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Why on Earth Would We Soften the Mood?

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The secretaries and the younger associates are drunk enough that they’ve started dancing, and it’s making Clarke feel old. He’s enjoyed most of the night, celebrating Florrick, Agos & Associates finally running in the black, but he’s already stayed out later and drank more than his usual, and is ready to call it a night. He says as much and closes out his tab, but it’s about then that Robyn appears out of the crowd with a laughing, stumbling Cary and props him on the seat next to Clarke. She rolls her eyes and makes a drinking motion over Cary’s head towards Clarke, and then returns to the dance floor.

“No, come on,” Cary argues, once he understands that Clarke isn’t staying. His sleeves are rolled up, tie loose, eyes bright from the alcohol and dancing. “You’re responsible for this! You can’t leave already.” In truth, it’s not particularly early, but from the tilting way Cary’s leaning in on Clarke’s table, Clarke thinks that Cary probably doesn’t have much sense of time at this point. “Just stick around.”

Clarke eyes Cary fondly, the whole golden, pleading shape of him, and entertains, for just a moment, the fantasy that Cary could mean anything more than staying to watch paralegals getting poured into cabs. It’s not that he’s ever intended to pursue Cary, but it’s impossible not to feel charmed by him anyway. Clarke just enjoys, for the moment, the sight of Cary leaning in, the pleasure he gets out of Cary desiring his company, on any level, and then shakes his head. “I’m not really one for parties. You should enjoy yourself, though. I’m happy the firm is doing well.” Cary looks unsatisfied, so Clarke smiles and adds, “I do get paid from here on out. Trust me, I’m quite pleased.”

And he is. Certainly, it’s nice to see a return on the investment of his time and labor, but he’s always liked both Cary and Alicia, and he is genuinely pleased to see them successful and happy. And it’s satisfying to know his part in their success, and his own. He will go to bed a happy man tonight.

He starts to gather up his coat, and Cary puts a hand on his arm. “Come on,” he coaxes again, and Clarke looks down, surprised, and thrown for just a second. It’s not that Cary hasn’t seemed to genuinely enjoy his company in the past, but it seemed, for just a second…

It’s easy to be around Cary because for all that he likes the man—and Clarke is self-aware enough to know that he likes him very much—he also knows that Cary is very straight, and therefore a safe target. There is no potential to their relationship, so there is no tension to it either. Clarke almost prefers it that way. He is free to like Cary, to enjoy his company and his wry smiles, and not worry, because there is nothing to worry about. It’s a simple arrangement, and Clarke has no desire to complicate it with whatever Cary’s pleading tone has in store tonight.

“I think not,” he says mildly, and detaches Cary’s arm, very gently. “Enjoy your night.” He means it sincerely.

He doesn’t notice, with the noise of the bar, that Cary has followed him, until he reaches the hotel lobby, and he hears two quick strides on the hard floor before Cary catches up with him, stopping him with another hand on his arm.

“You’ve never asked,” Cary says, a little loud in the relative quiet of the lobby, and Clarke blinks.

“Excuse me?”

“You’ve never asked,” Cary repeats, quieter, his gaze intent on Clarke’s face. “I know you like me.” Clarke stills, his stomach falling, and Cary continues. “But you’ve never asked me anything.”

Clarke looks around for clients, other members of the firm, and finally pulls Cary over to an empty corner of the lobby, sitting down on a sofa and bracing his arms on his knees. He feels slightly ill, all the good cheer from the party gone. “Cary, I’m sorry if—“

Cary interrupts him with a shake of his head, face puckered with concern. “No, no, don’t apologize. I’m not telling you to—it’s nothing you’ve done. It’s just—look, it wasn’t hard; you’re an open book. To me, anyway.”

Clarke feels his cheeks heat slightly at that, and hates himself for it. This was never supposed to happen. The trick to handling his embarrassingly large crush on Cary has been to never think of it as a romantic attachment at all, and that was going perfectly until just now. He can’t even explain it to himself. He’s a grown man with a reasonable relationship history, and in the past he’s proven perfectly capable of approaching men, or being approached, without losing all social skills. But Cary wasn’t a real option; he was supposed to be charming and attractive and exciting and above all things, oblivious, and Clarke feels like he’s been caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

Worst of all is that Cary isn’t just some object onto which Clarke has projected his fantasies. Cary is his friend, his tutor, now his boss, and Clarke knew how dangerous that was the whole time, but it was working, it was all working fine because there was fantasy and there was reality, and he had a good, solid line between the two. Now Clarke sees it all vanishing. Not just Cary's easy companionship, but his job, a law firm he likes. Florrick/Agos had seemed like such a serendipitous door opening, but his stomach rolls now at the thought of it closing again, just as suddenly.

He breathes in and out a few times, trying to stop his mind from spinning uselessly. “I’m not sure what you’re saying,” he finally admits.

Cary blows out a breath, frustrated. “You like me,” he states again, and Clarke can’t stop hearing it as an accusation. “And have I ever given any indication that I was bothered by that, or made uncomfortable in any way?”

“No,” Clarke answers honestly, but he directs his answer to Cary’s tie.

 “So,” Cary continues, and scrubs his hands on his knees. Clarke realizes for the first time that Cary, too, is uncomfortable. He is no closer to understanding why this conversation is happening though. “So, what? Were you ever going to say anything? How can you like someone and just do nothing?”

Clarke’s hands twitch, and he has to refrain from pulling off his glasses and fidgeting. It’s not the tell that he would mind, since Cary doesn’t need any additional help reading him, as Cary himself pointed out. But for Clarke’s own sake, he would be better off projecting the air of the calmness that he seems to have lost momentarily. He thinks that of course Cary doesn’t understand not making a move. Straight people think getting shot down is the worst that can happen if you approach the wrong person, and Cary’s too charming, too beautiful to even have much experience there. Clarke’s own experiences have been, on occasion, less  pleasant.  

He caves and pulls the glasses off anyway, wishing they were still in the bar so he’d have a glass in his hand, preferably filled with something strong. He throws back a mental shot, bracing himself.

“I’m almost sixty,” he says heavily. He forces himself to meet Cary’s eyes, which are intent on his. “I’ve known I was gay since I was a young man,” he continues slowly, watching Cary’s face carefully. “I don’t work in a field that is patient with mistakes, and by the time you’re my age, gaydar is pretty well honed.” He spares a quick, mirthless smile. “I don’t need to ask. It didn’t seem like a productive venture.”

Cary snorts, but his voice is the same calm, wry tone as any other conversation they’ve had a hundred times, sitting in the office. “If you’re sixty, I’m forty, so please let’s leave age out of this. And,” he hesitates, looking up at the ceiling, as if for guidance. “Okay, you’re not far off but seriously, Clarke… no one is one hundred percent.”

If Clarke wanted to be difficult, he could argue that he was about as close as it got to one hundred percent, but he understands, finally, that it isn’t about him. This is probably, in fact, a big realization for Cary. He should say something supportive, something intelligent and worthy of a well-educated, comfortably gay man to one younger and less experienced. He takes a deep breath, then lets it out, mind still a blank whirl. “Okay,” he says.

Cary laughs, with the slightly hysterical tone of one who is too relieved to do anything else. Clarke almost joins him. “Yeah.”

“So, am I to infer…” Clarke says, and can’t even finish the sentence. He has no idea how he has failed to progress in talking to pretty boys since his first awful, awkward encounter when he was 20, in a new city and on his own for the first time, and slightly less afraid than he was lonely.

“Yeah,” Cary saves him. “You should infer.” Then he makes a face. “Actually, don’t. That’s a lousy way to do this. I can tell you that it’s nothing new about myself, but also nothing I’ve ever actually acted on, so this is uncharted territory for me. So yeah,” he blows out a breath. “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I like you too. You should ask me, sometime.”

Clarke feels his cheeks heating again, and puts his glasses on hurriedly, smooths down his tie. “I will,” he manages, and returns Cary’s tentative smile.

Then Cary is leaning forward, one hand on Clarke’s knee, the other on his shoulder, and then they are kissing. Clarke is too surprised at first to reciprocate. Cary is drunk, Clarke can taste the scotch on his breath, but for just this moment, Clarke doesn’t care. He’ll stop it in a minute. For now he cups one hand over Cary’s cheek, fingers rubbing at the hair just past Cary’s temple, and slides his other hand along Cary’s side into the small of his back. He deepens the kiss, exploring Cary’s mouth with his tongue, and then pulls back slowly, pressing two small, tellingly sweet kisses to Cary's lips before releasing him. Cary moves in again, but this time Clarke pushes him away gently.

“Tomorrow,” he says, impressed with the steadiness of his own voice. “It’s been a long week, we’re both a little impaired right now, and I could use a night to settle my thoughts. But I’ll call you tomorrow for dinner plans. Is that alright?”

Cary leans back, frustrated, and rubs a hand over his mouth. “Fine,” he says briefly, but he smiles. "See you tomorrow."

Clarke nods at him, giddier than a man his age has any right to be, and walks outside. There's a cab waiting, and his last sight, before the driver pulls away, is of Cary, watching him fondly through the wide windows of the lobby.