As noted in my previous post, I spent some of my necessary down-time in Sicily writing, and this story was my main focus. I'd had an idea for an AU of The Mindy Project, in which nobody's a doctor and Mindy was a small-town girl who won the Powerball and stormed Manhattan, recruiting Danny to be her chauffeur and bodyguard and general dogsbody, and they'd have a snarky, hatesexy relationship. But when I started writing, it came out all achy and romantic instead, with both of them being people damaged by tragedy or betrayal. I decided, with the help of my trusty and trustworthy beta blithers to just keep going and write the original story later. So here's the first Powerball AU story, "Friends at First Sight" (Danny/Mindy, R) - it's broken into two parts simply due to length.
"Friends at First Sight"
Danny stuck the course catalog for Hunter between his teeth so he'd have a free hand to unlock his door. It was thick enough that his jaw clicked in protest when he fumbled his keyring, the heavy toolbox in his other hand making him stand lopsided.
He'd oiled all the locks and hinges in the building just the other day, and the door opened noiselessly. He wiped his feet on the mat – Christina never would unless he did it himself – and let himself in, carefully setting the toolbox down and liberating his mouth. He could hear Christina laughing in a way he hadn't heard in a long time, he
realized, and smiled. She must be on the phone with her sisters, doing one of those crazy three-way calls that lasted for hours but always left her smiling. He crouched to unlace his boots, pulled them off, and stood, popping the knots out of his back with a stretch. As he padded closer to the bedroom, he could hear the sound of her camera's shutter.
Later, he would think of that sound as his unheeded warning. Later, he would think lots of things.
He pushed open the door and saw her, naked, on the bed, camera in one hand and her head tipped back with laughter. His heart seized up with delight at the picture she made, all golden in the spring light. But her free hand – the one he'd put his mother's ring on – was resting familiarly on the hip of someone else equally naked, someone who
looked back when the door opened, and it was a man – some asshole who had the pinched and pink look of those creepy hairless cats, who stood up with his hand out in a placating gesture and spoke some empty words like he could preempt any kind of reaction to this . . . adultery. Betrayal. Heart-crushing and abject destruction of his life.
Christina's eyes were so blue. Her face was so beautiful.
He just stood there, unable to speak, until he realized he could still walk even if he couldn't talk, and he turned on his heel and left.
He found himself on the street, his boot laces done up wrong, clutching the catalog like it was a lifeline. He felt absolutely crazed, like he was trapped in some kind of bubble, all of his fears and hatreds and insecurities expanding out from him in an aura of
madness. Of course she cheated on him – of course he couldn't give her what she wanted – of course he was ending up alone, like he'd always thought he would.
"Excuse me?" he heard, and he whirled and came face-to-face with some tourist who obviously came from one of those places where everyone left their doors unlocked and couldn't see that talking to him was like trying to charm your way out of a pit of despair. This one was dressed head to toe in purple, and was smiling like he was just the
person she wanted to see. "Could you tell me how to get to FAO Schwarz?"
He was going to die, right here on the sidewalk, talking to some random woman who kept smiling at him. Her face changed, suddenly, and she stepped closer, smelling sweet and sounding concerned. "Hey, are you okay? I have – wait –" She set down all of her shopping bags, rummaged in a purse the size of the space shuttle, and emerged with a pack of Kleenex. He waved it away and wiped his eyes with the side of his hand.
"Wow, so you weren't wearing mascara, those are your real eyelashes," the woman said, and he wasn't sure what was going on now, but he knew he needed to be alone, because he might as well get used to it.
"Yeah, FAO Schwarz," he said, trying to get rid of her, then cleared his throat because his voice was just a feeble croaky mess. "Head over to St. Patrick's, make a right, and you'll see it when you hit the park." He looked at her and she was still watching him, looking like she hadn't heard a word he'd said.
"Do you want to join me?" she asked. "We could play a piano duet. God, how adorable was Tom Hanks in that movie?"
Maybe she was the weird one in the conversation. "My ma told me never to go off with strangers."
"Danny, I'm Mindy," she said, and stuck out her hand. He shook it automatically. "Now we're not strangers."
"Wait, how did you –?"
One short but brightly polished fingernail pointed at the name tag on his canvas coveralls: the patch Christina had sewed on, as a joke, to show him that she didn't care that he made his half of the rent by working as the super for their high-rise, when she could have snagged a doctor or a lawyer, looking the way she did.
When he looked back up at Mindy, she was holding out a cupcake with the Magnolia paper still on the bottom. "We exchange names, break bread together, and
voilà! we're friends!" she said, smiling. "You can tell me all about your classes while we walk."
Oh, yeah. The catalog. He shook his head and made to throw it in the corner trashcan, but she blocked his way. "Why do you even want to be my friend?" he asked, exasperated by their little sidewalk dance, which looked even crazier when one person was holding a cupcake in front of the other.
"Because you're the only person who took the time to answer me when I got lost, and I asked everybody not wearing earbuds since 44th Street," she said. "Come on, Danny, friends?"
He had to give her fair warning. "I don't feel very friend-worthy right now," he said, finally taking the cupcake. He had to stop her smile. "You don't know. Maybe I stand out here luring trusting tourists to my den of iniquity."
"Yeah, like the guy who tried to give me directions using a church as a landmark is gonna hurt one hair on my head," Mindy said, scoffing, and dropped the catalog into one of her many overstuffed bags. "You can carry this bag," she said and marched off in entirely the wrong direction. He had to steer her the right way with a hand on the small of her back.
When they got to St. Patrick's, she surprised him by going in as if that had been her destination all along. "Come on, Danny. I want to light a candle for somebody, but I have a fire phobia. Help a girl out."
The still, cool air in the majestic space did what it always did for him: it made him quiet and more able to hear everything happening around him. It was what he hoped heaven would be like.
Something settled inside him – not resignation, not forgiveness, not yet – and he could breathe again. He closed his eyes and just let himself be.
He could hear the rustle of her ten thousand bags and felt sweet warmth as Mindy sat next to him. "Did you light your candle?"
She was smiling when he opened his eyes – big surprise – but it was a contemplative smile, suited to their surroundings. "They had those long fireplace kind of tapers, so my fingers weren't too close to the flame. And I wanted Steve to know I was doing him a solid. He was so great, Danny; you would have liked him."
Who the hell was Steve? And how would she know who he'd like? He'd so easily fallen into her orbit, but it was time to go home now and figure out what scraps of his life Christina had left for him. No, on second thought, maybe he needed to be back in Staten; seeing Ma always made him feel better, like he couldn't be that bad a person if her face could still light up every time she saw him.
"Dinner?" she asked. "FAO will be there tomorrow, but right now I am totally craving Italian. Chunky tomato sauce, garlic bread, the works. Where do you think?"
"Mindy," he said, and she caught his tone and let her face get serious; it was a little unsettling how quickly she could cloak her emotions. "I have to go."
"Oh," she said, and he felt like a dick for leaving her with all her bags.
"Let me at least call you a cab," he offered, rubbing the back of his neck with a nervous hand.
"I thought – dinner with a friend –" she stammered, "I thought we agreed."
"We broke bread – that cupcake, remember?"
"You ate the whole thing!" she said, sounding honestly outraged, as if she hadn't been two seconds away from cramming it down his throat manually.
"You made me!" he shot back, sighing exasperatedly when he saw her smile, triumphant this time. "Okay, you caught me on a technicality," he said.
He put her in a cab after they polished off cannoli – it took him and the cabbie three trips to load all of her bags in the trunk, as they seemed to have multiplied on their stroll downtown – and heard her say, "Peninsula Hotel." Holy shit. If she could afford the
Peninsula, then he felt slightly less bad about letting her pay for dinner; he'd been halfway through his stracotto when he'd remembered that his wallet was still in his toolbox, sitting in his apartment, and had gone red-faced and silent while Mindy rhapsodized over her osso buco and poked him to get him to order a third round of garlic bread. When she'd finally realized what was bugging him, she'd laughed and told him not to be a dummy, and that he could buy her a hot dog next time. Or, as she'd put it, many, many hot dogs and soft-serve after.
Whatever she said, she'd done something good for him, because he was feeling a little more balanced; he could show up at Ma's like it was any other night and not like he wanted to crawl into her lap and get her to fix his life. The stiff breeze coming off the water felt good on his face, and he tucked the bundle of his shucked coveralls more
securely under his arm. Staten Island loomed ahead of him, and his grip on the ferry rail stayed steady.
"Mrs. Guarancini," Danny called, jogging into the small pharmacy and shop, "you got Ma's pills?"
"Danny-boy!" she said, coming out from behind the counter to squeeze him. "Sweetheart, I didn't know you were coming out; Angie didn't stop by for any chocolate lobster-tails. Is she doing okay?"
"Yeah, she's fine," he said, just like he did every time he saw Mrs. G. He couldn't remember why he'd ever left Staten, when it was one of those places where people took care of each other and worried about their neighbors. "How are you? How's Stevie?"
She beamed and threw her hands in the air dramatically. "Who knows what he's up to, he doesn't tell me anything even though he's living under my roof, and his father only dead these ten years. You'll come for a visit?"
"Absolutely," he said. "Just – I gotta get the pills and get back."
"Such a good boy," she said, pinching his cheek like she had when there'd been a lot more there to pinch. She bustled behind the counter and he had high hopes that he'd actually be able to leave in a few, but then the phone rang. He mumbled a curse under his breath, then crossed himself when he heard her say hello to Father Francis.
He moved out of earshot, skimming the headlines on the newspapers and wishing Mrs. G could multitask. Ma would already be making him bacon and eggs and
waiting for him, and she could only take her pills with a meal. Maybe he should pick up a couple of lobster-tails for them to have with their afternoon coffee. No, he was already going to need credit to get the pills, and he shouldn't make Mrs. G pay the price for his not having the balls to go back to his own apartment.
"Oh, you'll never guess!" Mrs. G exclaimed, hanging up the phone. "Father Francis spoke with Father Carmine and said that yesterday, some lady put a thousand-dollar bill in the collection box next to the votives!"
"Father Carmine at St. Patrick's?" he asked, taken aback when she nodded enthusiastically. "I was just there yesterday – wait, how'd he know it was a woman?"
"She wrote because of Steve on the edge, and put hearts on it. A thousand dollars! Think what that'll do for the restoration fund!"
His stomach dropped entirely then. That had to be Mindy. Why couldn't any part of his life make sense?
His phone rang when he was walking back to Ma's. He didn't think he knew anybody with a 646 area code number, but he couldn't imagine Christina finding an unknown number to call him from when she hadn't even bothered trying him from her own phone. "Hello?"
"What the hell are you doing, walking around with thousand-dollar bills in the middle of Manhattan?" Danny hissed before he remembered that this was none of his business. There was silence on the other end of the line. "Shit, I'm sorry, I just – I heard, and it threw me for a loop, and –"
"Was it inappropriate?" Mindy asked in a small voice. "Because I'm not Catholic or from New York?"
What the hell was wrong with him? "You don't have to be either to have a big heart," he said finally. "That money's gonna make a lot of difference for the church." She was still quiet. Screw it, she deserved better. "And I bet Steve thinks what you did was great."
"Danny," she said, a long quiet exhale that sounded a lot like she was trying not to cry. "Where are you?"
It didn't seem so weird that she should have the information. "At my ma's, out on Staten."
"You're on an entirely different landmass?" she asked, her voice rising.
"Sorta, but it's close – I just hopped the ferry."
"Well, when are you hopping back?"
"I – I don't know." He'd thought this morning, waking up in his old bed with the busted blinds letting in the sun at the same angle they always had, that he was ready, but the possibility of facing Christina without further humiliation was receding quickly.
"Oh. Well, you have my number," Mindy said, and disconnected when he couldn't think what else to say and was just listening to her breathe.
He didn't tell Ma what had happened; she loved Christina. He almost called Richie for support, but this wasn't something he wanted to be explaining over the phone. Still, he did himself the favor of taking the long way home, and when he got off the 1 and headed east, he was surprised to see Mindy, sitting at Casa Lever with a plate of sliders and a cocktail in front of her. He hadn't realized how long her hair was – she must have had it up the day before – but that was the same dazzling smile she aimed his way when she caught sight of him, stopped in his tracks like an idiot.
She gestured for him to join her, so he crossed the street to make his refusal politely. "I can't, I still don't have my wallet back," he said.
"Please," she said, "I'd really like to talk to you, and the price of a couple of drinks seems fair."
That was nice of her, to make it seem like he was doing her a favor. Once he got his shit squared away, he'd cook for her . . . that thought was halted by the realization that he probably couldn't call his apartment home anymore. Whether Christina dug in her heels and said he should be the one to leave or not, he couldn't imagine sleeping comfortably in the room that he'd caught her in. It looked like it was back to Staten for good.
At least he kept some underwear and shirts and a jacket there, so he didn't look too crazily rumpled as he sat down opposite Mindy, who today was wearing green plaid like she'd been born a preppie. "Hi," he said, surprised by how attentive the waiter was, rushing over with a place setting and menu.
"Hi," she said, gesturing to the plate of sliders, "help yourself."
It looked like she might even be able to out-stubborn him, because she didn't reach for one until he'd snagged one for himself. He peeled off his jacket and spread his napkin on his lap.
"I wanted to . . . talk to you," she said, and he looked up from his slider when her voice trailed off, only to catch her eyeing his wedding ring, which hung off a chain around his neck, easily visible through his thin henley. She cocked her head curiously at it. "Are
His tight grip spurted slider-meat out from between the buns, marring the pristine white of the tablecloth. "Ye – n, no. I don't think so. Not anymore."
The waiter came by, anxious to change the tablecloth, but Mindy waved him away. Danny could feel himself getting sweaty under her unwavering gaze. "That recent? Do you want to talk about it?"
"Let me get back to you on that," he said finally. "What did you want to tell me?"
She smiled. "I wanted a real New Yorker's help figuring out where to live, but that can wait."
When he stepped into the apartment, it seemed empty; remembering what a blow it had been last time, he hastened to the bedroom door, just wanting to get things over with if Christina was there.
She was, and the guy was, too, not any better-looking clothed, in his opinion, but what did he know? He wasn't the one casting glances at people other than his spouse. They were sitting together on the bed, making a list, and when he walked in they stood. The guy actually nudged Christina and then nodded as she read off all the points on their little list, like he, Danny, was the asshole, and the things Christina was saying had anything to do with why she'd fucked someone else in their bed.
"So I'm the bad guy?" he said flatly, waiting for the guy to say something the way he had the other day, just so he could feel justified in taking a swing. The guy had the nerve to push Christina behind him, like Danny had ever raised a hand to her, and that was it, he was done. "Sure," he said, throwing open the closet and stuffing his clothes indiscriminately into a duffel; he'd just done laundry the morning of the discovery, so there wasn't anything in the hamper. He'd made up the bed and spread Christina out on the crisp new sheets and taken his time and she'd – done something her heart wasn't in, obviously. "Yeah, I'm the bad guy."
All his music went into a heavy-duty backpack, and his keyboard went under his arm.
They'd never gotten around to buying proper china, but he had one of his ma's good knives, so he sheathed and packed that too, in his toolbox.
He was out on the sidewalk before it hit him that he could carry everything he had. The number of years he'd given Christina, and this was all it boiled down to – no kids, no nothing. Maybe he was the bad guy.
"Hey, Danny!" Mindy said when she picked up. He thought maybe she had him on speakerphone, because her voice was weirdly echoey and loud. "I'm just curling my hair, so I'm going hands-free on the call, okay? What's up?"
He couldn't interrupt her if she was going out. "I, uh –" God, he was bad at this. Why was he calling this woman he'd met only the day before? It wasn't like he could crash on the couch in her insanely expensive hotel room. What he needed to do was take the ferry back out to Staten and lick his wounds in private.
"Oh," he heard, and then suddenly her voice was softer, more intimate, like she'd snatched up her phone to murmur directly into his ear. "Danny, are you ready to talk now?"
"Yeah," he croaked, clutching his phone way too tightly.
"Come by. I'm in the penthouse suite."
It took some juggling, but he managed to carry all of his stuff plus two orders of chicken and rice with white sauce and pita from the food-truck a few blocks from her hotel. He was willing to bet that no one looking like he did and dragging all his worldly possessions behind him had ever gained admittance to the Peninsula before, but all he had to say at the front desk was the magic word: Mindy. The lady behind the desk, who'd been eyeing his paper bag of food like she thought it held live rats, was suddenly all smiles and charm and "Ms. Lahiri is expecting you."
The penthouse had a private elevator with a couch, so he stacked all his stuff as neatly as he could and felt his stomach drop on the slow ride up. Pacing didn't help, and he didn't expect the elevator to open directly into her suite or for her to be singing along to
"Mickey," pouring out of the speakers mounted on the walls. Her voice was a little sharp, but bubbling with life, and then there she was, walking toward him in a silky silver robe with huge curlers in her hair. He missed the green plaid but saw that her face was as bright and engaging as ever.
He held out the card for the elevator. "Hey, uh, thanks for letting me up here."
Her robe had pockets, so he didn't get why she held her hands up and said, "Keep it. We can talk – wait, what smells so amazing?"
"Oh, I brought you dinner. To say thanks and to maybe start to pay you back."
"Danny," she said firmly. "Wait, it's really hard to be stern when I don't know your last name."
"Castellano," he said, crossing his arms because he was an idiot who couldn't drop the defense mechanisms even for a second.
"Daniel Castellano, you are never to worry about paying me back. I am rolling in it – we're talking like beyond rap videos with mattresses stuffed with money kind of rich, beyond buying countries like Greece as a pick-me-up kind of rich. I've got it, and I've been spending it like a drunken sailor."
So then why was she alone? If she'd inherited money, she should have a lifetime of leeches waiting around, and if she'd invented or discovered something, she would have split the money with her partners and kept working – she had too much energy not to. "How?"
"I guess they really did keep my name confidential," Mindy said. "I'm the Powerball winner. Three hundred and thirty-seven million dollars."
"Yeah, but that's before taxes," Danny said, just to be saying something, because the number kind of broke his brain. Between Mindy and Christina, he was just a sack of broken, jangling parts.
"I knew you had a sense of humor!" Mindy shouted with a victorious fist-pump. "Now grab the food – we're gonna talk while we chow down. Then I'm gonna go get pretty" – he flicked his eyes up to see her matter-of-fact expression, like no one'd ever contradicted her when she said that – "and you're gonna lace my corset tight and we're gonna go dancing."
He froze, cradling the warm bag of food in both hands. "Wait, you're wearing a corset?" It was a very nice image, but those things had to be too uncomfortable to dance in.
"Duh, Danny, I'm referencing Gone with the Wind. Have you been living under a rock?"
"She's unhappy at the end of the movie," he pointed out, remembering how surprised he'd been when the credits rolled. What was Little Miss Sass Mouth going to say about that? Why was he even arguing with her, the one person who evidently gave a shit about him?
"Noooo, she's all focused at the end of the movie, she finally knows what she wants and how to get it. If they had made a sequel, she probably would have been, like, a ninja."
"A ninja belle?" he asked incredulously. Was she even listening to herself?
"Oooh, I'm calling it – that'll be the name of my debut album," she said, brandishing forks and plates from the galley kitchen. "Multi-platinum, guaranteed."
Mindy was a good listener, even if she did basically inhale her dinner and then slide sideways to be closer to his. If he kept his eyes down and just watched her hand dart and dip to steal all of his pita wedges, he thought he could get through the story.
"Who cares how long it'd been since she laughed?" Mindy demanded, tucking her feet under her, and he did not let himself look at the glimpses of thigh her gaping robe didn't cover. "When was the last time you laughed, Danny?"
"I thought I was happy," he said, poking at his food with the heavy silver fork. "And I, I don't know," – he cleared his throat, feeling beyond stupid that the one time he'd chosen something just for himself he'd been so totally wrong – "I thought she was happy to be all I needed."
"Ugh, shiksa goddesses," Mindy said, her nose in the air.
"I'm not Jewish," he said.
"The principle remains the same, Danny! Didn't you ever listen to the director's commentary on When Harry Met Sally . . .?"
"That was gonna be next, after I got to Mrs. Goldberg's leaking sink," he cracked, feeling a little better, before his responsibilities came crashing back on him. "Shit, I never even told them I was done."
"You can call them later," she said. "The principle is this: you never thought you deserved her, and you're not really all that surprised you don't get to keep her. So this is the crucial moment in the movie."
"My life is not a movie –" he started, before she hushed him up with a hand over his mouth.
"You can make it your mission to win her back, to prove to her and to yourself that you do have what it takes to make her happy, or you can take a step back and figure out if you really were happy when you were with her and go from there." She moved her hand then, and he gulped some air, transfixed by the way she was looking at him, her dark eyes utterly hypnotic. "It's your call, Danny."
"What would you –"
"Nuh-uh. I'm not telling you what I would do. I'm telling you what we're gonna do, right now, and that is hit a club and dance our asses off." She eyed him sternly, evidently waiting for him to protest, but he hadn't let loose in so long that even a bump-and-grind club sounded like a good idea. "Yeah, that's right. You're gonna listen to me, and you're gonna like it." She got up on her knees and surprised him with a quick but fierce hug. "Now, I'm trusting you to pick out your own outfit. Don't let me down, Castellano."
Danny dragged his stuff from the elevator into her palatial suite, leaving it under the overhang of the massive glass dining table, where it wouldn't get in the way. He tugged his duffel strap free of his battered keyboard and rested the bag on top of the table, rooting around for his toothbrush; that white sauce – what little Mindy had left him – had been fiercely garlicky. He groaned when he remembered that he hadn't taken any of his stuff from the bathroom, where he'd just mounted a couple of Christina's best photographs. That meant no toothbrush, no razor, no comb.
"Hey, uh, Mindy?" he called, taking a few cautious steps toward the hallway she'd disappeared down.
"Yeah?" she called.
"Do you –"
"Wait, I can't hear you," she said.
The phone near him rang, a discreet tone that still managed to be intrusive. Maybe it was the front desk saying her limo or whatever was here. "Yeah?" he said into the receiver.
"Much better!" Mindy said on the other end. "Now, what's up?"
"I need a toothbrush, so I'm gonna run down to Duane Reade. Do you need anything?"
"No need, my friend, I've got extras. Just come back here – I don't bite."
"I was trying to respect your privacy," he protested.
"Good job, then, weirdo," she said, and hung up.
He hung up the phone and laughed under his breath, then shuffled down the hall. The bathroom had rows and rows of lights, like the mirrors in photos of glamorous Hollywood dressing-rooms, and all of the lights were reflecting off the short, sparkly teal dress she was wearing. Her mouth was gaping as she applied mascara, and when she leaned forward he realized her dress wasn't yet done up. That much he could do without prompting, so he stepped close and drew the zipper up slowly, careful not to catch the material in the metal.
"Thanks," she said, switching eyes. "Over there." She pointed with her chin, and he opened the medicine cabinet to find several toothbrushes still wrapped in plastic. Hers, in the crystal tumbler on the counter, was aqua with purple stars, so he found a plain purple one that would be easy to tell apart.
He had a mouth full of toothpaste foam when he heard her say his name. He cut his eyes sideways and saw her dangling a crystal bracelet from one hand, jingling it as close to his face as she could reach. He reached out and took it, and she turned her arm so that the inside of her wrist was facing up. Parking the toothbrush in a corner of his mouth, he fastened the bracelet around her wrist. He removed the brush, spat, and said, "You're such a brat," and smiled when she laughed.
"Damn, Danny, you clean up nice," she said, walking out in heels that defied the laws of physics.
"You, uh, you too." He was wearing his best pants and the lavender button-down Richie had bought him for his birthday, but felt unfinished without his cologne and the chain on which his wedding ring had hung for six years. He flipped through the bills in his wallet
again, resolutely not looking at the condoms he carried because Christina said the pill wrecked her, ensuring he had enough for a taxi ride. "So what's the plan?"
"You tell me," she said, perching on one of the barstools and swinging her legs. Even with those ridiculous heels on, her feet cleared the floor by a good couple of inches. "This is my first big night out in New York, the land of dreams. What's the place to go?"
"Uh," he said, panicking. A bar where he could sink a few beers and play some pool was basically his speed; he hadn't exactly been a regular at the fancy nightclubs, even if he'd picked Christina up at one, where she'd been waiting outside and he'd been strolling by, looking to bum a cigarette. He couldn't even remember the name of that place. "Let me, um, make a call," he said. Richie had better answer his phone.
He heard one ring, then a second, then the sound of a camera, and he looked up, unpleasantly startled, to find Mindy tossing her hair back and taking a selfie. "Smile, Danny," she said, and aimed her phone his way.
"You're a grown woman, why do you need a Captain America phone cover?" he griped, before Richie finally picked up. "Richie! It's Danny. What's the best club in Manhattan? Uh huh. Yeah. I'll call you tomorrow – you should be in bed anyway. No, don't tell me that!" He disconnected, trying not to picture what Richie'd been describing.
Mindy had her hands clasped hopefully. "Spill."
"He's getting us on the list at Tan Tru," Danny said. He shoved his phone into his pocket and found himself unable to meet her eyes. Before he could ask what exactly they were doing – whether she'd be bringing someone else home from the club – she threw him his jacket and shrugged into one of her own.
"You've got the key, right?" He patted his pocket and nodded. "The night is young, my friend, and so are we."
Mindy was electrifying on the dance floor, her hands light on his arms but her body making his space hers too. She danced like that was all she wanted to do, like she had no ulterior motive in mind, and he watched, delighting in the way she moved with abandon.
She used him as a home base, nestling against him whenever a guy got too aggressive, and didn't even seem to care that he was sweating into her hair and against her bared skin. He'd forgotten how therapeutic it could be, to make contact like this instead of with his fist, and her eyes flashed approval for his ease on the dance floor. Danny could smell her sweat rising up through the clouds of her perfume and finally let go of everything he'd been hauling around in favor of catching Mindy around the waist and grinding up against her, the slow drag of their bodies infinitely satisfying.
Laughing, she threw her arms around his neck and said, between the pulses of the bass, "You're better than the movies, Danny Castellano."
"You're a little nutjob," he said, almost admiringly; the balls on her were unreal.
"No, Danny, Danny, just hear me out," she said, like he was going to take anyone who wore a satin eye mask and silk pajamas seriously. Especially when that someone was also rocking some major bedhead and fuzzy pink socks. "I have it all figured out. You're not working, so you need a job, but you need one that will accommodate your school
That startled him. "I'm not taking classes –"
Mindy stopped him with a gesture. "That catalog weighed like ten pounds and had your teeth-marks in it, Danny, of course you want to go to school. You could start in September. The point is," she said, raising her voice to drown out his protests, "I'm the one with the perfect job for you."
"What's that? Guy who gets you into nightclubs and makes sure you don't go home with anyone shady?" And who also doesn't get to drive you wild himself, he nearly added. She was too nice to be his rebound from Christina.
"Yes, what's wrong with that? And roommate and handyman and study buddy – what, you're not the only one who missed out on college – and best friend. God, why is this so hard for you to wrap your mind around?"
"Because no one's this nice to me!" he exploded. "What is your deal, Mindy?"
She froze with her room-service caramel latte halfway to her lips, and Danny flushed, aware he was taking the dumbass room-service guy's knowing smirk out on her, but still wanting an answer to his question.
"I'm nice to you because you deserve to have someone be nice to you!" she said, and he couldn't stop the reflexive shake of his head. "Shut up! I happen to be an excellent judge of character, and even though you're being the biggest pain in the ass in the history of the world right now, you are still a good person and we could be amazing BFFs, and you're gonna be wearing this latte if you keep shaking your head!"
"You wouldn't," he said, folding his arms across his chest.
A split-second later, caramel syrup was streaking down his face. "Looks like you're not quite the judge of character that I am," Mindy sing-songed, then started patting him down with a weirdly non-absorbent cloth napkin that only moved the mess around.
So maybe she didn't want a lapdog, and he nearly shook with the relief; he was a grown man, not a charity case. "Yeah, but how will you get your caffeine fix now?" he asked, pulling off his t-shirt and mopping himself off with the dry bits. He needed to clean the couch before the stain set.
"We'll make sure the place we get is near a steady stream of really good coffee, duh," she said. "You won't regret this, Danny, I swear!"
He regretted it basically from minute one, because the day she had planned was a shopping marathon. First she pitched his old flip-phone and said he needed to upgrade and learn how to text, because some of her thoughts were too profound not to be written down for posterity. "How quick are you planning to produce these children who will be dazzled by your wit?" he asked, and she laughed and told him not to be a butthead. He ended up with the same phone as hers, set to the same password and synched so that one could always locate the other.
Before they'd even left the store, he heard a chirp coming from the back pocket of his jeans, and there was his first text message: Hi!
"Yeah, hi," he said.
"Way to miss the point, Danny," she said, and made fun of the plain blue rubber case he'd selected – which was ridiculous, because a phone that cost the same as a used car needed a proper case, and it wasn't like having Captain America's shield on hers made hers any more effective.
He shut her up by buying her a burger, fries, and a shake at the diner around the corner, where he'd worked as a busboy before landing the gig in maintenance and settling down. "Hey, Danny," Vito said, coming out from the kitchen and giving him a painful clap on the back with one of his meaty hands.
"Hey Vito, this is Mindy, my new boss." It was better to be up front about things and not let anybody think he was mooching off her or running around with her, and most of these guys had heard about Christina, even though they'd never met her. "Mindy, this is Vito, my old boss."
"You here to check his references, sweetheart?" Vito asked, helping himself to some of the fries left on Danny's plate, which Danny had been saving for Mindy.
"Now that you mention it, Vito, yeah. What did you think of his work ethic?"
Vito grinned and Danny buried his face in his hands. "Ah, the kid'll work his fingers to the bone for you, he'll be straight with you, and he'll even step in and cover for you on days you don't feel so hot. But. Don't ever expect service with a smile – it just don't come natural to him, God love him."
Thinking the worst was over, he lifted his head, just in time for Mindy to gasp as if shocked by Vito's words and reach over to squeeze his cheeks together. "But he's got a smile that lights up the room, Vito! Look at this face!"
Vito busted into his belly-laugh with an "I like this one!" and Mindy let go of him. Danny ostentatiously worked his jaw and rubbed his cheeks, all of which Mindy blithely ignored in favor of whispering smugly in his ear.
"See, I told you I was good at reading people." While Vito was wiping his eyes, Danny saw Mindy slip a hundred-dollar bill under her empty plate. She must have anticipated Vito's next words – "no charge for you two" – Danny thought; damn, she was good.
They bought a pad and pen from a stationery store that looked to be on its last legs – of course Mindy chose the pad with pink sheets and a butterfly on the cover, so he stepped in to make sure that the pen at least would be properly useful and not just decorative – and found a bench in Bryant Park.
When he opened the pad and rested it on his knee, she sighed like a kid faced with summer reading. "Is this really necessary, Danny? Why can't we just go look at places and decide what we like?"
"If you go with a list in mind, you'll spend less time and save yourself a lot of aggravation," he said. He titled the page Mindy's Place and wrote a numeral one on the first line. "Okay, go."
"Well, it has to be in Manhattan," she said, smiling dreamily into space. "Every romantic comedy worth watching is set in Manhattan."
"Doesn't one of them have 'Seattle' right in the title?" he asked, chewing on the pen instead of writing – that one was a given.
"Eww, oral fixation much?" she asked, batting the pen away from his mouth. "Don't even pretend that you haven't seen Sleepless in Seattle. Okay, um, I don't know. Hardwood floors?"
"Do you even get the point of this list? What are the things you absolutely have to have?"
"Well, you should contribute too, instead of just critiquing!" she said.
"Fine. Two bedrooms, obviously. Do you want your own bathroom?" The eyeroll she gave him was lengthy and elaborate. "Careful. Your face might get stuck like that. Okay, two full baths. I like to cook, so a real kitchen, not just a stove shoved up against a wall."
"You cook, Danny?" she asked, looking up at him through her eyelashes and burying her smile in his shoulder. "There is no escape for you, my friend."
He didn't shrug her off, and she wrapped her arms more securely around his. "And we should have a room where we can study. Not sitting in front of the TV and trying to get work done. I mean a real space with a table –"
"Oh, and WiFi enabled, and we need the good cable package, and we have to be within delivery range of decent restaurants."
"Yes, now you're getting it!" he said, writing as quickly as he could.
"And a room for your music," she said. "We'll get a piano."
He looked at her, touched that she'd remembered seeing him hauling around Brady Caldwell's old keyboard.
Of course she couldn't leave well enough alone. "Plus a stable for our unicorns, and an indoor pool, and a secret tunnel to Bloomingdale's –"
"Within walking distance of a good grocery store," he said loudly. "A park nearby. Close to subway lines. Hookups for a washer and a dryer. Gas heating. Double-paned windows."
"It's amazing, Danny," she said. "You look like a hot young dude, but you sound like an eighty-seven-year-old man."
"I work with what I got," he said, flipping the page to keep writing.
Even without any major edits, the list – which had been retitled Mindy and Danny's Rockin' Pad – led them to a brownstone that had just gone on the market. Of course he was there for all of the engineers' inspections and making up and revising the punch-list and the rest of it, but it was like he'd been doused in freezing water when they were at the bank, getting a certified check for the sale price, and the bank manager said his signature was needed too on any substantial withdrawal from their joint account.
"What the hell is going on in that head of yours?" he hissed when the guy left them alone. "Have people been so fantastic to you that you think, this guy I met crying on the sidewalk seems okay, I think I'll give him access to millions of dollars because I have a feeling he won't rip me off!"
She reached out and grabbed his hand. "Breathe, Danny. It's not my only account." He sighed in relief and let his head loll on his neck. "It's just my major one," she said, and he put his head down on the table in defeat. Her hand on the crown of his head felt good – warm and strong and soft – and he liked the care she took in weaving her
fingers into his hair, gently petting. "You're number three."
"Number three what?" he asked, his voice bouncing weirdly off the fake wood of the table. "People you've induced to coronaries? Today, I mean?"
"Number three on the list of people who've been fantastic to me," she said, bending down so her chin was on the table and their faces were on the same level, and he rolled a bit so he could see her soft profile out of the corner of his eye. "It was my dad, then Steve, and now you. That's it."
That wasn't right at all. "Everybody should be fantastic to you," he said, dismayed.
"I know, right?"
"Now what, Danny, the water's boiling!" Mindy said, darting back from the stove like the pot of water was about to reach up insistent arms to pull her into its depths.
"So add the pasta now," he said, continuing to shred the radicchio from the weekend greenmarket.
"What, all at once? Won't it splash?"
"Maybe," he allowed, which didn't seem to calm her down any. "Get ready to stir, cause you don't want clumps of pasta."
"Right," she said, and saluted him.
"I swear this isn't that hard, Min. You got your colander in the sink and a cup to keep some of the cooking water?"
"Does it look like I do, Martha Stewart?"
"Temper, temper," he said. "Now scooch."
"Oh, you're taking over? Thank god," she said, reaching for the ties at the waist of her apron.
He pressed her hands against the small of her back and stepped close so his hips were brushing up against hers; he had to get into her space to make her realize he was absolutely serious. "You're staying put," he ordered. "I'm making parmesan lace on the other front burner, that's all."
"Dannnny," she whined.
"Minnndy," he responded. "Stir." He stepped back from her and picked up the block of parmesan and the grater.
They worked together in silence for about thirty seconds, which was the longest he thought she'd ever stayed silent. "Hey, Danny, don't college kids basically live on pasta?"
"Pretty much," he said, remembering Richie reporting back that it was the only thing in the dining hall that tasted even vaguely like it was supposed to, even if the sauce was clearly from a can.
"So you're giving in to peer pressure? I'm so disappointed in you, Castellano."
"We should, uh, we should talk about that. College, I mean," he said, eyes fixed on the cheese browning into what looked like a round snowflake.
"Did you take any classes anywhere, or are you starting from scratch?" Mindy asked, peering into the pot. "This isn't the kind of pasta you throw, is it?"
"What? No. You shouldn't need to throw anything anywhere to see if it's done. You'll know. A good cook knows."
"So, did you?"
"No," he admitted. "Ma got sick when I was a year from finishing high school so I got a couple jobs right away."
"And Richie?" she asked.
"Richie got into U of F and that was that. He was just a kid."
"I know," she said, even though she'd never met the kid, which seemed strange to him. "I think it's done."
"Give it another minute," he said, flipping the lacy sheet of cheese out of the pan and moving the pan to the unoccupied back burner. "What about you? You got any credits to transfer?"
"I'm not gonna bother, they were so long ago." She was hunching slightly, and he knew there was nothing so fascinating about cooking noodles that she needed to pay that much attention.
Danny took a deep breath to get his ass in gear; there was no excuse for letting her do all of the listening and caring. Being fantastic to her didn't just mean letting her be fantastic to him. He rested a hand on the back of her neck and swept it down to the ties on her apron and back up again. "You know you can talk to me, right? Tell me how come you didn't get to go to college?"
"It was just timing," she said, not really softening. He did the hand-swoop again and she turned just enough to get her arms around him. He turned off all the burners and held her. "After my mom died, it was just my dad and me for so long, but he kept saying I should apply wherever I wanted, that we'd get to see each other over Christmas and summer breaks, and then, on the same day, I got letters from all four of my schools, and I got in, Danny, I got into all of them." He had a sneaking suspicion she was using his t-shirt as a tissue, but he couldn't bring himself to mind. "I was still trying to decide where to go when, a week later, he had a stroke, a fatal one, and it was just me."
"You didn't have any family around?" he asked. Shit, he'd at least had Ma and Richie to come home to between shifts.
"None in America, nobody I was close to," she said. "There was enough money in the bank that I could take some basic classes and get certified as a home-care worker, so no blow-off classes like Art History 101 or anything like that."
"You don't have to miss out anymore," he said. "I'll take it with you."
She choked a laugh into his damp shirt. "That I'd pay to see."
"You are, you lunatic," he reminded her. He leaned back and she tipped her head back too, her wet face shining. "I could see you as a home-care worker. You'd be really good at that."
"I miss it sometimes. I miss Steve."
"Steve was one of your clients?" he asked. She nodded and scrubbed at her face with the kitchen towel, which he took as his cue to let go of her, drain the pasta, and finish assembling their meal. "You wanna tell me about him?" he asked quietly. All he could think about was the fact that her list of people who'd been good to her hadn't included a single boyfriend.
"His name was Steve Rogers," she said, clearly waiting for a reaction.
"Okay," he said, stirring the garlic cream sauce he'd had bubbling on the back burner and the shredded radicchio into the pasta. "Here," he said, gesturing at the plate with the browned cheese, "break that up into pieces the size of a silver dollar."
She reached for the plate automatically, but stayed focused on his face. "Steve Rogers, Danny."
"I heard you."
"Oh my god. You have been deprived of Captain America."
"Steve Rogers is Captain America's name."
"Like his secret identity? Throw the cheese in."
"It's not a secret." She tipped the plate's contents into the pot. "That's it, we're breaking in the new TV tonight, and we're watching Captain America."
"But I was gonna watch Die Hard," he protested.
"But Chris Evans is crazy bangable."
"So's Bruce Willis!" he said. "Wait, what does 'crazy bangable' mean?"
"Danny!" she said, laughing again, and he had done that, had finally taken some of the weight off her shoulders. She shouldn't have been on her own so long, poor kid.
"So even though I DVR'd it, every day, there's a new excuse not to watch Die Hard with me. What, are you afraid you'll love it too much and throw all your romantic comedies away?"
"Yeah, that's it, Danny. Suck it up, tonight's a Clueless night."
"Give me one reason why that's a movie anyone over the age of twelve would want to watch."
"Two words, my friend: Paul. Rudd."
"Danny, seriously, did you only recently acquire your senses of sight and hearing? How can you not know who Paul Rudd is?"
"Is he on your 'crazy bangable' list?"
She actually took him seriously, the little nutjob. "Hmm, no. He's not crazy bangable. More like delicious bangable."
"Is that better or worse?" he asked, wondering why the hell he even wanted to know.
"Duh, they're equal. 'Bangable' is a tier."
"I give up," he said, just as the movie started.
On to part two!
This same entry also appears on Dreamwidth, at http://innie-darling.dreamwidth.org/441557.html.