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Aching Steps Towards Survival [1/5] - Being Human - Annie/George/Mitchell [Sep. 13th, 2010|01:58 pm]
where the daydreams reign

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[toestastegood]
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Title: Aching Steps Towards Survival
Pairing: Annie/George/Mitchell (established Annie/Owen, George/Mitchell)
Word Count: 25,000
Rating: PG-13
Warnings: Drug abuse, domestic abuse
Art: Here, by the wonderful little_dumpling
A/N: Written for the scifibigbang. I have to thank alba17 so, so much, because she is a magician when it comes to betaing. This is a non-supernatural office AU, partially inspired by a comment fic I wrote a year or so ago.
Further Parts: Part Two :: Part Three :: Part Four :: Part Five
Summary: Annie takes a job at an international law firm, working with George and his assistant Mitchell. While she finds herself drawn away from her fiance Owen, the boys have problems of their own: Mitchell is dealing with an old drug addiction, while George is trying to handle the sudden reappearance of his parents in his new life.




i. Annie


She straightened down her skirt one more time, checked her reflection in the office windows, and patted at her hair as if that might somehow help her to feel better. There were giddy butterflies in her stomach: new job nerves.

New job.

She hadn't had one of those in a very long while. It felt like the first day at primary school all over again. With one last bounce on the balls of her feet, she restrained a squeal and then headed inside the tall office block.

Annie Sawyer: Legal Secretary.

It had a good ring to it, didn't it?

She headed to the front desk in the large building, her new heels clipping on the ground. They no longer felt half as comfortable as they had when she'd first tried them on in the shop.

"Hi, I'm Annie. Annie Sawyer. I'm new, just got a job here. I'm a secretary now."

The girl behind the desk looked up at her with black-ringed, tired eyes. Annie couldn't escape the feeling that this woman was thinking very mean thoughts about her.

"Who are you supposed to see?" the girl asked.

"Ah." She pulled out the post-it note from her suit jacket's pocket. The name was burned into her retinas by now, but it was good to double (triple, quadruple) check these things. "Mr Sands. George Sands."

The woman offered her a smile; it reminded Annie of a shark baring its teeth, if sharks did that. She wasn't sure. "That'll be the fifth floor. If you head right on up, take a left, then try the second foor to your right. Have a good day."

Before Annie could ask anything more, the phone rang and the girl picked it up after one ring: "Hello, this is Lauren Drake from Burke and Edwards speaking."

Annie waited for an uncertain moment, but a flash of the whites of Lauren's eyes was enough to get her moving. She felt knocked off balance alrweady: this wasn't quite how she had hoped ehr first day would go, feeling like a distracting pest. She headed for the elevators when she couldn't find the stairs. There was only one other person in there with her, who nodded politely when he entered the elevators. They both aimed for the same button, but he let her push it. It lit up, and after the doors closed she felt the familiar lurch that meant they were going up.

The man from the elevator was holding two mis-matched mugs of what smelled like coffee, and was taking care not to spill a drop. "I love the smell of coffee," Annie said. "I think I like the smell more than the taste. That's probably weird, isn't it?"

He smiled and shook his head. "I'm more of a tea man, myself," he said, in an Irish accent that made her stomach do flips.

Reminding herself of Owen at home, her only defence was that merely admiring didn't count as anything wrong. She was objectively and neutrally noticing that this man, with his curly black hair and slightly untidy shirt, was rather attractice. Completely innocent. He'd never match up up to her Owen anyway. No one could.

"That's us," Pretty Boy said when the doors open. "You go first."

He had his coffees to slow him down, so she exited the elevator and set about finding the right office in this maze. Checking her watch she reassured herself that she wasn't left, even if she felt like she was: there was nothing to fear.

Nothing at all, right?

She could tell when she had found the right door, because it had her new boss's name stuck on a little sign. It was a good name, right? A kind name.

After knocking, she paused for a moment and then entered the room. It was an extremely large office, with a view onto the street outside. Not a particularly grand view, considering they were in the middle of a grey city, but a view nonetheless. Behind a desk, a man who looked far too young to be the George Sands she was looking for, supposedly a major player in the company and tipped to be in line for a position as partner soon, peered at her from behind a set of glasses.

"I'm looking for Mr Sands?" she said, as he continued to peer at her. His mouth was slightly open and he looked as if he didn't understand a word she was saying. She clasped her hands together, wringing them. "He's expecting me, I think?"

"Am I?" the man (Mr Sands? George? What was she supposed to call him?) said. He stood up straight, one fist on his hip as his other hand rubbed at his forehead. "What's your name?"

"Annie Sawyer. I'm supposed to be your secretary." She had to restrain a little bounce as she said that: hardly professional.

George's expression didn't clear up at all. Nerves were beginning to eat through her excitement like acid as she had visions of being sent home immediately, informed that this was all a mistake.

Behind her, the door fumbled open and bumped her back - with a small 'oh!' of surprise, Annie jittered forward and turned around. Still faithfully holding his mugs, the man from the elevator walked in.

When he saw her, he gave her a grin that instantly set her mind at ease, with perfectly white teeth and kind eyes. "You're Annie, right? I thought you must be."

"You know her?" George hissed across the room, as if a stage whisper might keep her from hearing.

Pretty Boy didn't bother to hide the affectionate roll of his eyes as he headed across the room. He pressed one mug into George's hands and kept the other for himself. "Let me guess," he said, speaking to Annie instead of answering George, "he forgot you were starting today?"

"I can't forget something I was never told," George grumbled.

Pretty Boy didn't register what he said, nudging George in the ribs instead. There was something honest and friendly here: despite the rocky start and her killer butterflies, Annie thought that she already liked the place.

"I'm Mitchell, George's assistant. I plan his meetings, answer his phone, do his dry cleaning. Boring stuff like that."

"I pay him to bring me undrinkable coffee," George said, after taking a sip from the mug Mitchell had brought for him. He set it down on his desk right away. Mitchell barely glanced down, as if he had been expecting as much.

Annie couldn't help but frown. "So what will I be doing, then? I thought that'd kind of be my job."

"They said you're good with computers, right?" Mitchell asked. She once fried Owen's laptop by spilling tea over the keyboard, but she was a quick typist: always focus on the good rather than the bad. She nodded, then he continued, "I'm lucky if I can turn the thing on, and George is too busy to do most of this stuff himself. Lots of typing and spreadsheets and... I don't know."

"You won't be short of work," George promised.

By lunch time, Annie had already worked out that he wasn't being patronising. She kept waiting for the computer to set alight from the speed she was hammering away at it. George spent his time out front with them or in a back-room to his office on the phone and composing drafts into a dictophone. She'd noticed Mitchell coming and going throughout the day, as busy as she was with chores to run.

There was always a smile on his face - and she thought she understood that, as busy as she was. She liked this office. It made her feel welcome.

"Want to come for lunch?" Mitchell asked, leaning against the doorframe with an air of self-confidence; he was someone who knew he was charming and was easy-going about it. "George has got a conference call that will last roughly, ah, forever. I get lonely. When I get lonely, I do stupid stuff."

"He's not kidding," George chipped in from where he was pouring over a thick file on his desk. "He tried stealing a traffic sign last week. One that was cemented into the ground."

"It seemed like a good idea at the time." Considering his grin, Annie didn't think that he really felt too embarrassed at all. "The policeman didn't even arrest me for it."

"Now you see why he needs someone to keep an eye on him," George said. His smile was laced with affection, however distracted he was.

"Will you be alright here on your own?" Annie asked. It hardly seemed fair to run off and leave him while she and Mitchell went to get into trouble.

"George doesn't know how to take a break. I'm not even sure if he knows how to eat. It's worrying, really. We should get the scientists in."

"I'll be fine," George said, as if Mitchell hadn't said a word. "I've got a sandwich with me and I'm expecting a call any minute."

"Madman," Mitchell murmured, crossing the room to peer nosily at George's file over his shoulder. "I'll bring something back for you."

"Preferably nothing stolen," George complained.

Mitchell squeezed George's shoulder before he left, in a way that was a little too intimate and a little too lingering to be appropriate between an employer and his assistant. Annie looked away deliberately and stared at the wooden floor. It was her first day. She wasn't going to think anything like that yet. Maybe tomorrow.

In their journey out of the building, they had their typical first day conversation. She talked about her mum and Owen and her last job and her friends. Mitchell didn't really talk about anything much at all. He chatted a lot, but there was nothing concrete, nothing real.

"What about you?" she asked, brandishing a half-eaten sandwich from Subway at him.

Mitchell grinned at her, somewhere between flirting and teasing. It was the kind of smile that would make any woman's heart flutter. "What about me?" he asked.

"I've just spent ages gabbing about Owen and the wedding. What about you? You must be seeing someone." She nudged his arm with her elbow. Ordinarily, she didn't think she'd ever have the guts to talk to someone like Mitchell, but with the weight of knowledge about Owen standing between them, she felt safe. Protected.

"Yeah, I am," Mitchell admitted without his smile ever wavering.

Annie didn't feel disappointed. Honest. That would be silly.

"Really?" Her grin was wide. She didn't have to fake enthusiasm.

"Yeah." Mitchell gave a half-laugh and hiked his thumb back in the direction that they had just come from. "I think you've already met him."

And, yes, it clicked long before she really accepted it - she couldn't help the surprise. She'd never been 'sheltered', exactly, but it wasn't as if she'd seen it all either. There was so much about the world that she had only encountered through Hollyoaks.

"Wait," she said. "Do you mean..."

"George? Yeah." The smile on Mitchell's face looked the way that she always felt when she thought of Owen: sunny and happy and really, really dorky. "Been together for a few years now. He got me the interview with the firm."

"Isn't that a bit weird?" 'Unethical' was the word Owen would use. He'd never want her to work with him. She'd just get in the way.

"It's all above board, I swear," Mitchell said. "George has an IQ of 156, speaks a lot of foreign languages, but without someone around to keep him on track he'd never even tie his laces in the morning."

"You get paid to take care of him," Annie summarised.

"I get paid to make sure his day runs smoothly," Mitchell corrected. "I like it."

"Isn't it weird?" Annie repeated. "Don't you get sick of each other?"

"I hardly see him. He's busy all the time." There something in Mitchell's voice, heavy but hidden, that made Annie think that this was a sore point. "Anyway. Just thought I should tell you before the gossip squad hits you first. They all think we're a bit odd."

Annie tried very hard not to grin, she really did. Around George and Mitchell, however, she was already beginning to feel like she was a lost cause. "I can't see why anyone would think that..." she teased - and even if Mitchell defended himself adamantly (and defended George considerably less adamantly) he was grinning too.

She hadn't felt this comfortable this fast with anyone, not even Owen. It was new and safe. She liked it more than she should have.

When the end of her first day came, she didn't want to go home. Instead of dreading it, she looked gleefully forward to tomorrow.

*


Owen, of course, found it hilarious. "It's just a job, Annie," he said after she'd spent the last hour or so telling him about every single detail of her day. "I can't believe they didn't tell you he's already got a secretary. That's illegal, probably."

"I am his secretary. Mitchell is his assistant. It's different." She frowned at her saucepan, sizzling on the hob. "I really like it there."

"Yeah, I know. That's good. Really good. I'm just teasing, you know that." He smiled at her, bright like the sun itself, and she found it too hard to stay frowning an more. He had a talent for making the world seem bright with the smallest of gestures. "What's for dinner, then? I'm starving."

The rest of their evening passed by uneventfully. They ate their meal and watched television; she tried her hardest not to mention her job any more than she absolutely had to. When they went to bed, she couldn't sleep because of a tangled mix of excitement and nerves. Beside her, Owen dreamed in hushed, snoring bliss. She didn't even feel resentful.

She got to the office early that morning, setting everything up just the way she liked it and getting a head-start on some of George's legal documents. There was an endless supply of them: she had little doubt that she would be frantically busy for a long while, and it made her grin in contentment.

After she had been settled for around half an hour, the boys drifted in as well - but something was different, today. The air was cold and stony. They weren't speaking to each other, barely passing a single word.

"Good morning!" Annie chirped.

George frowned in confusion at her as he headed towards his back office. "You're in early."

"Thought I'd try to get on top of things."

George offered her a distracted, tight smile, but it was nothing like as easy as it had been yesterday. She must have done somethign wrong, she was sure of it. Owen's voice played in her mind, telling her that she'd been over-excited., that it was just a job, that she had been naive. Unhappily, she tried to chase those thoughts away.

For the remainder of the day, George was distracted and Mitchell was twitchy, jumping at every slight noise and finding a thousand and one tasks to do outside of the containment of their shaded office. It put Annie on edge as well.

At lunch, neither one of them offered to come with her. Alone, she had to make do with a brown bread sandwich while sitting near the fountain outside the tall building. She made sure to tell herself that she didn't feel disappointed, not one bit. She didn't even allow herself to feel lonely when Owen didn't respond to the text she'd sent him. She felt fine. Great, in fact.

She felt really great, okay?

When she came back inside after lunch, Lauren smirked at her from behind the front desk. Annie barely fought the desire to stick her tongue out in return.

Outside of their office, she slowed down as she heard the raised tones of George and Mitchell's voices. Arguing. Her lovely little work couple were fighting and it was only her second day here.

"Go. Just go, Mitchell, you clearly don't want to be here today. Find your friends from last night. See if I care. Why would I?"

"For the last time, they were not my 'friends'. Are you even listening to me?"

"They seemed friendly enough." George's voice was so passive aggressive that it made Annie want to hide the second she heard it

"I can't control what other people get up to. Don't take your shit out on me."

Their voices were beginning to get louder and hotter than was wise in a work environment, and Annie thought that they were probably seconds away from shoving at each other like schoolboys, so she walked inside the office, keeping a bounce in her step. It was easy to smile - easy to pretend that she thought everything was normal.

"I saw a pair of pigeons attacking each other by the fountain outside," she said as she hurried over to her desk. A wiggle of her mouse brought it out of Sleep mode. "It was brilliant."

Mitchell smiled at her, ever-charming, while George mostly seemed concerned with the mention of pigeons in general. "It must be mating season," George said. "Do pigeons have a 'season'? They seem like they'd be at it all the time."

"The slags of the bird world." Annie's eyebrows rose after she said it, surprised at herself. This place made her too comfortable, even when her employers were frostily arguing behind her back.

Mitchell had wandered towards the door already, refusing to engage in any pigeon-abuse. He couldn't be a city boy, in that case. "I'll go and look it up for you, should I?" He didn't physically need to roll his eyes for Annie to hear it in his tone.

"Mitchell," George sighed, taking a half-step towards him, but it didn't matter. Mitchell had already left the office, evidently on his way to research bird slaggery for them.

Rather than annoyed, George looked worried. As Annie fiddled through the files and watched out of the corner of her eyes, George fidgeted. A lot.

"Is everything alright with you two?" she asked. "Sorry if I'm prying. I can shut up."

George's smile was a thin, pained line. "A few domestic issues, that's all. No need to worry - Mitchell's a little bit out of sorts. It'll blow over in a couple of days. I think."

The waver in George's expression implied that he wasn't at all certain about that. "Do you want to talk about it?" Annie offered. She was a good listener. She could listen to Janey banging on about boyfriend troubles for hours without yawning once.

In this case, where she genuinely cared, George merely shook his head. "I think Mitchell would kill me," he admitted. "But do you fancy coming around for dinner? Tonight or tomorrow, both are good. Mitch could do with the distraction."

"I can be good at distracting. I'll bring a cake." She hadn't tried baking in years, but the prospect of a cheer-up dinner at George and Mitchell's house was enough to get her reaching for the oven-mitts in her mind already. "I'll put sprinkles on it and everything."

She waggled her fingers in an attempt to demonstrate exactly what she wanted the cake to look like - and George smiled, wide with his eyes crinkled at the corners. That smile alone made warmth flood through her body. She thought that she would bake a thousand cakes, pies and muffins if only she could make him smile like that forever - chase all the stress away with the threat of endless calories.

*


They weren't able to make a date until the Friday evening, by which point the tension in the office seemed to have faded of its own accord. Owen came along too, wearing a new shirt and clutching a bottle of wine in his hand. Annie wore a dress that swooshed every time she spun around, and George cooked, and all in all it was just about the best evening that Annie had had all year.

Mitchell, it turned out, could juggle.

"Want me to help out with the dishes?" she offered after George cleared the table and Mitchell and Owen had wandered through to the living room in order to pour over Mitchell's record collection.

"You can dry if you'd like," George said, picking up a tea towel and throwing it in her direction. Surprising herself, she managed to catch it before it flopped onto her face.

She stood by his side and listened to the splash and slosh of his hands in the water. "Mitchell seems happier," she observed.

"I think your cake did the trick," George agreed.

"Sprinkles. Works every time." Annie forced herself not to press too hard for answers. She felt comfortable with George, too comfortable. It was as if they had known each other since they were kids rather than merely meeting the previous Monday.

"Sorry. I'm being vague. It's not because - it's not because of you. I'm not not telling you maliciously." He passed her a clean, wet plate when she tried to assure him that she would never have thought anything like that. "It's just that it's not my stuff. Mitchell is the one that should be telling people, if there is any telling to be done."

"It's okay, George," Annie said. She smiled when he seemed uncertain. "I'm happy he's happy again. I don't need any details."

Yes, the nosy, gossiping side of her brain really did want details, and it wanted to prod at George until he spilled the beans. Owen was always telling her not to stick her nose in other people's business: she couldn't stop herself. Secrets made her want to know everything so that she could help. It was a well-meaning nosiness, at least. George gave her an apologetic smile that made her feel like, for once, she didn't need to know a single thing. "I'm glad we met you," he said.

Annie had to agree - readily, giddily, happily.

When it was getting late she and Owen had to depart, with sleepy thoughts of Saturday morning lie-ins teasing through her mind. It had been a hard working week. With a wave and a smile, they wished George and Mitchell good night and headed to Owen's car.

"That was lovely, wasn't it?" she said after they had been driving for five minutes. "We'll have to have them 'round to ours sometime."

Owen's smile had gone, and his hands were white-knuckled on the wheel. "I guess now I know why you like working there so much, don't I?"

With cold dread, Annie's smile faded - what had she done? "Owen?"

"It's Mitchell, right? I can see it in your eyes." He shook his head in disgust: he wasn't even looking at her, as if the sight alone was too awful for him to bear. "You want to shag him."

"Owen! That's not true. I swear. C'mon, stop being daft."

"What is it then? George?" His sneer showed what he thought of that idea, but Annie didn't care to defend George right now.

"They're dating each other. They're not interested in me, c'mon!"

"Doesn't stop you being interested in them. I know you."

"I love you." There was an ache in her throat as if she wanted to start crying, but she fought hard to control it. He would think that she was trying to manipulate the situation, nothing more than that. "I've got you. Why would I want anyone else?"

The sound of his laughter, disbelieving and mocking, was like an answer all on its own. "'cos you're a slut, aren't you? Shameless little slag."

Silent, she started out of the window as the dark night whispered by, her bright mood shattered. This time, she didn't stop the tears from falling, unable to respond to Owen.

This time, she couldn't stop them.

*


By the end of the weekend, they had both apologised and Owen had kissed her shoulder, gently, while they stood in their shared kitchen. "You know how I get," he said. "I can't help it."

When Monday came, she made sure to be a little more professional than before. Her previous conduct hadn't been suitable for a work environment, had it? So she was nice - she was friendly but she wasn't too friendly. There were no more discussions to be had about randy pigeons.

"Are you alright?" her mum asked her when she came to visit for dinner. She hadn't been 'round in ages, too busy, but she needed it now, this week. "You seem quiet."

She flashed a smile, on and off. She wanted to tell her about the fight with Owen, but held her tongue. Her relationship with Owen was perfect; she was the happiest she had ever been. If she didn't tell her mum about their arguments, then it could stay that way. If her mum saw them as content, that made it true.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine. It's this new job. I'm tired, that's all." Technically, that was true. Technically.

"You've still not told me about this job of yours." Her mum settled down on the couch with a post-dinner mug of tea. "What's it like?"

Despite herself, Annie couldn't help grinning as she talked about it. People weren't supposed to like their jobs this much, especially when it was something this mundane, but she couldn't help herself. "It's the people I work with, Mum. They're great. Really, really great."

She was starting to feel like an incredibly broken record, but when she left her mum's at the end of the evening she felt much better about it. Her mum had been even more excited about the whole thing than she had been, glowing with a pleased smile.

There was a bounce in her step as she made her way home and unlocked the door. None of the lights were on, even though it was far too early for Owen to have gone to bed. "Owen?" she called. "Are you in?" No answer.

He might be out with one of his mates, she supposed, until his voice interrupted her as she entered the kitchen and switched on the light - "You're back late," he said, sitting at the table.

"Been at my mum's. I sent you a text." He hadn't replied, but she had reckoned that was because he had no credit. He was always doing that. "What are you doing, skulking around in the dark? Nearly had a heart attack when I saw you."

She moved over to the sink to fill up the kettle, but Owen's silence was disarming her. It wasn't like him - but she couldn't remember doing anything wrong.

"George called," Owen said. Her hand tightened on the handle of kettle, guiltily. She hadn't done anything, she reminded herself. "It's him, isn't it? He's the one you're shagging."

"Owen!" How could he have said that? "What's wrong with you?"

He stood up from the table, sharp and fast, and she told herself that she wasn't scared. Placing the kettle down in the sink, she turned and watched as he stepped forward. Her hand gripped the side of the counter.

"What's wrong with me?" Owen repeated. "My fiancee's a slag, that's what's wrong. Did you really think I wouldn't find out?"

This wasn't real; this couldn't be happening. "What did George say to you?" she asked. There had to have been some kind of misunderstanding.

He sneered, and she had never seen him look like that. Not ever. "You think he needs to say anything? It's all over your face."

Her hand ran over her cheeks automatically, as if she could wipe away any false evidence. "Owen, it's not true. Whatever you think, it's not true."

"Does he fuck you at work?" he spat. She hated the way he said 'fuck', as if expelling the word by force. "That's what you're always so damn cheerful when you get home."

Water blurred her vision as she reached for him, hand shaking. "Owen," she said. Her voice trembled as much as her hand.

He caught her wrist before her fingertips could reach his face. "Do you really think I want you to touch me? When you've been touching him with those hands?"

"I haven't, I swear: I haven't." Tears splashed red-hot onto her face, burning. "Owen, listen to me. Please. I swear it's not true. I swear." With her uncaptured hand, she reached for his face again - as if the world would be alright if she could only touch him, as if she could make him see sense again.

Her fingers brushed against the side of his cheek and she smiled with red-rimmed eyes. "I love you," she said.

He grabbed hold of her wrist so tightly that she felt it would break - and she felt the impact of his own hand against her cheek. She heard the sound of the slap, snapping like a gunshot through the room, long before she felt the stinging, world-breaking pain.

"Do you say that to him?" Owen asked, voice shaking. "You slapper. Bloody tart."

Owen had hit her.

Gentle, funny, confident Owen, with his gorgeous eyes and beautiful smile, had slapped her and left her cheek tingling.

"Owen..." she said, with her fingers pressed against the stinging heat. Further tears slipped from her eyes. "What did you do? You hit me. You- You just hit me."

"Shut up." He paced backwards from her, the back of his hand pressed to his forehead. "Just shut up for once, Annie. I need to think."

She needed out of there. "I'm staying at my mum's tonight," she said, still shaking, still numb. She couldn't go there. Not to her mum, who would come right over here to castrate Owen by hand. Not to the land of sympathy and 'I told you so'.

Owen didn't try to stop her from leaving. For that she was glad - the worst thing was that she was sure she would have been convinced to stay.

***


Part Two
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: alba17
2010-09-13 03:34 pm (UTC)
Oh, you posted!! How exciting! I shall be back later to read.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: toestastegood
2010-09-15 05:39 pm (UTC)
-hugs- Thank you so so so so so so so so so so so so much for helping me out by betaing. You're awesome.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: owensheart
2010-09-13 06:38 pm (UTC)
I really like this Idea, i can So see George as a lawyer and mitchell as his assistant.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: toestastegood
2010-09-15 05:40 pm (UTC)
^^ Thank you!
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