Written for Amaretto's fluff challenge. I suppose it suffices.

Warnings: not really; tame, all things considered

Something to Talk About

There was a tulip lying on his desk when Darryl Ritmeyer entered his small cubicle, and he spared a moment to blink at it as he wondered why. None of his recent articles had raised the hackles of the state's bureaucratic minds, nor risen the public masses to collective umbrage. It was not a holiday. He had not been nominated for any sort of award-as yet. It occurred to him in the time it took to slide the strap of his bag over his shoulder and across the back of his chair that he did know why. It was actually quite foolish that he had so blatantly forgotten. After all, how many more times in his life would he turn 28?

The flower was orange. The same burning hue of a sunset sky, with pools of red bleeding from the center of the petals and not quite reaching the edges. It was mostly still closed, the tips of the petals just barely opened, gasping at the air around it. The soft velvet skin brushed thinly over the keys of the number pad, and the long green, perfectly trimmed stem extended most of the length of the keyboard, resting purposefully between the top and middle rows of letters.

Darryl spared it but a glance, fingers glossing over it to retrieve the card perched just above it, angled to prop against the monitor of his computer. The envelope was of the sort used for any standard greeting card. It was simple, white, and lacking in any distracting textures or designs. There was no writing anywhere to be found on it. The front was mostly white, with a bouquet of brightly colored balloons bursting from some unseen source across the middle and overflowing into the top. There was no writing to be found.

Inside was a flowing script that he had come to recognize over the past four years. These words, too, were simple. Happy Birthday, Darryl.

Tucking the card back into the envelope, he removed the flower from the keyboard and dropped them both into the top drawer of his desk. He pulled a small notebook from his bag and set it on the desk, just beside the keyboard and pressed the button on the tower unit, waiting only long enough to watch the green light flicker to existence before stepping from the cubicle and walking along the hallway formed between his and the opposite row of cubicles to the coffee.

Silence reigned over the small group gathered around the machine as he broke through to prepare his own cup. He had barely taken two steps back into the little hallway when the silence broke. The whispers and mutters and not quite hidden laughter followed his back as he stalked back to his little piece of this editorial paradise. After five years, it seemed inconceivable that he could still be that hot a topic of conversation, but he supposed everyone needed something to talk about. The cynical waste of potential probably held a lot of meat, especially when it was clear that the potential was still there. He allowed his lips to tilt only slightly in the semblance of a smirk as he entered his cubicle.

He sat down, flipped his notebook open, set it on the bookstand angled to the left of his keyboard, and started typing, sparing the paper only a glance every so often. Most of his notes were in his head, the notebook was mostly for odd ramblings and research sources-just in case he did happen to forget what he was about. Within minutes, the flow and click of his typing had drowned out the murmur of voices and inconsequential drabble.

No more than perhaps an hour had passed-interspersed with two trips to refresh his coffee-when a light tap sounded the presence of someone at his "door". He made his visitor wait long enough for him to finish his current thought before he swung around to meet him.

Matthew Gephardt, director of the floor and part-time editor when the occasion called for it. He seldom did any writing of his own. By his own admittance, his writing was atrocious beyond comprehension, but he understood the mechanics nonetheless. That compensated a small part for why a man a year above Darryl held a position higher than that of the writers on this floor who were twice his age.

The largest part was simply that his father had been the best writer the paper had ever produced. Alexander Gephardt had defined prodigy in his forty-year reign behind the keyboard. Matt had been working alongside his father since he was six. Most of his time then had been mostly running errands or relaying messages to other floors, but the fact remained-Matt knew the printing office better than the back of his hand.

He stood just slightly in the doorway so that he was not completely blocking traffic in the hallway. A lopsided, but friendly grin split his face, brightening his boyish features and putting the hint of a gleam in sky blue eyes hidden by wheat blond hair. "The Wordsmith with his hammer, eh?" He indicated the notebook standing on Darryl's desk with a tilt of his head, "Plan inciting another movement? You're about due for one."

A raised eyebrow was Darryl's only response.

Matt dropped the grin, exchanging it for a neutral smile. "Crowley would like that article you did back in May. The one that set the Senate into a near riot." He trailed off rolling his eyes and gesturing vaguely at nothing. "Something about The Times and no one knowing his ass from tea kettle." He flashed another grin, "Apparently they want to know who lit their fires. And how."

Darryl resisted another urge to roll his eyes. Asking how was stupid. It was quite simple how. He had merely stated the truth of the situation as it existed. Negating all bias and hidden agenda to throw out all the facts so that they had been forced to see the errors of their blunderings.

He opened the bottom drawer of his desk and pulled out a small white diskette box. All his files since the beginning of the year were kept in here. Each month was assigned a different one of four revolving colors- ranging anywhere from four to five diskettes depending on how much work and research had been required-to make a search like this easier. Backups and similar cases of diskettes containing all his work for the past five years were stored safely away in his apartment. He had a weekly column and an editorial for which he was responsible for answering every other week. It paid to be organized. That and he just liked knowing that anything he needed was readily accessible.

His lips twitched when Matt mentioned The Times. He just could not escape them. Unable to use him by means of honest employment, they just dashed over his head and urged his editor to supply his material. He wondered how Crowley would react were he to deny him these files. He briefly considered finding out, but in the end, decided it was not worth it. All it would do was give the floor one more thing to talk about. And he heard enough as it was.

He flipped a translucent blue diskette from the box, checking the label- although he knew it was the correct one-then straightened back up. He handed it silently to the patiently waiting Matt. "Thanks, Rite." He smiled, one of the few genuine smiles Darryl could recall seeing in this office, and raised the disk to his head in mock salute. "I'll make sure it gets back to you before day's end."

Darryl just shrugged and turned away. He could hear the voices filtering through the barricades all around him as he flipped a page in his notebook and resumed typing. The masses always had something to talk about.

/ --- *||* --- \

A little over two weeks later, another card and flower appeared on his desk. But really, that was no surprise. The Times' reprint of his May article had incited another bout of anger amongst state-and some national- delegates. The most amusing aspect was that as a collective, they seemed to have forgotten that those very same criticisms had already been directed towards them word for word only three months earlier. Selective memory and the bliss of feigned ignorance must be benefits of being an elected official.

The surprise came when he entered his office late that morning to find Alice Carnes standing over his desk, card in hand and a look of a cat enjoying a particularly delectable bowl of cream. He had already had an unsatisfactory meeting with his advisor at the university that morning, finding Matt Gephardt's secretary snooping around his office was not working to improve his mood. Fortunately for her, he was not known for raising his voice or for being fond of making scenes.

"Ms. Carnes," he eyes narrowed coldly at the small woman who jumped guiltily away from his desk. A flash of bright orange dropped to the floor, touching the tiled floor with a delicate thud as she whirled hastily around. Her right hand held the card with the thumb pressed into the center to hold it open, the left fisted around the envelope, crunching its smooth white surface and marring its perfect face.

Alice's face split into a wide, false smile. Her entire air belied the fact that she had just been caught snooping around his personal space. "Darry!" She said it as though they were old friends. Darryl allowed his face to smooth back into its neutral frown. Surprisingly, it was always this usual look of boredom that intimidated people more. She hesitated for only a moment before pushing forward. "I didn't realize you'd incited another mob!"

Darryl lifted an eyebrow. Subtle jibe at his writing aside, he might have been willing to give the woman some points for not backing down had she not decided to flounder on so blatant an admission of her guilt. Never mind that the evidence was still clutched tightly in her hand. He opted to ignore the over bright smile and the obtrusive, chipper note in her voice, instead taking a step inside to slide his bag across the back of his chair and then reaching over to pluck the card and envelope from her grasp. His black eyes were the only remaining indication of his irritation, but they obviously brooked no argument as her grip on the items immediately slackened.

He slipped the card back inside the envelope and placed both on the desk. "Did you require something, Ms. Carnes?"

Alice clasped her hands together, smiling what she no doubt presumed was a sweet smile, and pointed to the card lying beside his keyboard. "Did that. come from someone in the office? It wasn't signed."

"That's really none of your concern, Ms. Carnes. What were you looking for?"

"Darry.," Alice smiled wider, eyes twinkling conspiratorially, "do you have a secret admirer.?"

Darryl blinked at her. "What may I do for you, Ms. Carnes?"

"Do you know who it is?" It was amazing how the opportunity for gossip changed a person. Barely a minute ago, Alice had closely resembled a deer caught in the headlights. Now she merely stared at him with eyes that danced ravenously at the offering of something to talk about. Darryl resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

"Ms. Carnes, if you have no business here, I have to ask you to leave. I have work I need to do." He put a subtle stress on work, noting with hidden satisfaction the way her smile lost some of its cheer, and her eyes darkened in affront.

She straightened herself up, brows snapping down into a furious frown. "Mr. Ritmeyer." No longer on cute-name basis, it seemed. "As Matthew's personal assistant, it is my responsibility to-"

"Allie." Darryl and Alice turned to find Matt standing just outside the entrance to Darryl's cubicle. "Crowley has some statements he needs looked over, and there's a stack of summaries that needs compiled." He leveled a pointed look on her. "Now."

The too sweet smile plastered itself on her face again. "I'll get to it, Mattie." Matt's eyes flashed bright blue. "Sorry." Alice had the grace to look chagrined, "Matt, but if you'll recall, you did ask me to see if Darryl had gotten in yet."

"And you seem to have failed in that rather nicely." Alice prepared to raise herself up to an attack, but another flash of sky blue eyes as well as the evidence of heads peeping over the edges of the cubicles stopped her. She liked having something to talk about; she did not relish being that something.

She inclined her head in half heartedly towards Darryl, straightened her skirt and brushed an imaginary speck of dust from her blouse, and did her best imitation of a stalk past Matt. He watched her strut down the hallway, a dark scowl marring his normally cheerful features. He turned back to Darryl once she was out of sight, a lop-sided grin replaced his earlier frown, and his bright eyes lit with honest warmth. "Sorry, Wordsmith. She should have known better." Darryl ignored him, bending over to retrieve the tulip Alice had unceremoniously dropped to the floor. He quietly replaced both it and the card in the top drawer of his desk once again, shutting it securely before turning his attention back to Matt.

"Crowley wanted to know if you had any sort of follow-up for the May column. And if you don't, he would like you to do one. He wants it for next week." Darryl nodded, his only indication that he had heard or even cared. Whether that meant one existed, Matt did not know, but he knew he could expect it on time. "Thanks, Rite." He started to walk away, but turned back, "Sorry again. for Alice. I'll take of it." Darryl gave no acknowledgement to that comment, merely sat down at his desk and started to work.

/ --- *||* --- \

The news that Darryl Ritmeyer may have a secret admirer somewhere in the office spread like wildfire. Due to Alice Carnes' admitted need to be the first to reveal any new office news and the avid voracity of others to grab and swallow every grape on the vine, speculation as to who this proposed admirer could be had started and been expounded upon a mere hour after the first shock wave settled down. It mattered little that the only evidence to be had was an unsigned card and a single flower. The card may not be much, but with a little embellishment, it could become a lot more. And the flower.? Well, flowers said it all. It must be love.

The big shock of learning that the office recluse, the dark character with the sharp tongue, had a secret admirer amongst this lot-a lot he made no effort to get to know-had quickly given way to what was obviously the more important point: who was it? Who of this good-natured crowd could possibly find it in her heart to like a humorless, unsmiling creature? Truly. Darryl Ritmeyer was such an unhappy individual, his black eyes gazing stonily and emotionlessly at any who dared address him. He never laughed, he never smiled, and he seemed to take perverse satisfaction in making all those who attempted conversation squirm and writhe.

How could anyone possibly like someone like that?

The most important question on Matthew Gephardt's mind, however, was how anyone could possibly be so stupid. He knew Darryl's schedule; he knew he always came in just before noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays. How the hell could he have forgotten that?

He thumped his head onto his desk as yet another whispered name reached his ears through the door of his office. At this point, it would probably be less stressful if he closed it. At the very least he would stop hearing the growing list of names. God save his soul if anyone-including Darryl- found out who his "secret admirer" was. Granted, the sum of the office response would be rude jibes and unmitigated hell, and in the end, he supposed he could deal with that-he could also put a stop to it-but the thought of Darryl's figuring it out made him physically ill. Hell, he was already physically ill.

It was not Darryl's reaction that upset him, though. Alice Carnes had intruded upon his space and rifled through his desk, and he had barely reacted. At the most, discovery of his "admirer" would inspire a momentary glare, a more severe frown, and a single blink to clear all evidence of displeasure away. It was Matt's own sense of guilt that inspired these feelings of dread.

His only intent when he had started out was to take some of the sting out of the words everyone threw at Darryl's back. Almost from the moment he had stepped foot inside the office, Darryl had been the recipient of every underhanded speculation imaginable. The floor as a whole seemed to take some sick pleasure in guessing at his very attitude and-perhaps more importantly to them-his very presence. Darryl Ritmeyer possessed a stack of awards and accolades to put any of the older, veteran writers to shame. The man was a genius and a brilliant writer. He had interned for both The Times and The Sun Press, subsequently turning down offers to stay on for both, only to settle down in this tiny local press office in the center of the city.

This along with his very stoic, dry attitude was cannon fodder for the gossiping minds that made up the office, and his lack of concern only incited them to continue. The first year had been riddled with conspiracy theories before moving on to the richer platform of scandal and intrigue. Five years later, the rumors and speculation still circulated. Darryl remained as silent and unbothered as ever.

Admittedly, that should have been Matt's first indication not to take up the cause. It was obvious the man cared little for what people had to say about him. He was here simply to write. Everything else was just white noise. But Matt had not been able to let it go. The man had brought attention and more than a little import to their small paper. He had inspired countless subscriptions and even more movements within various political spheres-from city to state to national. It was actually amazing that a man composed of such perverse calm in person could rage like the fiercest wildfire on the west coast in print.

His lack of concern should have inspired Matt to leave well enough alone, but just as guilt was now the cause of his distress, so had it been the cause of his good intent. People were shameless. Given good soil, they would grow the vines as long as they could-and keep pruning-and even from his position of authority, there was little Matt could do to stop it. He had simply desired to let the man know there was at least one person here who did not feed off his mystery. He had his secrets and he had his reasons, and that was where it stayed.

"Secret admirer"? Love? Matt felt his face heat up at just the thought. Admire in the sense that the man was an extremely talented and learned journalist perhaps. But nothing beyond that, surely. Love definitely had nothing to do with it. Not that any of them would know that. They knew of one card. One stupid card was all they knew about. And the others were just as innocent. Congratulations for an award, season's greetings, other various holidays. Certainly no such words as love or those related to it had ever been penned on the inside of any of them. He was trying to offer a show of support not profess undying-and non-existent-feelings of devotion.

The cards had seemed the best and easiest way to pass along the messages. Yes, as the floor director he could just occasionally walk by his cubicle and make a random, trite compliment about his work. But authoritarian praise was expected-whether true or not- and it was encouraged by "those who mattered" to help keep up the morale. Matt had been inclined to believe that anything he said then would be brushed aside as part of the required drabble. He had also been uncertain about Darryl' reception to the attentions-platonic as they were-of a male colleague. So he had made them anonymous.

The flowers he had started adding a year later because. well he did not know why, really. He had devised from a comment Darryl had made in one of his columns that he had a preference for tulips. It had just seemed like the thing to do. So he had started adding a tulip whenever there was cause to "celebrate"-a birthday or acquisition of an award or a particularly passion-inducing column.

Though, really, he supposed in the end none of it had mattered. Darryl still just brushed it all aside. He had hardly spared a glance at either the card or the flower earlier. And he supposed Darryl had only done that much because he had needed to retrieve the flower from the floor before dumping it in his desk.

Matt messaged his temples as Bernice Whitmire's name hissed through the door. He felt such a fool. What had started as an honest attempt to counterbalance the whispers had turned into a topic of whispered discussion itself. He had inadvertently provided them with something to talk about.


When Darryl stepped into his cubicle the next morning, a simple white envelope was perched in its usual place upon the keyboard, leaning conspicuously against the monitor. He slid his bag around his chair and reached for it, sliding it out of its envelope with more curiosity than he had ever opened any of the previous ones. He knew he had done nothing to merit this one.

It was relatively plain-especially when compared to the others. The front was mostly white, the shadow of a lily traced across the surface with a hazy line of lavender, the center of the flower was a sprinkling of faded orange, and the slightest trace of green composed the outline of a stem. Inside were two words, traced neatly in the script he recognized.

I'm sorry.

The corners of his mouth tilted almost imperceptibly in the semblance of a frown. He folded it very carefully back into its envelope, tucked it away in the top drawer of his desk, set his notebook beside his keyboard, then left to get a cup of coffee.

The whispers followed his progress down the walkway. People always had something to talk about.

/ --- *||* --- \

Darryl angrily tore a page from the notebook in which he had only seconds before been scribbling and tossed it into the bin beside the bed to join the supply that was threatening to topple to the floor. Muttering irritably to himself, he brushed the hair from his face and resumed writing. Barely a minute later, that sheet was savagely jerked out and added to the bin.

Setting the pad and pen down, he leaned back, running an agitated hand over his face and through his hair. He had been working on this article since last week, and it was no closer to being finished now that it was then. A humorless smirk tilted one corner of his mouth. It was no closer to being started, either. Everything he wrote, he hated. The phrasing was not right, the wording was off, or the idea was just plain ridiculous. Whatever the reason, he had nothing, and he had to have the whole thing done by the end of the tomorrow.

He could already foresee pulling a long night at the office. The idea did not sit well with him, and for perhaps the second time in his life, he cursed himself for not owning a computer. Not that it really changed much. Here or there, he would still be up late writing something he as yet still knew nothing about. All that would change about the circumstances was the location. So in the end, he forced himself to drop that line of aggression.

Sighing, he swung his legs around the side of the bed and lifted himself up. Maybe he had a reserve article somewhere that he could use; it was obvious this one was not getting written. As he padded barefoot across the room to his desk, his brow furrowed in thought. He may have used them all by this point. The reserves were no more than excess thoughts and pages that he wrote from time to time, but never had the desire or space to put into print. Occasionally he would break into them if he was pressed for time or lacking in the necessary inspiration to write something else. He had been breaking into them on an almost regular basis recently. He likely had run through them all; he had not really had many to begin with.

Opening one of the top most drawers, he pulled out another notebook and rifled through it, noting with growing dismay the folded corners that indicated he had already used one after the other. Just as he suspected. With the exception of a few, and those were still there only because-much like his current project-they were unfinished. His current streak did not inspire much hope of finishing any of these few either.

He tossed the book back into the drawer and shut it with a disgusted slam. Raking another hand through his hair, he crossed to the other side of the room to the little alcove that served as the kitchen in his tiny single room apartment. As he did so, his gaze lit upon something standing on the counter. A withered, hollow brown-green stem headed with the long-dried blossom of a tulip, extended from a tall glass tube. Its petals crinkled and curled in the desperate shape of a long dead flower. The bright orange and red had long ago given way to the brown of a blossom too long disconnected from its roots

Darryl traced a gentle finger over one of the petals, the dry velvet scratched teasingly against the softer pad of his finger. It was an object he tried to forget, but at the same time could not bring himself to throw away. It was the same one he had received three-almost four now-months ago. Normally, he would not have kept it. Like all the others, it should have been tossed away once its freshness had been loss. He did not know why he had not.

He pulled a glass down and filled it almost to the brim with orange juice from the refrigerator. That was a lie actually. He knew exactly why he had kept it. The same reason he still had that last card resting underneath the bulbous bottom of the vase. They were the most recent of either that he had received. He did not like to consider that they were also likely to be the last.

It was not that he usually received them so close together. A four to five month break was not that uncommon. But November was nearing an end, and already two occasions in which he normally would have received a card at least had passed. Not that he regularly kept track, but they were interesting. They really could not qualify as notes from a secret admirer. At least, not in the way that most people understood the concept. In all of them, there was a complete lack of emotional intent. Even the Valentines were platonic. Mostly they just seemed to acknowledge his existence or his skill.

The presence of the flowers. the flowers were different. They had started little more than a year after the cards. He was not sure why. Maybe those did suggest something higher than simple admiration or acknowledgment. But he found he did not dislike them, either. He just did not understand them. He wondered now if he ever would.

I'm sorry.

Brushing the hair from his face with an agitated flick of wrist, he rinsed the glass out and set it in the drying rack. Darryl snorted as he flicked the lights off and slipped into bed. Sorry for what? It was nothing new, really. The masses always had something to talk about.

/ --- *||* --- \

"Hey, Wordsmith," Matt cautiously knocked on the barrier just outside Darryl's cubicle. He was not concerned that his secret had gotten out, but Darryl had been in enough of a sour mood lately that it actually showed. Much like it did now in the way his eyes flashed dangerously at the interruption. Matt smiled apologetically, doing his best not to shrink back.

"Sorry." He flushed guiltily, "I know you're already busy with stuff and that I'm coming to you a little last minute, but." It was his turn to look annoyed as he passed a glare to the ceiling, "Dave doesn't have much to offer this week. He'd like to know if you wouldn't mind taking up the block." He held a hand out, almost in surrender, "I know you've enough to do with your own column and your reviews at the university, so if you can't- "

"I'll have something for you tomorrow." Darryl turned back around to face his computer, putting Matt out of mind.

Matt released a weary sigh and rubbed the back of his neck, "Thanks, Rite. I owe you one. Dave owes you one." Darryl made no response. Matt released another sigh-this one more dejected-and walked away.

Darryl erased the paragraph he had been writing for the past hour. It was the third time he had done so since arriving that morning. And, yes, he did still have those reviews to do. He allowed himself a moment of anger at himself and his sudden inability to do so much as finish a complete sentence. He also permitted the brief flash of rage towards Dave Mariss. He dropped his head into his hand, messaging his temples and wondering just how this hole had even been dug.

As immediately as he had fallen into this trance, he pulled out of it, lifted his head back up, brushed the hair from his face, and resumed typing. He had a long night ahead of him.


Matt unwound his scarf as he stepped into the elevator and pressed the button for his floor. He removed his gloves, stuffing them into one of the pockets of his jacket before opening it and removing both a card and a tissue wrapped tulip from an inside pocket. He sighed despairingly as he carefully pulled back the tissue to insure the flower had not been damaged in the journey to the office.

Guilt was going to be the death of him.

But honestly, he could not help it this time. When he had left the office that day, Darryl had still been there, working on either his own column or Dave's. It had not really mattered. Either way, Darryl had wound up staying after hours, and Matt could not help but feel that some of it was his fault. He should have just made Dave do the damned column.

Besides, the man seemed to be in such a bad mood lately, maybe a card and a flower would cheer him back up. If only a little. He shrugged to himself, smiling wryly. Whatever the excuse he gave, it was still just an excuse, really. The fact was, he just wanted to give the man a flower and a card. He missed doing it. In the end, he supposed there was not much of a crime in that.

The elevator came to a stop and the doors slowly hissed open, granting him access to the room beyond. With the exception of the few random lights that remained on at all hours, it was dark. The silence of a room that was normally buzzing with the sounds of typing and printing was eerie.

Pulling the hat from his head, Matt stepped silently into the room and headed down the hallway that lead to Darryl's cubicle. He was surprised to see, upon reaching, it the faint glow that indicated the computer was still on. It gave him pause. Darryl was fairly rigid about these things. He never just left it on. But surely he would not still be here. It was almost midnight.

His mind worked quickly to think up an excuse for why he would still be coming back so late; it was not a good one, but he figured it was pliable. Shifting his hands to hide the items he carried, he covered the remaining steps and entered the tiny space.

And froze.

He had never seen Darryl outside a working context. The man was either stepping out of the elevator or sitting behind a keyboard whenever Matt saw him. And while the latter still held true in the most literal since, the image was not quite the same.

Darryl had indeed stayed behind late to finish, and he had fallen asleep doing so. It was such an odd picture. His entire demeanor and air during the day gave the image of a veritable machine. It was hard to place such a controlled figure into the kinds of bounds that would render him defenseless or vulnerable. The fact that Darryl did have a softer side had never really entered Matt's head, despite all his worry and guilt over the gossips. He had always seemed so immune to it, so unbothered by it. Matt had always just taken that stoicism for granted. Just as Alice always had a sugary smile, Darryl never had anything at all.

Looking at him now, Matt found it easy to believe that maybe there was more behind the bored frown. His head was pillowed on one of his arms, folded just to the left of his keyboard, which had been pushed just slightly to the right to make room. The lines that usually held his mouth in its neutral frown were relaxed, pulling the corners of his mouth into the semblance of calm-and possibly content-unconcern. Dark locks of his hair fell and splayed about his face, shielding his eyes and feathering over his cheeks. It was a surreal image, almost as though he were looking at an entirely different person.

Matt shook himself when he realized he was staring. He did have a purpose for coming here, and it was not so he could stare at a sleeping Darryl, no matter how attractive the image. Cautiously, more so now since he risked waking him-and he did not relish that conversation-Matt approached his desk and carefully laid the flower and card atop his keyboard. The tulip he kept in the tissue, as he was certain he could not unwrap it without making enough noise to wake the dead, and in this silence, the simple crackle of printer paper could do that.

He gave one last look at the sleeping man, taking advantage of this one chance to be so close to the less sever side of Darryl Ritmeyer, drinking in the image and committing it to memory. Of its own volition, a hand snaked out to brush back a few stray stands of his hair, ghosting a path across his cheek. A soft smile spread across his face as a thought occurred to him. Removing his hand, he stepped gently out of the room and headed back towards the elevator.

He knew now why he had started buying the flowers.

/ --- *||* --- \

There was a white tulip and a card resting on his keyboard when Matt entered his office the next morning. The tulip stood out starkly against the dusty grey of the keyboard, its gasping bud just brushing the numbers of the keypad and its long stem stretching out over the rows of letters. The card was perched carefully, intentionally above it, the top leaning casually against the darkened screen of the monitor.

Eyes wide, hands shaking slightly, Matt picked up the card. The plain, texture-free white envelope hid a card of equal simplicity. The cover was barely more than the shadow of a flower-a tulip, as it happened-etched into the card. The lines were thin and loose, just barely perceptible under the pads of his fingers. There was no color and no other design.

A soundless gasp passed his lips as he opened it. Turn around.

Words failed him as he turned to find himself staring into the hard, black eyes of Darryl Ritmeyer.

He flushed brightly and took a hasty step back, certain there was no way there could ever be enough room between him and the man blocking his doorway. From the corner of his eye he could see the crowd of heads rising above the barriers to see what was happening beyond the open blinds of his office windows.

He felt ill again.

"It really never mattered to me." There was an odd tilt to one side of Darryl's mouth.

"I know." Matt felt his flush deepen. "I mean, I started to realize. but, I-I'm sorry, Rite."

"It's all drabble, and I've little patience for words that accomplish nothing."

That certainly explained a lot of his personality. The things he wrote always inspired something. Things happened, people acted. The wordsmith only used words that were functional. Casual conversation would only be slightly above the drabble of gossip, then. Discussing the weather did little more than inform him of what he could deduce simply by going outside. It was damned cold today.

He opened his mouth, started to say something to defend his actions, but he paused, turning away from the intensity of Darryl's gaze to stare at the floor. What purpose would those words serve? Nothing he said would have the desired effect of having an effect. In the end, his words were no louder or more substantial than those of the gossips. And he guessed they never had been. He was no more than drabble himself, just another part of the noise that made up the ambiance of their floor.

The sound of a door shutting brought his gaze back up. Breath hitching, he tried to take a step back, only to feel the edge of the desk press into the small of his back. Why was Darryl coming closer? He was almost certain closer was a bad thing. "You stopped."

"It didn't help." Matt's hands gripped the edge of the desk until his knuckles turned white.

That odd tilt of his lips again. "No, it didn't." Darryl stopped when they stood an arm's width apart. Leaning forward, he bent around Matt and plucked the tulip from the keyboard. He held it up, directly in Matt's line of vision. "Why the flowers, Matt?"

Matt blinked at him. "It was just something to go with the cards."

"It started with just cards, Matt. The flowers came later."

"I knew you liked them, so I-"

"Exactly." Darryl's free hand ghosted over his cheek. "Something changed."

Matt's heart skipped a beat as he realized Darryl's hand followed the same path as his own had the night before. His voice rasped on a choked breath. "You were awake."

"Not immediately." He feathered his fingers once again across Matt's face. "Only when you touched me." He stopped, resting his hand around the back of Matt's neck, fingers curling and tangling into the hair at the nape. "You stopped."

"I thought it the better option."

"People will always talk, Matt. If it wasn't that, there would have been something else."

"I didn't want to facilitate it."

"It had already started."

"I thought it might go away faster."

The hand on his neck fell away and Darryl pulled back dropping the hand that held the flower. "It really never mattered, you know."

Matt felt his shoulders sag. He had always known that or course, but it made the dejection all the worse to hear it voiced. He turned his gaze back to the floor, face coloring this time in embarrassment. Somehow, he supposed he always had wanted it all to mean something-his part at least.

The velvet skin of the tulip kissed the side of his heated cheek, and he jumped. When he looked up, Darryl had again moved closer, and that odd tilt had morphed into a true smile. He danced the tip of the flower across Matt's cheek. "In three years, you've given me a baker's dozen of these." He again reached around Matt and brought the card into his line of vision. "And just over double that number of these in four." Matt felt his cheeks grow redder. Darryl set the card back down and brought his hand back to wrap around Matt's neck. He leaned forward until their foreheads touched, forcing Matt's eyes to his own. "They all meant something."

Matt's eyes widened and he again found it difficult to breath as Darryl's lips swept lightly over his. When he pulled away again, his smile had grown even wider. Matt watched wordlessly, face still beating a bright red, as Darryl turned to the side and pulled the cord to tilt the blinds shut. By the time he turned back, Matt had found a small sliver of his voice.

"Wouldn't you have been better to do that sooner?"

Darryl leaned over, pinning him against the desk again. "No."

"It'll only give them something to talk about." He tried to pull away as Darryl bent his head down, but a hand on the back of his neck stilled him. Darryl smirked just before he sealed their lips. Matt forgot to care about the goings on outside.