TITLE: Caroline in the Stairwell


When Caroline rang out her usual morning greeting to her assistant ("Good morning, Richard!"), his low grumble was the first sound to reach her ears.

"Hardly."

She listened to the sounds of him removing his scarf and overcoat before grabbing his portfolio and heading for the partner desk. "What now?" she asked with a patient smirk.

"Oh, where to begin? First there was the train that decided to leave five minutes early this morning, so I had to attempt to hurdle the turnstile. Then there was the devout Evangelical on the platform that wished to rid me of my inner hell-beast-"

Caroline nearly spit out her coffee mid-giggle.

"-when he was done with that, a bum threw up on my shoe, and my continuing travels through Dante's circles then landed me here. So." He grabbed his coffee cup and met her eyes. "What do you want me to start on?"

She grinned, knowing her next revelation would only rile him further - an idea that secretly thrilled her. "Let's start with you getting your coat on."

"Oh," he heaved a sigh of relief. "Thank God, I'm finally fired. Well it's been nice knowing you..."

He headed for the door and she caught his arm along the way, walking with him. "Ha ha, Richard. You think I'd actually fire you? What, and miss out on my daily dose of eye-candy?"

The look in his eyes when he met hers was unreadable, but kind of intense. She cleared her throat and averted her gaze, tucking some of her shoulder-length hair behind her ear. "Actually, we have a meeting at Cassidy Greeting Cards this morning. With Del."

"What do you need me there for?" he grumbled, downright whined as he grabbed the scarf he'd hung up no more than a minute ago. "Can't you and Del go at it without an audience?"

She rolled her eyes, cheek dimpling in a half-smirk. "Come on, I need you. Last time I went to a meeting with Del all by myself, we almost-" She met his eyes again and shook her head. "Yeah, nevermind. But you should be there."

"Okay," he relented, turning away to put his coat on and attempting not to shiver when she brushed leftover snowflakes off his shoulders. "But if he puts on a Barry White album, I'm leaving."

"Fair enough!" she chirped, following him out the door and onto the elevator. "But how do you know the album would be for me?"

He looked over at her, brows furrowed...

She grinned cheekily. "Del appreciates eye-candy too."

As the elevator doors slid shut, he quipped, "He's not my type."


The meeting with Del had been successful, though only marginally for the first few minutes. In the midst of discussing the Valentine's cards, an argument had somehow cropped up about something ridiculous Del had done on their first Valentine's Day as a couple. This then inevitably led to Caroline growing flustered. She gathered up her things and stormed out of the meeting, and Richard had been left alone in the small conference room with Del.

"How's she doing?" he asked tentatively.

Richard stared at him. "How do you think? You irritated her to no end."

"No, I mean..." Del sighed and shook his head, running a hand through his hair. "I don't know what I mean."

Richard frowned. "Oh. Well, I'd imagine you're used to that by now."

"Does she mention me at all? Do you think she misses me?"

"No."

"Way to be blunt, man."

Richard shrugged. "You asked me a closed-ended question. I answered it."

Del shook his head. "Just forget it." He gestured toward the door. "You might wanna catch up with her. You know how she gets when she's ticked."

Richard just nodded and headed for the door, pausing in the doorway with his head downcast and his back to Del. "She misses you."

"What?"

He turned around. "She misses you."

Del breathed a smile, but Richard was quick to continue, "But you don't deserve her."

"Excuse me?"

"Richard!"

Both men jumped as the petite redhead appeared in the doorway beside her assistant, still looking furious. "Let's go! If I storm out, you have to storm out too!"

He furrowed his brows. "Why?"

"Because!" She glimpsed at both men, doing an antsy shift on her feet. "Because I'm the boss and I make the rules. So. There."

When she stormed off again, both men watched her go, Richard nodded and began following after her, "Glad to see your maturity doesn't fail you under duress," leaving Del to just ponder what he'd said to him.

He caught up with Caroline at the elevator, eying the tension in her jaw as she angrily jabbed at the down button. "You're aware that pushing it extra hard won't make the elevator arrive any sooner?"

She glared over at him and he recoiled slightly.

"Right. Maybe I should take a different elevator." To himself, he muttered, "Less of a chance I'll get stabbed."

After another moment, Caroline huffed, throwing her hands up. "I give up. I'm taking the stairs." Stomping off toward the stairwell, she spun briefly on her heel, eyes wide. "Are you coming?"

Richard raised his eyebrows as he watched her spin back the other way, following after her slowly like a prisoner being led to the gallows. "I probably should have taken down that Evangelical's number. An exorcism might be needed."

He stayed a few safe feet behind her as she stomped down the stairs. "This is great," Caroline griped. "Another pointless meeting in which Del acts like a jackass, and," she glanced at her watch, "they close in two minutes so I can't even try to set up a meeting with someone else. Just great."

Several more flights of stairs passed before they reached the ground floor, with Richard just silently thankful that they hadn't been moving in the opposite direction. Surely he would've keeled over by now. "Look," he sighed, "It's over and done with. You can set up your meetings with someone else from now on since you and Del obviously can't be in the same room together right now. Why stay mad at him for being a jackass?"

"He's always a jackass," she countered, to which Richard nodded.

"Exactly. So why waste extra time and energy fuming over something that is, apparently, 'classic Del?'" He shook his head, voice softening as he told her earnestly, "He's not worth it, Caroline."

She paused at that, hand on the door handle as she turned to look at him. She searched his eyes, awaiting the next sarcastic remark. Upon receiving nothing but a stare in return, she nodded, tweaking out a small smile. "You're right." She touched his shoulder, hand sliding down his arm. "Thanks, Richard."

He just nodded once, silently, and watched as she turned the handle. Then tried turning it again. He frowned then as he saw the confusion take over her face, ebbing into alarm as she continually jiggled the door handle without the door budging an inch.

"Oh, I don't believe this," she sighed out, lowly, slumping against the door. "We're locked in."

His eyes widened. "What?"

Caroline jiggled the handle again. "We're locked in! The stairwell doors must lock from the outside."

"But..." He stared dumbly at the unmoving door, his next comment just as dumb. "We're on the inside."

"Yes, Richard," she huffed, sarcasm heavily laden in her tone. "So you see our dilemma." Caroline tried one more time, as if it would at all help, before finally letting out a low scream through grit teeth, kicking the metal door with her pump. "Great."

She turned around and slumped back against the door once again. "Now what?"

Richard sat down hard on the concrete steps, taking his glasses off and rubbing his eyes, groaning out, "Now we wait for the sweet release of death."


"HELP! ANYBODY? HELP US!"

"Caroline, Caroline... Caroline!" Richard called repeatedly, hands clapped over his ears.

She turned to face him, having been pounding madly on the door. He dropped his hands. "Nobody heard you the first twenty times you pounded on the door, so what makes you think that they'll hear you after the twenty-thousandth time?"

Caroline huffed, lips slipping into a pout, and Richard glanced away from the motion, instead listening as she walked over to him, dropping exhaustively beside him on the steps. "I thought maybe there'd be stragglers."

"Caroline, if we closed early for a holiday, what on Earth makes you think I would stick around?"

She glared. "Gee, thanks." Huffing, she glanced at her watch. "I still don't get why a greeting card company would need to close this early on New Year's Eve. It's not even past noon."

"Well," he sighed, "You know the greeting card biz. Infested with party animals."

That earned him a chuckle from the redhead at his side, and his lips twitched upward for a split-second at the sound. A thought occurred to him not even a beat later. "Tomorrow's New Year's Day."

Caroline glanced over at him, just watching him for a moment before she replied, "Well yeah. That typically comes after New Year's Eve. They do it the same way as Christmas."

He rolled his eyes. "I meant... won't they be closed tomorrow?"

Caroline gave that a moment's thought before she groaned, expression contorting into a pained grimace. "Oh, God! I can't believe this!" She dropped her head into her hands, shaking it back and forth slowly. "Now I have to be stuck here over New Year's, with you."

Richard kept his face carefully neutral, though inwardly the comment stung. "Thrilled to be in your company too, dearest."

She sighed, reaching for him and grasping his forearm lightly, thumb rubbing back and forth for just a second. Richard watched the motion, fascinated by the way he could feel her warmth through his coat and the sleeve of his sweater.

"I didn't mean it like that," she told him, softly. "I just meant..." After a moment, she sighed. "I don't know what I meant."

His brows quirked at that, wondering if maybe Del and Caroline were suited for each other. "Ridiculous," he muttered after a moment.

"Huh?"

His eyes snapped to hers, realizing he'd said it aloud. "The, um... the situation. Being stuck here. It's ridiculous."

Caroline sighed heavily, "You can say that again," and let her head drop onto his shoulder.

Richard glanced down at her, watching her close her eyes before he turned his gaze to the door, inwardly hoping they could somehow find a way out of the stairwell soon. There was no way he could be stuck here with Caroline for over a day.


What felt like weeks later, they decided to change location, Caroline claiming that she'd "seen too much of the first floor stairwell." So they headed up to the second floor and sat down again, this time with Richard sitting on the landing, back against the wall, and Caroline sprawling across the stairs, propping her toes against the wall and leaning her back on the railing. "Wanna play a game?" she asked.

"No."

"Wanna talk?" she tried again.

"No."

She pursed her lips thoughtfully for a moment, then tried again. "Staring contest?"

"I blinked. You won."

She sighed.


Twenty minutes later, Caroline huffed and sat up again. "Do you have any threes?"

An exhausted Richard glared up at her from his spot slouched against the wall. "We don't have any cards."

She managed a grin. "If we did, would you have any three's?"

He groaned, dragging a hand over his face. "Go fish."

Caroline stood up, stomping a foot childishly. "Come on, Richard, we need to do something! I'm starting to get bored!"

He raised his eyebrows. "Starting?"

"Come on, let's talk or something! Or play twenty questions, or... I don't care, Richard, but we can't just sit here!"

"Why not?"

"Argh!" She raised her hands, pantomiming a strangle, before letting them drop to her sides. She slumped against the wall and slid down beside him. "Have you always been this difficult?"

"Yes."

"Didn't you have any games you liked to play as a little boy?"

"There was one."

Her eyes lit up. "Great! Well, what is it? We can play!"

"It's called 'sitting quietly and staring at the wall.'"

"Oh my God, you're impossible." She glared over at him, thoughts leaving her before her lips could create a filter as she snipped, "No wonder Julia left you."

He snapped his head to stare at her, searching her eyes as he tried to process what exactly that snide remark had stirred in him. His voice left him in nothing more than a shocked whisper. "What?"

Caroline knew she'd crossed a line; she knew it the second his eyes met hers, but there was no going back. This wasn't a panel she could crumple up and toss in the garbage - no, she had to fill this one in and live with the outcome. "You said once that you were so upset about her leaving you - that it broke your heart, but... think about it, Richard! You are so closed off, about everything! I mean, here I am just trying to kill some time with you by playing pointless little games. I can't even imagine what it must've been like for Julia." She folded her arms across her bent knees and stared straight ahead, stomach turning at the pained look on his face. Oh, crap.

"Well," he murmured after a moment, slowly turning away. "Sorry I annoyed you by being who I am. It's not my fault you can't just accept that not everyone had a happy Wisconsin childhood with loving parents who encouraged them to share their feelings." He stood up. "I'm going downstairs."

Caroline closed her eyes, feeling her throat close up. She'd gone way too far. Best she could do now was hope to scribble over the panel and eventually be granted the chance to start over. "Richard..."

"I'd prefer it if you stayed here." He paused at the top of the steps, turning just slightly over his shoulder, not meeting her eyes as he told her softly, "For the record, I gave Julia everything. I was open, I shared my feelings, I wanted to share my entire life with her. I gave her my entire world, Caroline, as I would do for any other woman stupid enough to fall in love with someone like me. Julia took everything I gave and spit it out. So excuse me for not jumping at the chance to go through that again."

With that, he headed back down to the ground floor, leaving Caroline against the wall fighting off tears.


Richard sat on the cold concrete of the ground floor stairwell, staring up at the flight of stairs over his head, knowing Caroline was sitting directly above him. Part of him wished to go up there and make amends - he hated hurting her feelings, even if she hurt his first. Part of him wanted to explain that sometimes he really would like to be able to share his feelings with someone - her in particular, though he would leave that part out - but that what happened with Julia damaged him; made him afraid to trust anyone with his thoughts or feelings. Better to keep the walls up and difficult to climb than let them down and risk getting hurt again.

Before he could stop himself, he called, "Caroline..." and listened to his voice echo in the stairwell.

After a beat, he heard a sniffle, then a tear-clogged voice. "Richard, I'm really sorry for what I said. Really. I won't mention Julia ever again, I won't keep trying to get you to open up. I'm so sorry."

He shut his eyes, brow wrinkling in pain as he leaned his head against the wall. With a resigned sigh, he pushed himself to his feet and forced them up the stairs. "Don't cry."

When he reached the top, he attempted a slight, friendly smile - what probably came off as more of a grimace. "I don't deal too well with crying, remember?" He pulled a handkerchief from his coat pocket and handed it to her.

She glanced up at him with a watery smile, taking the kerchief as she returned, "You don't deal too well with Daylight Savings Time."

He took a seat beside her and tried not to tense up when her head found his shoulder again. He glanced down at her and watched as she dabbed the tears from her long eyelashes - something he wished to do himself with his own hands. He shoved them in his coat pockets instead.

"I really am sorry," she murmured after a moment.

He nodded. "I know."

She curled one hand around his arm, leaning against him a bit more. "Not just for what I said. I'm sorry about Julia too."

"Not your fault."

"Maybe not, but I'm sorry for what it's done to you. You're such a sweet man, Richard, really you are. You're kind, and thoughtful, and..." a bit softer, she murmured, "I bet you were a great boyfriend." Lifting her head off his shoulder, she waited until he looked at her before she continued. "I'm just sorry she ruined you for the rest of us."

Richard nodded, accepting her apologies despite her not being at fault for anything she'd mentioned. Then, his brows slowly furrowed as her head found his shoulder again, and his mind caught up with the rest of her comment. "'The rest of us?'" He looked down at her again when he felt her tense.

Caroline pulled back, dropping his arm and scooting over a bit. "Yeah. The, uh... the rest of us... women. In general. As a gender. Y'know, the rest of the other women on the planet."

Richard just watched her, and she pushed herself to her feet, the intensity of his gaze suddenly making her stomach flutter. "It's kinda warm in here, isn't it?"

He just shook his head, still watching her intently. "Not really. Somewhat cold, actually."

"Really?" She made a face, fanning herself. "Must be menopause or something, then."

"You're twenty-nine."

"Never too early to start menopause," she babbled quickly, then immediately jumped to her next thought. "So! Twenty questions, how about it?"

Richard drew in a breath and let it out slowly, uncertain of what had just transpired. Something had changed; their relationship paradigm, whatever that happened to be, had shifted just a little. He had yet to determine if that was good or bad. So after a moment, he indulged her babbling and nodded his consent. "Okay, Caroline. We'll play twenty questions."


Fifteen minutes later, Richard was at the end of his rope, trying his hardest not to snap at Caroline, who seemed to be enjoying the game just a little bit too much. "Nope!" she grinned smugly. "Next question. How many are we up to?"

"Thirty-five," he groaned. "Thirty-five out of twenty. Is it bigger than a bread basket?"

"Yes."

"Your ears."

Her jaw dropped indignantly. "Hey!" She reached up and toyed with one of her ears, glaring when he smirked. "My ears are cute." After a beat, she told him, "It's your nose."

One brow flicked upward as he quipped, "Touché."

She stuck her tongue out at him before dissolving into a dimpled grin. "Kidding." Quietly, she added, "Your nose is cute too," before moving on. "Next question!"

Richard watched her for a moment, absorbing the comment about his nose, before asking, "Is it something in this room right now?"

"Of course!"

"Is it the railing?"

"Nope!"

"The brick wall?"

"Nope."

He groaned, slapping both hands over his face, voice muffled through them as he complained, "Caroline, we're verging on forty questions here. Can you please just tell me what it is?"

When she giggled, he took his hands from his face to see her pointing upward. He followed the direction of her finger, spotting the pipes against the wall high above his head. "Pipes."

"Bravo!" she giggled. "Your turn!"

"Ugh, no. I give up, you win."

"Party pooper."

"That's me. I can barely think, Caroline," he grumped, "I'm starving."

"Me too. Here." Reaching into her purse, she tossed him a candy bar. "Don't eat that all at once, I only have one more. And we have to somehow last until the cleaning crew comes by the day after tomorrow."

"Thank God for your junk food addiction." Richard broke off a piece of the candy bar, popping it in his mouth before breaking off a second piece and passing it to Caroline.

"Thanks." She sat against the wall adjacent from the one he was leaned against, and stretched her legs out under his bent knees. "So... alright, I have to ask..."

"What?"

"What's with all of... this?" She gestured to his wardrobe. "All the black clothing, the fascination with death, all the depressing movies you watch. Was that..." She chose her next words carefully, not wanting to cause any more strife between them. Richard was all she had until the second of January, and she'd prefer it that he not hate her for the remainder of their time together. "Was that somebody's doing, or have you been like that your whole life?"

Richard regarded her carefully, studied the trepidation on her features. She obviously didn't want to spark his ire again, but, being Caroline, she couldn't just let something go. So he sighed, taking down one layer of his carefully-constructed walls. "I started dressing in black in grade school. Both of my parents were so... flamboyant, I guess you could say, that it made me want to stay in the background. I mean, I was scrawny and wore glasses - why would I want to make myself a visible target for the bullies?"

"And dressing like a beatnik and talking about death didn't make you a visible target?"

"No. Oddly enough, I only got noticed when I attempted to wear something that fit in with the normal kids. When I got that leather bomber jacket..."

Caroline nodded, ducking her head as she remembered the story; the sound of his voice as he told her about his disappointed sister washed over her and she swallowed hard. "Right," she finished.

He watched her, waited until she raised her eyes to his before he asked, "What about you?"

"What do you mean?"

"What's with all of... this?" He mimicked her earlier gesture. "All the perkiness, the brightly-colored wardrobe, the misguided belief that people are good..."

Caroline chuckled, ducking her head and tucking a slice of hair behind her ear. "Oddly enough? My attempt to get noticed."

He frowned. "By who?"

"Originally? My parents." She took the candy bar when he handed it over, wrapping it up and placing it back in her purse. "Hard to get noticed as a kid when your little brother's a saintly boy-wonder."

"Ah yes, the wünder-kind. You've mentioned him before."

"Yeah. No matter what I did, he always had to have a leg up. So, I enrolled in dance classes. Tried to get their attention by being the best damn ballerina in the county. But if I did that? Then Chris would've gone off and written a modern-day 'Swan Lake.' I became a cheerleader, and Chris made it onto the varsity basketball team his freshman year."

She huffed. "I guess I figured if I always remained the bubbly, cheery, optimistic girl that maybe someone would eventually pay attention."

Richard breathed a chuckle. "All that perkiness is hard to miss. I think it almost killed me."

Caroline giggled. "Got your attention though, huh?"

He nodded, holding her gaze as his voice dipped, softened. "Right away."

For a moment, they just looked at each other. Caroline smiled shyly and ducked her gaze again, nervously tucking more hair behind her ear despite it not being in her face. "What, um... what time is it?"

Richard tore his gaze away from her face to glance down at his watch. "Quarter to midnight," he replied.

She raised her eyebrows. "Already? It's almost 1996!" Standing up, she brushed off her pants. "We should do something to celebrate!"

Without blinking, he deadpanned, "I forgot my streamers in my other coat."

She rolled her eyes. "Very funny. But, come on! There's got to be something we can... I don't know, make, maybe?"

"Like what?"

She dug around in her purse for a moment, coming back up with a handful of crumpled receipts. She slapped them into his hands. "Here. Rip these up."

He frowned his confusion. "For what?"

"Confetti!"

"You don't save your receipts? What if you need to return your..." he skimmed the first one in his hand, grimacing a moment later, "box of tampons?"

She huffed impatiently. "Just rip them up!"

"Alright, alright." He shook his head, doing as she bade. "Don't come crying to me if your box of tampons is defective."

Several minutes later, they each had handfuls of torn receipts. "Can we count down yet?" Caroline bobbed anxiously on her feet.

"Two more minutes." He eyed her warily. "Are you excited for the New Year, or do you have to use the bathroom? I can't tell right now."

"I'm excited, Richard! It's New Year's!"

"Yes, but... need I remind you that we're spending it locked in a cold, musty stairwell?"

She rolled her eyes. "Well... at least we're not spending it alone. We've got each other."

He met her eyes...

Returning his gaze, she searched his eyes and saw a hint of... fear? Anxiousness? Maybe something else. Then it dawned on her. "I won't try to kiss you, don't worry."

"Oh." Turning his eyes back to his watch, Richard replayed those words in his head and tried to determine if she thought the very idea was preposterous, or if she was just trying to ease his discomfort. "Okay."

"I mean yeah, I kissed you at Christmas under the cilantro, but... that was a tradition. Sort of."

"Isn't a kiss at midnight considered a New Year's tradition?" He raised his eyebrow, lifting only his eyes from his watch but not moving his head, before looking down again.

"W-well..." Caroline shrugged one shoulder, doing her best to tiptoe around this situation. She honestly hadn't considered the New Year's kiss when she first insisted that they celebrate. "I guess so, yeah." She thought back to the kiss under the cilantro and tried to recall his reaction. He hadn't recoiled, certainly, but he hadn't exactly welcomed the gesture. He just... stood there.

But then she remembered the way that he looked at her afterward. Her stomach flipped, and she cleared her throat as if trying to clear away the memory. "But just because it's a New Year's tradition doesn't mean we have to do it. I mean, we've got our confetti. We don't have to get any crazier than that."

"How could we?" he quipped, giving her look, and she smirked.

"You know what I mean. Sure, a kiss is customary, but... we're friends. And sometimes kissing kind of... crosses the line. Well I mean, it always crosses some line unless you're dating the other person or are married to the other person or the other person is a relative and it's just a kiss on the cheek-"

"Caroline?"

"Yeah," she snapped out of her babble-induced trance and glanced over at him.

"It's midnight."

"Oh!" She grinned brightly. "Well Happy New Year, Richard!"

He allowed himself to smile. "Happy New Year, Caroline."

They stood there a moment, a bit awkwardly, before Caroline threw her handful of receipt-confetti in the air. Richard followed suit and watched her as she tipped her head back, giggling when the tiny pieces of paper rained down on them. When she looked down at him again, he felt his stomach lurch, though it wasn't altogether unpleasant in nature. "Alright, now I promise I won't kiss you, but... can I at least hug you?"

He consented with a nod and a small smile, opening his arms like he'd done at the art gallery and waited for her to step into them. Only this time instead of her arms finding their way around his waist, she stretched up on her toes and wrapped them around his neck, hugging him tight. His hands hung suspended in the air for a moment before he let himself hug her back, both his thoughts and the fluttering in his stomach going a hundred miles an hour.

When she started to pull back, she kept her promise... but Richard broke it.

He kissed her.

He wasn't entirely certain why he did it; Caroline made her intentions clear that she wouldn't kiss him - she put the boundaries in place and intended to respect those boundaries. He wasn't sure what possessed him to blur them into nonexistence.

Maybe it was the soft smile on her face when she pulled away, or the earlier tension needing to find its release. He tried to tell himself it could have easily been either of those things that was the catalyst, but the truth was... he needed to kiss her.

Caroline's surprise was evident. She gasped softly against him and laid her hands on his chest, as if to pull away and ask him what was going on. But Richard never gave her the opportunity to ask. Instead when she started to pull back, he leaned forward and stole another kiss, firmer this time as one hand left her waist to slip under her jaw and around to the back of her neck. His other hand held her to him by the small of the back as he felt her hands lift from his chest - as he awaited her slap.

Instead, she leaned into him and reached for his face with both hands. His drifted back to her waist, then her hips as he tilted his head and deepened the kiss, a soft moan escaping when she kissed back fiercely. When he finally had enough coherence to pull up for air, he slowly took in their surroundings. They were still stuck in that stupid stairwell, sure, only now Caroline's back had somehow ended up against the wall, and he was leaning against her. He dropped his forehead to rest against hers as they breathed together, her hands clutching the lapels of his coat.

"What, um..." Caroline watched his lips, still just inches from hers and bruised from their kissing, as she tried to get a coherent thought to come to her. "What just happened?" she finally asked, a bit stupidly. She felt a little senseless at the moment. Her lips tingled like mad, her stomach was cartwheeling and she had yet to catch her breath. Not to mention, Richard's hands were currently sliding across her stomach, making it jump before they settled on her hips again.

"Uh..." He blinked a few times and she just watched him mouthing a few silent words before he finally replied, "It's midnight."

Smiling, she moved her forehead from his - a bit reluctantly - to grab his right wrist, turning it to glance at his watch. "More like midnight-plus-ten," she told him.

"Ten minutes have passed?" He stepped back from her and her body screamed at her to follow. She stayed put, needing the cold concrete of the wall to calm her fried circuits.

"Yeah, well," she breathed, straightening her sweater. "Time flies when you're having fun, huh?"

He met her eyes and she wasn't sure what to make of the intensity she saw there. So she did another tip-toeing act. "It, um... it was fun... right?"

Richard just stared at her another moment, and she almost cringed, knowing she'd just ruined everything again. Before she could properly berate herself, though, he took a few quick strides over to her, grabbed her face, and kissed her again.

What felt like hours later, they came up for air after yet another marathon kissing session; this time when they pulled away from each other, Caroline noticed Richard's coat had been shucked to the floor at some point and she was presently gripping the sleeves of his sweater so tightly over his biceps, her nails were in danger of making holes in the fabric. She pressed her lips together and slid back down until her heels touched the ground. "Wow."

"My thoughts exactly," he breathed, dropping a kiss to the corner of her lips before taking a step back. "Actually," he tilted his head, "I lied, I was just saying that. There wasn't a thought in my head."

She chuckled, closing her eyes and covering them with one hand before brushing her bangs out of her eyes. "Richard, can I ask you something?"

"Sure."

She paused for only a second to assess his willingness to answer a question, when a mere two hours ago he was grumbling at her and refusing to answer even the simplest of questions. "What is this?" Off his look, she shrugged a bit. "I mean... not to be too much of a girl here, but - what's going on? Y'know, are we just starting off the New Year, or..." She watched him carefully. "Starting something else?"

Richard searched her eyes as he gathered his thoughts, which were few and far between after so many languid, passionate kisses. He stepped toward her, reaching for her and twitching a half-smile when she let him take her hands. "Do you really want me to open up about this?"

She nodded, stomach tumbling as his thumbs stroked her knuckles. "Yes."

"In all honesty, I have been wanting to do that since that first night in Remo's."

"Really?"

"Mm-hmm." He brought one hand to his lips and kissed it before meeting her eyes. "Caroline, I wasn't lying when I said that you got my attention right away. I think I felt something right when you opened the door. Hell, maybe when I first called to set up an interview. I can't remember anymore. After I left you with Del, I wanted to go back up to your apartment so badly. Even then, I knew that he didn't deserve you. But..."

"We had just met," she finished with a nod.

He nodded back. "Not to mention you'd just hired me. At that point, I wasn't really ready to face rejection and losing a new job all at once."

"Well Richard, I wouldn't have fired you, that's for sure."

"Still. If you would have rejected me, maybe I would've had to have quit. Kinda hard to bounce back from asking your new boss on a date, after all."

"True."

"Would you have rejected me?"

"Honestly? I have no idea, Richard. That first day, I just... didn't know what to make of you. I mean, all day long you had been just this dour, cranky, um-"

"You can say it," he told her with a rueful smile.

She chuckled, finishing, "Pain in the ass." When he chuckled back, she took a couple steps closer, smiling as his hands found her waist. "But then at the restaurant, you were so... I don't know, heroic, almost, stepping in the way that you did - even though you made me pay for your lobster. Then after dinner, when you walked me home? Honestly, it kind of felt like a real date. You were open with me, and you talked so passionately about things. You threw me for a loop. And then, when I went to kiss your cheek and you went for a handshake instead, it just threw me all over again. You were kinda all over the place, Richard." She shrugged. "So... I guess I don't know what I would have done."

He nodded. "Yeah, I... was trying to distance myself again. That whole rejection thing. I would have gladly accepted a kiss on the cheek. It's what I probably would have done afterward that I was trying to avoid."

"Which is what?"

He kissed her softly again to demonstrate, pulling away to see her smile.

"But now..." he murmured.

"Right. Now things are different. We haven't just met, Del's not in the picture-"

"You're still my boss," he pointed out.

"True, but... that can always be worked around. We could compartmentalize." After a beat, she added, "If you want." She shrugged, stepping back. "If you don't want that, then... we can just celebrate the New Year for now."

He searched her eyes. "And what do you want?"

Caroline grinned. "I want you to just... be honest with me and tell me where you want this to go. If you don't want to take chances, Richard, we don't have to. We can stay friends and just chalk this up to New Year's tradition. So." She lifted her chin at him. "I'm leaving it up to you."

A wry smirk plucked up one corner of his lips. "And you say I'm the difficult one."

She grinned. "I learned it from you." She leaned against the wall, hands behind her. "So what'll it be? What would you like to do?"

"Honestly? I'd like to spend much more time kissing you and less time doing so much talking." He smirked when she giggled. "Then, once we can get the hell out of here, I'd like to take you to dinner. And then walk you home."

"And then?" she challenged, raising an eyebrow and straightening up to drape her arms over his shoulders when his found their way around his waist.

"Then I'm done being the one to make decisions. The ball will be in your court."

She narrowed her eyes at him. "You won't make me buy you lobster again, will you?"

"No," he chuckled.

Caroline grinned. "Then it's a date." And they sealed the deal with several more kisses.

FIN