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The Conditional Tense

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It wasn't as if subtlety had ever been a hallmark of their particular show. What fun were docile shades of gray when one could employ the splashy neons of office hostage-takings, custom-made blow-up dolls, digressive and disproportionately lengthy closings, and Denny Crane? All of this Alan knew, and he reveled in it for the most part.

The exceptions took their form in a certain type of unsubtle plot device, one that often came attached to a client or case and cut just a smidgen too close to the bone. The Appearance of A Woman From His Past. The Appearance of a Different, Yet Equally Devastating Woman From His Past. The Reminder of Denny's Alzheimer's Disease.

Alan could handle the women-shaped anvils, hazardous though they invariably proved to be. When it came to the portlier, Denny-shaped variety, well.... He had a little more trouble bouncing back, sometimes.

Exempli gratia, his most recent case, which had been centered--unsubtly--around a man in his late sixties with end-stage Parkinson's disease. The daughter, who was the man's health-care proxy, had wanted to insert a feeding tube; the son, who was Alan's client, had sought an injunction, claiming that his sister had emotional problems rendering her unfit to make decisions concerning their father's care.

Alan had delivered his typical digressive and disproportionately lengthy closing: Terry Schiavo, Bush in his bunny slippers, the hypocrisy of "a culture of life," soiling the bed, aspiration pneumonia, dying with dignity, and not for nothing, but this is exactly why Massachusetts should join 96% of the state legislatures in this country in legally recognizing living wills.

But all the while he speechified, a snippet of his client's simple, loving testimony about his father ran laps in the back of his mind. "He had loved his friends, had loved to fish...." Had loved his friends...had loved to fish.... Had loved...had loved.... The verb tense reverberated painfully. These were, after all, descriptions of a man who was only still alive on a technicality.

It wouldn't have taken an overpaid defense psychiatrist to draw a line between the events in court and the events of that evening's sleepover, even if said events did seem to unfold awfully fast. One minute they were watching Steel Magnolias on mute--which in retrospect probably didn't help matters much, despite Denny's entertainingly indecorous commentary--and then suddenly it was as if they were running long and needed to edit out the footage between that minute and the one where they were standing there, yelling at each other.

"I did not!"

"You did, too!"

"I think I know what I said, Denny!"

"Well, I know what I heard!"

"Quite obviously, you don't! Quite obviously--"

"Look, maybe you didn't realize you said it--"

"Oh, here we go! I'm sorry, but Freudian slips are your department. The same department which routinely disburses obscene malaprop and general oratorical slovenliness--"

"Oh, oh, right! This from Mr. Salad Shooter--"

"I think you mean Mr. Word Salad. And congratulations, you've just proven my point!"

Denny glared at him. "Go ahead and insult me all you want, doesn't change a thing. You said 'will,' Alan."

"I said 'would,' Denny. You know, I don't know why I'm arguing about this with you. It's not as if you even remember the bulk of the conversation at this point!"

And Alan stepped back, his neck twisting sharply, as though the transgression had been Denny's rather than his own. To wrench a spear from his own heart and drive it straight into Denny's...well, it wasn't entirely out of character for him, actually, regardless of the level of desperation with which he unfailingly wished to take it back.

The frozen, saucer-eyed expression of hurt he'd expected and received lasted only briefly, though. Denny drew himself up straighter and possibly even puffed out his chest, though between his already ample bosom and the fluffy Fairmont Copley bathrobe it was a little difficult to tell.

"I remember enough," Denny informed him, coldly. "I remember you casting your pall over Dolly Parton night, I'll tell you that. With those--sighs of yours through the whole movie, even at my favorite part! Where she's dressed in that--that black, high-necked get-up with the pearls--"

"That would be her funeral dress you're referring to?"

Denny "mmm"ed and licked his lips. "Yeah, yeah--I sure as hell remember you ruining that for me. And," his eyes sharpened, and he looked meaningfully at Alan, "I remember you closed in that parking-ticket case today."

"...Parkinson's."

"And since I remember that, I also remember deciding I'd do a few variations on the bit about the blind lesbian in the fishmarket--you know, cheer you up. I remember you laughed at the third one--and I remember what you said, Alan."

Denny took an ominous step toward him just as Alan was coiling himself in, tensing.

"You said: 'What will I do without you, Denny?'"

They stood for a while, stopped. The room was deathly quiet, so that it was farcically loud and disgusting when Alan suddenly had to swallow back some bile.

"Listen, Denny...."

But Denny held up his hand, then turned his head away. Alan tapped his fingers against the bottoms of his palms, chewing the air helplessly.

Denny broke wind. Alan stopped chewing.

"Ah," Denny sighed. He slackened the belt of his bathrobe and turned back to Alan. "Now, what is it you were you saying?"

Alan flung up his arms in exasperation. "I was saying you misheard me, Denny! You remembered everything right, and I shouldn't have implied otherwise. But that last statement--you misheard me."

"There's not a damned thing wrong with my hearing. You just don't want to admit--"

"No! No, I am very sorry, Denny, but I'm not going to pretend to have made a statement I didn't simply to mollify you. I know what I said. And what I said was 'will.'"

Denny's mouth dropped open like a drawbridge.

"I mean 'would'! Fuck." Alan twisted his neck again, squeezing his eyes shut. The bile shot up like Old Faithful. "'Would,'" he repeated, gulping.

The room slipped into its previous silence, unbroken this time around by Denny's wind--though truth be told, this time around Alan might not have minded. It was broken instead by Denny's mournful declaration, his eyes dark and roaming dramatically.

"So. My best friend thinks I'm a goner."

"Oh, for God sake," Alan mumbled. "I didn't say that."

"But that's what you think."

"Denny. Of course it isn't. Why would it be?" Alan decided to try out a rational tack. "We're not even a hundred percent sure at this point what it is you have, if anything. At this stage the CAT scans are by their very nature--"

Denny jabbed an index finger at him. "But you think it's Alzheimer's. Admit it."

In what couldn't have been a promising sign for anyone, Alan found himself emitting one of his more shrill and inappropriate giggles. "Come on, Denny, that's.... Even if it were to eventually turn out to be the case, someday, that you.... There's a phenomenal amount of money being poured into research! There are new drugs and new therapies emerging all the time that can help manage the symptoms and even slow the progression--"

"Temporarily. In some people," Denny said pointedly. "And you don't think I'm going to be one of them."

"Okay, look--I said 'would,' okay? Can we just please--?" And out of emotional necessity he finally wheeled away from Denny, scooping up his nearly empty glass of scotch and heading to the wet bar to refill it.

Post-production must have doubled back on them at that point, Alan supposed, given that he had no idea how long he'd been standing with the decanter in one hand and the glass in the other when Denny shuffled up behind him.

"Okay," was what Denny was saying, his tone suspiciously mild.

Alan shook himself out a little, drew a deep breath, and turned to face his friend. "Okay? Okay, what?"

"Okay, maybe...maybe I might have--misheard you."

Alan stared at him a minute. Then he tilted the decanter toward the glass and poured the scotch. Crystal clinked arrhythmically against crystal, and he tried desperately not to spill.

"'What would I do without you,' 'what will I do without you'--very similar. Easily confused." Denny tapped his earlobe. "Anyway, what matters is I know what you meant, right?"

Alan replaced the decanter and moved from the bedroom to the living area, his gut tight as an arbor knot. Denny trailed behind him, but remained standing while Alan perched stiffly on the edge of the loveseat.

"...Alan?"

"You're humoring me," Alan said. He took a labored swallow of his drink and flipped open the client file on the coffee table.

Denny shrugged. "So? What do you care?"

Briefly Alan considered moving the scene along by biting out something curt and obvious, then changed his mind at the last second. "I don't," he bit out, and slammed down his glass, turning deposition pages violently.

Eventually, though, he gave up, dropping his head into his hands. After a few moments he heard the rustle of Denny's palms along the back of the loveseat; a few moments after that, the snap-crackle-pop of Denny's joints and sinking top-grain leather cushions. A few moments after that he felt Denny's hand on his shoulder, and Alan shook it off immediately and hard.

"Don't," he said harshly. "Denny, I really can't do this right now. And you really don't want to do this at all, so let's just not and say we did."

"First of all," said Denny--except it was more like "Firsht of all," which meant he was either sucking off an unlit cigar or a leftover pretzel rod, "don't tell me what I do and don't want to do. Second, if we didn't, I'm not about to start going around saying we did. And third--" the cushions crackled some more, and the space along Alan's profile warmed slightly, "why can't we do this now? Maybe this is when we do this, you ever think of that?"

Alan raised his head. Denny leaned back and plucked the saliva-slicked rod from the corner of his mouth, lifting his chin expectantly.

Why can't we do this now? It isn't fair. I don't deserve to. I don't deserve to. It's not why I'm here. It's not why I'm with you, Denny. It's not why I was cast.

"It's...still too early in the series," Alan answered, weakly.

"Oh, bullpucky." Denny jammed the pretzel back into his mouth. "Thish could be happening at almost any point in the timeline and you know it. That'sh the whole idea."

"Well, anytime before 5x11," Alan amended, "and after 3x21, technically, although the viewer needn't necessarily have--"

"All right, all right!" Denny chomped indignantly on the pretzel and half of it tumbled to the floor. "I said 'almost,' didn't I? Almost. You get so literal sometimes."

"Sometimes," Alan agreed.

"And don't think I don't know what you're doing. You're deflecting. You're upset, and you're deflecting."

"I'm not deflecting. And I'm not...." He exhaled unevenly, resignedly. "Ah. Well. I suppose I may have gotten myself into somewhat of a...state. Sorry. It's just been a very, very long day--parking-ticket cases will do that to you--" here Alan lifted his voice so Denny would know he was kidding, not making fun, "and I'm unspeakably tired and crabby, and all I really want to do right now is go to bed." He heaved himself off the loveseat before Denny could say anything else, though he added sincerely, "I am sorry about Dolly Parton night."

Denny harumphed and wiped the crumbs off his lips with the sleeve of his bathrobe. Choosing to interpret that as conciliation, if not reconciliation, Alan nodded at him and retreated to the bedroom.

Sometimes they had two-bed sleepovers, sometimes one. It was a decision that tended to be made wordlessly and more or less mutually. But this sleepover hadn't gone the usual way, and Alan, having climbed into bed first, realized that he had effectively left the decision to Denny--and that he was terribly ambivalent about what it was he wanted Denny to do.

He watched with considerable apprehension as Denny stripped off his bathrobe and left it in a crumb-encrusted puddle on the hotel floor. When he felt the sheets lift, Alan rolled over quickly, facing the wall, shutting his eyes as the mattress dipped severely and Denny made about fifty different settling-in sounds (some more unpleasant than others).

"You know, the truth is," Denny began, and Alan pushed his nose and mouth into the pillow in the hopes of a quiet self-asphyxiation, "we both know what's coming, Alan. We don't like to admit it. God knows I don't like to be reminded of it. But there it is, staring me in the face nearly every damned day now. Who knows, maybe it's time I stop fighting it so hard. What're they always saying--drift down the river? Go with the flow?"

Alan came up for air, his attention focused a bit more earnestly now on the Tao of Denny. He didn't turn over but could envision Denny lying on his back, fingers laced atop the dune of his abdomen, his eyes bright and wandering the ceiling.

"I'll tell you something, though," Denny continued thoughtfully. "You have no idea what a...comfort...it is, to have someone who you know will always be there. Unconditionally. No matter what happens, no matter how mad your cow gets. To know someone will still...be there, and accept you, and...comfort you. Comfort now, comfort then.... I mean, how many people get to have something like that?"

Alan wrestled the pillow out from under his head, hugging it urgently to his chest. Denny kept talking.

"But here's the thing about all that comfort. There's only so much of it a man can handle without...giving back. Oh, not that we do it selflessly, let's face it--you don't do anything for anybody else unless you get something out of it, too. Feels good though, being a comfort to someone. Makes you feel...like you're capable. Like you're still worth something. Now, start getting too much of the stuff without giving any yourself, suddenly you're feeling, uh, whaddaya call it--emasculated. Or like you're some needy little kid. Alan, the minute I start needing to wear diapers, promise you'll shoot me?"

And Alan rolled onto his back, taking the pillow with him, tilting his face toward Denny to answer. The corner of Denny's mouth quirked up in a small, transient smile: one that might have looked half-hearted to anyone else, but was in fact his rarest, most gentle and genuine kind. The kind that Alan knew he was one of the precious few to ever see.

The things they saved for each other.

Alan turned his head back abruptly, hissing through his teeth as his chest and throat constricted. For a split second he thought he might be having a heart attack--and when he realized he wasn't, dug his nails into the pillow and scrabbled for control. He managed it quite gamely until he didn't, and a single strangled, high, ugly sound escaped him.

"Denny Crane," Denny pointed out reasonably, his fingers stroking through Alan's hair. And because there was really no way he could argue with that, Alan gave up and allowed himself to lean in.