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Dan knew something was wrong as soon as he got home that day. Looking back, he recalled the overly friendly way that Duck greeted him. He recognized the long-sleeved shirt and clean corduroys that Duck was wearing. But he had grown so confident in his life by then, so comfortable in his good fortune, that it hadn't been until he was half done with the linguini and clams that he was able to put his finger on what was bothering him.

He paused then, chewing mechanically on the meal that was one of his favorites -- but not so special as to call attention to itself. He raised his head slowly and looked over his husband who was wearing an unseasonably warm, fairly new outfit that Dan had complimented once -- armor and hopeful favor-currying in one.

Dan cleared his throat, searching for some coherent question to ask. When Duck immediately flashed him that too-sincere smile, Dan began to feel panic.

He put his fork down. "What's wrong?"

Duck looked a little panicked himself as he answered, "Nothing. Why?"

Val hadn't used to push. She'd just purse her lips and give him that disappointed look. Then again, it'd taken a long time for her to even notice anything. Either Dan had been more subtle, or else she just hadn't known Dan well enough -- fully enough -- to tell.

"Something's wrong. Tell me, Duck, or it's going to drive me crazy."

For all that Duck was by both instinct and training an intensely private man, and supremely good at staying that way, he didn't like to outright lie, especially not to people he cared about. He lowered his fork as well and he looked at his plate. Dan followed his gaze, noticing that although Duck had been eating steadily all this time, his plate was no more than a quarter empty. He must have been taking much less than his usual efficient shoveling mouthfuls.

"Dan." Duck raised his eyes then. His fear and dread were so palpable that Dan took a moment to be astounded at Duck's bravery. Duck swallowed visibly and pulled his hands down into his lap. "I had sex with someone today."

The words had no meaning for Dan for a long moment. Duck didn't say anything more, just watched Dan with a face like a trapped animal's.

"What are you saying?" The calmly voiced words issued from Dan's mouth as if he hadn't been the one to plan them.

Emotion flickered across Duck's tense face before he said, "I slept with someone else. While you were still at work."

Dan shook his head. "Why are you telling me this?" He realized that was not the question Duck had expected him to ask when the man sitting across from him twitched a small frown of surprise. "Who?" he amended, wondering why he was trying to follow this script, why it should at all make a difference.

"I'm sorry."

"Who was it?" he demanded in a harder voice. Whatever had made him take this role was forcing him to play it through. Enter jealous husband. Cue soundtrack: Danger at the Dinner Table.

Duck, following his own lines, replied, "It doesn't matter. It won't happen again."

"How do you know?"

"It won't. I promise." Duck sounded so sure. But he had also promised to be faithful to Dan, hadn't he? They hadn't written their own vows or anything like that, but Betty had found a few examples online that they had pieced together into something simple and short enough for the courthouse, but meaningful to them. He was sure 'faithful' had been in there somewhere.

Of course, he had promised Val 'till death do us part', too, hadn't he?

"H-How long?" he finally asked. He was coming out of the fog now, settling into his own body and feeling the tremors in it, feeling his world upending for the second time in four years.

"No. No, it's not--" Duck's broad shoulders -- molded by years of hard work outdoors and by carrying secrets and responsibilities -- drew in slightly. "It was just today. It'll never happen again," he repeated in emphasis.

Dan nodded, almost absently. "Do you love him?" Anything else, he decided in the rational part of his brain that could still function in its separated fog... Anything else, they could work out.

"Of course not. Of course not." Duck actually leaned forward over the table as he spoke, he was so anxious to convince Dan of his words. "I love you."

The first time he had had sex with Duck (it hadn't been making love, not then), he had still been married to Val. They had barely known each other. In fact, Dan had gone out of his way not to speak to Duck back then, recognizing the man's secret and still half-frightened of his own. They might have continued that way, fucking in the dark, if Dan had ever seen the other man again at Wilby Watch.

It had been Duck -- fearless, practical, and honest -- who had brought them to the next step, out into the open.

"All right," he said. Not looking at Duck, he picked up his fork again and set it in his linguini. He twisted it around, clockwise, and watched the sauce -- congealing slightly by now -- ooze slowly down over the layered thin strands of pasta. He could feel Duck's gaze on him, but he didn't try to meet it.

As if by agreement, they got through the rest of the meal without sharing another glance or another word. Duck offered to clean up, and Dan grunted vaguely in assent before fleeing to the bathroom. By the time he came out, Duck was already in bed. He was wearing long sleeves and long pants, instead of the usual shirt and shorts he slept in for late summer. But then again, it was colder than usual this year, and neither of them was young anymore.

Dan felt a chill himself, so he decided on sweatpants before getting into bed and curling up on his side facing away from his husband. He waited for Duck to put his arms around him as he usually did, not sure whether he wanted it or not tonight. After a seemingly long period of flustered consideration, he decided that if Duck tried, he would push the man away -- but the expected touch never came. When Dan glanced over his shoulder in the obscuring moonlight, he could see the shadows of Duck's back.

It was only then that he realized what he hadn't asked, and what Duck had failed to bring up at all.

Why?

***

Duck's soft alarm woke him, as always. This time of year, there was still just enough light to see clearly at this hour. As the seasons marched on, that would change.

The bed was warm from their shared body heat. Dan could never imagine how Duck and Buddy managed to drag themselves out of bed six days a week for their ritual run. He had recently pushed his store opening hours to eleven o' clock, and business hadn't suffered one whit. Apparently, anyone else who liked renting or buying movies was of the same mind as himself.

He must have dozed off again, because the next sound he heard was the door closing. He hadn't even felt Duck's customary goodbye kiss.

With a start, Dan woke up completely.

Last night's conversation flew through his mind like a movie reel running at triple speed. He sat up quickly and glanced at the clock on his nightstand. It was still a full hour before his own alarm but he was wide awake. He got up and readied himself for work. The familiar motions steadied him somewhat but failed to make the world more sensible to him.

It was tempting to pretend that last night hadn't happened, but he was past delusions of that kind. He'd spent too many guilty nights scrubbing himself down as if that would get rid of the filth of shame (less and deplorably less every time), and avoiding looking himself in the mirror. He'd cooked too many nice breakfasts for his wife, put on too many flattering, overly warm suits and practiced too many innocuous smiles.

What had happened had happened. Unlike Dan, Duck hadn't waited until after disaster had already struck to wriggle his way through a weak explanation. He had come clean about it. He had faced Dan head-on and apologized for his actions. Dan just had to... accept it and move on. The alternative was to lose everything that he cared about. Dan knew he wasn't strong enough to make that choice.

He opened the store early, and the morning flew by in a haze. Dan figured he must be behaving normally enough, since none of the visitors he had -- one renter and four browsers -- commented on anything except the weather.

At one-thirty, as usual, he met Sandra for lunch. Unlike his customers, she did notice something.

"What's eating you?" she asked straight out. They knew each other well enough by now that they cut through the usual polite bullshit that most islanders still offered Dan.

Dan stayed silent for a long time. He considered Sandra Anderson to be the best friend he'd ever had. He could share things with her that he couldn't tell another soul -- not even Duck, sometimes. Val had been his friend and confidante and eventually his wife, yet Sandra was closer to him than Val had ever been.

Sandra didn't deserve a lie, but he couldn't tell her the truth.

"I just... have something on my mind today," he said, finally, hoping it was enough.

Thankfully, other than a few searching frowns, she didn't press. Dan hurried through his meal and excused himself before she could change her mind. He felt her eyes on his back all the way to where he turned the corner.

He was already outside the parking lot of his store, his keys in hand, when he heard his name:

"Dan!"

The voice arrested him before he'd quite made it into his refuge. He put a hasty smile on and turned around, hoping he looked properly welcoming. "Hi, Buddy."

Buddy French, in his regular uniform today, was walking briskly up the sidewalk to meet him. It felt like years since Dan had seen Buddy last when in fact, he and Duck had shared dinner with the Frenches just last week. Anything that had happened before last night seemed like an eternity ago.

"I saw Duck earlier." The statement caught Dan by surprise, bringing up exactly the subject he'd been trying to avoid all morning. Buddy leaned slightly forward with the air of imparting enemy intelligence. "He was up on Oliver's roof." The police chief badge he wore over his left front pocket caught the sunlight, which also glinted off of Buddy's thick dark hair and highlighted the neat lines of his body.

Going stiff with the realization, Dan remembered the other question Duck hadn't answered last night: Who?

For two years now, Duck had been acting as a daytime nanny for Buddy and Carol's son. As a result, he probably spent more of his waking hours in the French house than in their own. He rarely complained, and even when he did, it was short-lived. There was no doubt that he loved the job.

Duck wanted kids, but he knew that Dan didn't. He loved little Jimmy French like his own son. He'd been so excited when Buddy had first offered him the job. He'd been over the moon when Jimmy had learned to say his name. Buddy was already Duck's best friend, and he'd had a crush on him once, Dan knew. How easy would it be to fall in love with the father of the child who was the center of your world? And if Buddy just gave him the slightest bit of encouragement...

Suddenly, he could see it in every detail, like a movie clip unfolding in his mind -- Carol working late, Buddy coming home. To Duck. Who had wanted to fuck him since they were teenagers. Buddy was straight, but that was no reason he might not be... curious. Who better to show him the ropes than his gay best friend? It could have started with just talk, curiosity, philosophy, Buddy exploring new intellectual paths in that way he had. All it would take was for the still handsome police chief to feel especially bold one day (yesterday), to follow simple conversation with a request for a demonstration...

Buddy was a charmer, and Duck was a pushover when it came to answering other people's needs. It wouldn't take much to win Duck over. But no, Duck wouldn't go that far for friendship alone. Maybe he had resisted, and then Buddy could have suggested that he would take Jimmy away. Duck might not have felt like he had a choice...

Rage seized Dan for a moment. It was an unfamiliar sensation. It took him a while to realize why he was staring at Buddy's neck so fixedly, thinking about how the collar of Buddy's uniform shirt would be no obstacle to Dan's long fingers if he--

"Dan?" Buddy looked confused and a little wary. Not guilty. Not smug or challenging. Not knowing in the least.

Get a grip, Dan told himself, forcing an intake of air. Buddy wouldn't cheat on his wife. Besides, Duck had said he wasn't in love with the other man. It couldn't be Buddy. Couldn't it?

Then who?

"Sorry," he said aloud, giving his head a brief but fierce shake.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah. What were you saying?"

"Uh, I said, I saw Duck up on Oliver's roof."

"Oh. Right. He, uh, he's replacing the shingles with stone tiles, right?"

Buddy blinked and then seemed to verbally backtrack. "Yeah... Wood shingles don't last very long around here."

"Was he supposed to be somewhere else?" Dan asked, his suspicions rearing up again. Surely, Buddy wouldn't come to him if he and Duck had fooled around the night before, he realized now. But Mike Olsen lived a few doors down from Oliver Winifred. Duck had admitted before to looking twice at the young officer...

Buddy was a poor liar at the best of times. He scratched the back of his head and stuttered as he replied, "Ah, no. Not that I know his schedule, of course. Um." Dan's heart lurched, and something must have shown on his face because Buddy sighed and held up his hands. "All right, but don't tell him I told you."

"Told me what?"

"He fell off a ladder yesterday. Busted up his side a bit. That's why he cancelled our run this morning. It can't have been too bad, though. Not if he's working again already. I'm sure he would have told you if it was serious."

"Yeah," he answered automatically.

"Okay, well. Catch up with you later?"

"See you," Dan replied, as Buddy beat a quick retreat. As soon as Buddy turned to go, he went straight to his store, unlocked it with shaking hands, and shut himself inside. He didn't turn the CLOSED sign around. He wasn't sure yet if he was more worried or more angry.

This wouldn't be the first time Duck had failed to tell him about an injury on the job. Despite Dan's chiding or maybe because of it, Duck didn't like to worry him. He'd never hidden a serious injury before, though, and something that would cause him to cancel a run -- something else Duck had hidden from him -- couldn't be a simple scraped elbow or bruised thumb.

But maybe Duck had done it before, and Dan just hadn't caught it. After all, Duck had been protecting him from all manner of things since day one. Duck was as spry and strong at forty-nine as when they'd first met -- or at least he always made Dan feel that way -- but that couldn't last forever. The Wilby winters, and Duck's heavily physical job, and just plain inexorable time itself were not to be ignored.

Was Duck feeling old? Was that why...?

A thought struck Dan then. The newest nurse at St. Agnes' was male, and, if rumor could be at all relied on, he was gay. He wasn't exactly some hot young stud, but from all the ladies' accounts, he was friendly and had a nice smile. And he was in his late twenties, old enough to have some experience and young enough to, for instance, have all his hair and not have wrinkles around his eyes. If Duck had gone to the clinic yesterday and had been feeling down, and if the new nurse had happened to offer... comfort...

No, Dan told himself firmly. There was no use in speculating. Duck would never-- No, the other man would never--

Well, and why wouldn't he? Duck was still handsome, and fit. He had been well-respected on the Island before he came out as gay. Mostly, he still was. He was even something of a hero to the gay tourists that visited the Island, some of whom had read about Duck (and sometimes Dan) on news reports and come expressly to seek them out. Why wouldn't a bright young man new to the Island be attracted to Duck MacDonald?

Dan squelched that thought fiercely and turned his mind to work. He'd told Sandra he needed to re-inventory his stock. That had only been an excuse, but he might as well get started on the task anyway. It would save him doing it at the end of the month.

Business was good for a Tuesday night. Dan was able to sell five DVDs, rent out thirty-six, and take an order for a box set of a TV series as a birthday gift to the purchaser's boyfriend. Along with his later opening hour, he had also pushed closing to eight o' clock at night, Tuesday to Friday. These days, that was after dark, so Duck was usually home much earlier than he was.

A man could get lonely all by himself. He could go looking for company and the company could turn out more pleasant than he'd expected. All it'd take would be a mistake, not like Duck planned to do it. It could have been anyone -- someone who was curious, or someone who'd admired Duck for a while, or even a stranger at the Loyalist where Duck sometimes went to shoot pool.

Stop it, he told himself angrily. With an effort, he hauled his attention to meticulously ordering the tasks he would have to do tomorrow.

By the time he got home and found Duck waiting for him with dinner ready, he had tomorrow's schedule planned out practically to the minute -- and he was still tense and roiling with questions.

He tried to ask a dozen times during dinner -- stir fry chicken, mushroom, and bell peppers, another favorite of his. Duck must have stopped by the grocery store today. Who? he wanted to ask again, and Why?

But what he finally said was, "You didn't go running this morning."

Duck didn't stop eating, but he held himself a little too still. "No."

"I heard you got hurt yesterday."

Again, the unnatural stillness. "I'm fine."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

Duck shrugged and didn't look up.

Dan might have said more, but the telephone rang and Duck leaped up to answer it. He handed it to Dan a second later. "It's Eve," he said shortly, and moved to clean up dinner.

Hesitating for a moment, watching him, Dan finally left, taking the receiver with him to the living room.

"Hi," he said.

"Dan? Is something the matter?"

"No. Why?" he asked, trying to modulate his voice. He'd never been any good at hiding anything from his sister.

"You sound... funny." She made a sharp sound. "Did he do something?"

Dan groaned quietly. Eve didn't get the chance to call him very often, and he hated that he was wasting this opportunity.

He wished more than anything that he could have someone to talk to about this, but that person was most definitely not the older sister who had half-raised him. She would be pushing him to leave Duck immediately. Despite their repairing relationship, Dan was starting to lose hope that his sister would come to approve of his second marriage.

"Of course not. Duck would never hurt me." Not intentionally, anyway.

"Don't you lie to me, Dan," she reprimanded him, just like when they had been little. He sighed, wavering between feeling irritated and resigned.

"We just had a fight, all right? Every couple has fights. We'll work it out." She started to say something, but he cut her off quickly with, "I'm not going to tell you any more about it."

"You can't trust men like him, Danny. Hugh always says--"

"Eve." She fell silent. He sighed again. "How's Beth?" Eve could spend half an hour talking about her daughter.

After a brief silence, she let herself be distracted by recounting Beth's recent forays into gymnastics.

It wasn't a long phone call. Her husband was returning soon, she said, so they made their goodbyes after a few minutes. By then, Duck had started readying himself for bed.

He showered with the door closed today, despite the fact that the poor ventilation had prompted them to begin leaving the door open a long time ago. Duck changed in the bathroom, too, like how he had used to when Dan first moved in, back when they were still getting used to how to live together. He emerged wearing long pants and long sleeves again like armor.

For his part, Dan had put on a pair of socks in addition to sweatpants. He considered a sweatshirt for himself before squashing a somewhat hysterical urge to laugh. Almost September, and they were both outfitting themselves for winter.

Instead of laughter, a question bubbled up: "Let me see?"

Startled, Duck asked. "See what?"

"Where you got hurt. Did you go to a doctor?"

"It's just some bruises. I'm fine."

Ordinarily, Dan would have demanded to see the injury. He would have insisted on rubbing cream over it or laying Duck down with heating pads while he 'kissed it better' for him.

Ordinarily, Duck wouldn't be avoiding his eyes and holding a death grip on the bottom of his shirt as if he didn't want Dan's eyes or hands anywhere near him.

"All right," Dan replied. Awkwardly, he lifted the blanket on his side of the bed, ready to get in.

"Damn it, wait." He looked up. Duck lifted his shirt, rolling it up to his armpits. His eyes were tight with a mix of emotions that Dan didn't have time to parse out because--

"Oh my god." Dan climbed over the bed, the shortest route to reach his husband. He tilted Duck's lamp up to shed more light, which made the large spread of black and purple stand out in unforgiving sharpness. He lifted one hand but stopped just shy of touching. The skin looked fragile. "How far did you fall? What did you fall on? Jesus, Duck, you could have been killed."

Leaning closer, he could see that the center of the bruising was a distinct diagonal line across Duck's ribs. A sawhorse, maybe, or the edge of Oliver's planter. It could have been Duck's head, or his back. He could have landed wrong and broken a leg at the least. Or his neck.

"It's not so bad," Duck insisted, but Dan had the evidence right in front of him. As if realizing that, Duck pulled his shirt back down. Smooth olive green covered his torso once more, blotting out the splotches as if they'd never been. Dan didn't stop staring until Duck moved to sit beside him, and then he only shifted his stare to Duck's face.

"It looks worse than it is. I didn't even crack any ribs." Duck looked worried now. No, more than that. He had that achy cast to his eyes that Dan remembered from a few times after the hospital and before Dan had moved in with him -- back when Duck had been so, so afraid of losing Dan.

How had he not noticed this? Duck must have been moving differently. Dan should have seen it immediately, if only he hadn't been so distracted about... He would have noticed, wouldn't he?

He thought back over yesterday and today and realized with a shock that he'd only seen Duck for the space of two dinners and a glimpse of him this morning. Was that normal? Had Duck felt neglected? Lonely? For how long? If something like this could happen and Dan not even notice...!

"Oh my god," he said again.

"Dan, I'm fine. I've had worse from-- Don't... I don't deserve--"

Seeing Duck reach for him, he flinched, and the touch didn't land. He rolled over to his side of the bed and got under the covers without meeting Duck's eyes.

***

Dan didn't sleep well that night. When Duck's alarm rang, he noticed that Duck hadn't dressed for his run with Buddy. He left the house early anyway, maybe going to a job, maybe... somewhere else.

He promised, Dan reminded himself, fisting his hands in the sheets that he'd pulled over his head like some kid. With one strong motion, he heaved himself out of bed and to the bathroom.

The face that looked back at him was long and haggard. He needed a haircut. He brushed his teeth with desultory movements. He cut himself, shaving.

Watching the small trickle of blood run down his chin, he asked the question in his head:

What wasn't he giving Duck that Duck needed?

The question dogged him all the way out the door and throughout his drive to the post office, his first stop of the day. Duck liked a bit of stubble on a man, he remembered, fingering his jaw as he stood in line to pick up the movie posters he had ordered. Maybe he should switch to an electric shaver.

He almost turned in to the supermarket for laundry detergent, before he remembered that Duck had gotten some a few days ago. Duck ran a lot of the errands and did a large portion of the housework as well because of his more flexible schedule, but maybe Dan should be putting in more of an effort at home.

Should he be working less in any case? he wondered, as he stopped next door for the six cans of beige for the Warners' bedroom that Duck had asked him to pick up. Had that been a hint? Did Duck wish he would help him more with his job instead? Val had always thought renting videos somewhat frivolous. Compared to practical work like Duck's, maybe she was right.

Val had wanted Dan to change, and he had thought it unfair. Was he doing the same thing to his husband, crowding him, hounding him? Driving him away? Maybe he should stop drinking, even socially. Did it make Duck uncomfortable? Had he been too hard on Duck to quit smoking?

He drove past Iggy's instead of stopping in for a double double like usual. Partly, he was avoiding Sandra. Partly, he was wondering if Duck was getting tired of being the 'pretty' one. Dan had a faster metabolism, true, but he tended to stay stationary, and he had a taste for sweets. Maybe Dan should start running, too. Working out. Had the man Duck had been with been handsome and fit? How long had Duck been just 'settling' for Dan?

Who the hell had it been?

The morning passed in a fog. He laid out the new posters, ready for when the kids would get out of school, but he didn't take the usual care to line them up in the correct slots. He stared sightlessly at his logbook and was glad when no customers came in to disturb his state of funk.

When lunchtime came, he called Sandra to tell her he was busy and then hid away inside his store and ate stale popcorn and a leftover apple. He wasn't hungry anyway.

He might have completely forgotten about the movie club meeting that night if Rebecca hadn't called at five o' clock sharp to remind him to bring a copy of the night's selection -- the title that they had chosen weeks ago as part of this month's line-up.

It was too late to change it now, so Dan had to sit stiff-backed as billionaire John Gage made his "Indecent Proposal" to David and Diana Murphy. He watched, wide-eyed and mortified as David Murphy practically screamed at his wife, "Well, was it good sex? Was he good? Was he good? Was he good?!"

And then afterwards, he listened, wincing and self-conscious, as everyone debated the ethics and emotions of the movie over pizza and salad.

"She only did it to begin with to save their house," one woman declared.

"Oh, I don't know. Mr. Gage was a handsome fellow," someone else countered.

"Don't be ridiculous! He was asking her to be a prostitute!"

"I'd sleep with Robert Redford for a lot less than a million dollars," put in the eldest of them, seventy-three-year-old Patty Trent. Laughter ensued.

"Is that American or Canadian?" Rebecca quipped, inducing more hilarity. She elbowed Dan with a wink that he hoped he responded to appropriately. He was relieved when Brenda Lastman drew everyone's attention with her comment:

"David and Diana did have the sweetest romance, though, don't you think? So much in love."

Almost everyone agreed with much sighing and faux-swooning, but Mike -- one of only four men among the twelve women -- snorted. "If Diana was so in love with her husband, why did she leave him for Gage? I bet she didn't mind being with a rich guy." This raised an outcry.

"What else could she do?"

"It was David's fault, that insensitive jerk!"

"She wouldn't have left him if he hadn't pushed her away!"

"Now, wait a minute," Mike said. "You have to admit, she was attracted to Gage. He told her she had a choice, and they had sex anyway."

"Oh, please, as if a man who has an advantage over a pretty woman wouldn't know how to get her to do exactly what he wants."

Mike raised his hands in defense. Dan froze when the other man turned to him. "What do you think, Dan?"

Dan gulped down a swallow of soda and stammered before replying, "Uh, I-- I think he should have trusted his wife. And if he felt so strongly about it he shouldn't have agreed to the deal to begin with."

Many of the members voiced their approval.

"Oh, of course the gay guy takes the women's side of things," Mike complained, but grinned with no malice.

"The important thing is," Suzanne said decisively, "they get back together at the end." She took Mike's hand and pecked him on the cheek. "They gave each other a second chance."

Thankfully, after that, they moved on to discussing the plot and the dialogue, and then the technical aspects such as lighting and sound. Dan was glad it wasn't his turn to moderate or to take notes, because it was all he could do to pretend to listen while not dropping his plate of food on Rebecca's living room rug.

By the time he got home, he was exhausted, but he also had a sense of purpose hammering fretfully inside. He had been pushing Duck away. He could see that. It was perfectly within his rights, but he didn't want where this was leading. He didn't want to be alone and lost again, with not even the comfort of having an end in mind this time around.

When he entered the house and no greeting came, he was frightened for a split-second. Then he heard sounds from the bedroom and relaxed.

Duck was lying in bed, listening to the radio.

Two days ago, he might have said, "Hi," and Duck would have smiled back but kept his eyes closed, with one foot swaying to the music. Dan might have squeezed his feet and given him a quick massage to hear him groan. Duck would have asked him how the club meeting had gone and what the movie had been about. Dan would have told him. Two days ago, he might have described the scene in the kitchen, or the scene in the hotel room, and Duck might have offered to reenact either one.

Now, Duck sat up quickly, as if startled. Guilty. He took a sharp breath, one hand going to his side, then reached out stiffly to snap the radio off. Dan wondered suddenly if Duck had been able to tape his ribs properly without Dan's help. Then again, he'd done fine on his own for a much longer time than Dan had been with him. If one of the two of them needed the other, it wasn't Duck.

"I didn't hear you come in," Duck explained in the awkward silence, naturally mistaking Dan's motives for lingering in the doorway.

Prodded into action by the look on Duck's face, Dan went to sit beside his husband. He took Duck's hand and looked down at it, feeling the knobby knuckles and the calloused places, the rough skin and the one tender spot right in the center of Duck's palm. He folded his fingers over that spot, making a hollow space between their two hands.

"Have I ever told you I love you?" he asked.

Duck looked understandably confused, though he smiled hesitantly. It was a cheesy line, of course, and Duck, who didn't watch movies except when Dan was with him, wouldn't understand the reference or know the right response. Still, Dan was unreasonably disappointed when Duck answered, "Yeah. Lots of times." A little anxiously, he added, "I love you, too."

Again, Dan hesitated. Then he lifted his free hand to stroke Duck's cheek. Duck watched him, barely breathing. His uncertainty helped to placate Dan's own, enough that he put his hand around the back of Duck's neck and tugged gently.

Duck resisted at first, and then, with a small, hungry sound, he came forward and melted against Dan's chest. He rubbed his hair against Dan's shoulder like a cat.

"I'm sorry," he murmured. "I'm so sorry. I didn't want-- I just-- I fucked up."

The heartbreak in Duck's voice was so raw. Dan froze with indecision for a moment. He wasn't used to being the comforter. That was always Duck. Since the beginning, Dan had always been the one hiding, running away, hanging back. And he wasn't even sure, right now, if he wanted to comfort Duck.

Because that would mean forgiveness.

And Dan was realizing only now that even though he'd thought his way through all the many compelling reasons why forgiving Duck was the only right choice... he wasn't so sure that he could actually do it.

But... But he still had to try.

Awkwardly, he petted Duck's hair. He ran his thumb over the familiar territory of the back of Duck's head, the short hairs prickling against him when he rubbed against the grain. Searching out Duck's mouth was second nature, but unlike usual, he couldn't get lost in the feeling.

Had Duck kissed the other man like this? he couldn't help wondering. Had he made those soft noises? Had he turned into the man's touch like he did now for Dan? Had he moved with the same rough grace, with the same eagerness? With more? Had he held on to that other man and opened his eyes wide in the grips of passion, as if trying to see every second of what was happening?

It wasn't working. Confusion and disgust were replacing any inclination he had had to touch his husband. He pulled away, and he saw the hurt in Duck's face, followed quickly by a shamed lowering of his eyes. Damn it, he thought. Duck never gave up that easily.

"What is it?" The words spilled out, tinged with sharpness.

Duck's gaze flickered up again. He eyed Dan warily.

"What am I not giving you?" he demanded. "What are you missing?"

Shaking his head slightly, Duck asked, "What are you talking about?"

Frustrated, Dan turned his gaze away from Duck's bewildered gaze. He looked around their room, still so innocently comfortable. He wanted to have things good again between them. If he could just find the right questions to ask...

"It wasn't just the thrill of it, was it? Sleeping with someone new or different?"

He was fairly certain that wasn't it. Still, he found himself relieved when Duck snapped, "Of course not!"

"So there's just something I'm not giving you that you need."

"That's crazy." Duck was frowning, starting to look defensive. He'd jerked out of his deferential hunch, which relieved Dan somewhat, allowing him to put one hand on Duck's arm in appeal.

"Maybe it's something you don't realize. Duck, think. There has to be something. If it's something I can change--" He hated how needy he sounded. How pathetic and clichéd, just like every clueless wife who wanted her cheating husband back. But the truth was, he did want Duck back. He wanted them back.

Again, Duck shook his head fiercely. "I like you just the way you are."

"Then why did you go to someone else?"

"You're being ridiculous."

"How do I know if I'll ever be enough for you?"

"You're fucking perfect, all right? Now shut up."

"If I'm so perfect, then what were you doing with, with, whoever it was?" He took a breath, discomfited at how worked up he'd gotten. "You have to tell me," he realized out loud, the words bursting out of him despite himself. He rushed on before the uneasy emotions could overwhelm him. "I have to know why. Who was it? What happened?"

"I can't tell you that."

"God damn it, Duck! I have the right to know."

"Why?"

"You wear my ring," he reminded Duck, the emerging defiance in Duck's posture irritating him now instead of comforting.

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"It means you're my husband!"

"You don't own me," Duck retorted hotly.

Duck had always been very adamant about his independence. Some part of Dan had thought (hoped?) that Duck might let that go after they got married. He was obviously wrong. Slumping, Dan felt his anger drain away beneath more practiced opposition, leaving him tired and pained and self-conscious. He fingered his own wedding band.

"I thought these meant we belong to each other." Duck made no reply except to glare down at his own left hand. In regret? "Duck, this isn't a threat. I promise it's not. But I-- I don't know if I can be married to someone I can't trust." That was hypocrisy if anything ever was, but not even recognition of that could change how he felt.

He might as well have slapped Duck in the face. Immediately, the stubborn fire on Duck's face collapsed into that achy, anxious look. "I said I was sorry. I told you it won't ever happen again. What do you want from me?"

"Can't you just tell me the truth? What's so terrible about it?"

Duck squeezed his eyes shut. Then he jumped to his feet and paced back and forth. Dan watched him, helpless. This was out of his hands now, and in a way he preferred that.

Finally, Duck spoke, not quite looking in Dan's direction.

"It was someone from the mainland. Someone I used to know. We used to--" Duck didn't go on for a long time. His fingers flexed slightly. "We were together for a while."

"Oh." That made a little more sense, even as Dan felt a chill. Duck never talked about his past relationships. Dan had no idea what kind of memories -- whitewashed and further beautified by time -- he had to compete with. He'd always believed that the fact that Duck had chosen him in the end was enough. But was it? "So... So you just... got caught up in your reunion?"

It made it slightly easier if he viewed it as simply a scene in a film, the parts played by vague, unreal figures who had nothing to do with Dan. An emotionally charged surprise meeting between two past lovers. Shared memories. Confessed longing. One last, desperate fling, followed by mutual self-recriminations and a grasping goodbye. And fade out...

Duck dropped his eyes again, as if imagining the same scene himself. He clenched his jaw a few times before saying, "Something like that."

Dan nodded, understanding even though he didn't want to. He should know better than anyone how physical need could momentarily overwhelm a person's senses.

"Why did you meet with him at all?" he asked, trying not to sound accusing. "Didn't you think something like this might happen?"

"I didn't even know he was here. I came home early, and he was waiting for me. He said he saw some report about our wedding--"

Dan sat bolt upright. He felt like his head was going to explode. "He was here?" he spluttered. "In our house? Jesus Christ, Duck. Did you let him into our bed?" Every hair on his body was standing on end. He jumped up, wanting to wash the sheets right this minute.

"No!" Duck reached for Dan's hand, but Dan jerked away.

"In the guest room, then?"

"We never left the living room."

"Where? What did he touch?" As much as he'd been trying to avoid thinking about it before, now Dan found himself avid for details. Already, he thought he would never be able to sit comfortably on the couch again. He needed to know what was safe. Surely, Duck wouldn't have let his old lover pick up Dan's beloved books or rifle through Dan's collection of videos, wouldn't let him scoff or pass judgment or share stories about Dan's foibles with the man?

Duck flushed. Apparently taking his question in a different way, he replied, "Just-- Just my-- He jerked me off and fucked me. We didn't even take our clothes off." He rubbed his eyes and hunched over. Dan knew how private he was. This must be torture for him. "We did it on the floor," he finished, his voice half-muffled by his hands.

"He fucked you on the floor? Did he know you were injured?"

Duck glanced up, looking confused, as well he should. Dan didn't even know where that question had come from. Why was it any concern of his how (in)considerate Duck's lover was?

"Never mind," he said gruffly. He squeezed his own eyes shut, which was a mistake, images tumbling through his mind -- of Duck and this stranger rolling on the floor together in a frenzy of lust. Endorphins were enough to make you forget about a lot of hurts, as he and Duck had already proven in the past. "What if he comes back?"

"He won't come back," Duck answered immediately. "I told him if he--" He bit off the end of that sentence. "He's not coming back," he finished more mildly. "That's all you need to know, right? Please, Dan, let me make it up to--"

"Did you ever cheat on him?" He didn't ask in order to judge. (How many times had he cheated on his wife?) He just needed to know if it was a pattern. He had already established that he would put up with whatever Duck gave him, but it might... help to be prepared.

Duck stared at him, his face rigidly blank. Then he cleared his throat and said, "Yeah."

"More than once?" Dan persisted, not letting it show how devastated he was by that one syllable.

A reluctant nod.

"More than twice?"

Another nod.

He couldn't go on. What else could he need to know?

"I'll sleep in the other room tonight," Duck volunteered into the strained silence.

Dan didn't protest as Duck withdrew from their bed and left their bedroom, closing the door behind him. Apparently, Duck agreed. He'd said more than enough.

***

"How much do you know about Duck's ex?"

Dan wasn't sure what had possessed him to catch Buddy outside Iggy's and ask him this.

Buddy bit his lower lip and gave him a long look. Finally, he took a sip of his coffee and glanced around at the bustle of the late morning street. When his eyes returned to Dan's he looked as serious as Buddy French ever managed to. "He told you about Erik?" he said softly.

So his name was Erik. Dan had always suspected that Duck shared more secrets about his past with Buddy than with him. He made a vaguely positive grunt, hoping Buddy would keep talking.

Buddy studied him carefully. "It's a lot to take in, isn't it?"

"Yeah."

"Are you... okay?"

Dan hesitated. "I guess," he answered. "Do you know how they broke up?" He held his breath, hoping he wasn't giving away his ignorance.

Shrugging, Buddy shook his head. "Near as I can tell, Duck came home when his dad started getting sick."

Lead settled in his gut. "So they might have stayed together otherwise?"

Buddy's mouth turned down for a moment. "I don't know. Maybe. Screwed up, isn't it?" He smiled tightly at Dan. "I'm glad he told you. Some things, you need to know."

Dan felt he would have gotten along just fine without knowing, though. He wished Duck had never told him.

He'd used to wish that Val had never found out, that they had simply moved away from Wilby Island together and never looked back. They wouldn't have been exactly happy together. That was too much to ask for. But they might have been content. They could at least have tried to return to what they had used to be. And maybe, maybe, away from the Watch and the locals who never quite accepted him, Dan could have just settled down into--

Into what? Heterosexuality?

No. Hiding who he was might have been all right before he'd met Duck and known there could be something else for him. He couldn't do without Duck anymore. This was his life. He was happier here than he had ever been.

At least, he had been until three days ago. Why, oh why, couldn't Duck have just kept it all to himself?

"Listen, I have to get to work," Buddy said quietly. "If you ever need to talk, I'm here, okay?"

Dan nodded dully. "Thanks." He watched as Buddy drove away, feeling more lost than ever.

With no more mindless tasks left to do at the store, the morning dragged by. Dan half-heartedly thought about reorganizing his shelves, but he knew that his customers would only complain about it if he ever did.

Lunchtime came, and he was reaching for the phone to cancel with Sandra when he realized that he missed her, after all. He wanted Sandra's frankness right now. Even though he still didn't think he could quite talk about everything that had happened, he had some idea that she might be able to give him some comfort. At one-fifteen, he locked up and headed for Iggy's.

Sandra didn't beat around the bush this time. "All right, so what's the matter?" were literally the first words out of her mouth as soon as he entered the diner. She turned the CLOSED sign after him to face outward and flipped the lock. Dan, finding their lunch plates on the counter as they usually were, smiled and took a moment to relax.

"This smells great," he said, taking a strong sniff of the meatloaf and stewed vegetables.

"Stop distracting me and tell me what's been going on with you." Sandra plopped down next to him and picked up her own fork -- not without giving him a hard look.

Dan sighed. "Duck and I had a fight."

"I thought so. You still haven't made up, I take it?"

"We have. It's just that... I learned some things that I didn't know about before."

Sandra snorted. "Yeah, tell me about that one. People never do share all their secrets. What'd you find out? Or am I allowed to know?"

Dan hesitated for a long moment. Sandra wasn't an idiot. There wasn't too much room for phrasing the situation hypothetically without her catching on. He had to remind himself, though, that Sandra was his best friend. If he couldn't tell her, whom could he confide in?

"If you loved someone who was already married, but you thought he might be willing to-- to sleep with you, would you try to do it? You wouldn't, would you?" Duck had said he wasn't in love with his ex anymore, and Dan wanted to believe him, but that didn't say anything about the other man. Did he still miss Duck? Did he regret what he had lost? Was that why he had sought Duck out?

Would it make it better or worse if Dan could find a way to sympathize with that other man?

Quite to his surprise, Sandra's mouth dropped open. "Duck told you?" she exclaimed in a low voice, scowling furiously. "Damn him."

It was his turn to gape. She couldn't possibly mean... There was no way he could compete with... Dan knew that better than anyone. It would never matter how much Duck loved him if sometimes he still yearned for...

No. He had to have misunderstood something, Dan thought, forcing himself to calm the hell down. Duck had never slept with a woman. Dan was sure of that. Not unless Duck had been lying to him from the beginning -- and Dan wasn't yet willing to accept that.

Sandra would never betray him like that, anyway. Despite the rumors about what may or may not have happened a long time ago, Dan had never once known Sandra to conduct herself improperly with someone. Sure, she was a little more flirty than most islanders, but that was just her way.

Sighing, Sandra made a wry face. "Okay, yeah, it's not like I ever asked him to keep it a secret. For the record, though, nothing actually happened. And I wasn't just-- playing around or anything like that." She sighed again and poked at her meatloaf. "I had a thing for Buddy back in high school, and when I saw him again after I came back... You know how he and Carol were having problems. It just seemed like it might work. It was stupid, I know, but, well. No harm done, right?"

Dan stared, stunned. Far from comforting him, this revelation only made things worse. Dan would almost have preferred the alternative.

"You and... Buddy?"

Sandra looked surprised. "Duck didn't tell you it was Buddy?"

"No." That was the truth. He scrambled to answer. "He didn't even say anything about you, actually."

"You're joking." Sandra groaned and threw her hands in the air. "I'm such an idiot. You won't say anything, will you?"

"Of course not. Like you said, nothing happened." He tried to make himself believe that it didn't matter that something evidently almost had.

Looking relieved, Sandra nodded. "Right." A second later, she grimaced. "Wow, we're completely sidetracked. So what were you worrying about?"

He shrugged, stalling for time. It would be impossible to talk about his troubles with Sandra now. The perfect excuse came to him: "I've just been wondering who it was, that's all." He forced a teasing smile on his face. "Now I know."

That seemed to do the trick. Sandra seemed eager to dismiss the conversation after that, and Dan was just as eager to comply.

In the back of his head, though, his mind churned in astonished despair.

Buddy -- Duck's best friend and one of the strongest influences in Duck's life -- had almost had an affair.

So. Not only was Duck still pining for his lost love, whom he'd had to leave behind for family responsibilities. Add to that, the fact that his best friend thought nothing of having a fling with a woman who wasn't his wife. And Duck had never told Dan about it. He had helped Buddy to hide it.

Eve was right. If Dan had any sense at all, he would abandon Duck before he sank any deeper.

Only... there really wasn't much deeper he could go, was there?

***

When he got home, Duck was showering. He often did that right after a day at work, especially if he got home earlier than Dan did.

Dan averted his eyes from the living room, with its comfortable couch and its thick rug, as he walked by it to the kitchen. The table was set neatly. There was a loaf of garlic bread ready on the counter, no doubt to go with the casserole in the oven. Dan wondered bitterly whether it was tuna with mushroom or chicken with cauliflower -- his two favorites.

At loose ends, he wandered around the house, straightening knick-knacks and flipping light switches on and off again. Normally, Dan might watch some television or sit down with a book, but he was too restless for that. Finally, he decided that he might as well shower, too.

He cursed under his breath when he realized that he would have to go get his towel to do that. It was either that or use a guest towel, which grated on him. This was his house, too, after all. His bathroom. His husband. He had the perfect right to walk in and take whatever he needed. Just a few days ago, he wouldn't have thought twice about brushing his teeth while Duck showered a meter away.

Determinedly, Dan turned his footsteps toward the master bathroom.

The water had turned off, which meant that he could just wait for Duck to come out, but that only made him pause for a second. Dan was committed now. It gave him a sense of wild freedom he hadn't felt in days. Defiantly, he grasped the knob and twisted it open. "I'm getting my..." he started to announce.

He didn't finish the sentence, arrested by the shock on Duck's face. Duck jerked back and draped his towel around his shoulders. It was that more than anything that drew Dan's attention to the marks that he had seen but not registered before they were covered.

Duck turned his back on him and Dan heard the frantic rustle of fabric. "Jesus, Dan. Can't you knock?" he demanded gruffly.

Without speaking, Dan closed the door. He returned to the living room -- the scene of the crime. He looked at the rug and he purposely did not turn away this time. He let the roiling inside him build until his hands balled into fists of their own accord. Until he felt literally light-headed with fury.

Dan had always been taught to act 'civilized'. To be 'generous' and 'level-headed' where others might fly off the handle or act jealous or mean. All he could think about now, though, was that Duck belonged to him. It didn't matter what kinds of things he'd used to do, what he still wanted to do, or even whom he wanted to do them with. He was supposed to share those things with Dan now -- and no one else. He was supposed to ask Dan for things. He was supposed to -- damn it, he was supposed to only want Dan.

Dan should not be trying to protect him, or making excuses for him, or blaming himself. He should be allowed to be really fucking angry at his husband. Who had cheated on him. Who had lied to him. Who had broken his marriage vows -- and to hell with what was fair. Dan must have paid over and beyond for his own mistakes by now. Yes, Duck was to blame, because Dan did not deserve this.

By the time Duck finally emerged, in his goddamned sweats, Dan found himself trembling with an all-encompassing rage that he refused to be frightened at. Instead, he embraced it. Stalking over to the other man, he seized Duck's arm and dragged him into the light of the living room. He yanked Duck's sleeve up, exposing the dark oblong bruises that were shaped perfectly like the imprint of fingers. Duck held perfectly still.

"He did this," Dan spat, with no hint of doubt whatsoever. He knew it was no coincidence that Duck had been wearing long sleeves for three days, with the weather barely below twelve degrees at night. He didn't even wait for Duck to acknowledge it. "I thought you didn't like that. Was that a lie, too? Is this what you really wanted?" he demanded.

Duck liked it rough sometimes, liked to fist his fingers in Dan's hair, liked to hold him down and leave marks on Dan's body that he could lick and bite again the next day -- liked how Dan liked it, too. Dan had offered to reciprocate more than once, but Duck always turned him down, and Dan had thought nothing of it. Preferences were what they were.

But to see evidence now that Duck had done so only to say yes to someone else...!

Duck didn't answer, his face set in a stubborn mask.

"Why didn't you just come to me? You know I would do anything for you." That was the truth -- and a blow to Dan's dignity that he hadn't planned on revealing. For once, instead of eroding his anger, that moment of weakness only fueled it. Why did he always let other people run his life for him? He was a man, too. He could take charge. He could-- do things.

Still, Duck stayed silent. He pulled his sleeve back down with unhurried deliberation. His calm only stoked Dan's anger.

"For god's sake, Duck. Did you think I couldn't? I'm too-- what, too soft for what you want?"

The mask cracked slightly, and Duck uttered, "No," before clamming up once more.

Dan searched his husband's stony expression. "I get it," he said in disgust. "You just didn't want it from me. Quiet old Dan Jarvis, nice and proper. But when you're out for fun on the side--"

"I didn't want it from anyone," Duck cut in, his voice fierce.

At first, Dan didn't understand. There were too many things in his mind, too many emotions built up for days on end. "Then what the hell is that?" he demanded, pointing to Duck's arm. And then he registered Duck's expression, defensive and dark. "What?"

Duck made a short, angry sound. "I'm going out for a drive." He left without waiting for an answer, slamming the front door behind him. A moment later, the truck engine roared to life and growled away into the distance.

Dan didn't move, not even to go lock the door. That was the nice thing about living in a place like Wilby, right? You never had to lock your car or bolt your windows. It was supposed to be... safe.

He sat down heavily.

"You didn't want it," he repeated to the empty room. The lights seemed too bright.

Dan felt sick to his stomach.

Duck had said. Duck had been telling him all along, and like an idiot, he'd never listened. I didn't want and I didn't even know and I've had worse and -- oh god -- what had Buddy said? I'm glad he told you. Some things, you need to know.

He suddenly realized that he had dropped down onto the couch, and he sprang up as if it were on fire. Retreating to the kitchen instead -- We never left the living room. -- he busied himself putting away the dinner that neither of them was likely to eat now.

Then, he made himself a pot of tea and sat down at the table. To wait.

***

Over the hours, the nausea passed. Rage came and went and came again until overfamiliarity ground it into the background, leaving tiredness behind.

Duck didn't come back until close to two in the morning. Dan heard the door open, and he stood and went to the kitchen doorway so that Duck would see him as soon as he came in.

They stood and watched each other for a long while, until Dan realized that they must look like they were getting ready to have a duel -- which was both absurd and exactly the opposite of what he wanted. He pushed himself to move forward, and Duck came in all the way and closed and locked the door. By the time he was done, Dan had reached his side.

Duck looked up at him, and for once, Dan wished that he was shorter. His height had always used to be the only thing that could counterbalance his mild personality, the only thing that he thought he could claim as 'manly' about himself. Now, he saw the wariness in his husband's eyes, and he wished otherwise.

"We should call Buddy," he suggested softly. "It's only been a couple of days. Maybe we can still catch him."

Duck's expression firmed. "It didn't happen the way you're thinking. Stop."

"Then why did he hurt you?"

"He didn't hurt me." Duck pushed past him and went to the kitchen. Dan followed. He noticed how Duck favored his left side, keeping his upper body more rigid than normal. Hours outside without a jacket couldn't have been good for his injury. Duck reached for his mug in the open cabinet and grit his teeth before completing the movement.

"Let me help." That was what he should have been doing all along.

Duck waved him away impatiently. "I'm fine. This is just what happens when you get careless." He poured himself a mug of Dan's tea, which probably tasted mostly of water by now, after endless refills of water but not tea leaves.

Dan approached him, watching Duck watch him. Slowly, he put his hand around Duck's wrist. The move felt foreign to him, and he knew why. He'd trained himself not to do it anymore soon after he and Duck had gotten together -- because Duck always seemed to slip away, to draw back, to twist loose. He could feel the tensed cords of muscles under his fingers now, though Duck didn't pull away from him.

"He did this," he said again, this time meaning more than the bruises.

Duck grunted, and then he did pull away. "Don't make it something it wasn't. Not just to make you feel better about what I did."

"Duck... Walter..."

"He didn't do anything I didn't want, okay? That's just the way we used to do it. I used to like it like that." He set down his mug, empty, with a solid thump. "We both got off. End of story. It was a trip down fucking memory lane." Dan stared back, helplessly silent, until Duck seemed to falter. Looking down at his mug, he muttered, "I should've kicked him out as soon as I saw him."

"Why didn't you?"

"I don't know." Duck paced away from him. His hands had tightened into fists, and he swung them as he stalked back and forth. Dan hovered uselessly at the fringe of his path. "He made it seem like I didn't have a choice. He could always talk me into anything. I used to let him do that to me all the time. He'd get into my head and I-- Shit, I would've done anything."

Duck raked his fingers through his hair. "I didn't want him near you. God, if he'd touched you, I would have killed him. Fuck, I just wanted him gone." His foot clipped a leg of the table as he turned in his agitated pacing, causing him to stumble. With an impatient snarl, he shoved it aside, hard. It scraped across the flooring with a squeal, and the teapot and empty mugs on top of it rattled violently. One of the chairs on the far side was knocked over with a clatter that echoed off the high ceiling and the clean, flat spaces of their kitchen.

Jumping, Duck drew both his hands back as if burned. He whipped around to face Dan, his face drained white. "I'm sorry," he blurted. "I didn't mean to do that."

The first time they had had an argument, Duck had slammed a fist into the bedroom door hard enough to knock a hole in the bottom corner where the doorstop met. That had been the first time that Dan had thought seriously about leaving Duck. Duck had promised profusely that it would never happen again -- and he had kept his word. By the time they'd lived together for six months, Dan had trusted that Duck would never raise a hand to him. Even now, he didn't think that trust was misplaced.

He approached his husband, cautious, but for Duck's sake, not his own. He reached out, slowly enough for the other man to avoid his touch. Duck let him place his hands on his upper arms. Good. He looked into Duck's worried, light-colored eyes.

"I forgive you," he said. "For all of it."

He wanted to say there was nothing to forgive, but he didn't think Duck was ready to hear that.

Four years ago, if someone had told him that there was nothing wrong with being gay, and that being outed and divorced and publicly shamed in every way was not the end of the world -- that life was worth living after all -- Dan wouldn't have believed it for a minute. At least not until it was almost too late.

Indeed, Duck pulled away with a look of scorn. "Don't say that."

"I mean it."

Duck knocked Dan's reaching hands away. "You didn't fucking 'forgive' me until you thought I'd been raped."

Dan couldn't help but react, and he saw the grim satisfaction in Duck's expression. All right. He conceded the point. "I think you had a choice, and you think you made the wrong one. It's not your fault."

"Are you saying I made the right choice?"

"I... I think you made the choice you thought you had to." It was Duck's turn to grimace and turn away, but this time he let Dan touch his shoulders. "I love you. Does the rest really matter?"

Duck sighed, and he rubbed his large, rough hands over his face. "It always does." Without looking up, he said, "I loved him, too. I'm pretty sure he loved me."

Duck hadn't said the words to hurt, Dan knew. Anyway, he felt more sadness than anything else. And all of it overlaid with days' worth of exhaustion. He stepped in closer and leaned his forehead on his husband's. "Can we just go to bed now? Please? I'm so tired, Duck."

He felt Duck exhale, and his arms come around him. "Okay. Let's go." His voice sounded better than it had all night.

Later, with those arms hugging him from behind in their bed, Dan stared out the dark window and listened to his husband's steady breath. The sheets and blankets had long warmed around them, but he could tell that Duck wasn't asleep. He waited, not sure for what, until he felt a slight stir. He heard a whisper:

"He said he'd tell you things. About me."

Duck sounded strangely fragile. It scared Dan. Savage hate twisted, directed at the man who had caused this, but Dan pushed it firmly outside of their safe cocoon, keeping his voice steady. "He threatened you?" he asked, and Duck didn't answer except to hold Dan a little tighter. One hand slid up under Dan's shirt, resting skin to skin against Dan's stomach. Despite his exposure, Dan felt like he was the one providing protection. The thought made him relax, and he felt Duck untense behind him as well.

"I used to step out on him," Duck confessed softly. "All the time. It didn't even matter who, as long as it'd piss him off when I came home."

Dan closed his eyes, trying not to imagine it. "What did he do to you then?"

"We'd fight," was the terse reply. "Or fuck. Sometimes both. One time, I bruised his face. The vain bastard made me pay for that."

Dan thought that there must be more to the story than that. He thought that he should ask. He thought that he should know. He was unsure how to respond, though. He wished he could figure out what Duck wanted -- which might be different from what Duck needed -- but he just didn't have the right words. Dan wasn't cut out to be the strong one. He never had been.

"It's okay," he said, immediately feeling the emptiness of the words. He deserved it and more, the stinking, bloody bastard!, he should have raved. Or perhaps, soothingly, None of it was your fault. You did the best you could. He squeezed the hand interlaced with his own over his waist, trying inadequately to communicate his broken, half-formed intentions.

He felt Duck squeeze him back.

He still wanted to kiss Duck's bruises better -- all of them. He wanted to make careful, slow love to his husband. He wanted to go with Duck to the French house before he opened the store so they could share some time together, and maybe play with Buddy's son for a while. He longed to see Duck laugh. He wanted to visit Duck at a job site and watch him work, glowing with exertion and maybe showing off for Dan just a little. He wanted Duck to look at him like he deserved and expected Dan in his life.

But for now, what he wanted most was to remain right where he was. He wanted to feel Duck's arms around him, being strong and reassuring like Dan always thought of him.

After a while, he heard Duck's breathing even out.

Maybe, Dan thought as he let himself drift off to sleep as well, maybe this was what Duck needed most, too.


END.