if from a considerable distance. "Bend you over the sofa and go at you until you can't even beg, you're so— ah— desperate. And I want to suck your nipples, god, I should've done that already, what was I thinking?" David is fucking himself slowly on Charlie's cock now, each slide downwards making Charlie's cock go impossibly harder. "I want to come on you," Charlie gasps out; David's cock twitches hard at that, and Charlie seizes on the idea as he tries to match David's rhythm. "Want to just mess you up, mark you, leave my dirty fingerprints all over your skin—"

"Fuck," David moans, dropping his head. "Yes, that's— I mean, I could probably be— persuaded."

Charlie grips David's arse and pushes up into him, deep as he can get, groaning. His brain is riding the edge of overload now, drunk on the hot, slick pressure of David's hole and the pinpricks of sensation where his fingernails are digging into Charlie's shoulders and the sight of him, flushed and hard. He can feel the first stirrings of climax just barely beginning to form. It takes a bit of effort to focus his attention on his hand, to let go of David's arse and reach around to curl his fingers around David's cock instead.

David groans and folds himself down, closer, his mouth landing somewhere in the vicinity of Charlie's. His thighs are trembling. "Ah," he says, "ah, ah, shit, Charlie, I'm—"

"Yeah," Charlie says, "yeah, yes, give it to me," and he kisses David's lovely sweet mouth, fucks up into him, fists his cock slick and tight as David comes with a shudder and a series of desperate groans. His come surges hotly out between Charlie's fingers, filthy and wet. Charlie groans, caught between the feel of it and the clench of David's arse, so desperately good. He makes a feeble attempt to stop his face from making a face – well, from making more of a face than his face usually makes – and then he stops being able to even think about it, stops being able to do anything but thrust up into David and shake and moan as orgasm drags itself up from somewhere behind his navel and rolls over him in thick, slow pulses.

Charlie closes his eyes. He hangs on.

Eventually the shuddering subsides into a faint, twitchy lassitude. Charlie sucks in a slow breath, and then another. He feels a bit like he's floating in a vague, warm darkness, except that every so often some part of his body goes ping! as if to remind him that he has not accidentally destroyed all his nerves via a terminal short-circuit of pleasure. Which is probably for the best.

David's forehead is resting against his cheek, heavy and a little bit sweaty. "That was—"

"Yeah," Charlie says fervently.

"Absolutely," David says, and then he laughs, a warm puff of air over Charlie's chin. "Absolutely." He shifts a little, lifts up. Charlie winces as his cock slides out of David's arse with a loud, wet noise. He slits open his eyes. David is looking down at the mess between them, his face still pink and his hair mashed sweatily across his forehead. He's as attractive as ever – maybe more so. It would be infuriating if Charlie weren't in love with him already. A moment later David flops down on his back, dropping his head to the pillow with a long, extravagant sigh.

Charlie manages to roll towards the side of the bed, fumbling one weak hand to the box of tissues. He pulls off the condom, ties it, and drops it into the bin, but the act seems to rob him of the last of his energy because it takes a herculean effort of will to actually clean himself off as well. When he's done, he slumps down next to David.

"Mmmm," David says. "Mind if I—" He yawns expansively.

"Mmhmm," Charlie agrees. His eyes are already sliding shut again. David presses his cheek to Charlie's shoulder. Charlie turns his head and puts his mouth to David's hair. It's not a kiss, not exactly. He's just resting there, just for a little while.

-----

Charlie wakes to the sound of his mobile.

He almost wants to cry. Yesterday had been... wonderful. Amazing. Perfect. And though he knows he can make it happen again, the thought of having to orchestrate that perfect day over and over again seems crushingly horrible. Maybe it would be better just to stay away from David for a while, find something else to occupy himself.

Maybe he'll learn to dance.

Then the body beside him shifts, rolls over and falls out of the bed. "Fuck," David says, scrabbling through the pile of clothing on the floor. Charlie's gaze gets caught on the curve of his arse. "Fuck, sorry, I forgot to—" David pulls out his phone triumphantly and shuts off the alarm – the alarm which, coincidentally, appears to be exactly the same as Charlie's. David looks up. Their eyes meet.

"Hi," Charlie says stupidly.

"Hi," David says. There's a long moment of silence.

"Wh— What day is it?"

"Er, it's December the eighth," David says slowly. There is an unmistakable mark on his neck, a bright red splotch against pale skin.

"Are you sure?" Charlie asks.

"What—" David says, and then, "Yes, I'm sure."

Charlie turns over, looks for his phone on the bedside table and doesn't find it. Then he's sliding down beside David on the floor and digging through their clothes and the scattered contents of the drawer from the bedside table until he finds his jeans. The phone is wedged into a pocket. When he pulls it out it says "8 December" in big white letters across the display. Charlie stares at it for a moment, unbelieving.

Is this really all he'd had to do? Just have sex with David?

"If you have somewhere to be," David says, sounding uncertain, "I could— I mean— if you'd rather I left—"

Maybe it wasn't just sex with David. Maybe it was David actually wanting to have sex with him. Maybe it was making himself into a person that David could want to have sex with. A person who cooked and who read Dickens. A person who turned up on time for meetings and didn't punch anyone in the face. A person who could see something good even in Russell Brand.

Maybe what he had to do was turn himself into the person who picked up other people's dog shit.

Charlie looks up again, and this time his brain seems ready to actually take things in. He's in his bedroom. With David. Who is naked. Who he has had really mind-destroyingly good sex with, and who he would like to continue having good sex with for the foreseeable future (and laughing with, and maybe even dating, if he's lucky). And for once there actually is a future, because it is not December the seventh. Maybe he does have somewhere to be – he hasn't thought about December the eighth in what seems like forever – and in a few minutes he'll be an adult and check his calendar and figure out what the hell he's going to do next.

But whatever it is can wait, at least for now. It can't possibly be as important as this.

"Don't go," Charlie says, dropping the phone and reaching for David's hand. "I— Come back to bed?"