Title: Santa Klaus
Status: one-shot/complete
Warnings: language

A/N: This is a one-shot Christmas story I posted on my Patreon throughout December, and now here's the public version!


December 1

Case is in the middle of typing up a letter when he catches sight of the top of Dorothy's head over the plastic counter that rings his desk. She's so short all he can see is her bright golden hair, topped with a spring of some kind of plant bobbing happily as she makes her way straight towards him. Oh, shit.

"Casey!" she exclaims, popping into the semi-cubicle he shares with Bianca, who's not at her desk. "Aren't you coming to the Secret Santa?" Oh god, he forgot. "Everyone's there already!"

Dorothy's always so cheery and upbeat, he can never bring himself to tell her he hates being called Casey. It's a name for a ten year old or an old timey ballplayer. Or that he hates the yearly office Secret Santa, especially after last year. But he forces a smile on his face, stands up from his desk, and says, "sure, of course."

"Great!" Dorothy beams at him like he's just made her day, and takes his arm in an inescapable friendly grip as she herds him towards the front area of the office. He should have looked at the email that went around from her an hour ago, it was probably about this. But he was doing actual work, and emails from Dorothy are usually cheery forwards of kittens or jokes or hopeful sayings. Fine when he has a break, but he usually forgets his breaks and now that it's holiday season he's in overdrive to stay on top of everything so he doesn't feel stressed and distracted by undone projects over the actual week he's taking off.

Dorothy wasn't wrong—every legal assistant, paralegal, and accountant for the firm is here, jammed up into the conference room to the right of the reception desk. There's three conference rooms, all with the same completely open glass walls. Whoever designed these rooms with was an idiot. Actual confidential stuff happens in there. As soon as he and Dorothy press their way into the overcrowded room, Case immediately spots Cassandra's tall dark head in the back corner. He slips out of Dorothy's hold and shoulders his way through Bianca and Susan to get over to her.

"I thought you said you were going to hide or call in sick this year," Cassandra says, smirking at him. Her black hair is down today, a rare look for her, but it's striking against the white cable-knit sweater she's wearing. And the string of what look like Christmas-colored Mardi Gras beads.

"I forgot what day it was," Case mutters. He sort of thought it was still November. In his defense, it is a Monday.

"Your boy's here." Cassandra gives a pointed tilt of her head, and Case winces.

"Jesus, Cass. Shh."

"Hey, maybe you'll pull his name. And then you can give him one of those 'do you like me check yes or no' for his gift. Or, like, a dildo."

"Oh my god."

"I'm just saying." Cassandra grins at him and pokes him a few times. "It'd be an opportunity."

"Say it not so loud." Case risks a glance over his shoulder, but at least Klaus is on the complete opposite side of the room and way out of hearing range. Good.

But now that he's looking, Case can't really look away. Klaus is a fairly new addition to the firm, hired in the middle of the year when one of the paralegals went on maternity leave. He's tall, svelte, darkly blond with peachy skin, and aggressively handsome. And he dresses to kill, usually in neat tailored vests, crisp ties and immaculately fitted slacks. Everything about him is infuriating. Especially because there's not a single thing Case can dislike about him, except that he just exists. Before Klaus worked here, there were absolutely no men attractive enough in the office to be distracting. Plus, they're all older and married. But for the last five months, Klaus's stupid handsome face has been a serious problem.

Case never even had to say anything to Cassandra about his overwhelming crush—he was planning on not doing so, ever—but she figured it out about three hours into Klaus's first day, when she came into the break room and caught Case putting salt in his coffee by accident while Klaus was nearby using the microwave. They'd greeted each other and introduced themselves politely, and when Klaus had left the room Cassandra had immediately tried to smack some brains back into Case.

"Come on, he's not that hot," she'd said, snatching the salt packet away from him and dumping his coffee out in the sink. "His nose is kinda big. And his eyes are squinty."

"What if I like that?" Case had shot back at once, and then regretted it. "No, you're right, not hot at all."

She hadn't believed him at all, and so naturally had been witness to his entire hopeless collapse into a useless pining mess over the past five or so months. Case has managed to hide it from everybody else in the office, even Klaus—unless Klaus has noticed and is just taking pity on him by not mentioning it—and even though it's not a secret around here that Case is gay, nobody's made any comments or hints about them being the only two single young men working here. Probably because Klaus, despite being friendly and charming, is pretty quiet about his personal life. Nobody knows much about him at all.

"Here you go!" Dorothy sings, bustling up and handing them both a slip of paper and a pen. "Write your names!"

Case feels a little bit like he's signing his own death warrant as he scrawls his name on the slip of paper. It's stupid, but he really does hate this. His old workplace didn't do it, and he was happy with that. He could give presents or not give presents as he wanted, and nobody was forced to give him anything either. And apparently there's no opting out of this tradition here at the law offices of Garland, Giannini and Eggert.

Dorothy goes around and collects all the names in a ridiculous felt hat patterned like a brick chimney with floppy brown antlers coming off the sides. She make a show of shaking it, all the little slips of paper slushing around together. Some people seem genuinely excited about this, others politely participating because it's Dorothy and nobody wants to disappoint her, and Case feels ashamed of himself. It's just a Secret Santa and it only happens once a year. He can just deal with it like an adult.

"Okay!" Dorothy chirrups. "Everybody take just one name, and if you get yourself put it back!" Light laughter goes around the room. "Let's start with our new addition to the office!" She holds the hat out in Klaus's direction, and Klaus looks mildly embarrassed to be singled out.

But he comes forward and plucks a name from the top of the hat, giving Dorothy a smile that makes Case shiver all over even though it wasn't even directed at him. Case watches as Klaus steps back to the wall, leaning one shoulder there and unfolding the paper to read the name. The side of his mouth twitches upwards, and he raises his eyes and flicks them over everyone stuffed into the conference room. Case wants to look away before Klaus can catch him staring, but he doesn't manage it. Klaus meets his eyes, and smiles.

Heat flares over Case's entire face and he yanks his gaze away, turning to Cassandra like has something really important to say to her right now. Except now Dorothy's made her way around to them and Cassandra isn't next to him anymore, she's wrist deep in the hat.

She pulls out a name and steps back near Case. When she unfolds the slip of paper, she makes a stifled laugh in her throat. Case leans over to try and read it, but Cassandra holds it away and bats at him with her other hand. "Shh, go away. It's your turn!"

It is in fact his turn. Dorothy is holding out the ridiculous hat to him expectantly. Fighting off the natural desire to feel miserable about this, Case make himself smile and stuff his hand inside.

He yanks out the first paper he touches and then retreats back to Cassandra's side. He doesn't even want to open it and look, because if he actually did get Klaus he might as well quit his job. He'd get so worked up over it that he'd probably have a heart attack before the office Christmas party, which is when the actual gift exchange will happen.

He's still staring at his folded slip of paper like it's a high noon showdown when someone slides up nearby and stands near his shoulder. He doesn't think anything of it until—

"Hey, Klaus," Cassandra says, with a very slight emphasis on his name. Case jerks around, adrenaline washing through him. People are filtering slowly out of the conference room now that they've pulled name, but Klaus is standing right there at Case's shoulder.

"I hope you both wrote your full names," Klaus says, smiling like it's a joke between them all, and it almost is.

A month or so after Klaus was hired, he'd walked past the two of them in the hall one day and said that one of them was clearly going to have to change their nickname as they sounded too similar. Cassandra had thrown back something witty about the name Klaus being pretty similar too, and Case had stood there useless and mute. He hadn't come up with anything to say before Klaus had been long gone.

Afterwards he'd admitted to Cassandra that he hadn't been sure Klaus even knew his name. She'd sighed, slung an arm around his shoulders, and taken him out for lunch and bought him a beer. Or tried to, but Case wouldn't drink because it was the middle of the workday. Also he tries not to drink very often anymore.

"I did," Cassandra is saying to Klaus while Case is busy having a mortifying flashback. "Because that actually happened last year." She pats Case on the shoulder. "I got two gifts and he got none because I guess his e somehow looked like an s."

"Not sure that was a mistake," Case mutters, and Cassandra tilts her head against his and punches him in the kidney at the same time.

"Be nicer to yourself," she says.

"Says the woman punching me!" Case says. Then he remembers Klaus is there and realizes he should be acting professional, and not like a middle-schooler. But Klaus is smiling, which is even worse. Case doesn't like positive attention, or any attention at all, from Klaus. It makes things so much harder. Honestly he just wants Melanie back from maternity leave so Klaus will go away. Also Melanie is the only person in the office who will talk about Game of Thrones with him and he misses that.

"I think this will be fun," Klaus says. He's rolled his slip of paper into a little tube and is holding it like a cigarette. Case wonders if he smokes. He hopes so, because that'd actually be something to not like about Klaus. "I'm looking forward to it."

He catches Case's eye again and smiles, and Case tries to shrink into the collar of his coat at the same time he returns some kind of twitchy uncomfortable expression that might be a smile in some alternate universe.

The rest of this month is going to be a nightmare.

#

Case meets up with Cassandra later on in the kitchen, on his way to get a third cup of coffee. Mondays are awful. And Case doesn't even do anything exciting on the weekends that leaves him particularly exhausted. He spends the time trying to recover from the week, just to plunge into it all over again, wear himself out working, and barely recharge over the weekend. He knows he's a horrendously boring person, but it works for him. Kind of. It gets him by.

Cassandra's dumping creamer in her coffee, and glances up when Case comes trudging in. He'd finally looked at the name he pulled for the Secret Santa, and it's only made this uncomfortable day worse. There's no one else in here, so Case pulls the door shut so they have some privacy to talk.

"I got Dorothy," Case says, flicking the slip of paper onto the counter and sending it spinning around on the fold.

Cassandra ticks an eyebrow up. "Disappointed you didn't get Klaus?"

"No. Dorothy's just so... nice, you know? She's always doing things for everybody. So a trinket from a drugstore isn't going to really do it." Dorothy is constantly giving people at the office things—extra little gifts on their birthdays besides the customary monthly group birthday cards and cupcakes, furniture she doesn't need any more that wasn't purchased at IKEA, random things she seems to have an unlimited hoard of to bestow on people unexpectedly. She also never yells or gets frustrated with anybody, which is a miracle itself at a law firm. She should probably be sainted. "I have no idea what to get her. Nothing's really enough."

"There's a twenty-five dollar limit for the gifts, you know."

Case sighs and pockets Dorothy's name again. "Who'd you get, anyway?"

"Hannah in accounting. She'll be easy, she loves frogs."

"Yeah, I've seen her desk," Case says. Susan and Hannah are accounts payable and receivable, and Hannah's part of the office is covered with frog things—pictures, statues, little frog-shaped bean bags, pens with frog toppers. It's always a little weird going into the accounting offices, which are nearly hidden behind a plain and unobvious door like some kind of secret Narnia of numbers and payroll. And frogs.

"I'll help you with Dorothy," Cassandra says then. "You know, I'm pretty good at getting info out of people without sounding like I'm fishing for it. Or just snooping around her desk while she's gone."

"Thank you," Case says gratefully. He really doesn't think he could do this on his own. Last year he got Bianca, who was easy because they share a cubicle and getting her yet another Precious Moments figurine to match the small army of them on her desk was pretty easy, and she was happy with it.

But Dorothy is so happy and positive And everybody likes her. Case hasn't really gotten anywhere by being neurotic and pessimistic, but it's just how he's taught himself to deal with life. His default setting. Maybe he can try... not doing that. At least for this month. Then maybe he can tap into whatever elevated level of happiness that Dorothy's found, and figure out what she'd like. And maybe whoever pulled his name won't want to avoid actually buying him something. He's still not sure that Susan did that by accident. She's not really that friendly towards him, though it's hard to tell with people sometimes if it's because he's gay or that he's just kind of unapproachable in general.

"Is it really bothering you that much?" Cassandra says, and Case realizes that he's frowning at nothing for no real reason.

"No, it's not that. It's just...I think Klaus got me," Case admits, and Cassandra lifts her eyebrows at him.

"Why's that?"

"I dunno. He kinda... looked at me, after he pulled his name," Case mutters, realizing as he's saying it how stupid it sounds. "Maybe not."

"Maybe he'll give you a dildo," Cassandra suggests with another wicked little smirk.

"Cass. Stop. Please. I can't take it."

Cassandra sighs. "Really though. You either gotta get over him or just ask him out for fuck's sake, and get an answer. If it's yes, hooray for you. If no, then back to option a; getting over him."

"I can't ask him out," Case objects, horrified. "I don't even know if he'd be into… you know. Men at all. He might even be not a fan of guys who are."

"Well, that'd be a good place to start, right? Finding that out."

"There is no right place to start. Even if he's not an asshole and was interested, it's just...not professional. It's just not happening ever, ever. And we're not even in the same league, or even playing the same sport. I mean, have you seen the man? He looks like—why are you making that face?"

"Hello," says Klaus's voice from behind him, and Case jumps about a mile.

"Shit!" Coffee sloshes out of his cup and onto the counter, luckily not splashing onto either him or Cassandra. She'd probably kill him; she's wearing a white sweater. He grabs automatically for the roll of paper towels on the counter, desperately hoping that Klaus didn't overhear much of what he said. "Jesus fucking Christ."

Klaus has grabbed for towels too, and joins Case in sopping up all the spilled coffee. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you," he says honestly, as their hands bump all over each other on the counter and Case's heart rate goes up by about twenty BPM every time.

"S'okay," Case mutters, wanting to die. He hates this, he hates it so much. And it's not Klaus's fault, so he just has to direct all that hate back at himself. He hates that he can't stop feeling this way, he hates that he has no control over it, and he hates that he can't blame anybody but himself.

"I hope it didn't burn you," Klaus says in his crisp and concerned voice, and Case shakes his head. It'd been obvious from the first time Case had heard him talk that Klaus was foreign, because his English was impeccable. Nobody actually born in America enunciated things so well. And then Case'd found out his name was Klaus Schönherr, which had just proved it. Case doesn't know much more than that about Klaus's background, because he promised himself he wouldn't stalk the guy. He did spend a week trying to get a good look at Klaus's left hand, just to see if he wasn't married. He's not, which was almost disappointing. It would have helped Case get over him faster.

Case swipes all the sodden brown towels into the trash can that lives in the giant drawer under the microwave, and Klaus moves away from him. Case can suddenly breathe again. He takes a moment to close his eyes and collect himself while somebody—Klaus, probably—opens the upper cabinets and starts rummaging around.

"So, how's your morning been?" Klaus says, either to him or Cassandra.

"It's Monday," Cassandra replies in dismay, and Klaus laughs as he takes a mug down from the cabinet. Case quit keeping his own mugs here when the third one got stolen.

"Not so well, then," Klaus says. He considers the four coffee carafes on the counter before picking the French vanilla, and Case really shouldn't find their same taste in coffee hopeful. He probably has nothing else in common with him other than that, and their shared place of employment. Klaus seems like the kind of person who does exciting things on the weekends and goes out and sees people and has fun. Case sits on his couch and watches Netflix for ten straight hours or pays guitar. Or goes out to a bar and makes a bad decision with who to fuck for a night.

"Well, Case is having a worse day," Cassandra says, and Case wonders why in hell she'd call attention to him. He was doing pretty well just standing quietly away from their conversation and not embarrassing himself further.

"How so?" says Klaus, half-turning to glance at Case, who tries to shove himself further into the wall.

"Oh, there's this guy Case has a huge crush on," Cassandra says blithely. "And I think it's actually driving him insane."

"Cass," Case hisses. He's never actually hoped for a fire drill before, but right now walking down seventeen flights of stairs sounds a lot better than being in this room. It's pretty common knowledge around the office that he's gay, but he usually doesn't remind people about it. At his last job, that got him set up on a series of absolutely horrible dates with any other gay guy his coworkers had ever known or met or heard of.

"Oh?" says Klaus, neutrally. So neutrally that Case has no idea if he's weirded out and hiding it well, or interested and hiding it well. The guy would be great at poker.

"Yeah, he doesn't know if the guy is interested or not or if he even swings the right way," Cassandra goes on. "So he won't do anything about it."

Klaus turns around to look at Case, everything about his face and voice upsettingly neutral. "Well, I think you should go for it," he says, and behind his shoulder Cassandra pops her eyebrow up and down at Case several times. "You never know unless you try."

"I'll think about that," Case says, humiliated. He's going to kill Cassandra, he really is.

Klaus sends him that bright winning smile that had only ever clinched Case's stupid helpless attraction to him, semi-salutes them with his mug, and leaves. He took his coffee away black and unsweetened, and Case's taste buds curl up in horror at the idea of the full bitter force of the office's cheap coffee.

Cassandra glances at her watch as soon as the door shuts behind Klaus. "Your daily five minutes starts now," she says. She'd started capping how much she'd listen to Case talk about Klaus about one week after he'd had been hired. "Better get it over with."

"Actually can first I complain about you, and that?" Case says. "What was that?"

"Totally harmless," Cassandra replies. "He doesn't know it's him, and everyone here knows you're gay. So...what? No problem. Plus, he didn't have a big phobic freak out on you so—I helped you out."

"So...it's the—I didn't really….well," Case flounders, and finds he had no legitimate objection. She's right.

"And, the man says to go for it," Cassandra says with a grin. "You should take his advice."

"No," Case says into his hands. "I can't work with him if it turns out badly. Like if he's not gay, for instance."

"You can't work with him now," Cassandra points out, not unfairly. "How much have you even gotten done today?"

"Mrrg," Case says evasively. But she's right. Most of his morning he's spent replaying that little smile Klaus sent his way in the conference room and imagining it in all different kinds of scenarios. Over a nice candlelit table. On a walk down a sunset-lit street. In a bedroom. He thinks he's typed up two letters and started a discovery shell, but he honestly can't remember. Sometimes his fingers and brain just do work without his permission or participation. It's what five years of being a legal assistant will do to you.

"I'm managing," he says, when Cassandra doesn't take his noise for an answer.

"Something has to give here," Cassandra says. "Either you're going to do something or I am, because I can't take watching this for much longer. And you clearly don't want me helping."

"Yeah, please don't," Case mutters. "I'm trying to get over it, okay? It just takes time."

Cassandra's expression says clearly that she doesn't believe him.

December 2

There's a candy cane on his desk. It has a little ribbon bow tied around it.

"What?" Case says to no one in particular, since Bianca isn't here this early. He dumps his coat on his chair and glances around, like the candy-leaving culprit might be lurking around in the hall or behind the copier. When he doesn't see anybody, he gingerly picks up the candy cane and looks it over.

There's a slip of paper tied into the bow. From your SS, it reads. Typed. So he can't recognize the handwriting.

"Fucking cheater," he mutters, but gives the person credit for it. When he was a kid, he'd figured out that the real Santa didn't exist when he'd recognized his mother's printing on the gift tags. And he knows pretty much everyone's handwriting here. Except maybe Klaus's, because he hasn't been here long enough, but that'd just be process of elimination.

Either way, he's pretty sure that this is not how the Secret Santa is supposed to work. It's one gift on the day of the office party. Case frowns at the candy cane, wondering if he's supposed to be mad someone is breaking the rules, or flattered. He's supposed to be thinking positively about things, so...maybe someone from last year remembers how he didn't get anything and is try to make it up to him? That sounds too thoughtful for this office, honestly. Not that these are terrible people he works with, just...his only real friend is Cassandra, and everybody's probably forgotten about last year. Even Susan, who was the one who got his name and read it wrong.

But Klaus has been...friendlier, recently, and he did just hear the pathetic story about last year's Secret Santa. Case frowns harder at the candy cane. It can't be Klaus. There's no way. Just because the guy kind of smiled at Case yesterday doesn't mean anything. They don't know each other well enough for Klaus to want to cheer him up or be...like...nice to him.

But he should think positive, right? God, it's harder than he thought it'd be.

Case takes a causal loop around the office on his way to put his lunch in the fridge, taking inventory of who's here. At 8:45, the office is fairly empty. Some of the regular early-bird attorneys—neither of his, who usually stroll in around 9:30 or 10—and the other paralegal Lauren who mostly deals with the business half of the office, who Case doesn't think he's spoken to more than twice in three years. She's quiet. A few assistants have trickled in and are all in the kitchen getting coffee or heating up breakfasts they didn't eat at home, and...Klaus is here. His office door is open and even though Case can't see inside, he can hear someone moving around in there. Well. Maybe it's just one of the filing girls digging for a clip in there.

Case inches casually down the very short hallway that goes to Klaus and Lauren's office doors. While the attorney offices all ring the outside of the suite, everything else is crammed up into the middle; like the kitchen and break room and the multiple copy alcoves and the accounting Narnia and the other little rooms that the file clerks pop in and out of like little sneaky ninjas. The paralegal offices are part of that too, and Klaus got planted in Melanie's office while she's gone. So it still looks like her office, complete with pictures and personal trinkets.

He's practically inside Klaus's door when he hears, "Did you need something?"

Case startles at the impeccable voice, and then again at Klaus's mildly curious face looking at him from behind a stack of boxes filled with case clips. "Oh, fuck, I—no. Sorry. Just...nothing. No."

And he escapes, face burning. What's wrong with him? He could at least made up an excuse, like that he's looking for a case clip he knows Klaus wouldn't have. Instead of just panicking and fleeing.

Well, at least he sort of has an answer as to who might be his Secret Santa. It's one of the six or seven people who are here right now, which includes Klaus. Unless someone left it after Case went home last night. He did duck out about ten minutes early. He usually does that because he comes in so early in the morning. Then it could be anybody.

Case drags his hands down his face, frustrated at how worked up this is getting him. This is so much worse than last year, when he had an easy person to get a gift for and just wrote his name illegibly. Now he has Dorothy and somebody plaguing him with niceness. Somehow, that's worse. And he can't relax about it.

So he obviously needs coffee. He heads back to the kitchen, finding it almost empty except for Cassandra, who's warming up a cup of instant oatmeal in the microwave.

"'Morning. What you got there?" Cassandra asks, nodding at the candy cane in his hand.

"Somebody cheating," Case says darkly. "I thought we were only supposed to get one Secret Santa gift."

"Well, maybe somebody likes you," Cassandra suggests, and Case just gives her a look.

"Oh, could you just be happy about it?" Cassandra says, sounding like she pities him and wants to punch him at the same time. "I doubt it was meant to make you miserable."

Case looks down at the candy cane, exhales, and then twists the plastic wrapper off the straight end and pops it into his mouth. Bright peppermint sinks into his tongue, and Case twirls the candy around a few times and sends her a look that says, there, good enough?

"That's better," Cassandra says, smirking at him. "Now go stand in front of Klaus's office and do that."

Case chuckles and bumps her arm. "God. Shut up." But he does, for some reason, feel a little better.

December 5

Every morning this entire week Case has gotten a gift. It's all been candy, single little treats, and all from your SS. After his initial panic of the first day, Case has settled himself into a sort of grudging surrender to showing up to work every morning to find something on his desk. It doesn't matter how early he comes in or how late he leaves, whoever's doing it manages to sneak it there undetected.

It's been a lot of hard candy. Stuff he has to suck on to eat. He's careful not to do that around Klaus, which means he usually waits until lunchtime. Or he would, if Klaus didn't seem to be suddenly really interested in stopping by the break room when he and Cassandra are eating in there. He seems to be showing up around them a lot, actually. Since his office is basically next to the kitchen, he can probably hear them in there though the annoyingly thin walls. And then he shows up, like he has right now.

He's talking with Cassandra, because Case tends to shut up when Klaus is nearby so he doesn't make an idiot of himself. And he would make an idiot of himself, because it's casual Friday and even out of his neatly tailored professional clothes Klaus manages to look amazing. Today it's brown corduroy pants and a cream sweater, which sound awful but somehow works perfectly on him. Also Klaus usually forgoes his contacts on Fridays and wears a neat little pair of rimless glasses, which is just plain adorable. Case can hardly look at him.

At least he doesn't have to—Klaus is leaning on the peninsula counter in the middle of the kitchen area, and Case already had his back turned when he'd come in. He's trying to quietly eat as they practically talk over his head; they're discussing a case right now that Case knows nothing about, anyway. Cassandra's attorneys are both working on it and Klaus is having to construct some sort of tome of prior divorce and custody documents between two of the involved parties spanning almost ten years, which Cassandra had just started looking at before lunch. Apparently it involves horrible people who should never have been married, let alone parents.

"God, you read one pleading and you think, 'this woman is horrible!' and then you read another one and it's like, 'this guy is a psychopath!'" Cassandra is saying, dragging her hands down her face in mock—or maybe real—horror. "You can't root for anyone."

"I feel bad for the children," Klaus says, and Cassandra nods emphatically.

"Too bad we're not representing them," she says. From what Case has gleaned from the conversation, their firm is actually representing someone entirely different, but the documentation of this unpleasant nonsense is something that helps their actual client. Something about parental negligence. It sounds miserable, and Case is just glad that the things he's working on most actively now are just people suing HOAs over mold growth or failing to prevent birds from shitting on ventilations systems. Whiny people, basically.

"No talking about work during lunch!" says Grace mock-sternly, as she suddenly bustles into the kitchen and heads for the tiny stock closet. Case doesn't even want to know how many years she's been a legal secretary or working here—probably since the firm started under its current arrangement of name partners in the 80s. She's a much older lady but her hair is still completely jet black and styled into poofs around her head, and her bright clothes are always easy to spot around the office. She wears the same bright shade of lipstick and turquoise eye makeup every day, jarring against her pale skin. Her voice floats out from inside the closet; "You're all young, don't you have more exciting things to chat about?"

"Not really," Cassandra says. "Some of these people are better than reality TV."

Klaus laughs, and Case eats his microwaved meal with more determined concentration. Grace reemerges from the pantry with a teabag and a coffee cup of the type that are usually sitting on the counter, and heads over to the coffee maker to use the hot water spout.

"We have tea here?" Klaus says, sounding surprised and pleased, and then he and Grace get involved in a long enough conversation about fucking tea that Case gets to send Cassandra a reproachful look.

"What?" she mouths at him, and then followed by either 'he's nice' or 'eats ice', but Case is pretty sure it's not the second.

"Not the point," he mutters.

"I'm gonna talk to whoever I want, not my fault if you can't handle him," she says, audibly this time but still not very loud.

"I can handle him," Case says, regretting it as soon as he says it for multiple reasons, only one of which is how suggestive it sounds.

"Oh really." Cassandra scoots herself out of her chair, gets up, and for a moment Case is seized with a horrible panic that she'll do something, like she almost sort of did the other day when she really did tell Klaus about Case's crush on him only he had no idea.

"What are you doing?" Case hisses. From the corner of his eye he sees Grace leaving the kitchen with her cup of tea, but Klaus is still in here, so that means they'll be left alone if she goes.

"Going to the restroom," she says, hiking an eyebrow. "Like a normal person."

No, no, no, don't leave me,Case wants to shout, but he can't without coming off like a complete wierdo. So he just sits there as Cassandra sashays out of the break room and leaves him and Klaus together. By themselves.

There's a moment of very obvious silence in which Case absolutely can't turn around, and then Klaus clears his throat lightly. "You've been quiet."

"I am quiet," Case blurts out, completely falsely. Not that he's loud and boisterous, but quiet doesn't describe him either.

"Only sometimes," Klaus says, and it sounds like he's smiling. "To keep up with her, I think you can't possibly be quiet."

Case, to his own surprise, laughs. "Yeah, no kidding." He has to admit that it's really rude to talk with the guy and have his back to him, so he reluctantly turns around in his chair and slings his arm over the back of it. "She's great, though."

"Yes. I like her," Klaus says. "Also her work. Always very organized."

"Really," Case says. He really has no idea how Cassandra works. Of course other assistants constantly complain about each other, including her, but there are assistants who complain about everyone to the point where Case takes everything he hears with an entire handful of salt. Also Cassandra's attorneys are partners in the firm, since she's been here for almost eight years, and Case has the newer less-responsible ones, so she probably does actually do good work.

Klaus sees everybody's work, so he's actually in the best position to judge. Case really doesn't want to know what Klaus thinks about him, except he doesn't get that choice.

"Yours is good as well," Klaus says. But it does seem a little placating, like he's just saying that because he complimented Cass first. But Cass probably actually deserves it.

There's an awkward silence, and Case doesn't know if he should try and keep this going or just go back to his lunch. It seems rude to just quit talking and put his back to Klaus, so he can't make himself do that.

"So. Tea, huh," he finally says, and Klaus chuckles.

"For waking up in the morning, coffee is better," he says, which Case definitely agrees with. "But tea is more varied, in taste."

"Never really been my thing," Case says. The only tea he can remember having is peppermint, and it just reminds him of having an upset stomach. His mom would make it for him when he was a kid. "Shouldn't you be really into beer?"

"Yes, because I can drink that at work." Klaus leans his elbows back on the peninsula counter, smiling, clearly interpreting this as a full-on real conversation. The kind of thing that Case has been avoiding with him for months. Well, he's in it now and might as well...enjoy it. There, that's his positive thought he's managed to squeeze out for the day.

"What about outside of work?" Case says, and then wonders if that sounds like flirting. Shit, it does. He needs to not do that.

Klaus lifts a shoulder. He's not wearing one of his usual vests today, but his shirt is so crisply white it's hard to look at. His tie is sky blue. "I don't really drink that much," he says. "I need caffeine much more than alcohol."

Case feels himself smiling. "God, yeah." They both like coffee and don't really drink. Two things in common. Well, they might as well just get married right now. The ridiculousness of that thought only makes him laugh at himself and have to turn away from Klaus for a second. "Even though our coffee is terrible."

Klaus laughs. "It is," he says. "I wasn't sure if anyone actually realized that."

"Most people aren't insane enough to drink it black."

"I suppose I live dangerously," Klaus says, so seriously that he's obviously joking.

"Well, enjoy that," Case says, and Klaus winks at him. It stuns Case so thoroughly that he can't even come up with a way to keep talking, let alone what he'd even say.

Luckily, Cassandra comes back into the kitchen after about ten endless seconds of silence between them. She actually seems surprised that Klaus is still here, and gives Case a mildly impressed look.

"Well," Klaus says then, drawing back off the counter. "Enjoy your lunch, you two."

"Mm-hm," Case says vaguely, as Cassandra says "you too", although Case has never actually seen Klaus eat lunch, even in here. He probably sticks to his office or goes out somewhere.

When the break room door shuts behind him, Cassandra slides back into her chair with a satisfied look on her face. "He's around a lot now, isn't he," she says, with badly feigned casualness.

"Yeah," Case says. "Did you say something to him?"

"Like what? " Cassandra laughs, a lot more naturally. "Like, 'please come hang around my neurotic friend so that he'll be more paranoid and upset about your presence?' Why would I want that?"

"Okay, fine," Case concedes, rankled that Cassandra would describe him as neurotic. He can't possibly be that bad. He just managed a whole regular conversation with Klaus, like a regular person. "But why all of a sudden? Why now? "

"I thought that you think he's your Secret Santa."

"Yeah, I did, until this." Case tosses his candy-of-the-day, a vanilla flavored lollipop from See's, onto the table from his pocket. "He has no reason to do this."

"Unless he likes you," Cassandra presses. "And now he has an excuse to woo you."

"Oh god, stop." But usually men don't wink at each other unless they want something specific.

"Just saying." Cassandra leans back in her chair, spears a last chunk of salad from her Tupperware container.

"Just because you like me doesn't mean that the classy German guy I've barely spoken to, on purpose, does," Case says. "He's probably just talking to me because he has to figure out what to get me."

"So let me get this right," Cassandra says. "He's not your Secret Santa because you're getting extra gifts, but then he is because he's suddenly paying you more attention. It doesn't seem to you like those things might be connected?"

"No," Case says stubbornly.

"You're seriously hopeless, you know."

"Yeah, well." Case scoops the lollipop off the table and pockets it. "I don't want to think about it anymore."

"Ooookay," Cassandra says with an air of long-suffering. "You're way over thinking it, just for the record."

"I just want this month to be over with," Case sighs into his lunch, only half-eaten and now mostly congealed into a solid mass of instant microwaveable pasta in a plastic dish. He can cook, but constantly making meals for one person is slightly depressing. Leftovers aren't his thing, either.

"I happen to like Christmas, Scrooge," Cassandra says. "Your grumpy ass doesn't have to ruin it for the rest of us." Case waves a finger at her, she laughs and puts the top back on her empty Tupperware, and a few minutes later they go back to work.

December 8

Case pretends he's not slightly disappointed when there's nothing on his desk on Monday morning. He'd actually started...kind of... liking getting a little present every day. At least gotten to accept it in a kind of grudging way. He even looks around on the floor and his chair, but there's really nothing. Whoever it was seems to have given up, which is both good and infuriating.

He's not going to say a thing to Cassandra about it. She doesn't need to hear that she was right. He still has no idea who it was, or why it was, and he can't decide if it really is or really isn't Klaus. It's probably not, but he really has been hanging around more than usual. Case had all weekend to mull it over while he watched Netflix or plunked at his guitar, and came to the decision that he still has no fucking clue of what's going on.

So he just gets on with his regular work, and tries to forget about the Secret Santa thing entirely. It's a worse distraction than Klaus has been.

"Okay, who hates Voight and Boyan as much as I do," Bianca says, startling him out of his thoughts.

"What'd they do now?" Case says. They've got several cases where they're the opposing counsel, and going by their paperwork they must be run by children. That, or they just really delight in making other firms straighten out sloppy work to annoy them. Which of course doesn't actually affect the attorneys—just all the assistants.

"Can't send one letter about the forty million subpoenas they ordered," Bianca laments, and flops a sizeable stack of papers down on her desk. Her glossy ponytails flips around in her aggravation. "No, write a letter for each subpoena! And then fax each letter too! Now I have to match them up make sure we've got all of them."

Bianca's generally a little disorganized and it doesn't sound like that much of a mess to him, but Case just nods in sympathy. It's not his case, not his problem, but nobody likes dealing with Voight and Boyan. Case interviewed there once, before he got hired here. At the time he was surprised to get the interview at all, given his work history, but now he's not. Everyone there seems incompetent.

Not that this office is wholly competent either. There's always something going wrong, and it seems to be the fault of the fact it was once a small firm, grew, and never stopped operating like a small firm. Case is all the time stumbling over things that would never have happened at his old job, which actually had fewer attorneys and less case volume.

He's actually in the middle of discovering one of those issues now. Just before Bianca showed up with her subpoenas, Case was trying to pull up a pleading on the Zeigler case. The PDF had been only one page, and when Case double-checks he sees that somebody scanned it in wrong; every single page is a separate PDF with a number at the end; 001, 002, etc.. And it's almost twenty pages long. Twenty individual PDFs. No. Case doesn't have time for that bullshit—he'll have to get one of the office services people to rescan it or import them all into one document, something, but in the meanwhile he needs the hard copy.

Naturally, it's not in the filing drawer. Nothing's ever in the drawer when he needs it. The first two pleading volumes are, but the cover page in the second refers to a third, and that's nowhere around. Case even looks in nearby drawers, just in case an idiot misplaced it. Nope, it's nowhere.

"Hey, who's hoarding Zeigler?" Case says, tapping on the counter above Bianca's desk. "I know my guys don't have it." Generally the two attorneys he assists, Alissa and Jason, use the digital copies and don't keep clips. They're both young, hardly older than he is, so they're more at home with computers. Even more reason to get that screwed up pleading fixed.

Bianca shrugs. "No idea."

"I thought Tom was helping with it too."

"Pretty sure he doesn't have it," Bianca says. She's notoriously bad at knowing where clips are though, even for her own cases, so Case isn't even sure why he's asking her. Better to ask one of the file clerks—the firm won't invest in any sort of file checking system last his last job had, so pretty much anybody could have any clip at any time—in their office or even take it home—and nobody would know. But the file clerks have to file everything, so they have to know.

Case checks with Tom first anyway, and of course he doesn't have the clip. Why don't they have a check-out system again? Now he has to go talk to the file clerks, who he barely knows because a couple months ago the old ones all seemed to quit at once and a whole new roster of them came in. The office has been more organized with these new ones, but Case still barely knows their names or who they are. He doesn't like having to go to people and admit he needs help doing his own damn job.

The guy who scans in mail is listening to something heavy in bass and with barely coherent shouting standing in for actual singing off his computer, and the girl in here with him—Case is pretty sure her name is Tara—looks like every single beat physically pains her to listen to. Case is surprised nobody's complained about this music; he could hear it out in the hallway. The clerk is loading up her filing cart with stacks of corr and pleadings to update, and doesn't notice Case in the doorway.

"Oh!" she says, when she finally turns around and does. Her chestnut hair is pulled into a braid, and stray wisps of it float around her pale face and make look slightly frazzled. "Hi, sorry! Can I help you with something?"

"I'm looking for the Zeigler pleadings?" he says. "The recent ones."

"That's in Klaus's office," Tara says without missing a beat.

How does she know that right off the top of her head? People working on the case don't even know where it is. So she could be wrong, right? He really doesn't want to go talk to Klaus. "You sure?"

"I could check my list," she says. "But he had it yesterday afternoon, and if it's not in the drawer and Tom doesn't have it, Klaus does."

"Right, thanks," Case mutters. He slides out of their filing room, and then reconsiders and pokes his head back around the door.

"Hey, by the way, a couple of the scanned pleadings for that case are a little messed up," he says, and doesn't miss how Tara immediately sends a sharp glance at the back of her office mate's head. He doesn't seem aware of anything happening in this room at all. "Just...thought that might need to get fixed."

"Yeah, definitely," she says. "Thanks for letting us know."

"Sure," Case says, and then hesitates. "What list were you talking about?"

"Oh, well, it's kind of like the case list," Tara says. "I just keep a record of where clips are, but I know a lot of them myself. So if you're ever looking for anything again, seriously, ask me."

"I will," Case says, honestly impressed. She's memorized where clips are in the office? That sounds like some kind of sorcery, honestly. Between all the attorneys and assistants here there's got to be a couple hundred clips. He has some corr to file for a sluggish case with not a lot of activity, and he hasn't been able to find the main clip for it like two months. It's not a huge deal, but it's been a continual mild frustration. "Do you know where the Corman clip is?"

"Daniel's office," Tara replies promptly. "It's one of the ones on the floor. Good luck."

"Well, shit," Case says, and flushes a little when Tara laughs. Daniel basically has a library of clips in his office. Case's always been glad he's not Daniel's assistant; he'd have to live in his office to get anything done. But Dorothy, being Dorothy, never seems to mind wading through his literal towers of clips and redwells and binders that litter Daniel's floor and shelves.

Thinking about Dorothy reminds him about the Secret Santa thing, which reminds him about Klaus, which reminds him that the last place he wants to go asking for a missing clip is into his office. But he thanks Tara and leaves, taking slow and unhappy steps down the long hall towards where the paralegals all live.

Lauren's door is almost entirely shut, like usual, but Klaus's is completely open. Klaus himself is at the desk, which faces the door. He's immersed in scribbling something down on a yellow legal pad, and every once in a while glancing at a discovery clip flopped open beside him. There's an entire box of more mint-green discovery clips on the floor behind him.

Case dithers for a moment, then gives himself a mental kick and knocks on the frame to announce himself.

Klaus glances up. "Oh, hello Case," he says, with a smile that's probably just professional.

"Yeah, hey, you got the Zeigler pleadings in here?" Case says. Easier to cut right to it.

"I—oh, yes, sorry," Klaus says, getting up immediately. "I know I should put them in the filing basket when I'm done—"

"It's really okay," Case says quickly. Other than that box, Klaus maybe has two or three clips in here that Case can spot, so he's hardly a problem with hoarding things like some attorneys and assistants are.

Case never realized just how small Melanie's office really was until Klaus squeezes past him to get to the bookshelf on the other side of his desk, and grabs what has to be the third Zeigler pleading clip. He honestly could have just pointed to it, and Case could have taken it and left on his own. He didn't need it fetched it for him.

"Um, thanks," Case says when Klaus holds it out to him, standing just slightly too close. "You need it back?"

Klaus shakes his head. He's still standing way too close, and Case gets a faint smell of something faintly astringent, like aftershave. It's pleasant and attractive and Case really wants to get away from it. He clutches harder at the pleading clip and doesn't know exactly how to leave now without being rude.

"Right," he says. "Okay. Later, then."

And he turns around, ears burning. Every time. He embarrasses himself with Klaus, and this time it didn't even seem like his fault. Why did Klaus have to get up and get all close to him? Is it because they almost had a conversation the other day?

"Case—" Klaus's voice stops him immediately in the doorway, like he's some kind of dog trained to respond to the man's voice. It's sad, really.

"Yeah?" Case says, trying not to sound like he's saying it through gritted teeth, indescribably furious with himself.

"Sorry, never mind," Klaus says. "It was nothing."

So Case essentially flees his office with the pleading clip. It's not professional and it's embarrassing, but Case almost can't control his own reactions when stupid Klaus is around.

He's just sat back down at his desk with the clip when his Outlook blips and a new email notification shows up in his inbox. Case ignores it for a second, until he sees that it's not from anyone in the office. The address is honestly your_secret_santa. There's no subject.

"For fuck's sake," Case mutters, and clicks it open out of sheer morbid curiosity.

"What?" Bianca says, still woefully matching up the subpoenas and the faxes and the letters together.

"Nothing," Case says hurriedly. Inside the email is a picture of two candy canes crossed together to form a heart, and then followed by a single line of text.

Why doesn't Santa have any kids? He only comes once a year.

Case groans, tried not to laugh, but then does anyway. At the bottom of the email is written "your SS", as if the address it came from wasn't obvious enough. So someone made a generic email account and sent it to him so he couldn't pinpoint them either, just like the handwriting. Honestly, whoever this is really goes to some lengths for stealth for a Secret Santa.

He rereads the joke, groans quietly again, and then drags the whole email into his saved email subfolder. Why not. Other than Dorothy's chipper office-wide emails he doesn't get a lot of fun things in his inbox.

December 9

It's the second day with no little gift in the morning, but he does get a second email from the same email address as yesterday at around eleven thirty. This time it's a picture of a row of small white puffy birds on a snowy branch, and a possibly even worse joke: What's the difference between snowmen and snowladies? Snowballs.

He types up a quick email to Cassandra—my secret santa is now sending me vaguely sexual bad jokes—and then tries to focus on work. A few minutes later he gets a reply from her—you know what I'm gonna say about that—and childishly deletes it. He definitely asked for that.

Case supposes this is going to be the thing of the week now; instead of candy he'll get these random pictures and jokes. And it's not like someone knowing his email is a clue. Even anyone he's never sent an email to—like anyone in accounting, for instance—would know it because every address here is just a first initial and a last name at the company's email. Boring and predictable, except for poor Klaus who didn't get an email account set up for him because he's temporary and still has to be emailed at MBridges GGE. But it'd probably be hard to put the o with the little dots over it that's in his last name in an address anyway. Case isn't even completely sure how to pronounce that letter.

So it was a week of candy and now a week of emails. There'll be one more week (of some other series of mystery gifts? Who knows) and then the office Christmas party on Friday. And wow, he is not looking forward to that. Usually he hangs around just long enough to not look completely antisocial, suffers through the Secret Santa, and escapes. Maybe grabs some food. Most of the time he spends clinging to Cass, but she's way more friendly than he is an actually wants to talk and hang out with other people too.

And this year, there's Klaus. Case already knows he's going, because he overheard him and Dorothy having a very enthusiastic conversation about it. And Dorothy had told Klaus that of course he was welcome to "bring someone along." Meaning a date. Klaus isn't married, but that doesn't mean he's not in a relationship. Case really doesn't want to see that. Even though he really wants Klaus to be unavailable and uninterested—he doesn't need to see yet another person happily matched up.

He still has no idea what to get Dorothy, speaking of Dorothy. Her cubicle, that she shares with Grace, is pretty far away from him; nearly completely across the office and somewhere he doesn't go often. He usually only runs into Dorothy in the break room or in the main copy room where the high-volume printers are. So he can't snoop around her desk to see what she might like and he can't listen in on her. Cassandra did say she'd help him, but ultimately it's up to him and he really doesn't want to get Dorothy something generic and boring, like a box of candy. Even though Case hates the Secret Santa, she puts all the effort into it and deserves better.

He's almost not surprised when he goes into the break room for lunch about a half an hour later and finds Cassandra and Klaus actually sitting together at the table. Cassandra's laughing about something, and she spots Case coming in the door and waves at him. Klaus turns around, sees him, smiles.

"Hey," Case says, and after he gets his lunch from the fridge, joins them. He and Cass always sit at the same table in the same chairs every day, but Klaus took his usual one. Case finds, surprisingly, that he doesn't even mind. And that he's not panicking about the idea of sitting and talking with Klaus (but it helps that Cass is there too). Either he's finally getting over this, or he's just handling it like an actual adult.

December 12

"You're still helping me with Dorothy, right?" Case asks at the end of a long long Friday, standing by Cassandra's desk and waiting as he gets all her stuff together.

"Mmhm, yeah," Cassandra replies as she shrugs on her coat. "But this week's been busy, you know?"

"Yeah." If it weren't for the daily candy and then the daily emails, Case would've forgotten about the Secret Santa exchange entirely in everybody's rush to get their work done before the holidays. And Cassandra probably bought something frog-themed for Hannah ages ago. He doesn't blame her for not thinking about it—it's his responsibility to get this gift for Dorothy. The goddamn office party is in a week.

They head towards the elevator bank in the center of the building, the early dark of the winter sunset pressing on the glass windows. When they come around the corner, Dorothy is standing by the elevators, humming to herself and rocking back and forth on her heels as she waits. Of course. Just who he doesn't want to see in person. The center elevator on the right dings and opens just as Dorothy spots Case and Cassandra.

"Hi, you two!" Dorothy says, waving cheerily at them, and gestures them into the open elevator ahead of her. Why is she always so nice? Case slinks guilty to the back of the elevator and wedges himself in the corner while Cassandra hits the button for the lobby. He listens to them exchange a few pleasantries about it being Friday and looking forward to the weekend and what their plans are.

"Those are cute earrings," Cassandra comments, and Dorothy perks and touches a hand to her left ear.

"Oh, thank you!" she says. "Early gift from my sister." As she says this, Cassandra looks over Dorothy's head at Case and gives him a pointed look. For what? About her earrings? Okay, sure, he'll look at her earrings.

He leans in, catches a glimpse of Dorothy's ear when she moved her head around. They're little shiny guitars, hanging from her ears by the heads. Does Dorothy like guitar? Or play guitar? That's a thing Case knows something about. Still, getting her some sheet music or a set of strings seems underwhelming. But it's a hint. And Cassandra did just help him out.

"Thanks," he mouths at her, and Cassandra winks in reply as the elevator hits the lobby and the doors roll open. Well, now he's got something to think about..

December 16

The week starts off disappointingly. There's nothing on his desk in the morning and he doesn't get an email at the usual time, which is either just before or after lunch. Then Case gets frustrated with himself at expecting something, at feeling entitled when he didn't even like the gifts at the start and bitched about them. Cassandra would laugh her ass off at him being all mopey that he's not getting a special little extra thing that he's not supposed to be getting anyway.

So he stops thinking about it, and just goes on with his work. Half of the office seems to not want to get anything done, and he sees more than a couple of assistants just hanging out in the break room, chatting. A few attorneys here are already on vacation, mostly partners who can afford it, so their assistants have a low workload. Case's attorneys, and Case himself, aren't so lucky.

But knowing that Tara the file clerk is like a tiny office magician who knows where everything is in the entire office is the best thing Case had learned since he started working here. He's had an entire pile of corr sitting in an unused inbox on the counter behind his desk that's now all filed, because she knew where all those clips were stashed. Since it's the assistants' jobs to file their own correspondence and they can't just dump them on the file clerks, Case had figured he'd just wait until those clips showed up again someday and not waste his time chasing them down. But now his desk is almost completely clear of backlogged work.

Apparently, only a few people have figured out how helpful Tara is. He's always overhearing assistants wondering where clips have gone. But as he passes the file clerk office on his way to the copy room he nearly runs straight into Klaus, who comes out of it like he's bursting out of a bachelor party cake.

"Case, sorry!" Klaus exclaims, catching him by the shoulders and holding him steady for a lot longer than Case needs to be held steady. His hands burn warm through Case's thin sweater, and for a second Case feels completely mesmerized by how bright and blue his eyes are.

"S'okay," he manages to say. "Where's the fire?"

"What?" Klaus legitimately sounds concerned, but then he sighs and looks amused. "Right, not literally."

Case eases himself out of Klaus's grip, trying to be subtle about it. He can't actually remember if Klaus has ever touched him before. It felt a little too good.

"Trouble with idioms?" he says, casually, wondering how quickly he can escape.

"Sometimes," Klaus admits, with a little smile. "English seems to be half made of them."

"Mm-hm," Case says. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Tara inside the file clerk office, watching the two of them. Christ, embarrassing.

"Well. See you around," Klaus says, maybe noticing that Case is trying to look anywhere but at him.

"Mm-mh," Case says again, and then Klaus goes on his way, seeming sort of puzzled about the entire conversation. Case feels guilty about it, but he's really trying to make Klaus not his problem. He goes into the file clerk office instead.

"Well that was cute," Tara says. Now that Case has been interacting with her more, apparently it's fair game to tease him a little. And he doesn't mind so much. Tara seems like a decent, friendly person. Like the rest of the office, she's probably picked up the fact that he's gay too.

"Uh-huh. Any idea where the Compton clip's moved to?" he says, and Tara laughs and gets the hint.

"Okay, okay. Sandra used to have it but if she doesn't, Daniel's also working on it," she says. "Probably there."

"Stop sending me to Daniel's office!" Case says, and Tara just laughs again.

December 17

Case comes to work Wednesday knowing that Cassandra won't be there. And she isn't, and he's one of the few people who knows why. He learned by accident, but apparently he's the only person who realized that she was gone the same day two years in a row, and she almost never takes days off. She confided in him when he asked, but he's not about to tell anyone else about it.

Still, he always feels kind of alone and weird when Cassandra isn't here. Nobody else here is actually his friend. They're just coworkers. Even Bianca, whom he sits next to every day, isn't much more than that. Maybe he gets along with a few of them more than others, but he wouldn't want to see them outside of work. He and Cassandra have done that, a few times.

"I have a question," says Klaus's voice out of nowhere, and Case startles and manages to highlight and delete an entire paragraph of the letter he's working on. He control-z's quickly, makes sure it's all actually there, saves it about three times in a row, and then finally glances up. Klaus is leaning on the counter that surrounds his half of the cubicle, hands folded together and a friendly little smile on his face. His button down shirt today is a pale pastel pink which somehow manages to look good on him, his vest a dove-grey. He always looks like he fell right out of a menswear catalogue.

"Yeah?" Case says, instantly nervous and on guard. He probably did something wrong and Klaus needs him to fix it, or specify something in the work he did. A quick glance to his left at least tells him Bianca isn't here to see him get taken to task. He doesn't mess up often, but this month has truly been the worst. And it's mostly the fault of the man in front of him, whom he can't even blame for it.

"Your name is Casey," Klaus says, which almost sounds like a question but mostly doesn't. Great, where did Klaus hear that from?

"Yeah," Case admits. "But I really don't like to be called that. If you don't mind."

"Oh, no. I wasn't planning to. I just was wondering if that's why some of the assistants always call you Call Me Case," Klaus says.

"Because that's what I always say. Call me Case," Case mutters. So he's the only male legal aid in the office and his coworkers have a joke about him. No, no, be more positive. Maybe they're saying nice things about him. Maybe they….think it's….cute? God, he's terrible at this. He's the worst positive person ever. Maybe Dorothy will give him lessons or something. Oh god he doesn't want to think about Dorothy, he's only got three days until the Christmas party.

"Case is a good name for working in a law firm," Klaus says with a smile, and Case snorts.

"Yeah, well, that wasn't planned," he says.

"Oh?"

"Wasn't exactly my dream to be a legal assistant," Case says. "I just kind of fell into it." And then he never climbed out of it again, because he has no dream job. Or life, really. Right now, he's just trying to get by. He'll figure out what he wants eventually. Probably.

"You do very good work," Klaus says, still sounding baffled, and Case warms a little.

"Well, I don't want to get fired," he says. "It's not the worst job I've had. It doesn't matter what I'm doing, I just want to do it well and not make other people's jobs harder."

"What would you rather—" Klaus stops, tilts his head, considers him. "Can I take you somewhere?"

Case is positive he's misheard. "I—what?"

"Cassandra isn't here, I know you always have lunch together. Would you like to go eat somewhere? With me," Klaus adds, as if the clarification is needed. He holds up his arm, where a sleek little silver watch on a black band is wrapped around his wrist. "It's almost twelve."

"Um," Case says, and he sounds painfully shy even to himself. "Okay?"

Klaus's smile suddenly looks forced. "You don't sound very sure."

"It's just that we almost never go anywhere. Cassandra and me," Case explains quickly. "We just sit in the kitchen every day." And usually when Cassandra isn't here, he eats at his desk. Sitting alone in the kitchen makes him feel like he's back in high school.

Klaus tilts his head. "So is that yes, then?"

"Yeah. Yes. Let's get the hell out here," Case says, and finally Klaus seems honestly pleased with his answer.

#

The business park has three or four small independent restaurants tucked into the bases of the office buildings, and a few free-standing chain ones on the outskirts. Case has never actually been to any of them, even after working here for three years. Eating out is something he doesn't budget for. The few times he and Cassandra have actually left the office during lunchtime, they drive somewhere else. And that's maybe been all of five times in the past three years.

"You go to any of these?" Case says when they've walked out of their building into the deceptively cold weather—the sky is cloudless and bright, but the wind is raw and chilled and the sun is watery and useless. He took his coat, but Klaus didn't. He doesn't seem to be bothered by just wearing a vest and a button-down. Then again, the man's from Europe, which seems to be a generally colder place. Not that Case has ever been.

"Sometimes," Klaus says. "Being inside one building all day is...claustrophobic."

"So you leave one building and go to another one," Case says, and Klaus chuckles.

"Different atmosphere," he says. "Also 4030 has better Christmas decorations than our building." Well, he's not wrong there.

"I only ever order from the cafe downstairs," Case admits. They make decent sandwiches and it doesn't take long to deliver seventeen floors directly up. God, he's so unexciting that he bores himself.

"Do you like sushi?" Klaus says, nodding towards the opposite side of the office park where a couple of abstract art statues clutter up a plaza with several outside eating patios. Case has only been over there once; the day he interviewed for the job and parked in the wrong parking structure. He didn't even know there was a Japanese restaurant over there.

"Is that a big thing in Germany, sushi?" Case asks.

"I'm from Austria," Klaus says with a smile. "And, not really. You can get it, but it's not as popular as it is here. I'm about the only person in my family that likes it."

Case is actually glad he got that wrong, since it sounds a lot better that he had no idea where Klaus is actually from. It probably says on his Facebook page, but Case has purposefully never looked at his Facebook page. He only knows that Klaus has one from hearing him talk about Facebook with Bianca one day.

"Where in Austria?" Case asks, even though he only vaguely knows about Austria and any places in it. Vienna's there, right? But he has a reason to ask, so he does. Because he has a polite coworkerly interest, nothing more.

"Axams," Klaus says. "A very small village near Innsbruck."

"I have no idea where that is," Case says.

"I would have been surprised if you did," Klaus says lightly. "It's in a valley in the Alps. Very beautiful place; the winter Olympics were held there twice."

"Ah," says Case, with no idea how he should react to that.

"Sorry, that's not very interesting conversation," Klaus says. "But sometimes people recognize the name when I say that."

"Well, no—I mean, yeah, it is interesting. Where you're from is interesting," Case says. That doesn't sound too creepy and obsessive, right? "How long have you lived here?"

"My family moved here when I was nine," Klaus says. "So, a little over twenty years."

He's just about Case's age then. Of course he would be.

"Sushi's fine," Case says, and jams his hands in his coat. The last time he had it was one of those bad idea $5 buffets, but he's pretty sure the places around here are better than that. The gym in this office park has Bentlys and Maseratis frequently parked out front; no way is low-quality sushi going to fly with all the high-powered execs and lawyers and bankers and god knows who all the fuck else works around here.

"Great," Klaus says, with a genuine smile.

#

The Japanese restaurant is small and tranquil and amazingly awkward once he and Klaus are installed in a bamboo-colored wooden booth. Case knows that any second, if he moves wrong, their knees are going to bump together. And then he'll probably have a heart attack. There's only a few other people in here, since the general lunch rush starts later, closer to one o'clock. There's no other voices to fill in the silence that's fallen between them since they walked in.

But at least they get to order quickly, after only a minute or two of quietly looking over their menus. Case is excruciatingly aware of every movement Klaus makes, every shift of his body and every breath he takes. When the pretty young waitress leaves them, Case has to say something, and so he blurts out the first thing that comes to mind.

"So you actually like being a paralegal?"

"Yes, very much," Klaus says, with enough conviction that Case really believes it. "It was not something I planned on, either. But I had a friend in university—college, sorry, college here—who studied pre-law. And it was interesting, more interesting than what I was studying. But of course I kept on with what I was doing, because I'd already put so much into it."

"What were you majoring in?"

"Mathematics." Klaus pulls a slight face. "I was always good with numbers. But I certainly didn't enjoy it as a subject to study. And then I imagined doing it as a job for most of my life, and...well. I suppose I panicked a little. I dropped out of school entirely."

"Really," Case says, honestly stunned. Klaus seems like the exact opposite of the kind of person who would flunk out of school. He's so organized and on top of everything; controlled and put-together. It actually makes Case feel a little better about the fact that he only went to community college and that it only took him a little longer than it should have. He never dropped out.

"Yes." Klaus smiles then, runs a hand through his hair. "So I went back to Austria for a few years. Lived with my grandparents, helped them run their store there. Remembered how to speak German and got worse at English."

For a few minutes Klaus falls into a reminiscing state, talking about his grandparents' shop and what living there for a few years was like. It's all very nice and interesting and makes Case jealous that he'll probably never see a place like Axams, or any other town outside of California. Their food shows up in the middle of it—Klaus ordered a whole plate of something complicated and Case has no idea what most of the things wrapped up there even are. His own California roll looks pretty safe in comparison.

"I do miss it there sometimes," Klaus says. "It's very different from here."

"What made you come back, then?" Case distantly remembers he has food in front of him, and absently pinches a sushi roll with his chopsticks just to look like he's not completely distracted by Klaus's life story.

"Mostly, I missed my parents and sister," Klaus said. "But I also...Austria didn't feel much like home any longer. Of course we'd visited many times before, but having lived here since I was nine…" He shrugs, lightly, but it doesn't seem as casual as it looked. "It doesn't matter where I am, I don't always feel Austrian. Even there—maybe especially there. But everyone can immediately tell I'm not fully American, either. My name, or hearing me speak...there's always something."

"Yeah," Case says, feeling bad that he'd done exactly that; pinpointing Klaus as foreign as soon as they'd met. Case understands that kind of thing himself, in a different way—people who meet him and think he's white, or people who meet him and think he's black. He's both, and neither—not fully fitting in with either most of the time. He wonders what Klaus sees, what Klaus thought when they first met. What he thinks now.

"I have an accent in both languages, now," Klaus is saying, sounding both amused and vaguely frustrated. "Or so I'm told."

"It's more like you don't have enough of one, but...I get it." Case has never really considered that kind of thing before, that someone could be so obviously not from here but also not consider their birthplace their home. But Klaus has to be a US citizen on paper, or at least have dual citizenship, or something. Case doesn't want to ask outright, so he stays quiet and after a moment Klaus starts up again.

"So. Austria was fine, for a while. But I'd lived here for longer and had more friends here, and...eventually I came back," he says. "And I still had my friend, the one who had been a law student. Only she was in law school by then. I was twenty-three and had no real qualifications for work, but she got me in contact with someone at her internship who hired me on as a file clerk. Something I could live off of for a while. So for about two years I sorted and scanned mail at a firm."

"Wow," Case says. Sometimes making document shells and typing correspondence gets a little repetitive, but he can't imagine just sorting mail for two years. More specifically he can't imagine Klaus doing something so uninvolving. At least in the jobs they both have now they get to hear about all the ridiculous people and their whiny stories about why they're suing everyone in sight for something that was more than likely their own fault.

Klaus laughs. "You would think. But of course I was reading almost everything that came in, so I sort it correctly. I had to learn how to identify all the kinds of documents, how they were arranged and dated and—well, all the things that we both know. But it familiarized me with the system, and it only got more interesting the longer I did it. Even from what I read in incoming mail, it was like putting together a story, a mystery that had to be proven. So when I did finally go back to school, I knew what I wanted to do."

"But you didn't want to be an attorney." Case hates asking the question; he gets it enough himself. Why not law school? Well, because he didn't feel like paying off loans for the next fifty years. But Klaus had more options, clearly.

"No. Too much—" Klaus waits for a moment, considering words, "—confrontation. I didn't want to argue for a living."

Case laughs, surprised. "Yeah, that's...I get you there."

Klaus smiles brightly, and Case suddenly remembers that he's not supposed to relax, let his guard down. This is the man he has an all-consuming crush on after all. If he's not careful he'll slip up, make a mistake, fuck up everything. Almost every conversation he and Klaus have had before this has been work related, and even just getting to a point where they can talk, be more than just distant coworkers, might help Case out with all these feelings. If he can dial it down to friendship…that might be bearable. At least until Melanie comes back and Klaus goes away.

Case swallows past a sudden wedge in his throat. Usually the thought of Klaus eventually leaving fills him with a desperate relief. Klaus going away and things returning to normal is his most dwelled-upon daydream. Thoughts of the office as it was six months ago, without any viciously attractive men who are just his distant coworkers in it.

But when Klaus leaves they won't even be distant coworkers. They'll be nothing. Likely never see each other again. Even a week ago, Case wanted that more than anything. Now it sounds terrible. The man is still a terrible distraction at work and Case wouldn't mind that stopping, but he doesn't want Klaus gone from his life either. He likes the guy. Honestly too; as more than just a body that looks great in a suit and that he'd like to take home and throw into a bed.

"What about you, then?" Klaus says then, startling Case out of his suddenly depressing thoughts. "You said you didn't plan on doing this either."

"Yeah, I'm not really as interesting as any of what you just said," Case says.

"I'm interested," Klaus says sincerely, and Case has to suppress the shudder that runs right through him into really inappropriate parts of his body.

"I...I dunno," he starts, slowly and not very cogently. "I was born here, went to school here, had terrible shitty jobs here. I've never even left the state. I wasn't a good student, I wasn't even a good kid, I barely got through high school. I was a problem, constantly a problem. My dad wasn't around and I only went to college because my mom told me I needed to shape up or basically ship out. Like, literally, into the army. Even then I could only go to community college. I picked legal assistant classes because it was something I just pointed at blindly and said, that."

Klaus's frown has been slowly deepening as he listens. "I have to say, that doesn't sound much like you."

"You don't know me very well," Case says, more harshly than he means to. But Klaus doesn't take offense.

"True," is what he says, thoughtfully. "I would like to, though."

Case is too worked up about remembering what a shitty person he used to be for that to flatter him at all. "You wouldn't've wanted to before about seven years ago," he says. "I was a mess. I didn't even pull it together until I was through the community college, or even then, really. I lost my first job because I wasn't together enough. I missed work all the time, made my coworkers hate me eventually because they had to pull my weight. I just didn't give a shit."

Klaus stays quiet this time for a few moments. Then, without any real sense of judgement, he says, "what changed?"

"It was just one thing," Case says. "I left a bar one night, and I got mugged. The guy was on something—high or drunk or I don't even know, and I was too drunk to even realize that. I panicked him, somehow, maybe I fought back—I honestly don't remember. I ended up in an ER with a knife in my thigh."

"God," Klaus says. His arm moves, like he wants to reach across the table and take Case's hand, which is only a few inches away. But then he doesn't.

"Well, it woke me the hell up," Case goes on. "After that, I just knew I had to change everything. I ditched everyone I hung around with, stopped going to all the same places. Moved back in with my mom for a while, even though we both hated it. A couple months later, I somehow got hired here. I mean, my history alone should have made me completely undesirable."

Klaus makes a strange little noise, but when Case glances at him he's only listening, attentive and engaged.

"I shouldn't've dumped that all over you," Case says suddenly, realizing suddenly how awkward this is. They're only distant coworkers after all, and usually that kind of backstory is the sort of thing only really close friends get to hear. Not that Case really has any of those.

"I asked," Klaus says simply.

"Yeah, well. I don't really talk about it much, or at all. I tried to do a complete restart when I was twenty-seven and put all of that away forever." Part of why he's so deathly boring now, keeps to himself, and does nothing on weekends. After a whole life of acting like every day was a weekend, it got him absolutely nowhere. "But working around a lot of really successful people barely older than me is always reminding me. And they all like their jobs. Like you."

For a moment Klaus is quiet. His own food is mostly untouched—neither of them has really been eating since they dove into this conversation.

"I was lucky," Klaus says then. "My family had money, and I had the ability to fail and not suffer. I had the ability to make mistakes, to just stop going to school because I felt like it. Not everyone has that. And even if you made mistakes, you learned." For another weird moment Case thinks Klaus is going to touch his hand again. But again, it doesn't happen. "You seem successful to me. And you have at least one friend here."

"Cass knows some of this. Not all of it," Case says. And now he can't believe that Klaus knows. For some reason he was so desperate to prove why Klaus shouldn't take any real notice of him that he went overboard. Cassandra knows Case got fired from his last job, knows he was a little bit of a screw-up for a while. That's about it. Now suddenly Klaus knows more about him than he's ever told anyone in the past three years. Case doesn't know if he made a good decision with that or not.

"I'm glad you have her," Klaus says. "She's a rare kind of person."

"Yeah." A heavy sensation sinks slowly in his stomach. "She is."

#

Walking back across the office park at the end of their lunch hour is strange. Everything else they talked about was a lot lighter and never came back around to anything personal, but Case can't shake the memory of everything he told Klaus and how that's going to be there for as long as they know each other now. And same thing for what Klaus told him—he doesn't talk about himself much either. Everyone else in the office thinks he's from Germany, and he's never bothered to correct them. Nobody else—at least any of their coworkers—knows about Klaus feeling like a stranger in both countries he knows.

The strangest part was that they had a nice lunch together, with a conversation that wasn't awkward except for that couple minutes of Case spilling his ugly history all over the place, they got along pretty well, and Klaus doesn't seem to think he's awful or that his less than impressive background makes him a loser. He almost touched Case's hand several times, which is generally not a straight guy thing to do, and there's some part of a possibility that he could be Case's Secret Santa and doing a lot of extra work to do nice things for him, and he wants to be at least friends. It all seems overwhelmingly positive, and Case might as well just...go for it.

But now he has this horrible suspicion that Klaus maybe likes Cassandra. After all, Klaus has been talking with her a lot recently, says nice things about her, even asked about her a couple of times during their lunch. And Case is still too afraid of fucking up a perfectly functional work relationship. He can't handle a couple of months of Klaus politely avoiding him and his big stupid crush.

Ask him anyway, just ask him, just fucking ask him, you coward. Ask him if he wants to do this again sometime. Ask him if he's single. Ask him if he's even into men. Ask him anything.

"Hey, Klaus—" Case starts, but when Klaus stops and turns to him, attentive and interested; the heat and the nerves and his raw abject panic are too much. He balks, so much utter panic flooding him that he honestly thinks he's going to pass out.

"Never mind," he almost whispers, and Klaus seems almost—disappointed?—for a brief second before he reaches out to call the elevator.

Case doesn't say another word on the entire ride up to the seventeenth floor.

December 18

When Case sees Cassandra going into the kitchen the next morning, he glances around to make sure nobody else is in there, follows her in, shuts the door, and gives her a hug.

"Hey," he says into a faceful of her dark hair. "How are you?"

"Oh. Okay, you know," Cassandra says, but she hugs him back tighter. "It's a little better, every year. Mamãe doesn't cry as much now."

She sniffs a little then, but she's not crying either. She's never let herself do that at work. Case pats her back a few times—hugs have never been his thing, but it's easier than trying to say something sympathetic. He's not great at that.

"Do you ever think about taking more than one day off?" Case asks her, and Cassandra laughs a little.

"I don't think bereavement leave counts a decade later," she says. "No. It's all right. Coming back and thinking about work is more helpful than anything."

"Really," Case says, but Cassandra probably has a better attention span than he does. Almost anything distracts him from work. Which is why Klaus is such an issue.

Something rattles inside the stock pantry, then a sound like wood clonking on wood, like one of the brooms in there fell over. Both Case and Cassandra glance over —the door is halfway open and the automatic light is on, meaning there's probably someone in there. Case didn't even think about that.

"Hello in there," Cassandra says, and a hand appears at the edge of the door and pushes it open, and then Klaus—of course—creeps out. He looks mortified.

"I am so sorry," he says. He's clutching a one of the boxes of tea bags that no one in the office but Grace ever uses, and by its crushed and mangled state it seems like he's been standing in there and holding onto it for a while. "I really didn't mean to overh—"

"Oh, god, It's all right," Cassandra says, combing her hair back from her face. "You're harmless."

"Thanks," Klaus says slowly, like he can't tell if it's a compliment or not. But it is.

Originally Cassandra and Case gravitated towards each other because everyone else in the office is white and straight and married, and apparently Case was the first person to figure out—without being told—that she's Brazilian and not Mexican and what she speaks on the phone sometimes is Portuguese and not Spanish. Cassandra liked him just because of that. People also usually think Case is Mexican, or just really healthily tan. Cass is straight, but other than that they've got more in common than anyone else here.

They're both kind of misunderstood outsiders in this office, though Cassandra's been working here for so long that she fits in better. But Case knows exactly what she means when she called Klaus harmless. He's also something of an outsider here, even though he's white and probably straight. He's also almost an outsider to this entire country, as he just admitted to Case yesterday, even though Cassandra doesn't know that. But he fits with them, the two people who already don't fit.

"It's okay," Case mouths at Klaus, who still looks like he wishes he never went in the stock closet to get tea in the first place.

"My father passed away ten years ago, yesterday," Cassandra says to him. "My mamãe and I go every year to visit him."

"Oh," Klaus says. "I'm so sorry to hear that."

"It's all right," Cassandra says, but then Klaus moves forward and clearly means to give her a hug. Cassandra accepts it, cautiously, but her unsureness slides away pretty quickly. Klaus hugs her in the same way Case did; comforting but not intimate, not trapping her inside a big circle of arms but resting his hands lower so she could easily step away if she wanted.

"Oh," she says, and gives Klaus a brief tighter squeeze. "Thanks. Thank you."

"Of course," Klaus says, but when they move apart he still seems embarrassed and he's pinker in the face. "I'll just—" He moves towards the door of the break room. "Sorry, again."

Case wonders, again, if Klaus does have an interest in her. He doesn't even know how to begin thinking about handling that. Cassandra doesn't seem to think of Klaus in that way, but she also knows Case's feelings and maybe would be interested otherwise. God, who knows. Case is so tired of thinking about it, but it just won't go away.

Case realizes he's been staring at the closed door for several seconds only when Cassandra snaps her fingers a few times in front of his face.

"Wow," she says, when Case comes back to reality. "You're actually getting worse."

"I really like him, Cass," Case says.

"So I've heard," Cassandra says dryly.

"No, I mean—before I just wanted him to go away because I hated liking him. I don't hate liking him now. I kind of don't want him to go away."

"What happened in the one day I wasn't here?" Cassandra says.

"He took me out to lunch, it doesn't matter, look, I—you're right. You've pretty much been right this whole damn time and you know it, and you don't have to look so smug about it. I need to just ask him. If he says no it won't kill me, right?"

"Why don't you just wait until the office party," Cassandra says, which seems really unlike her usual suggestions for Case to dive in immediately and buy Klaus dildos.

"Yeah, maybe," Case says. "At least that way when he turns me down I'll have a week to recover from being humiliated."

"I doubt Klaus would do anything to humiliate you." Cassandra hikes an eyebrow. "Unlike your loser bar guys, Klaus is actually a decent person. If he's not interested he'll probably be disgustingly nice about it."

"I should never have told you about the loser bar guys," Case mutters. That slip up is probably why she keeps on about this whole thing, about Case needing to just throw himself at Klaus like a desperate spinster who's struck out everywhere else. And maybe he is that, but he wants to pretend he has a little more dignity even if he really doesn't.

December 19

Case has a complete plan worked out for how to deal with the office Christmas party, which is going to crash down on him in about two hours. Already the file clerks are getting run around with setting up decorations all over the lobby and the ridiculous amounts of food in each of the three conference rooms that ring the reception area. It was like this last year, too

His plan is to wear his coat the whole party long, keep the gifts he has for Dorothy and Cass in the pockets, and as soon as he gets his own gift from whoever his Secret Santa is, he'll make a run for it. Maybe grab free food first, but that's optional. But he doesn't want to stay here longer than he has to. If Klaus is his Secret Santa, then he'll have to do the thing he promised himself he'd do, which is...make a move. Somehow. In a way he hasn't figured out yet, but it'll probably involve blurting out something then running away anyway.

And if it's not Klaus then Case will just go home and watch Netflix for the entire next week and pretend Christmas isn't even happening outside his apartment.

Maybe it's a terrible depressing plan but it's the one he has. He just really doesn't want a repeat of last year, and escaping as soon as possible seems the best way to avoid that. But he's still been feeling a heavy dread creep up on him slowly all day, and he's hardly left his cubicle and if anyone comes by he's practically dived under the desk to avoid needing to see or talk or interact with anyone. Even Cass, and especially Klaus.

The only thing he feels vaguely good, but still embarrassed, about is the present he got for Dorothy. Which he didn't so much get as sort of spend most of this week making. Which is why it's a little embarrassing. He just hopes Dorothy likes it and doesn't think it's weird or too much or that it crosses a line from thoughtful to try-hard. Or that it seems too personal, like he's into her? But she knows he's gay, so that's unlikely.

Next year, he's going to remember to be completely unable to come to work at the start of December. He's not getting roped into this bullshit again.

As is the way of the way the Garland, Giannini and Eggert law firm, the workday gradually dissolves into the Christmas party. They're not separate entities, which is why Case can never avoid them. He can't beg off sick unless he takes the entire day off, and he's not about to take the entire day off right before a week of vacation. At his old office the Christmas party was more like a voluntary thing, on the weekend, at the swanky house of one of the name partners, and Case only went once for about five minutes before realizing it was not a place he was going to feel comfortable.

So it's long before 5:30 when fingernails tap on the counter around his cubicle and Case jerks his head up to see Cassandra standing there, one eyebrow raised and smirking slightly.

"Party time," she says, and Case scowls and spins around in his chair.

"No," he says, reaching for a case clip on his back counter. "It's not even five ye—"

Cassandra grabs the back of his chair and rolls him out of his cubicle.

"Hey!" Case yelps, trying to grab for the corner of his desk or the edge of the counter but missing both and ending up in the middle of the hallway, in his chair, with Cassandra blocking his escape.

"Do you want to get out of here early or not? I know you do," Cassandra says. "Plus people are already drinking wine. I want wine, and I want it early so I can still drive home. And you're not going to sit back here, sadly doing work while no one else does."

"Fine," Case says. "God. Just let me get my stuff."

By the time he's got his coat on and made sure he's carrying everything with him that will allow him to get out of this party quickly, Cassandra's already left him. For wine, presumably. But if he doesn't show up in a minute out in the reception area, she'll just come back for him. He's double-checking his pockets for the last time when he hears a few people pass his desk, chatting together, likely cutting out early for the party too.

But he doesn't expect Klaus to be standing there when he turns around.

"Oh. Hey," Case says, hoping Klaus didn't notice him jump much. He'd've been startled even if it was somebody other than Klaus.

Klaus puts his hands on the back of Case's chair that's still in the middle of the hallway, and gives both it and him a questioning look.

"Cass tried to physically take me to the party," Case admits, and Klaus laughs and makes a face like that doesn't surprise him at all. It unsettles Case. Klaus is probably into her. That would make the most sense. But it still depresses him. Not that he had a chance in the first place.

Case sighs to himself, but makes himself smile when he catches Klaus's eyes, and steps out of his cubicle when Klaus goes to push his chair back to his desk. That winds them up right next to each other, and Case gets a whiff of peppermint from the other man that just reminds him of that first gift from his Secret Santa.

"Ready for your first Christmas party here?" Case says dryly.

"I suppose I am." Klaus puts a friendly hand on his shoulder, and Case knows that he's not ready for this. Not at all.

#

James Garland's enthusiastic and friendly wife Judy is the main perpetrator of all the food that the file clerks were setting up earlier, and people are already digging into it in a buffet line in the largest conference room. The other two rooms are reserved for wine, and a huge cake and a lot of holiday candy. There's a lot of wine and candy. And wives and husbands and kids of assistants and attorneys are starting to show up, making the already sizeable amount of people here even more sizeable. It honestly looks like a nightmare to Case, although most people would describe it as a party.

Almost immediately after they get to the area around reception, Klaus disappears from Case's side. Well, fine. It's not like he expected them to hang out together or anything. They're not really friends. They're less distant coworkers, maybe, then they were a month ago, but that's all. Still, Case can't help but be disappointed, and then he gets annoyed with himself for feeling like that. Right now his focus is getting through this party.

And he might as well do it with free food. He goes into the big conference room and managed to fight his way in to grab a couple of tacos and chile rellenos. It's always Mexican food, every year. It must be something Judy likes, but it's never struck Case as particularly Christmassy. All the conference room chairs have been pulled to the walls and a lot of people have taken advantage of them to sit and eat, chatting with each other and being generally sociable. Case just leaves.

He wanders around, poking at his food and trying to see if Cassandra is anywhere around. She nearly dragged him to the party, literally, so she might as well put up with him for a little while. But he doesn't see her anywhere around. There's so many white faces around him, it seems like she'd be easy to spot. Half the people around here now are all the wives and husbands of people he works for and with, reminding him once again of how much he doesn't fit in here. All these white, straight, married people.

Case dumps his half-eaten food in a garbage can behind the reception desk and decides he's going to find Dorothy. Like right now. God, he just wants out of here.

Luckily, he finds Dorothy pretty fast, thanks to all the glass walls of the conference rooms. She's in the one with the huge cake, trying to fix a decoration on the table that seems to have come apart. Of course she would be. Nobody's in here yet, because cake is an Event that happens later, and also people are more interested by the table full of wine right now.

"Hello, Casey!" Dorothy says to him brightly. "Enjoying yourself?"

"Yeah," Case lies, and cuts right to it. "Hey, so, you like guitar, right?"

"I'm learning!" Dorothy beams at him. She's fixed the table decoration by now, some kind of little golden bird that'd fallen out of a glittery tree, and moves away from the table. "Just started lessons a couple months ago. Always wanted to learn how!"

"That's...nice. Well. I. Merry Christmas," he says, and practically shoves the gift at her. Dorothy blinks at him in surprise, and then obviously understands.

"Oh, did you get my name for the Secret Santa?" she says, and Case can't tell if that idea disappoints her or not. She's so positive about everything.

"Yeah, I—I guess I sort of have to explain it," Case says, as Dorothy starts to unwrap the gift. Because what it looks like is a burnable CD in a boring unmarked jewel case. "I really wasn't sure what to get you, so I made you this. I...kinda play guitar, and this is just a couple things I came up with for you. If you're actually learning to play I could probably write you the tabs, if you want, if you even like the—or...something."

They're all happy upbeat tunes, the kind of thing Case basically imagined being Dorothy's theme songs if she were in a movie. He's not great at composing, but he's decent at improvising, and though his recording equipment isn't high-end, it works well enough. This was the only thing he could think of, and do, that seemed like a decent gift.

"Oh, Casey. That's so thoughtful," Dorothy says, staring at him in a mild sort of wonder, like she can't contemplate him being thoughtful at all.

"I. Well. I just hope you like it," Case says quickly. Then, as is his usual tactic, he basically runs away. He leaves the room full of candy and cake and tries to disappear into the loud talkative wine-fueled crowd of firm employees and their families as best he can. He has to dodge several giggling shouting children that nobody seems to be watching.

Well, at least he got that over with. Now he just wants his own Secret Santa to find him, and he'll also give Cassandra the regular gift he got for her, then he'll go home. For a whole week. And when he comes back Christmas will be completely over and he won't have to think about it for a whole other year. He's already scheduled his Outlook calendar to remind him to miss the first day of December next year.

He finds Cassandra in the elevator area, where one of those self-taking photo booths have been set up and there's a whole table full of ridiculous Christmas props, like Santa hats and glittery reindeer antlers and tinsel boas and sunglasses in the shapes of Christmas trees. Cassandra's taking pictures with Bianca and Grace and they're all wearing some of the things and laughing together and enjoying themselves. Case feels mildly jealous, but hangs back until they're done.

While Grace and Bianca and gather around the side of the machine, waiting for the pictures to print, Cassandra spots him and heads over. She's wearing a headband that spouts snowflakes on springs like antenna. They bob around as she talks.

"No way can I get you to do that, I bet," she says with a grin, and Case shakes his head. But good-naturedly. This is not his refusal to enjoy Christmas thing, it's his dislike of having his picture taken more than necessary thing. What is he possibly going to do with tiny strips of miniscule pictures? He'd rather have a nice picture he could do something with.

"No thanks," he says. He notices that Cassandra's got something in her hands, a shred of wrapping paper clinging to it via a piece of Scotch tape. "What's that?"

"Gift from my Secret Santa," Cassandra says, holding up a stack of a few CDs still in clear plastic wrap. "I don't actually know who these people are, but they're Brazilian musicians and that's pretty cool, and there is one Jorge Ben Jor CD in here."

"I—" Case says, and shuts his mouth. When he and Klaus were out to lunch the other day, they were talking about music and Klaus offhandedly asked what Cassandra liked. Case could only remember Jorge Ben Jor, whom Cassandra has had him listen to sometimes, and so he told Klaus that. And now here's Cassandra with one of his CDs from her Secret Santa.

"That's nice," he manages. She's also not saying who her Secret Santa is. Case gets an unpleasant pit starting to slowly sink in his stomach. He did want to think it was Klaus doing all that stuff for him, but he never really believed it, but it's still startlingly disappointing to being realizing he was right. He didn't really want to be right. Or maybe he did. He doesn't know what he thinks about this anymore, other than he wishes it never happened.

"So," Cassandra says. "Merry Christmas." And she hands him a thin square present out of her bag that feels like a DVD or Blu-ray box.

"Thanks, Cass. You too," Case says, and gives her the tinier box he's had in his coat pocket. It's not extravagant, and whatever she got him won't be either—a wordless agreement they've come to. But she's pretty much the only person in the office he wants to give a present to every year, other than whoever the Secret Santa forces him to. He actually thought about getting something for Tara, because she's been so helpful and nice to him, but he thought that might be creepy since she's like ten years younger than him and he doesn't want to make her uncomfortable.

"And," Cassandra says then, producing another present from somewhere, "Merry Christmas, again."

"Wait, what," Case says, and doesn't reach out to take it. Cassandra pushes it closer, nudging it against his hand that's already holding her present. "Why? "

"Oh, Case, come on," she says, and bops his knuckles lightly with the second package. It also feels and sounds a lot like a DVD. Case keeps staring at her, lost, and until she physically turns his hand over, places the present in it, and closes his fingers around it. He can see the tag on it now, the one that says From your SS.

"Are you kidding me, " Case says, almost blankly. "You said you had Hannah."

"Okay, despite your serious suspicions of everyone and everything, you're really easy to lie to," Cassandra says. "Yes, it was me sending you all that stuff, and I did it because it actually cheered you up and you weren't as miserable as last year. Admit it."

"Christ," Case says. He doesn't even know if he's mad or amused or frustrated or upset or what. There's too many options, so he's just going for why. "I can't believe you did that, you practically let me think it was Kl—you know."

"You didn't do anything weird because you thought it was him," she points out, which is true because Case never really was sure it was Klaus. But for some ridiculous reason, he didn't ever suspect Cass. And now that explains why there wasn't something for him every day this past week, because of the day she knew she'd be gone, and that would obviously point to her. He really is dumb.

"And now you guys actually talk. So, there's another present for you," Cassandra says. "You're welcome."

"I—" Case says, and then he just turns around and leaves because he can't think of anything to say to her other than a bunch of things he'll regret.

He wishes he could go outside for a smoke, but there's no outside on the 17th floor and he doesn't smoke anymore. He also doesn't drink anymore, much, but there's an entire conference room full of wine and a break room far away from the party that nobody's going to be in right now. And nobody's paying him any real attention.

#

Five minutes later Case is alone in the kitchen with a wine glass and a nearly full wine bottle he snuck out under his coat, sitting at one of the tables that has a cushioned bench running along the wall, and the two gifts Cassandra gave him in front him. They're both labeled; both For Case, one From Cass and the other From your SS. Handwritten this time, and Case would have recognized the printing immediately if she'd used it before. Sometimes he hates that she's so smart and prepared. Case goes for the present that's From Cassfirst.

It's a DVD of A Muppet Christmas Carol.

"Oh, haha, Cass," Case says, and drinks about half a glass of wine in one gulp. He gets it, he does—he's Scroogey and probably should work on that. It doesn't help that he can't really remember ever liking Christmas. As a kid he probably did, but since he's become what society considers an adult it's his least favorite time of year.

The second gift is another DVD. This time, It's a Wonderful Life.

Case just stares at that one for a while. Now he's not sure if he's upset or touched. He's only seen this movie once but he knows the gist of it, and it seems a little too sentimental for Cassandra, and not very applicable to Case himself like the first gift clearly is. He drinks more wine and stares at the DVD some more. No, he doesn't really think this means anything.

While he's still spending too much time frowning at the DVD and trying to convince himself that he's right about it just being a second random Christmas movie that Cassandra picked out, the door to the break room creaks slightly. Case jerks his head up, and is both surprised and not surprised to see Klaus easing his coiffed golden hair and perfectly neat clothing through. Like Case, he's been wearing his coat all night—a long charcoal grey thing that makes him look super European. If that's even a thing. Case doesn't even know.

For a second they just look at each other, and Case clutches at the stem of his wine glass. And then Klaus says, "are you hiding back here?"

"Yes," Case mutters. This is really the last person he wants to see. No, he didn't make a fool out of himself by assuming Klaus was his Secret Santa, but he still feels stupid. He knew it was too good to be true that Klaus actually wanted to get to know him. But Klaus just needed to figure out what to get Cassandra as a gift, and that's why he's been around so much. Case chugs down the last quarter of his wine glass and pours another one right away.

"You don't seem so happy," Klaus says. He's holding a wine glass too, but it's obviously water. Case remembers what he said about not drinking much. Also he has to drive himself home, so it's probably smart of him. Case is being stupid right now. He also doesn't care.

"I...don't even know, anymore," Case admits, and takes a sip that nearly empties half his new glass. He has a pleasant warm haziness going on now, but his stomach is getting sour and unhappy. "Everything's just a fucking mess."

Klaus looks politely puzzled. "What?"

"This Secret Santa thing. I thought Cass had Hannah, because that's she told me, but turns out she had me, and was giving me these dumb little gifts every day, and I actually liked them and was happy about it, mainly because I kind of thought they were from you, but you had Cass, and I had Dorothy, and that was so stressful, and I guess I wrote her a little song or something, I don't even know anymore."

Case stares into his empty glass and lets out a long heave of air that's not exactly a sigh. "I want to be unhappy but I don't even have the energy anymore."

"Hey." A hand touches down on his shoulder. Case reels his head up, almost unable to understand how Klaus got across the room so fast. He was by the door a second ago. His vest under his coat is a deep red—probably for Christmas. "It's not worth worrying about."

"Yeah, but…" He can't explain why it's such a big deal. He can't even put it into words himself. There's just...sadness. Disappointment, embarrassment, hopelessness. And then anger that he feels any of that in the first place. Over a Secret Santa. And a crush that won't mean a damn thing in the long run. It's childish. And the fact that it's childish just makes it even more upsetting that it still affects him.

Klaus slides Case's wine glass away on the table and puts his own near Case's hand, nudging it gently into his fingers. "Maybe have this, instead," he suggests.

Case drinks the water without arguing. He doesn't know why Klaus is bothering with him anymore. They have no reason to talk now that the Secret Santa is over. But for some reason he followed Case away from the party and is trying to look out for him. Case feels a little sick to his stomach. But that might be because of the wine and not eating anything.

After drinking the entire glass and a refill that Klaus gets for him out of the water cooler, Case still feels sad and uncomfortable but a little less sick. Neither of them has said a word for several minutes. Klaus joined him in sitting on the bench cushion and now he's very close, their legs bumping together every once in a while. Case can't move any further away, because he's already wedged himself against the wall.

"Are these what Cassandra got for you?" Klaus says suddenly, reaching out to touch one of the DVDs sitting in the wreckage of wrapping paper. So did he even know that Cassandra had Case? Goddammit.

"Yeah," Case says, and he sound so miserable even to himself that he winces and grinds his teeth together.

"Are you really all right?" Klaus says immediately, and touches Case again on the shoulder. It's friendly and non-invasive like always, but Case makes a noise, the pleasurable whimper that sounds the way he feels whenever Klaus is nearby or ever touches him. He's always managed to squash it down before. But he's always sober around Klaus.

And Klaus hears it, too. Because his hand locks up on Case's shoulder, and the break room gets very quiet around them. Slowly, Klaus lets go of him. Out of the corner of his eye, Case watches him settle his hands into his lap carefully. His own heart is pounding and he can't find any words to say. He doesn't know if Klaus is reacting to that very obvious noise he made or if...well. He doesn't have a second idea. Of course it's the first thing.

Case forces himself to turn his head, to look at Klaus. He expects to see confusion, suspicion, slow disgust—all the things he usually sees when he misreads signals and makes a move on a straight guy. Or just an uninterested one. But Klaus looks calm, almost thoughtful, but very focused on Case. His body is relaxed, slanted slightly in Case's direction, and a few strands of hair have fallen out of place and brush down into his eyebrow.

"I, uh—" Case starts, but the words sound too loud in the break room and Klaus's soft blue eyes are too distracting. A warm flush spread down from Case's cheeks to his neck, up behind his ears and making him sweat inside his clothes. Klaus isn't looking away, isn't acting like this is strange. Their legs and still touching under the table, and even though Klaus let go of Case's shoulder this feels even more intimate than before. This isn't exactly a co-workerly situation.

Case's never exchanged a look like this with someone that he didn't end up making out with in some shadowy corner of a bar or sloppily stumbling home with, and so he has to turn away. He hears Klaus clearing his throat lightly next to him, feels him shifting slightly on the bench. Then the warmth that's been Klaus's knee pushing against his suddenly disappears.

And Klaus gets up, slides out from the bench.

"I—" Case says helplessly after him. Fuck. He ruined it. Klaus's figured it all out and is having a straight panic attack and now working with him is going to be even worse than before. They'll never even be friends, because Klaus is going to politely avoid him forever. "I, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to—"

But all Klaus does is go back to the water cooler, fill up the wine glass again, and come back to the table. This time pulling out the chair across from Case and settling down in it.

"I'm so sor—" Case starts again, desperate to somehow fix at least a part of this so work doesn't become a waking nightmare, but Klaus immediately shakes his head and makes a motion with his hand that stops him.

"Don't apologize for yourself," he says, and Case is startled into even deeper silence. "Can we be honest, for a moment?"

"Sure," Case says, terrified of what that will mean. Most likely scenario is a gentle but indisputable rejection. Second most likely is that Klaus asks him to please never come near him at work again. Third most likely is—

Case doesn't get a chance to come up with a third, because Klaus starts talking.

"You know, my name, it isn't Klaus," he says. "I mean, it's not my first name."

"It's not?" Case asked warily. What is happening?

"No one could ever pronounce my first name right, when my family moved here. So I started going by my middle one, because Klaus seems to be easier."

"...okay," Case says. "Why are you telling me this?"

"Just in case we go home together tonight. I'd rather you know my first name," Klaus says, then leans back and sips casually at his water like he hadn't just said that.

"Wow," Case manages, every ounce of blood in him rushing to the surface of his skin and...other places. The implications of that sentence have nearly shorted his brain out, and words just won't form in his mouth. "I—okay. Wow. I didn't—wow."

Now Klaus looks worried, and the wine glass lowers slowly. "I misread this," he says, slowly going pink himself. "I didn't mean to—if you're not interested, in that way…"

"No, I just—" He can hardly hear his own voice over the pounding in his ears. "I thought you were only talking to me because of Cass. Because of the Secret Santa. And I really thought you were straight."

"I was talking to both of you because I like you," Klaus says, raising one eyebrow. "Also, yes, I needed to figure out what to get her. But you're the only two people here who aren't completely insane."

Case laughs weakly. "Not completely? So only a little insane."

"I like a little insane," Klaus says, and smiles. "Cassandra is funny and interesting, and you're...you."

"Me," Case repeats blankly. "What does...being me mean?"

"Well. You can be a little grouchy, and a little...hmm. High-wound?"

"High-strung? " Case says, not sure if he's offended by that description or not. It's probably accurate, but it's not how he wants to be thought of. It's not exactly complimentary.

"That, yes. I swear I'm fluent in English," Klaus says, laughing softly. Then, "but you're not like that all the time."

"Are you sure?" Case says. "You're not thinking of basically anybody else?"

Klaus chuckles, like he didn't take that seriously at all. "Come on," he says.

"I mean it."

"So do I."

They look at each other for a moment, and Case forgets what he was even arguing against. He argues against so many things that it's not really that weird to forget. But now he doesn't know what to say. So he asks the first thing that comes to mind.

"What is your first name, then?"

"Adalbrecht," Klaus says.

Case is pretty sure he'll never be able to say that right, drunk or sober. He doesn't even think he could spell it. "You...really want me to call you that?"

"Do you like Klaus better?"

"I've always liked Klaus," Case says, then flushes at how he worded that and the way Klaus starts smiling. "But I'll call you Adalbrecht—did I even say that right?—if you want."

Klaus considers him in that way he has of doing, and then shakes his head. "No, you don't need to," he says. "But I did want you to know it."

"You know my whole name already, but really, please—don't call me it," Case adds, just in case Klaus gets any ideas about that.

"I was not planning to," Klaus says, very seriously. Then he cracks a soft smile, and Case doesn't even mind that he's getting teased.

"Thanks—" Case almost startles as fingers bump into his; Klaus has reached across the table to lightly touch his hands. When Case flicks his eyes up to Klaus's, all he reads there is an offer, a hopefulness, but nothing demanding or expectant. He's not even holding on to Case in any way, and it would be very easy for Case to pull away. He doesn't. He honestly thinks he might throw up, but he pushes his fingers back, hooks a pinky around Klaus's. Then Klaus's thumb strokes along the side of Case's own.

This is probably the most gentle and considerate proposition that's ever happened to him, and it's so polite that Case is still not even sure that's what it is. Even though Klaus said straight out they might go home together. And even though he said that, without any way of misinterpreting it, Case still doubts what the hell is even happening.

"Do you want to get out of this party?" Klaus says then, warm and inviting but still unsure, hesitant. And Case finally realizes he's just as nervous, that he's just as uncertain of Case as Case is of him in this unexpected situation.

"Yeah," Case says at once. "I really really fucking do."

#

Escaping the party without being noticed is easy—they take the service elevator. It's probably the earliest Case has ever left an office party, just barely past seven. Case still doesn't really know what's happening. They're leaving, but are they leaving together or just leaving at the same time? What's going to happen when they get to the parking structure, get to one of their cars, have to actually figure out what's happening here?

They're both parked on the third floor and they come across Klaus's car—a blue Acura sedan—first. Just as Case is about to awkwardly mutter something about all of the things he's been wondering, Klaus takes him by the front of his coat and nudges him up against the side of his car. They're pressed snug together from thighs to shoulder and it's clear where this is supposed to go, but Klaus definitely gives Case a moment to shove him back, to say no, to tell him he's not into it.

Case does none of that, and kisses Klaus himself. Full-on, unhesitant, his arms around Klaus's neck and their clash of teeth and smush of noses cutting off Klaus's startled but pleased, "oh." Klaus still smells like peppermint and his coat is woolen and soft under Case's hands, his skin hot and a little bristly with gold stubble, and Case closes his eyes and tries to absorb every tiny detail of this, this moment that probably won't ever happen again.

Then suddenly the car door is getting pulled open and they're tumbling inside, limbs catching on cup holders and door handles and seatback pockets, down onto smooth black faux-leather. Luckily the door swings itself shut on them, squashing Case's foot between itself and the seat, so there's some privacy. But Case wouldn't have cared if there wasn't. Everything is biting hot kissing and desperate hands, awkward scrambling to stretch out across the back seat, get on top of each other, get closer, keep kissing.

He can't even get Klaus's coat off, there's definitely no time for bullshit like belts or pants or any of that, and Klaus's blunt nails scrape against his scalp and twist in his hair as Case rocks his hip down against him. Already the car is several degrees warmer than before, steam clouding the windows from all their panting and heated skin. All Case can do is keep rutting down against him, and even with the thin slacks they both have on he can still feel what he's missing by literally not getting into Klaus's pants. Klaus is definitely, definitely into this.

"Komm schon," Case hears in his ear, Klaus's voice raw and deeper than he's ever heard. "Komm schon, Case, ich...ich will…"

Oh, god, is he speaking German? Somehow, that's hotter than anything. Like he's forgotten English the same way Case has, except Case doesn't have another language to fall back to. All he can do is whimper and moan and clutch at Klaus and grind down against him while Klaus shoves back up as they do this clumsy hurried thing together that Case really wishes wasn't in a car, wasn't so sloppy, wasn't after a few glasses of wine.

Then, it's over. Case comes back to himself, panting against Klaus's neck like he hasn't tasted air for a week, his teeth bared against damp salty skin. Klaus's fingers are still knotted in Case's hair, and his chest heaves under Case's and he might be saying faint single words but Case can't focus on them, can't think about anything except about what just happened, how fast it was and how unexpected.

"Oh my god," Case breathes out, then can't stop saying it. "Oh my god. Oh my god."

"What?" Klaus says, amused and faintly worried and still breathless. His other hand keeps touching down on the back of Case's neck and then lifting away, like he's not sure if he's allowed to do that.

"I just can't believe we did that. That was like high school."

Klaus turns his face, so his nose nudges against Case's sweaty cheek. "You did this a lot, in high school?"

"Never. Just, seems like a thing that...people might do. Then. At that time of, whatever, life. God. I'm sorry, I don't make much sense after—" Case gestures vaguely, and Klaus laughs.

"It is fairly uncomfortable," he admits, and wiggles his head against the door handle. "But it does seem to be how sex goes, at that time of whatever life."

"Heh," Case says noncommittally, not wanting to admit he didn't have sex with anyone in any kind of real way until he was able to legally drink. And then it was mostly because he could legally drink. It's not something he really wants to share, years of self-denial followed by more years of bad choices made in bars. It makes him look lonely and desperate and cheap. Which he is.

It doesn't satisfy Klaus though, because he says, "are you okay, really?"

Case decides to be honest. "I don't know."

"Oh."

Klaus says oh so often, and every time the meaning is different in just that single small sound. This time, sadness. Discomfort. Even though he doesn't move, Case senses him pull away.

"It's not about you," Case is quick to say. "It's just...this was probably a bad situation. Not a bad idea."

"I'm not sure I see the difference," Klaus says.

"I mean, I'm kind of tipsy, and we just sorta fucked in the back of your car after an office Christmas party. Everything about that is just...you don't think that's kind of...would you choose that?"

"I did choose that." Klaus frowns, and Case gets a heavy feeling that he's just fucked this up completely. "I knew you were drinking a little. I invited you home, I kissed you here, started this. I just thought...you're closed off so often, and I could never get you to talk to me before, but you were starting to. I suppose I tried to take advantage of that, before it went away. I'm sorry."

"Shit, no, it's not your fault," Case says desperately. He doesn't want Klaus thinking that he regrets this, that Klaus made him do something he didn't want. He finds himself grabbing at Klaus's coat. They're both still fully dressed, nothing removed or unzipped or unbuttoned at all. "That's just what I do around people I really like. Close up like that. S'kinda a bad habit."

"Oh," Klaus says, then considers for a moment. Then, "this whole time?"

"This whole time," Case admits, almost surprised that actual butterflies don't just swarm out of his mouth with every word. "Pretty much since we met."

"You're very good at not letting that show," Klaus says, smiling crookedly. "For a while, I was sure you disliked me."

"I wasn't going for that," Case mutters. He lets his fingers ease out of Klaus's clothes. "Just… you know, apathy. I'm kind of an asshole."

"You haven't been." Klaus runs a gentle hand over Case's hair. "Just distant. Avoiding me, very obviously. But I suppose…that makes sense, now."

"Christ, that's embarrassing." Case turns his face into the flap of Klaus's coat, and that's when it really hits him that they're still lying cramped up and uncomfortable in the back of Klaus's car, and Klaus's head is cricked against the door handle and a seat belt clasp has probably made a permanent dent in Case's hip. Everything smells like sex and sweat, and the uncomfortable wetness in his pants is becoming uncomfortable drying itchiness. Klaus has to be the same way. It also can't be comfortable for Klaus to have Case's entire weight lying on top of him like this.

"You could, uh, still take me home," Case says. "Together, I mean. To someone's home together. Jesus Christ."

Klaus just laughs, and cranes his head forward to slot his mouth against Case's. Usually being a moron doesn't get him kissed, so Case throws himself back into it and weaves his fingers into Klaus's dark gold hair. This won't last, it can't, but he'll take it for as long as it's being given to him. Positive thoughts.

"Wait," Klaus says, when he pulls back. "Am I the guy she meant, then?"

"What guy who meant?" Case replies dumbly, because his brain's not really working at full power.

"Never mind." Klaus kisses him one more time, and then nudges lightly at Case's shoulders. Case sits up, ends up straddling Klaus's leg with his head and shoulders hunched against the car roof and his hands braced on the seatback. Klaus twists out from under him and manages to open the door on his side, tumbling out gracelessly. Panic twists low in Case's stomach; he has no idea what Klaus is doing or where this is going. Then Klaus turns back to him, leans slightly back into the car.

"You are a little drunk," Klaus tells him, like Case doesn't know that. But it's getting less and less true anyway. "I should drive you home. To where you live. And if you want me to stay when we get there, I'll stay. But if you want me to leave, I'll also do that."

"I wouldn't have my car," Case objects, because it's just natural to point out why something won't work.

"Then we'll go in yours. And I'll take a cab back here, if I have to. It's not even eight o'clock yet, I can figure something out."

"Chivalry is supposed to be dead, you know."

"I may have heard that before." Klaus holds out his hands and, unsure, Case takes them. Klaus tugs him carefully out of the back seat, keeps him steady as he gets his footing. Case kind of wants to fall on him anyway.

"Are you sure?" Case says. "Really sure about this?"

Klaus chuckles. "Yes. But if you don't even want a ride home from me, I'm still calling a cab to get you there."

"I'm really stupid," Case admits. He's not really drunk, but he can still feel that he's been drinking, and Klaus is right. "The wine was stupid."

Klaus doesn't say anything, just keeps his steady grip on Case and keeps looking at him in that sincere and completely nonjudgmental way. "Will you let me drive you home, then?"

"Yeah," Case says though a suddenly dry throat. "Yeah, that'd be okay."

December 25

A warm mouth brushes over his shoulder on the way up to his neck, finally landing firmly on the soft spot just below his ear. Case chuckles sleepily, moving into the touch,

"Frohe Weihnachten," says a low pleasant voice into his ear. Case has no idea what it means, but he likes it anyway.

"You're still here," he says, finding the hand that's slid over his ribs to his stomach, threading their fingers together.

Klaus nuzzles into his hair. "Mm. You haven't said to go, yet."

Case laughs louder this time, shifts around in the bed to face him. "So you'll just stay until actually I kick you out? What if I never do that?"

"Well, I suppose I'll just have to move in then," Klaus says, propping himself on his elbow. His dark golden hair is a mess of cowlicks and tangles, and Case reaches out absently to smooth it down.

"What did you say to me, before?"

Klaus smiles slowly. "Frohe Weihnachten," he says. "Merry Christmas. And it is, isn't it?"

Probably the merriest Case can ever remember having. "God, yeah."

Klaus drove him home after the party in Case's own car and Case didn't tell him to leave, and so he stayed. And kept saying. They've barely left Case's bed. Case had brief thoughts, once or twice, that it was too much too fast, but they're both grown men who know what they want and so what if they didn't go on several nice respectable dates and spend hours on small talk first. Technically they've known each other for almost six months.

And they've talked plenty now. While lying side by side in Case's cramped double bed while tangled up and catching their breath, while standing together in Case's rusty shower, while they were watching the movies from Cass that Klaus had never seen before, during the times they've scrounged around in Case's meager fridge for food or ordered out and eaten together on the couch, shy but close together with their knees bumping. And Klaus wearing clothes borrowed from Case somehow made it even sweeter, intimate.

And now it's almost five days later and Klaus is still here. It's like they're on some kind of bizarre honeymoon. Case hasn't wanted him to leave and Klaus doesn't seem inclined to go. Even last night on Christmas Eve, and today. They've talked about family and their respective non-obligations—Klaus's parents live in another state now and Case doesn't do the family holiday thing anymore. And they both have the week off work. They're not disappointing anyone by being here with each other.

They did leave Case's apartment once, the morning after the Christmas party, when Case drove Klaus back to get his own car from the office parking structure. That had seemed like a perfect time to Klaus to bow out gracefully and naturally if he'd wanted to. Instead he'd said, "do I follow you back, or do I go on my way?" And Case had blurted out, "follow me home." Which seemed to be exactly what Klaus wanted to hear.

So now his Acura is parked out in the street in front of Case's apartment and Klaus has been here the past five nights. It's like a dream Case could never have imagined. But apparently months of pent up sexual pining needed to get resolved somehow, and this has been an admittedly amazing way. Case was almost afraid that sex would be the one thing that Klaus isn't amazing at. But, of course, he is.

And Case isn't getting tired of waking up with him there, of going to sleep piled on top of each other in a bed that's only meant for one person. He's been a loner for a long time, and the people he sleeps with never stay a whole night, and somehow this extreme change isn't a problem. It's definitely weird, but he doesn't dislike it. The second night he did keep waking up in a mild panic any time Klaus touched him, forgetting that there was supposed to be somebody there next to him. But that got better.

Now having Klaus next to him in bed is almost normal. And the fact that he's started to get used to it is getting him a little worried, a little restless. Things never work out for him this well. Especially ones as nice and handsome and decent as Klaus is. It can't possibly be working out for him like this.

Case is still petting absently at Klaus's hair, smoothing is down over and over, and Klaus has closed his eyes and seems to be enjoying it. "You're really sure you have nothing else to do?" he says, and Klaus opens one eye at him. "Somewhere else to be today?"

"I'll call my parents and sister," Klaus says. "And I should open the gifts they sent to me before I do that, which does mean I'll need to go home."

"Yeah," Case says. "Makes sense."

Klaus brushes his fingers along Case's temple. "You're welcome to come with me."

"Are you sure? You're not sick of me yet?"

"No," Klaus answers simply. Then, "Case. I like you. And I have this feeling this is the only time you'll let this happen. So, I want to stay with it as long as I can. With you."

"It's not going to be the only time," Case manages to say through a sudden clog in his throat.

"Oh?"

Case sighs. That single word gets to him every time, always makes him need to keep talking. "I like you too, if that's not really obvious. You've been in my apartment for five days and I haven't made you leave, that's not clear enough?"

"Well," Klaus says, with a lopsided smile. "It is now."

"Okay," Case says. He takes a second to breathe, steady and slow. "I don't...want this to get all fucked up, like that you misunderstand something or I misunderstand something—I just want this to work. And keep happening. I just don't know what's supposed to happen now." Nobody's ever stayed with him this long. He has no reference at all.

Klaus levers himself up and leans over him, plants a hand in the mattress at Case's shoulder and looks down at him.

"Now I'm going to kiss you for a very long time," he says, and then he does. Morning breath and all. Maybe it's minutes or maybe it's hours they spend doing it, and by the time Klaus lets him go Case wants to have sex with him for a very long time too. But now that this whole thing actually going somewhere outside of Case's apartment, that it might last longer than a few secret days, Case is still nervous about what's going to happen next. Both immediately after now and...later than that.

He rolls away from Klaus, intending on getting out of bed and then changing his mind midway through, so he ends up lying on his side with his back to Klaus. Which is maybe better, that he's not looking at the other man when he brings this up. "Is this going to be weird at work?"

"I don't know," Klaus says. He starts to draw patterns on Case's shoulder with his fingertips. It tickles, but Case can't tell him to stop. "Is it?"

"I'm asking you. Everyone there knows I'm gay. Nobody knows about you, really about anything."

"Oh." Klaus's fingers stop for a second, then keep on doing swirls and curlicues on Case's skin. "You meant that. I guess I never considered it being relevant."

"Kinda is now. Not to me, I don't care what you are as long as you like men in some way, and you don't have to be out just because I am. I just wanted to know, you know, for reference in how to handle this when we're back at work."

"I like men in some way," Klaus says, and Case can hear him smiling. "I also don't mind being out. I meant that I didn't know if the firm has some policy against office relationships. I've worked at places that do."

"I...don't think so?" Case says. He never even thought about that. It's never mattered before. "God, I really don't know."

"Well. I won't be there forever," Klaus says reasonably. "I've already been there longer than I was told. So if it's a problem, it won't be for very long."

"Yeah." Melanie will come back from maternity leave sometime. There's that sudden sadness again at the idea of Klaus being gone, but now there's that small chance that it wouldn't mean they'd never see each other again. But still... "You really want to give this a shot for that long?"

Klaus laughs, but there's frustration in it. "How many times are we going to have this same conversation?"

"I guess until I believe it," Case says. Then hurries to add, "not that I don't believe you. It's just...I don't believe good things when they happen to me."

"You can believe this one," Klaus says. "Please."

He'll just be insulting Klaus if he says anything other than, "okay. Okay. I will." If he doesn't believe it yet, maybe he will if he says it enough. Or maybe if he just trusts Klaus, who's never given him a reason not to.

And the smile Klaus gives him is pretty worth it. "All right," he says, sounding satisfied. "Thank you."

"But we better tell Cass, at the least, because she'll actually kill me otherwise. She's been kind of into this whole...idea of us." And she sort of helped it even happen, so she should get the credit for being pushy and sneaky and nearly tormenting Case this entire month. He did text her the morning after the Christmas party with I'm sorry and thank you, but that was only about the Secret Santa bullshit and how immature he was about it.

"And I believe that." Klaus pushes his hair out his eyes, leans in close to Case so their faces are almost bumping. "It won't be weird," he says. "Unless the office has a problem with it, but otherwise...I'll follow your lead."

"Mine?"

"It's more your job than mine." Klaus lifts one shoulder. "I'm temporary there. What's better for you is what we should do."

We. Case really, really likes the sound of that. "I have three more days to think about it, anyway," he says. And he probably will, relentlessly. But right now he doesn't want to. For once.

"All ri—" Klaus starts, but Case rolls onto him and kisses him. It's his turn now to do this for a very long time. Klaus clearly doesn't mind, caging his hands around the back of Case's head and pushing a knee up between his legs to keep Case steady and balanced on top of himself. Somehow the sheet's ended up between them, and the lack of warm skin pressing together is disappointing. But maybe they'll have a lot of time ahead of them to change that. Case hopes. Positive thoughts.

"So. Your place, then?" he says, and Klaus smiles.