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March 20, 11:20 am

"He's gone weird again."

Dan glanced up from his computer to see Dana standing in the door to his office, hand on hip and annoyance in expression. "There you go," he said calmly, returning his attention to his script.

"What is going on, Dan? I know something is going on."

"Because he's gone weird again."

"Yes."

"Dana?"

"Yes?"

"Who are we talking about?"

Dana sighed in exasperation and flopped herself into the chair beside Dan's desk. "He's been weird for weeks now. And he looks like hell. And he's called in sick for the third day in a row."

Dan looked up sharply, startled. "He's not coming in?"

"He's gone weird," said Dana, with the air of a physician delivering her diagnosis.

Dan scowled at his script, suddenly unable to read a word of it. Dan was accustomed to Casey going weird on him. Whenever something was bugging Casey that he didn't think he could talk about, he would go weird. It was endearing, in a dysfunctionally macho sort of way. So when Casey had started keeping obscenely late hours and coming into work looking like death in traction, Dan had chalked it up to yet another phase. He hadn't asked; he'd waited. Because he knew that eventually Casey would spill the beans and all would once again be right with Dan's world.

But this phase had lasted longer than most. And Casey was weirder than usual. Quiet. Withdrawn, almost. Sad. That was the hardest one to see. Sad. Dan would have given just about anything not to see sad on Casey. But he knew what would happen if he asked. He'd get that look, the patented Casey McCall-is-above-it-all look, and an "I'm fine, Mom," and that would be all she wrote. So Dan hadn't asked.

"Well?" demanded Dana. "Are you going to tell me what's going on?"

Dan shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "I don't know what's going on, Dana."

"You always know what's going on."

"This is a common misconception. I don't suppose you asked Casey."

"Of course I did. He says nothing's going on."

"He would know."

"He's lying."

"Ah."

"He's lying, Danny. A woman knows when a man is lying."

"Wow. Handy."

"And he sounds horrible."

"He has the flu."

"I know. It's not just that. It's not just flu-horrible, it's Casey-horrible."

Dan sighed and gave up any pretense of working. "And I am supposed to make Casey ... less horrible?"

"You are supposed to find out what's going on. Ask him."

"Fine. I'll ask him," said Dan wearily, picking up the phone. "Which will only provoke Casey 'The Sphinx' McCall into denying any and all knowledge of anything that might or might not be going on."

"There is something going on, Danny."

"So you say."

"So you'll ask."

"I'll ask."

Dana looked relieved. "Good." She stood up. "And then you'll tell me."

"Sure." Dan dialed Casey's number.

"And you'll un-weird him."

Dan snorted at the preposterous notion that anyone or anything could un-weird Casey McCall. "Oh, sure. No problem."

"Good. Good." Dana beamed at him and disappeared.

The phone rang four times, then went to the answering machine; Dan waited impatiently for the beep. "Case? It's me. Pick up." He waited for a couple seconds. "Casey, pick up the phone. Come on, I know you're there. I need to talk to you." He waited a couple more seconds. "Casey, if you don't pick up the phone I'm going to start singing."

The phone was snatched up immediately. "What?" barked Casey.

Dan scowled at the sound of Casey's hoarse voice. This wasn't weird. This was ... wrong. "You okay, man?"

"I'm sick," said Casey dully. "What do you want?"

"I want to know what's up with you."

"I've got the flu."

"Uh-huh," said Dan doubtfully. "You sound awful. Do you need anything?"

"No. I'm fine."

"Come on, man, you haven't been out of the house in three days. You must be out of everything."

"I'm fine," repeated Casey with rising agitation.

"I'll bring you over some lunch."

"No! Do not come over."

Dan straightened in his chair. This was also wrong. "I'm coming over now," he said sharply.

"Damn it, Dan, I said no. Just stay away from me."

"Read my metaphorical lips," Dan snapped. "I am coming over."

"Danny-"

"I am coming over now. I don't give a damn if you've got e-fucking-bola. Put on a pot of coffee, pal, 'cause we're going to talk."

Casey hung up on him.

Dan couldn't really believe it for a moment. He sat there listening to the clunk and the clicks and the hisses you get when someone hangs up on you as if Casey were still speaking, speaking in some new language that Dan didn't understand. And then the dial tone hit, and Dan found himself staring out the window at the building across the street with the phone to his ear and his jaw on the carpet. Casey had never hung up on him. Not in ten years of friendship, not in the worst telephone screaming matches they'd ever had. Never.

There was something going on.

***

March 20, 12:05 pm

Dan stopped knocking on Casey's door and started pounding about five minutes in. It was hard on his hands, but at least it got a response from the man inside.

"Goddammit, Danny, go away."

Dan let go a grunt of satisfaction at the sound of Casey's voice. Not that Casey sounded good. He didn't. He sounded horrible. But anything was less frustrating than silence. "Is that all you've got to say? I made it over here in ... seventeen minutes. And thirteen seconds. Personal best. And in lunch hour traffic, too."

"Go the fuck away. Go back to work."

"But I like it out here. The décor is just lovely. Sort of EconoLodge meets Martha Stewart." Dan pressed his eye to the peephole, knowing he wouldn't be able to see anything, but hoping to provoke Casey into opening the door if he happened to be looking through it at the same time. "Very homey. I feel warm and welcome out here."

"You're not welcome." Casey was snarling now. "Go away!"

Dan heard the door to the apartment across the hall open, and turned to nod genially at the middle-aged man who was peering out at him in obvious annoyance. "Hey, man, how you doing?"

"Is there a problem?" demanded the man peevishly.

"Sure," replied Dan with his best on-air smile. "World hunger, nuclear proliferation, global warming, a Republican administration. Take your pick."

The man glared and slammed his door shut again. Dan could hear him throwing the deadbolt and sliding the chain.

"Wow, Case. What a sweet guy. I mean, going out of his way to say hi and all. Are all your neighbors like that?"

There was no response.

"I can't wait to find out." Dan sat cross-legged on the floor with his back to Casey's door. "You know, your super does a stunningly beautiful job on this carpet. Man, you could eat off this carpet. Have you ever eaten off-" He was cut off by the elevator chime. "Oooh, who's this going to be?"

An elderly couple emerged from the elevator and made their way down the hall, slowing slightly as they caught sight of Dan. The woman glanced up at the man uncertainly, who fixed a disapproving glare in Dan's direction.

"Oh, don't mind me," said Dan pleasantly. "I'm harmless so far. The medications help tremendously."

"Jesus," came faintly from behind the door.

"Out for a walk? It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood. A beautiful day for a neighbor, would you be mine?" The couple edged past him, the woman clutching the man's arm with wide eyes.

"Leave them alone!" Casey kicked the door.

"Please," continued Dan solicitously. "Have a seat on this beautiful, professionally cleaned carpet. Let's get to know each other."

The couple scurried past and disappeared around the corner.

"You fucking lunatic." Casey's voice was muffled, as if he were leaning against the door.

Dan began humming It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood as loudly as possible.

"Danny, please. I'm fine. Just go away. I'll be at work tomorrow, I promise."

Dan broke into hearty song. "Could you be mine? Would you be mine? Won't you be my neighbor? Won't you please-"

He heard the chain being drawn back on Casey's door.

"Won't you please-"

The bolt slid back.

"Please won't you be my neighbor?"

The door was yanked open so suddenly that Dan, who had been leaning against it, wound up on his back. "And that concludes this afternoon's performance," he remarked to Casey's ceiling. Sighing, he rose to his feet and turned around. He couldn't see anything; the apartment was completely dark. Dark in the middle of the day. "Casey?"

"Shut that damn door," came out of the dark.

Dan shut the door behind him, peering around in search of Casey. "What's with the lights?"

"I've been in bed, okay?"

Dan could hear Casey breathing hard and swallowed. This was not good. This was as far from good as it got. "Case." He groped in the direction of Casey's voice. "Come on, man. You're scaring the hell out of me." He blundered into the drapes and felt his way to the cord. "Let's get the light of day in here, okay?"

Casey didn't answer, and Dan opened the drapes. Broad daylight streamed into the apartment, and Dan turned in relief, only to freeze where he was, shocked. Casey's obsessively neat apartment looked like a battlefield; overturned furniture, broken dishes, food on the carpet – geez, Casey made Dan scrub the carpet if he so much as dropped a bread crumb on it, and there was pizza ground into it? And beer spilled on it. And clothes all over the place. Picture frames had been knocked off tables and walls; broken glass was everywhere.

Dan rested his gaze on Casey, who was standing with his back to him. He was dressed in his oldest, rattiest sweats, and was barefoot amidst the broken dishes and glass. "Holy shit. Casey, what happened?" Dan moved quickly to Casey's side, but Casey visibly flinched and shied away. Dan swallowed hard and moved slowly, very slowly around Casey, heart pounding. "Case. Look at me."

Casey lifted his head, and Dan groaned softly. "Oh, God."

Casey stared back at him from blackened, dull eyes and a bruised and swollen face. He was unshaven and unwashed, probably for several days; the bruises that circled his neck were dark and ugly. He looked straight into Dan's eyes and said nothing.

"How bad are you?" whispered Dan. God, he knew this look. He knew it, he'd seen it, he'd felt it, and he'd rather have felt it again a thousand times than see it on Casey for one second.

"M'okay," said Casey tonelessly.

"You're not okay." Dan fought back the pressure building in his chest. "You need a doctor. Have you seen a doctor?"

"No. I don't need one. Just bruises, Danny. Hell, I've been beaten up before."

"Is that what happened? You were beaten up?"

Casey's gaze was suddenly everywhere but Dan's face. "Don't I look beaten up to you?"

If Casey had been wearing a sign, he couldn't have confirmed Dan's suspicions more completely. "You're coming with me to see my doctor right now."

"This is ridiculous. What's he going to do? Prescribe icepacks and aspirin?"

"First of all, he's going to give you an anal exam."

Casey started backing away with a panic stricken expression. "What the fuck-"

"And he's going to run tests for STDs and most of all he's going to tell me that you're going to be all right," said Dan unevenly.

Casey made a frantically dismissive gesture with both hands. "You ... you've lost it, Dan. I'm telling you you've lost it, okay? Just ... calm down. You don't know what the hell you're talking about."

"I know exactly what I'm talking about. Where are your shoes? And your coat?"

"I'm not going to your doctor. Listen to yourself, Danny. You are totally panicking here." Casey made a lame effort to assume a casual stance and failed miserably.

"You're damn right I'm panicking!" Dan lunged at the pair of sneakers he saw under the couch and snatched them up, then strode over to Casey. He managed to stop outside of Casey's usual personal space for him, which was virtually nonexistent. "You should have called a doctor right away. Or called me." Dan searched his friend's battered face, vaguely aware that he was clutching Casey's sneakers to his chest as if they'd keep him afloat, and that Casey was breathing too hard for a man who wasn't running for his life. "You can call me. You can call me for anything, anytime, anywhere, man. God, don't you know that?" Dan's voice broke and he took a deep breath. He could not lose it. He could not lose it now. Later. Later he'd lose it. He could lose it as much as he wanted to then. Later.

"I know that," whispered Casey. "I know that, Danny." His swollen eyes had tears in them now.

"Will you come see my doctor?" Dan was whispering, too.

"Yeah. Yeah."

"Okay. Sit down and we'll get your shoes on." Dan reached out tentatively to touch Casey's shoulder, not sure how much physical contact Casey could stand, but Casey laid a hand on top of Dan's.

"I think I'm ... a little crazy right now," he said, and the tears spilled over onto his face.

Dan dropped the sneakers and drew Casey toward him gently, holding him in a loose embrace. He nearly groaned his relief when Casey put his arms around him and rested his head on his shoulder. "This is not a problem," Dan quavered. "This is ... you be as crazy as you want, man. I'm not going anywhere."

They stood still for a few minutes, Dan running a soothing hand across Casey's back, Casey's arms tight around Dan's waist. Then Casey raised his head. "Okay."

"Okay." Dan bent and picked up the sneakers, then guided Casey to the sofa. Casey sat down and watched with a bemused expression as Dan knelt to help him into his shoes.

"I didn't want to unlock the damn door." Casey's voice strained and broke.

Dan struggled to tie Casey's shoelaces with shaking fingers. "I know."

"Even when I knew it was you."

"I know. It'll be okay, Case. Just ... we've got to keep our heads in the game. Focus. The doctor first. Okay?" Dan stood up on rubbery legs and offered Casey a hand.

Casey stared up at him wordlessly.

"Come on." Dan pulled Casey to his feet. "We can do this."

******

March 20, 2:35 pm

"This one's for the pain." Matt Brewer shoved the prescription into Dan's hand.

Dan flinched. "How much ... how bad…."

"It's not too bad. God knows I've seen worse. Hell, Dan, you were worse. He doesn't need surgery. Breathe."

Dan breathed and fell into the chair beside the doctor's desk. "Thank God."

"He's in a hell of a lot of pain right now, so get that filled right away."

"Three days, sitting in the dark. Hurting. I want to break his damn neck." Dan's voice broke instead; he looked away from Matt hastily.

"You know where that comes from."

"I know where it comes from."

"Are you going to be all right with this? It might not be a good idea for you to be-"

"I'm all right with this," muttered Dan. "I have to be."

"Dan." Matt had his doctor voice on, and Dan sighed resignedly as he turned to face him. "Casey isn't your responsibility. He needs professional help-"

"He'll get it," cut in Dan impatiently. "He'll get my help, too."

"I know you've come to terms with what you went through, but this will be pushing it for you. Seriously, you might want to consider-"

"Turning my back on my best friend?" snapped Dan.

Matt sighed and leaned back in his chair. "Has anyone ever told you that you tend to view situations in black-and-white terms?"

"Has anyone ever told you that your certification is in internal medicine and not in psychiatry?"

"You," said Matt sternly, "need to consider what is best for you."

"What's best for me is what's best for Casey. What are the other prescriptions for?"

Matt sighed and handed the slips of paper over. "Antibiotic. And something for the anxiety attacks. Dan, I'm serious. Think about letting someone else do this."

"No one else can do this," said Dan flatly, taking the prescriptions. "He's my best friend."

"Are you telling me he has no other friends?"

"No. I'm telling you that he has no other friends who love him as much as I do." Dan felt the blood rush to his face. "And I'm doing this. End of discussion."

Matt regarded him gravely for a moment. "You're still in love with him," he said gently.

Dan stared back at his friend defiantly, silently daring him to say one word about how painful, how self-destructive, how downright stupid it was to fall in love with a straight guy who was also your best friend.

"Be careful, Dan." Matt's voice dropped. "Casey's very vulnerable right now. He trusts you. Don't misinterpret-"

"Yeah, got it," said Dan brusquely, abruptly getting to his feet.

Matt rose with him and laid a restraining hand on his arm with an anxious expression. "Dan, I'm your friend. I just don't want to see you hurt. Either of you."

"Yeah," said Dan quietly, kicking himself for being ten kinds of asshole. "Yeah, I know."

"Be careful. Take it easy. If it starts getting too intense, call me. You still have Alex's number? Casey will need to talk to someone soon."

"I've got it." Dan offered his hand, and Matt shook it, looking relieved. "Thanks, Matt. Thanks for seeing him right away. I won't forget it."

"Hey."

Dan turned to see Casey standing in the office doorway, trying to smile. He wasn't doing very well.

"Hey," said Dan brightly. "Ready to go?"

**********

March 20, 3:45 pm

"I really, really want a shower, Danny." Casey moved gingerly into his living room, looking at the destruction around him as if he hadn't been sitting in it for the past three days.

Dan closed the door behind him, nodding. "Go on. Shower and change. And take your meds. You'll feel a little better." He put the bag in Casey's hand. "When was the last time you ate?"

Casey started to rub his eyes and winced. "Don't remember. I'm not very hungry."

"You should eat something. Just a little. I'll heat up some soup, okay?"

Casey nodded, then looked at Dan with a pale imitation of a smile. "Chicken soup, Mom?"

Dan laughed weakly. "Yeah. Good for what ails you."

Casey's imitation turned into the real thing. "I'm glad you came over, Danny."

Dan swallowed and waved Casey toward the bathroom. "Go on, take your shower. You're stinking up the joint, man."

Casey's smile deepened for a moment as he turned away, leaving Dan standing in the middle of the living room, telling himself that it wasn't time to lose it yet. It wasn't. Time to lose it. Yet.

Dan stalked to the phone and dialed Dana's cell phone number, counted the rings mechanically, said hello when Dana answered.

"Danny! Where the hell are you?"

"I'm-"

"You've already missed one rundown and you're two minutes and thirty seconds away from missing-"

"Dana-"

"A second one. This isn't a bad movie, Danny, you don't just get up and walk out when you don't like-"

"Dana. Shut up." Dan flinched at the ice in his tone. She didn't know. She didn't know, she couldn't know, and how the hell was he going to make this work?

"What?" Dan could hear her suddenly give him her full attention. "What is it?"

"I'm with Casey."

"You're with Casey?"

"I'm with Casey. I just got back from taking him to the doctor."

"It's not the flu?"

"It's not the flu. He was mugged."

"What?"

"He was mugged. Tuesday night after work, somebody mugged him."

Dan could hear Dana breathing for a few seconds. "Is he all right? Where is he? Where are you? Why did he tell me it was the flu?"

"He's pretty beat up, but the doctor says he'll be okay."

"Dan, where are you?"

"Casey's place. Dana, Casey's going to need some time."

"What? Time. Yes! Time! Why the hell didn't he tell me?"

"He's gone double-Y on us again," said Dan, throwing all his effort into sounding breezy and mildly annoyed. "He doesn't want to lose his alpha-male standing in the pack."

"Danny-"

"Plus he looks like a street-sweeper parked on his face with the brushes going, and you know how he is about that pretty face of his."

"Danny, what's going on?"

"I just told you what's going on." Dan played with the telephone cord nervously, thankful that Dana couldn't see his face.

"Why did Casey tell me he had the flu?"

"Tell a girl he was beaten up? You're kidding, right?"

Several more seconds of silence reigned; Dan wound the phone cord around his arm convulsively. "Dan. How bad is he?"

"He's going to be okay."

"He's really bad, isn't he? Something really bad happened."

"Dana, he is going to be okay. I swear he's going to be okay. He just needs some time."

"What is going on? Why are bad things happening? Bad things shouldn't be happening this often." Dana's voice was rising and brittle. "Gordon came over last night to pick up his things."

"Dana-"

"He picked up his shirts and his underwear and his toothbrush and his CDs, and there I was staring at him because it was like some strange man was collecting things in my house."

"Dana, he'll be all right. The doctor said he'll be all right."

"He went out and got drunk, you know. He broke up with me and then he went out and got drunk and picked a fight with some guy in a bar and got his face pounded on for like half an hour. What the hell is going on here? Everyone around me, including me, is having bad things happen to them and I want to know why. I demand an explanation. What am I, some sort of de facto organic lightning rod for bad things?"

"Dana, breathe." Dan sighed deeply. "Listen to me. Casey. Will. Be. All. Right."

"Casey will be all right," repeated Dana unevenly. "Right. Yes."

"Yes."

"Right."

"You need to get Bobbie Bernstein in for Casey."

"For how long?"

"I don't know yet."

Silence.

"He will be all right," said Dan firmly.

"He will be all right."

"And you need to get someone in for me tonight. I'm staying with Casey."

"Do you need anything? Do you need help? I could-"

"No. Thanks, Dana, but no. Just keep everybody away for a while, okay? He's not up to visitors."

Silence. "Okay." It was a whisper.

Shit.

"He will-"

"- be all right," finished Dana in a shaking voice. "Yes."

"Right. I'll call you later."

"Okay."

"You all right?"

"Yes."

"You sure?"

"No."

"Okay," said Dan wryly. "Just so we're on the same page."

"Tell him we love him, Danny."

"He knows. But I'll tell him anyway."

"Okay."

"Okay. Bye."

"Bye."

Danny hung up the phone and rooted around in the kitchen cabinets until he found a can of chicken soup, then rooted around a little more until he found a can opener. He dumped the contents of the can into what was apparently Casey's one and only saucepan, added the water, and stirred briskly over medium heat before he sank to his hands and knees on the cool linoleum and sobbed like he'd never stop.

Casey. His Casey. Somebody had fucking raped his Casey, and left him here all alone and hurting and Dan hadn't been here to kill the son of a bitch before he could lay so much as a finger on him and goddamn it to hell he was losing it, losing it, losing it big time and it wasn't later. "Stop it," he gasped at the floor tiles. "Stop it. Later. Later. Later…"

It had to be later. It had to be later because he was no fucking good to Casey crying like a baby on his kitchen floor, and being good to Casey was all he gave a damn about now. It suddenly occurred to him that Casey had been in the shower for an awfully long time.

Wiping his face with his shirtsleeve, Dan picked himself up off the floor and methodically turned off the burner, then walked toward Casey's bedroom. "Case?" He couldn't hear the shower going. "Case?" The bedroom door was open and Dan stuck his head in. Casey was lying on the bed sound asleep, his wet hair soaking the pillowcase. He had somehow managed to shave, which only accentuated the bruises on his face; Dan restrained a groan at the sight with difficulty. The marks on Casey's neck were painfully visible now. The bastard, whoever he had been, had tried strangling Casey at some point, whether as appetizer or dessert. Dan briefly envisioned his own hands around the guy's neck, then firmly banished the image.

Dan walked over to the bed and pulled the covers up over his friend, noting idly that Casey had put on the sweats he'd gotten him for Christmas last year. Last year, before any of this had happened, before some goddamn son of a bitch had come along to send both their lives to hell, before anything bad had happened and Dan loved Casey and Casey liked Dan and things were normal. Casey stirred and opened his eyes.

"Hey," said Dan in a strained voice. "Go back to sleep."

"Sorry," murmured Casey drowsily.

"Don't sorry me. Sleep."

"Took the meds."

"Good."

"Danny."

"Yeah?" Dan leaned over to catch the mumbled words.

"Can you stay a while?"

"As long as you want," croaked Dan fervently. Yeah, days, weeks, years ... whatever.

"Show tonight."

"Dana's getting somebody in. It's covered, man. Just ... sleep now."

"'kay. Thanks." Casey drifted off, and Dan left the room and shut the door.

"The trick to this," observed Dan pedantically to the ceiling, wiping his face again, "is to keep moving." So he moved. Into the living room. Which was where it had happened, of course. This was where some bastard had raped his Casey. It sure as hell didn't take a detective to figure it out. There was nothing out of place back in the bedroom, but the living room looked like the Puerto Rican Pride Parade had been through it. Casey had put up one hell of a fight.

"Good for you, Case," muttered Dan, righting the coffee table. "Good for you. I hope you fucking crippled him for life."

He turned toward the pile of clothing, swallowing hard. Being a writer was a distinct disadvantage in this situation. Being a writer meant he had imagination enough to reconstruct the whole damn thing; to imagine Casey on the floor with that bastard on top of him, beating on him, choking him, stripping him, raping him. And all it took to conjure those images to his mind's eye was an innocuous pile of clothes.

Snarling, Dan pounced on the pile and snatched it up. Jeans, t-shirt, boxers, dress shirt. He grabbed a plastic bag off the kitchen counter and shoved them in, then tossed the bag into the corner by the door. He'd dump them into the trash later; he knew damn well Casey would never want to wear them again. Then he turned his attention to the rest of the mess.

Most of his attention, that is. Most of his attention was on sweeping up glass and broken dishes and rearranging furniture and hanging pictures back on the walls. And another part of his attention was on listening for any sound from the man sleeping in the next room. And a very tiny, annoying part of his attention was on something he couldn't quite put his finger on, something that niggled and nibbled and prickled his consciousness like an itch he couldn't reach.

Dan was scrubbing at the pizza detritus engrained in the carpet when he finally reached it. The niggle, the nibble, the prickle. Jeans, t-shirt, boxers, dress shirt. Dress shirt? It was like those old exercises in elementary school: which of these things don't belong with the others? Dress shirt? Dan dropped his sponge and stalked to the plastic bag. The bastard had left his shirt? This was the bastard's shirt? Dan seized the bag and yanked out the shirt, staring at it as if it were a rattlesnake.

But it wasn't the bastard's shirt. It was Casey's shirt. Casey's favorite shirt.

The bag fell from Dan's numb fingers and fell with a disgruntled rattle of plastic on the carpet.

It was Casey's old favorite shirt. His favorite shirt before the new one, which he had bought after the old one had gotten lost in Sally Sasser's laundry and wound up on Gordon Gage. His old favorite shirt. The one Gordon had never returned, the one Casey hadn't wanted back. Casey's old favorite shirt.

The one Gordon still had.

Gordon.

Gordon, who broke up with Dana and then went out and got drunk and picked a fight with some guy in a bar and got his face pounded on for like half an hour.

Somewhere between and behind the blinding images of Gordon on top of Casey and Dan ripping Gordon's throat out, Dan heard Casey's bedroom door open, heard Casey's feet shuffling on the carpet.

"Hey. Aw, Danny."

Dan turned toward his friend, still clutching the damned shirt, mute.

"You didn't have to…." Casey's voice faded away; his gaze was riveted on the thing in Dan's hands. Then he looked up at Dan. They stared at each other for a long time.

"He said he'd come to return my shirt," said Casey finally, in a shockingly normal voice. "He was really drunk."

Dan tried again to say something.

"He started throwing punches out of nowhere. He started yelling about Dana. How Dana was hung up on me, that's why they'd never had a chance."

I am going to kill him

, thought Dan numbly. I am going to kill him if it means they hang me or electrocute me or poison me or whatever the fuck they do to murderers now. I am going to kill him.

"He kept yelling about my pretty face, Dana was in love with my pretty face, and he'd make damn sure it wasn't pretty any more." Casey touched his swollen face gingerly. "I held my own for a while, but once he got me on the floor it was pretty much over."

Dan dropped the shirt and walked over to Casey, still struggling for words.

"I'm okay, Danny," continued Casey calmly. "Really."

"You're not okay," rasped Dan finally. "I think you should lie down, Case."

"It's not like I've never been fucked before," continued Casey casually.

Dan took Casey gently by the arm and steered him back into the bedroom, studiously ignoring the fact that his world had just flipped upside down.

"I've been fucked before, Danny."

Dan gently pushed Casey onto the bed and swung his legs around. "Lie down, Casey. Please."

"You don't believe me, do you? You don't believe I've been with guys."

"No," said Dan quietly. "I don't believe you." He picked up the pain medication on Casey's nightstand, dumped the contents onto his palm, and counted the pills. One missing. He'd only taken one.

Casey lay back and closed his eyes. "It's not the drugs talking, Danny."

Dan dumped the pills back into the bottle and snatched up the anti-anxiety pills.

"Didn't take those," murmured Casey.

Dan counted them anyway; none were missing. And obviously the antibiotic wouldn't produce this ... this…. He shoved the pills back in the bottle and capped it with shaking hands. "I really think you should get some more sleep, buddy." He glanced up, prepared for an argument, only to see that Casey had drifted off again.

Dan let out a shaky sigh of relief. Casey hadn't known what he was saying. God knows when he'd slept last, or eaten, or ... shit. Never mind. He'd sleep it off now. Dan covered Casey very gently and sank into the chair beside the bed, then leaned back and closed his eyes.

**********************

March 20, 8:10 pm

"Son of a bitch! Get off me, get off-"

Dan started awake, amazed to find himself in complete darkness. Damn, he must have been asleep for hours.

"Get off!"

Dan bolted out of his chair and groped wildly for Casey, only to be socked in the jaw with a reassuringly solid fist. He staggered back, slightly stunned, then fumbled for the light and turned it on.

Casey was sitting upright, panting, staring around him with a frightened, almost feral expression. Dan had never seen that look on his friend's face before. "Whoa. Easy." Dan knelt beside the bed, moving no closer. "Case. It's me."

Casey looked at him blankly for a moment, then his face twisted as if he were about to break down. But he didn't. "Danny."

"The one and only." Somehow, Dan managed to get a smile on his face.

"Shit," whispered Casey, pushing his hair away from his sweating face.

"You're okay, man," said Dan softly, reaching out to touch his friend's arm, relieved when Casey didn't pull away. "Easy."

"Your mouth's bleeding," whispered Casey. "Jesus, I hit you."

Swearing silently, Dan wiped his mouth. "I'm fine. Don't worry about it. Let me get you some water-"

Casey seized his arm so tightly that Dan gasped in surprise. "No! Do. Not. Leave."

Dan slowly sank to perch on the side of the bed, making no effort to free his arm. "Okay," he breathed. "You got it, man."

"I mean it." Casey's voice was thick with tears, but his expression was like steel. "I will fucking lose it if you leave."

"I'm not going anywhere."

"I didn't mean to hit you."

"I know."

"I didn't mean it."

"Case. I know. Breathe."

Casey obediently drew a deep breath and let it go. Dan could feel his friend's muscles quivering through the grip on his arm. "You know what he kept saying?"

Dan cringed inwardly. "Tell me." His voice was steady.

"'Had enough, pretty boy?'" Casey yanked Dan closer. "He wanted me to beg. He wanted me to fucking beg him to stop, and I wouldn't."

Dan swallowed convulsively, nodding.

"He just kept ... trying to make it hurt, you know? Trying to make it hurt really bad so I'd beg. It lasted a long time, Danny. He was in me a long time." Casey was breathing hard now, clutching Dan's arm so tightly it hurt.

Dan's insides churned and twisted and somehow he kept it off his face. "He's gone, Casey. You're safe." Because I'm going to kill him.

Casey laughed harshly. "This must be loads of fun for you."

Dan started. "What?"

"Spending time with me right now. Loads of fun." Casey slowly relaxed his grip on Dan's arm and leaned away; Dan could almost feel him struggling for control.

"I'm where I want to be, Case," said Dan evenly.

"You're crazy," retorted Casey flatly.

"Yeah," said Dan wryly. "That's been pretty well established."

Casey stared at him for a minute, then looked away, his breathing raspy and uneven. He was staring at the closet door, although Dan knew damn well that wasn't what he was seeing. He didn't want to know what Casey was seeing. "I never thought being fucked could hurt that much. I really didn't. I never thought-"

"You weren't fucked," said Dan, more sharply than he intended. "You were raped, Casey. The bastard raped you."

Casey lay on his back across the bed to stare at the ceiling, and Dan lay on his back beside his friend, struggling to wrap his mind around the concept of Casey, his eternally unattainable, straight Casey, having sex with guys. "Been awhile," Casey said finally. "But I don't remember liking it much in high school either." Dan found himself speechless; Casey looked at him with an unfathomable expression. "Did you like it?"

Dan looked back, startled. "What?"

"When you dated guys."

"When I dated guys?" Dan stared at Casey incredulously. "Casey, I still date guys."

Casey frowned slightly. "You still date guys?"

"Yeah. Where'd you get the idea I don't date guys anymore?"

Casey shrugged again, his frown deepening. "And you like it?"

Dan turned his attention to the ceiling, suddenly uncomfortable. "Sure I like it."

"You like it."

Dan groaned inwardly at the surprise in Casey's voice. "I wouldn't do it if I didn't like it."

"You wouldn't?" asked Casey in a weird voice.

"No," said Dan unevenly. "That kind of stuff's light years from what I want, Case."

"You mean if you're in love." Casey's voice got even weirder.

"I mean if you have a shred of self-respect. Or respect for the guy you're with. If you like each other."

"Or if you love each other."

"Yeah, if you love each other."

"Have you ever been in love with a guy, Danny?"

Dan studied the cracks in the ceiling intently, feeling his palms begin to sweat. How the hell had he gotten here? How the hell had he skated full speed over the black ice on a b-line for the nearest hole without even noticing he was on the pond? "Yeah," he said softly, praying to whichever god was listening to this bizarre conversation that it would end there.

"And he fucked you?"

The small hairs on the back of Dan's neck went up; he could feel his heart start to race. "Casey, I think this is a really bad conversation to be having right now."

Casey propped himself up on his elbow. "Did he? Did you like it?" He laid his free hand on Dan's chest.

Dan swallowed hard and met Casey's gaze. "What's going on here, Case?"

"I've wanted to fuck you for a long time," said Casey dully. "You know?"

"Okay," said Dan shakily, sitting up. "I think maybe we should give Matt a call and-" Dan was flat on his back with Casey on top of him before he could finish his sentence.

"I love you," said Casey in the same weird monotone, one hand caressing Dan's hair. "I respect you. I want to fuck you."

"Casey, what the…. You're not ... thinking straight. Come on, get off me." Dan tried to push him off, but Casey grabbed his wrists, forced them to the bed, and kissed him hard.

Dan groaned aloud and pulled away from the kiss. Oh, God. Matt had been right, right, right; he was in way over his head and there was not a life preserver in sight. "This isn't what you want. Dammit, Casey, let me up!"

"I know what I want," growled Casey, looking more like a frightened teenager than a grown man. He released Dan's left wrist and shoved his right hand between them to yank down the zipper on Dan's jeans.

Dan gasped and used his freed hand to shove at Casey in a panic. "God, Case, get off me! What the hell are you doing?"

Snarling, Casey snagged the wrist again and pulled both of Dan's arms over this head, then he pinioned both wrists to the bed with his forearm and returned to opening Dan's fly. Shoving his hand inside Dan's pants, he caressed Dan's cock roughly as he pressed his mouth to Dan's again.

Dan ruthlessly clamped down on his panic. It would be easy to stop this craziness, if hurting Casey were an option; Casey wasn't exactly in top form at the moment. But hurting Casey was never an option. And Dan knew damn well that Casey would never hurt him, either. Whatever was going on here, it wasn't about Casey trying to hurt Dan. So if Casey needed a kiss and a grope to get through this, then that's what he'd have. And if Casey needed more, he'd have that, too.

Dan let himself go limp under Casey's grip and started kissing Casey back, putting as much tenderness and reassurance into the touch as he could muster with his arms wrenched over his head. Casey jerked away as if he'd been burned and stared down at Dan with a shocked expression.

"I love you, too, Case," said Dan quietly.

Casey's face went blank.

"I love you," repeated Dan, feeling his face go uncomfortably hot. This was a hell of a way to tell somebody you love them; he must look like a complete idiot. "Um ... just so you know."

"Oh, God," said Casey faintly. He yanked his hand out of Dan's pants. "Oh, my God. Danny…." Casey let go of Dan's wrists so suddenly that Dan winced.

"Casey?" Dan reached for him, alarmed at the wild, stricken expression on his friend's face.

Casey sprang off the bed and into the bathroom; Dan could hear him retching. Shaken, Dan rolled onto the floor and staggered in after him, only to find Casey on his knees in front of the toilet. There was obviously nothing in Casey's stomach to come up, but the dry heaves kept coming anyway. Dan sank to his knees beside him and put a hand on his shoulder. "Easy," he murmured gently.

Casey groaned and retched again. And again. It went on for what seemed like a long time before he finally sat back and buried his face in his hands. Dan rose and filled a paper cup with water, then knelt back at Casey's side. "Here. Drink."

There was no response for a moment. "Did I hurt you?" finally came in a whisper from behind Casey's hands.

"Yeah, like that's going to happen," said Dan drily. "Drink."

Casey lifted his head, clearly aghast. "Are you fucking mental?" A surge of rage crossed his face; he slapped the cup out of Dan's hand, and it struck the tiled wall with a muted splat. "Were you out of the room just now when I tried to rape you?"

"That's not what you were trying to do." Dan kept his voice level with difficulty. "What did you think I'd do, Case? Hit you?" He paused, thinking about it. "Leave you?"

"I don't want you to go," said Casey thickly.

"Sure you do. You want me to walk out on you so you have proof positive you deserved what that fuck did to you."

Casey pale face went even whiter.

"Well, you can deep six that play, pal. I don't care what you do to me. You can strip me naked and fuck me into next week in front of the goddamn Mormon Tabernacle Choir if you want to. I'm not going anywhere."

"Danny-"

"Just deal with it. Tomorrow morning I'm making an appointment for you with Alex and ... you are going to talk to him about all this." Dan took a deep breath to quell the horrible pressure tightening his chest; it didn't help. "You are going to let him help you, or so help me God…" Dan bowed his head, too exhausted to fight the pressure in his chest or the sting in his eyes. He drew a sharp breath, startled, as Casey curled his hands around his face with profound gentleness, and lifted it towards him.

"I'll go," rasped Casey. "I'll talk." He wiped away Dan's tears with shaking hands. "I'll do anything you want. You name it."

Dan blinked until he could see Casey clearly, clearly enough to realize that his face was wet, too. "That ... that's more like it. 'Cause you know I could make you. I could fucking drag you there. I'm stronger than I look."

Casey gave him a tremulous, watery smile. "Oh, yeah. I live in fear."

"I could do it," persisted Dan obstinately, reaching out to wipe Casey's tears in turn. "I would do it." His voice fell and broke into a hoarse whisper. "I'd do anything for you."

A helpless, wondering look crossed Casey's face for a second; he closed his eyes and leaned forward to rest his forehead on Dan's shoulder. "I'd do anything for you, too," he whispered. "I love you more than anything, Danny, I swear to God."

Stunned into silence, Dan carefully considered the implausibility of the assertion.

"More than anything," repeated Casey, quiet and fierce, as if he'd read Dan's mind.

Dan let out a shaky, happy little sigh and sent all his questions packing. He bent his head and settled his cheek against Casey's, then put his arms around him gently. They sat very still for a long time.

***********************

March 21, 10:15 am

"You never told him."

"No. And I'm not going to."

An ominous silence fell on Alex Brophy's end of the line, and Dan sighed, bracing himself for the inevitable onslaught of kvetch. "And the reasoning underpinning this asinine decision would be…?"

"You have to ask?"

"Apparently."

"Casey doesn't need this now. He's got his own hell to deal with. And I don't want him thinking he has to walk on eggs around me."

Alex let loose with a snort. "Well, this is a typically self-destructive, masochistic Rydell stunt."

"I've always admired your gentle, reassuring therapeutic technique, Brophy."

"As was, I might add, not telling him about it when it happened, or at any time in the seven years since."

Dan stiffened. "We're not going there again."

"He's your best friend. What the hell are you afraid of?"

"Alex, we're not going there," said Dan sharply. "Got it?"

"Better than you do, junior." Alex's voice was crisp. "You have completely misjudged Casey if you think he'd rise up in righteous wrath to defend his high school basketball hero at the expense of your friendship."

"Nick was his best friend," said Dan quietly. "What would telling him accomplish, Alex? If he doesn't believe me, our friendship is shot to hell. If he does, his friendship with Nick is shot to hell. I don't see the point."

"Do you seriously imagine he'd want anything to do with that bastard once he found out what he did to you?"

"Probably not. And I think he'd spend the rest of his life missing the Nick Trutanic he thought he knew, and probably wind up hating me for taking that guy away from him. That's what I think. I'm not telling him, Alex. That's final."

Alex sighed heavily. "I'll respect your wishes, Dan, but I'm telling you up front this is a bad idea and it's going to come back to bite you in the ass."

"Opinion noted." Dan softened his voice. "Hey. Alex. Thanks for taking him on. I know you have a full schedule."

"No problem. Your masochism has worn off on me over the years."

"Get bent," said Dan cheerfully, hearing the affectionate amusement in Alex's voice.

Alex chuckled. "Tomorrow at ten. And tell him to leave his bullshit at the door."

**********************

April 5, 11:35 am

"I think the network is fully justified in their concern. One of your lead anchors has been absent for over a week, and the other's performance has been second-rate at best."

Dan dug his fingernails into his palms, fists clenched tight, as he struggled to keep a pleasant expression on his face. "And occasionally third-rate," he agreed amiably. "Maybe fourth-rate on a really bad day, but second-rate is probably a fair assessment in general. What do you think, Isaac?"

"The man was mugged, J.J." Ignoring Dan, Isaac leaned back in his chair and cast J.J. a mildly exasperated look. "He was beaten up pretty damn badly."

"And my heart goes out to him," said J.J. solicitously.

"Excuse me, your ... your what goes out?" Dan leaned forward in his chair as if trying to catch an unfamiliar word.

Dana started scratching something onto her clipboard. "You might not want to go there, J.J." Her voice was brittle.

J.J. turned to Dan. "You can't deny your performance for the past few days has been substandard."

"We have standards?"

"The point, J.J." Isaac's patience was obviously wearing thin. "Casey's doing his damnedest to get back on his feet, and Dan is doing his damnedest to cover the bases while he's out. Exactly what is the network's problem?"

"Casey's recovery curve seems just a tad extended."

"His recovery curve?" Dana looked up sharply; her voice became strident. "What the hell is a recovery curve?"

Dan rose to his feet, congratulating himself for keeping his hands off J.J.'s throat. "I've had enough of this. We're not talking about a hangnail here. My partner was beaten within an inch of his life. If you think-"

"Dan," said Isaac softly.

Dan shut his mouth and turned to stalk to the window, his arms folded across his chest. He started counting windows.

"J.J., please tell our friends at the network that their kind wishes for Casey's recovery are deeply appreciated. That's all."

Dan stopped counting and glanced over his shoulder in time to see J.J.'s jaw drop.

"Isaac, I really think-"

"I said that's all, J.J."

J.J. snapped his briefcase shut and stalked out of Isaac's office, slamming the door behind him.

"I've always felt there was a valid argument for exposure at birth," said Dan unevenly. That had been close. Dan had been itching to beat someone's face in for days; J.J. had only narrowly escaped being the lucky winner.

"He's only been out for ten days, Isaac, this is ridiculous!" Dana tossed her clipboard onto Isaac's desk and began to pace. "What the hell is going on?"

"Good question." Isaac's keen gaze traveled from Dana to Dan and back again. "There have been some pretty wild rumors flying around over at Corporate."

"Rumors? About what? Oh. No." Dana sank back into her chair with an aghast expression.

"About Casey? What the hell are they saying about Casey?" Dan managed not to shout. Barely.

"Sit down," said Isaac in a firm tone.

Dan slumped into his chair, staring.

"Trash talk about on-air staff's private life is nothing new in this business, but this talk is the some of the nastiest I've heard in forty years. I don't know where it started, but it ended up in Luther's office."

"Who is saying what?" asked Dan between clenched teeth.

"Daniel, the worst thing you can do for Casey right now is to go charging in there trying to defend his honor."

"Casey's honor doesn't need defending," snapped Dan.

"I'm glad you agree."

"You think J.J. is trying to find some justification for terminating Casey's contract?" Dana was clutching her clipboard so tightly that her knuckles were white.

"Of course. It's a preemptive strike, before whatever scandal they think is on the horizon catches them with their pants down."

Dan sat in silence, numb, an odd pressure building in his chest.

"So J.J. goes for an extended recovery curve?"

Isaac shrugged. "We all know Casey hasn't been himself, on-air or off, for a few weeks now. He'll use that, too. He'll use whatever he can get his hands on. He doesn't need much. If Luther perceives Casey to be a liability, then poor performance and extended absence will be more than enough."

"Extended ... Isaac, he's only been out-"

Dan finally exploded. "Luther's gunning for him, Dana. It doesn't have to make sense. You know, I would have put real money on the proposition that Luther Sachs couldn't possibly become any more of a morally bankrupt, spineless putz than he already was, but he's surpassed himself."

"I need you to stay calm, Danny."

"Dammit, Isaac, don't tell me to stay calm! Those bastards are trying to crucify my partner over rumors. That is not when a person stays calm. That is when a person goes over to Corporate and kicks Luther Sachs' fat ass." Dan launched himself out of his chair, knocking it over.

"You're not going anywhere," said Isaac in steely tone.

"Dan, don't get crazy on us." Dana rose and laid a hand on Dan's shoulder, but Dan ignored her.

"Fine. You go, then. You tell that bastard that if Casey goes, so do I. You tell him that Dan Rydell says he's a heartless coward and a snake, and that if he wants to take that up with me he knows where to find me."

"Dana, could you give us a few minutes?" Isaac's gaze didn't waver from Dan's face.

"Sure. I'll ... um, whatever." Dana squeezed Dan's shoulder and left, closing the door behind her.

"You're wound a little tight, Daniel," said Isaac in a voice that could slice glass. "Sit down."

"I mean it," rasped Dan, clutching the edge of Isaac's desk for support. "I'm not going to let this happen, Isaac. Casey's been through enough already, he's not going to lose his job, too."

"And just how is kicking Luther Sachs' admittedly fat ass going to accomplish that?"

Dan stood panting, lost.

"How is getting yourself fired or thrown in jail going to accomplish that?"

Dan closed his eyes.

"You're going to calm down. You're going to think. We all are. And then we're going to decide how to stop this thing. Am I clear?"

"Yes, sir," said Dan faintly.

"Sit down before you fall down." Isaac's voice was gentle now.

Dan sank into Dana's chair, rubbing his eyes and thinking longingly of stretching out on Isaac's carpet. He tried to remember the last time he'd had eight consecutive hours of sleep and came up empty.

"What's going on, Danny?"

Dan's head jerked up. "Going on?"

"You look like hell." Isaac's gaze swept over him, eyes narrowing. "Is Casey-"

"He's better," said Dan quickly. "He's just ... he can't ... hell, Isaac. Just getting out the door to the doctor is a major accomplishment for him right now. The doctor says it's some kind of anxiety disorder."

To Dan's relief, Isaac sighed and nodded, to all appearances satisfied. "He'll come through this, Dan. Casey's stronger than he thinks he is."

Dan hated this. He hated lying to this man. He hated lying to Dana. He hated watching Casey find out how strong he was. "Yeah. I know."

"Don't drive yourself into the ground. You'll be no good to anyone if you do. Including Casey."

Dan forced a smile. "I'm okay, Isaac. Just tired."

Isaac examined him so carefully that Dan felt his skin crawl. "Get some rest. And leave this business with Luther to me. Understood?"

"Yes, sir," said Dan blandly. "No problem."

***

April 6, 1:20 pm

"No," said Casey flatly, shoving his soda can away. "Nobody. Not Dana, not Isaac, nobody. Got it?"

Dan stifled a sigh. The last few days had not been easy. He hadn't expected them to be. Casey was not the sort of man to lower his defenses without a battle, and Alex Brophy was not the sort of therapist to refuse a challenge. Casey had been in a slow, steady decline toward blind rage for a week; he'd been white-faced and tight-lipped ever since Dan had picked him up after his morning session. He was as surly and uncommunicative as Dan had ever seen him, and he'd stayed that way all through lunch. Things did not look good.

"It's your call, man." Dan kept his voice low. "But believe it or not, the network has started to notice that you're not on the air."

Flashing Dan a look of unadulterated irritation, Casey shoved his carton of sweet and sour pork away from him. "Fuck the network."

"More?" Dan nudged the carton of fried rice in his direction.

"No," muttered Casey. "I've had enough."

"If Dana knew, she could run interference for you."

"Dan, just shut up, will you? Leave it the hell alone."

"We've got to come up with a plan, Case. Pretty soon they're going to start asking questions, and what do I say?"

"Goddamn it, Dan, I don't want to talk about this now!" Casey got up from the kitchen table and stalked into the living room.

"Tough session?" returned Dan evenly, turning to watch him.

Casey turned to glare at him. "None of your business!"

"Case. Come on. It's not me you're mad at."

"The hell I'm not. Don't tell me what I'm feeling. Just ... spare me your goddamn expertise, okay?" Casey stalked back into the kitchen and pulled a beer out of the fridge.

Dan turned to stare at him, surprised. "My what?"

" 'I've been there, Casey'," mimicked Casey savagely. " 'I hear you, Casey. I know how it is, Casey.'"

Dan flinched inwardly and started closing the cartons. Shit. He'd been slipping. "Fine. Point taken. I just want-"

"-to help," finished Casey bitterly. "Do you have any idea how fucking smug you sound when you do that? You haven't been there, okay? You don't know how it is. So spare me your theoretical empathy."

Dan clenched his teeth, telling himself for the hundredth time in the past ten days how stupid, damaging and pointless it would be to let Casey find out exactly how deep his empathy ran. "Sorry, man. Didn't mean it to sound that way," he said quietly, gathering the leftovers together.

"Well, it does. So as soon as some guy beats you up and rips open your ass, we'll talk."

Dan drew a sharp breath and threw the cartons blindly into the fridge, slamming the door. Well, that had sure as shit blindsided him. "That's enough, Case," he said unevenly.

"Then you can tell me all about it, and I'll benefit from your educational experience." Casey's voice was becoming ugly.

Dan felt his muscles begin to clench; he forced them to relax, forced himself to breathe normally. "That's sick, Case. Just ... just let it go. You're not helping yourself with this crap."

Casey almost sneered. "Sure I am. This is exactly what I do every other morning between 10:00 and 11:30, and I've been told repeatedly how beneficial it is. A lovely stroll down memory lane."

Dan turned to study him carefully. Casey was shut down, unreadable; communicating with him when he was like this was like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle in the dark. "Let it go, man."

Casey paced toward him, breathing hard and face twisted. "This is how it goes: 'Think back, Dan, and tell me all about it. Remember how it was, it's all for your own good. From the front or from behind? Did he come? Did you come?'"

"I'm not doing this, Casey," said Dan harshly.

Casey kept coming, backing Dan up against the kitchen wall, expressionless. " 'What was it like? How did it feel? Who was he?'"

Dan grimaced and tried to move around him, but Casey grabbed his arm and shoved him back against the wall. "Let go of me," he grated. "Now."

" 'Is that what you said to him? But he didn't let go, did he? He held you down. How did that make you feel?'"

"Shut up!"

"Just trying to help," snarled Casey. Without warning, he tossed his bottle of beer across the room; it shattered against the living room wall. " 'Did it hurt, Dan? Where did it hurt? Tell me how long he was in you. Tell me what he said to you. Tell me how it all made you fucking feel!'"

"Shut up!" shouted Dan furiously. He shoved Casey away with enough violence to make the man stagger slightly.

"What's the matter? Tough session? Come on, Danny, it's not me you're mad at!" Casey was screaming; with one outstretched arm he sent a pile of clean dishes crashing from the counter to land in jagged shards at Dan's feet.

"Get out," said Dan venomously. "Get the fuck out of my house, Casey."

Casey stared at him blankly for a moment, then stormed out, slamming the door behind him. Dan stared at the broken dishes for a few moments, then sank to sit on the floor among the debris, hugging his knees to his chest, stunned.

Did it hurt? Yeah, Casey, it hurt. It hurt like hell. How long was he in me? Damned if I know, it felt like hours. What did he say to me? What any son of a bitch says who's drunk and pissed off that his date isn't putting out fast enough, the usual rapists' litany: You want it, you know you want it, this is what happens when you're a fucking tease, you'll thank me for it later…..

Dan groaned and pushed the memory of that angry voice and hot, brutal hands as far away from him as he could. He was in over his head, way over his head. Dan pulled himself upright and walked unsteadily into the living room. Sinking onto the sofa, he dialed Alex's cell phone number.

"Brophy." Alex was chewing on something; obviously Dan had caught him at lunch.

"Alex. It's me."

"Dan? You sound like shit."

"Never could get anything by you."

"Let me guess. Our buddy Casey has melted down."

Dan leaned his head in his hand wearily. "Yeah."

"That's good, Dan. You know that."

Dan tried to pull himself together enough to explain and found himself unequal to the task.

"What?" Alex's voice was sharp now. "What's happened? Are you all right?"

"No. Not really. I mean, yes, I'm…. It's just ... I need to know how to handle this."

"Handle what?"

"I think ... I think my plan has kind of backfired, Alex."

"I've never known one of your plans that didn't," returned Alex tartly. "I take it we're talking about your plan to guide Casey's faltering footsteps through the maze of rape recovery?"

Dan winced. "That would be it."

"It was a dumb-ass plan, Rydell."

"Are you really certified in this state?"

"What happened?"

"He lost it. Said I was pretending to be some sort of expert. Said he was tired of hearing it, that once I'd been raped I could tell him all about it." Dan laughed mirthlessly. " I didn't handle it very well."

Alex sighed softly. "Damn. Sorry, Dan. I hate to say I told you so."

"This had nothing to do with Casey not knowing about me," said Dan bleakly. "I think he would have said that shit even if he'd known. He lost it, man, totally."

"Dan, the person closest to my patient usually gets the full brunt of his anger. What makes this especially bad news in your case is that you were a patient, too. I said it in the beginning and I'll say it again. This is the worst possible place for you to be right now."

"I know," said Dan softly. "But where else can I be? Do you expect me to stand by and watch him go under?"

"He's not going under," said Alex determinedly. "Not on my watch. I haven't lost one yet."

"I know, man. I didn't mean-"

"I know what you meant. Look, I won't lie to you. You seem to be a major healing factor for Casey. You're a stabilizing influence, as much as my mind boggles at the concept."

"Have you considered a career change recently?"

"But I'm not prepared to sacrifice your mental health to ensure his. If you won't back off completely, then you've got to at least protect yourself."

"Protect myself from Casey?" Dan almost laughed. "What do you suggest? Riot gear? Whip and a chair?"

"I'm suggesting a little healthy distance."

"Distance?" Dan tried to imagine distancing himself from Casey and flinched. "I can't do that. I can't help him from a distance."

"You're not a therapist, Dan. Stop trying to be my partner."

"I'm not. I'm trying to be his."

"Rydell, why did you call me if you'd already made up your mind?" The affectionate exasperation in Alex's voice made Dan smile in spite of himself.

"Just needed to hear your voice, I guess."

"Be careful, Dan." Alex was sober now. "If you start feeling like you're the one who's going under-"

"I'll yell for the nearest lifeguard."

"That would be me?"

"That would be you."

"I'll brush up on my mouth-to-mouth."

*************************

April 7, 4:05 am

Dan started out of his restless doze at the sound of the door closing. He peered at the clock on the nightstand. Casey was back. Dan let himself relax again, thanking whatever guardian angel was watching over his friend, and closed his eyes. He heard the shuffle of Casey's feet on the carpet, and was surprised when the familiar sound passed the bathroom and came to the door of his bedroom. A moment of silence fell.

"Danny?"

Dan came fully awake at the broken sound in Casey's voice. "Casey? You okay?" He sat up and tried to catch sight of his friend in the darkness.

"Danny." Casey's voice caught. "I…. I'm…." He drew a sharp little breath. "My key still works. I thought you might have changed the locks."

"I considered it," said Dan wryly. "But do you know what those guys charge?"

"Danny. God."

"Case, go to bed."

"If you want me out of here, I'll go. Say the word."

"I don't want you out of here. At least not until you replace my dishes."

Silence.

Dan swallowed and tried again. "I want you here. As long as it's where you want to be."

"It's where I want to be. You're where I want to be."

"Okay."

"I'm sorry."

"Case-"

"I know, I know how lame that sounds." Casey's voice was shaking.

Dan kicked off the covers and moved quickly across the room. "Forget it."

"You didn't deserve that." His voice shook worse.

"No, I didn't." Dan laid a hesitant hand on Casey's shoulder. "It's okay."

Casey sagged against the doorjamb as if the words had cut the last strings holding him upright. "Okay?"

"Yeah," said Dan quietly. Casey turned to pull Dan close, leaning against him heavily, his forehead resting on Dan's shoulder; Dan closed his eyes in relief and cradled Casey against him, his cheek against Casey's hair. "Come on, man, we'll get through this."

"You should have hit me," said Casey thickly. "You should have knocked my fucking teeth down my throat."

"Yeah, that would've worked," said Dan drily. "Breathe."

Casey obediently took a deep, shaky breath and let it go. "Damn it, Danny, it's not okay. What I did is not okay."

"I know. I meant we're okay."

Casey was silent for a moment. "We're okay?"

"Yeah."

"We're okay."

"Yeah."

"After that."

"Like I've never seen you be an asshole before."

Casey laughed raggedly.

Dan took a breath and pressed on, encouraged. "Case. Look. If I've been ... pretending to be some kind of expert about what you're going through, then I was ... way out of line. I didn't mean to-"

"Dan," said Casey thickly. "I will fucking lose it if you apologize to me."

Dan stopped, dumbfounded. "Oh."

Casey lifted his head; it was too dark for Dan to see his face. "Would you mind if I slept in here tonight?"

Dan sighed his relief. "No, I don't mind."

"Thanks." Casey kicked off his shoes.

Dan climbed back into bed as Casey started undressing, watching the dimly lit figure of his friend as he stripped down to his boxers and climbed into bed beside him. Dan closed his eyes as Casey settled, then smiled as Casey slid closer, awkwardly spooning himself around him.

"Is this okay?" whispered Casey uncertainly.

"Yeah," murmured Dan contentedly, drawing Casey's arm around his waist. "This is just right."

****

April 7, 10:05 am

"Can I pick up anything for you?" Dan downed the rest of his coffee and tossed the mug into the sink, glancing down at Casey, who was on his hands and knees picking up shards of china from the kitchen floor.

"A dustpan and brush," growled Casey. "What kind of slob doesn't have a dustpan and brush in his house?"

"The same kind that throws dishes?"

"You ought to thank me. They were ugly."

"Hey!"

"They were ugly, Danny." Casey rose and dumped a handful of shards into the trash. "I'll order you some new dishes online, okay? Maybe a nice soccer ball pattern."

"Get bent," chuckled Dan, and started to button his shirt.

"Don't," said Casey suddenly; he flushed as Dan looked at him in surprise.

"Don't?"

"Leave it open. You look hot like that." Casey's face went crimson.

"I look hot?" Dan looked down at himself in bewilderment.

"Yeah." Casey swallowed as he approached, backing Dan into the kitchen wall, then leaned forward to lay his palms against the wall on either side of Dan, and touched his lips to Dan's in a soft kiss.

Dan closed his eyes and returned it gently, making a frantic mental note to leave his shirt open until the last possible moment every damn morning for the rest of his life. "Wow," he said faintly, as Casey leaned back again. "That was ... wow. You have talent, my man."

"I have inspiration," countered Casey quietly, leaning his forehead against Dan's.

"Is this makeup nookie we've got going here?" murmured Dan.

"Absolutely."

"I like it."

"Me, too."

"So what are you breaking tonight?"

"The lamps. The butt-ugly lamps have got to go, Danny."

"Go for it, slugger. Take 'em down."

Casey grinned and leaned in again, more confidently this time, only to freeze as the doorbell chimed, panic seizing his expression. "What ... what the hell?"

"Easy," said Dan gently, touching his cheek. "Probably some overachieving girl scout with a quota. Breathe."

Casey obediently took a deep breath and stepped aside, backing away from the door as Dan put his eye to the peephole. A bizarre mirage of Isaac Jaffee with a large thermos clutched in one hand presented itself to his startled eye. Dan pulled his eye away, checked his bearings, and took another look; Isaac was still there. Isaac had been to Dan's apartment just once in two years, but damned if he wasn't on his doorstep at the precise moment that he and Casey were attempting to indulge in makeup nookie – or indeed nookie of any variety. The universe was obviously yanking Dan Rydell's chain.

"It's Isaac," Dan reported to Casey, who had backed up into the living room by now, breathing hard. "Sit down, Case, everything's cool."

"Cool. Right." Casey dropped onto the sofa, looking like he might bolt for the bedroom at any moment.

Dan unchained the door and swung it open. "Hey! Isaac, man, did you get lost?"

Isaac shot Dan a stern look. "Good morning, Daniel."

"Good morning, Isaac," returned Dan in a dutiful tone. "Did you get lost?"

"I did not get lost." Isaac came in, his all-too-observant gaze resting on Casey. "I was ordered to reconnoiter. How are you, son?"

"Fine," breathed Casey unevenly, trying so hard to smile that it hurt to watch.

"Ordered?" Dan's voice was sharp; he let the door slam behind him. If Luther Sachs was behind this visit, then it was back to Plan A; he'd kick Luther's fat ass all the way back to Tennessee.

"Esther says you're to eat this," continued Isaac, handing Casey the thermos as he examined him closely. "I don't know what it is, but refuse Esther at your peril."

Casey took the thermos in shaking hands, his smile slightly less strained. "Thanks, Isaac."

Dan relaxed, clearing his throat and feeling somewhat foolish. "Esther ordered you."

Isaac glared at him over his shoulder. "Who else?"

"Nobody else, sir," said Dan hastily.

Isaac turned back to Casey, scowling. "You look like hell, son. What does the doctor say?"

Dan bit his lip as Casey drew breath to answer, resisting the urge to answer for him. "I'm good. No permanent damage."

"You're all purple and yellow."

Casey grinned weakly. "My school colors."

"Uh-huh." Isaac's keen gaze raked up and down Casey's frame, his expression darkening.

Casey swallowed convulsively. "I'll be in as soon-"

Isaac held up his hand abruptly. "As soon as you're ready. We'll manage until you are. Is there anything I can do?"

Casey's eyes got a little too bright. "Ah. No. Thanks, Isaac. I really appreciate it." He voice wavered wildly. "I'll be back soon. I just need a little time. Um ... Danny, have you seen my wallet? I haven't been able to find it this morning." He rose, still clutching the thermos, every line of his body language screaming his need to escape.

"It's in my bedroom, I think," murmured Dan, his eyes locked on Isaac. "On the dresser."

"Right. Right. Got no brain these days," muttered Casey, disappearing into the bedroom. "Back in a minute, Isaac."

Isaac turned to face Dan with a dismayed expression for perhaps two seconds. "He's not coming back out," he said very softly, so softly that Dan could barely hear him. "Is he?"

"Don't take it personally," whispered Dan. "It's-"

"The anxiety disorder," finished Isaac, with a look that could puncture steel plating. "There will come a time soon when I will have to ask, Dan." He turned toward the door.

"I know." Dan started to follow, but Isaac stopped him with a gesture.

"I'll see myself out. Go."

Dan nodded, smiling faintly, and altered course toward the bedroom. He heard the door close softly behind him as he poked his head inside. The thermos was lying on the bed, but Casey was nowhere to be seen. "Case?"

"Yeah."

The voice came from the bathroom, but the door was open; Dan hesitated for a second, then moved to the bathroom door. Casey was sitting on the floor by the toilet. He looked up at Dan, white to the gills.

"You okay?"

"Thought I was going to hurl." Casey laughed gratingly. "I didn't, though."

Dan nodded and picked up the anti-anxiety medication. He fished a pill from the bottle and filled a paper cup with water, then offered them to Casey.

Casey swallowed the pill, barely managing to get the cup to his mouth without spilling everything in it. "That really could have gone better, you know," he continued unevenly. "I'm pretty sure convincing my boss I'm a candidate for institutionalization was not a positive development at this juncture."

"That's not what he's thinking, Case," said Dan gently, kneeling beside him. "That's not what anybody's thinking."

"It's what I'm thinking," retorted Casey. "I was afraid to open the door. I was afraid of Isaac. Afraid of Isaac, Danny."

"You got thrown a curve. You weren't expecting him. That's all it was. If it had been the girl scout you would have had the same reaction."

"Yeah. I've always had a morbid fear of girl scouts."

"I've always suspected that about you."

"I'm thinking it might be a good idea to get floor pads installed in here."

"It's going to get better," said Dan softly, putting an arm around him. "Hang on, Case."

Casey nodded, staring blankly at the paper cup he had crushed in his hand. "Tell him, Danny."

Dan caressed Casey's shoulder gently, sighing his relief. "Okay."

"But not that it was Gordon."

Dan frowned. "Why?"

"If he decides that Dana has to know, I don't want her knowing that." Casey closed his eyes. "Ever."

"I hear you," muttered Dan, cringing at the thought.

Casey opened his eyes again and tried to smile. "Go to work. I'll be okay."

"Right." Dan fumbled to button his shirt as he rose to his feet, cursing the necessity of leaving him. "Dishes, Case."

"Dustpan, Danny."

***

April 10, 10:05 am

"You'll give it to him, right?" Natalie glared up at him, hanging onto the gigantic box of chocolate she'd offered in a manner not entirely inconsistent with a drowning man's grip on a piece of floating driftwood. "You won't eat it yourself."

Dan juggled the flowers, the beer, and the porn videos with which he'd been laden on his way to his office with no small difficulty. "Natalie. For the third time, I will not eat it. I will give it to Casey."

"If I find out that Casey did not receive this, intact, I will make your life worse than hell." A dangerously feral gleam lit the small woman's eyes, and Dan shuddered.

"He will receive it. Intact. I swear it on my great-grandmother's pinking shears."

Natalie released the box with visible skepticism. "I'll ask him. Don't think I won't."

Dan hastily continued toward his office, wondering with fevered gratitude for his deliverance what prehistoric warrior spirit had found its home in Natalie Hurley. He carefully laid out the sacrificial offerings toward Casey's speedy recovery on the sofa, then sighed and swung himself into his chair, surprised to see that the message light on his phone was lit. Grabbing the phone, he stabbed in his access code, praying Casey wasn't having another anxiety attack.

"Hey. It's me. Pulse and respiration normal, so relax."

Dan chuckled in relief and leaned back in his chair. "I'm going to take a cab over to my place and pick up a few things before my appointment. So don't worry about walking me to school, Dad. Time I crossed the street by myself." Casey paused. "Um. Be good to see you afterwards, though, if you can make it. Ah ... I guess that's it. Oh. Except ... um ... thanks. And ... I love you, okay?" Dan turned away from the door to hide the big, stupid grin he knew was all over his face. "Later."

Casey hung up, but Dan swung back and forth in his chair with the receiver still pressed to his ear for a moment, ridiculously savoring the moment. "I love you, too," he murmured. Then he shook himself, dismayed. God, what a schmuck he was when he was in love. Talking to voicemail? Casey would laugh himself sick. Shit. Casey's voice mail must be overflowing at this point. Dan hung up, then punched in Casey's code to access his messages.

You have 17 new messages.

Dan groaned.

Dry cleaner's. Telemarketer. Stock broker. Lisa, in bitch mode.

Dan hit delete with a certain amount of satisfaction.

Telemarketer. Telemarketer. Telemarketer.

Delete. Delete. Delete.

"Still not in, huh?"

Dan froze. The words were slurred, but there was no mistaking the voice. "Guess I gave you a better ride than I thought. You better keep your mouth shut, McCall, unless you want more of the same." The receiver slammed down hard.

Dan stared at the phone, unable to move or think for a moment. Then he deleted the message.

New York Times. Bobbi Bernstein. Lisa again.

Dan deleted mechanically.

"I'm starting to think you're hiding from me, McCall. No answer at work, no answer at home. Playing hard to get?"

"You sick son of bitch," whispered Dan, numb.

"So, hear any news from the head office? My friends at Continental tell me you're a major source of entertainment over there lately."

Dan slammed his fist onto his desk so hard it hurt.

"I can't imagine where these rumors start. Where would anyone get the idea that you're a whore for every fag who-"

Dan hit the delete key savagely.

"Don't even think about telling anybody, McCall. If I hear so much as a whisper about it, I'll make sure you're as dead as your career. Got your pink slip yet?"

Delete.

"You know, the more I think about it, the more I think you liked it."

Delete.

"And next time you'll tell me when you've had enough. Next time-"

Delete.

"You weren't home last night. Where are you hiding, McCall? Don't think I won't find you. And when I do I'll-"

"You bastard, you goddamn bastard!" Dan stabbed the delete key so hard he nearly jammed his finger. He deleted the rest of the messages and slammed the receiver into the cradle, then lowered his head to the desk.

It wasn't over. Casey wasn't safe. Gordon, for reasons known only to himself, was going to pursue this, pursue Casey, make his life living hell until he got whatever it was he wanted from him. Dan drew in a startled, ragged breath and pulled himself upright again.

Casey.

Casey was going back to his place.

No answer at work, no answer at home.

The answering machine. The motherfucking son of a bitch had been leaving messages on Casey's answering machine.

Maybe Casey wouldn't check.

Of course he would check; he was Casey. He'd hit that button and hear that twisted prick pouring out his poison and there was nothing Dan could do to stop it. Dan choked back a groan, then spun into a panic as he realized that that wasn't the worst of it.

You weren't home last night.

Gordon had been to Casey's. Gordon had…. Gordon was….

God.

Dan looked wildly at the clock. It was after ten. Casey would have been to his place and left over an hour ago, unless something had happened. He should be at Alex's office now.

Unless something had happened.

Dan snatched up the phone and dialed Alex's number, his hands shaking so badly that he could barely hit the buttons. He clutched the receiver tightly as the phone rang, eyes closed. "Please," he whispered. "Please. Let him be there. Just let him be there and you can have anything you want from me, just let him be there-"

"Alex Brophy's office, may I help you?"

Dan drew breath to speak and locked up.

"Hello?"

"Yes," rasped Dan unevenly. "Hello. This is Dan Rydell, can you tell me if Casey McCall is there?"

Dan had no idea how long it took for the receptionist to respond to his question, but it seemed like an eternity.

"Yes, Mr. McCall is in consultation with Mr. Brophy right now. May I take a message?"

Dan let his head sink to the desk, still clutching the phone. "Yes. If you get a chance, could you please tell him I'll be there to pick him up after his appointment?"

"Certainly."

"Thank you," said Dan faintly.

"You're welcome." The woman hung up, and Dan let the receiver go, not caring where it landed.

"Thank you," he repeated in a whisper.

Dan stayed where he was for a few minutes, letting the shakes pass, then with an effort pulled himself erect. An animal had dedicated himself to destroying his best friend's life, and Dan hadn't done a damn thing about it. That was going to change. Casey wasn't safe, and the son of a bitch who was responsible had had it his own way for too damn long.

**************************

April 10, 10:40 am

"Hey there," said Dan breezily, sailing past the doorman. The guy gave him a surprised look and a nod as Dan whipped through the revolving doors and headed for the elevators. He had another hour before Casey's appointment was over; more than enough time to wrap this up. He'd finish up here, pick up Casey and take him home, then head back to the station. No problem.

Dan got off the elevator and walked briskly down the hall to apartment 707; he knocked politely on the door. There was no response for a few seconds, then Dan heard the deadbolt being slid back; the door opened.

"Hey, Gordon," said Dan pleasantly. "How's it going?"

Gordon Gage stared at him blankly for a moment, one hand still busy with his tie. "Dan?"

Dan immediately noticed the strong smell of liquor, and with a vague sense of satisfaction, the fading bruises on the man's face. "Yup. Long time no see. I just came to return something."

Gordon's eyes widened and he tried to move, but Dan's fist smashed into his face anyway. He staggered back, lost his balance and fell on his backside on the floor, holding his hand to his bloody nose.

Dan stepped inside and slammed the door behind him. "Get up."

"Are you crazy?" Gordon staggered to his feet and backed away, trying unsuccessfully to staunch the flow of blood with his hands.

"You raped my partner, you sick son of a bitch." Dan took another swing and just missed connecting with Gordon's jaw; Gordon ducked the blow, raw panic in his face. "You raped him and now you're trying to get him fired. Come on! Take your shot! What's the matter, aren't I your type?"

"I ... I did what?" Gordon was stuttering as he backed up, his bloody hands extended in front of him. "You're insane!"

"You're right," said Dan unsteadily, advancing. "And that's not good news for you, trust me."

Gordon lunged for the telephone, but Dan got there first, and with one clean jerk ripped it out of the wall. "Here you go." He tossed the phone to Gordon, who caught it and stared at it stupidly for a second; Dan took the opportunity to deliver a right hook to Gordon's jaw that sent him sprawling onto the sofa, the phone still clutched in his hands.

"He's lying," shouted Gordon, throwing the phone wildly in Dan's general direction. It missed badly and crashed against the wall. "I'll have you prosecuted, Rydell. I'll have you jailed for assault and battery."

Dan actually laughed. "Then I'd better get busy." He kicked aside the coffee table.

"Dan. Just ... just calm down." Gordon scrambled off the sofa. "Casey was jealous of me and Dana from day one, you know that. Can't you see what's happened here? He got his pretty face beaten in by one of his biker studs, and now he's going to set me up for it. It's classic-"

"Who said anything about his face, Gordon?" Dan advanced on him, aching for Casey, aching for just one more punch.

"You did," replied Gordon smoothly, still backing away. "You said-"

"I said you raped him. I didn't say anything about his ... his pretty face." The words curdled in Dan's throat as he recalled how many times he'd used the phrase himself, in jest. Never again.

Gordon paled and said nothing.

"And just what exactly," continued Dan venomously, "would you know about Casey's social life?"

"A lot," returned Gordon hotly. "And that isn't pretty. I could tell you a thing or two you don't know about your friend. That fag will take it up the ass from anything that's breathing. He's not worth going to jail for, Dan."

What little control Dan had left shredded at the words; he launched himself at Gordon, tackled him to the floor and got in three hard body blows before Gordon got over his surprise enough to punch Dan hard in the stomach and roll away. Dan gasped in pain and struggled for breath as Gordon hauled him up by the front of his shirt.

"Do you really want me to put you in the hospital? Or are we going to discuss this rationally?"

"You left the shirt, Gordon," rasped Dan hoarsely, blinking back the tears of pain in his eyes.

Gordon stared blankly for a moment.

"You left the goddamn shirt. I'm going to take you down. I don't care if you break every bone I've got."

Gordon licked his lips nervously.

"You probably left fingerprints, too. And ... and DNA samples."

Gordon let go of Dan's shirt and stepped back, breathing hard and adjusting his tie. "All of which would only be useful in a court of law, Dan. Is that where Casey wants to be? In a court of law, maintaining that the Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District raped his pretty-boy ass?"

"You sick fuck," whispered Dan.

"Because I don't think that would go over very well with any jury who knows about Casey's midnight jaunts to the leather bars in the Village. Or with Luther Sachs, for that matter. What do you think?"

"I think," said Dan shakily, "that I don't need a court of law to take you down."

"Don't threaten me, Dan," said Gordon, with a stern but magnanimous air. "I understand you're upset. I'm willing to forget this, but don't press your luck."

Dan took a tremulous breath. "Oh, no, Gordon. You're not going to forget this. And I'll tell you why. It'll be strange looks, at first. You'll catch people at work staring at you when they think you won't notice, or whispering whenever you're around. And then the choice cases and the invitations to parties at Gracie Mansion will start to dry up. You'll start running across suggestive little hints in the tabloids and on the net: Gordon Gage is into gay rape, he gets off on it, and there's a guy who could give an enterprising reporter some really hot details-"

"And those details would feature the name of Casey McCall," retorted Gordon contemptuously, noticeably paler than he'd been a moment ago. "You're bluffing."

"Who said anything about Casey McCall? The guy who got raped was Dan Rydell."

The sneer on Gordon's face evaporated into blank astonishment. "What?"

Dan smiled faintly. "You raped me, Gordon. You asked me out, I turned you down, you followed me to my apartment and you raped me. And you loved every minute of it."

"You seriously expect me to believe that you would-"

"You rode me ragged, Gordon," said Dan softly. "You were a fucking stallion. I was a bloody mess by the time you were through with me, because no pretty boy gets enough of Gordon Gage. You came over and over again-"

"Your career would be over," hissed Gordon.

"Yeah. I'll save you a spot on the unemployment line."

"You won't have one shred of evidence!"

"Which would only be useful in a court of law." Dan kept his voice steady with an effort. "But I understand you're upset, Gordon, so I'll forget about this. I won't press charges. I'm sure you'd prefer to vindicate yourself in the National Enquirer."

"Son of a bitch!"

Gordon's left fist came out of nowhere, and Dan found himself hitting the wall, his right eye feeling like it was about to pop out of its socket. He touched it gingerly, wincing. "Black eye for the photos. Nice touch, man. Thanks."

"Get out!" Gordon was actually screaming; for one second, Dan caught a glimpse of what Casey had faced. "Get the fuck out!"

Dan moved toward the door, heart pounding. "Have a nice day."

"This isn't over, Rydell. This is not over!"

"You're right," said Dan quietly, opening the door. "It'll be over when you're pumping gas upstate for minimum wage. I give it a month."

"Get out!"

Dan closed the door behind him and strode as best he could on shaking legs to the elevator. He was a little ahead of schedule.

**********

April 10, 11:30 am

"Hey, Dan. You're early." Alex appeared in the consultation room door with a warm smile.

Dan returned it, feeling an odd sense of safety in the man's presence. Alex Brophy had guided him to the other side of the second-worst time in his life, where he'd emerged alive and relatively sane. Just the sight of Alex's face steadied him. "I'm not breaking up the session, am I?"

"No, we needed a break. That's quite a shiner you've got coming there."

"You should see the other guy."

"What the hell?"

Dan glanced over Alex's shoulder to see Casey staring at him with a shaken expression. He looked pale, and somehow more fragile than he had just a few hours ago. Dan swallowed hard, praying that Casey had never gone anywhere near that goddamn answering machine. Maybe it was just a rough session. "Hey, Case."

"What happened? Are you okay?"

"Sure." Dan gave him his best grin. "What, you don't like the look?"

"What did you do?" Casey pushed past Alex and grabbed Dan by the shoulders, his voice shaking. "Danny. What the hell did you do?"

Dan briefly considered the possibility that he'd lost his touch. "Relax, man. I'm fine."

"Don't give me that!"

The receptionist looked up curiously.

"Guys, let's take this inside," said Alex quietly, gesturing toward the office.

"There's nothing to take anywhere," said Dan mildly. "Some guy said I'd stolen his cab and he belted me."

"Some guy belted you over a cab?" Casey clutched Dan's shoulders tightly, his face twisted in anxiety.

"It was a really nice cab, Case."

"You can't even say that with a straight face, can you?"

"Guys. Inside. Now." Alex held the door open, and Dan shoved his hands in his pockets and shuffled inside, feeling like he'd been called to the principal's office.

Casey followed him closely, took Dan's arm and sat him down in the nearest chair, then knelt in front of him as Alex closed the door, touching the swollen eye gently. "Alex, is there any ice in that fridge?"

"Coming right up."

"Shit, Casey, it's noth-"

"Shut it," said Casey fiercely.

Dan heard something like a muffled laugh from Alex's direction, a pleased sort of laugh.

"Tell me." Casey took Dan's chin and turned his face back towards him. "Tell me what stupid thing you did, Danny, and don't bullshit me."

"Don't I get my ice first?"

"You get squat. Start talking or I hit your other eye."

Danny swallowed hard. Damn Gordon Gage to fucking hell, he would have to hit him in the face. Dan hadn't planned on that. Which was kind of stupid, but then again, the plan had been a Rydell Special, a sort of by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of deal. "Case. Come on, I've gotten worse playing racquetball with you."

"If I were you," said Alex mildly, handing Casey some ice wrapped in paper towels, "I'd cut to the chase, Danny."

"Who. Hit. You." Casey clutched the ice tightly, every contour of his face telling Dan that Casey already knew the answer. Which meant, of course, that he'd gotten the messages. Damn. Damn. Damn, damn, damn….

"Gordon," said Dan in quiet resignation.

"Gordon?" Alex's voice was sharp. "Gordon hit you?"

"Yeah," sighed Dan. "But that was pretty much understandable, considering I went over to his apartment and punched him in the face."

"Oh, God, Danny," faltered Casey, leaning forward until his bruised cheek was resting on Dan's thigh. The ice fell forgotten onto the carpet.

"This is without a doubt the most stupid thing you've done since I've met you," snapped Alex, squatting beside Casey. He picked up the ice and pressed it gently to Dan's eye. "And that's saying something."

"Nice. Nothing like a little non-judgmental analysis. Extra points for professionalism, there, really." Dan laid his hand on Casey's head, resisting the urge to stroke his hair.

"You're not my patient, Dan," retorted Alex, with something like an evil gleam in his eye. "I can be as judgmental as I damn well please. Casey is my patient. And this was probably the worst thing you could have done. How badly was he hurt? Is he likely to press charges?"

"He won't press charges," said Dan grimly. "And he wasn't hurt nearly enough."

"Dammit, Dan-"

"Okay, okay," sighed Dan. "I'm an idiot. I'm a complete and total loser, okay?"

"You're not getting it, Alex," said Casey wearily, lifting his head. "Don't let him bullshit you."

"Excuse me?" Alex shot him an inquiring look.

"He didn't go over there to beat Gordon up."

"Oh, that is exactly why I went over there," retorted Dan evenly, avoiding Casey's gaze. "And I did a damn good job, too."

"He went over there to distract Gordon's attention from me."

Dan turned back to Casey, dismissing what remained of the pretense. "You picked up your messages. Casey. You should have called me. You should have called me right away."

Alex swore in exasperation as he tried to keep the ice on Dan's eye. "Keep still! He called me."

"Oh." Dan nodded, fighting to keep his face a neutral zone.

Alex took one keen look at him and continued. "He called me because he didn't want you to see him-"

"Alex," cut in Casey sharply.

"-having another anxiety attack. He didn't want you to know about the messages, either, which I'm discovering is typical crap of the McCall variety."

Dan slumped forward to lean his elbows on his knees, regarding Casey wearily. "You speak wisely, honorable mental health care professional."

"How much am I paying you?" snapped Casey to Alex.

"Not enough. What is it with you two? Do you have some sort of unwritten contract to conceal vital information from each other?"

"It seems we've wandered into couples counseling," said Dan drily, catching Casey's eye.

Casey smiled faintly. "Looks that way."

Alex's eyes narrowed, and Dan groaned inwardly, bracing himself for the impending storm. "It would have helped to have known you guys were a couple going in, instead of prying it out of Casey two weeks into therapy."

"We're not…. I mean, we are, but we're ... oh hell." Dan glared. "It's complicated, okay?"

Alex shot a look at Casey, who flushed slightly. "So I gather. But if you're together, you're together. Casey was assaulted. How the hell do you expect to get through this if you don't talk to each other?"

"We do talk," objected Casey quietly. "More than we ever have." He eyed Dan rather ruefully. "He left the messages on my voice mail, too?"

"Yeah," said Dan wearily, giving it up as a lost cause.

Casey sighed. "That's what I was afraid of." He stiffened. "Dana didn't-"

"No," said Dan quickly. "I got to them first. They're history."

"Thank God." Casey let out a gust of air. "Now tell me the rest."

"You know the rest."

"Don't bullshit me, Danny."

"Hey, I hit him, he hit me, yadda yadda-"

"You didn't go over there just to hit him. I know you."

"Case-"

"What did you do? Tell me. Is he going to come after you?"

"Of course not," said Dan quickly.

"This man is dangerous, Dan," said Alex quietly. "I should think it'd be pretty damn obvious to you that he's capable of extreme violence when subjected to frustration, either personal or professional. If you've pushed those buttons-"

"He pushed them," said Casey, his eyes riveted to Dan's face. "That's exactly what he wanted to do."

"Casey," said Dan quietly, "Believe me. I didn't even come close to doing what I wanted to do."

Casey closed his eyes as if he were in pain and rested his head on Dan's thigh again, and this time Dan succumbed, running his hand through Casey's hair soothingly.

"O-kay." Alex straightened, pulled his baseball cap out of his pocket and stuck it on his head, brim backwards. "You guys need to talk some more. I'm going to get some breakfast. When I get back, we'll discuss how to handle Rydell's latest dumb-ass stunt."

Dan glared but said nothing, mollified by the sound of Casey's weak laughter. Alex and Casey had obviously connected. Connected over the fact that Dan Rydell was a dumb-ass, but connected none the less. That was a damn good thing. "I'm reporting you to the APA, you know," he remarked conversationally.

"Uh-huh." Alex grinned at him as he opened the door. "Later, dumb-ass." He disappeared, still grinning, and closed the door behind him.

"Yutz," said Dan affectionately.

"He's one of the good guys," murmured Casey.

"Sure he is. In a yutz kind of way."

"He calls it like he sees it."

Dan snorted, stroking Casey's hair away from his face. He looked exhausted. "Rough session."

"We've been talking about you all morning."

Dan froze. "Me?"

Casey lifted his head. "You. Me. You and me."

"And that was rough," croaked Dan.

Casey smiled wanly. "Not the you and me part. The why-no-you-and-me-until-now part."

"Ah," said Dan softly. "Okay."

Casey's adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed. "I've wanted you from the first damn minute I laid eyes on you, you know."

"Oh," said Dan faintly, feeling his world tilt again. "That's ... uh…."

"Yeah. But I was dressing for success. Being with a guy didn't figure into that."

"Been there, man."

"But you kept seeing guys."

"Yeah. I had to sort of go into the closet when we went national, though."

Casey gave him a twisted, aching little smile. "It was convincing."

Dan stared down at him, shocked.

"You were only seeing women, as far as I knew. And then Rebecca ... hell. You were so-"

"God, Casey-"

"-in love. For months I'd been trying like some damn idiot to find the guts to talk to you, and it was too late. I'd blown my last chance."

Dan groaned softly and hung his head, cringing at the thought of Casey enduring his incessant chatter about his latest infatuation, and understanding, at last, Casey's latest bout of weird. He'd been right; it was sad he'd seen on Casey, and now he knew that he'd been the one to put it there.

"No," said Casey sharply. "Don't. I had nobody to blame but myself. If I hadn't been so gutless in the first place-"

"You weren't gutless." Dan found his voice somewhere. "You made a choice. We all make choices."

"I made the wrong choice. I made the absolutely worst choice I could possibly make."

"No," said Dan passionately, aching. "No choice that brings Charlie McCall into this world can be that wrong, man. No way in hell."

Casey got that amazed look again, tried to laugh, and didn't quite make it. "Danny. Geez. You are…." Casey's voice cracked.

"I think 'a dumb-ass' is the phrase you're groping for." Dan grinned at him, hoping for a laugh.

"No," said Casey in a subdued tone, not quite meeting Dan's eyes. "You're the man I want to be."

It wasn't a laugh, not even close, and Dan suddenly didn't know what to do with himself. The decision was taken out of his hands when Casey curled his fingers into Dan's shirt and pulled him down, his head tilted slightly, eyes closing. Dan closed his eyes, too, and let Casey take control; their mouths met, caressed each other gently and parted again, leaving Dan dizzy and crazy for more. He rested his forehead against Casey's for a moment, breathing hard.

"Can you do this?" whispered Casey, straightening. He cleared his throat and pressed on. "Can you handle ... what happened and the therapy and all the sick shit I pull?"

"Casey-"

"Can you take being with me while I get my head together? Because it's going to be a long haul and it's a hell of a thing to ask anybody and I'll understand if you can't, Danny, I swear I'll understand." Casey ran out of breath then, his fingers still twisted in Dan's shirt as if he were afraid Dan would run away from him.

"Yes," breathed Dan.

"Yes ... yes to which?" Anxiety gave way to exasperation.

"Yes. To everything, yes."

"To ... everything?"

"Yes. God, yes," said Dan breathlessly. "I can do this. I can handle it. I can take being with you. And yes, it's a hell of a thing to ask anybody but you never had to ask."

Casey took in some air with something like a gulp. "Danny-"

"This is where you kiss me again."

"One more thing."

"No kiss?"

"No more unilateral commando missions."

"I'm sorry, but I'm not prepared to discuss this until I get my-"

Casey yanked him down and kissed him with such loving enthusiasm that Dan nearly fell off his chair. When Casey finally pulled back, Dan sagged into the cushions in boneless delight.

"Now we'll discuss it," said Casey shakily. "We're in this together."

"You betcha," gasped Dan, adjusting his jeans.

Casey rose from the floor to his knees with a fierce expression and slapped his hands on the armrests of Dan's chair, trapping him between shaking arms. "We handle everything together. Whatever diabolical plan you're hatching, forget it. Now."

"Whoa," breathed Dan, seeing the panic just below the steel. He squirmed upright in the chair. "Calm down."

"This is non-negotiable."

"He threatened you. I have to do something, man."

"Danny-"

"You'd do the same for me, don't pretend you wouldn't."

"I won't. But it would be just as stupid. Don't do it." Casey took another deep breath; Dan suspected Alex had been working with him on controlled breathing for the anxiety. "Please. He's a fucking maniac, for God's sake. Just ... promise me you won't go anywhere near him."

"Sure, no problem," said Dan blandly. "I promise."

*****************************************

April 12, 1:40 am

"Read it for me." Casey offered Dan the envelope. "Please."

Dan took it with shaking fingers. "You sure?"

"I can't," said Casey quietly. "Been staring at it all day. If it's bad I want to hear it from you."

"If it's bad, nothing's changed." Dan cursed inwardly as his voice broke; he cleared his throat. "I'm not going anywhere, and neither are you. You said we were in this together, and I'm holding you to it. Right?"

Casey smiled faintly, as pale as Dan had ever seen him. "Yeah."

Dan caught his eye and held it. "Okay, once more, convincingly. We're in this together. Right?"

Casey's smile deepened slightly. "Right, Danny."

"Okay." Dan tore the envelope open and yanked out the ghastly form as if he were dragging a poisonous snake from under its rock.

"If it's bad, just say it's bad," whispered Casey, moving to stand toe-to-toe with Dan, as if proximity were comfort, or protection, or both.

"It's not bad," breathed Dan, devouring the words. "It's good. You're good."

"I'm ... good?"

Dan shoved the paper into his hand. "Read. Here."

Casey read it with a stunned expression. "I'm okay?"

"It's negative."

"Jesus Christ."

"Whoever," croaked Dan as Casey hugged the wind from his lungs. "I'm flexible."

***

April 15, 2:35 pm

"Just shave a couple seconds off the double in the third inning." Dan watched from his perch on the editing room sofa as Jeremy moaned in soft agony, leaning over the editing board like a martyr preparing to be scourged. "Come on, you're not going to lose much of the battle in a couple seconds."

"Philistine," muttered Jeremy. He started making soothing, cooing sorts of noises as his fingers disassembled and reassembled his baby. "Assassin."

"You're a strange little monkey, Jeremy," observed Dan gravely.

"Soulless barbarian," concluded Jeremy decisively.

"So this is what passes for work with you, huh?"

The voice from the door sent Dan's short hairs up, and he craned his neck around to see Gordon Gage lounging against the doorjamb. He was looking a little less dapper than the last time Dan had seen him; he wore no jacket or tie and his shirt was stained, his hair uncombed. Dan could smell the Scotch on him a good ten feet away. Dan rose to his feet, shocked by a sudden surge of blind hatred. He'd never hated anyone before. "Something I can do for you, Gordon?"

Gordon smirked. "Just came over to pick up some personal items from Dana's office." He paused as if for effect. "Very personal items. Amazing how stuff like that gets around."

"Excuse me," said Jeremy grimly, rising. The distaste in his expression was clearly visible.

Dan watched in alarm as Gordon moved to occupy the entire doorway, blocking Jeremy's path. "You have a problem?"

"Let him by," said Dan sharply, unnerved by the way Gordon seemed to loom over his friend.

"I don't have a problem," returned Jeremy softly. "You may not have noticed, Gordon, but you're blocking the door here."

"You got a problem with me, you tell me to my face," slurred Gordon into Jeremy's face, grinning absurdly.

"I have a problem with you," snapped Dan. "Let him by right now, or so help me God I'm calling Security." He saw Jeremy glance over at him, clearly startled.

Gordon chuckled and stood aside. "You gotta work on that temper, Dan."

"Dan?"

Dan tore his gaze from Gordon's smug face long enough to realize that Jeremy was holding his ground, waiting for a sign. "It's okay, man. We can finish this later."

Jeremy nodded and slid past Gordon, making a noticeable effort to avoid physical contact. Gordon watched him go with palpable contempt. "Another one. What is it about Sports Night that attracts you little-"

"If you have something relevant to say, say it and leave. If you don't, just leave," cut in Dan crisply.

Gordon's eyes narrowed. "It's not going to work, Dan. This little campaign of yours is pathetic."

Dan smiled and shrugged. "Then you have nothing to worry about."

"Two can play at this game. Don't think I can't return the favor. Everybody's got something to hide, some dirty little secret."

"Well, when you find mine you let me know," returned Dan with cold contempt. "Until then I've got better things to do than stand around smelling America's least wanted." He attempted to shoulder past Gordon, but Gordon grabbed him by the front of his shirt.

"What the fuck does that mean?" he spat into Dan's face.

"Gordon?"

Dan looked wildly over Gordon's shoulder to see Dana standing not five feet away, frowning. Jeremy hovered discreetly a few feet behind her, leaning forward on his toes as if preparing to lunge to Dan's defense.

Gordon laughed and released Dan, patting him on the chest in a grotesque parody of hail-fellow-well-met camaraderie as he turned toward Dana. "Hey, there you are."

"Is there a problem?" Dana's voice was brittle with annoyance and confusion.

"Of course not. Just saying hi." Gordon sauntered unsteadily in her direction.

"Dana," began Dan in alarm.

"I'll talk to you later, Danny."

"Dana," repeated Dan more sharply, "He's dr-"

"Later." Dana shot him a look that spoke volumes about annoyance and lectures yet to come as she took Gordon's arm and led him toward her office. Dan grit his teeth and moved toward them, but Jeremy intercepted him.

"Natalie's in Dana's office," he said quietly. "Natalie will stay in Dana's office until he leaves."

"Natalie's five-foot-nothing and weighs a hundred pounds," muttered Dan, watching Dana and Gordon disappear down the hall.

"Ninety-eight. Natalie's also been going to the gym to practice kneeing Gordon in the nuts."

Dan turned to him, startled. "She has?"

"So have I. But Natalie is better at it. Dana will be fine." Jeremy drew him inside the editing room, closing the door. "He's been here before, you know."

Dan did a double-take. "Here? Before?"

"Yeah. To see Dana."

Dan sank to the sofa, swearing under his breath. "Was he drunk then, too?"

Jeremy nodded as he resumed his seat at the editing board. "He spends more time drunk than sober these days, according to Natalie's sources. Things are not going well in Mr. Gage's life at the moment."

"Oh?" Dan did his level best to look surprised.

"There are some pretty ugly rumors going around about him. Personal and professional."

"Professional?" The effort to look surprised evaporated.

Jeremy shrugged. "There's talk of impropriety concerning that big case of his. The Galino thing."

Dan snorted. "I'm shocked, I tell you. Shocked."

"I share your amazement."

"Enlighten me on one other point."

"I live to serve."

"Why the hell is Dana showing him the red carpet instead of the door?"

"Ah," said Jeremy gravely, swinging his chair around to face Dan. "Now we enter the realm of the feminine psyche, a state of being one accepts rather than explains. My best guess? She feels sorry for him."

"Not sorry enough to start seeing him again," said Dan sharply, clutching the arm of the sofa.

"Natalie thinks that's a possibility. He's made noises about what a huge mistake it was to let her go."

"Son of a bitch!" snarled Dan, his stomach turning at the thought. "Is she out of her mind? He's a psycho!"

Jeremy regarded him somberly for a moment. "Your opinion of Gordon seems to have taken a sudden turn for the worse."

Dan hastily reined himself in and leaned back against the sofa. He forced a laugh. "It's been coughing up blood for awhile, dude."

Jeremy nodded thoughtfully. "Then maybe you can enlighten me on a point or two."

"Such as?"

"What are the odds that two guys who know each other, say, hypothetically now – Gordon and Casey – would get beaten up in different places on the same night?"

Dan swallowed. He should have known Jeremy would be a problem. "I'm really bad with odds, Jeremy."

"And if, hypothetically speaking, and with all due respect to the odds, Gordon and Casey got beaten up in the same place on the same night, might there be a compelling reason nobody could know about it?"

"There might," said Dan hoarsely. "Hypothetically."

"Beyond any hypothetical consideration of the massive publicity that would no doubt be generated by an assistant U.S. Attorney and a national sports anchor beating each other up?"

"Yeah." Dan's voice cracked.

"Okay," said Jeremy softly.

"He's a psycho," Dan repeated unsteadily, never liking Jeremy more than the moment he stopped hypothesizing. "Somebody's got to keep him away from Dana."

"Natalie's on it. She has all due respect for the odds, too."

***

April 15, 4:45 pm

"It wasn't a fight, Dana." Dan maintained his composure with difficulty as Isaac looked on impatiently. "Now, you dragging me in here was a fight."

"Well, it wasn't true love," snapped Dana. "And it certainly wasn't anything resembling compassion or consideration."

"I'm not particularly motivated to give Gordon Gage any consideration," retorted Dan, keeping his voice as low as possible. "And I'm sure as hell surprised that you are."

"The man is in trouble, Danny. Whatever ... differences Gordon and I may have had-"

"Your 'differences' essentially boil down to the fact you are a decent human being and Gordon is a reptile," snapped Dan in a furious undertone. "What are you doing, having anything to do with him?"

"So I feel sorry for him! This is a crime?"

"Sorry for him?" It was all Dan could do not to scream the words; he reined himself in and managed to keep his voice low. "Well, I admire your capacity for compassion, Dana. I really do. Because if my SO were banging Sally Sasser on the side and then proceeded to dump me like a sack of week-old lox, I might not be so charitable."

"Daniel." Isaac's voice crackled with authority. "That's enough."

"And when precisely did my relationship with Gordon become any of your damn business?" Dana's voice cracked and wavered.

"Enough!" Isaac leaned back in his chair. "Is there some reason I need to hear this?"

"Yes," said Dan evenly, abruptly deciding to take hypothetical bull by the horns.

Dana did a double-take. "Yes?"

"Gordon's been showing up here drunk out of his tiny little mind on a regular basis, disrupting the production of this show, and that's unacceptable."

"He's going through a rough time, Isaac, and he's-"

"I don't give a damn what he's going through," snarled Dan, for the life of him unable to take the icy sting from his voice. "Jeremy and I shouldn't have to roll drunks to edit a segment."

"Dana," said Isaac firmly. "He's right, and I shouldn't have to tell you that."

"Isaac, I have not been entertaining Gordon here. He's only been in a couple times to pick up some things he left at my place when we broke up. That's it, and that's all, and I really resent any implication to the contrary."

"Resent away," said Isaac evenly. "But Gordon is no longer permitted on the floor. He'll have to go through his rough time somewhere else."

"Isaac-"

"We're done, Dana."

"Fine." Dana cast a reproachful look at Isaac, a thin-lipped I'll-cut-your-heart-out look at Dan, turned on her heel and stalked out of Isaac's office.

"Well, that was fun," said Dan glumly, feeling precious little satisfaction in his success. So Gordon could no longer pluck Dana's heart strings in the office, where she was relatively safe. Now he would be forced to do so at her place, or his, where there were no nut-kicking ninety-eight pound warrior women to protect her. Dan could not win for losing. "Thanks, Isaac." He turned to leave.

"Close the door, Daniel."

Dan sighed deeply and shut the door, almost afraid to turn around. When he did, he found Isaac scrutinizing him carefully. "It's that time you ask, right?"

"I had another visit from J.J. today."

"The network again."

"I need to know what's going on if I'm going to help."

Dan came to an awkward stop in front of Isaac's desk, groping for the right words. He had urged Casey to let him tell Isaac from the beginning, but now that the time had come, he was weirdly reluctant to do it. "Knowing what's going on won't help you with the network, Isaac. What makes you think the mugging scenario isn't going to fly?"

Isaac's gaze sharpened. "Casey never reported the mugging to the police, he never checked into the hospital, and since he's still in possession of his wallet, it would seem his mugger was more interested in beating the crap out of him than taking his credit cards. You look like hell, you leave twice every day to look in on him, and in my opinion, Casey looks more like an escapee from a concentration camp than a man who lost a fight."

Dan flinched. It was an accurate description.

"Well?"

Dan swallowed, feeling like he might throw up. "Casey was raped." Dan hardly recognized his own voice. Somehow it seemed worse to say the words here. It seemed more real.

Isaac stared blankly, then drew a hand over his eyes and said nothing.

"Some bastard forced his way into his apartment."

Isaac slammed his fist to the desk. "Has he ever seen this man before? Has he had any trouble with stalkers? I want Casey's email checked-"

"We can't let this get out, Isaac. If the network-"

"It's not going anywhere. But if there's someone out there who-"

"He'd never seen him before," lied Dan, lowering his gaze to the carpet.

"That doesn't mean a damn thing. I want his email and his voicemail checked immediately. If there's some obsessed maniac out there, then Casey's not safe."

"I've been checking his messages." Dan cleared his throat. "But I doubt the bastard would be stupid enough to give himself away like that. Whoever he is."

"Just do it. Has he seen a doctor?" The catch in Isaac's voice was unmistakable; Dan looked up quickly to give him what he hoped was a reassuring smile.

"He's going to be okay. His blood work came back clean." Dan silently thanked every God he'd ever heard of, for the hundredth time in the past three days.

"Good God. I never even thought of…. He should be talking to someone. He-"

"He's seeing a friend of mine," said Dan quickly. "A therapist."

"Good man?" demanded Isaac, and Dan almost smiled. He didn't doubt for a minute that if Dan had any reservations whatsoever about Alex being a good man, Isaac would go out and find one.

"Alex is the best. He specializes in this."

Isaac nodded, satisfied, then stabbed a finger in Dan's direction with his most disapproving expression. "You were out of line, Daniel. You were way out of line to keep this from me."

"Casey dies a little every time he thinks about someone finding out, Isaac." Dan stared at the carpet again. "I just ... the fewer people who know the better. For everybody. It's not that I didn't trust you."

"Oh, hell." Isaac sighed and leaned back in his chair. "Sit down. When was the last time you slept?"

Dan sank into the closest chair gratefully. "Ah ... what year is this?"

"How long can you keep this up, son?"

Dan shrugged and averted his gaze from the compassion in Isaac's face, blinking hard. "Isaac, do you have any idea what he goes through just to make it through the day?"

"No," said Isaac quietly. "I don't."

"I do."

Isaac closed his eyes.

"It's like drowning. You sink to the bottom and claw your way back up to the surface, over and over again. If you're lucky you'll spot a little patch of blue sky and get a lungful of air before you start to sink again. If you're lucky." Dan drew a shaky breath. "I can keep this up as long as he keeps trying to swim."

"It sounds to me like you're swimming for both of you." Isaac opened his eyes and searched Dan's face thoroughly. "And what happens if you start sinking?"

"I swim harder," said Dan wryly, doing his level best to put a smile on his face.

"We all have limits, Dan, physical and emotional limits."

"I can't think like that right now."

"You have to. If not for yourself, then for Casey. If you go under-"

"Have you been talking to my shrink?"

"You're not listening to me."

"Sure I am," Dan said wearily. "I appreciate the concern, Isaac. Really. But I can't go there."

"Why not?"

"Because it's not about me now, it's about Casey. That's where I have to keep my focus if we're going to get through this. If I start thinking about limits and going under, the game's over."

Isaac gazed at him with a bemused expression for a moment, then smiled and nodded. "You make a damn good storm anchor, Danny." His voice was very gentle.

Dan blinked at the non sequitur. "I'm a ... storm anchor?"

"Sure. Every man has one – something or someone who keeps him from being blown away when things get rough."

"Oh." Dan considered the characterization, disconcerted. "Thanks. I guess. Just don't tell Casey that, okay? He's hard enough to handle without giving him the idea that he's, like, chained to me."

"I think Casey would agree with me."

Dan eyed him incredulously. "Do you have one? A storm anchor?"

Isaac laughed softly. "Sure I do. Her name's Esther."

"Oh, I see." Dan snorted dismissively. "The boss man's anchor is a pretty lady, and Casey's stuck with yours truly. Rank has its privileges."

Isaac scowled, obviously pleased. "Stop flirting with my wife, she likes it."

Dan chuckled softly. "Can I help it if the lady has excellent taste?"

"Leave," growled Isaac, his mouth twitching suspiciously. "Go on. Check those messages. And then get back to work."

Still smiling, Dan nodded and rose.

"And Danny – if you start to feel like you're sinking, you know where to look for a life preserver."

Dan's smile deepened. "Yeah. Thanks, Isaac."

"And get some sleep before you go on air. You look my age."

Dan grinned broadly as he backed toward the door. "That's the look I'm going for, man."

"Get out."

"No, seriously, you are a dangerously attractive man."

"Out!"

Dan heard Isaac laughing as he closed the office door. He leaned back against it for a moment, took a deep breath and strode quickly to his office.

*************************************

April 21, 12:50 am

"Hey."

Dan nearly jumped out of his skin as the voice floated out of the dark living room; he let the door slam behind him as he whirled toward the sound. "Case! Holy shit, man, don't do that."

Casey laughed, but it sounded a little strained. "Sorry."

Dan threw the dead bolt and groped for the nearest lamp. "I thought you were in bed. What are you doing sitting in the dark?"

"Lost track of time, I guess."

Dan turned on the lamp and stared anxiously at his friend, who was sitting hunched over on the couch, leaning his elbows on his knees. "You okay?" Dan spotted four beer cans standing neatly in a row across the surface of the coffee table. "Ah. I withdraw the question."

Casey lifted his head, and Dan cringed inwardly at the sight of Casey's red eyes. "C'mere," said Casey quietly.

Dan crossed the room hastily. "Case. What?" Casey held out a hand, and Dan took it. "What?" Casey drew him down to sit on the sofa beside him, then pulled him close and leaned his head against Dan's. Dan put both arms around him in confusion. Well, they'd had a string of really good days. A bad one was bound to sneak in once in awhile.

"Janet spilled her coffee this morning," muttered Casey.

Dan groped for the significance of the remark. Janet. Alex's receptionist. "Ah ... okay."

"Knocked some files off her desk."

"Uh-huh."

"One of them was mine."

"Yeah?"

"I hadn't seen that form since I filled it out in the beginning, you know? I'd left some stuff blank."

Dan waited patiently, caressing Casey's back.

"There was this line at the top. Referred by."

Dan frowned, struggling for comprehension. "Referred by. Referred by me, Case."

"Yeah. I'd left it blank, though. Somebody had filled it in. It says referred by former patient."

Dan felt his stomach go into freefall. "So somebody screwed up."

"Nobody screwed up." Casey leaned back to look into his face. "Did they?"

Dan tried to lie and couldn't, tried to tell the truth and couldn't; he stared at Casey dumbly as his stomach hit ground zero and imploded.

"I asked Alex," continued Casey unevenly. "He told me he couldn't discuss it. He said I should talk to you."

"Son of a bitch," muttered Dan. Like it would have taken any skin off Brophy's nose to lie a little. "Son of a bit-"

Casey's mouth muffled the word; his soft, loving mouth caressed Dan's until Dan gave up anger as a lost cause. Now he was just scared; scared for Casey, scared of what this might do to his head. Casey released his mouth and leaned his forehead against Dan's, breathing hard. "Danny. Jesus, Danny."

"Damn Brophy to hell," whispered Dan. "Case. I'm sorry."

"Sorry." Casey's laugh was feeble and slightly hysterical. "Christ, how could you let me do this to you?"

"Aw, Case," sighed Dan wearily. "You haven't done a damn thing to me."

"Making you live it all over again, every minute of every day, for weeks now-"

"I want to be here."

"The whole time telling you that you couldn't possibly know what I was going through-"

"Case, please don't do this."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Casey lifted his head with an anguished expression. "Didn't you trust me?"

Dan groaned. "I trust you, Case. I trust you with my life, okay?"

"Then what is this?"

"You can't be serious. Like you needed this on top of everything else?"

Casey took him by the shoulders and shook him gently. "Not now. Then. When it happened."

"Oh." Dan swallowed and gazed fixedly over Casey's shoulder and out the window. "I don't know. It just…. It didn't seem…. It was so long ago, I don't remember."

"How long ago?"

"Seven years. You were in Houston, remember?"

"And you were in St. Louis. Which has exactly squat to do with why you didn't tell me. We were on the phone practically every damn night."

"I guess I was just ... embarrassed, Case." Yeah, that would fly, because Casey McCall was such a famous moron.

"Bullshit," whispered Casey. "Tell me."

"You don't want to know about this."

"I want to know," said Casey evenly. "Tell me."

Dan sighed and closed his eyes, bowing to the irresistible force. "I thought you wouldn't believe me." His voice sounded very small in his own ears.

The silence that followed his statement was deafening. "I wouldn't believe you?"

"Case-"

"When the hell was I ever that much of an asshole?"

"Casey," said Dan dully, forcing his eyes open. "It was Nick."

Casey looked at him blankly. "Nick. What was Nick? Nick who?"

"Nick," repeated Dan desperately.

"Nick." Casey's color drained away. "Trutanic?"

"I'm sorry," whispered Dan.

"The Nick who was the captain of my high school basketball team? The Nick I still get a Christmas card from every December? The Nick I have dinner with whenever I'm in Chicago? That Nick?"

God, it was his worst nightmare. Dan's stomach turned over and he tried to pull away, but Casey wouldn't let go. "I'm sorry, Case."

"The Nick I asked to show you around St. Louis," continued Casey unevenly, horror dawning in his expression.

"No," said Dan sharply, surprised. "You had nothing to do with what happened, okay? Just get that the hell out of your head now."

"I introduced you to him."

It took Dan a fraction of a second to get past the realization that Casey had believed him, believed him without question or hesitation, and answer coherently. "And Dana introduced you to Gordon."

Casey drew a shaky breath, but Dan could see he'd gotten the point. "Shit. Shit. Danny."

"I'm sorry," repeated Dan miserably. "I know he's your hero, Case. I know you-"

"My hero?" Casey hissed the words, startling Dan into silence. "That's why you didn't tell me? Because he was my fucking hero?"

"He was your best friend." Dan tried to keep his voice level. "You loved him, man. I didn't want you to lose that, okay? And I didn't want to lose you."

"You won't lose me." Casey sounded as if something were partially obstructing his windpipe. "You can't lose me. Jesus, Danny."

"You're going to hate me for telling you. Sooner or later."

Casey yanked him close; Dan could smell the tang of tears on his friend's face. "Not sooner," he rasped. "Not later. Not ever, got it? That doesn't happen."

Dan sagged against him, almost believing. "But Nick-"

"Nick was a goddamn asshole," grated Casey in his ear. "You want to know about Nick? He was one of those charming, talented guys who think they own everything they see.

He was the only superstar the Athletic department at Lincoln High ever produced, and we worshipped him like a fucking god. I was a skinny little second-string junior, and I would have done anything to get tight with him. I guess I had a crush on him. He noticed. He started letting me hang around with the seniors. Started inviting me back to his house after practice. He was the first guy I ever kissed. Or the first guy who ever kissed me. He wasn't into anybody else initiating the action."

"God," said Dan faintly, knowing where this was going.

"He wasn't into anybody saying no, either. God knows I said it enough the first time he fucked me. It turned him on. He told me afterwards what a good lay I was. Do you believe I liked that? I took that as a compliment. I was back the next day after practice, ready for more. I didn't care how much it hurt as long as he told me how tight I was, what a good fuck I was. I'd do whatever he wanted, as long as he let me hang with him. When he graduated, even after he went on to Duke, and then pro, I still wanted to hang with him. When I saw him last March I still wanted to hang with him. Do you believe it, Danny? What kind of sick shit is that? What kind of loser-"

"You're not a loser," said Dan hoarsely. "He is."

"I thought it was just me, just a high school thing." Casey nuzzled Dan gently. "I didn't think he still…. Aw, Danny. If I had thought for one second-"

"Don't."

"If I saw him now I'd fucking kill him."

"Let it go, Case."

"And you went through that alone because you didn't want me to lose that miserable little shit." Casey landed a clumsy, frantic kiss somewhere between Dan's cheek and his ear. "God. Sometimes I think you're the only person I've ever loved who wasn't bad for me. You know?"

"Sometimes I think the same thing about you," whispered Dan, genuinely stunned.

Casey held him for a moment, then leaned back with Dan wrapped firmly in his arms until he was stretched out on the couch with his head resting on the arm, and Dan was sprawled across him, one leg between Casey and the back of the sofa and the other between Casey's legs, his head resting just under Casey's chin. Dan relaxed and closed his eyes, exhausted.

"So you were doing it back then, too." Casey's voice was all over the place, like a shopping cart with one bad wheel. "You've been doing it for as long as we've known each other, and I just never saw it."

"What?"

"Protecting me." Casey's hands moved gently across Dan's back. "Carrying me."

"That's not what-"

"You're still doing it. You're carrying me in every conceivable way right now."

"I don't-"

"You're covering for me at work. You're paying my bills. You're running interference for me with all my friends, who want to help and can't. You're babysitting me through my temper tantrums and my anxiety attacks. Hell, you even had to tell my boss I was raped because I couldn't handle it."

"Casey, I want-"

"Hell, you nearly let me rape you, just to get me through this. "

"The hell I did," snapped Dan, unable to stand any more. "You can't rape someone who's willing."

"Can't you?" Casey's voice was soft now.

Dan swallowed hard. "That's not what it was about."

"What's it about, then?"

"It's about ... what you need, you get," muttered Dan, uncomfortable. "What else?"

"Sounds like carrying to me."

"So what if it is?" retorted Dan impatiently. "You've carried me more times than I can count, and knowing you – and me – you'll keep right on doing it."

"I've never carried you, Danny," said Casey quietly. "I wish to God I had. I never let myself get close enough to-"

"Bullshit."

"I've never carried you. Not like this."

"Of course not like this. There is no 'like this.'"

"There was a 'like this' and you didn't let me carry."

Dan flinched and fell silent.

"I need to know it's not always going to be this way." Casey's voice dropped to a painful whisper. "You giving. Me taking. Me always being ... less than you."

"Less?" Dan went very still, shocked.

"Less. Of a man." Casey spit the words out as if they burned his tongue.

"Less. Of a…. " Oh, hell. Dan took a breath and pulled himself together. "Casey. You are ten times more of a man on your worst day than I am on my best. So today I carry. So what? You'll carry tomorrow, or the next day. That doesn't make you less of a man. That makes you…."

"What?" whispered Casey, and Dan could tell he was really listening.

"My partner," said Dan quietly.

Casey was silent for a moment. "I can live with that," he said finally. "I just need to know that if you ever need to be carried you'll let me. I need to know that you think I can do it."

"God, Casey, I know you can. You have. You will again. Believe it, man."

"And you'd let me. You'd let me carry you."

"Sure I would."

Skeptical silence.

Dan sighed. "Case. I'll let you carry. I'm not the one having trouble with this concept."

"And do you know why I'm having trouble with this concept, Sigmund?"

"Because you're a typical white-bread alpha-male macho putz?"

"Because you're an obsessive-compulsive carrying fanatic who doesn't know when to send for the reliever."

Dan smiled wryly against Casey's chest. Busted. "Okay. Point taken."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. Game, set and match to the geek from Indiana."

"Nice." But Casey was laughing. The laugh was a little rough around the edges, maybe, but it was still a laugh, and Dan started breathing again. Casey dropped a kiss into Dan's hair, and Dan smiled contentedly. "I'm holding you to the carrying thing, Danny. I mean it."

Dan chuckled drowsily and tightened his arms around Casey. "Holding is good, my man. I recommend holding."

****

May 12, 3:50 pm

"Well, J.J. says it's a non-issue." Isaac looked from Dan to Dana and back again. "He says Luther is prepared to give Casey as much time as he needs."

"Isaac! How did you do it?" Dana looked positively ecstatic.

"I didn't." Isaac's gaze was beginning to feel like a drill bit being taken to his forehead, so Dan fixed his own eyes on the shelves behind Isaac's desk. "But obviously someone has."

"Maybe Luther just ... changed his mind," suggested Dana doubtfully. "Maybe he was afraid of bad press. Firing somebody as high-profile as Casey right after he's been mugged isn't likely to go over well with the viewers."

Isaac snorted his opinion of that assessment. "All I know is that the rumors about Casey have completely dried up. Not a peep in almost a month, and now Luther's started backpedaling. Something's going on over at Corporate that I don't understand, and I don't like not understanding things." Isaac's gaze became a stare.

Dan counted the awards on Isaac's shelves. A month since the initiation of Operation Diabolical, three weeks since the last harassing phone call, three weeks since the rumors had dried up. Cause and effect. Science was wonderful. "Well, sometimes things just work out, Isaac."

Isaac's eyes narrowed. "Sometimes things look like they're working out just long enough for them to turn around and catch us with our pants down."

"Isaac, we won this one."

"Don't celebrate just yet, Dana. This isn't over." Isaac scowled as someone knocked on the office door. "Yes?"

Dan looked over his shoulder to see Natalie pop her head in the door. "Sorry. Dana, you have a phone call."

Dana turned in her chair with an irritated expression. "I have a phone call? I have voice mail, Natalie. I have voice mail so I don't get phone calls when I don't want phone calls."

"He says it's an emergency."

"Who says what's an emergency?"

Natalie made a strange little gulping sound. "Gordon. Gordon says it's an emergency."

Dan stiffened.

"Oh." Dana rose, suddenly flustered. "Oh. I'd better- Excuse me, Isaac, I'd better-"

"Go, Dana. We're done." Isaac leaned back in his chair, his eyes locked on Dan.

"Yes. Thanks. Sorry." Dana gestured frantically and disappeared, Natalie in tow.

Dan watched her go, gritting his teeth. "Guess I'd better get moving too," he said stiffly, rising from his chair. "Show won't write itself."

Isaac rose, too, and moved around his desk to cross the room. "Sit yourself down, Daniel." He swung his office door shut, then poured himself a drink. "We're going to talk."

"We are?" Dan sank back into his chair uneasily. "What about?"

"Had an interesting conversation with Pete Jansen today."

Dan searched his memory for any information on who the hell Pete Jansen was and came up empty. "Pete Jansen?"

"VP of Operations over at Corporate. Old newspaper man, known him for years."

"Ah." Dan watched with growing apprehension as Isaac took a sip of his drink and ambled back to his chair.

"He's been looking into the source of those rumors about Casey for me – unofficially. Seems they'd carried a lot of weight with Luther because they supposedly originated from a source within the Justice Department."

Dan forced himself to laugh. "Doesn't seem too likely, does it, Isaac? Since when does the U.S. Justice Department concern itself with people's private lives?"

"I'll assume you're kidding," said Isaac drily, leaning back in his chair. "However, it seemed unlikely that someone within the Justice Department would distribute this sort of information in an official capacity."

"Very unlikely."

"So I asked myself, who would have the opportunity to distribute it in an unofficial capacity?"

Dan froze.

Isaac's sober gaze bored into him. "Pete tells me that Gordon Gage was a regular golf partner of the executive suite gang until fairly recently."

Dan opened his mouth to say something clever, but nothing came out.

Isaac pulled a small stack of paper from his desk drawer and tossed it onto the desk in front of Dan. Dan glanced down and flinched, recognizing the printouts of web bulletin boards and chat room logs all too well.

"Until, of course, this stuff started getting around."

Dan stared at the sheets of paper for a moment, then raised his eyes to Isaac. "Finding it hard to get tee times these days, is he?" The venom in his voice shocked even him.

"Are you responsible for these?" Isaac's ice cut through Dan's sarcasm and left it quivering in pieces on the ground.

Dan swallowed hard. "Yes, sir."

"This is unconscionable. It's cowardly, Daniel, and it's beneath you."

"Isaac-"

"If you want to take a man on, you do it to his face."

"I did do it to his face," snapped Dan. "I punched his damn face, and it didn't stop him. He was over at the country club the next day, telling Luther and his vultures the latest lie about Casey. He was halfway to getting him fired, Isaac, I had to do something. This was all I had left."

"You seem mighty damn sure of your facts. I don't know with absolute certainty that Gordon is responsible for those rumors, and neither do you. Before you destroy a man's reputation-"

"He admitted it, Isaac! He kept leaving messages for Casey, admitting it, bragging about it, telling him if he ever told anyone about it he'd-"

"Then the man engaged in criminal harassment, and he should be prosecuted, not libeled on the net. Why in God's name didn't you-"

"It isn't libel."

"Dan, this is some of the most-"

"It's only libel if it's not true."

Isaac searched his face for a moment. "What are you telling me?"

Dan drew a shaky breath. "I'm telling you that everything I said there is true."

"For God's sake, Dan, you accuse him of-"

"Rape. Yes."

Isaac slowly lowered his drink to his desk, his eyes never leaving Dan's.

Dan nodded wordlessly.

"You told me that Casey did not know this man," said Isaac thickly, his voice shaking.

"I lied," said Dan quietly. "I'm sorry, Isaac. I promised Casey. I promised him no one here would know."

"You lied to me?"

"Isaac-"

"To me?"

"Casey can't-"

"About this?"

"I'm sorry," said Dan wearily. "I couldn't go back on my promise, Isaac. It's Casey's call-"

"Why?"

Dan felt his jaw drop. "Why is it Casey's call?"

Isaac's fierce gaze faltered; he drew a hand across his eyes. "I withdraw the question. I'm sorry, Danny."

"Don't. Don't apologize."

"Good God."

Dan reached over the desk and pushed Isaac's glass toward him. "Drink."

Isaac picked it up mechanically, staring at Dan for a moment, then threw back the rest of the drink in one gulp. "You hit him?"

"Yes."

"Hard?"

Dan smiled faintly. "Yes, sir. Twice."

"Good." Isaac took a deep breath and picked up the stack of papers. "This has to stop, Danny."

Dan opened his mouth to protest; Isaac held up his hand with a stern expression.

"You've won. You've destroyed Gordon's credibility as far as Luther is concerned. But you are going to stop this now, before it comes back to bite both you and Casey in the ass. I understand why you did it, but I can't sanction these tactics. Am I clear?"

"Yes," replied Dan in a subdued tone.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, sir." Dan raised his eyes to Isaac's. "He's going to get away with it, Isaac. He raped Casey and threatened him and nearly got him fired, and he's going to get away with all of it."

Isaac gave him small smile. "Don't be too sure. Sometimes the Lord works in mysterious ways."

"Meaning?" asked Dan bleakly.

"Meaning that I think I know what Gordon's emergency is."

"Am I the only one who thinks it might not be a good idea to let a mentally disturbed rapist call Dana with his emergencies?" snapped Dan.

"Keep your head, Daniel," said Isaac, all steel again. "You keep your head. If we're going to get through this in one piece, you can't go off half-cocked."

"Damn it, Isaac, he's dangerous. He shouldn't be allowed within a half-mile of Dana."

"The best way to prevent that would be to tell Dana the truth."

Dan blanched. "You have got to be kidding. That's exactly why Casey didn't want anyone here to know. That's his nightmare scenario, man."

Isaac frowned. "Why?"

"Tell Dana that her ex-fiancee raped Casey because he was jealous?"

Isaac rested his head on his hand and closed his eyes.

"Gordon didn't do this because he found Casey irresistible, Isaac. That's not what it's about. It's about power and control, okay? Dana loves Casey, and that threatens this bastard. Dana's his personal property and she's got no business caring about anybody but him. The fact that she does makes him feel small, and Gordon's not going to take that lying down."

"You think this man presents a danger to Dana?" asked Isaac sharply.

"What the hell do you think I've been saying here? He has to have realized by now that nothing's changed between Casey and Dana. If teaching Casey a lesson didn't work-"

"Good God," muttered Isaac.

"But telling her that…. Hell. You know what that would do to her. She'd think it was her fault. It would kill her. And that would kill Casey. You know how it is with them."

"I can't think of anything else that would stop her from seeing him, Dan. Every ounce of common sense that woman possesses flies right out the window whenever he comes in the door. If this man is dangerous-"

"Let me finish this." Dan laid his hand on the printouts.

Isaac scowled. "Why? You'd expose Casey to-"

"Not Casey. Me. That was the plan. Once that hits the fan he's finished, Isaac. Justice won't want anything to do with him, and neither will Dana."

Isaac stared at him wordlessly for a few moments. "You."

Dan shifted uneasily in his chair. "Yeah."

"That was your plan."

"Well, yeah."

"Absolutely not," said Isaac unevenly. "Do you think competent sports anchors grow on trees?"

"Isaac-"

"I need to think. Talk to Casey about this tonight. Tomorrow we'll put our heads together and see what we can come up with. And Daniel?"

"Yes?"

"No more plans. I don't think you've got the knack."

*********************

May 13, 1:05 am

"Casey. Please say something."

Casey raised his head from his hands and stared at Dan wordlessly.

"Okay, okay," said Dan nervously. "Don't say something."

Casey lowered his eyes to the printouts littering the surface of the coffee table. "You were really going to do this," he said, his voice grating like a piece of rusty machinery.

"Yeah. Hell, Casey, it was working. It would have all played out perfectly if Isaac hadn't figured it out. And once he figured that out-"

"I don't care. I don't care what Isaac figured out. You were going to do this."

"I didn't know what else to do." Dan heard the pleading tone in his voice and cleared his throat. "He was threatening you. You, your job, everything you care about."

"Not everything." Casey's voice fell to a whisper.

"This was all I had, man, it was all I could come up with. And it worked. The rumors have stopped. The phone calls have stopped."

"And now you're a target."

"I'm not a target, Case."

"I can't believe you did this." Casey's voice rose shakily. "You tell me we're in this together, and then you go behind my back to try to get yourself killed?"

"I couldn't let him work you over like that. I couldn't take it, Case. And I wasn't trying to get myself killed. I was just-"

"What? Trying to get yourself humiliated, made into a national laughing-stock, a bad joke? Christ, Danny, you'd never be able to work in this business again."

"I don't care," returned Dan passionately. "I don't care about the business. I care about you. You are my priority right now, got it? I don't have time for the goddamn business."

Casey yanked him close. "You," he breathed with a helpless expression and bright eyes, "are a fucking lunatic."

Dan cleared his throat again. "You say that like it's a bad thing."

Casey kissed him gently. "No more, Danny," he whispered. "No more secret plans."

"Case-"

"Please. I'm asking."

Dan sighed. Shit. Like he had a chance in hell of resisting that. "No more secret plans," he agreed quietly. "Sorry, Case. Really. Should have told you."

"Okay." Casey let out a breath. "Now tell me the other bad news."

"Other bad news?" Dan winced inwardly. "Oh."

Casey frowned, examining Dan's face closely. "You said a couple of pieces of bad news."

"Yeah. Right." Dan fidgeted. "This one's, um, worse."

"Worse?"

"Yeah."

Casey's eyes widened. "How the hell do you get worse than this?"

Dan drew a deep breath and forged ahead. "It's Dana."

"Dana?" Casey flushed and looked truly angry for the first time. "Fuck, Danny, don't tell me she knows about Gordon, too. Do not tell me that."

"She doesn't know."

"Then what, damn it?"

"Casey, be cool. I'm telling you right now, be cool, because this is bad, okay?"

Casey set his jaw stubbornly. "Tell me."

"Gordon is trying to talk her into seeing him again."

Casey's flush drained away.

"And she's listening to him. He's been hanging around the office, drunk, and making noises about what a mistake it was to break up."

Casey nodded, his eyes fixed on Dan's face.

"I tried to talk to her, remind her what a shit he'd been to her, but I screwed up. I got mad, and she got mad, and she's not going to listen to anything I say about him now. Isaac and I don't know how to stop this. Hell, man, you know Dana better than anybody. What do we do? Tell me how to convince her, because I am lost."

Casey closed his eyes and leaned forward, pressing his forehead to Dan's shoulder; Dan wrapped both arms around him with a soft groan, hating himself. "Casey. I'm sorry. I tried to think of something, really. But I'm all out of ideas." Casey nodded against his shoulder, still silent, and Dan held his tongue and waited, letting one hand wander up Casey's back to caress his hair.

Casey sat still under that touch for a moment, then took a deep breath. "Okay. I'll talk to her."

Dan looked down at him in surprise. "You will?"

"I'll go in with you tomorrow."

Dan frowned doubtfully. "You up to that?"

"Yeah."

"What are you going to tell her?"

"The truth." Casey was barely audible.

Dan flinched. "Shit. Case." Yeah, that would do it, all right, and rip both Casey and Dana's hearts out in the process. Not that he'd left the man with all that many options.

Casey shrugged fractionally. "Nothing else to do. I'm not going to let that son of a bitch get close enough to hurt her."

"Let me tell her," said Dan unevenly. "Maybe ... maybe I can-"

"No. Thanks, Danny. But that's not going to work." Casey raised his head and wiped his face with his sleeve impatiently. "I'll tell her."

"I really screwed up," said Dan tautly. "If I'd kept my cool, she might have listened to me, and you wouldn't-"

"This is Dana we're talking about, right?" The rueful little smile on Casey's face nearly undid him. "Unless the pod's been found, nothing you said to Dana about Gordon's deficiencies as a boyfriend would have had any effect whatsoever, no matter how cool you were."

"You think?"

"I think. But thanks for trying."

"Yeah," muttered Dan. "I'm a real hero." Before the last word had left his lips, he found himself flat on his back on the sofa with his wrists pinioned to the cushions and Casey's weight pinning him down. "Whoa."

"Actually," said Casey in an unsteady voice, "you are." Casey kissed him, deeply this time, and all Dan could do was relax under the onslaught. He was shaking all over by the time Casey lifted his mouth.

"May I make an observation?" whispered Dan, heart pounding.

"Observe at your leisure," murmured Casey, dropping hot, wet kisses down Dan's neck to his collarbone.

"I really, really like it down here."

Casey swallowed convulsively. "I like you down there, too. Danny. Um. Look. Do you ... do you remember any of the stuff I said to you the night we got back from the doctor?"

Dan peered up at his friend, slightly perplexed. "Uh-huh."

"Which part?"

"Do I get a prize if I remember it all?" murmured Dan, trying to lean up for another kiss, which he got.

"How about the part about wanting to fuck you?" Casey's voice went a little raspy and his face a brilliant shade of red.

Dan cleared his throat, fighting going hard with everything in him. "Ah. That part. Yeah, I remember that real well, Case."

"I meant it, you know."

"Glad to hear it," said Dan breathlessly. "Sincerity is a very attractive quality."

Casey licked his lower lip. "I do. I want to."

"I want you to."

"You do?"

"Yeah."

"Seriously. You do. Really want me to."

"Seriously."

"Because for a long time I couldn't think about it without getting sick to my stomach." Casey continued hastily. "I mean, thinking about you didn't make me sick, it was thinking about-"

"Case," said Dan gently. "I know."

"But lately it's hard to think about anything else. And nothing's happening."

"Happening?"

"Yeah. You know. Happening."

"Oh, happening."

"Yeah."

"Same thing happened to me. Um. Didn't happen to me."

Casey let out a gulp of what seemed to be profound relief. "Yeah?"

"Uh-huh." Dan shifted into a more comfortable position under Casey.

"So ... how long did nothing happen?"

"Almost three months."

Casey went very quiet. "Oh."

"It might not be that long for you, Case."

Casey nodded, staring down at Dan with a remote expression. "Or it might be longer."

"Casey," said Dan firmly. "Look at me very carefully, and tell me where you see the expiration date stamped."

Casey's face twitched for a moment, then split into a funny, lopsided little smile. "Haven't ... uh, checked everywhere yet."

"Feel free to look. You won't find one."

"Am I really?" whispered Casey tentatively. "Free to look?"

"Yeah," said Dan huskily. "Free to touch, too."

"Jesus, Danny," groaned Casey. "Even that didn't get Junior's attention."

"Case, relax. It'll happen, okay? In the meantime, just ... feel free."

Casey rested his forehead against Dan's. "Do you know how long it's been since I wanted anybody this bad?" he whispered.

"Hum a few bars."

Casey smacked the top of Dan's head, laughing.

*************

May 13, 11:10 am

"He looks good. He looks really good." Dana was fairly beaming.

Dan studied Casey carefully, not a little freaked out that most of the production staff were standing around him, talking and laughing as if the past six weeks had never happened. The whole scene seemed weird to him, mind-bending; he'd become so accustomed to Casey without his public mask of cocky assurance that the familiar persona seemed alien to him now – and convincing. Watching Casey banter with the crew made him wonder if he'd underestimated his friend's recovery. Certainly his physical injuries had healed; only faint traces of the bruising remained. No one looking at Casey at this moment would ever have guessed what he'd been through. "Yes, he does."

"Is he? Really good?"

"He's good," said Dan quietly.

"He's great. He's fine," said Natalie with infectious enthusiasm, leaving the knot of people around Casey to join them. "So what did Gordon want?"

Dan cast a sharp look at Dana, but let it go.

Dana ignored his reaction completely. "He's been placed on administrative leave until the investigation's over. He's ... he's really upset."

Dan suppressed his satisfaction with an effort, keeping his eyes on Casey, who was extricating himself from the crew to mount the stairs.

"Too bad," replied Natalie, with all the savage delight of a fledgling eaglet over its first kill.

"Hey." Casey came to a halt a few feet from Dana, smiling. "Got a minute?"

"Sure."

"No, I mean – a minute." Casey jerked his head in the direction of Dana's office.

"Oh." Dana looked surprised. "Sure." She opened the door and disappeared into the corridor.

"Case," murmured Dan as Casey passed. "You okay?"

"Yeah." Casey, ashen, touched Dan's arm with a fleeting smile and followed Dana.

"So," said Natalie softly, watching him leave. "What's that about? Hypothetically?"

Dan shot her a wary glance as a grim-faced Jeremy joined them by the door. "You guys are too damn hypothetical lately."

"There are still marks around his neck, Natalie." Jeremy spoke in a sickened undertone, barely audible. "You can see them if you look hard enough."

"Oh, my God." Natalie's voice fell to a whisper, her eyes widening as she looked at Dan. "He shouldn't be here, should he?"

"Probably not," muttered Dan. "But you know Casey once he makes up his mind."

"And he made up his mind about…?"

"Natalie," said Jeremy quietly. "Leave it."

Dan shrugged dismissively. "He needed to talk to Dana about something."

"Imagine that. Gordon's all over Dana one day, and Casey needs to talk to Dana the next. Go figure." Natalie cast a dark look down the hall toward Dana's office.

"Natalie, let it go." Jeremy's tone became urgent. "I'm serious."

"He was all over her?" Dan managed to keep his voice low.

"Like an octopus with separation issues. I had to drop Dana's cast iron kitty cat on his foot. Accidentally."

Dan blinked. "Dana has a cast iron kitty cat?"

"The kitty cat is gainfully employed as both a doorstop and Natalie's weapon of choice," said Jeremy in resignation.

"Nice move," observed Dan admiringly.

"Dana didn't think so." Jeremy fixed his reproving gaze on Natalie, who shrugged.

"No?"

"On the contrary, she objected to the kitty cat's moonlighting in the strongest possible terms."

"The kitty cat is quite capable of making her own career choices," asserted Natalie fiercely. "She knows what's best."

Dan couldn't have taken the grin off his face if his life depended on it. "And did Gordon offer an opinion?"

"Gordon swore a lot."

"That doesn't sound very helpful."

"The kitty cat wasn't particularly interested in his opinion anyway," returned Natalie loftily.

"The kitty cat sounds like a very sensible and discerning individual."

"You bet your sweet ass."

"Wait a minute. Did Dana talk to Gordon today?" asked Dan suddenly, his stomach flipping over at the thought of Casey running into Gordon Gage in an elevator. "I thought he was banned from the floor."

"He was. Dana went out to meet him for coffee this morning."

"What was that about?" asked Jeremy quickly.

Natalie fairly slavered with pleasure; Dan managed to restrain a shudder. "He's nailed," she said, all vicious joy. "I guess they found the money. He's been suspended until the investigation is complete."

"God bless the FBI," said Jeremy drily.

"He threw the Galino case?" Dan laughed shortly. "Bright boy. I don't suppose-"

"Don't fucking touch me!"

Natalie jumped at the sound, gasping, but it wasn't until Jeremy muttered "what the hell" that Dan found what it took to bolt through the door and sprint down the hall toward Dana's office. The door was wrenched open and a shaken Dana appeared, backing out of her office with something as close to a panic-stricken expression as Dan had ever seen on her. She caught sight of him, made a frantic, inexplicable gesture in his direction and vanished into her office again; Dan followed her in and froze in his tracks.

Casey sat huddled in the far corner with his knees to his chest, shaking and struggling to draw breath. He looked more like a terrified child in that moment than he had in the last six weeks, and Dan cursed helplessly under his breath.

Dana bent to lay a hand on his arm. "Casey. It's-"

Casey shoved her away, eyes wild. "Get away from me," he rasped. "Get out. Get out now."

"Dana, back off," said Dan sharply, pulling her back. "Wait outside."

"I'm not going anywhere until I know he's all right." Dana's voice quavered wildly. "What is this, Dan? He said…. He said he was raped. And when I hugged him, he-"

"Leave," cut in Dan brutally, unable to spare any more time. He caught sight of Jeremy and Natalie's horrified faces as they stood in the doorway. "And shut that damn door." He turned his back to them and knelt in front of Casey; he restrained a groan as Casey flinched away. "It's me, Case. Just me."

Casey instantly reached out to grab the hand Dan offered. "She smells ... like Gordon," he said in choking little gasps. "She ... God. Scotch. And cologne. Or aftershave. Something."

"Casey, it's okay. Just breathe. You're safe, man, I'm right here." Dan folded Casey's hand between both of his, struggling to keep his composure. Every anguished breath Casey drew was like a knife in his gut.

"Damn. Sorry. That smell. I can't…." Casey gagged.

"Sh. Easy. Don't think about that now. You're safe," murmured Dan. "Breathe, just breathe. Don't worry about anything else." He rubbed Casey's cold hand soothingly.

Dan heard a peculiar little sound behind him, and looked over his shoulder, only to see that no one had moved. Dana was standing just inside the door watching them, listening to them, one hand clamped firmly over her mouth, eyes wide; Jeremy and Natalie stood stock-still and stunned behind her in the hall, as if rooted to the carpet. "I said leave!" shouted Dan angrily.

Natalie seized Dana by the arm and dragged her into the hall as Jeremy grabbed the doorknob. "Sorry," he breathed, and shut the door.

Dan turned back to Casey, who met his gaze, still panting and speechless. Unable to endure the distance, Dan pulled him close, drawing his arms loosely around Casey's shoulders. Casey's arms went around Dan's waist, tight, as his breathing slowly returned to normal. They were both silent for a few moments.

"Well," said Casey thickly. "That ought to do it, don't you think?"

Dan groaned softly, closing his eyes. "Casey. Don't."

"Showing's always better than telling."

"She'll be all right. It'll take a while, but she'll be all right."

"Sure, this is just what the doctor ordered. She'll be just peachy."

"She will. She's strong. She's brave. She's like you."

Casey's head slipped down until it was resting on Dan's shoulder. "Jesus, Danny," he said faintly.

"He can't hurt her now. That's what's important."

"Yeah. I know." Casey took a tremulous little breath.

"You guys will find a way to handle everything else."

Casey was quiet for a minute. "I really do love you more than anything, Danny," he whispered. "You know that, right?"

Dan nuzzled him gently. "Yeah. Same here."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. More than anything." Dan planted a kiss on Casey's left ear.

Casey lifted his head and leaned it against Dan's for a second; he was actually smiling. "Go on. Make sure she's okay."

Dan hesitated.

"I'll be fine. I'm going to talk to Isaac for a few minutes, and then I'll call a cab."

"The hell you will. I'll take you home."

"Danny, I can-"

"Please. I'm asking."

Casey's smile deepened. "Okay."

"Okay." Dan helped him to his feet, hating the feel of the fine tremors still running through Casey's muscles. "Can you make it?"

Casey nodded, straightening. "No problem."

Dan nodded, managing to resist his impulse to kiss the man full on the mouth, then opened the door and glanced up and down the hall, sighing in relief to find it empty. "We're all clear, KemoSabe." Dan ushered Casey out the door and down the hall toward Isaac's office, walking close in case of a stumble.

Casey sighed, shoving his shaking hands into his pockets. "You do know that's been translated as 'soggy shrub.'"

"Really?" asked Dan cheerfully.

Casey gave Dan his best dirty look, the effect of which was somewhat diluted by the loving smile on his face. "You're a menace."

"Menaces are in demand. I'm seriously considering making myself available for weddings and bar mitzvahs."

"What's the going rate for a wedding menace these days?"

"Seven bucks an hour, give or take. An extra ten if I fall in the cake."

"It's a hard life, my friend."

"It's not so bad. I can always do my magic act on the side."

Casey actually grinned at him, to Dan's infinite relief. "You can't do magic, Danny."

"I can."

"You can't, my man, I've seen you try. There's a trail of dead doves and broken watches behind you for as far as the eye can see."

"Ah, the casualties of callow youth. But doves and watches aren't my specialty."

"Dare one ask?"

"I'm an escape artist."

Casey stopped in front of Isaac's door, his grin now ear to ear. "A ... a what?"

"Go ahead and laugh," said Dan airily, wishing he would. "No great artist is appreciated during his lifetime."

"In that case, you are a very great artist."

"I'm serious. Sam taught me how. I used to be able to slip out of anything."

"Uh-huh," said Casey doubtfully.

"Hey, if you don't believe me, tie me up sometime."

"Can I gag you, too?"

Dan grinned and knocked on Isaac's door, then opened it and popped his head inside. Isaac looked up, scowling. "Did I hear yelling?"

"Yes," replied Dan helpfully. "Someone's here to see you." He stepped back and let Casey by; Casey paused to straighten Dan's tie.

"Meet you at the elevator in fifteen," he said softly. He was smiling, and his color was returning, and Dan chalked one up in the victory column.

"Casey! Get yourself in here." Isaac rose from his chair with a delighted smile as Casey stepped inside, and Dan nodded, closing the door behind him.

"Dan."

Dan looked over his shoulder and almost laughed; Jeremy was hovering a few feet away, looking as if he were afraid to get any closer. "Jeremy."

"I'm sorry. I am really, really sorry."

Dan sighed and leaned back against Isaac's door. "Tell me something, Jeremy. Have you noticed anything about this morning that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that it bites?"

"Yes," replied Jeremy gravely. "It bites very hard, Dan. It sucks, too."

"It sucks, blows, and bites."

"It does all those things repeatedly, and I'm sorry, Dan. We didn't mean to stand there gawking like that, it was just sort of – I don't know – shock or something. We didn't expect-"

"Nobody did." Dan straightened with an effort. "Where's Dana?"

Jeremy swallowed convulsively. "Um ... in the holy of holies. With Natalie." He gestured down the hall in the direction of the ladies' room.

"Shit," muttered Dan. "Crying?"

"Yeah."

"Shit!" Dan turned toward the ladies' room. "I can't handle crying, Jeremy."

"Me neither." Jeremy fell into step beside him.

"Why do they go into the ladies' room to cry? They only cry harder in there."

"I haven't figured that out yet."

Dan came to an abrupt halt in front of the ladies' room door; sobbing was clearly audible. "Oh, hell," he sighed, then leaned close to the door. "Dana? Are you okay?"

There was no response, but the sobbing was quickly muffled, as if Dana had put a hand over her mouth.

"Dana, he's going to be all right."

"Dana, talk to him." Natalie's voice came in a hiss.

The door was yanked open and Dana appeared, flushed and tear-stained. Without preamble, she hauled her hand back and slapped Dan hard across the face. Dan stared at her, slack-jawed. "Ow."

"That hurt," observed Jeremy, wincing.

"And it wasn't talking," snapped Natalie, peering around Dana's shoulder to glare at her.

"Okay?" Dana was crying again. "How could you let me put him through that? Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because he didn't want you to know," said Dan quietly, rubbing his stinging cheek. "He didn't want to hurt you."

"Hurt me?" Dana's laughter held a hysterical note.

"It just about killed Casey to even think about telling you. If he hadn't been afraid the same thing would happen to you, wild horses couldn't have dragged it out of him. He knew what you'd think, Dana."

"What I would think? He knew what I would think? What the hell would I think, Dan? Tell me. Please tell me what I would think."

"He knew you'd beat yourself up over it. It's not your fault, Dana. None of it."

"Of course not. How could it be my fault? Gordon was jealous of Casey from day one, and I encouraged it, I egged it on, because it was so much fun to have two attractive men sparring over the irresistible Dana Whittaker. So why would the fact that one of them got jealous enough to-" Dana put her hand to her mouth.

"No," said Dan hastily. "Dana, don't. Damn it, it wasn't you, it was-"

Dana turned and fled back into the ladies room; Dan heard the sound of retching. He groaned and sagged against the doorjamb. "Natalie?"

"Later, Dan." Natalie sounded grim. "Give her some time, okay?"

Dan flinched as the retching gave way to more sobs.

"Like I said," said Jeremy wearily. "I haven't figured it out."

*****************************************

May 27, 1:15 am

"The 15th sounds good to me," said Casey quietly. "Alex thinks so, too. I'm just a little worried about how Dana will react."

Dan sighed and stretched out on the couch, laying his head in Casey's lap. "No luck yet."

"No. Two weeks, Danny. At the office. At home. She won't return my calls." Casey ran his fingers through Dan's hair idly.

"This is a tough one," murmured Dan, kicking off his shoes. "It's going to take some time. All you can do right now is make sure she knows you're willing to talk."

"She knows. She still won't talk to you about it?"

"Are you kidding?" Dan sighed and shook his head, momentarily dislodging Casey's hand. He caught hold of it firmly and put it back, ignoring Casey's chuckle. "She won't even be in the same room with me if we're alone. It's like she's afraid of me. After the news broke tonight, I stopped by her office to make sure she was okay. She practically ran away from me."

"The news?"

"Gordon's been indicted," replied Dan with considerable satisfaction. "He'll probably be out of a job by the end of the week." Casey nodded silently, bending over Dan; Dan smiled up at him. "Let me guess. You don't want to talk about him."

"No," murmured Casey, kissing his forehead.

"You want to look?"

"I want to touch." Casey began unbuttoning Dan's shirt, smiling.

"Even better," whispered Dan, settling in. God, he loved this – and Casey's touching, for reasons as yet unstated but accepted, hadn't even ventured below the waist yet. There simply was no denying the man had great hands. Casey bent to ply Dan's neck with lips and tongue, and Dan closed his eyes. Great mouth, too. Hell, great everything. Casey McCall was worth waiting for, a man worth any number of cold showers and jack-off sessions. The guy was dream lover material, and Lisa was a damn fool. "Hey," he managed, his voice doing all the strange things it inevitably did when he was turned on.

"Hmm?" Casey continued his attentions to Dan's neck, not missing a beat as he loosened the last button and opened Dan's shirt. One warm hand caressed Dan's chest.

"I've ... I've come to a scholarly conclusion."

"Wazzaa?" asked Casey against Dan's throat.

"I think you're hot with your shirt open, too."

Casey lifted his head, a big grin on his face. "Yeah?"

"Oh, yeah. Big time." Dan reached up and began unbuttoning Casey's shirt slowly, watching his friend's face carefully for any sign of discomfort. Casey swallowed and leaned closer, the grin slowly fading away.

"I know this isn't enough for you," he whispered.

Dan's hands froze on the second button. "Enough?"

"You're a grown man, Danny, I know that. This kind of junior high make-out crap-"

Dan twisted his fingers into Casey's shirt and yanked him close. "I love this junior high make-out crap," he said unevenly. "I wouldn't want it to stop even if you were ready to fuck me every hour on the hour. Do you hear me?"

"It isn't-"

"I. Love. This. Got it?"

Casey searched his face for a few seconds. "Got it," he whispered finally, his smile slowly returning. "Got it, Danny." He blinked a few times. "But I've got to say fucking you every hour on the hour sounds pretty damn good."

"Appetizer and entrée, my man. Deal with the concept." Dan started to breathe again. "Not enough. Shit. You have no clue what you do to me, do you? You look at me and I get a hard-on. One of these days you're going to sneeze in a rundown meeting and I'm going to come in front of God and everybody."

Casey exploded into laughter, the first real laugh that Dan could remember in almost two months. "Danny. Jesus. Don't."

"Don't what? Don't get a hard-on?" Delighted, Dan continued unbuttoning Casey's shirt. "Don't come? Don't invite God and everybody?"

"You're going to torture me, aren't you?" gasped Casey. "You're going to do hard-on stuff in rundowns."

"What stuff is that?" inquired Dan innocently, twitching Casey's shirt open and eagerly pressing his hot palms to Casey's chest, letting his fingers trail provocatively across Casey's nipples.

"You know what stuff that is! Shit, Danny, I can't handle that. Do not do that to me."

"Hey, bribes are cheerfully accepted, partner. Make it worth my while not to."

Casey leaned lower, still laughing. "Okay. Tell me what it'll take."

"Junior high make-out crap," murmured Dan contentedly.

Casey closed his eyes and pressed his lips to Dan's cheek. "How much?" he muttered.

Dan nuzzled him gently. "You just bring it on. I'll let you know when I've had enough."

"My attorney's warned me about open-ended agreements." Casey licked, then nibbled Dan's ear maddeningly, studiously avoiding looking Dan in the eye.

"Is your attorney going to be sitting in our rundowns or are you?"

"Good point."

"You tell your attorney that your make-out services have been booked for the duration."

"What duration?" Casey raised his head quickly.

"Mine," said Dan softly, stroking the sandy hair back from Casey's forehead. "Okay?"

Casey stared at him for a minute. "Okay," he whispered.

Dan caught his gaze and held it. "Once more, convincingly. Deal?"

Casey started to smile again. "Deal." He leaned down to nuzzle Dan's neck. "I take it back, Danny."

"Hmmm?"

"I take it back," repeated Casey quietly in his ear. "You can do magic."

*****************************************

June 16, 12:01 am

"Whoa. A star is born." Dan leaned back in his chair and gave Casey his most provoking grin, raising his voice to be heard over the hollering.

Casey shuffled and reshuffled his script like a man possessed. "Shut up," he muttered, beet-red. "Make them stop, you lunatic."

Dan had only seen Casey really lose his cool at the anchor desk once in the past two years. So watching him redden and stammer and look pleadingly at Dan for rescue was a feast, one to be relished and stored away.

One to be pulled out of mothballs whenever Casey needed a good ragging on.

"Nah, I don't think so."

It had been a good show. Not a great one, certainly not the best they'd ever done, but it was good, and it was Casey's first show back. Which was probably why the whole damn crew were applauding and yelling like Casey McCall had single-handedly won the Yankees a pennant as soon as they were off the air.

"Danny, this is-"

"You know why?" Dan pulled his microphone off, tossed it on the desk and leaned forward to speak softly. "Because you deserve it. Because it takes ten kinds of guts to get back in the game after what you've been through and because I love you so much I could kiss you right here."

Casey hastily yanked his microphone off his lapel. "Are you nuts?" he hissed, getting even redder, which impressed the hell out of Dan. He would have laid even money that Casey couldn't get any redder than he already was.

"Nobody's listening, Case. They're too busy uncorking the champagne."

Casey looked as if he might choke. "Champagne?"

"The man of the hour commands and I obey." Jeremy appeared at the desk to hand Casey a glass, which almost spilled when Natalie hugged Casey from behind.

"It's so good to have you back," said Natalie fiercely, kissing his cheek.

"G-good to be back." Casey hid his face in his glass.

He was immediately surrounded by people congratulating him, slapping his back, hugging him, ruffling his hair. Dan was temporarily forgotten, and he couldn't have cared less, certain he could live on the happy, grateful, totally mortified amazement in Casey's face for the next year. It took him a few seconds to realize that someone was conspicuous by her absence.

Glancing around the studio, Dan caught sight of Dana standing in the doorway to the control room, watching the ever-growing celebration around Casey with the look of a child staring through a shop window at something she couldn't have. She met Dan's gaze for a moment, then hastily turned and disappeared into the control room.

Dan got up and slipped through the crowd and across the studio to follow her. The control room was empty. Dan set his shoulders and strode down the hall to her office. Enough was enough.

Dana was there at her desk, poring over paperwork that she probably wasn't even seeing. She glanced up when Dan knocked at her door and flashed him a bright, brittle smile. "Good show, Danny. Tell Casey for me, okay?"

"Come on out and tell him yourself," said Dan gently, leaning against the doorjamb. "He'd love to hear it from you."

Dana gave him that god-awful smile again. "Lots of work, here, Danny. Lots of …um ... stuff, you know. For Isaac." She gestured vaguely with one hand.

"Dana, Isaac is at the anchor desk hugging the crap out of Casey right now."

"I know! I know, but he'll want it in the morning."

"Come out and talk to Casey. Don't you think this has gone on long enough?"

"There's nothing going on. I'm just working, Dan. Some of us have work to do. Some of us don't have time to stand around and tell other people where to go and who to talk to."

"Whom," said Dan quietly, coming inside. "Whom to talk to. You haven't said a word to Casey since-"

"What the hell is there to say?" Dana threw down her pen and stared up at him; he could see the tears in her eyes now. "I'm sorry I got you raped, Casey? I'm sorry I put you through hell on earth for two months? I'm sorry I ruined your life?"

"Casey's life isn't ruined, and it wasn't you who put him through hell. We both know who it was."

Dana rose to her feet and leaned on her desk, tears spilling over. "Well, that's a relief."

"Dana-"

Dana swung away to stare out the window. "No, really, Dan, it is such a comfort to know that it was my psychotically jealous ex-fiance who fucking tortured my dearest friend in the world. It is such a comfort to know that Casey was raped because I love him. Thank you so much."

"I love you, too."

Dan nearly jumped out of his skin as someone touched his shoulder; Dana gasped and whirled toward the door. Casey glanced reassuringly at Dan, then focused his attention on Dana; she groaned softly and turned away again as Casey moved towards her.

"I'll uh ... head back to the party," murmured Dan, backing out.

Casey nodded absently as he put his hand on Dana's shoulder and turned her around. The touch seemed to snap something; Dana threw both arms around his waist and buried her face against his chest, sobbing quietly. Casey wrapped his arms around her and kissed her forehead.

Dan beat a hasty retreat, but he couldn't help hearing.

"Why wasn't it me?" Dana's broken voice was muffled against Casey's chest. "It should have been me."

"It shouldn't have been anybody," said Casey shakily. "Least of all you. Don't do this, Dana. Trust me, you don't want to go where it'll take you."

Wincing, Dan turned back toward the studio, only to find Natalie striding down the hall with a determined expression. "Whoa," he said softly, catching her.

Natalie glared up at him fiercely. "He escaped. I only looked away for a second, and he escaped."

"Relax. He'll be back in a little while."

"It is absolutely necessary that he sit there and let us embarrass him."

"And I am one hundred percent with you on this," said Dan gravely. He turned Natalie around and put an arm around her shoulders, steering her back toward the studio. "Just give him a few. He's talking to Dana."

Natalie looked up hopefully. "He's talking to Dana?"

"Talking as we speak."

"And?"

"And it's pretty ugly. Hugging. Crying. Very dangerous place to be right now."

"Oh. Well." Natalie appeared to be slightly mollified. "I guess we can give him a few minutes for hugging and crying. But then his ass is ours."

"You said it," said Dan cheerfully, opening the door to the control room.

***

June 16, 1:35 am

"The woman is a fiend." Casey dove into the back seat of the cab and immediately flopped back, closing his eyes.

Dan chuckled and leaned back, too, watching the empty Manhattan streets begin to glide by. "So what else is new?"

"The hats were completely unnecessary."

"Cruelty, thy name is Natalie. I gotta say, though, you looked damn cute in that hat."

"Don't talk to me."

Dan chuckled again and closed his eyes.

"It was a good show, wasn't it?" asked Casey suddenly.

"It was an excellent show." Dan turned his head to look at his friend. "You okay?"

"Yeah," said Casey softly. "I'm good."

"Dana okay?"

Casey turned his head, too, and smiled at him. "Yeah. She will be."

Dan smiled back. "That's good. My world tends to suck when you two aren't in sync."

"We're in sync."

"Then I'm good."

"Yeah, you are." Casey laid his hand casually on Dan's thigh.

Dan looked at him in surprise and cleared his throat. "So ... go out or stay in?"

"Stay in. And celebrate."

"Yeah? Celebrate?"

"Yeah," said Casey airily. "Have a few beers, put a movie in…."

"Oh." Dan did his level best to keep his disappointment off his face. "Sure."

Casey slid his hand up the inside of Dan's thigh. "And when the movie's over we go to bed." He caressed Dan with gentle fingers.

Dan nearly jumped out of his pants. "Oh," he stammered.

"That okay with you?" murmured Casey, all mischief and tenderness.

"Oh, yeah," said Dan fervently. "That is definitely okay. Absolutely okay. That is more okay than I know what to do with." He struggled to control his reactions, wondering frantically if there were any documented cases of a guy coming from the look on his lover's face. He forced himself to stop looking directly at Casey and think of something practical and unsexy. "Um ... I think we're out of beer, though."

Casey grinned. "I'll get the beer. You pick the movie." He leaned forward to speak to the driver. "Hey, let me out on the corner, will you?"

The driver snorted and pulled over. Casey opened the door and stepped out, then stuck his head back in the cab with a teasing expression. "Anything else I can bring you?"

"Just you," said Dan softly, turning back to him.

The grin faded from Casey's face. With one quick, apprehensive glance at the driver, he leaned in and kissed Dan gently on the mouth. "Back in five," he said huskily, then shut the door and strode off in the direction of the liquor store.

Dan leaned back in his seat as the cab drove around the corner, slightly dazed. He hadn't expected Casey to be ready for this yet. Dan wasn't sure he was ready for this yet. Strike that. He knew he wasn't ready. Not even close. Dan paid the driver and got out of the cab, trying to ignore the absurd butterflies that were starting to assail his stomach. He swung through the revolving door and nodded absently to the dozing security guard. Casey was the only one who had an excuse for nervousness. Hell, Casey had an excuse for unadulterated terror.

Dan rang for the elevator. They'd take it easy. Nice and slow. It was Casey's night. Whatever he wanted he could have. Dan stepped into the elevator and hit the button for the fifth floor, taking a deep breath. Oh, boy, could he have it. He could have it over and over again….

"Down, boy," muttered Dan. He exited the elevator and strode down the hall as quickly as possible. He was astonished to see his hands shaking as he unlocked his door. What the hell was he afraid of? Sex with Casey? No. That's not where this was coming from, and Dan knew it damn well; the simple fact was that he was afraid of not being lover enough to make the experience good for the man.

Dan sighed and stepped inside, then hit the lights and swung the door shut behind him. He was not going to freak out about this. For once in his life, he was going to stay mellow. They loved each other. If that was big enough to get them through almost three months of pure hell, then it was big enough to make this work too.

Dan took off his jacket and tossed it over the nearest chair, then walked over to the bookcase and started pulling tapes. The door opened and slammed shut behind him.

"Hey! That was fast." Dan turned around and froze; everything around him seemed to slow to a surrealistic crawl. Gordon Gage was standing in his living room.

Pointing a gun at him.

Gordon was dirty and unshaven; his clothes were torn and spattered with what looked like red paint and his eyes were wide and wild. He was breathing hard. "You shouldn't leave your door unlocked, Dan."

Dan dropped the tapes and bolted toward the phone, but Gordon moved faster; he grabbed the cord and yanked it out of the wall, hard. Snatching up the phone, he threw it on the floor at Dan's feet. "There you go," he said coldly.

"Gee, thanks," said Dan drily, heart hammering against his ribs. "Nice to see you don't hold a grudge."

"Everything's a joke for you, isn't it?" Gordon took a step closer, and the reek of old sweat and alcohol nearly made Dan gag.

"No," said Dan in a grim tone. "Not everything."

"Always mouthing off. You and McCall both."

Casey would be walking through that door any minute.

"Well, my life is not a joke. At least it didn't use to be before you came along."

He had to get Gordon out of here. Somehow.

"I was going places. I had friends in the governor's office. I had a beautiful woman."

Dan broke for the door, praying wildly that Gordon would follow him and not shoot. If he could just get this lunatic outside, into the stairwell, away from here, away from Casey…. Gordon tackled him just as he reached the door, bringing him down hard. "Son of a bitch," hissed Gordon in his ear. "Where do you think you're going?"

Dan struggled to get out from under him, but Gordon outweighed him significantly. He went still, breathing hard. "Did you happen to notice if my copy of the Times was out there?"

"Still joking." Gordon yanked his arm back roughly. "You won't be joking much longer. Where's McCall?"

Dan's mouth went dry. "Who?" He choked back a cry of pain as Gordon twisted his arm up and back.

"I know he's been staying here. Where is he?"

"I don't know," panted Dan, trying to let the muscles in his arm relax, trying not to resist.

Snarling, Gordon staggered to his feet, dragging Dan with him, and shoved the barrel of his gun into Dan's neck just under his left ear. He dragged Dan back into the living room. "Oh, you know. You two have been joined at the hip lately. Tell me where he is."

"He's parachuting into Tibet with the 82nd Airborne," snapped Dan. "Go fuck yourself!"

"Wrong answer." Gordon twisted Dan's arm further back and shoved him onto his knees; Dan grit his teeth and managed not to cry out. "Are you really this stupid? Do you think for one minute I won't blow your head off?"

"Do it, then." Dan felt the barrel dig into his neck and closed his eyes, swallowing hard.

"Well," sneered Gordon in his ear. "Aren't we the hero."

Dan felt the gun pull away, felt himself being shoved onto his stomach on the floor, felt one knee pressing painfully into the small of his back as Gordon put his full weight on it, pinning him down. "God! What the hell do you want? It's over, Gordon, leave him alone."

"It's not over." Gordon grabbed Dan's other wrist and yanked it back. Dan felt the abrasion of rope across his wrists and realized that Gordon was tying his hands. Gordon had rope. Gordon had planned this. "You have a long, long way to go before it's over, Dan. Now. Tell me where McCall is."

"He hasn't done a damn thing to you. I'm the only one who has. Just do what you want and leave."

"I'll do what I want." Gordon's foul breath was hot in his ear; Dan couldn't suppress an involuntary shudder at the unleashed malice in the man's voice. "With you, with McCall. You're going to wish I'd blown you away, Dan. You're going to beg me to blow you away by the time I'm done with you."

"I'm begging you now," said Dan unevenly. "Just don't-"

The sound of the key in the lock shot a dose of adrenaline through Dan; he brought up his head up sharply. "Casey, stay out!"

Gordon clapped a hand over his mouth, but Casey was already through the door. He stared at Gordon and Dan for a moment with a blank, shell-shocked expression for a moment; then his mouth settled into a grim line. He let the six-pack of beer fall to the floor, and to Dan's horror, instead of running back out, he let the door close behind him and strode across the living room toward Gordon.

"Get your damn hands off him, you sick son of a bitch!"

Gordon snatched his hand away from Dan's mouth and swung the gun around in a two-handed grip.

"No!" Dan bucked up against the knee holding him down, ignoring the pain that shot up his spine.

Casey came to a halt, breathing hard, furious. "Get off him. Get off him now."

Gordon started laughing softly; Dan flinched at the sound. "You never cease to amaze me, McCall. What particular aspect of this situation leads you to believe that you are in a position to give orders? Explain it to me."

"Let him go," said Casey evenly. "Danny has nothing to do with this."

"You should have thought of that before you sicced him on me. He's cost me my career, McCall, so don't tell me he has nothing to do with it. He's in it up to his neck."

Dan groaned softly. "Casey didn't sic me on you. He didn't know anything about it until it was all over."

Casey took a step closer; Dan could have sworn he saw a faint smile on his friend's face. "You lost your job because you were on the take, Gordon. Anything I did to enhance your entirely justified reputation as a snake was purely gratuitous."

The pressure on Dan's back disappeared so suddenly it hurt; he had to grit his teeth to keep from yelling. Gordon yanked him to his feet by his sore arm and tossed him onto the couch. "Turn around and kneel."

"This is stupid, Gordon," said Casey sharply. "Just leave. We'll forget this happened."

"You'll never forget," said Gordon thickly. "Kneel!"

Casey set his jaw and didn't move.

Gordon's eyes narrowed. "Still a hothead. I would think the last time would have taught you something."

"It did," said Casey coldly. "You're a pathetic little prick."

Dan grinned, but his amusement was short-lived; Gordon laid the barrel against his left temple. "I shoot expert, you know," he said softly. "I enjoy shooting."

Dan saw the color drain out of Casey's face; he knew what was coming. "No. Case, don't."

Casey turned his back to Gordon, his face to Dan, and knelt, his gaze locking with Dan's. "It's okay, Danny," he murmured, barely audible. "Breathe." He put his hands behind his back.

Breathe? Casey wouldn't stand a chance of getting out of here with his hands tied. Breathe? "Casey-"

"Shut up, Dan. Just shut up," snarled Gordon, yanking another piece of rope from his pocket.

"I will kill you if you hurt him, Gordon," grated Dan. "They'll never find all the pieces, I swear to God."

"I said shut up!"

"You twisted fuck," continued Dan in helpless rage, watching Casey wince slightly as Gordon yanked the knots viciously tight. "I should have killed you the first time you touched him. I'll-"

Gordon lunged close and delivered a savage backhanded blow to Dan's face that drew blood and made Dan gasp. Gordon lifted his hand again, but before Dan could even attempt to move out of the way, Casey threw himself against Gordon hard enough to knock the man off balance. For one confused, exhilarating moment, Dan thought they had a chance – and then Gordon was standing over them, gun in hand, and it was over. He grabbed Casey by his shirt and shoved him onto the other end of the sofa, then leaned over him, breathing hard. "That was stupid. Stupid."

"Intelligence would seem to be overrated," retorted Casey, meeting Gordon's eyes squarely. "Look where your advanced degrees have got you."

Somehow, somewhere, Dan found whatever it took to laugh. For one second, he saw a completely bewildered expression cross Gordon's face, as if he were dealing with something alien to him, something that confused and disturbed him. Then Gordon's face twisted into a smile again. "They got me Dana. And wasn't she a handful."

Casey set his jaw, a cold fury in his eyes, and said nothing.

"You don't deserve to breathe Dana's air, man," said Dan evenly, knowing he was being goaded and not caring. "You never did."

"Oh, please. That little slut used to beg for it every chance she got." Gordon leaned on the arm of the sofa to look into Casey's face. "She could go all night. Just couldn't get enough. Like a bitch in heat."

Casey remained silent, but Dan was familiar enough with his friend's expression to know that if Casey's hands hadn't been tied, he'd have been beating Gordon's teeth down his throat. He'd have had company.

"Exactly how long were you fucking her, McCall? Did she ever do her little tricks for you? Did she go down on you, huh? Did she take it up the ass for you?"

"You miserable little shit." Dan couldn't have kept the contempt out of his voice if his life had depended on it.

"Oh, you too, Dan? That was big of your buddy here. So, who got to go first?"

It was too much, and Dan knew what was coming. Casey surged up from the sofa with a black rage in his face, only to be knocked down again with an effortless shove. Gordon laughed in his face. "Chivalry is not dead. What a clown you are, McCall."

"I hate to be the one to clue you in, bozo," said Dan venomously. "But nobody's laughing at Casey. They're laughing at you."

Gordon smiled pleasantly. "Now that's where you're wrong, Dan. Nobody's laughing at Gordon Gage anymore. You haven't seen the local news tonight, have you?"

Dan shot a quick look at Casey, who frowned slightly and shook his head, then stared up at Gordon. Gordon leaned over to speak in a conspiratorial whisper. "It seems that a recently indicted Assistant U.S. Attorney went to his ex-boss' house tonight and blew the guy's head off. Boom!" Gordon started laughing loudly. "Like a watermelon hitting the sidewalk. There were skull fragments and cranial tissue twenty feet away, and his wife and kids were screaming bloody murder – which of course it was." Gordon laughed even harder.

Dan felt the small hairs on the back of his neck rise; he stared at the red paint splattered all over Gordon and tried not to throw up.

"God," said Casey faintly.

"So you see," continued Gordon in a pleasant tone, "I have nowhere to go and nothing to do but enjoy your company." He bent over Casey with a look that made Dan's insides go cold.

"If I were you I'd be getting out of town about now," said Dan shakily.

"I have some business to take care of first," murmured Gordon. He drew the barrel of his gun across Casey's chest lightly. Casey lifted his chin to meet Gordon's eyes.

"Leave him alone." Dan leaned forward, trying desperately to attract Gordon's attention. "Gordon, just leave him alone!"

Gordon pressed the gun barrel tightly against Casey's chest, then forced it slowly upward toward Casey's throat. "Shut up, Dan."

Casey continued to meet Gordon's eyes until the barrel started pressing deeply into the flesh below his adam's apple. Letting out a strained little breath, he closed his eyes. His face went drawn in discomfort.

"Stop it," snarled Dan.

"I told you to shut up," returned Gordon in a distracted tone.

Lips pressed firmly together, Casey succumbed to the pressure, letting his head be forced back against the back of the sofa, exposing his throat to Gordon's attentions. A soft gasp of pain escaped him as the gun barrel dug into his adam's apple, then moved on to push into the soft flesh under his chin. Dan, unable to stand it any longer, moved in Casey's direction.

"You know, it would be a real shame if this gun were to go off ... again," murmured Gordon. His hand slid up the inside of Casey's thigh.

Dan froze, horrified. "Don't."

Gordon chuckled and slid his hand up to caress Casey's crotch. Casey let out an anguished breath and opened his eyes, swallowing hard. "See? He likes it." Gordon moved closer, resting his knee on the sofa beside Casey, leaning over him like some winged scavenger over its meal.

Casey looked up at Gordon with the first expression of true hatred Dan could ever remember seeing on his friend's face. "Fuck you."

Gordon pressed his body against Casey's, pinning him to the couch, and forced his mouth over his. Dan groaned aloud, desperate to move and frozen into place by the gun shoved up under Casey's chin.

Casey yanked his head away, his face twisted in revulsion. "Fucking son of a bitch, don't make him watch this-"

Gordon craned his neck and took Casey's mouth again, shoving the gun in deeper; his grip on Casey's crotch became brutal. Casey's soft cry of pain was muffled against Gordon's mouth. Desperate, Dan started to move, unable to endure any more, but froze in surprise instead as Casey shoved his knee up into a precisely aimed and devastatingly high-impact blow to Gordon's groin. Howling like a madman, Gordon pushed himself away from Casey and fell backward onto his rear on the carpet, huddling over his affronted genitals.

"Like that, Gage?" spat Casey furiously, leaning forward. "Touch me again and I'll kick your damn balls off."

"Dude," croaked Dan admiringly.

"Going ... to kill you," gasped Gordon.

"Fine," snapped Casey. "I'd rather be shot than groped by some psychotic drunk."

Gordon staggered to his feet and kicked the coffee table out of his way, then brought his gun to bear on Casey, who flinched slightly but didn't move or look away. Not giving himself any time to think about it, Dan launched himself off the sofa, tripped over the leg of the coffee table and threw himself clumsily against Gordon, hitting him low and with enough force to knock him over.

Trying to wrestle with someone who was built as solidly as Gordon Gage – with no hands – was pretty much an exercise in futility, and Dan knew it; his only hope had been to kick the gun away from the man in the first few seconds. He didn't come close to doing it. Instead he found himself on his back with Gordon straddling him and the business end of the gun in his face before he'd counted five. Out of the corner of his eye, Dan could see Casey standing with a horrified expression not a foot away.

Gordon leaned over Dan, panting. "I've had enough!"

"Leaving so soon?" managed Dan hoarsely.

Gordon snarled and shoved the gun under Dan's chin; Dan clenched his teeth and managed not to yelp.

"Sit down, McCall," said Gordon over his shoulder. "Now you get to watch."

"Gordon-"

"I'm going to scatter this smart-ass' brains all over this brand new rug."

"It's ... two years old, actually," breathed Dan raggedly, bracing himself.

"Shut up!" Gordon slammed his free fist deep into Dan's stomach. Dan's vision went red with the pain as he gagged and struggled for breath; he couldn't for the life of him restrain a groan.

"Please. Stop this." Casey fell to his knees beside Gordon. "Listen to me. We can go, right now."

"Go?" Gordon laughed weirdly. "Go where?"

"Anywhere. The hall. The stairwell. The garage. Your car. Grand Central Station, I don't care."

Gordon turned his head to stare at him.

"I'll do whatever you want. I'll say whatever you want. Anything. Just ... don't hurt him." Casey ran out of breath and stared at Gordon, panting.

"No," wheezed Dan helplessly. Not begging. Casey hadn't begged before, no matter what Gordon had done to him; now he was literally on his knees, begging for Dan's life, and there wasn't a damn thing Dan could do to stop him.

Gordon started laughing again. "You liked it. You whore."

Casey's face worked for a second. "Fine. I liked it," he said thickly. "Take me down to your car and I'll show you how much."

"Oh, God." Dan tried to sit up; Gordon punched him again. That second punch was like taking a knife to the belly; Dan fell back with a cry that echoed off the spinning ceiling.

"Stop it!" Casey's rose desperately. "If you need to hit somebody-"

"There's you," sneered Gordon. "Yes." Gordon rose awkwardly to his feet and staggered a couple paces back from Dan. "Let's go."

Gasping for air, Dan tried to sit up again; Casey leaned over him anxiously. "Danny, don't move. Just lie still, you'll be okay."

"You're not doing this," quavered Dan, nauseous and dizzy. He struggled into a sitting position. His stomach hurt like hell and he didn't give a damn; all he could see was Casey's face, softening as it bent towards him. "I'm not letting you do this!"

Casey swallowed convulsively. "My turn to carry," he said quietly.

Dan felt something inside him break; he leaned forward until his forehead rested against Casey's chest. "Casey…." Dan felt Casey's head bow over his, felt the light touch of his friend's lips on his hair. He heard Gordon laughing derisively and closed his eyes, no longer able to think.

"Get out of here," muttered Casey in his ear. "Hide somewhere. I'll keep him busy for as long-"

"All right, that's enough." Gordon grabbed Casey by the arm and yanked him to his feet.

Dan leaned toward Casey as he was pulled away, swallowing back tears. "Please. Gordon. It was me, man, it was all me, he never had anything to do with it. Just leave him here, I'll go with you."

Gordon swung around to Dan's other side, regarding Casey intently, then knelt beside Dan and pulled another piece of rope out of his pocket. "I don't think so."

"What are you doing?" asked Casey sharply.

"Making sure we're not interrupted." Gordon knotted the rope around Dan's ankles and stood up. "You don't want us to be interrupted, do you?"

"No," replied Casey, pure loathing in his face.

"Because you want me to fuck you." Gordon waited.

Casey drew a shaky little breath and looked Gordon straight in the eye. "I want you to fuck me," he said harshly.

Gordon stepped past him and gave Casey a shove. "Let's go." Casey nodded wordlessly and walked ahead of Gordon toward the door.

Dan groaned and bent over to rest his forehead on his knees, breathing hard, unable to watch him go. "Casey," he said faintly. "More than anything."

"More than anything, Danny."

The door slammed shut on the words.

Dan sat still for one second, paralyzed, for just one second considering giving up, screaming himself raw, conceding the seemingly invincible monster that had invaded their lives his victory. Gordon had out-fought him at every turn. Everything Dan had thrown at him had only come back to hurt Casey; every injury and indignity that Casey had endured and would endure tonight could be laid at Dan Rydell's door.

Thanks to him, that bastard had Casey again. And Casey wouldn't survive it this time – because Casey wouldn't fight him; he'd take it. Casey would tell the son of a bitch that he wanted it, and then Casey would make himself lie there and take whatever Gordon did to him until it killed him, because dumb-ass Dan Rydell with his oh-so-clever plan had screwed up again. And because for some bizarre reason known only to Casey McCall, he was willing to die for Dan Rydell.

Dan's paralysis shattered at the thought. Casey was not going to die for him. That was unacceptable; it took carrying beyond the legal limit, and Dan wouldn't stand for it. If whatever dumb-ass thing Dan did now came back on Casey, then at least Casey wouldn't die alone.

Dan threw himself on his back and pushed himself up on his shoulders, trying desperately to slide his bound hands down over his butt. He'd been able to do it when he was fourteen, of course; Sam had taught him how. But fourteen was longer ago than he liked to think about, and his spine was not cooperating.

Dan closed his eyes, clenched his teeth and kept trying. God, he hurt all over. No. Dan dismissed the thought in desperation. Hurting didn't matter. He didn't hurt. He didn't hurt at all. No wrenched shoulders or bruised ribs or aching stomachs, no ropes digging into his wrists, no thoughts of where Casey was now and what Gordon was doing to him.

He was fine. He was home. He was fourteen. He was with Sam. And Sam was laughing. He was…. He was saying….

Whoever heard of an X-Man who can't get his hands untied?

Dan yanked mercilessly at the ropes, cursing in frustration. He could feel something warm and wet on his wrists, and on his face.

Sabre-Tooth would have sliced you up like half an hour ago.

How long had it been? Where were they? Had they reached the garage yet? The car? Dan struggled to keep his balance as he shoved his hands lower.

You're too high up on your shoulders. Yeah, now bring your knees in real close.

Dan curled himself as tightly as he could, gasping at the scream of protest from his stomach.

Now put your shoulders down as low as they'll go. And pull your hands apart as far as they'll go.

Dan set his jaw and pulled hard on the ropes that bound his wrists. They were damp and softening now; Dan could feel them begin to give slightly.

Okay, now breathe out and slide 'em around.

Dan exhaled and, with an excruciating effort and some ominous cracking sounds in his shoulders, drew his aching arms out from under him and over his feet. "Yeah," he breathed in satisfaction, sitting up. He started tugging urgently at the knots binding his ankles, ignoring for now the stained ropes around his bleeding wrists. "We've still got it, Sam."

Kicking off the ropes, Dan staggered to his feet and to the door as he began pulling at the knots on his wrists. He yanked open the door and bolted into the hall, where he lunged at the fire alarm and yanked it down before shouldering his way through the stairwell door.

Dan took the steps as fast as he could, still yanking away at his ropes, stumbling and falling several times as he made his way down the six flights to the garage. He could hear the fire alarm clearly in the stairwell, could hear the residents of the building opening their doors and calling to each other. Dan got his ropes off by the time he hit the third floor; by the time he hit the second, he realized that the situation hadn't changed. Gordon still had a gun. And he had Casey.

And begging hadn't worked.

Dan came to a panting halt in front of the door to the garage, then pushed it open far enough to peer through it. No one was there, of course; it was nearly three a.m.. The rows of expensive cars were all that he could see. Gordon would have arrived late, long after the reserved spots were taken. Dan slipped through the door, and hugging the wall, made his way toward the guest parking near the street entrance.

Gordon had to be there. The muffled sound of the fire alarm ringing in the stairwell behind him was unlikely to have concerned him in his current state of mind. He would be too busy…. Dan ruthlessly squashed the rest of his thought and slipped around a cement column into the guest lot. There were only two cars there, a Volvo and a Mercedes. Soft sounds were coming from the Mercedes. Voices.

Dan got down on his hands and knees and made his way as quietly as he could toward the car, not having a clue what he'd do when he got there. He glanced around desperately for anything he could use to beat Gordon's head in and came up empty. Naturally. Every other time he'd been through this damn place there had been tire irons and hubcaps and discarded jacks so thick you couldn't move without tripping over one. It just figured….

"Stay still. If I want you to move, I'll move you."

Dan froze at the thick malice in the voice.

The only response was a barely audible intake of breath.

"That's better. Wouldn't want me to change my mind, now, would you? Because Dan was starting to look damn good to me."

Dan started crawling as fast his he could toward the driver's side passenger door. Son of a bitch. Son of a bitch. Son of a-

"You don't need Dan." Dan nearly groaned aloud at the broken desperation in Casey's voice. "Gordon, let's go someplace else. We ... we might be interrupted here."

Gordon laughed softly. "I knew you were a whore the minute I laid eyes on you. And this is the so-called man Dana prefers to me. You've got to wonder about that bitch."

Dan abruptly decided didn't need a tire iron. He'd strangle the son of a bitch. He crawled up to the door and reached up for the handle, dimly aware of the sound of sirens in the distance.

"You could take me to my place." Casey was breathing hard.

Dan's shaking fingers curled around the handle.

"We'll go when and where I decide to go." Gordon's voice got even uglier. "And unless you want Dan to-"

"No. Just ... just tell me what you want and I'll-" Casey broke off with a choked gasp of pain.

The sound cut into Dan like a serrated blade; enraged, he yanked the car door open and grabbed the first thing he laid his hands on, which happened to be Gordon's left leg. He dragged Gordon off Casey and threw him on the concrete, catching a glimpse of Casey, shirt open and pants undone, sitting up with a dazed expression. "Get out of there!" Throwing himself on top of Gordon, he grabbed wildly at the gun, which was clenched firmly in Gordon's right hand.

Cursing, Gordon brought his elbow back sharply, catching Dan in the throat. Dan gagged and lost his grip; Gordon shoved him off and Dan landed on his rear end about five feet away as Gordon twisted his body around enough to level the gun in Dan's direction. "Say goodnight, Dan."

"Don't," gasped Casey, freezing half-in and half-out of the car. The sound of the sirens was loud now, close. "Don't. Gordon, just ... just get in the car and drive. I'll go with you."

"Hear that?" breathed Dan, heart pounding. "Fire department. Probably cops, too."

Gordon started laughing again, softly. "You pulled the fire alarm. You pulled the fucking fire alarm."

"It's over. Whether you shoot me or not, you're not going anywhere."

Gordon struggled to his knees, still laughing. "Watch me." He took his gun in a two-handed grip.

Before Dan could so much as draw breath, Casey vaulted out of the car, fell to his knees and threw both arms around Dan, shielding him with his body. Dan pushed against Casey's chest, struggling to escape the protective embrace, but Casey held on for dear life. "God, Casey, no-" The echoing thunder of a gunshot shot momentarily drowned out the sirens.

Dan shouted wildly at the sound, flailing. "Casey-"

"Shhhh. It's ... it's okay."

Casey relaxed his grip enough for Dan to push himself upright, running frantic hands across Casey's back in search of wounds. "I'm not hurt." Casey turned to look over his shoulder, still breathing hard, then hastily tried to block Dan's view. "No. No, Danny, don't look."

Dan looked anyway as Gordon, half his head blown away, fell with a sickening sound to the concrete.

**************************

June 16, 6:10 am

"Yes, they got it right. He's dead. Yes. Sorry I didn't call sooner, but between cops and doctors and dodging reporters…. Yeah. I think there are still a couple of them hanging around outside Danny's door. No. Not really. But I will be."

Dan woke fully from his doze to feel Casey's hand stroking his hair.

"It was close. I wouldn't have made it without Danny. He saved my life. He was amazing."

Dan opened his eyes groggily. Casey, hair still wet from his shower, was sitting next to him on his bed, speaking softly into the phone.

"He's pretty banged up, but the doctor said he'll be okay. Yeah, well, my partner says he's doing the show tonight, so I guess I am, too." Casey looked down, seemed to realize that Dan was awake, and smiled down at him. "Hold on, I'll ask." He leaned down until he was nose to nose with Dan. "Are we crazy, partner?"

"I'll get back to you on that," mumbled Dan.

Casey grinned and sat up again. "The jury's still out on that one, Isaac. Yes, he's awake. Barely. Doctor gave him some pain meds. Hold on." Casey put the phone in Dan's hand. "Talk to Isaac, Houdini."

"Stop calling me that," sighed Dan softly, nestling the phone between the pillow and his shoulder. "Hey, Isaac."

Casey stretched out on the bed next to Dan and propped himself up on one elbow. Dan moved a little closer to the comforting warmth.

"Danny." Isaac's voice was hoarse. "Thank God. Are you all right? I got up this morning and put the news on-"

"Whoa, Isaac," said Dan drowsily. "It's six o'clock in the morning, man. Breathe."

"I'm breathing just fine! I want to know how you're breathing."

"I'm okay. I'll be in later."

"The hell you will. Tell me what- No. Tell me what happened later. Is Casey all right?"

Dan looked up into Casey's pale face and searched it carefully. Casey smiled faintly and bent over him, still stroking Dan's hair. "I think so. But for the record, Isaac, he saved me."

Casey regarded him soberly for a moment, then leaned down and kissed his forehead.

"When you're feeling better, Danny. Save your strength. Is there anything I can do?"

"Yeah," said Dan quietly. "Call Dana, will you? Before she sees it on the news, too? Tell her we're okay and we'll call her later."

Casey nodded, wincing.

"I'll call her right away. Anything else?"

"Yeah. Tell Casey to stop calling me Houdini. It's getting on my nerves."

Isaac chuckled softly. "Put him back on."

Dan handed Casey the phone and closed his eyes again, nestling close.

"Yeah, Isaac." Casey listened for a moment, then chuckled. "Sure, there's a story to go with it. I'll tell you all about it, I promise."

"Lies," mumbled Dan. "All lies."

"He's a what?" Casey was silent for what seemed like a long time. "Yeah. You're right. That's exactly what he is."

Dan sighed the sigh of the long-suffering.

"Okay. Will do. We'll call you when we wake up." Dan heard the phone being hung up.

"What did he say?"

Casey tucked the blankets around Dan. "He says if he spots your excruciatingly prominent nose in the studio today he'll have it escorted off the premises."

"Liar. Isaac likes and respects my nose. He's complimented my nose on many occasions."

"And he says that 'Houdini' suits you."

"Only in your twisted dreams, yutz."

"And he says that you're my storm anchor." Casey's voice dropped to a tender whisper.

Dan was silent for a moment, dismayed. "Oh. Case-"

"He's right."

Dan opened his eyes in surprise. "He is?"

Casey laughed softly, wonder in his face. "You don't really think I'd be here if you hadn't stuck with me, do you?"

"Yes," said Dan fiercely. "I do. And you would. Where the hell do you get that? Look, I promised myself I was going to say this. You're the bravest man I've ever-"

"See? That's what I'm talking about." Casey bent so low over Dan that Dan could smell the coffee on his breath, see the tears in his eyes. "You believe in me, Houdini. You believe in me so damn much it hurts to watch. But it would hurt even worse to let you down. So here I am."

Dan stared up at him, speechless for several seconds. "That is-" His voice broke, and he started over again. "That is the biggest crock of -" His voice went out on him again, and, abruptly deciding that discretion was the better part of bullshit, he wrapped his arms around Casey's neck and pulled him down to rest his forehead against Casey's chest. "You're my storm anchor, too," Dan whispered honestly.

"I can live with that," murmured Casey contentedly.

Dan peered up at him, surprised. "Yeah?"

"Yeah." Casey smiled. "This is where you kiss me."

Dan started to laugh softly. "Aw, Case. You are amaz-"

Casey's mouth descended over Dan's, cutting him off mid-word; Dan groaned in pure pleasure as Casey's tongue lightly caressed his. He sagged limply against Casey as he pulled slowly away, then nuzzled his neck gently. "Sorry about our celebration," Casey whispered in Dan's ear.

"You and me both," gasped Dan fervently as Casey's lips and tongue started to work on his neck.

"Raincheck?" Casey's hand caressed Dan's lower abdomen gently.

"Case ... you keep doing that and I'm going to celebrate on my own, if you catch my drift."

"Yeah?" The mischief in Casey's voice was palpable. "You don't look like you mind much, Houdini."

"Aw, c'mon, man. This is not…." Dan groaned and promptly surrendered, tilting his chin up invitingly.

"Not what?" murmured Casey, accepting the invitation. He turned his maddening attentions to Dan's throat while one hand slid up the inside of Dan's thigh.

"Um ... fair," said Dan faintly, struggling to retain his vocabulary as he felt himself go hard.

"Not fair? Hey, I've been waiting to see you come for ten years, and the first chance I get is blown away by some drunk busting in on my date," growled Casey in Dan's ear. "Now that's not fair."

Dan started laughing helplessly. "Uh ... Case. You're ... you're going to get your wish sooner than you think if you're not careful. Slow down, okay?"

Casey withdrew his hand hastily. "Sorry. You're not up to this."

"The hell I'm not. Trust me, Casey, I am up." Dan managed, with difficulty, to contain his laughter. "Just ... breathe. And tell me you're really okay with this."

Casey lifted one of Dan's hands to his lips and kissed the inside of his bandaged wrist. "I'm okay," he murmured. "This isn't quite how I pictured this, though."

"Tell me how you pictured it," murmured Dan mischievously, heart pounding. "I'm flexible."

Casey went six shades of red. "Um…."

"Show me, then," said Dan gently, going on instinct.

Casey cleared his throat and slipped his arm under Dan's shoulders. Dan tried to sit up, wincing slightly. "No," said Casey quickly. "Relax. Let me."

Dan leaned back against Casey's arm as Casey slid behind him, then settled him against his chest, between his legs. Dan sighed contentedly and let his head drop back onto Casey's shoulder. "Ah, nice, Case."

"Perfect." Casey kissed Dan's neck and, with just a hint of hesitation, slipped both hands under the waistband of Dan's boxers. Smiling, Dan lifted his hips enough to let Casey slip the boxers off and down past his knees, then with a skillful kick sent them flying off the end of the bed to land on the floor. Casey chuckled into Dan's ear. "You've got style, my man." He gently wrapped one arm around Dan's waist.

"Nah. I've got inspiration," breathed Dan, closing his eyes in anticipation, intimately aware of Casey's right hand sliding down his belly. He barely held onto his control as he felt that hand curl gently around his cock; nothing could completely prepare him for the sensation of those warm, loving fingers. "Oh, God, Casey. This is going to be ... a real short ride."

"Shhh. No problem. I like short rides."

Casey's hand moved slowly and with infinite care, his lips and tongue pressed tantalizingly against the skin of Dan's throat; he pulled Dan against him.

Something pressed into the small of Dan's back, and Dan uttered something as close to a whimper as he'd ever given voice to. "Case," he gasped. "Ah ... tell me if I'm wrong, but ... I think something is happening."

"Uh-huh." The mischief in Casey's voice was unmistakable; he shoved his erection against Dan playfully.

"Uh-huh?" Dan panted wildly. "What do you mean, uh-huh? Are you telling me we're fully functional here, and I didn't get the goddamn memo?"

"My mistake," breathed Casey, all penitence. "Here you go. 'Dear Interested Party-"

"Son of a bitch!" Dan started laughing hysterically. "I've got your interested party right here ... no, wait, you've got it. Let me know when you're done with it."

"Quiet, I'm dictating. 'Due to unforeseen developments of a personal nature-'"

Dan's laughter choked into a groan of pleasure as Casey's hand, whether by accident or design, gently brushed against his balls. "God, Casey, you're killing me!"

"-all systems are now fully operational. Please insert coins of appropriate denominations-"

"Oh, fuck," shouted Dan, laughing again.

"-and press Start Button. Operators are reminded to keep their hands and feet-"

"Every hour on the hour for the next fucking year, oh God Casey that's so good-"

"-clear of all moving parts, and to place all refuse-"

"Fuck me now, fuck me right now-"

"-in the appropriate receptacles. Thank you, and have a nice day."

"Casey!" howled Dan in joyful frustration.

"Shhh." Casey was breathing hard against his neck, his body hot and unyielding behind him. "What, my man?" His voice was raspy now, tender.

Dan took a shot at lucid speech. "I love this, too," he panted. "Is this how you pictured it?"

"Yes. Just like this," whispered Casey shakily in his ear. "What do you think?"

Dan groaned in response. "Think?" His hips bucked uncontrollably.

"God, Danny," gasped Casey wildly.

"I can't ... damn ... Case…."

Casey's hand began moving at a furious pace, and Dan arched his back and cried out shamelessly as he came, harder than he had in years, clutching the arm that held him firmly in place against Casey's sweating body, his come splashing his stomach and chest. Casey, pressing his mouth to Dan's throat, let out a choked cry of surprise, his entire body shuddering around Dan's. Dan forced his eyes open as he lay panting in Casey's trembling arms, shocked. They stayed that way, silent, holding each other, for what seemed like a long time.

Casey raised his head and laid a hand on Dan's cheek, turning his face toward him. "Danny?" He looked stunned.

"Casey," murmured Dan. He stroked back the sandy hair tenderly, groping for coherence. "Thank you."

Casey drew a funny little breath and dropped a soft kiss on Dan's willing mouth. "That was…. You were…. Thank me?"

"Yeah," sighed Dan, closing his eyes. He heard Casey pull some Kleenex from the box on the nightstand, felt him wiping the semen from his chest.

"Well, I knew sex with you would be an adventure," said Casey wryly, "but I sure as hell didn't expect to come in my pants like a horny fourteen-year-old on his first date."

"This is our first date," Dan reminded him with considerable satisfaction.

Casey's chuckle was more than a little rueful. "Yeah. And it only took me ten years to get to second base. You're hard to get, partner."

Dan opened his eyes and grinned up at him with all the impudence he could muster. "Oh, no. Not for you I'm not. Take me, I'm yours."

"Don't start," breathed Casey, his eyes going dark. He lowered Dan gently to the pillows and bent over him. "Thanks," he whispered. "I don't know how the hell you made it easy for me, but you did. And beautiful. I thought this would be hard. You know." Casey laughed weakly. "I've been so damn scared, Danny."

"Me, too," confessed Dan softly.

Casey looked surprised. "You were? Of what?"

"You know. Not being enough."

Casey's jaw dropped. "Enough," he repeated incredulously.

"Yeah," said Dan, clearing his throat uncomfortably. "You know. Enough to make it good for you."

Casey stared at him, speechless.

Dan pressed on hurriedly, feeling his face go hot. "But you didn't need that, thank God. You-"

Dan found his mouth full of Casey McCall's tongue before he could get another word out. Gasping in startled delight, Dan returned the kiss with everything in him; it lasted a long time.

"Alex is right," were Casey's first breathless words when he finally came up for air; he glared down at Dan, clearly furious. "You're a dumb-ass. You're the fucking king of the dumb-asses."

"What-"

"Shut up. Not enough? You're so fucking hot my toes are still tingling. You're so damn beautiful I want to make you come all night. You've got more brains and more heart and more courage-"

"Are we over the rainbow now?"

"Shut up! Are you completely mental? What, you think I fall this hard for just anybody? You think I nearly go blind coming, without even being touched, for just anybody? You've known me for all of my adult life, when have you ever seen me like this? I fucking adore you. I'd do anything for you. I'd die for you. Don't you ever-" Casey's voice broke. "-ever, think that again." Casey rested his forehead against Dan's, breathing hard.

Dan closed his eyes, completely overwhelmed.

"Danny." Casey's voice dropped to a whisper. "Nobody else could have done this for me. Nobody. Okay?" Casey pulled back to look Dan in the eye. "Please. Tell me you believe me."

"I believe you," croaked Dan, blinking back tears. "I do. I believe you. God, Case."

"Good." Casey took a deep breath, his color beginning to rise. "You are such a pain in the ass."

"Aw, don't ruin it."

Casey laughed raggedly and avoided Dan's gaze; his face was scarlet now. "So ... what are the chances you'll let me forget this sometime in the next decade?"

"Zero. Zip. Nada." Dan stroked Casey's hair back tenderly.

Casey sighed. "That's what I figured." Casey lay down beside him and pulled the covers over them both, wrapping himself around Dan with extraordinary gentleness. "If I've learned anything about you in the past ten years, Houdini, it's that you love to torture me."

"More than anything," murmured Dan happily.