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Ghostboo

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“Daron?” Freddie’s slightly muffled call reached his ears, and Daron took the time to groan and bury his face in his hands. There clearly wasn’t a way out for him that didn’t involve another person, but, well...did it have to be Freddie?

Freddie’s voice was curious enough that it was clear she hadn’t seen him yet, but that didn’t last long.

“Oh! Daron? Are you okay…?” Her voice took a concerned and hesitant turn, clearly unsure if he’d be open to accepting help. Daron couldn’t help but feel guilt at her tone on top of everything else. So he answered with as much normalcy as he could.

“Yeah! Yeah, I just... I found a camera in the wall. See it?”

A pause.

“Oh, yeah! Huh,” Freddie said, her voice growing nearer. Presumably as she crouched down to study the webcam. Trying not to think about what things must look like from her end, Daron continued.

“I think there are more. I had to crawl in to grab the recording box. There’s a ton of cords going into different parts of the house in here.”

“Oh, ew! What? Cameras in the walls?”

“I know. I wanted to make sure to get it before we left. But, uh…” Daron felt heat rising in his cheeks as he cleared his throat before continuing. His legs squirmed a little more, crinkling the paper under them. “Freddie, I can’t...get back out. Not on my own. Can you…?”

“Yeah! Yeah,” Freddie echoed Daron’s overeager reassurance from earlier. Then after a brief hesitation: “I’ll grab your ankles? Sound good?”

“Sure,” Daron replied, trying not to think about the situation too hard as he picked the box back up in preparation for being yanked out. A few moments later, he felt his ankles lift about a foot off the ground. He also heard a soft grunt of exertion as she did, and Daron had to resist burying his face back on his hands. He had to be ready.

Moments later, Daron felt some strain on his lower half as Freddie began to pull. It took a second for her momentum to build up, but he was hopeful - until the plywood began to dig into his middle in protest. It was easy to pull the thin piece of wood out, but for Freddie to yank him out this way, the wood would have to bend in to the gap in the wall. And that, with the size of Daron’s puffy stomach, was really not as doable. The sharp pressure into his gut got more insistent by the second.

“Ahhhhhha,” he gasped out. “Hold on, hold on. Stop.”

Freddie did, immediately.

“I’m sorry! Are you good?”

“Yeah, no, it’s just this stupid plywood. Uh…” Daron really, really did not want to have to continue this thought. “We gotta try something else. Can...you lift it off me?”

“Oh!” Freddie’s voice got even closer to investigate the plywood on his belly, and Daron felt his cheeks burn. “I see, okay, yeah. I think I gotcha. Um…”

All Daron heard for a few seconds was his own deep breathing, but soon, small fingers began to press hesitantly into his soft middle.

“Sorry,” he groaned out as he felt them sink deeply into his flannel-covered stomach, searching for the end of the plywood. “God, I swear I didn’t know I was actually this fat.”

“Don’t be dumb, Daron. This isn’t exactly a giant opening. It does look pretty uncomfortable, though, are you sure you’re okay?” Freddie replied, hovering between exasperation and worry.

“Yeah, yeah. I am. Plenty of cushion and all. Please don’t worry.” It was uncomfortable, but the emotional side was much worse than the physical. “It’s just...a bad position,” he concluded uncertainly as Freddie’s hands continued to search for purchase between his too-tight flannel and the plywood.

“It happens, Daron. But, uh…” Freddie paused, then pressed into him with just the tiniest bit more pressure. “Are you sucking it in at all?”

“Ha,” he grunted, humiliated and exasperated and of course he wasn’t. “Good point. Here we go…” And he took enough of an obvious breath that Freddie could hear him, and hopefully drew in his stomach enough to help.

“There we goooo,” murmured his coworker, finally gripping the end of the plywood and lifting it up. Feeling the pressure around his stomach alleviate, Daron gripped his supplies, then hesitated.

“Perfect, keep that up, and uh...are you mostly out of the way?”

“Yeah,” Freddie replied, now more from one side of him. “I am.”

“Okay. ‘Cause I can’t push off anything. So…” Daron trailed off, his cheeks flaming red, before he began to squirm backward in earnest. It was incredibly awkward and not particularly fast in the progress area, but at least he was moving a little. He still bumped into the plywood (and Freddie herself a couple times), but it didn’t settle back into him to keep him in place, and that was all that mattered.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, Daron’s head re-emerged from the opening and he gasped in a full breath. The box and the flashlight in his hands followed.

“Got it,” he couldn’t help but say weakly to Freddie as he lay there and showed her the offending item. “Easy as pie.”

She laughed easily and hard, clearly relieved.

“Good job, Daron! Holy shit,” Freddie said, marveling at the box and camera on the ground in front of her. She offered her coworker a hand, and Daron, after a brief hesitation, got into a position where he hoped he wouldn’t yank her to the ground, and took her up on it. Once he was upright, he realized his flannel had lost two buttons in the scuffle, the one right at his widest point - his belly button - and the one above it. Daron, already being at pretty peak embarrassment, took the development in stride.

After another moment, the pair lifted their newfound discoveries, took another couple deep breaths, and then made eye contact and nodded. This wasn’t just evidence for a briefing tomorrow. This needed to go to the police now.
 
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Ghostboo

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We're post-stuckage now, rejoin us!

Chapter 20

It was a long night. After leaving messages with Xander and Julie, Freddie and Daron headed straight downtown for the police station. Freddie still had her old work contacts there, and the department had been working with Xander for years already. They were heard out fairly quickly. But the wheels of justice still turn at the rate they’re gonna turn, and there was a lot of sitting around.

“Is your stomach feeling okay?” Freddie asked at one point, and Daron looked at her, slightly startled. He realized then that without thinking, he’d been rubbing a thumb over the sore part of his belly that the plywood had pressed into. He had long since unbuttoned his flannel (to hopefully hide the now missing buttons) and his round form was covered in front only by the thin black t-shirt.

“Yeah, I’m sure it’s fine,” Daron said, hastily dropping his hand as he tugged out his shirt.

“Can I see?” Freddie asked.

“What? No,” Daron snapped, but unable to meet his coworker’s gaze. Freddie rolled her eyes, luckily not taking it too personally.

“Fine. But I’m going to go find neosporin anyway, just in case. Okay?” Without really waiting for an answer, Freddie headed off down the hall, presumably in the direction of a first aid kit.

Sighing, Daron heaved himself up after her footsteps faded away and lumbered to the bathroom in the opposite direction. Fine, she made a fair point, so he’d check.

Locking the bathroom door behind him, Daron faced the mirror under unflattering fluorescent lights. Tightening his ab muscles on instinct, he slowly lifted his t-shirt up and above the point on his round gut that the plywood had nestled. He breathed out hard through his nose when he saw a fairly distinct pink line made on his olive skin. Touching the spot softly with his other hand, Daron felt his finger sink into the skin a little, which actually felt kind of nice. The surface pain wasn’t unmanageable. And the skin definitely, luckily, wasn’t broken. Not a job for neosporin after all, he hoped.

“Nah,” Daron told Freddie after he returned to their seats and she offered him the anti-inflammatory cream and a bandaid. “You saved me just in time. I’m good.”

“You sure?” She asked, a little skeptically, but unable to hide the corner of her mouth tilting up in a smile at his words.

“Yeah. Sorry for snapping earlier. I’m a little embarrassed,” Daron admitted. Being vulnerable was tough, but once someone’s seen you in that kind of position...well. Hard to keep up barriers after that. “I know you’re just trying to help.”

“Yeah,” Freddie replied softly, pulling back the first aid supplies into her lap. “Thanks.”

After the séance for Sonja was complete, Xander and Julie met them at the police station. The team assisted with inquiries as best they could until the wee hours of the morning, at which point Xander gave everyone the next two days off for some R&R before regrouping to go over findings.

Maintenance was arrested. The head of the department had been there for nearly 10 years, and seemed to have begun setting up cameras in the sorority house not long after. At least two other workers around nearly as long were reasonably suspected of being co-conspirators, and the rest were under heavy investigation. At first, the department head had merely watched the girls. But soon, he found he enjoyed reactions to things. Girls frightened by insects, whatever it may be. And that had led to the “noises” - shifting around inside the walls trying to rile up the sorority sisters enough to get decent shots for their collection.

Yeah, gross.

“I think you owe me a drink,” Daron told Freddie as the pieces were being put together late that same night. Black humor went well with sleep deprivation.

“How?” Freddie replied, wrinkling her nose at him.

“Well, it wasn’t ‘collective dementia’ or whatever. So I win the bet.”

“Um, no? You bet it was a poltergeist.”

“What?” Daron laughed. “You think I would actually bet on a POLTERGEIST? Have you met me? I was on team ‘anything but collective dementia’. So...think about where you wanna pony up.”

“Oh my god. That is such bullshit and you know it, dude. Your half of the bet can’t be ‘anything else’,” Freddie retorted, crossing her arms as she glared at him. Daron shrugged.

“Whatever. Don’t be a sore loser, Freddie.”

The green-haired girl groaned and threw her arms up in exasperation at Daron’s grin. The battle, at least, was won. And the friendly sniping distracted them, however momentarily, from the horror unfolding in the facts in front of them. By the time they all got to go home, “drained” wasn’t nearly a strong enough word.

Daron spent his first day off catching up on sleep and laundry, with low-commitment video games sprinkled in. After another night of sleep, he felt like a new man. He was preparing to hit up Freddie to ask about a virtual Divinity session when he decided he was actually feeling good enough for something in person.

Free today? Want to come over this afternoon and play some games? He texted. He got a response just a couple minutes later.

Yes! See you at like 2?

After confirming this, Daron dressed in comfortable black joggers, a fitted white undershirt, and a loose button-up grey sweater. He did a couple sweeps of his condo, making sure it was fit for other human eyes, snacking on a king-sized Snickers as he did. After confirming it was as good as it was gonna get for the day, Daron settled in with his PS4 in the living room to wait.

Approximately ten minutes after 2pm, Daron heard his doorbell followed by brisk knocks. He heaved himself to his feet, pausing Skyrim, and went to open the door. Freddie stood on his porch, green hair slightly damp and wavy, black skater dress layered with a grey cardigan over it. In one hand, she held a 6 pack of Summer Shandy, and in the other, a brown paper takeout bag. It read: 12 Honey Buffalo - 12 Lemon Dry Rub - 12 Hot Teriyaki

“Damn Thornberry, 36 wings?”

Freddie stared at him with a confused look on her face. “Oh, oh this is awkward. Did you think I was planning to share? These are all for me.”

Daron laughed and gestured her into the house. Freddie slipped past him with a grin.

“Yeah okay. Like you could ever eat more than 12 wings in one sitting,” Daron retorted, then paused. “Actually, I take that back. I’ve seen how you eat wings. Half the meat still on ‘em. It’s a travesty.”

“It’s gristle left on them,” Freddie replied, wrinkling her nose at Daron as she set the beer and food on his table. “Not good meat. I’m not an animal.”

Daron just shook his head and unpacked the three boxes from the bag. “I shouldn’t let you anywhere near these, but I’m just too good of a host.”

“Oh yeah,” Freddie snarked back, snatching the Honey Buffalo box as it touched the table. “That’s the first thing I tell people about you. Daron Elman- amazing host.”

“Yeah yeah,” Daron scoffed as he opened the Lemon Pepper box and reached for a shandy. “And don’t you forget it.”

Unsurprisingly, throughout the night, Freddie only got through 8 wings. And that was only leaving the scraps of meat that would make any true wing lover weep. Still, Daron ate the rest and barely felt full, so it all worked out.
 

Ghostboo

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Oct 23, 2019
Messages
101
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Chapter 21

On the next Monday, the team found itself back at the sorority house for a final sweep and debrief. Of course, the cops had fully cleared the place out, but they still have enough requests from the Delta Epsilon sisters that they decided to make the trip.

The cops didn’t catch these guys for TEN YEARS! Please just come to make sure? A text from Cece to Freddie had pleaded, echoing the sentiment from Rachel when she reached out to Xander to follow up. So the gang had made the trip, for everyone’s peace of mind.

“Can you show me where you found the camera?” Xander asked Daron, as the pair leaned against a wall in the den. Freddie and Cece were in an animated conversation across the room, and Julie was talking to Rachel over near the foyer.

“Sure,” Daron replied, his casual tone not matching the blush that crept up his neck as he stood up. “Keep your flashlight out.”

The pair made their way down to the crawl space, which was now being left unlocked. Daron flicked on the light and crawled in, trying simultaneously to get in as quickly as possible while still moving casually. He sucked his belly away from the door frame, and struggled up to a crouch once inside. Xander followed, and despite moving enviably easily for a man of his age, Daron was relieved that at least a few joints cracked as the team leader stood.

“Back here,” Daron told him, gesturing with his flashlight. The pair made their way into the interior of the space, and then to the left when the fork arrived. “In there,” Daron directed the light onto the piece of plywood. There had been another entrance into the walls of the house that *didn’t* involve the crawl space, so the cops hadn’t bothered to take down the rectangle of wood that still blocked the entrance once they were certain everything was cleared out.

“Damn,” Xander said, kneeling down to get a closer look. Daron stayed where he was, but kept his light trained on the plywood to help. Lifting up the broken corner, Xander peered inside. “Tight squeeze.”

“Yeah,” Daron mumbled. “Be careful.” Which was a nonsense statement - Xander would have no problem getting in and out of the narrow space, even if the plywood snapped against him. It would just...reverberate off his hard body. Still, Xander heeded him, and only peered his head into the gap with his flashlight in front of him.

“Really, nice catch here, Daron,” Xander said finally, extracting his head and looking back at his colleague.

“Thanks boss.” Daron shuffled his right foot in front of him at the dirt in the tarp, a bit abashed by the attention and memories of the last time he’d been here. He let Xander lead the way out of the crawl space and back to the common areas where their coworkers were offering reassurances to sorority sisters, and accepting accolades.

“Hey,” Daron said, sidling up to Freddie after a perky brunette skipped away from her. “Did you, uh, tell Xander what happened in the crawl space?”

“No,” Freddie said, her brows furrowing as she turned to Daron. “Why?”

“He just...said something when we were in there. About it being, y’know, a tight...squeeze.”

“Well, it is,” Freddie replied, her voice rising a little. “That’s not your fault.”

“Shhhh,” Daron pleaded in an undertone. “Okay. I believe you, sorry.”

Placated, Freddie turned to greet Julie, who was approaching the duo.

“About ready to go?” The nurse asked. “We have one stop to make on the way back to the office.” The foursome had all ridden together, since it had shaped up to just be a quick mission for the group.

“Yeah, I’m good,” Daron replied. Freddie nodded.

“Please,” she added. “I am burning out rapidly on...uh...people.”

Julie chuckled and waved them towards the foyer. Xander joined them (after shaking hands with every girl in the room, of course) and they made their way out to his truck.

“So where we going now?” Freddie asked, fiddling on her phone for music to play out of Xander’s bluetooth speakers. Xander and Julie exchanged a look.

“We had one last follow up request,” Julie replied calmly. “From Taylor and Allie. It shouldn’t take long.”

What?” Daron burst, trying to catch Julie’s eye. “Wait, seriously?”

“They requested the whole team,” Xander said, keeping his eye on the road.

“They requested you, you mean. Allie wouldn’t shut up about it. So can I stay in the car?”

“Oh, my God, are you twelve?” Freddie laughed. “I thought you’d be stoked to see that ‘rad’ girl again.” Julie raised her eyebrows at Daron again, in supposed agreement.

“She never called me back, and you guys know it,” Daron groused, slumping down in his seat. The position caused his round belly, clad in a red crewneck sweater, to pooch out a little further in front of him.

“It’ll be quick, we promise,” Julie told him.

“C’monnnn, let’s go rub it in her face a little. You returning as the conquering hero! She must’ve heard all about it from the sisters by now,” Freddie said, leaning over to nudge Daron in his soft side with her elbow. He brushed her off, rolling her eyes, but acknowledged silently that’d probably be better than awkwardly staying in the car.

As they pulled up to Taylor’s pristine home, with the sunset perfectly framing the awnings, Daron couldn’t help but sigh and pluck at his sweater. He felt Freddie’s eyes on him, but ignored it as he got out of the back of the truck. The rest of the group followed, with Xander leading the way to the front door before knocking briskly.

Allie answered again.

“Ohmygoddddddd,” she breathed, gazing up at Xander. “You’re actually here!” It took her a second, but she recovered and took in the sight of the rest of the group behind him. “Come in, you guys, come in!”

This time, there was no waiting for the owner of the house - Taylor stood behind Allie, hovering in the entrance to the dining room. Allie gestured for everyone to follow her into the living room to the right, gabbing away about all the excitement of the case as she did. Xander was listening with all the attentiveness that had garnered him such a following, with Freddie and Julie and Daron trailing behind. But as Daron went to the right, he felt a hand catch ahold of his elbow.

“Hi,” breathed Taylor, looking at him with wide brown eyes as he turned. “Can we talk?”
 

Ghostboo

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Messages
101
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“Yyyyeah,” Daron replied slowly, taking in the anxious gaze of the girl in front of him. She had on a snug pair of mid-rise jeans and a cropped burgundy cardigan over a white t-shirt. She looked absolutely, unfairly beautiful.

“Okay,” Taylor looked relieved. “Let’s go in the backyard for a sec.” The only part of the house Daron hadn’t seen in the previous tour. He followed her silently as she led the way through the dining room and to a narrow back door. She stepped outside, down a couple cement steps, and turned to face Daron. Daron, making it a point not to nervously tug at his sweater, instead sucked in his round stomach and met Taylor’s gaze. The brunette woman looked away first, nibbling on the side of her left middle finger. An uncomfortable silence settled over them.

“Pretty sure it’s not my turn to talk,” Daron said dryly, a slight emphasis on the word “my”. Taylor nodded.

“You’re right, sorry. I’m just trying to figure out how to explain myself.”

“Just be honest,” Daron replied. “Or...don’t be. Honestly, if you don’t want to go out with me, it’s fine. I’ll live. Don’t need a dissertation on it.”

“No, I do though!” Taylor lifted her gaze from the grass under her sandaled feet to Daron again. “I want to go out with you. I was just...being an idiot.”

“Oh...kay…?” Daron replied, looking at her curiously. Taylor sighed.

“I haven’t dated much outside my bubble, Daron. All my exes are frat brothers. I’m used to a relationship being all Greek life and going to the gym together. But you’re different.”

Daron felt his stomach drop as Taylor continued.

“It made me nervous - even though we had this great connection. So I ghosted. But I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you. You’re fun, and smart, and- I’m really, really sorry, and hope you’ll give me a chance.”

Different kept ringing in Daron’s ears as he dropped his gaze from Taylor’s dark eyes to his belly in front of him. Even sucked in, it was no small feature. He could only imagine the conversation in the household after they’d left the last time. Allie twittering about the possibility of meeting Xander, and Taylor admitting she’d given Daron her number during a rare lull in her roommate’s monologue.

”Wait, the fat guy?” Allie would’ve replied, her nose wrinkling a little in disgust. ”You sure, Tay?” And here, Taylor would have reminisced about all the six packs her boyfriends in the past had had, and she’d have considered the point well taken.

“So…” Daron started, then rubbed his eyes with his right thumb and forefinger. “I know not every frat guy is ripped, but I’m guessing your type typically is, right?”

Taylor was quiet, shuffing her feet at the grass. Daron sighed, and half-turned like he was debating just going back inside.

“Okay, okay,” Taylor admitted hurriedly. “I’m a shallow asshole. I know. Fitness IS a big part of my life, I won’t lie.”

Daron sucked on his teeth, looking away over her head. Taylor went on, her tone increasingly frantic.

“But it’s okay that it’s not part of yours right now! Really! We can show each other new stuff, and maybe...well, either way, I really want to give this a try. What do you think?”

“You want to give it a try,” Daron clarified slowly, looking back at Taylor, and continuing with a wring of sarcasm. “Even though I’m clearly just some...fat loner?”

Taylor groaned. “I was hoping I wouldn’t come off so horribly if I did this in person, but obviously, I’m failing. Look, it’s not a dealbreaker. You’re still obviously still a handsome guy, and I’m sure there’s plenty about me that isn’t ideal. So…will you think about it? Please?”

Daron stifled a scoff, looking at the girl in front of him incredulously. She seemed sincere, but Daron couldn’t shake the thought that they both knew she’d be settling.

“Yes,” he said finally. “I’ll sleep on it. And, either way? I will call you to let you know.” Taylor took his pointed words in stride.

“Fair. Thanks, Daron.”

“Sure, Taylor.” Daron cast a final eye over the tall girl before turning back to the door and opening it. In the entryway to the back door, he saw Freddie scramble away, trying to find her footing after clearly leaning into the door.
 

Ghostboo

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Oct 23, 2019
Messages
101
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United States
Pausing to press his eyes into his fingers again, Daron blinked his dark eyes open and saw Freddie was still there, now outside the entryway, looking at him with a concerned and guilty expression. Striding past her into the living room, Daron hissed out of the corner of his mouth, low enough so only Freddie would hear him:

“What the fuck, Fred? How much did you hear?”

“A…lot. I’m sorry,” his coworker replied, matching his low volume. She scrambled to keep up as he approached the front door. “But...Daron, you’re not...I mean, you won’t call her, right? You know there are other girls out there who will actually... prefer you as is, don’t you?”

Daron turned to glare at her and make sure Taylor wasn’t in earshot. But he didn’t see their host, meaning she must have taken the other direction to join Allie, Xander, and Julie in the living room. He felt an embarrassed flush gathering on his face, hating that he couldn’t control it.

“What I choose to do or not do with Taylor is none of your business. You know that conversation was private.”

Freddie nodded, avoiding Daron’s eyes.

“I was just worried,” she said, trailing off before the unspoken clearly, for good reason. Daron rubbed his forehead and the front of his wavy black hair, sighing deeply.

“Sometimes I forget how young you are,” he said, looking behind him towards the front door. When he turned back to Freddie, he saw his coworker’s eyes were shiny with shocked hurt. She looked away, quickly. Not allowing it to divert from the issue, Daron said firmly, “let’s go.”

After collecting their coworkers and saying their goodbyes, the four made their way back to the truck. Freddie was uncharacteristically quiet, while the others chatted about the conclusion of the case. After finishing up some paperwork back at HQ, the team all went their separate ways. Freddie offered another apology to Daron before they did, and he nodded in response, not quite ready to let her off the hook but not still holding on to anger over it.

Daron’s mind was all but made up, but he convinced himself not to call Taylor early. He had said he’d sleep on it, and he would. But since speaking to Taylor outside, the ghost of being squeezed in the crawl space kept flaring up around his middle. The uncomfortable press of a button on a too-tight pair of pants digging into his underbelly. The poke on his bare flesh when his snug t-shirt would rise up after reaching for something on a top shelf.

He was tired of it. And he’d always said he’d try a more diligent diet and exercise at some point, right? Why not now, for a beautiful girl? This seemed like as good of a sign as any.

So that night, Daron indulged himself in a proverbial Last Supper. He ordered full meals from three different restaurants, including desserts. He took his time, but thoroughly stuffed himself so full he could hardly move. The thought of getting up off the couch seemed impossible as he licked the last bit of frosting off his lips. This was no small feat - with Daron’s eating habits, his food intake capacity sometimes seemed endless. But he managed to hit that wall tonight, the pleasure of good food actually bordering on too much.

But this is the last time, he told himself, half-dozing off in the couch that had all but swallowed him up. So it’s okay.

The next day, Daron forced himself to wait until after work before he called Taylor. The phone rang three times, and he felt his stomach drop further with each ring. She wouldn’t actually ghost again, would she? But as heat rose in his cheeks, an out-of-breath Taylor picked up the phone on what had to have been the last ring.

“Hello?”

“Taylor, it’s Daron.”

“Daron! Hi. I’m so glad you called,” she said, then added after a hesitation, “again.” Daron snorted out a laugh at this.

“I was calling to see what your week looked like,” Daron said. “Are you free for a drink tomorrow?”

“Oh!” Taylor gasped in what sounded, at least through the phone, as delight. “I’d love to! Um…yes, tomorrow works great, anytime after 7.”

“How’s Finnegan’s at 7:30?” Daron asked, naming a casual yet pleasant Irish pub approximately halfway between their homes.

“That sounds great, Daron,” Taylor replied. After a beat, she added shyly, “I’m really glad you decided to…let me make it up to you.”

“Yeah,” Daron said, his casual tone hiding a heart pounding in his throat. “Why not?”
 
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Ghostboo

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Joined
Oct 23, 2019
Messages
101
Location
United States
Chapter 22

Despite his newfound commitment to striving towards a leaner build, Daron finally gave in and made a trip to the Big & Tall store for an updated outfit. He wasn’t foolish enough to believe the weight would immediately melt off, and he wanted to look good for his date. Taylor had already basically seen all his well-fitting, attractive clothing, which just tells you how few were left in his size.

With the understandable hatred of a large man forced to clothing shop, Daron got in & out as quick as he could. The sizing up was disheartening, but he tried to put it out of his mind with a firm the diet IS STARTING today reassurance. His haul included a new button-up grey shirt, a cable knit navy sweater, and a plain white undershirt for tops in XXL; and a taupe pair of corduroy slacks and olive green pants, both in his newfound 42” waist size.

Work the next day was mainly wrapping up, continuing to dot the i’s and cross the t’s on the last couple cases. Which was nice, as Daron was able to zone out and mentally prepare for his date that evening as he dealt with paperwork. He did tune in to respond to Freddie, who was eagerly chatting about some internet drama over a video game, obviously trying hard to make Daron laugh after their scuffle the day before. He indulged her, as Freddie WAS a good storyteller, and he wasn’t interested in guilting her more. Hopefully a night of rest on HER end had also brought her to the inevitable conclusion that it’d be foolish for Daron to prioritize keeping his belly over a beautiful girl. At least, he was choosing to take her positive attention as such.

After work, Daron was home like a shot. He changed out of his snug band tee and jeans, showered and washed his hair, cleaned up his dark stubble, and brushed his teeth. He even utilized some often ignored curl cream, to try and tease a couple dark ringlets out of his hair’s waves. It worked, though didn’t exactly do much to disguise his belly, as much as Daron would have liked it to.

After a begrudging smack that reverberated all over his waist, Daron changed into the more casual new outfit he’d picked up the day before. The olive pants, new white undershirt, and navy sweater were a flattering combo, blending his broad shoulders into a narrowing at his hips while skimming over his love handles without drawing attention to them. Daron unbuttoned the top couple accent buttons on the sweater as he traced his dark eyes up and down his form in the mirror. He nodded at the solid, strong-looking shape in front of him, pleased. He turned to the side to survey the damage there, and his smile faded. His belly was much more on display from that angle, puffing out the front of the dark sweater enough to showcase an obvious overhang. Tightening his ab muscles best he could, Daron tugged his sweater away from his middle and cocked his head to the side as he studied the slight reduction.

It’ll have to do, he thought. Shouldn’t be too hard to only face her head on, after all. Like…an apex predator.

Chuckling to himself, Daron headed for the kitchen. Nerves had him able to ignore his hunger better than usual, but he still wanted to be more or less satiated before his date, to avoid making a pig of himself in front of Taylor. First was a granola bar, to help him think more clearly. Then, realizing he’d need to go to the store for actual health food sooner rather than later, Daron scrambled the last of his eggs with some toast. ( Daron was unabashed in his love for brinner.)

With nutrients out of the way, Daron grabbed his keys and made for Finnegan’s. He’d be early, but he would rather be seated, with a roomy spot already chosen, when Taylor got there.

Once at the bar, Daron was torn between the privacy of a booth and the ample space afforded at a high-top table. Testing out a narrow stool had Daron feeling overly wobbly, and as luck would have it, the wooden booths had clearly been designed with the solidly built in mind. Despite the table being bolted, Daron was able to slide in to the side facing the door. There wasn’t too much room to spare, but as he wasn’t planning to partake in his usual bar food feast, he figured it should be fine.

Taylor arrived a few minutes after 7:30, looking as stunning as usual. Her glossy dark hair was in the same high ponytail, with black hip-hugger pants and an off-shoulder floral print silky top. As Daron caught her eye with a short wave of his hand, he saw her nervously stroke at her ponytail (her equivalent to tugging clothing away from his tummy, he was starting to realize) as she approached. Her makeup was more dramatic than he had seen it before, with sharp winged eyeliner and dark colors blending into her impeccable brows.

“You look stunning,” Daron told her honestly as he stood for the requisite half-hug of first dates. It kept his round middle from meeting her toned one, so he took it. “As usual.”

“Aw, thank you,” Taylor said as she sat across from him. “You look nice too.”

Daron had ordered himself a Black Maria, a Guinness with coffee liqueur. He was just wondering if it was too heavy of a drink to have gone with on their first outing, but Taylor surprised him by ordering a Black Velvet when the waiter came back by.

“Sorority girl,” Taylor offered as an explanation when Daron mentioned it. “Mixing beer with champagne is how I got through more than one frat party.”

“Sounds…like a bit of a headache,” Daron replied.

“Oh, it was. But every time was just a lesson in how to pace myself. I’m a pro now.”

Conversation flowed as easily as Daron remembered from their first meeting. After his second drink, he waved off the waiter’s inquiry about a third, explaining he would need to drive.

“What if we stay a bit longer and split some nachos, though?” Taylor had asked, surprising him. Daron agreed, though “splitting” in Taylor’s vernacular did turn out to be her picking at cheese and Daron eating the lion’s share. She assured him she was sure, however, as the last bites disappeared down his gullet.

Daron found with a pleasant shock that they did not wrap up their evening until nearly 11pm. He felt full of good beer and good company, practically glowing as they exited Finnegan’s. Taylor stumbled a bit as she followed Daron, tripped up by the subtle steps up to Finnegan’s front door.

“Hey,” Daron laughed. “Can I give ya a ride home?”

“Oh, I was just going to call a Lyft…it’s really okay.”

“I won’t force it, but it’s no trouble. Happy to hang out until your Lyft gets here, either way.”

“Well…if you’re sure, then yes, I’d love a ride.”

Outside of Taylor’s home, Daron was rewarded with her lips pressed against his for a warm, wonderful second before she opened her door.

“Thank you again,” Taylor said as she hopped out, slightly breathless. “For everything.”

“Oh, of course,” Daron said, practically dizzy with excitement. It had been a long time since he’d felt this way. “Would you like me to walk you up?”

“No, no, I got it,” Taylor said. “See you soon?”

Daron nodded as she shut the car door and half-skipped up to her front door. He watched in awe as she entered it, winked at him, then shut the door.

The next day at work, his positive energy was infectious. At one point, he made Freddie laugh so hard she rolled off the couch. During a break in their busywork, Daron shot Taylor a text.

Hey, is it uncool to ask you to dinner so soon after our first date?

No :) not after a date like that

Saturday night?

Sounds perfect.
 

Ghostboo

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Chapter 23

That night, Daron made a reservation at one of the fancier places in town for Saturday. Not just because he wanted to treat Taylor, but because he knew fine dining tended to have much smaller portions. (It was why he usually avoided it.)

The next day was Friday, and finally, the weekend. Daron was so energized he actually lifted the weights that had been collecting dust in his lower level! Not for more than a few minutes total, but still. Baby steps.

After a couple hours of Divinity with Freddie on Saturday afternoon, Daron signed off and got ready. This was the night for his nicer new outfit, the corduroy pants and grey button-up. Daron cycled through tucked vs. untucked a few times, before he finally decided he could get away with the more flattering untucked as long as he wore a suit jacket over it. The suit jacket would absolutely not button, but it still looked decent enough over his other layers as long as he sucked it in, Daron thought.

For this date, Daron had arranged to pick Taylor up. As she approached his car a few minutes before 8pm, Daron had to fight to keep his jaw from dropping. Her little black dress left very little to the imagination, and yet, she still managed to look classy in it. Probably due to her conventionally attractive figure, Daron had to admit. But he wasn’t about to complain.

At the restaurant, Daron stared longingly at the creamy seafood pasta dish, but went with a steak and side of rice under Taylor’s watchful eye. Taylor got through two glasses of white wine before their foie gras appetizer arrived, but as the chardonnay disappeared, she spent less time anxiously stroking her ponytail. Daron understood how nerves could be, so he left it alone, concentrating on doing his best to pace himself on the food.

When Taylor’s third glass of wine arrived, Daron reached across the table and took her hand. She cocked her head at him, surprised but pleased, as far as he could tell.

“I want to thank you, Taylor,” he said, his voice a little quieter so the surrounding tables didn’t pick up on his words. “For coming on this date with me, but also for your candor. My body...it had kind of gotten away from me. I needed a kick in the ass to work harder to get back to where I was before, and this has been the perfect opportunity.”

“Where were you before?” Taylor asked curiously, taking a little sip of wine while not taking her eyes off of Daron’s.

“Well...to be honest, still a big guy. I’ve never been lean. But I definitely used to be a little stronger, with a little less belly,” he admitted, giving a small self-deprecating pat on the side of his middle with his free hand. “You’re never gonna have an Adonis with me, but...I can cool it on the snacks and see where we end up.”

Taylor stayed silent for a few moments as she traced her eyes over Daron. He straightened up a little in his seat as she did, sucking it in. Taylor smiled at him as she returned her gaze to his.

“However I can help, just let me know,” she said, squeezing his hand.

“I will,” Daron said, his face turning a little red under her stare.

“But Adonis or not, I am enjoying this.”

“Me too, Taylor.”

Daron felt so much better after getting that off his chest that he didn’t even hesitate when Taylor asked if he’d like the rest of her shrimp dish. He handily finished off his entree and her own, still not feeling close to full, but enjoying the flavors anyhow. Taylor declined on dessert, of course, but Daron was comfortable in the knowledge that he had chocolate peanut butter ice cream at home. One sweet treat a day was hardly bad, right? I mean, he was only human.

At drop off, Taylor’s quick kiss from the previous date morphed into quite the steamy makeout session. Daron was enjoying it, but he didn’t push it any further, since Taylor had gotten through a solid 4 glasses of wine and while she was still quite composed, there was enough blurring in her movements that he wouldn’t have felt right about it.

“So...movie night Monday?” Daron offered when they came up for air, both greedily gulping in air. During their date, Daron had been surprised to hear of several classic flicks Taylor hadn’t seen, while Taylor had teased him for his own lack of pop culture knowledge along the romance line.

“Sure,” Taylor said, smoothing her ponytail back and grinning at Daron. “I’ll come over around 6:30? Unless you’re getting sick of me already.”

“Definitely not,” Daron said, though briefly surprised she was inviting herself over. Her living room had the enormous couch and flat screen, after all. But she did have a roommate. So it was fair she’d want them to have their space early on.

“I’ll see you then.”
 

Ghostboo

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Chapter 24

On Monday morning, Daron was woken up earlier than his alarm by his phone ringing. He left it on silent at night, but he did have it set where if someone called multiple times in so many minutes, that it would come through. He saw “Julie” displayed on the screen as he blinked the sleep out of his eyes, and as he swung his legs out of the bed in order to sit up, Daron pressed the “Accept” button.

“Julie?”

“Daron, I’m sorry to wake you, but we have a problem,” Julie said. Her voice was still professional, but knowing her, Daron could pick up on the clipped stressed-out tone underlying it. “Xander’s been picked up by the police. Do you remember Sophie Anne?”

It took Daron a second, but he did. Sophie Anne was a housewife whose husband had recently left her for his secretary, clichés be damned, who had called in the team to investigate the voices she was certain she was hearing in the house. The desperate dishwater blonde had clearly been under tremendous stress, and Julie had tried to gently recommend therapy, but Sophie Anne had doubled down on supernatural causes for much longer than Daron had patience for. They’d wrapped up the case months ago, and Daron had mostly put it out of his mind. It wasn’t an uncommon scenario in their line of work.

“Yeah, former Mrs. Coleman off Geranium Circle, right?”

“Correct. She’s accusing Xander of emotional distress, or…” Julie’s voice broke in frustration. “Some similar nonsense. I’m at the station now for booking, but after this we’re heading to Foreaker & Sons. Because she’s willing to ‘mediate’.”

“Of course,” Xander said, smelling a money grab from a mile away. It wasn’t the first time they’d run into it.

“I need you to get Freddie if possible and meet us there ASAP. I haven’t been able to get ahold of her yet, can you try on your way?”

“Yeah, I got it. I should be there within the hour. That OK?”

“Yes, that shouldn’t be too long after us. Thanks Daron,” Julie said before hanging up.

Rubbing his hands over his eyes and face, Xander leaned as far forward as his bare belly would allow with a sigh. At least he’d have a lot to talk about on his date, he figured. Blinking the last of the sleep out of his eyes, Daron headed to the bathroom for a quick shower.

Freddie, I’m coming over. Duty calls. Daron shot his coworker a text as he got dressed. His call to her after his shower had gone to voicemail, and he figured if she didn’t answer after he showed up on her doorstep, he’d just go straight to Foreaker & Sons and Freddie could meet up whenever she actually checked her phone.

Once in the car, so too late, Daron realized he should maybe have dressed a little more professionally for heading to speak to lawyers & mediators on behalf of his boss. He’d grabbed a snug band tee and stretched-out pair of jeans, then tossed an old short sleeved button-up over it. (Open, obviously. The watermelon-patterned top had long ago stopped being able to button over his widest tummy area. But it’d been a gift from a friend visiting China, so the XXL on the tag didn’t exactly reflect American sizes, he’d always been able to convince himself.) Unfortunately, Daron’s newest nicer outfits were all in the wash from his dates.

It’ll have to do, he found himself thinking yet again as he pulled up to Freddie’s apartment. Parallel parking outside the decent (if in need of a paint job) building, Daron headed up the stairs to Freddie’s front door. Before he even got close enough to knock, though, he heard (and felt) an absolutely throbbing bass beat.

Resisting the urge to recoil from the nightclub-esque noise, Daron rang the bell and knocked hard on the front door. Afterwards, he peered in the tall & narrow window next to the front door. Which had a direct sightline to Freddie’s living room, where he saw the girl determinedly flying through pedal strokes on a stationary bike, Nicki Minaj rap lyrics becoming more clear now that he was closer to the door. First impressions had Daron noticing that her hair tips were now a light purple, and also feeling certain his coworker was naked, which caused him to immediately pull away from the window, startled.

Moments later, Nicki was silenced, as clearly the noises had gotten through to Freddie. Faster than he expected, the door in front of Daron opened, and an extremely sweaty Freddie looked back at him with an expression of surprise that likely mirrored his own. Thank goodness, she wasn’t naked. But her form-fitting workout set was peach-colored, close enough to a skin tone to confuse the eye from afar. Daron found himself blinking down at his coworker, and had to make himself look further down to her feet, instead. Freddie normally stuck to full coverage vintage looks at work, but this outfit set hugged every soft curve. The top was a twist-tied bra clearly designed for incredible lifted cleavage, and the bottoms, while full leggings, still showed off her little belly and its button through the material as well as every curve of her legs. Her work skirts didn’t often tell the whole story, but Freddie, while clearly not one to turn down good food, was strong as well as shapely.

“Daron!” Freddie exclaimed, taking a slight step back and sucking in her middle in a move Daron knew well. “Holy shit, hi, uh…”

“Hey Fred,” Daron said, lifting his eyes to hers. He refused to let them drift, despite how high her cleavage became in that absolutely mind boggling sports bra design. “Sorry to interrupt, but...there’s trouble. We gotta go. Xander’s been arrested.”

“Oh no,” Freddie said. “Okay. Come in. I’ll just...shower and change and we can go.”

Daron nodded, and followed the red-faced girl into her apartment.

“Sorry for the mess, help yourself to anything, and uh...whatever else people say in polite society. Just one sec,” Freddie said hurriedly before dashing down her stairs on the other side of the front door.

Taking a couple deep breaths, Daron sat on the nearest couch. He stared up at the ceiling, his brain simultaneously empty in that way mornings often contributed to and whirring at a million miles an hour. He wasn’t keeping track of time, but it had to be within 20 minutes at most that Freddie jogged back up the stairs, her purple hair damp from the shower. Her revealing workout set had been replaced by a knee-length dress a similar shade to her hair, fitted at the waist and flared out from there, over which she had a black cardigan buttoned.

“OK, ready,” she said, still slightly red-faced and out of breath. Daron nodded and heaved himself off the couch, leading the way to the car.

Once they were on their way to Foreaker & Sons, Daron filled Freddie in on the little he knew of what had happened with Sophie Anne.

“Fucking harpies,” she muttered.

“No kidding,” Daron agreed, before they settled into an uneasy silence. Fortunately or unfortunately, Daron was never sure, Freddie was not one to allow an awkward situation to fester.

“I’m sorry for answering the door like that,” she said. “My workout clothes...aren’t exactly something I let people see me in, generally. They’re obviously made for a different body type than mine, y’know? I’m kind of embarrassed.”

“Oh,” Daron replied, remembering when he had been on the other end of admitting to a vulnerable state. “No, don’t be. I’M sorry for interrupting your workout.” Freddie nodded, looking down at her hands in her lap. Recognizing the waves of insecurity coming off his coworker and friend, Daron added, “Besides, you know you look great. You don’t need to be a size 0 to dress however’s comfortable to move, fuck that." After a pause, he took a gamble and joked, "I’m honestly surprised you don’t dress that way for work.”

“Oh yeah,” Freddie said, looking up in relief and laughing. “You think I should?”

“Well, it’d be helpful to distract our cases while I raid their computers, for sure."

“I’ve always wanted to be bait!”

“Add it to your resume, stat,” Daron replied as he eased the car into a guest parking space at the office where they were to meet their coworkers.

“Thanks Daron,” Freddie said, offering him a half-smile before hopping out of the passenger seat.

“Yeah,” Daron said, taking more time to extricate his bulky body from the driver’s side. God, I hope they have food, he found himself thinking as he stared up at the gleaming skyscraper in front of them. The granola bar he’d had before leaving to get Freddie felt like eons ago, and his ample stomach was already speaking up.
 
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Ghostboo

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It took quite a few stressful minutes to find their way to where in the shiny chrome building they needed to go, but soon Freddie and Daron were seated in a clinically clean waiting room on a red leather sofa.

“We’ll let you know when we’re ready for you,” an impeccably dressed lawyer had said, taking in Daron’s casual attire with a subtle but still clear disdain.

And then in what had to be a tactic, hours had passed since then. Daron and Freddie were able to snag coffee, but no food so far, and Daron was feeling it.

Julie stopped by in between phone calls to fill in her colleagues. Unfortunately, it wasn’t much more than she had told Daron that morning. She hadn’t been in to be interviewed yet either. Their older coworker had on a flattering power suit, mirroring the style of the lawyers and their assistants striding through the halls. Daron felt more silly and underdressed by the second.

“She’s trying to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that our investigation...that she asked for...has caused her emotional distress,” Julie told them with a sigh.

“So it’s just a money grab,” Daron said.

“And it might work. These guys are sharks. If they don’t like where the mediation ends up, they’ve threatened going to trial. God…” Julie rubbed forehead wearily. Freddie opened her mouth to chime in, but Julie’s phone rang and interrupted her.

“Sorry, I need to take this. This is Julie…” their coworker said as she strode away down the hall. Watching her go with a furrowed brow, Freddie sighed and leaned back into the couch. Daron subtly clacked his teeth together, imitating a mini-version of if he was eating.

Maybe I can sneak out just long enough for a quick McDonald’s run…

Come on, no. You gotta be here for Xander, and you don’t need that crap. Wait until you can get something healthy,
Daron retorted to his own thoughts. His stomach growled in response, and he stifled a groan. He started to lean back with Freddie, but his phone buzzed, drawing his attention.

I’m excited for tonight :) what movie should we start with?

Top Gun? Or if you want to go first we can do Love Actually,
Daron replied to Taylor, relieved for the distraction.

Tbh, I think both of those are too high priority for tonight ;) maybe something we don’t need to pay THAT much attention to? Thoughts?


Daron felt an excited flush rise on his cheeks, and he couldn’t stifle the grin that rose involuntarily as he looked down at the message.

“What?” He heard Freddie ask from beside him, looking at her coworker with an interested half-smile. Remembering their earlier conversation after Freddie’s intrusion on his talk with Taylor, Daron cleared his throat, his grin fading. Freddie’s smile faded along with his. “Daron?”

“Ah, just…” Daron looked down at his phone, then back up at Freddie, then back down, undecided on how much to divulge. Before he could decide, though, his phone pinged again.

Sorry, was that too forward? I’m happy to watch Top Gun as long as we get to hang out! Whatever you’re up for.

“One sec,” Daron told Freddie before turning his attention fully to reassuring Taylor.

Absolutely not. It is a point very well taken. I’ll brainstorm some good background flicks.

After pressing “send”, Daron looked back up to see Freddie staring at him with wide, concerned green eyes. She was very still aside from tapping her left ankle rapidly against the ground in her kitten-heeled black boots.

“That’s not…?” Freddie trailed off, unwilling or unable to clarify.

“It’s Taylor,” Daron said, figuring there was no reason to beat around the bush. He’d already made it clear it was his decision, after all. She should be prepared. “We’ve been out a few times, and it’s going really well.”

“Oh, Daron,” Freddie replied, not bothering to disguise any of the dismay in her voice. “After ghosting you for a month because of your size? Why?”

Daron could feel himself bristling, and tried to keep as much of an edge out of his voice as he could. “Look, she clearly changed her mind. The ‘why’ is I like her, so why not?”

“Did she?” Freddie asked. “Or did she just decide to take on a project ‘cause she’s 30 and still single? Has she actually, enthusiastically endorsed your body as is? Or has she just done shit like not-subtly ask how she can ‘help’ change it?”

Being transported to that exact phrase from their date on Saturday by the question, Daron’s face flushed red again. Recalling the situation at Sisemite, he couldn’t help retorting,

“So, just to be clear, is dating a girl who took some time to decide whether she was okay with a fat guy when most aren’t actually somehow WORSE than sleeping with a married ex, or…?”

Freddie stared at him in shock. Daron’s hunger and frustration and guilt roiled in his gut, and as a wave of nausea hit him, Freddie jumped to her feet and ran down the hall towards the stairs.

“Shhhhhit,” Daron groaned before heaving himself to his feet. “Freddie!”

But she had already vanished into the stairwell. After a brief hesitation, Daron pressed the “down” button on the elevator. He knew he’d never catch her on the stairs, and assumed she’d want to get out of the building for some air. The elevator arrived moments later, luckily, and Daron rode it to the ground floor before hurrying out the front doors. About halfway between the door and the parking lot, Freddie leaned against some tall plants potted in raised concrete, facing away from the building.

“Freddie!” Daron called again as he walked over. The purple-haired girl whipped around to look at him, and for a moment Daron feared she might just take off running across the parking lot, but luckily, she stayed put. The look on her face very nearly blew him back, though. “Hey, look, I’m really sorry.”

“They’re not the same thing, Daron,” said Freddie, keeping her glare on him until two teardrops fell from her eyes and she quickly looked away. “I was in love with Victoria for years. She’s a huge part of my life. And I’m not proud of…I don’t…”

Daron put his hands on each of Freddie’s arms, feeling the soft cardigan under his fingers as he squeezed his friend very gently (and he hoped, sufficiently apologetically).

“But you don’t even know this girl! You just think she’s hot,” Freddie concluded fiercely. Daron decided now was not the time to argue the point.

“I went way too far, Fred, I know. I’m hungry, and…I got defensive.”

Freddie looked back up at him, but didn’t say anything. Daron moved his hands a couple inches up and down her arms, in what would ideally be a comforting gesture as he continued.

“But you gotta understand this is my decision. Yeah? Maybe my mistake, but look, being fat isn’t exactly integral to my identity. Passing up on an opportunity just so I could keep stuffing my face would be stupid.”

Freddie still didn’t say anything, but she didn’t try to disguise the enormous eye roll she directed up at the sky above them.

“I know you’re just worried ‘cause you care. That means a lot. But our friendship is gonna be... tougher to maintain if you keep bringing this up,” Daron added calmly. “I want to be able to be honest with you, not hide what’s going on in my life. Okay?”

“Okay,” Freddie said finally, with just a hint of a whine at the end of the word. Biting her lip, Freddie added quietly, more sincerely: “do you think I’m a bad person? Because…of Victoria?”

“No, Thornberry. I don’t,” Daron replied, dropping his arms back to his side. “Not to sound morally relativistic, but all I care about is worrying you might get hurt.”

“Ah,” Freddie said, the ghost of a smile finally playing across her features. “Okay, so we have that in common.”

“But we gotta let each other fuck up, right? And we’ll still be around to say ‘I told you so’ at work,” Daron teased gently. It worked, and Freddie’s smile spread just a little.

“I saw a vending machine near the stairs,” she said as she moved past him towards the front doors.

“What?”

“You said you were hungry, Daron, hence the shittiness. I saw a vending machine. Let’s go load up.”

“Oh. ‘Kay. Lead on.”
 
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Ghostboo

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Daron was pleased to discover some fresh food in the vending machine - perks of being a multimillion dollar corporation, he supposed - so he purchased an apple, a sandwich, and some chips. Freddie got a king-sized Snickers and some gummy worms, both from the slightly more decrepit machine further in the corner by the stairwell.

“We should probably make sure they don’t need us,” Daron said after they collected their bounty. As he moved towards the elevator, Freddie stayed put.

“I’ll meet you up there. I hate elevators. And I didn’t get to finish my workout, so might as well,” she said, gesturing at the stairs. Daron nodded, then pressed the “up” button as she disappeared into the stairwell.

Nothing drastic seemed to have happened while they were gone, so the pair settled in to eat on the couch. Daron got through his meal handily, before Freddie offered him half of her Snickers.

“You’re not you when you’re hungry,” she jokingly replied when he asked why. Taking the point, Daron ate the candy bar in two bites with only a brief hesitation. It DID feel weird to be at work without his usual snacks, even if the day had so far been pretty unprecedented.

As they finished up their food, Julie arrived and sat in the black chair across from the duo with a sigh.

“They just took my statement,” Julie told them. “You two will be next.”

“What is she saying happened, exactly?” Freddie asked, leaning forward on the sofa.

“That the emotional distress from being ‘led to believe’ it could be a supernatural issue has kept Sophie Anne from being able to get the help she needs,” Julie said. “That she’s been unable to keep a job, find a balance of meds that works, maintain relationships, and…so on. She’s been diagnosed with psychosis since we saw her, unsurprisingly. And she’d rather blame all the difficulty of that on us.”


“It’s bullshit, and we know it,” Freddie said. “Xander was just being nice by investigating so thoroughly. What a waste of time.”

“Julie, we have a few follow up questions for you,” called the lawyer who had spoken to Daron and Freddie earlier from down the hall. With another sigh, Julie straightened her suit jacket and stood.

“See you soon,” she told them as she moved back towards the conference room. Freddie buried her face in her hands as Daron leaned back further into the sofa.

“Some people,” was all he could think to say. Freddie nodded, but didn’t reply as she whipped out her phone and began to scroll. Daron took the opportunity to text back Taylor, letting her know work was going intensely, but he’d let her know when it was winding down. She expressed concern and well-wishes, and Daron put his phone back into his pocket and closed his eyes.

“We’re ready for you,” said a new chicly dressed lawyer with a straight cut blonde bob that seemed to materialize in front of the pair. Daron felt Freddie twitch in surprise.

“Okay,” Daron replied. Freddie had hopped up and offered Daron a hand before he could think twice. He accepted the help, trying not to put too much of his weight into the girl’s arm as he grunted upright. The lawyer’s nose wrinkled almost imperceptibly.

Inside the conference room, Julie and Xander were seated across from a slightly hunched Sophie Anne and one of her lawyers. The mediator, a woman in her mid-50s with skin a few shades darker than Daron’s olive tone, sat in between. Daron squeezed himself into the chair next to Julie, feeling the arms press uncomfortably into his love handles. Freddie sat on his other side, not bothering to hide her glare at the miserable woman opposite them. The lawyer who had called them in sat on Sophie Anne’s left side.

“Thank you for your patience,” said Sophie Anne’s lawyer to her right, in a tone that suggested she wasn’t actually sorry at all. “We have just a few questions for both of you about the facts of the case involving Sophie Anne Reardon from July of this year, and the subsequent emotional trauma she has dealt with since then. Daron Elman?”

Daron raised his eyebrows at her.

“Please confirm your name for the record,” the mediator spoke up kindly.

“Yes,” Daron said, resisting an eye roll.

“Winnifred Parker?”

Daron’s coworker stiffened next to him.

“Technically,” she said from between clenched teeth.

“Mmm. Daron, we will start with you.”

After confirming that he knew he was under oath to tell the truth, Daron straightened up in his too-tight seat. He knew to keep his answers short, and to the point. No elaborating.

“Do you know the woman sitting next to me, Daron?”

“Yes.”

“Who is she?”

“Sophie Anne Coleman. Or, back to Reardon, now.”

“And how do you know her?”

“We investigated a potential haunting at her residence in July.”

“Did you believe it was a haunting?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I never do. I’m a skeptic.”

“Mmm. Do you remember the events on the evening of July 13th?”

“I’m…not sure,” Daron replied, starting to feel an uneasy pit growing in his stomach.

“It was the 6th trip to Sophie Ann’s home, and your boss Alexander Reece performed a ritual smudging. Did you agree with that course of action?”

“No,” Daron said after a longer pause than he would have liked to take to answer. Freddie shifted beside him.

“Did you convey that concern to him?” The lawyer asked, her icy blue eyes locked on his. Daron looked to the mediator, half hoping she or someone would interject with an objection, but no such luck.

“Yes.”

“What did you say?”

“I thought it was a waste of time.”

“Anything else?”

“Can I say something?” Freddie asked, leaning forward towards the table between them.

“No,” the lawyer said, turning her gaze to the younger woman.

“Please wait for your turn, Winnifred,” the mediator added. Freddie turned her gaze upwards, but went silent.

“Daron, did you say anything else?”

“Just that I didn’t think we should…indulge Sophie Anne with another ritual,” Daron said, feeling the knot rise up into his throat. He felt horrible, but in case someone else had relayed the entire conversation, he didn’t want to be caught in a lie.

“And why was that?”

“Because…I thought she was mentally ill. Not haunted.”

“Thank you, Daron.”

“But I have no training in mental health,” Daron added hurriedly, breaking his own rule about elaborating. “Julie does. But I’m just…the resident nay sayer. It doesn’t matter…”

“That’s all we need from you for now,” the lawyer said firmly. Daron sighed and leaned back in his seat, afraid to look at any of his coworkers.

“Winnifred, do you understand you are bound by law to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”

“Yeah, yeah. Don’t call me that,” Freddie said, pulling her phone out of her pocket and holding it up in the middle of the table. “I’m not answering any more questions until you watch this.”

“That’s not your decision,” the lawyer said icily. The mediator looked at Freddie, and the phone in her hand.

“What is it?” She asked.

“July 13th,” Freddie replied, and pressed play at the bottom of the screen. With the wobbly camera frame of someone clearly trying to pretend they were checking something, and not filming, Sophie Anne, Xander, and Julie were revealed in the former’s living room.

“What happens if this doesn’t work, though? What…what then? I can’t sleep,” Sophie Anne was heard saying. The screen dropped lower as Freddie sat down, cutting off her head from view.

“Sophie Anne…you seen the psychiatrist we recommended yet?” Julie asked in her usual, gentle way. The screen lifted slightly to show Sophie Ann frantically shaking her head.

“No…no. That’s not what this is. It’s in my house!”

“Sophie Anne, once the smudging is complete, that will be all we can do,” Xander spoke up firmly but kindly from next to the woman.

“No! What about an exorcism? If you tell the church, they will do it. They won’t listen to me,” Sophie Anne pleaded.

“Until we rule out mental causes, I can’t tell the church to do that,” Xander said, his hand gently on Sophie Anne’s shoulder. “This is the end of the line for cleansing the house. If you are still hearing voices after today, it’s not from here.”

“No,” Sophie Anne started to say tearfully. Daron saw himself enter the room, only visible from the neck down.

“Is everything ready, Daron?” Xander asked, and Daron in the conference room watched past him cross his arms over his chest, and over his smaller-than-now-but-not-at-all-insignificant belly.

“Yeah, if you’re sure,” he said. As Julie led Sophie Ann out of the room, offering reassurances on the credentials of the psychiatrist they had recommended, Xander and Daron got into the spat Daron had just disclosed to the prosecutors.

“But she knows she needs to get help if this doesn’t work,” Xander offered as parting words, which Daron realized with a start he had completely forgotten, and then the video shut off.

“So,” Freddie said as she put her phone back in her purse, surveying the stunned faces in the room. “Can we go now?”
 
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Ghostboo

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This isn’t a TV show, so obviously, they weren’t immediately released. But Sophie Anne’s lawyers never really recovered, especially as Sophie Anne wailed in response to the video that she didn’t remember them telling her to go get help! They should have done more to get her there! Some less than composed shushes later, and a few clarifying questions for Freddie, and the team was dismissed.

“I’ll have my ruling back for you soon,” the mediator informed the group as they exited the conference room after Sophie Anne and their lawyers. “But from what I can see, there’s no grounds for bringing forth any charges. So Alexander Reece, you are free to go.”

“Why did you even have that, Thornberry?” Daron hissed in amazement as the foursome made their way down the hall. Echoing their own desire for an explanation, Julie and Xander also looked to Freddie, who shrugged.

“She was bein’ squirrelly. I figured it couldn’t hurt to have. I try and always record the repeat offenders being told what’s what. Just in case.”

“And what a case it was,” Xander said ruefully. “I owe you tremendously, Freddie.”

“Nah. Just doing my job,” Freddie said, bashfully lowering her eyes to the ground as they exited the building.

“Drinks on me, anyone?” Xander asked as they approached the parking lot.

“Sure,” said Freddie.

“Maybe one,” Julie conceded.

“I gotta go get ready for my date,” Daron answered honestly. Xander gave him a light encouraging punch in the arm, while Julie and Freddie both gave weak smiles.

“We’ll get you and the new lady too next time then, big guy,” Xander said.

“Sure, I’d like that,” Daron replied. “I’ll see you guys tomorrow, be good.”

“You too,” Julie said. Freddie kept her forced half-smile as she looked at Daron before turning and heading towards Xander’s truck.
 
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Ghostboo

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Oct 23, 2019
Messages
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Location
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Ooooh! So excited to get more of this story and especially so much more!
Thank you loopy!!! Much appreciated. I also just finished doing a BUNCH of formatting edits for these chapters 'cause apparently I was way too excited to get em up and didn't proof them pre-transition to the site at all haha. Should be much more readable now!
 

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