A Manhattan wasn’t Dan’s favorite drink, but it was a classic. It was familiar and comforting in its familiarity with its thick, sickly sweetness.
The maraschino cherry sat in the glass once he’d made it most of the way through, a neon blob, stem standing boldly upright. He toyed with it as he watched Casey arguing with Dana at a table, faces red and hands flying in heated gestures.
“Going to show us what you can do with one of those?”
Dan looked up. Somehow a stranger had gotten onto the bar stool next to him without Dan noticing. He was noticing now, though; the man had a slicked-back mane of platinum blond hair and an English accent that sounded unbearably posh, like he was gargling with syrup.
“I can’t say that I was planning on it,” Dan said on autopilot while the man crossed his legs. That suit was cut very close. He was younger than he’d seemed at first. He couldn’t be more than twenty.
“That’s a shame.” The stranger signaled to Jack, who came down to take his order. “Highland Park. Neat.” Or twenty-one.
Jack nodded, moving to get the top-shelf liquor. Dan turned back to survey the room, and caught Casey’s eyes.
“Oh, is that the situation?” the stranger drawled. Dan looked over at him sharply. “I thought you were here alone.”
“Well, I’m not.” It came out harder, more brittle, than Dan had intended. “I’m here with my friends from work.”
“You work?” The stranger smirked, accepting his glass from Jack. “How quaint.”
“I’m a sports anchor. If you keep watching that television, eventually you’ll see me on it, and that other guy over there. We happen to be fairly well-known among fans of sport.”
“That’s marvelous.” The stranger had a way of saying it so that it didn’t sound marvelous at all, drawing out the sound, maaaaaaahvelous.
“Right. Well.” Dan lifted his glass to the stranger in a brief salute before trying to ignore him again.
“I was perfectly serious about the cherry stem, you know.” The stranger took a drink of his Scotch, eyes open, locked on Dan. “I’ve nothing better to do than watch you try.”
“Are you—” Dan said, incredulously, and then caught himself before he could finish the thought: —hitting on me? He shook his head, instead. “I’d better get back.”
“Right-oh!” said the stranger, still sounding far too smug, and went back to drinking with a sort of steady single-mindedness that suggested a deep desire to get and to stay as drunk as humanly possible, for as long as humanly possible. Dan sidled away from him with haste.
Dan would have passed judgment, but, you know. Kids made a lot of mistakes at that age. Abby’d been hammering him on that point remorselessly for a while: the idea that kids made mistakes, and it was luck, mostly, that distinguished which mistakes proved fatal.
He slid into a booth across from Natalie, who grabbed his hand and explained, far too intensely and in too much detail, that she really missed having sex with Jeremy, and what precisely she missed about it.
“He does this thing where he puts two fingers—”
“Natalie!” he yelped. “I don’t want to know. I need to be able to look Jeremy in the face again after this.”
“Don’t you want to know what women like?”
“Please never tell me about what Jeremy does in bed. I am not, in any way, shape, or form, planning on having sex with him, and that renders it all exceedingly moot.”
“I wonder what it’s like to not plan on having sex with him,” she mused. “I always did.”
He ran into the stranger in the bathroom. The blond man was washing his hands when Dan walked in. He cut Dan a look that was outrageously suggestive, which Dan in turn ignored. Dan stepped up to the urinal, resolutely ignoring the eyes he could feel burning into the back of his neck.
“Is the girl with you? I thought from the way that you were watching him it would be that man.”
“I’m not with anyone,” said Dan shortly, washing his hands. The stranger, finished and with his hands dry, was leaning back against the wall with one knee bent, propped behind him.
“That’s a shame.”
“Why…” Dan put his hands on the counter, leaving damp outlines, and rolled out his neck. “Why would you think…”
The stranger broke into musical laughter. “If I bothered with thinking, I’d never have much fun, would I? You’re a right looker and you seem bored.”
“I’m not bored.”
“Well, you certainly didn’t seem enthralled by whatever your bird was on about.”
“Natalie was telling me about sex with her boyfriend.”
“Oh, well, then. Do pardon me.”
“Tell me,” said the stranger, “do you get many offers from your loyal fans?”
“Does your friend?”
“Probably not. I’m much cooler than he is, whatever you’ve read.”
“I haven’t the time to read anything at all on the subject, I assure you.”
Dan reached for the paper towels. “Well, there you go.”
The stranger reached out and put a finger on Dan’s wrist. Dan stilled, staring at it in a sort of trance.
“What do you think he would say if I offered?” murmured the stranger.
“I don’t know where you’re going with this.” Dan gingerly took his arm back, and the stranger smirked at him with a wild ebullience that was downright frightening.
“Oh, but love, I think you do.”
The door swung open; it was Casey, naturally, because this interaction needed to somehow become more tense and strained. Casey’s eyes flickered back and forth between them, to the paper towel with which Dan was mechanically wiping his hands.
Casey nodded briskly at the stranger who, thankfully, pushed himself off the wall and left. Dan stared at the door swinging shut behind him.
He didn’t realize for several seconds that he was still drying his completely dry hands. He dropped the paper towels into the trash and reached for the door.
Casey hadn’t—he wasn’t using the facilities, apparently. Dan sighed.
“Was that guy… hassling you?”
“Not really. He was just…” It would be difficult to explain. “I think he’s looking for something to do. And bugging me was it.”
“Huh.” Casey sounded baffled. To be fair, so was Dan.
“Anyway. I’ll see you back at the table.”
Dan pushed through the door, got a beer, and went back to sit next to Dana. He’d had about as much discussion of Natalie and Jeremy’s love life as he could take; Casey could live with the intrusion.
“Can you believe him?” said Dana.
“I’m probably on your side, but before I can be sure about that, I’ll need you to tell me what the hell you’re talking about.”
“I told him we shouldn’t see each other.”
“I didn’t realize you were.”
“He said he thought we should spend six months breaking up with other people first.”
Dan laughed, snorting Manhattan up his nose. He couldn’t help it. It stung. Dana glowered ferociously at him, but—“That was funny, Dana, you gotta admit.”
She stuck her tongue out at him. He happened to glance over towards the bar, and he froze. Casey was standing at it, and the stranger was talking to him.
Dana was talking, but Dan couldn’t make himself pay attention to her. Casey looked bewildered. The stranger was getting heated, gesticulating wildly as he slopped ludicrously expensive whiskey around. Jack was at the other end of the bar, but kept glancing back their way, looking resigned and grim.
Dan couldn’t handle it; it was like walking on hot coals—sitting on hot coals—whatever. He drained the rest of his drink.
“I’d better get another,” he said, and escaped.
He made it close enough to hear what they were saying, a minute before Casey would notice him.
“I’ve only tried to convey to you,” said the stranger, leaning forward, drink in his hand, “that you are trying to fool someone, and all evidence suggests that someone is you.”
“I don’t know where you get off—”
“Oh, would you like to? My hotel—”
“Casey!” Dan clapped his shoulder heavily. “I heard about Dana. Do you need a sympathy drink?”
That was the stranger’s cue to back off. Anyone sane would have. Instead, the stranger stabbed a finger at Casey. “Sympathy about Dana? This is exactly what I’m talking about—”
“Good night!” said Casey loudly. “I had a terrible time talking to you and I can’t imagine why you felt compelled to leave England.”
“Eat my arse!” shouted the stranger as Dan removed Casey, forcibly, with a hand at the small of his back.
“That kid has to be nineteen, I don’t know why Jack is serving him!” Casey had a look on his face that Dan had only seen a handful of times before: once when he’d been short-sheeted on location (Jeremy) and had felt the need to pontificate loudly and at great length about juvenile pranks; once when Dana instigated the dating plan; and once, memorably, that time Lisa had dated a professional surfer, with the chiseled abs and gleaming tan.
“I imagine he’s loaded.”
“Damn right he’s loaded!”
“I meant rich.”
“I meant drunk.”
“Whatever he was doing, he was trying to get under your skin.” Dan waved Casey to the seat across from Dana, who was murmuring with Kim in an almost sinister display of feminine solidarity.
“It worked.” Casey made a face. “Kim, can I have your drink?”
She looked up from where she and Dana were sitting, heads close together. “Why?”
“Because there’s a maniac at the bar and I don’t want to deal with him long enough to order.”
Kim craned her neck and spotted the stranger. “Ooh, he’s cute. Young, though.”
“I know! He’s got to be twelve.”
“Will you go order for me?”
“Nah, I didn’t really want the rest of this anyway. Enjoy.” She pushed her drink over. There were about two inches of neon blue left in the bottom.
Casey downed it in one determined gulp.
“Damn.” Dan raised his eyebrows. “Was I right? Is he just trying to get a rise out of somebody?”
“I have to assume.”
Kim said, “What’s he doing?”
“Nothing!” Dan and Casey said, loudly and simultaneously. She peered at them for a moment before turning back to Dana.
“Saying weirdly suggestive and uncomfortable things,” Casey muttered to Dan once Kim was no longer paying close attention.
“I know!” Dan flailed in small, tight gestures, trying to be subtle about it. “He was going on about the cherry stem!”
“In my drink!”
“What?” Casey was going a little cross-eyed, and Dan realized he was getting closer than usual to Casey’s face.
“I think he was hitting on me!”
“That—” Casey was pushing himself to his feet.
“No! Sit back down. Casey!” Dan tugged at the hem of Casey’s shirt, and Casey reluctantly dropped into his seat.
“That slimy little weasel, I’ve got a mind to—” Casey glared in the direction of the bar. The stranger threw him a cheery combination of a wave and a salute that was also, Dan was pretty sure, an obscene gesture.
“It’s not like I was going to take him up on it.”
“Of course not!” Casey looked affronted, and then suddenly uncertain. “Because—”
“Because he’s twelve and drunk and kind of an asshole.”
“Oh,” said Casey.
“I mean,” said Dan, “also, um. Probably—probably because…”
But he couldn’t make himself say it; he knew what Casey expected to hear, wanted to hear, but it wasn’t the truth.
Casey was watching him, something odd flickering over his face, like watching the shadows dance in the trees around a campfire: hinting at lurking shapes, half-imagination.
“I should—” Dan jerked a thumb over his shoulder. He drained his glass and set it down, and then stood, all in one fluid motion.
Kim and Natalie looked up and made simultaneous identical decrescendo noises of disappointment, which was just eerie. Casey was still staring at him.
“See you later, alligators.” Dan made his way to the door briskly, and once he was outside he had to lean against the tree that grew up through the sidewalk, covered in brilliant points of light, breathing hard.
The door crashed behind him. “Damn it, Casey—” he said, turning towards the noise, only to stop short.
Because it wasn’t Casey at all. It was the stranger, smirking, hands stuffed in the pockets of his clearly very expensive and very fashionable overcoat.
“Not quite,” said the stranger with malicious glee. “Perhaps I could interest you in a sample, though.”
“Go away!” Dan shouted. “I have no idea what you’re trying to accomplish here—”
“Getting into those poorly tailored trousers, I can’t imagine why you’re pretending to be so dense about it—”
“—but it’s not helping and you need to stop.”
The stranger blinked at him with a smile that was sharp as broken glass around the edges.
“Oh, helping isn’t what I do,” he said. “Not in the slightest.”
The door behind him opened and closed, and there stood Casey. Of course it was Casey, blinking into the light of the street, as if he’d been in a cellar and not a reasonably-lit bar.
“And there’s the other half,” said the stranger, snidely, cruelly. “Like a lost little puppy. Does he always pant around after you like this? Have you really been so abysmally unobservant as to miss his eyes following you around the room? Every room?”
Casey blanched—it was incredible, watching the color drain out of his face.
“Danny,” said Casey again, but his voice this time was completely different: pleading, angry, afraid, all at once. “Don’t listen to this snot-nosed—”
“You can call me whatever you want, dearie.” The stranger spat into the street with an incongruous elegance. “It hasn’t the slightest bearing on whether or not I happen to be correct.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Dan said to Casey, because he had to say something, had to get Casey away from the maniac. The maniac who was filling him with a new, sudden, bubbling hope, like something churning in a cauldron, by the pricking in my thumbs—
“Oh, yes, do. You should get out of here together.” The stranger’s lips drew back from his teeth in an unmistakable snarl. “Sometimes I think I’ve come halfway ‘round the world for absolutely nothing, except to watch idiots being unbearable everywhere I go.”
“You’re the unbearable one.” Casey’s mouth was set in a thin line. “I hope you grow out of it before someone takes it personally.”
“Kiss me,” said the stranger to Dan, in all seriousness, as if that were a thing Dan was even going to consider. “Kiss me and just watch his face. He’ll eat himself alive with jealousy and he’ll never say a word to you. Why do you think that is?”
Dan shook his head. A taxi pulled up, and Casey yanked the door open so hard the hinges squealed. Casey leapt in, but before he could slam the door shut in Dan’s face—and Dan could see him contemplating it—Dan barged in, forcing Casey to quickly scoot back across the seat.
It would have been funny, if it had been anyone other than them.
Dan gave the driver Casey’s address, staring at Casey the whole time. Casey stared back, eyes wide, the whites visible all the way around, like a terrified horse. Dan had tried horseback riding at camp one year. He hadn’t particularly liked it.
“Danny,” said Casey, and third time was the charm: his voice had gone soft, hesitant. Peculiarly intimate.
“Would you?” said Dan. “Have been jealous?”
Casey pressed his lips together, a thin, tight line. Dan waited for a million years, or twenty or thirty seconds, before Casey nodded once. Just a little thing, a bob of the head.
Dan smiled at him. He couldn’t help it; the smile seemed to happen of its own accord, with absolutely no input from him whatsoever. Casey frowned in outrage for a fraction of a second, and then Casey caught on, got on board the clue bus, and Casey’s mouth fell open like Dan had just done a particularly shocking magic trick.
Dan reached out—in the shadows of the cab, it was daring, but it seemed safe enough—and put his hand on Casey’s knee.
Casey’s mouth snapped shut again.
When they got to Casey’s, they tumbled out of the cab, Dan paying with a healthy tip. The sidewalk was still briskly cold, and the air around them shimmered with frost.
Dan clapped Casey on the shoulder, the way he had before a thousand times, companionable, amiable. But this time he had a grin on his face that he still couldn’t stop.
“Let’s go put on a movie and ignore it,” he said.
Casey choked on a laugh, fumbling with his keys. “You—!”
Casey lived on the fifth floor, and they usually took the elevator up. Casey’s building’s elevator had security cameras. (Dan had been made aware of this, before, under circumstances that didn’t bear mentioning, but in which he might or might not have indulged in a drink or three and started an argument with Casey about how a particular tackle had gone, and crashed into the side of the elevator with great force, and been required to pay for the repair.) The stairwell didn’t. Casey frowned at Dan in confusion when Dan tugged him towards the insipid beige doorway, and then his eyebrows went up in startled enlightenment.
Dan had been waiting a long time—a very long time—and he didn’t feel particularly inclined to wait for the ding of the elevator or the interminable ride, which might have steered them towards normalcy and the ease of denial.
But when the stairwell door creaked shut behind them, at ponderous length, Dan and Casey were a few stairs up the flight, Casey a half-step ahead of Dan. Dan thought Casey might not know, after all, what the point had been. Except that Casey waited until they got to the first landing and then spun to face Dan so quickly his shoes squeaked against the tile.
Dan started to say something, but Casey cut him off, leaning in, hesitating at the last second so that Dan had to lean forward to close the gap. Casey pressed Dan back, against the wall, and Casey was shuddering as he kissed Dan.
Over the years Dan had had occasion to watch Casey kiss other people. Women, exclusively. Mostly Lisa. Those had, by and large, been the kind of kisses that the long-married and long-suffering exchanged—quick, closed lips, a greeting or farewell, a brief thermometer. Once, memorably, Dan had shared a cab home with them after they’d been drinking, when Charlie was at a friend’s house for a sleepover. Lisa had climbed practically into Casey’s lap, and by the time the cab got to Dan’s place, his forehead and palms had been damp, and he’d had to furtively and guiltily jerk off when he got into his apartment. It had been the first glimpse he’d had of Casey’s eyes closed in something doing a pretty good impression of ecstasy; he’d caught it, almost involuntarily, in the rearview mirror. The cabbie had been studiously avoiding looking. Which meant he hadn’t been looking at Dan while Dan looked, either.
This was as different from that as watching Twister was from getting caught in a thunderstorm.
Dan cupped Casey’s face in both his hands and kissed him like it was the end of the world.
Somewhere else in the stairwell, a door opened; there was the sound of rattling footsteps. Casey let go of Dan and a heartbeat later Dan let go of Casey, and they started moving again, so that when they passed Mr. Pendergast and Mrs. Whipthorn from 717 and 719, respectively, they probably only looked a little flushed, a little guilty. Certainly Mrs. Whipthorn gave them her usual vague smile and a wave, and Mr. Pendergast shook his umbrella at them in something that passed for a greeting.
“Your neighbors are so weird,” Dan whispered to Casey. Casey’s lips moved as he struggled not to smile.
Dan knew the feeling: he wanted to laugh, too—filled with a wild delight, a giddy sensation down to his toes.
When they slammed into Casey’s condo, there was a moment’s disorientation, because everything was so normal, so aggressively and totally the same. There was the ugly gray couch Casey had bought because he’d made the mistake of not taking Dan with him to pick it out; there was the half-gone bunch of bananas. A framed photo on the bookcase of Charlie, smiling gap-toothed over the room.
He wondered if Casey felt it, the awkwardness in the air, but Casey was kicking the door closed and then wrapping his arms around Dan from behind him, kissing his ear, his shoulder, running his hands across Dan’s chest and stomach with a possessive heat.
“Oh,” said Dan, out loud, unintentionally. He sounded startled, he thought. At the swoop in his stomach, at how it felt to have Casey’s hands on him not in passing but with clear intentions.
Casey exhaled heavily against the back of Dan’s neck.
Dan thought, for a split second, that everything on the coffee table—all the magazines and the remote control and the random scattered cups that Casey hadn’t put in the dishwasher yet—rose up, floating off the tempered glass. He shut his eyes, and when he opened them again, everything was as it should be.
He moved to turn around; Casey tightened his grip, and Dan cautiously gave in. Casey leaned back against the wall, slowly, bringing Dan with him, his cock pressing against Dan’s ass through their clothes. Why, Dan had time to think, and then Casey’s hand moved down Dan’s stomach.
“Oh,” Dan said again, louder this time. Casey hesitated. Dan grabbed his hand and helped it along, and Casey sighed, drawn-out and pleased, cupping Dan’s cock through his pants.
Dan let his head fall back, tipping it to rest against Casey’s shoulder, leaving him staring at the ceiling. Casey, unzipping Dan’s pants, started to whisper, and while sweet nothings would not have been on Dan’s personal list for clichés he would bet Casey was prone to, there was no question that he would have been wrong: Casey was murmuring you’re perfect and you’re so gorgeous and I want to touch you, I want to make you come.
And Casey had wrapped his hand around Dan’s cock and was stroking, the grip different from Dan’s, and Dan thought, I bet this is how he touches himself, and felt dizzy, had to gasp for air through the building pleasure.
His knees were going weak. “Casey,” he said, voice catching in his throat. “Case. We—we should—”
Casey hummed softly in his ear and reached down to cup his balls.
“Oh, God.” Dan took a deep breath. “Bed. Casey. Bed.”
“You first,” rasped Casey, which made no sense.
“You can’t expect me to be the rational one.”
“Cannot—oh, for God’s sake, come on, I’m going to fall down if we keep doing this—”
“I’ll catch you.” Casey bit his earlobe gently.
“You will not, I may not be a wide receiver but neither are you.”
“Maybe I am. How do you know?” Casey managed to make it sound dirty, which—oh.
“Casey, you’re going to try to catch me and fail and that’s no way to start a magical evening of, of carnal bliss.”
Casey laughed. “Carnal bliss?”
“Come on, a solid three-quarters of my brain is otherwise engaged, here, I’m not writing for the New Yorker, I’m just telling you, take pity on me, let’s go to a flat surface of some kind.”
“Fine,” said Casey, still laughing at him, and without warning stepped forward, spun Dan around, and heaved him into a fireman’s carry. Dan had to assume it was because there was no other way Casey could possibly carry him, but it was still very uncalled-for, and he was opening his mouth to say that when Casey smacked him on the ass.
“I take it back!” yelled Dan, upside-down. “Carnal bliss nothing! I’m going to kill you!” He ruined the effect by laughing, though, and Casey carried him into the bedroom and then lowered him onto the edge of bed. To his satisfaction, Casey at least looked visibly winded by the effort.
But then Casey bent over him, bracing his hands on the bed, and Dan registered the look on his face—it was just wild to have it directed at him: a look like Casey might direct towards a Hail Mary or a suicide squeeze play that worked, something unearthly and divine.
“I,” said Casey. “I—uh, do you—?”
Apparently Casey’s ability to verbalize desire was volume-dependent. Dan saved him the effort of trying to say things above a whisper by yelling “Sweep the leg!” and kicking his feet out from under him, knocking him flat onto Dan. Losing his breath was worth the grunt of shock and indignation.
And sure enough, once Casey was lying on top of him, heavy and warm, mouth just an inch or two from Dan’s ear, Casey started in again: do you want me to blow you? Delivered shyly but with anticipation. God, I want to blow you. Jesus Christ. Do you have any idea how you look?
“Oh, please do,” wheezed Dan, still struggling to get his breath back.
Casey kissed him, hard, and Dan reached up to run his fingers through Casey’s hair again, forgetting for a minute—until Casey leaned up and back, and Dan made a little plaintive noise. Casey dropped to the floor by the side of the bed, between Dan’s legs, and then Casey’s hand was on his dick and then Casey’s mouth was on his dick, and he made a much louder noise.
Casey kept pausing, gasping, turning his face for a second before going to back to it. At first Dan thought it was that Casey hadn’t done it much, but then he felt movement and realized that Casey was jerking himself off while he sucked Dan, and he didn’t have a chance to warn Casey before he came.
And Casey didn’t seem to mind; he grunted in shock but he swallowed, blessedly, and then kissed the inside of Dan’s thigh, which made Dan twitch and giggle, and scraped his stubbled cheek against the skin there.
“You’re going to give me beard burn, you asshole,” said Dan fondly. “Oh, hey, how do you want to come? Do you want to come in my mouth?”
Casey jerked and gasped and then said ruefully, “Next time.”
“Oh, come on! You didn’t.”
“Excuse you, you kept moaning—”
“Well, I suppose you can be forgiven for finding me too unbearably sexy to resist.”
Casey laughed out loud. “You jerk. Next time you’re blowing me, and we’ll see how this goes.”
“Damn right I am. Get back up here.”
Casey climbed back up onto the bed, grinning goofily.
They conked out like that—still wearing way too much of their clothing; Dan was barely awake enough to kick his shoes off—and slept heavily.
Dan woke a while later. Casey had turned off the light, and the city seemed far away through the heavy curtains, muffled and dim.
He turned his head to look at Casey. Up close in the shadows of the bedroom, sprawled gracelessly over his pillow and half of Dan’s, too; so handsome Dan could barely stand it. Dan wanted to wake him up again, kiss him senseless.
He settled for watching Casey breathe until he fell back asleep.